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Games Hurt Stories, Stories Hurt Games

A quick note to readers:  I’ve been writing for my game design blog, Expensive Planetarium, for over four years.  I’ve now decided to do most of my game design-writing over here at Dinofarmgames.com, in an attempt to consolidate my video game writing.  So, you should go check out Expensive Planetarium if you haven’t read it before, but stay tuned here for more articles and updates from me and the rest of the team.

Since digital game technology has allowed for games to include stories, more and more of them have chosen to do so.  Some of the “greatest video games of all time” not only include story, but are even based on story.  Games like The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, Final Fantasy VII, and Metal Gear Solid set the standard for the modern video game.  Very few in the game development world are willing to question these sacred games, which I think limits us to only ever being as good as them.  The real question I think we have to ask is:  is the presupposition that “games should have a story” helping, or hurting digital games?  From the title of this post, it should be clear that I think the latter is the case.

 

Defining Terms

In order for us to be able to discuss this at all, we have to define “game” and “story”.  I hear game developers quarrel about how to define “game” in particular, but I actually think all of the fighting about the word game is somewhat dishonest.  A clear definition for “game” does exist, and we all know what it is.  We understand from a young age what games are, but when it comes to the digital realm a lot of people put up arbitrary mental blocks about the term, and get defensive when something is called “not a game”.  Keep in mind that whether or not something is or is not a game is not a value judgmentMinecraft is also not a game, but that doesn’t make it any less great.  Similarly, James Pond II: Codename Robocod isn’t any better for being a game.

With that out of the way, here’s the definitions as I see them:

Game – a system of rules in which one or more agents compete by making meaningful decisions.

Story – a composed sequence of events.

To elaborate on each a bit:

A game is a system of challenges built to force the user to increase his/her skill.  They are skill-building machines.  Games are good when they force the players to make interesting decisions – ones where the right answer is not totally clear.  A good game is simple to learn, but has deep mechanisms whose complexity emerges through play.

A story is a carefully composed series of conflicts and resolutions, wherein forces of antagonism get between characters and their objects of desire.  Stories build to a climax and then resolve in a way which, in good stories, does a good job of illustrating a controlling idea or thesis.

 

Comparisons

It’s important to notice that a story is really, at the end of the day, a list.  It’s a sequential art – this, then this, then this.  We can draw the experience of “story”, therefore, in a straight line with nodes representing various events.  I need to make clear that I am by no means saying that stories are simpler than games.  Both stories and games are, in their own way, complex “machines” that have to actually function.  Good stories have many threads that interweave with each other in a graceful and beautiful way.  In terms of what the user ends up experiencing, it’s a linear list of events.

In games, however, it would not be a linear list of events – the experience would be more like a constantly evolving and emerging web.  As you’re going through it, the nodes and connections(possibilities, choices) are changing.  It’s not always clear which node connects to which to the players – in fact, this is what happens when we get better at games;  we get better at predicting the future structure of the web.  And when we can completely map out the entire web of a game, it becomes useless and unplayable (think Tic-Tac-Toe, in which most adults are able to know, with certainty, the optimal move in any situation).

 

The above illustrates the possible user-experience in a single telling of a story or a match in a game. Regardless of how deep your story is, the information is still presented in a linear order. Also worth noting that with games, the starting position may not even be the same on another game; the entire web structure usually changes every time you play.

Games can be judged by how complex their webs can get.  If you look at a web for “Super Mario Brothers”, it’s more complex than you might at first think.  A mushroom just emerged from a power-up block and is falling towards a pit, so I can go for it or not go for it (an interesting decision).  If I do go for it, then my choice might be whether to try to just clear the pit and grab the ‘shroom in a single leap, or I can try to land on that para-troopa’s head to get another jump.  If I chose not to go for it, then my choices are completely different.

Another interesting difference is that generally, games are meant to be experienced many times, and stories are meant to be experienced once.  Of course there are games that you’ll only want to play once (if they aren’t good, or if they are just not your thing), and films/novels that you’ll maybe want to experience hundreds of times, but these are both the exceptions to the rule.  If someone says “Hey, do you want to play chess?”, no one would ever say, “ah I’ve already played chess, sorry.”  However, pointing out that you have already experienced the thing as the reason you don’t want to experience it again is common with narrative media.  Conversations like “Do you want to watch Mulan?”  “*shaking head* I’ve already seen Mulan” are common.

