When Stories in Games Work

Discussion in 'Game Design' started by EnDevero, Dec 29, 2012.

  1. EnDevero

    EnDevero Well-Known Member

    Before I start, let me just say that I have come to the same conclusion as Keith that games are absolutely horrible ways to tell stories. Games hurt stories and stories hurt games. With that said, there is an exception; light story elements that are directly tied to gameplay can actually be beneficial to a game. (By the way, I'll be using the colloquial definition of game)
    Now, this is actually a little misleading. What I actually believe is that theme can help contextualize and explain game mechanisms— something pretty much everyone agrees on. The thing is that if you take a game that's actually a series of puzzles for the player to solve in a set order, adding a theme to attach all of these puzzles would naturally create a narrative. It just happens, and it doesn't harm gameplay, it serves it. It's a byproduct of theming linear gameplay. The problem with storytelling in games specifically occurs when we add story elements that aren't directly tied to gameplay because we want to tell an interesting story. At that point we have a story that's being restrained by gameplay and/or a game that's being trivialized by storytelling. As far as I can tell, stories should only ever exist in a game as a result of adding theme to puzzles (or as a backstory to an endlessly replayable game, but that's a little different). Games aren't good at telling stories, but stories are good at contextualizing certain types of games as long as the story stays subservient to the game.
    For an example of a story done right in a game, play Shadow of the Colossus or, to a lesser extent, Portal. Both have stories that exist only to serve the gameplay. They explain what it is you are doing when you solve their puzzles, why you are doing that, and what happens when you are done doing that. There aren't unnecessary plot points or characters that are completely untouched by gameplay and the story that is there gives a certain meaning to the puzzles you're solving and nothing else. The stories are, for the most part, just a result of adding theme to the sets of puzzles.

    In reality, this was all the result of me trying to explain why Shadow of the Colossus and Portal don't feel like they're being dragged down by their stories if I believe that stories hurt games. This was how I settled that dissonance.
    deluks917 likes this.
  2. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Yeah, stories and puzzles actually work decently well together, since they're both linear and about completion. And yeah I consider Shadow a puzzle (and certainly Portal). So if your thing is totally linear, sure.
    deluks917 likes this.
  3. Dasick

    Dasick Well-Known Member

    Storytelling is an interesting art. I would classify it as a parasite of sorts, because even though you're composing a sequence of events, you have to use a different medium/art to communicate the story. And the works being used to tell a story tend to forsake what is cool about them and begin to bend over for the sake of story.

    Back on topic of stories and games...

    Audio-logs, and environmental storytelling (the kind Bethesda does by placing items around in a way that you can make out what happened) come to mind, and they are ok way to tell a story that already happened, so if the story and the game are not taking place at the same time, ie the decisions you make in the game are outside the scope of the story. It's even cooler if you use the gameplay elements to rough in the large chunks of what happened and the subtler interactions to indicate the inevitable yet surprising resolution.
  4. EnDevero

    EnDevero Well-Known Member

    Yeah, Dasick, I think uncovering lore works well in any game. It's not directly tied to the gameplay, and finding bits of information to learn about a certain history is an interactive pursuit, after all.

    I don't really like saying that puzzles and stories work well together as a rule because interactivity will always muck up a story. I think the best thing to take away from this is that stories can serve linear gameplay only when it's directly related to it without any extraneous story elements and that interactivity can't help a story (unless it's lore), story has to serve the gameplay— it can't be the other way around.
  5. Dasick

    Dasick Well-Known Member

    Keith talked about it in one of his blogposts (or was it blake?), but stories are strongest when they're building up to an inevitable, yet surprising outcome, usually framed as a character choice since a hard choice that can go either way tells us something really personal about the character.

    Puzzles, according to Keith's lens anyway (and I think it's a good way to look at it) are all about the solution. I've played some and heard a lot of discussions about 'game-design' (which was really puzzle-design), and the general consensus is that solutions must make sense, but they still have to be clever. if you'll excuse the jump in the logic, the solutions to good puzzles, once you get it (and you should be able to get it, since the solution is the most important aspect of a puzzle, a puzzle is dead if you are unable to get the solution) upon reflection is inevitable, yet surprising when you see it.

    Sure, puzzles can be abstract (Sudoku is solved using numbers... can't tell much of a story from that), but a well crafted (series of) puzzle(s) is a totally legit way of using interactivity to tell a story.
    deluks917 likes this.
  6. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    Oh my god.

    He states this:
    Which he believes leads to this:
    Yay, the agency of pressing X!
    Well, to fit the theme of this thread, the actual examples he gives of his 'first kind of story-game' (stories you cannot influence as a player) are pretty much all puzzles, I guess. Mostly adventure games. So, maybe here the problem is more the lack of differentiation.

