When Stories in Games Work

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

  1. Dasick

    Dasick Well-Known Member

    You still haven't explained HOW 'interacting with a story' has any value. and what kind of value it is. My claim is, the only thing interactivity does is it invite audience participation, which is something people should be doing anyways. I don't see it as something inherent in story-games, although they try to enforce it.

    Also, Portal, seriously? You're not interacting with the story in any way, they don't even acknowledge any little things you might do. It's literally an audiolog playing while you solve puzzles.
    keithburgun likes this.
  2. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    Yup, I've mainly been giving an indirect argument.

    1) Story/games game combos are hugely popular.
    2) People say they like these story/games because of the story/game part.

    Ergo, it's worthwhile to produce these story/games for these people. The ways this has been attacked are Keith's claim that these people are actually mistaken about why they enjoy the game, and the claim that my argument is argumentum ad populum.

    In other words, I haven't explained how interacting a story has any value because I haven't felt like I've needed to. It's not a core part of my argument. I guess we could talk about that if you really wanted to, but honestly given the apparent dislike of story/game combos here, it might just be better to write it off as subjectivity. If a person likes books better than movies, there isn't a logical argument to convince them otherwise, lol. What you *can* do is point out that just because he likes books better doesn't mean that movies shouldn't exist, because there are plenty of people that like movies better.

    But what if he counterclaims that Images and Sound are naturally opposed to creating a story? And he presents this amazing logic about forms? And he says that the people who say they like movies better are actually mistaken? Or worse, he says that your argument of people liking movies better is actually argumentum ad populum? Well, then you tear your hair out, make 1,000 internet posts, and go watch a movie.

    I think you need to reread what you quoted. Yes, Portal is on the list for a reason other than interactivity.
  3. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    Kind of funny how everyone agrees Portal is at least among if not the best "story game" and it's exactly the example where the story has the tiniest possible amount of relation to the game.

    Anyways, I still don't get anything out of that "people say they like it" argument. People like fast food, cigarettes, alcohol and FarmVille. Yet you can still argue, that all these things are in some way harmful and fail by certain criteria. "Smoking can cause cancer!" - "Well, so many people enjoy it, so let's make more and 'better' stuff to smoke!" That's nothing.

    Also, I don't think the books vs. movies analogy really fits here. That's a completely different level of discussion.

    So, yeah, I personally would love to read about the specific value of interactive storytelling to you. That would really make much more sense in context of this thread.
  4. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    So are you claiming that story in games is harmful to my physical/mental health, like fast food, cigarettes, alcohol and FarmVille? If not, it doesn't deserve to be categorized in that group. When there's no harm, what you enjoy really truly is completely subjective. It's weird that you say the analogy about books vs movies is a "completely different level of discussion" but think cigarettes are a more adequate analogy.
  5. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    Sorry. It actually was not meant to say, what is harmful and what isn't at all. I just meant to (somewhat drastically) illustrate, that it can always be worth taking a look at things on a lower, analytical, more technical level. Even if superficially we could just say "Whatever, it's popular, that's enough".
  6. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    I think a big rub that's occurring in this discussion is this one: I believe that the human brain is mechanical, and that when we like things, that's something "working", mechanically. Of course, the human brain, especially when it comes to emotions such as "do I like this thing?" is extremely complicated, so it's basically impossible to predict what any individual person will like or dislike.

    However, it is still mechanical, and so we can use simple logical arguments to build a systems that at least in theory should be more effective at establishing a certain goal. What I'm saying is that creating art is no different really from creating a hammer or anything else - there are guidelines of design that can be followed to generally increase quality.

    Viva, it sometimes sounds like you maybe think that such guidelines can't be come to, or if they could be, they could only be based on "what's popular", not on logical, constructive arguments. So I think this is probably the biggest conversational rub happening right now.

    I've posed a very specific positive claim about the problems from combining stories and interactivity. The fact that games that include this are currently popular is almost totally beside that point.
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  7. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    I'll post a more nuanced argument tomorrow, but this should do for now:

  8. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    My review of this web comic:

    The No-Hat guy is just an idiot talking about something that he knows nothing about. Like his "logic" argument isn't even logical. Moving forward, LOGICALLY, makes you vulnerable, so... what the hell is he talking about?

    However, my argument IS logical. If you're saying that there's a flaw in my logic, then you should point it out (no one in this thread has attempted this yet, as far as I am aware). It also wouldn't have been hard for Hat Guy to point out the flaws in No Hat's logic.