One final comparison:  Rhythm.  Both stories and games have an element of natural “rhythm” to them.  You could define rhythm as the timing pattern with which information is delivered to the user.  In good stories, the rhythm is arranged carefully by the author to deliver the maximum wallop in the climax.  The rhythm of games is, of course, emergent and flowing, and sometimes unpredictable.  I’ll return to this later, but take note of the difference there for now.

Professional Wrestling

When most people learn that professional wrestling (I’m talking WWF, NWO-type stuff – Hulk Hogan and his ilk, not the legitimate sport of wrestling) was all pre-written and simply acted, they would dismiss it.  Finding out that the sport was “fake”, or even “rigged”, takes a lot of natural gameplay-drama away from the – I stopped myself from saying sport – performance.  Sure, there’s still a lot to like about pro wrestling – maybe someone likes the characters, the acrobatics, or just enjoys watching a couple of sweaty, half-naked men in the sixty-nine position.  These are all legitimate, but I think a lot of the reason that many of us expect it to have some “game-like” qualities, and they are not there.

We watch football, boxing, baseball, and we naturally understand how the emergent gameplay of these sports is exciting.  It’s the web – trying to predict where things will go, how the nodes will connect.  With pro wrestling, though, that web is flattened, because pro wrestling is tied to a linear, pre-written narrative.  This character has to win this match, in this way, because the story requires it, not because of anything the “players” are doing.  In fact, there are no players at all, anymore.  Pro wrestling is a clear example of story completely trouncing gameplay.

Even though story is clearly dominant in the game-story relationship of pro wrestling, it still is massively limited in how good it can be because of the game element.  The story can be good, but it always has to have the format of wrestling match, wrestling match, wrestling match.  You looked at me funny – wrestling match!  I want something that guy has – wrestling match!  We cannot agree on which of us is “the best” – wrestling match.  It’s just like porn:  it can’t have a good story because of its sweaty-half-naked-men-in-the-sixty-nine-position-quota.  I would call it an artistic conflict of interest.

Most modern video games are very similar to pro wrestling.  The story is all written out for you, it’s just a matter of you loading it up and acting it out.  Press “X” now.  Run from this point to this point now.  The games bombard you with compliments in the form of achievements and other meta-rewards for following a linear list of instructions that look a lot like the linear list of instructions pro wrestling actors study and rehearse before a match.  When you play a modern video game, you are a pro wrestling actor.

WWF Wrestlemania for NES. Even as a kid, I remember thinking it was strange that the NES version of Pro Wrestling was so much more interesting and fun than the real thing. Now I know why.

To reiterate:  When a games’ gameplay has to line up with a previously composed narrative (which is inherently linear), it severely limits how interesting our gameplay web can be.  When a story’s plot has to constantly include some form of “interaction”, it breaks up the rhythm of the story in a way that undermines the tension and drama of the story, and, frankly, it can just seem pretty silly.  If you wanted to really make a story out of Shadow of the Colossus that really reflected the gameplay, the plot would be quite repetitive and boring.

How did we get here?

I’ve written for my old blog several times about something I call “game shame”.  It’s something culture-wide that gamers and non-gamers feel towards games.  It would seem as though only people who have actually identified this and consciously chosen to reject it from their mind and behavior patterns have any chance of being free of it.  It’s sort of like the more common form of racism – the one that’s never explicitly stated, and in fact denied, but it’s always there, visible through word choices and action to those who know how to see it.

Game shame is a cultural bias against games.  It is what generates the idea that games are merely a distraction, that games are not art, that games are not of real cultural value.  It’s my observation that most people put film, books, visual arts, music all on a higher “plane” than games.

The assumption that games are not on the same artistic plane as other mediums is what drives us to put stories in games, despite the huge cost.  I ask people why games should have stories in them, and they say something like “so that it’s deeper”.  We try to make our games look and play out like movies, because we respect movies.  It follows, then, that the more a game looks like a movie, the more worthy of respect it is.