    His second form of story-game is the game with multiple chooseable story-paths. Then my favourite quote (and no, there's no further explanation):
    Yeah, right... this notion just goes without saying?!
    Huh, so you are the key here! So, that's the difference to a movie or a book. The movie watches itself, the book reads itself, but you play Dragon Age! Yeah...

    His third form are just sandbox games (toys). You 'make your own stories'. In connection with this form he calls the word 'emergent' a "ridiculous buzzword", which might be true for story-games and I guess he never heard of it in the way of gameplay anyways...

    It's all really quite sad. :(
    keithburgun likes this.
  7. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    HA! Awesome Nachtfischer. I love your breakdown of this horrible, awful article... an article which makes me want to puke out my bones. Reading your takedown made me feel better and less like I might be going crazy.

    Love that. This guy clearly has no understanding of the way that stories work to begin with, that's one of the shittiest things about him and his suck-ass article. Even the way this is phrased "not all of those stories would be to a high enough standard..." - like, is this a fifth grader's book report? The story would be to a high enough standard? What does this mean?

    OK! Well, I made a "story" with my football the other day, yay, footballs have stories!

    Yucky. Thanks for the heads up though! This article is going to give me nightmares.
    Nachtfischer likes this.
  8. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    Wait, I found a comment to give you more nightmares! It's like I'm fighting fire with fire (which actually isn't too far from modern video game design):
    Whoa! He calls it funny, I call it a tragedy.
  9. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

  10. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    My response to Greg:

    Greg, that's a good, thorough article. However, it only makes me more certain that games and stories are oil and water. I mean, you spell out the exact logic of why this is in the "The Clash of Games and Stories" section, but then you never illustrate why that reasoning is wrong. Instead, it seems like you kind of say "well, but these story-games we're doing now are popular", and "To get a good story out of a game, you have to constrain gameplay in a way that ensures that a story is told through play. " This latter thing doesn't make sense. Didn't we just get done discussing that that's illogical? The only way this makes sense is if you mean that the story and the game don't affect each other, in which case we're basically talking about the "play the game, watch a cutscene" model (which I actually believe is the LEAST offensive marriage).

    Of all the examples you provide at the end - while interesting and informative - none of them highlight any flaws in your original Year 2000 argument, which I believe strongly in.
    Nachtfischer likes this.
  11. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    Yeah, it's a shame actually. He's got all the reasoning about the conflicting nature of games and stories right, but then desperately struggles to defend the marriage of the two as if it was something, we just haven't yet explored enough (which he effectively rejected before by his own reasoning). It's like he's afraid of drawing the conclusions of his reasoning (and that might well be a behaviour, if unconsciously, forced upon him by today's gaming world).

    Also, he totally lost me on the World Of Warcraft passage. By what criteria is the questing system "excellent"? As a combination of game and story (I don't think so and I tend to believe it would be quite hard to find arguments for that position) or rather a perfectly working addiction enforcement machine (yes, as such I do think it is excellent)?

    Nevertheless, it was a pretty good read spanning many different and some of them pretty obscure forms of play. Most notably the "A Tale In The Desert" example, which sounds quite interesting (although not exactly for story reasons, I'd say).

    Let us (somehow still Facebook-less individuals) know if he gets back to you on the matter. ;)
  12. Dasick

    Dasick Well-Known Member

    This is the future of the vidjagaymz industry.

    I feel sickish :confused: It's really funny, I've seen some pretty 'disturbing' things on the internet, but nothing has the same nauseating kind of effect.

    Some of the more offensive things from Greg's article:

    I'm sorry, what?? Movies and comics and novels are both a formal system and a storytelling media, all in one. There are rules and principles to each, you can't just wave a bullshit wand and suddenly have a great story that completely ignores those. At first, you'd have to understand why those principles exist and how those medias work.

    Dragon's lair was a 'hit'? No, it sank faster than titanic. I mean, at first it must have been an interesting spectacle, but people didn't have the baggage we have today needed to latch on to obviously bad ideas.

    He identifies Chris Crawford as someone in the 'games as systems' camp, which is funny. Having read some of his books, I can say that Chris has always been really interested in games as storytelling medium, but it seems that unlike pretty much everyone else he actually recognizes what the nature of games is, how it conflicts with storytelling and he's been actively working to overcome those challenges, not bury his head up his ass and talk about how the act of pressing a button is immediately immersive. For Christ's sake, you press a button when you put on a DVD, and it is YOU who turns the pages of a book.