    Also another reason this comic kind of sucks: it sort of suggest that the fact that this guy lost the game has any bearing on his argument. Again, his argument is wrong, but not because he is "less good than another individual". If he had won are we to believe then that he was right?
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  9. blox

    blox Administrator Staff Member

    If this is true, that you played Mass Effect for no other reason than it being a glorified CYOA book, then Mass Effect is woefully inefficient for you. How much time is actually spent making story "decisions"? ... versus running down corridors, clearing warehouses full of enemies, running down more corridors, driving around in that stupid rover on empty planets (or the stupid minigame that replaced it in the sequels), running down even more corridors, like corridors several miles long, you're like, "Does this even end?" and then it does and there's a big alien who kills you so you have to reload and run down it again.

    I think it's strange to come from this argument of popularity but at the same time ignore the very clear popular culture focus on spectacle. Not to say that no one enjoys CYOA, just that it's not the whole story. I strongly believe that without technological spectacle, Mass Effect would be only slightly more popular than these 2D adventure games that are on sale constantly on Steam. From those Metacritic reviews you were talking about:
    "Great visuals." - GameSpot, "One of the most artistically and technically beautiful games of all time." - IGN, "gorgeous graphics" - 1UP, etc.

    Similarly, if Portal and company were 2D, how much less popular would they be? Maybe you don't care about the spectacle, but it seems to me that's "conflating personal preference with the preferences of everyone". Speaking of which,

    I'm not really talking about my personal preference. There are plenty of things that I like that I also think are not good; plenty of films, shows, video games where I feel like I know everything there is to know about it, it offers me nothing, and yet because of my preference, I watch it anyway. I try to not do too much of that, but it happens (e.g. Mass Effect).

    The point being you can separate quality from preference, so I'm talking about quality, and it's a fair point to ask what is meant by "good" quality. What makes a game, or film, or entertainment in general "good" (although I think it's pretty clear from Keith's writings what people here consider to be good in games), but that's what this discussion is about: what makes a good or bad guideline for improving a medium and why. I think popularity, for example, is not a good guideline for improving a medium because popularity's only interest is the status quo.

    This may just be my own personal experience, but one thing I find about this "one-off entertainment" thing is that I would easily watch a good film several times, but I can't really think of a disposable video game that I have ever thought would be worth replaying, because of the efficiency thing I was talking about. Like maybe I would want to hear the story again, but I don't want to go through the tedium of solving the puzzles I've already solved, and walking down the same corridors etc., in order to advance the plot.
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  10. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Also the "I played Mass Effect 1 recently" argument doesn't do what it was supposed to do I think, because even Mass Effect 1 is tremendously spectacular (Literal definition). I didn't say only technological spectacle - I said spectacle - stuff that makes you go WOWOWOW HOLY SHIT LOOK AT THAT REALLY BIG ALIEN! I mean Jurassic Park is spectacular; hell, Godzilla is.

    And yeah, playing a puzzle a second time through like actively sucks. At least that's my position. The first time is like "OK I will do this shit for the A-Ha! moments", but the second time you're really just doing chores.
  11. Dasick

    Dasick Well-Known Member

    XKCD has really horrible logic and is really asinine sometimes most of the time. I hate it when people use it instead of arguments, and I'm glad you did your analysis of that comic Keith. But since we're sharing links, clicky for an article on how people are often mislead about the SOURCE of their feelings. This kind of shit happens all the time in game testing (as you probably know) and it's also common outside of games. People are notoriously bad not necessarily at understanding what they're feeling, but knowing where those feelings are coming from - this is psychology 101 stuff right here.

    So yeah, it makes perfect sense to doubt the source of the feelings someone gets from a work, especially when I see nothing that could be causing those feelings. Now, it may mean that like the nohat guy in your linked comic that I am full of shit, but don't you think it would be more productive to demonstrate that there is something to the marriage of interactivity and story rather than go "well, people like it, so clearly it must have SOME value", which is not true at all. The value people are getting could be coming from all sorts of things, it could even be something people are bringing in themselves (ie some sort of private personal value is seen in a character that reminds Jonesy of his grandpa or whatever).
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  12. Dasick

    Dasick Well-Known Member

    Also, is it just me or does it look like we're overwhelming viva with responses?
  13. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member


    I see several analogues between No-Hat and your position here.

