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Analysis: Plotting, Emergent Narratives, and 'Story Spaces'

In a game design analysis, writer Tom Cross rounds up a variety of perspectives on the "new" storytelling in games, examining views on narrative from Blade Runner through to 'story spaces' and beyond.

June 18, 2009

12 Min Read

Author: by Tom Cross

[In a game design analysis, writer Tom Cross rounds up a variety of perspectives on the "new" storytelling in games, examining views on narrative from Blade Runner through to 'story spaces' and beyond.] Bloggers, gamers and game designers often discuss the future of video games as they’d like to see it. Some of the more intriguing conversations they’re having concern emergent narratives, authorial control, and story making as opposed to storytelling. Notable bloggers and game designers Doug Church, Michael Samyn, and Steve Gaynor, have argued that traditional narrative modes of in-game storytelling need to be replaced with newer methods. Church (albeit back at GDC 2000!) argues that we should "abdicate authorship"++ altogether. However, Gaynor and Samyn argue, in their more recent and suggestive articles, that video games are a medium uniquely able to create a new tablet for user-created content, termed “story space,” and that the narratives that come from this will be “emergent.”**+ This article will examine the assumptions and statements already made about these topics. Next week’s article will conclude by exploring their flaws and strengths, and ultimately the potential, both good and bad, of their ideas. A final article will bring my discussion to its conclusion, using an older game to point the way forward for narrative in games. For Church and Gaynor, plain old “narrative” is outdated. According to Gaynor, it’s not what videogames are best positioned to do anyway, being a rigid, static structure of author-generated, pre-arranged meaning. To them, sticking to old, narrative forms in videogames just hampers designers’ creativity, and worse, the result is stale and uninteresting to gamers. We are, in other words, tired of the same old thing. For gamers today, narratives and stories are almost always jokes. Even the well-made ones painfully telegraph their intentions hours in advance and never do anything really surprising. Gaynor suggests as an alternative what he calls “the immersion model of meaning,” and contrasts it to linear, “cinematic” techniques: The immersion model of meaning arises from design focus along two primary axes: providing a believable, populated, internally consistent, freely-navigable gameworld for the player's avatar to inhabit, and robust tools of interactivity that allow the player to build a personal identity within that gameworld through his own actions.* While this is perhaps an immediately compelling rhetoric, it rests on a dismissal of narrative as “linear” that fails to account for what narrative really is, generating a straw man “cinematic” model only to banish it as quickly as possible. Without a robust definition of “narrative,” the supposedly unwieldy thing at the center of the old method of video game meaning creation, the “immersion model of meaning” signifies next to nothing, because it’s not clear what job it’s taking over from, or what kind of “meaning” it is setting out to produce or replace. bladerunner.jpgMaking Thing Clearer According to Gaynor, the problem is that games attempt to recreate filmic narratives. Here, he explains what’s wrong with this: "Video games are already capable of doing these things [associated with emergent narratives]; they are far less capable of providing the authored pacing, composed framing and predictable event flow of film to convey a linear narrative, and yet this is almost always a central focus in character-driven games. Embracing the immersion model of meaning requires the designer never think of the game as a story, but as a place filled with people and things that the player is free to engage with at his own pace and on his own terms.*" The problem with this definition of the “immersion model of meaning” and narrative is that it requires us to assume that “narrative always consists of something as rigid as “authored pacing, composed framing, and predictable event flow” (predictable to whom? On what bases? Etcetera). Narrative does not have to be linear. In fact, in my view, when it is treated properly in video games, narrative is multi-noded, self-reliant and fluctual, the opposite of linear. In the video game medium, very often a narrative consists of multiple actors, who all follow their own desires and attempt to achieve what they want, dynamically rather than statically. In a game like Westwood’s Blade Runner, this kind of system is modeled procedurally. Actors exist in the simulation, acting independently from the player, and only when the player actively inserts themselves into the path of the actor (or the path of a series of repercussions instigated by that actor) does the player become aware of the actor. It is by no means a complete or fluid simulation. Many characters still wait to be activated by the PC, and cannot continue with their agendas without being triggered. Still, the illusion of NPC autonomy is present in Blade Runner in a way not seen in other games. wb_gamewall86.jpgAs Long as Androids Pretend to Dream... This is narrative, and it is not static. Narrative is a system of occurrences, each with their own meaning. The reader, viewer or player witnesses or experiences these events, and concludes that they are connected or related to each other, both in their beginnings and their endings (and the decisions and events that connect the two). Clint Hocking points out on Gaynor’s blog, “I think it was EM Forster who said "The King died and then the Queen died is a story, but the King died and then the Queen died OF GRIEF is a PLOT." Hocking’s language is usefully suggestive because it reminds us of Peter Brooks’s argument, in Reading for the Plot, that “plot” is not just a static, reified “thing,” separable from the totality of the story that we read or view, but the center of any story. Plot is the “design and intention of narrative, a structure for those meanings that are developed through temporal succession” (Brooks 12). Narrative is thus a whole whose parts imply each other’s existence. Readers, viewers and players of any narrative see it for what it is, and are thus interested in following the narrative to its conclusion. Narrative does not need to be linear. To assume that the multiple narrative threads simultaneously existing in a game (more advanced than Blade Runner) are something other than narrative is both incorrect and unhelpful. While this article will examine the broader, initial claims (and calls for action) implicit in the desire for new kinds of storytelling, and in particular the narratives that are supposed to emerge from story spaces, it is meant to introduce a wider critique, one that addresses our preconceptions of what “narrative” and “linearity” mean in games today, and in what we hope they will be in future, less heavily scripted (and thus artificially “storied”) games. I think that there is an alternative to Gaynor’s extreme vision of authorial retreat and emergent game narratives. There’s a future for “emergent narratives” not just in story spaces and their ilk, but in further developments in narrative proper. Thus, I want to claim