On a bit of a side note, an interesting thing I’ve noticed is that while games do have this “lower” status as art, they also enjoy a super “hip” rock-star status in this time period.  Everyone wants to be involved in games, but people make sure to make some depreciating remark about them so that everyone else knows, “heh, I don’t really like games, don’t worry”.

Solution

If I only deliver one message to planet Earth before I die, let it be this:  games are just as deep as any other medium.  Games are just as valuable as any other medium.  However, they aren’t deep and valuable in the same way that other mediums are;  no two mediums offer us the exact same thing.  We must start judging them by their own metrics.  Games are not deep in the way that films are deep, but films are not deep in the way that games are deep, either.

We all have to understand the inherent qualities of games to understand their value to humanity.  Games have so much to teach us, just by being games!  They teach us important meta-skills like patience, focus, strategy, confidence, adaptability.  They show us new ways to look at our own psychology, and we can explore the workings of our opponents conscience by playing against him.  They teach us to analyze patterns and abstract them into easy to process bites.  They teach us to learn a new set of controls and allow it to become an extension of our own bodies.  It is not controversial to say that games exercise the mind in a unique way that no other activity can.

Games don’t have to have cutscenes.  They don’t have to have characters.  They don’t even have to have any visual elements at all.  Games are simply a system of rules, and that is not at all meant to take anything away from them – being “just a system of rules” has truly awesome potential(in fact, you could say that the universe itself is simply a system of rules!).  It’s helpful for video game designers to realize that games are games – whether they’re played on a screen, on a tabletop, or on a basketball court.

One of my favorite games, "Puerto Rico". It's not pretty, but European board-game designers seem to understand that games are not an inherently visual medium. By the way, did I mention that this game is unbelievably fun?

The only way to have a great game is to focus on nothing but having great gameplay.  The only way to have a great story is to focus on nothing but having a great story.  Anything peripheral, unrelated or, most importantly, counter-productive to that goal should be removed.  Even when you do follow this philosophy, making a great game or a great story is extremely difficult.  But if you don’t, it’s impossible.

Clarification

I am a game designer.  I am writing for other people who are interested in game design, in the hopes that I can offer some insight on how to better make games.  I’m not at all saying that nobody should make story-game hybrids, like interactive fiction.  D&D and other pen and paper RPGs have illustrated that interactive fiction certainly has potential as its own medium, and I think people should research it more and develop it.  I am simply saying that we all need to understand the difference between games and interactive fiction so that we can judge these things by their own merits.  Currently, the blanket term “video games” is clouding people’s vision of what a “game” is so much that it’s making it very difficult for those of us who really just like games to find what we’re looking for.  I simply want people to know what it is they want to make, and focus down on that to create the best thing possible, regardless of the medium.

One common apologetic I’ve heard in response to all this is, “but dude, Planescape Torment had an amazing story”, or “Final Fantasy Tactics had a pretty involved story and its gameplay was awesome!”  My answer is that yes, I agree with both of those statements.  But even still, in both games, the marriage of game and story did harm both.  Torment was great, but would it have been even greater as a novel (assuming that it was written by the same author or an author of equal skill)?  I think absolutely.  Similarly, I can think of many improvements to the gameplay of Final Fantasy Tactics that could be made, were it not for the need to match up with a linear story.  But to be perfectly clear, you can combine games and story and still come out with a good game at the end of the day – it’s just that you’re limiting how good it can be by doing so, and you should be conscious of that.  It’s fine to have emotional connections to games from our upbringing, but we need to make sure that we’re able to see beyond them.

Another slightly more bizarre apologetic I’ve heard is that I shouldn’t be against the marriage of games and stories, because through the act of playing a game, you’re creating a “story”.  The idea is that games are emergent story-creators, and so therefore story should be right at home with games, I suppose.  Even if I give you that it is a kind of “story” just by being a list of events, it certainly isn’t a good story.  And if you create a game whose motives are to procedurally generate an emergent story – there are two problems.  One is, I don’t think human beings will create AI sophisticated enough to make great art in our lifetimes, if ever, which is essentially what that’s proposing.  But secondly, even if it was pretty good at making good stories, that would necessarily mean that the gameplay suffered, because what’s good for stories isn’t necessarily good for games, and vice-versa.  Also, another thing that makes this apologetic really silly is that any activity, after it is complete, will result in a list of events – does that mean that heart-surgery and story go well together?