    - You are both talking about something you know little about (chess/the brain).

    - You are making a claim that is probably true on average but which fails as a guiding principle because it so grossly oversimplifies a complex system.

    - You are avoiding the necessity of citing evidence to back up your claims with the word “LOGICAL.”

    It is dangerously common for people to say they are using “logic” when actually what they are doing is flailing in the dark with oversimplified models of a world contained in their head. It’s so common that there’s even a convenient comic I can link when people do it (interestingly enough, I’ve had it linked against me as well, but we’ll talk about that another time). My general opinion of “logic” as it is used in the vernacular sense is low. Think of all the dead philosophers of the world who were sure they’d used “logic” to prove some random Abrahamic God existed. Simple logical arguments usually fail because they are simple and the world is not.

    I’m reminded of the huge backlash that happened from the Fighting Game thread at FS. It showed that this “logic” thing is actually a repeating theme: trying to tackle a complicated system with a simplistic model, and then getting burned by counterexamples from people who have a huge working knowledge of the genre.

    Alright, so if attempting to use a-priori reasoning is basically useless, how do we gain knowledge? We go out into the world and we gather data. We make reasonable hypotheses, and then we test them. So I think it’s a dangerous sign when you say that tons and tons of people liking story based games is completely irrelevant to your theory. It shows you’ve created a barrier between evidence and your model of the world, and when that happens, you end up making crazy claims like how you should always move forward in chess. Before you ever go more than a few steps of inference away from your starting point, you need to play the damn game.

    The annoying thing is that I think there is a kernel of truth to your ideas, and that probably if they were restated in a less sweeping, over-simplifying, all-inclusive way, I’d agree with them. It seems reasonable to cite examples when story gets in the way of the game and vice-versa. For instance, Uncharted/Bioshock are pretty good examples of games where maybe they should have just been movies. But it gets less believable when you try to extend your net to include games like Braid, where story and game are woven together (sorry, bad pun) in such a way that it’s tough to imagine how one would be better without the other. Or Bioware, who have become so adept at creating compelling illusion-of-choice stories within a game framework that it would be crazy to tell them they should make movies instead.

    Let’s talk about Mass Effect, and Keith’s theory that actually the reason people like it is spectacle. I think it’s a fairly uncontroversial claim to say that the spectacle of games 1, 2, and 3 increases massively (more bad puns) as you go forward in time. Okay, so why was there a huge fan backlash over 3, when by Keith’s model, it should have been by far the most popular? The answer is fans weren’t coming to the game for spectacle, but the “illusion of choice” that we’ve talked about here. The problem with ME3’s ending wasn’t that it was even poorly written or didn’t have enough spectacle (IMO it was poetic and moving), but that it so abruptly dispelled this illusion that the games had been cultivating over the trilogy. That’s what the fans had showed up for!

    I think this is hugely relevant data against Keith’s claim, but I worry he’ll just repeat that he doesn’t need to listen to real-world examples when he is using logic. From my experience, it’s extremely difficult to notice when data is conflicting with your worldview and actually change your mind.

    In summary:

    1) The mind is basically a black box.
    2) It’s a waste of time to try to formulate plausible-sounding a-priori models of how it works.
    3) It’s better to study it in the same way that you study all black boxes: form hypotheses, then look at inputs and outputs.

    One more thing: No-Hat winning the chess game would certainly be evidence for his claim. Continuing to win against other players and eventually grandmasters would be as strong evidence as you could get, short of a mathematical proof or a brute-force computer calculation of every single possibility. One of the ways Sirlin’s games get well-balanced is that he listens to the claims of the people who are winning more than the people who aren’t.
  14. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member


    Yeah I agree that ME1 wasn’t an efficient use of my time on its own; I played it mostly so I could play ME 2 and 3. But we should be careful here to differentiate between “inefficient” and “unenjoyable.” What’s important here is that even though Bioware’s abilities as a game designer and as a displayer of technological splendor have improved since ME1, their ability to tell a story within the framework of a videogame was strong even then, and it has nothing to do with technological spectacle. I guess Keith meant something different than technological spectacle, but even if he’s right and I enjoyed the game because of “storytelling spectacle,” that’s okay I think? Videogames are very good at conveying this general non-technological spectacle, and I can see it being an effective story-telling method for quite some time into the future.

