When Stories in Games Work

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

  1. Senator

    Senator Moderator

    Actually, it's this move of yours that looks unfair. "Ideology!" is not a claim that can be leveled at any positive claim. If a claim is based on logic then you can follow the logical chain and, if it's sound then it's sound. But this claim of yours was not such a claim. It was a premise for further claims. I provided reasons for thinking that at best it is unverifiable and at worst it is just wrong. If you don't like the word "ideology", we can call it an "unexamined assumption", an "expression of preference" or a "statement of worldview". But it most certainly is not unfair to point out that it is not a product of logical thinking.
  2. Dasick

    Dasick Well-Known Member

    I agree with senator, this discussion is horrible. Everytime Fisher posts a link I die a little on the inside :(


    Except that every story-related 'choice' you make in ME3 (and 2 and 1) has less consequences than even a basic firefight (not that those have huge consequences themselves but whatever).

    A device(trope/tech) by itself isn't a gimmick. I define gimmick as a device that is used with no regards to how appropriate it is to the work, based on current trends.

    Here is where I was going with my examples:

    jump scares make people scared > jump scares work > for the same cost, jump scare is the most effective horror tactic => logical conclusion is that all horror should be based on jump scares

    I see a big problem with this line of thinking (though it relies on outside knowledge experience. I'm not gonna type it up unless we have any sort of disagreement regarding the fact that (inappropriate) jump scares are super extra lame (even though movies that rely on them for horror do make shitloads of money(sometimes)))
  3. blox

    blox Administrator Staff Member

    I've played Mass Effect and the other BioWare RPGs. There are no tough "story decisions". Throughout each game, I just kicked everyone's ass, and saved everyone's planet, and gained everyone's respect. It was like that ridiculous scene at the end of A New Hope, but non-stop. I was just the best person ever, #1 on the galaxy high score board and the rest of the board is empty. Commander Shepherd had no flaws because if you leave that up to me, I will choose to not have flaws. It's like if I get to decide if I win or lose something. "Oh, I guess I'll win, thanks." For example, you can rush through to the end sequence if you've done enough of the qualifying missions. ...But you can also just do the rest of the missions to completion and save every alien species ever etc., and then get a squarely better ending for it. Also, I remember in Jade Empire, there was a third ending, the neutral ending, that was just flat-out like, You Fucked Up. The other two were your usual good and bad endings, so why would you ever choose the neutral ending?

    But actually in these choose-your-own-adventure video games, you generally can't choose to mess things up, because all the options are essentially the same. There's an illusion of choice. It's a bunch of different neutral philosophies with their pros and cons that make little difference. Within that, you can choose to be a selfish renegade or a selfless partisan, but really, you get the same things done and the selfish renegade just has a bad attitude about it. People made a big deal about the original ME3 endings, but this is pretty much what CYOA video games are (the new ME3 endings are only superficially different). People expect a generic ending (like the original endings) after playing one game, but since this was a trilogy, they were expecting more, and I don't know how possible that is when you give the viewer/player narrative control.

    When you give them narrative control:
    -Most people will not purposely do what's in the best interest of a plot, given the choice.
    -Instead, most people will do what's in the best interest of their avatar, so given the choice, they will be perfect.
    -If you looked at these CYOA video games as just plots, forgetting about your vested interest i.e. immersion, they are very one-dimensional and there is a lot of illusion of choice. Mainly because they need to account for several different outcomes, yet have you continue the same general story after making a big decision.

    Maybe the illusion of choice thing can be fixed in the future by mapping out the huge number of possible stories and then making them all different. I suspect it wouldn't really matter that much though, because again, you're trusting the viewer with the plot. A good story is crafted, not mixed together from a bank of scenes.

    The argument from popularity shouldn't affect a discussion like this. It should affect those who gain to profit from people buying up all the Mass Effects and Avatars. Special effects, 3D, interactive fiction, World of Warcraft. Clearly these things sell. If we can put that aside, we can ask ourselves, are these things necessarily interesting?
    keithburgun and Nachtfischer like this.
  4. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    It’s a fair point that maybe what made Mass Effect, um, effective, wasn’t that your choices were really affecting the world but that they were appearing to. I have mixed thoughts on this; certainly, playing through the game a second time and picking the opposite of whatever you picked in the first game largely revealed the man behind the curtain and wasn’t particularly satisfying. I’d accept the claim that maybe the way forward with ME isn’t making your choices matter more so much as making them feel like they matter more. All good writers are essentially good liars, after all.