It’s worth noting that I’m not the first one to bring up this idea about games and story.  There are apparently “debates” that occur between “narratologists”, and “ludologists” (by the way, my spell check thinks neither of these are words, and I agree with it, at least with regards to game design).  From Wikipedia,

The narratological view is that games should be understood as novel forms of narrative and can thus be studied using theories of narrative. The ludological position is that games should be understood on their own terms.

Every other medium gets understood on its own terms without question, but games?  It’s apparently a big debate as to whether or not they should.  GAME SHAME!  For me, the idea that this is a “debate” is quite reminiscent of the evolution/creationism “debate”.

Finally, don’t confuse “story” with “theme”.  Theme doesn’t necessarily conflict with gameplay (although it can, easily if you aren’t careful), and actually has been used for thousands of years to help people understand play verbs.  If I have a rock, and I can move it across the board into your rock’s space, and take your rock off the board, that’s just something arbitrary that I have to remember.  If I theme that rock as a warrior on a battlefield, suddenly the gameplay action has a meaning that we can visualize which makes it easier to remember and understand.

Conclusion

Dinofarm Games upcoming game, Auro, will have a story.  A story designated to its own “mode”, that is also meant as a tutorial and meant to be played only once or twice before the player gets into the real game, which is story-free.

For now, those of us who are game designers, let’s all figure out what it is we really want to do.  If what you really want to do is tell a story, consider writing a novel or a screenplay.  What’s wrong with novels and screenplays?  How about a comic?  Consider other mediums.  Because when it comes to the modern video game, I don’t know about you, but I’ve watched enough pro wrestling.

ADDENDUM:  Another element to this that I forgot to mention is the fact that if your game is story based, there’s a tendency to want to make the game “easy” so that everyone can experience the whole story.  This is, obviously, a major problem since challenge is so fundamental to games.

keithburgun • 09/08/2011


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Comments

  1. Mauro 09/08/2011 - 9:53 pm Reply

    The thing is that we *need* stories to make the game compelling, in many cases. I’m thinking of a great game, Super Smash Bros. Brawl. It has a pretty silly “story” mode, Subspace Emissary. You could argue either way about its relevance to the game as a whole, but it’s basically a platformer added to a fighting game. Does its story help it or hurt it?

    I’d say it helps it. It’s a *terrible* story. It makes no sense, pretty much. There’s some evil, and there are fights. OK! There’s someone calling the shots, and someone even more evil calling the shots above that. OK! Who cares? Well, the story motivates the choices the player doesn’t get to make. In this level, you have to use these characters. Why? Because those characters are there and the other characters are elsewhere. It would feel a lot more arbitrary to restrict you to only certain characters without this kind of motivation. The story explains the settings and the restrictions. A good game story is just enough to motivate the action without getting in its way.

    I just played through a whole bunch of Megaman games, and the story is good in this sense: the gameplay doesn’t depend on it at all, but it motivates gameplay elements. In a way, it’s an Excuse Plot.

  2. keithburgun 09/08/2011 - 10:48 pm Reply

    “The thing is that we *need* stories to make the game compelling, in many cases.”

    Yeah, in cases where the game itself isn’t good. Which is MOST of the cases these days, granted, but that’s precisely *because* developers aren’t looking at game development through this lens.

    The Brawl story mode would have been made WAY better and way more re-playable if it was not a “level 1, level 2, level 3″ approach but instead offered different, randomized challenges each time you played. So yes, it could have been better without the story-monkey on its back. As you say, it’s a terrible story, and all it does is lock the single player into a format that makes it less replayable.

    Megaman (at least the old ones) are a good example of story not really getting in the way of the gameplay at all. If you were to take away the story from Megaman, it would be just as good a game, because it’s built around the gameplay.