    I’m not sure where you mined those review quotes from; I guess ME3? ME3 really is a technological achievement (I guess EA is good for something?), but ME1 was technologically unremarkable even when it came out. Here’s the Wikipedia “Critical Reception” for ME1:

    Notice there’s not much mention of graphics in that entire blurb; just mostly comments on the great interactive story.

    Incidentally, pure CYOA’s have a small but devoted following. Fate/Stay Night comes to mind as a game with passionate fans, even if it doesn’t have widespread appeal (personally, I liked it as well). Remember, the existence of devoted fans at all, regardless of their number, indicates that that game fills some sort of valuable niche.

    Re: you can separate quality from preference. Not really? I think what you are really talking about when you say a game has low “quality” but you enjoy playing it anyway, is that you have two conflicting preferences inside of you, and the game caters to one but not the other. I’ve played games that I’ve enjoyed on a visceral level but not an intellectual one, but let’s be clear with our words and actually say that, rather than saying that it was something that I “enjoyed” even though it was “low quality.”

    I think you still need to let go of the idea that there is a quality of the piece of art itself that holds true regardless of the art’s audience. Here’s a simple thought experiment: imagine a robot that can measure the objective quality of art. How would it function? My response is that it would measure brain waves of various subjects when exposed to art, have a heuristic to find which brain waves were valuable, and then be able to predict which people responded well to which pieces of art. Notice that the “objective” quality is *still* inexorably linked to the audience itself. Without an audience input, the robot itself is useless.

    One-off entertainment: yeah I agree that movies are more rewatchable than story-based games are replayable. In practice I end up doing almost none of either, however. In both mediums, there’s too much awesome new content (and old content I haven’t found yet) for it to be worth my time to retread old content.
  15. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member


    Well, one reason I’m reluctant to try to state exactly how interactive stories can grab me more than non-interactive stories is precisely because we are often way off-base about micro-level psychology like that. I much prefer to keep things at a macro level, where, no, it really doesn’t seem plausible that people could talk about the story, say they love the story, complain about the story in ME3’s case, and not *actually* be coming to play the game for its story. If a player is engrossed in a storyline, and says so, then I’m willing to trust that as a data-point. If a player says the story sucks because X, now things are murkier. But at a macro-level, it just seems absurd to me that I (and other players) could be *mistaken* about their enjoyment of an interactive story. Players might not understand *why* they like something, but they are certainly capable of knowing *if* they like something.

    At this stage if you want to try to refute the evidence, I think you need more than, “well it could be something else.” What you linked to is about pretty subtle distinctions: the player thought the game was too hard and wanted an easy mode, but actually the difficulty *mode* was fine and the game just needed bug fixes to bring the difficulty down. This is a far, far cry in my mind from thinking you like a game for the story and actually liking it because of your dead Grandpa or something.
  16. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    Viva, it looks like you somehow switched into "oh, Keith is not an expert on brains, so let's critisize anything he said about that", but that's beside the point of this discussion, really. This whole thread is about games and story and us not being brain doctors is not a reason to drop that.
    See, don't get fixated on the brain thing. Claims were made about games. And you probably couldn't accuse anyone here as easily of "knowing little about" games.

    How is no-hat right "on average"? Chess is not at all about just rushing towards the king. His logic fails inside the system of rules of Chess. In fact, you probably don't even need to "play the damn game", it's apparent from the system itself. And I have not seen any argument made on why the claims about story and game opposing each other should fall short in a similar way in the context of the system of interactive art, we're talking about here. So, I don't see the analogy. In fact, I think there is a huge difference.

    What Keith really meant to say with the brain stuff and what we're actually arguing is, that it is possible to come up with guidelines. There are guidelines and criteria for what generally makes good quality in music, novels, movies etc. In games we actually haven't established such criteria really. That's why the only thing people look at is what is popular and what makes money, not thinking about if it is actually of good quality or if it could be better. That's also a point: people might feel good and be happy with what they get in any given situation, but could they feel even better? It's worth thinking about.

    FarmVille? Yeah, I know, depends on what you mean by "devoted", but again: somebody liking anything is really not the point here and not worth talking about in and of itself. What's worth talking about is a low-level analytical approach. Especially BECAUSE we agree on the brain being so complex. (BTW, I'd call excessive FarmVille players extremely devoted. They even let their life outside of the game be dominated by it. Well, maybe they are rather "enslaved"...)