that “narrative” is and always will be distinct from the kind of storytelling that we will see in story spaces, and that the future that both narratives and story spaces have in gaming will allow exciting, “emergent” narrative forms in both categories, not just the more freeform, less scripted world of story spaces. I also think that there are crucial aspects of storytelling that can only be accomplished with the aid of narrative, and can’t with largely user-generated content from story spaces. But to make this claim, we need more fully explore what’s meant by “emerging narrative” and “story space,” and get a better sense of what narrative really is, and how it differs from the first two. br.jpgHow Far can the Story Space Take Us? Story spaces (as defined by Gaynor) are a notion that allows for more flexibility, more player decision and reaction, and thus (one hopes) player-video game connection. Story spaces are new—they have all the flavor of narrative, but none of the obvious, clunky structure, because while they may be organized and scripted by the designer, they allow the user to create stories unaided. In a story space, a designer steps back, creating malleable, highly reaction-capable NPCs and environments, and creates as wide and deep a field of interactions as possible. The player can then create stories far more meaningful than any a set of canned branching narrative might provide. Story space for Gaynor is the possibility provided by a certain kind of game design. As he says: "Fictional content--setting, characters, backstory-- is useful inasmuch as it creates context for what the player chooses to do. This is ambient content, not linear narrative in any traditional sense. The creators of a gameworld should be lauded for their ability to believably render an intriguing fictional place-- the world itself and the characters in it. However the value in a game is not to be found in its ability at storytelling, but in its potential for storymaking.**" For Gaynor, a world that follows a path of multiple, interconnected, possibly unrelated settings, people and histories is just “fictional content.” It is, when implemented in a non- structured, non-restrictive, non-linear way, the ultimate space within which to have unique, “storymaking” experiences. I think that Gaynor is right to name these elements as key to making interesting gameplay experiences and sessions, but that his definition of narrative and “storymaking” are underexplained and overemphasized. It’s nice to say that we’ll give users tools to make stories in the future, and that video games are bad at delivering already-written stories (as Gaynor does), but it’s confusing and misleading if we don’t have a clear idea of what narrative is and what story spaces might do to dislodge narrative from the control of the author and give it to the reader. Without some idea of what we’re talking about, that rhetoric is just rhetoric—empowering-sounding and exciting, to be sure, but not helpful in trying to understand what games do now and what they might do in the future. You can see where the terms “emergent narrative” and “authorial control” become important to this argument. Authorial control is what the designer needs to give up in order for this amazing new set of experiences to occur. Gaynor believes that once this control has been given up and a believable, deep, and rule-bound world has been created in its place sans narrative shackles, “emergent narrative” can occur. While the designer’s craft is as important as ever (especially when creating a world that obviates the need for structured story nodes and narrative tracks), it needs to be lighter, more deft, and less obvious to the player. The new stories and narratives a player can create in such a game space are the emergent narratives so key to these arguments. An emergent narrative is the sense (and story) that a player would create using the stimuli provided by this hypothetical game. From these actions and reactions the player creates her own story, her own emergent narrative. Assumptions and Assertions Supposedly, if content comes from the user, then the designer disappears into the background, letting the user run with the storytelling tools the designer has given her. Ideally, Gaynor writes, "Video games at their best abdicate authorial control to the player, and with it shift the locus of the experience from the raw potential onscreen to the hands and mind of the individual. At the end of the day, the play of the game belongs to you. The greatest aspiration of a game designer is merely to set the stage.***" This is an admirable goal, but Gaynor makes a universal claim about video games and video game design that isn’t always true. Not all video games benefit from abdication of authorial control. I think that multivalent, independently acting narrative nodes could be combined in one complicated game to provide the illusion of a fictional world completely at the power of its own citizens. A designer would create these myriad actors so that each one had a purpose, place, and reason for being there. Thus, the advent of a carefully scripted and directed NPC upon the scene is not the illusion breaking, transparent thing that Gaynor rejects, but the entry of one more narrative node to the mix. This is a goal aspired to by many games, approached by few, and mastered by none. No matter how much credit we give the most forward-looking of games, they fail on fundamental levels to provide the bright future described by these writers. They fail not just because they haven’t attempted to produce Gaynor’s new storytelling, but because the vision Gaynor puts forward, as exciting as it is, isn’t storytelling, and isn’t the future of videogame narrative. To a certain extent, that’s Gaynor’s point—in with the new, out with the old, and good riddance. But like many polemicists entranced with a new idea, Gaynor supposes that “narrative” was an old category that has to change into the vaguely imagined “story space,” failing to see that videogame narrative in the older, proper sense—stories—is a different thing from what he’s envisioning. The future of narrative, in short, is not story space. Story space will happen, and should, but it would be limited to think that the two can’t coexist, or that narrative can’t go to exciting new places on its own terms. As I’ve suggested, the failure to imagine both possibilities, either/or rather than both/and thinking, is typical of the heated rhetoric of novelty, in video games as in any other art. But, as in other fields, we owe it to ourselves as self-conscious gamers to understand a little better the reality of what we’re being presented with, and sort the value of story spaces out from the totalizing rhetoric that sees story spaces as the only future of game narrative. In my next column, I’ll examine the possibilities for the future of narrative in games, and how that future relates to Gaynor’s conceptions of narrative, story space, and plot. Below are the relevant articles, along with related reading (from Michael Samyn of Tale of Tales). * The Immersion Model of Meaning ** Storymaking *** Being There + The Challenge of Non-Linearity ++ A Peek into Game Design [Tom Cross writes for Gametopius and Popmatters, and blogs about video games at shouldntbegaming.wordpress.com. You can contact him at romain47 at gmail dot com.]

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