    That being said, my biggest moments of personal satisfaction were seeing choices I made in the previous games surface later. Small example: it was hugely satisfying on a personal level when the queen insect I’d saved in ME1 contacted me in ME3. That was one of most deliciously difficult decisions in the original game: one where I literally saved the game and walked away from it so I could think about what I would honestly do in the situation. I knew that if I’d chosen to destroy her at that moment, she would never have contacted me in the 3rd game. It was a huge emotional impact with relatively small effort from the developers, and the feeling was something I just couldn’t get from a book or movie.

    So to me it’s not clear whether successful iteration will be enhancing the illusion of choice, or tackling the challenge of making more and more of the narrative player-driven without sucking. Whatever the case, I agree that the numerous times where your choice was “do a thing,” or “do a thing and be a dick about it” weren’t ME’s finest moments. The best moments, the moments I remember, came from the truly morally ambiguous decisions. Destroy the Geth? Destroy the Queen? Cure the Krogans? It was these moments that gave the game real value, and delivered a story that simply could not be delivered as a movie. If you give a character an ambiguous decision in a movie, all you have to do is passively sit there and wait for them to make the choice for you. As a game, ME3 doesn’t give you that easy out.

    Re: Arguments from popularity. They’re not valid about most things, but they are certainly valid when it comes to subjective experience. If the majority believe there’s a teacup orbiting Jupiter, that doesn’t necessarily mean there is one. But if the majority enjoy a thing, they’re not wrong about that. How could they be? Let’s ignore sales for a while; I’m talking about good metacritic scores, tons of fans, and lots of general good feelings. It’s fine if Avatar and Mass Effect 3 didn’t work for you, and talking about why can be an interesting discussion. However, if someone claims “story in games doesn't work,” it is absolutely valid logic to show it working for tons and tons of people.
  5. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    I think nobody argues, that there cannot be good story-moments in any given game, but in the case of Mass Effect it's not only the overall story, but really also the gameplay, that suffers. And I'd say that definitely has something to do with it all being completely dominated by the need to follow that big, epic science fiction storyline. To an extent, it feels like the game tries to distract from its rudimentary gameplay by giving you these story-pieces as scheduled mental rewards (aside from level-ups, flashy graphics and whatever they use these days to forcefully suppress any healthy feeling of boredom).

    By the way, following the argument from popularity, I present an argument from authority! :D
  6. Dasick

    Dasick Well-Known Member

    Viva, you're saying that watching a movie or reading a book is a passive activity. That is true in the sense that no matter how you react to the work, it won't change it. But you're skipping over the idea of active reading or whatever the hell it's called (it's something they teach in highschools funnily enough.Actually, earlier than that. Dora the Explorer teaches people to be an active audience). You don't need a permission or an invitation to make your own decisions when experiencing a movie or whatever, and you really shouldn't need a cheap trick that only even works once - good work endures scrutiny.

    When the character makes a big important ambiguous decision, this is what you should be doing as well - given the illustration provided by the work, make the decisions for yourself, what you would do given the circumstances, and how that compares to the choice of the protagonist. The other day I watched Dogville, and all throughout the movie I was racking my brain as to what someone in Grace's position should do, and the movie illustrated perfectly each option. When the big final decision came, it was perfectly clear how each choice would play out.

    Well, you might say, where's the ambiguity if you know what would happen? The ambiguity is deciding, what should happen. Even though Grace (the protagonist) made a decisions as to what should happen (and it did), that still doesn't answer the question of 'should' for everyone else. At least it shouldn't and it's kinda scary to think that people just go along with the writer and let him make the the tough moral and ideological decisions for them.
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  7. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    Critical thinking is all well and good, and yes I've had movies involving difficult decisions that have spawned idle debate after the movie. But nothing I've personally seen compares with the immediacy of being forced to decide right then, where the game literally would not progress until you'd made a choice. Also the immense satisfaction that came from seeing your choice reflected in the world hours and hours later. I guess you can claim that a movie is capable of what Mass Effect does, but to me there just isn't any comparison.