    Now, from what I remember, Braid's story is pretty dull. In fact, I have much more fond memories of specific puzzles than any of the story. Maybe the marriage is not THAT damaging here, especially since it's a puzzle anyways and the story isn't that literal, but how is that "evidence", that story and game/interactivity are not opposed? That question's even more valid in the case of Mass Effect's pseudo-interactivity. By the way, I don't think people "like" Mass Effect just because of technical spectacle, but because it embodies the whole modern day "best practices" approach to game making, which obviously includes story and graphics/sound, but also this pacing framed around scheduled rewards for the player, +1 leveling, collecting and upgrading stuff etc. It's all there. And it all detracts from the poor core gameplay and even the poor tacked on story. Basically, modern day game designers are masters, when it comes to making their way around boredom. Now, you might think that sounds positive. But boredom is actually healthy. In a state of unproductiveness you feel bored. Now, modern video games are able to suppress that feeling while still actually not offering anything notably more valuable than unproductiveness. Games are about learning and understanding, of which these ones encorporate little to nothing.

    Well, if these games actually had gameplay value, you'd probably play them more. How isn't that another indicator of story hurting games? Look at Go: no story, brilliant gameplay and people play it for thousands of years. It is a timeless classic. I doubt any of today's video games will become that classic.

    By the way, Go is also a good example of how it certainly is possible to differentiate preference and quality. Users here have acknowledged it as a brilliantly designed game, while they themselves do not really like it. That is actually the core of this discussion again. Developing guidelines on what makes good game design. And therefore we should talk about logic, mechanics etc. And not what's popular for whatever reason and how we can trick the audience into feeling great while disabling their brains to a large extent.
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  17. Dasick

    Dasick Well-Known Member

    "Illusion of Choice". That's the keyword here. I'm glad you brought up the backlash because it's a good example of something bad happening when you combine story and games. That's all you can really give the audience - an illusion, a very fragile illusion. And the reveal is inevitable, and it is disappointing (and in the case of Mass Effect, painful is a good word to use). They've tried keeping up the illusion for so long, the payoff people were expecting was huge, and of course it couldn't deliver (for a variety of reasons, some of which Keith explains in his article), and people went batshit when they didn't get what they were promised. Of course, no one learned the lesson, not the games industry not the gamers. The story-game CANNOT have a satisfying resolution (something people crave, whether they realise or not, and the incident with ME3 ending is not the only proof).

    It's like being told there's a santa clause. Sure, the kids are happy enough to believe in him, but once they realise the truth, it's like someone took a shit in their mouth. People they trust - parents and teachers and siblings - led them on to believe something that is ridiculous and not true. Is it worth it? I don't think so.

    As for the value people saw in ME series... People say they liked the story, but taken as a whole it's pretty bad and a waste of time. There are things to like there. Some characters have interesting back stories and arcs, but most of them have cool quirks. There's a lot of fanservice. Like, a LOT. There's the illusion of choice and the promise of something great. There are bits of great ideas here and there, and it's certainly interesting to talk and think about them. But as a whole, it's a mess. The amount of actual value per minute spent playing is ridiculously low. If trash like ME didn't insist on being so wasteful, people would have a lot more time to enjoy more things.
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  18. vivafringe

    vivafringe Well-Known Member Staff Member

    Dasick, I think you're missing that ALL fiction is illusory. There's a reason we have a term called suspension of disbelief, why actors aren't supposed to directly look at the camera, and why there's a "4th wall" in stage acting. ME3 is one game, marred by a break in the illusion. ME1 and ME2 pretty much got universal acclaim for their story, though, so it certainly is *not* inevitable that an interactive story will break the illusion.

    Nachtfischer, I see you brought up Farmville again. I think you know what I'm going to say about that, so maybe I don't even need to reply to it?

    More posts tomorrow.
  19. Nachtfischer

    Nachtfischer Well-Known Member

    Fiction is obviously illusory, that's almost tautological to say. What isn't or shouldn't be is the possibility for REAL choices in games, though.

    Yeah, whatever. As long as we can't destroy it, we probably shouldn't talk about FarmVille. It is so much more offensive than any story "blockbuster" game will probably ever be. It's blatantly evil, really.
  20. keithburgun

    keithburgun Administrator, Lead Designer Staff Member

    Their logic is flawed. Instead of dismissing logic, we should be dismissing their logic. Which is what you should be doing to me - dismissing my logic - instead of dismissing logic in general.

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