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Blogged Out: 'Homemade Stories'

In his latest 'Blogged Out' column, veteran UK writer Jim Rossignol takes a look at the world of developer blogging, including thoughts on the channeled focus of PS3’s Home, storytelling with Warren Spector and Will Wright, and the maverick of the
Welcome to 'Blogged Out', the news report that looks at the world of developer blogging and the conversations being had with the community at large. This week: story, home, and idealism. The Story Thing I’m currently reviewing a long-awaited game for a UK-based website. The game is one of the finest examples of game design I have ever encountered, and yet at the same time the story is a mangled mess. One of the big criticisms of the game is going to be how badly it has messed up in delivering its story, and how it has failed in making the player care, feel motivated, or even understand what is going on. Nevertheless, the more I play of this game the more I realise that I just don’t care. Its weird messy little story is, like so many video game tales, secondary to the experience of being there and doing things. What is important is my interaction and the little things I get up to on the way. Figuring out a smart way to defeat an enemy is far more interesting to me than any of the mysteries that have been unraveled as I play. The really important stories are those that I relate to my friends about what I did in the game. In fact I’m not going to tell the story of any game, like I might with the story of a novel or film, but I am going to tell them about the time I shot down a dropship in Planetside, or the time we made a rocket-merry-go-round in Garry’s Mod. We’ve all played Half-Life 2, so what happens isn’t really worth discussing: how you managed to line up a dozen zombies and kill them with a single circular saw blade is a much better subject for discussion. I was interested to see similar themes appearing in Will Wright’s talk at SXSW. Wright’s talk seemed to suggest user-created stories might well dwarf the importance of well-crafted game stories, especially given the difficulty in crafting convincing linear stories for gamers who are increasingly demanding freedom in game worlds. Listening to the stories told by games, Wright suggests, might be far more important than telling stories with a game. Elsewhere in the discussion of story in games, was the recent Gamasutra interview with Warren Spector. Spector spoke about the importance of story and his interest in it, and some of what he had to say has been replied to in subsequent developer blogs. Matt over at Magic Wasteland had this to say: “If Spector really believes in the storytelling power of games, I believe he would acknowledge that the story of the last space marine, if artfully told, could be just as powerful as any other story one can imagine. Pixar Studios has found success by making people care about insects or cars or fish; upon hearing the premise of Finding Nemo, a cynic might say “who cares about some dumb fish?” It turns out a lot of people did– because the storytellers were able to weave a captivating narrative around the main characters. By being willing to reject the idea of the space marine out of hand by assuming nobody cares, Spector is actually subverting his own emphasis on storytelling.” And as one of the Magical Wasteland readers points out – if no one cares about the space marine, wherefore the popularity of Master Chief? No Place Like It Meanwhile the web has been raising its collective eyebrow in response to the announcement of the PS3’s online 3D social platform, Home. Over on ThinkingGames the UK art-coder Tom Betts delivers some personal reflections on the announcement, which he sees as a truncated Second Life: “In some cases the sandbox is the end point, personalisation/content creation is the focus of interaction and the goal of the system. In Home though it seems like these elements are drawn from buzzwords, creating a branded and limited collaborative medium. Sony is planning to allow players to expand their virtual assets via micropayment schemes for virtual objects, or via branded items bundled with existing games. Because of this control, it seems that aside from the usual gorilla exercises, most of the generated content will be restricted to bland ‘lifestyle’ imagery and design. Even so, it is easy to imagine users becoming lost in the options, absorbed by the challenge of virtual home decor or T-shirt design.” This is, of course, the whole point. Sony are working with a broadcast medium, where ultimately everything is delivered through their channels, and by their say so. That’s just how consoles are set to work: they’re the interactive programming on your TV. The reason people become “lost in the options” of Second Life and other wide-open sandboxes is because these aren’t based on a broadcast model, they’re far more like a hobby. They’re also far messier, and likely to frustrate the casual sightseer. Home, I suspect, will represent a prototype of this kind of social software, just as Second Life does. Neither will be quite what we want, and both will stubbornly refuse to be the Metaverse we’re looking for. The Human Soul Finally, the man with the plan has posted his GDC acceptance speech. Greg Costikyan won Maverick of the Year, and was proud to have done so: “I want you to imagine with me a game industry that would make us proud to belong to.. I want you to imagine a 21st century in which games are the predominant artform of the age, as film was of the 20th, and the novel of the 19th; in which the best games are correctly lauded as sublime products of the human soul. I want you to imagine an educational system in which games are integrated into every aspect of the curriculum, in which everyone understands that games can illuminate things in ways that are complementary to but different from text. I want you to imagine a world in which games dare to tackle the most knotty, controversial, and difficult issues our society faces--and are not condemned but praised for doing so. I want you to imagine a world in which the common person is no longer ignorant of economics, physics and the functioning of the environment--things which are themselves interactive systems --because they have interacted with them in the form of games. I want you to imagine a world where it us understood that continuing to play into adulthood is not failing to grow up, but rather preserving the flexibility and ability to learn that is essential in an era of rapid technological change. I want you to imagine a world in which the enormous expressive potential of our medium is no longer potential, but reality.” A deserved award, what Costik and chums are doing is to be admired. [Jim Rossignol is a freelance journalist based in the UK – his game journalism has appeared in PC Gamer UK, Edge and The London Times.]

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