    Also that deepity Alan Moore quote is talking about a different thing than what I'm talking about. It's true that people are generally poor at predicting what they will enjoy. For instance they might think they want the hero to get the girl and ride off into the sunset, when actually a more bleak and ambiguous ending might be much more satisfying. However one thing that people are good at is knowing whether or not they enjoyed a work that has been given to them. If they see a work and love it, they can't be wrong about that!
  8. Dasick

    Dasick Well-Known Member

    I wouldn't call it 'idle'. When a morally ambiguous situation is present, the decision is always a passive thing. Even if the work is interactive and waits for your input, regardless of the input the decision is a personal passive thing. For example, someone going through the game trying to maximize their renegade score (partially to see how 'evil' the app will let me be, partially to see how much distinct consequence it actually has, and partially because it makes no sense to go anything else other than either full goody-two-shoes-doormat or the evil-puppykicker-and-kittendrowner-from-SPACE). I might have this or that reaction to the situation, and decide that this or that is the best solution (or be completely frustrated because there isn't a third option of leaving the rachni in the holding cell to do further analysis and gather enough information in order to make an informed decision), but the decision I've made has absolutely no relation to the ability to give input in the work.
  9. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    One minor note - no one is saying any individual can be "wrong" for liking a particular thing. We're talking more broadly here in terms of techniques, and which techniques are effective and which aren't. It's dangerous to just use "what's popular" because there are so many factors that could be causing that popularity. Like, I think that technological spectacle is a huge thing that makes videogames popular when they otherwise might not be.
    Nachtfischer likes this.
  10. blox

    blox Administrator Staff Member

    The argument is the same, subjectivity or not. 50 million Elvis fans can't be wrong that they enjoy Elvis, nor can 50 million smokers be wrong that they enjoy smoking, but neither of those facts point to anything other than popularity, so it's a fallacy to suggest that e.g. there's nothing wrong with smoking since so many people smoke. The funny thing is, it's seemed to me like the general opinion of both Mass Effect 3 and Avatar is mixed at best. http://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/mass-effect-3
    keithburgun likes this.
  11. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    Sure, ME3 might be a questionable example because of the ending controversy; maybe go with ME2 instead. That said, I was referring to the actual metacritic scores (89 is super high), not the user scores which are basically noise anyway.

    Anyway your analogy is invalid for what I think are obvious reasons? Causing cancer is an objective quality, not a subjective one. If the majority of people liked the smell of tobacco, you couldn't try to claim that actually tobacco smells bad and that these people are mistaken. Unless you are trying to claim that a story in a videogame has a hidden health detriment like WoW does?
  12. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    I think the point Ben was making is: from 'how popular something is', we can only derive the following data: how popular something is. We can't know for sure that any particular thing really works about it from this data, and we certainly can't use it to help us build guidelines for future works.

    In order to create guidelines that can help us make better things, it seems to me that we really just need to try to think of it logically and mechanically. So like with this games/story thing, it's far more productive to say "this works, because Logical/Mechanical Reasoning(s)", than it is to say "people like things how we've been doing it, because they're popular".
    blox likes this.
  13. blox

    blox Administrator Staff Member

    These decisions about the Geth, Rachni Queen and Krogan are the same decision. Save a dangerous race or destroy them to be safe. The thing is, how could either decision possibly harm you since it won't affect the outcome of anything? You're either going to have to deal with a bad event down the line and presumably you will emerge victorious, or they will become your ally (which is what always happens).

    Apart from not being a tough decision, it's not really a decision at all. You're just flipping through predetermined possibilities. It's like going to a theatre and there are three doors for three versions of one film and you "choose" to watch one. It's slightly more complicated than that, but it's still passive, you're just choosing which cutscenes to watch. Again, this is all about illusion of choice, and that is not interesting to me at all.

    I think all the scores are noise, but you were talking about it "working for tons and tons of people." I'm just saying, in this instance, it's not really clear what the general opinion is. And I think the reviewer score is even less of an indication of general opinion.

    No one is saying anything like, "You don't enjoy the smell of tobacco/ME3!" It's that the popularity of smoking and ME3 only proves that they are popular, not that they are good or interesting. Smoking is a good example because it makes it obvious that they are unrelated.
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  14. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    Keith, “Mass Effect could be popular for many reasons besides the story” seems like a dubious claim. I played Mass Effect 1 just last year, when the graphics and gameplay were woefully out of date and noticeably awful. The story with consequential-feeling choices was the only thing I liked about it! The idea that the *real* reason I and countless fans enjoyed the game so much was because of technological spectacle or some other reason just seems crazy to me. I think you are using a “could be” claim to try to dispute solid evidence against your theory. Yeah, ME “could be” popular for some other reason, just like there could be an invisible dragon in my garage. But both claims require evidence. You can’t just state the possibility and dismiss the data point.

    blox, “Just because a work of entertainment is popular doesn’t mean its good” is a meaningless statement. What do you mean by “good” here? I think you’re making the classic mistake of conflating personal preference with the preferences of everyone.

