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When Story Isn't Everything

In this article, game writer Sande Chen discusses how storytellers can mitigate ludonarrative dissonance by respecting the player experience

[This article originally appeared on Game Design Aspect of the Month under the topic of Story Frameworks.]


"Story is Everything" was the tantalizing title shown on the Creative Arts & Technology Conference program at Bloomfield College, but when Omar Shakir, Narrative Director at Avalanche Studios, opened up his presentation, there was the bombshell of a footnote: "(unless you're making a video game)." He acknowledged that story IS everything in the Hollywood approach, but for video games, story wouldn't be the genesis and focal point of a project.

According to Shakir, the aims of the storyteller and the aims of the gamemaker can be at odds.  He described a situation whereby a Hollywood writer created ludonarrative dissonance by showcasing spectacular moves in a written cut scene that players couldn't actually do in the game. Even if that functionality had been added, it would have been programmatically excessive. Another example he cited was how the player character in Far Cry 3 is depicted as timid and fearful. Yet, players spend their time killing everything in sight.

I explored this matter in my ION Game Conference session, "Story vs. Story: Redefining Narrative and Player Engagement in MMOs." What's Story vs. Story?  Well, there's the authorial story, which the author wants to tell and reflects the author's desires, and then there's the player story, which emerges from gameplay and is about the player's experiences in the game.  What's important to remember is that the authorial story is just one element of the user experience.

Shakir further stated that sometimes it felt like these authorial stories were ill-fitting or crammed into games.  As I have stated in a previous blog post, Writers, Stop Obsessing Over Three-Act Structure in Games, the traditional story structure may not be the standard fare for video games.  Just because it works for linear media doesn't mean it's perfect for interactive media.  The Hero's Journey may not be appropriate.  Why?  Because spectating is different from participation.

Much as I appreciate story and story-based games, I can understand that story isn't everything.  As writers, we need to honor the player story just as much as the authorial story.  In that way, we can lessen the Story vs. Story conflict. 

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose experience spans over 10 years in the game industry.  Her credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus and the 2007 RPG of the Year, The Witcher.  She is the chapter leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

 

 

 

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