  3. Alexei Andreev 09/09/2011 - 7:14 pm Reply

    I can’t believe you referenced James Pond II! I didn’t know anyone but me knew of that game! :)

    • keithburgun 09/09/2011 - 7:19 pm Reply

      Heh, yep. Remember the music? They had this weird rip-off version of the Robocop theme. I always found that so strange. A very strange game…

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  6. vault101 02/06/2012 - 8:53 pm Reply

    you know why I play so many games thease days? Bioshock, that game was amazing

    amazing because of its story and atmosphere..a game doesnt only have to be a game, it can be an experience

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  9. Clarissa 03/01/2012 - 9:54 pm Reply

    You are right. I agree. But I also disagree.

    While games may hurt stories and stories may hurt games, I find it hard to deny that games can be used to tell stories. Humans tell stories by many means, using the different media we have available, so it would be natural if games were used to tell stories. While this is something that exists only to make games superior, well, I would like to believe otherwise, but unfortunately, for some people texts without narrative tend to be seen as inferior. Poor abstract art.
    Some people tend to say that games do not have great stories. I believe that this is said based on previous perspectives of good story these people have, certainly based on stories seen in previous media, that is why. You can say games hurt stories, but I am not sure if FFVII would be so enjoyable for me if it was as movie, or a book. The story is hurt, the game is hurt, but it gave me treasured narrative experience. We can say games hurt stories because we have an opinion about good stories that generally come from elsewhere. Instead of thinking in this hurt-hurt relationship, I simply think that stories conveyed in games are like that. And that is it: that is the way stories are conveyed in games and this way is not inferior to any other. The games are what they are, and they tell stories the way they tell stories. And that way is more than enough to motivate me to play, because amazingly, this way of storytelling is the one that most pleases me, personally.

    • keithburgun 03/02/2012 - 12:52 am Reply

      See, I’m not saying you can’t end up with something good at the end of the day, but I am saying that both the game and the story are hurt from the marriage.

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  13. Tabby 05/15/2012 - 1:01 pm Reply

    I understand your point of view and I certainly agree that the stories in games are necessarily less complex than stories in more linear forms of media.

    Yet, I still find myself resisting the opposite argument (that stories bring games down). For me, games are not about experiencing rulesets or mechanics. They’re about having an experience – preferably a deeply emotional experience. Isn’t this what most humans seek in life? For some games (like team sports, board games), the experience/emotional attachment is generated via the social aspect – you are playing with other people. And yes, some games like crosswords, puzzles,chess, etc are about experiencing mastery and control of a ruleset. But video games are pretty ideal for creating intensely visual and emotional experiences akin to reading a novel/watching a movie, but with the (at least feeling of) mastery and control that we crave in life.

    I don’t necessarily think that a lot of games have gotten it “right” yet.. but I’m personally not bothered by the game mechanics suffering in order to deliver a more memorable experience to the player. After all, if we remember a game (or any other experience) fondly, isn’t that all that matters in the end?

    • keithburgun 05/15/2012 - 1:12 pm Reply

      “Experience” is too broad a term to be useful. What *isn’t* an experience?

      People like all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons. I am specifically focused on understanding one type of system – the game. And I don’t mean “game” in the common sense (any amusement or pastime), I mean a more specific thing: a contest of ambiguous decision-making. For these, stories only hurt.

  14. zipdrive 05/22/2012 - 8:39 am Reply

    What a narrow-minded, egotistical view! I don’t know where to begin.

    While you’re entitled to your own opinion,

    Calling a game “just a bunch of rules” is like calling a novel “just a bunch of sentences” – technically true, but missing the point. Games are something we do, usually (but not always) for fun, and contain a vast spectrum of possibilities, much of which you’re so offhandedly jettisoning.

    You say the combination of gameplay and story necessarily detracts from both – prove it! What are you basing this on? Just a hunch?
    Taking a look at portal 2, for example, will you tell me this game would have been definitely better as a novel, or as an abstract set of puzzles? If you think that it’s so, I think there’s an uncrossable gulf between us…but unlike you, I don’t presume to tell you what you should be doing.
    Who are you to say the narrative-less Tetris is “a better game” than the narrative-heavy Dragon Age?