    Just so we’re clear, Keith is making the extraordinary claim that everyone, regardless of personal preference, would enjoy entertainment more if games and stories were split into separate magisteria. So yes, it is incredibly relevant when I point to games that are hugely popular, and appear to be popular because they deliver a storyline in a way that other mediums simply aren’t capable of. I’m sad that you didn’t enjoy Mass Effect, and I could even believe that you, personally, would enjoy games more if they didn’t have stories. But that is an entirely different thing from me believing that everyone (including me, who loved Mass Effect) is the same way.

    I’ve been repeating Mass Effect over and over, and it’s beginning to feel like a tiresome example. So for fun, here are my top 10 games that I think would have been much worse if they had been split into a separate game and movie. Most of them gain value from the fact that you are interacting with the story in some way, although some (like Portal) just weave the story in so painlessly that it doesn’t detract from the game at all and is purely added value. I’m probably forgetting a bunch of great older games, but oh well.

    1. Shadow of the Colossus
    2. Mass Effect (with an honorable mention to many other games in Bioware's library)
    3. Ghost Trick
    4. Phoenix Wright
    5. Portal 1+2
    6. Braid
    7. Suikoden III
    8. Fallout 3
    9. Silent Hill II
    10. Bastion

    There is one thing I agree with Keith about: the best story-game pairings are puzzles, both in the traditional sense and in Keith's non-traditional "disposable gameplay" sense. If you want your game to be endlessly replayable, a story is only going to get in the way. However, if you embrace the fact that a game with a story is meant to be disposeable, one-off entertainment like a book or movie, I think you can accomplish a lot.
  15. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    Yeah, they probably would, but you can't just rip them apart afterwards. By combining interactivity, or let's just say game, and story you have put a cap (or rather lowered the cap) on how good a game and how good a story you were able to make to begin with. So naturally you will end up with a suboptimal story and a suboptimal game, which on their own - judged purely as a story or as a game - seem maybe even less interesting. So, I sort of agree in that respect.

    1. I don't get what is non-traditional about puzzles and disposable gameplay? Puzzles were always meant to be solved.
    2. Actually anything Keith would call a "game" theoretically has to be endlessly replayable. Then again, not only contests of ambiguous decision-making, but interactivity as a whole is opposed to story. I don't think you can accomplish "a lot". We probably all agree, that something of value can emerge from the marriage, but why put an external limit on the potential artistic value of your work?
    keithburgun likes this.
  16. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    1. I meant that Keith's definition of "puzzles" includes things that people don't generally consider to be a puzzle; for instance Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is a good example of a Burgunian puzzle (and it happens to have a reasonable story to go with it). But most people would call it a platformer, not a puzzle.
    2. "Interactivity as a whole is opposed to story" is something I dispute; I mean, I just listed several examples of games whose story was enhanced by the interactivity (Mass Effect) or at least not hurt by it (Portal).
  17. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    1. Ah, right. They can both be called platformers, I guess. It's just useful to make the distinction between puzzle platformers and games, that are platformers.
    2. But what is the notion, that they are "enhanced" based on? Just you or anyone somehow enjoying them? That's just as good an argument as saying "No, they aren't enhanced and I do not really enjoy them". What we're trying to do is look at the forms on a lower, more analytical level. Just as Keith put it in his above post basically.
  18. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    "No they aren't enhanced and I do not really enjoy them" is certainly not as good of an argument as me and tons of people enjoying them, because all games are not aimed at all people. I don't enjoy real-time strategy games, but me not liking them is a very different thing from claiming they shouldn't exist. As long as there is a niche that appreciates the genre, RTS's are a net-positive.

    Incidentally I also reject forms as an approach to knowledge and am pretty much a pure empiricist.
  19. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    I just wanted to restate, that we needn't talk about anybody liking or disliking anything. Well, we can do that, but that's not what this discussion should be about. Because:
    A "pure empiricist"? So, if many people follow/like something it must automatically be great/right?
  20. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    The value of art in general is derived by whether or not people enjoy it, yes. There's no abstract "good" quality that a piece of entertainment has independent of its audience. Without an audience, art is meaningless and value-statements about it, like "good" or "interesting," are even more meaningless. Note that the *number* of people it entertains largely doesn't matter. If it entertains one person, it has value. The question is whether the entertainment it gives to that person was worth the effort it took to make it.

    This in itself has nothing to do with empiricism. Empiricism comes in when you try to predict what kind of art will entertain what kind of audience. Keith wants to approach the problem with forms, but I think a much better way is to look at games people like, and see what characteristics resonate with what kinds of people.

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