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Time to move on from the gameplay vs. story debate

UC Santa Cruz's Michael Mateas (Facade) argued in an impassioned presentation this morning that the time for debate on whether games should have stories has passed -- it's the work that matters.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

May 10, 2013

6 Min Read

As the director of UC Santa Cruz's Center for Games and Playable Media, Michael Mateas aims to solve the problem of game storytelling procedurally -- that's his mission, and the work the Center is undertaking is generally along this line. But in his talk this morning at IFOG -- Inventing the Future of Gaming symposium -- he didn't champion any one way of doing things. Instead, he urged developers to ignore the debate around whether games should have stories and get to work making the best story games they can. "We're really ready to move beyond these sterile debates on interactive and gameplay," he said, "In a sense, we've arrived."

The End of the Debate

He spent time recounting the debates academics and designers have -- on whether games should have stories at all -- with a certain wry humor borne of the fact that he clearly finds the debate tiring, and a distraction from actually doing work. "We all know that there's this often-discussed fundamental tension between gameplay and story. That story seems the opposite of what games are supposed to do. These quite heated religious battles have haunted the game design community for decades -- around if and whether games should have stories in them," Mateas said. "Yet against this grim background we're seeing a Renaissance of work in interactive storytelling," Mateas said. "We've seen creators create a lot of interactive stories that work, in the sense that people are playing them." He took a very broad view of what work is being done (Among other games, he alluded to The Walking Dead, Cart Life, Howling Dogs, and Spec Ops: The Line.) "Indie and mainstream games are happily and visibly exploring many solutions to interactive storytelling," Rather than continue the debate, look at a game, he said, and evaluate it: "is it functioning as an interesting aesthetic object? Yes, it is! Let's move on."

It's Important to Take What Works

Mateas argued that you must put that debate to the side and accept that "maybe there's this bigger space of playable experiences -- things that you can play with, that afford play, that aren't strictly games, and there's a bigger space outside of that that are interactive experiences." There's a good reason for this: Even if you argue these narratives aren't strictly games themselves, the "tropes and techniques are being brought into the inner circle of games." "Wherever boundaries blur you have people wanting to defend the boundaries," he noted. "I'm saying, 'Let it blur!' This is how interesting innovation happens." This is how you reconcile the "grim philosophical debate" with the "lots of interesting work people are doing." The problem, he suggested, is that many designers have been trying to come up with One True Definition of what an interactive story is -- "a single definition of what is story, and the magic approach and theoretical framework that would allow us to interactivize that story," Mateas said. "The debate around storytelling has stalled because frankly I don't think this theory exists. There is no such thing as 'what is story and how do you solve it,'" which he described as "a very engineering mindset." Rather, he said, "What people who are working in interactive story are doing is to turn to specific historically grounded storytelling traditions" that come from other media, and are rich enough to build on.

Working from Existing Models

There are structural models, he said, like The Hero's Journey. But rather than just telling a story using that framework, as a movie might, he suggested it might be more interesting "if you think about what it means to build a system where the system meets the player halfway." Here's his basic premise for that: "I'm going to build a deep procedural model of The Hero's Journey where players... create their own transformative experience," with "a rich response to players at a story level. Where the story becomes playable and, importantly, replayable." But the adaptability an existing framework doesn't mean that you can just grab any narrative form and follow it without deeply considering what it means to use it in a game -- no matter your design approach. Many movies are built on a structure where the protagonist single-mindedly works to attain a specific goal that keeps shifting away from him or her. Most current games, however, "are not structures that afford a continuous intensifying forward dramatic move," he said. "How you build gameplay systems that allow and maintain this forward movement and don't fall back on the failure retry models that are common in gameplay" would be an interesting challenge. How do you make a game where "the player is having an impact but is never hitting a brick wall"? That's the challenge he's talking about. There are also cognitive models of storytelling studied by evolutionary psychologists such as Lisa Zunshine, Mateas noted, which games could draw from. "Our minds have evolved, over time, a number of cognitive modules -- problem-solving and representative mentalities that have evolved to solve problems," he said. "Narrative basically taps into specific cognitive modules by feeding those modules refined, pure forms of the information those modules were evolved to process." These are "pleasure buttons in the brain -- cognitive capacities that we can tap for aesthetic purposes for narrative fiction." And, of course, there are genre conventions to be explored in more thoughtful ways. "Hey, let's look at Harlequin romance novels and really understand deeply the structure of how Harlequin romance novels are structured," he suggested. "Or we could look at contemporary detective noir fiction and do a similar thing."

The Problem with "Player Stories"

He stressed that the important thing is truly understanding the model you are building on. Many games approach a fiction genre, in particular, in an ersatz way. The key, he argued, is finding "some specific tradition and realizing that in some interactive storytelling system. And that's what allows you to make progress." Many developers cop out of all of this by putting "letting players create their own stories" -- "which I think is good, and I'm interested in," he said -- at the forefront of what they're attempting to do. But there's an incredibly important distinction here: "What I'm worried about is [using this approach] not as a way to abdicate authorship, but as a way to abdicate responsibility," Mateas said. "Any experience affords a sequence of actions you can later narrate to someone," he noted. Even washing the dishes "affords a narrative," he argued. It's just a very, very boring one. It has no arc and no meaning. Anybody who has listened to someone recount their MMORPG adventures can relate to this. "If that's what we mean by letting players tell their own stories -- by throwing any damn thing in front of them... that's a really weak, weak notion of letting players tell stories, and it's not really praiseworthy of us as designers." No, according to Mateas, the important question is: "What specific tradition are you building on that you want to let people tell their own stories in? How are you going to afford letting players tell that kind of story themselves while the gameplay system and the interactive approach has to meet them halfway?"

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