    If I were to use your logic ,we would have music, theater and photographs, but never movies, as they are, perhaps an impure cross-breed.

    You’re also contradicting yourself multiple times, like saying “The only way to have a great game is to focus on nothing but having great gameplay” and then admitting you’ve put in story in Auro – can’t you put your money where your mouth is? Have you decided not to make a great game?

    Stories speak to (most) people. They make me care about playing when there is no external reason to. While I prefer to play sports rather than watch them, I’d never say something like “stop recording matches, they make a set of interesting rules and decisions into a bad movie!” – which is like what you say.

    Get off your high horse (like you started back-paddling in the “clarification” segment) and if you mean for people to “start judging them by their own metrics” just say so and not “stories are hurting digital games”.

    Why stop at digital, anyway? How come you say that in D&D combining story and game is OK, but that PS:T would have been better as a novel? It’s just a bunch of words you’re throwing up there with no justification.

    I think Mass Effect 2 is an awesome piece of entertainment (or art, as one may say) and I’ve never once played a game of chess, space invaders or dominion which I’ve enjoyed more. It’s also entertained me in a totally different way than A Game of Thrones or Ender’s Game. Who are you to advocate devlopers walk away from making such epics?

    • keithburgun 05/22/2012 - 9:09 am Reply

      A novel is a bunch of sentences in precisely the same way that a game is a bunch of rules. Of course, both add up to something much more, if the rules/sentences are put together well.

      >You say the combination of gameplay and story necessarily detracts from both – prove it! What are you basing this on? Just a hunch?

      I’m sorry… did you read the article? There are several arguments that I make in the article that attempt to prove this point.

      Portal (2 for some reason?) is a puzzle, not a game. Puzzles are meant to really be executed once and then be finished with (solved), so it makes a little more sense to combine puzzles and story. I have no problem with Portal.

      >Who are you to say the narrative-less Tetris is “a better game” than the narrative-heavy Dragon Age?

      I don’t think even most Dragon Age fans who know a thing or two about Tetris would try to claim otherwise. Tetris is quite obviously one of the greatest digital games ever created. People still play Tetris now, 20 years on. Anyone going to be playing Dragon Age in 10 years? Or, honestly, is anyone playing Dragon Age now, even?

      We’ve put a story into the tutorial mode for Auro, which makes sense I think, since people usually don’t do a tutorial more than once. The real game itself has no story.

      >Stories speak to (most) people.

      Don’t think for a second that I don’t love stories! I really, really love stories a lot. It’s just that I think stories are at their best when they aren’t hampered by interactivity.

      Story does hurt non-digital games too, just as much. D&D is just such a gigantic mess that it’s less apparent how story really “hurts” it – there isn’t as much to “hurt” there anyway.

      >Who are you to advocate devlopers walk away from making such epics?

      Are you saying that I need to have some kind of authority to state my opinion about what I think game developers should do?

      • You Really Don’t Get It 10/10/2013 - 8:27 pm Reply

        “Currently, the blanket term “video games” is clouding people’s vision of what a “game” is so much that it’s making it very difficult for those of us who really just like games to find what we’re looking for.”

        What people? who is “us?” I know what a game is, the rest of the world knows and accepts what a game is, you seem to think there is some problem here and that the rest of us are wrong, without offering anything more than opinion to “prove” otherwise.

        You are the one who doesn’t seem to understand much of anything, and instead of trying to understand what it is that you are missing, you assume it’s wrong, everyone else is wrong, and everything is suffering for it.

        How you can even think, let alone publicly admit, that anything could’ve been better without some of the things that make it what it is, is beyond any known or yet to be discovered form of logic. You berate successful games, and yes Portal and it’s sequel are both in fact games whether you like it or not, because they chose to offer a little something more than what you think is this okay to include in a game. You think they’d be much better as novels? Okay, you are allowed to have your OPINIONS. But the actual facts say millions of people love Portal for everything it has, including story.