    Ok, I'm a bit calmer now. This kind of 'videogame superiority' crap is really infuriating to me, and I do think this is where this stems from. The industry is so desperate to be seen as mature that they blindly ape other respected mediums and say that it works better because magical agency illusion. It might work actually if you really do believe that pressing X is a form of agency, but I compare that to 3D glasses and jump scares. They made movies and horror films work at first, but after a while they just get boring. Like, I went to see Star Trek into Darkness in 3D, and I was completely unaware of the fact that it was 3D except for the first 5 minutes.

    The discussion also always gets noisey because people have an all-over-the place definition of 'story'. HOLY COW, emergent gameplay! STORYTELLING. Oooh, ooh, I like the flavour for this character. STORYTELLING. The theme for this game is interacting with people and/or has some vague/deepity stuff. STORYTELLING.

    If you get back to Greg, ask him to elaborate on this paragraph:

    Specifically, how do you even achieve something like this? It's certainly conceptually possible, but that doesn't matter if it's possible or not. Making decision-making systems is conceptually possible, and it is a non-trivial task, but people have been doing that for a really long time, and they can reproduce and enhance those results. Essentially, his 'solution' would require us to solve storytelling first, which I do not see happening, and this article explains really well why not.


    By the way, a while back we agreed that puzzles are a good home for interactive storytelling, and I think I disagree. Good stories are specific. Interactivity, by it's nature is non-specific. If you ever had Valve's developer commentary for their games on, you'll know that they're always struggling to get the player to look at a specific thing and what not, otherwise they miss important plot-relevant stuff. Or how loitering around for too long just completely borks the pacing (not to mention constant reload-retry-die-reload cycles). And a while back I was following a let's play of Walking Dead, one of the hosts (the dude that wrote the procedural storytelling article actually) commented how well composed each still shot was - and that game* had like 10-15 degree freedom to move your camera.
  13. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    As to the Chris Crawford thing, I think he said that because he, like Costikyan, "used to" be strongly in the games as systems camp, but yeah since the 1990s he's been striving hard (and failing, even by his own measure, surprise) to create the ULTIMATE STORY GAME. So yeah there's this weird, annoying element of it being really fashionable to "have switched over". Kinda like religious people who claim they used to be atheists, perhaps, like "oh I understand your view, and I leveled up beyond that, so therefore my view is superior".

    Chris Crawford basically went INSANE in 1992, apparently. From Wikipedia's article on him, regarding his "Dragon speech", in which the "dragon" is "a story game that's actually good."

    The speech is notable for its dramatic ending in which Crawford confronts the dragon:
    I have committed myself, I have dedicated myself, to the pursuit of the dragon. And having made that commitment … all of a sudden, I can see him! There he is, right in front of me, clear as day.… You're so much bigger than I ever imagined, and I'm, I'm not so sure I like this. I mean, yes, you're glorious and beautiful, but you're ugly, too. Your breath reeks of death!… Am I so pitiful that you can sneer in my face like that? Yes, yes, you frighten me! You hurt me! I've felt your claws ripping through my soul! But I'm going to die someday, and before I can do that, I've got to face you, eyeball to eyeball. I've got to look you right in the eye, and see what's inside, but I'm not good enough to do that yet. I'm not experienced enough, so I'm going to have to start learning. Today. Here. Now. Come, dragon, I will fight you. Sancho Panza, my sword! (He picks up a sword from the desk behind him, which he unsheaths from its scabbard.) For truth! For beauty! For art! Charge!
    With these words, he charged down the lecture hall and out the door, symbolizing his exit from the gaming industry.

    Mmm. Cool, dude. This is the kind of person that we're dealing with. If he thinks that that exit was anything other than really lame and immature, I feel decently confident guessing that he probably wouldn't know a good story if he read one anyway.

    Maybe D&D is at fault for everything. There's just a generation of people who romanticize the hell out of it, and they can't let go of the awful stories their DM pulled out of his ass back in 1981.

    Maybe we just need a special name for stuff like D&D - improvisatory story-toys? Or fantasy world simulators?

