Sunday, July 27

The Story is dead! Long live the Story!

Some time ago, in the real world, I was embroiled in an impassioned debate about building a story within a video game (or games). It became a semantic issue and I agreed with the interpretation that a player of a game can interpret the story of a game, unveiling hidden meanings, connecting relationships in new ways, and repairing holes in the continuum. The Japanese enable this kind of engagement with their "white space" approach to "creative endeavours" - I'm still not convinced that games are art, yet. Nowhere is this better represented than with Team Ico's creations, 'Ico' and 'Shadow of the Colossus'.

I still hold the belief that I am not building a story and am instead a passive recipient of it.

Thus I am going to make a bold, somewhat trollish, sensationalistic prediction.

Linear, plot-based, developer scripted stories in games will no longer be the dominant form of delivery of stories in games within the next five years. My phrasing is shit. I've re-written this several times and can't express properly my meaning. I am saying that the fundamental means in which games are written, in which characters are justified and in which tasks are framed will change completely within the next five years.

Part of the reason for this claim can be found in the demographic shift initiated by Nintendo. Part of the reason for this claim is well represented by Shamus Young's comic Stolen Pixels at The Escapist. Part of the reason for this claim is argued well, if not completely, by David Cage of Quantic Dream - if you love games for their "stories" this is a must read! Part of the reason for this claim is my own experiences - playing Oblivion I learned that I could ignore the plotted stories and create my own. It lacked the tools to properly support the generation of a real story, one that I could share with others, but it was a creative exploration of my imagination and a creative exploration of the tools the game gave me, that were limited but far more flexible than every other game of this generation that I have played. I don't believe the claims of the developers that this is 'hard' because the "choose your own adventure" series of books do a better job of interactive storybuilding than games do. Part of the reason for this claim is the games themselves are evolving, even Metal Gear Solid 4's cut scenes had many interactive elements, however rudimentary. The scent of change is in the air when an industry stalwart such as Kojima and his MGS series tries (and fails) to change its fundamental nature. Many appear to be seeking a new language, new verbs, new nouns, new phrases and a new grammar for story telling through and in games. Part of the reason for this claim is what is already happening in gaming, modified versions of Oblivion tell new stories, create new worlds, the 'modding' community are passionate, creative (though not necessarily critically arty) and are demanding change. They want to tell their own stories.

I am, as of this moment, fundamentally opposed to the developer centred, plot based, scripted story for games. I challenge developers and publishers to look for gaming concepts that empower the player - games that gives players the means to create stories of their own - and discover that by releasing their control to the great unwashed then magic is possible.

Little Big Planet has me excited, it could help me realise this vision if it is successful - thereby signalling to developers that players want to be able to play with the rules of the game, not just the rules within the game. I wish that it had more support for story creation than it appears that it does. Still it is not released yet, so it might surprise me!

Is the day of the plot based story game numbered?


lotusvine said...

That's an interesting interview with David Cage. (As an aside, I'm interested in why he chose that bizarre 'SF twist' in Fahrenheit. It didn't seem to suit his agenda of advancing the 'story' through gameplay or narrative arcs. Oh, and Lucas had funny eyes, which kind of put me off him :))

I actually enjoy plot-based, story games. I don't think creating an immersive sandbox environment, where I can do whatever i want, facilitates an interesting story unless there's more to go on. It's like when I used to play on MUSHes, You could log on and walk through the environment, but the 'story' was created through interaction with other players in character.

Like RPGs, I love talking to people in the town. I'll talk to everyone and even go back and talk them again after an event happens, just see how their dialogue changes and to see how they react to it.

But I like the idea of events I can react to. I like the idea of playing a game where I get to watch/interact with a good story. I'd enjoy this more than a pure sandbox game. But this does have risks - primarily, it relies on the developer being able to tell a good story. Mass Effect's story bits were entertaining, if not up the standards of the previous games in the series. But I did like being able to interact with the NPCs, to resolve their situations, which was all contained within the framework of the developer scripted story.

I think there's always room for developer scripted stories, but they have to be good and they have to allow for the player to have their own impact or little bits of interactivity with the campaign world (e.g. designing your own character's face/clothing, talking to people in a particular way, choosing how you approach situations in the game, even if you don't have an ultimate influence over the big events.)

nobody said...

For what it's worth I agree with much of what you say.

I'm not really objecting to a game that directs player actions. I don't mind if a game provides cues that I may choose to act upon. This is almost a given requirement, I can't know if there's something to see if there's no hint that it's there.

What I dislike is the lack of choice and consequence that permeates video games. I'll reiterate that the choose your own adventure series of books do a better job and they prove that linear, structured and passive storytelling techniques in video games are only one version of what's possible.

I'll also freely acknowledge that structured, linear stories in games will continue. I just believe that if a game is to become art then it needs to embrace its intrinsic nature (active interaction) and stop pretending to be something else (a book or movie). It is the moment when a game is created (developed) that allows a player to have complete control with meaningful consequences that the whole world will take notice and I believe that this will happen in the next five years. Or so my incredibly risking and self indulgently foolish prediction would suggest.