    They're not a GOOD home for storytelling, but they're a less horrible home for it than strategy games. Although yes, all interactive systems getting paired with storytelling is basically bad. Like, the BEST you can do is keep them totally separate, basically having a story play out in an audio track like Portal does, or in cutscenes.
    Nachtfischer likes this.
  14. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    Wow, I just had to laugh out loud at that "dragon". Apparently he really had a vision of something? Maybe God is a good story game. Then I'm now more atheist than ever before, I guess?!
  15. Dasick

    Dasick Well-Known Member

    The Dragon speech is an elaborate 'fuck you' to the game design industry with a mix of fucking with the audience (he has a strange sense of humour. He talks a lot about the immaturity of the medium but he himself gives a lot of accounts where he acted overly dramatic and kinda childish). The dragon was, and I quote from the book in front of me, "metaphor for the unattainable goal of artistic expression through computer game design". But the rest of the book is about actual game design... almost. Like, one of the chapters is dedicated to solving the problem of natural language in games (kinda like what text adventures do), why they suck and how to do it better (maybe. I still need to try out Siboot/Trust and Betrayal)

    And a convert-ee is always a pain in the ass to deal with when you're still on the other side.
  16. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    I have to disagree with you guys here. I got completely immersed in story/game combos like Fallout 3, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Portal 2, Ghost Trick, etc. etc. etc, to the point where for me, it's impossible to believe that they would be better if you divorced the two from each other and sold them separately. This might be a subjectivity issue, where having games tacked onto your stories (or vice versa) makes it harder to suspend belief for you guys.
  17. Dasick

    Dasick Well-Known Member

    Having bad stories tacked onto a game that was made worse to accommodate that story is something that doesn't work for me :p (FO3, DA, ME). Portal's alright. I liked the puzzles and I liked the characters, no problem there.

    I definitely enjoyed a video of Uncharted (where all of the gameplay footage was removed and it was just pure cutscenes) more than 'playing' the game* itself. Not constantly dying, and not having to run around trying to 'solve' puzzles (lol) did wonders to pacing. Have you ever tried experiencing a story-game like that? There's a youtuber, SimaParks, does that kind of thing for major story-games.

  18. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Viva, I think none of us can know for certain whether (Fallout 3: The Novel + Fallout 3: The Storyless Pure World Simulator) would be of greater total value than just (Fallout 3). You believe that it wouldn't be, and I believe it would be.

    So, how do we move forward beyond that? If we want to get beyond "you think X and I think Y", we can lay out some supporting arguments for our cases.

    - I have a logical argument, which Greg Costikyan explains pretty well, the whole linear/non-linear rub issue that stories and games have. It's mostly accepted that this is indeed an issue, like that it really exists; apologists don't usually attack that as much as they try to either gloss over it or sort of try to make it seem like a strength somehow.

    - You might be just romanticizing things such as Fallout 3, since you liked it. This argument can't really be turned around on me, I don't think, since I have played HUNDREDS of story-based games and loved them at the time. Fallout 1+2, all Final Fantasies up to 8, Arcanum, Torment all come to mind. So if anything I should also be biased towards being lenient on these things.

    Again, neither of us know, but I would like to hear your arguments for why breaking Fallout 3 into the story aspect and the world-sim aspect wouldn't be better.

    Dasick: Yeah, most modern games, you should really just sit down with an HD youtube playthrough. Far better experience.
  19. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    My belief is mostly from empirical results: yes I have played games with intricate stories, and yes they have had a bigger emotional effect than a movie of comparable cost. Everything I could say besides that is just rationalization after the fact - the real reason I think stories can work well in games is that I've seen it happen! I think a "logical" (read: abstract and theoretical) argument about this is kind of pointless, because your "logic" is directly conflicting with the fact that people (including me) are lapping this shit up. If your model doesn't conform with the data, you throw the model in the trashcan.

    Right now I'm recalling KayinN mentioning that game-design isn't about finding *the* answer, but about pushing the envelope in a direction that hasn't been explored yet. You seem largely devoted to pushing games away from stories and towards games*, which I think is a great direction to go explore in. But it seems silly to attempt the same iteration on a game like Mass Effect 3, whose core is built around tough choices that affect the story and game. The path to successful iteration for ME3 is almost certainly in the opposite direction of yours: try to tie the story even closer with the game, so that your choices feel even more consequential. And see where that takes you.

    Dasick mentioned something interesting - he claims that 3D is just a gimmick, and that it's popularity will fade and fade and fade. I'm not sure that's true, but even if it is, who cares? James Cameron absolutely pushed the envelope in a new direction when he made Avatar, and the result was stunning and hugely resonant with a crazy amount of people. Even if artists run out of innovations they can do with 3D, that doesn't somehow diminish Cameron's accomplishment.
    deluks917, keithburgun and EnDevero like this.
  20. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    So maybe the argument I should make to you is that even if stories in games have worked well in the past, we can do even better if we divorce them. Because actually, that's what I think. Obviously stories in games work to some degree currently. I find the rub to be more of a problem than others might, but either way, how about the argument that there's way more to gain by getting rid of it?

    I may be proven wrong, of course, and I agree that arguments only go so far in convincing anyone who's on the other side of this discussion, but either way, I hope you'll accept this as a viable proposition, even if it turns out not to be true.

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