        You want to constrict the definitions of words to fit your desires and arrogance without knowing the actual definition of these words. Video games are those things you buy in stores in the “Video Game” section, because that’s what they are. Your idea of what a true game is and should be is just that, YOUR IDEA, and it goes against the ideas of the ones who created this industry in the first place. Next you’ll want to say Ford did everything wrong and cars need to be defined in a way that you’re okay with, otherwise they’re not cars at all. SUVs are not cars, they have to go. Radios are not cars, so take them out.

        Slow down Hitler, this world was not made for you to take control of with your blatant ignorance and closed minded views. You can keep your opinions, but please, keep them to yourself. The world and the entire video game industry would appreciate it if you stopped speaking for all of us. We understand that it is our choice to do things the way we want because we want to, we don’t need your keep. In your efforts to educate us, you are only showing us there is no reason at all to listen to anything you have to say.

        And please, don’t bother responding. Just like you, I can predict the future, and you are not a part of mine. I really hope at least some of this gets through to you, but it won’t You’ll say I’m wrong, you’ll say I’m attacking you, that I didn’t read the article, and so on, whatever it takes to help you sleep at night. I honestly don’t care. I only game about the games, and anything I can do to stop you from trying to destroy them.

        TL;DR? Go away Hitler, we don’t need or want you in this industry.

        • I Don’t Care 10/10/2013 - 8:31 pm Reply

          Also this: “Puzzles are meant to really be executed once and then be finished with (solved).” So when I buy an actual puzzle, you know those pictures printed on cardboard and cut into several interlocking pieces? Once I solve it the first time, it’s meant to be thrown away? That’s it, it served it’s purpose, it is now completely meaningless.

          If you don’t understand the sarcastic logic in that and can’t see just how closed minded and ignorant you truly are, then there is no hope for you and you deserve the sad, lonely existence headed your way.

          • Keith Burgun 10/11/2013 - 1:00 am Reply

            Whoa, you kind of typed a counter-argument there! That’s good! You will get better results by doing more of that in the future, I think.

            My answer is that the jigsaw puzzle is so long and complicated that it regains its value when the user forgets about the solution. I also think there’s more at work here though with jigsaw puzzles… I think that jigsaw puzzles almost have an execution element to them: “*can* you identify the right piece among this huge pile of pieces”. So even if you KNOW the exact piece you need, with a 1000 piece puzzle it’s still often hard to even locate it. So that’s more of a contest, I guess I’d say – can you find the piece before you run out of patience?

            I appreciate the thought-provoking point, I’ll definitely have to think more about the case of jigsaw puzzles and how they really work.

        • Keith Burgun 10/11/2013 - 1:05 am Reply

          I think if you ask around, you’ll find that there is actually MUCH disagreement already about the word “game” – not to mention the fact that there are at least a dozen relevant definitions in the dictionary. I am not at all the only person of my ilk that has a specialized working definition.

          And just so you know – Portal *is* absolutely a game, by the colloquial definition, which is the one you’re using. I also have a specialist, prescriptive definition that helps me understand interactive systems.

          >>How you can even think, let alone publicly admit, that anything could’ve
          been better without some of the things that make it what it is

          This is just anti-progress talk. Are you saying that everything that has ever been made was perfect? If not, then of course some things could have been better without some of their qualities – most notably, their bad qualities!

          >>Video games are those things you buy in stores in the “Video Game” section, because that’s what they are.

          And I don’t object to that. That definition is useful for most people. However, it’s really not very useful for game designers or others who want to understand the nature of interactive systems on a deeper level.

          PS. Why “Hitler”?

  15. Shark Jacobs 05/24/2012 - 3:55 am Reply

    I basically agree with what you’ve written but I disagree with a couple things though and would like to know what you think.

    There are a lot of uninspired stories in porn and pro wrestling but that doesn’t mean that it is impossible to tell a compelling narrative within the structure and with the requirements of each. Limitations don’t preclude great art. I’ve never seen it but that doesn’t mean that somewhere out there, there isn’t a porno auteur creating his masterpiece, an emotionally meaningful work rife with subtext which will change the way you understand love and physical intimacy.

    Film and novels are even worse than games for being understood as forms of narrative rather than “on their own terms”. A few outliers like Finnegan’s Wake or avant gard and experimental films exist but they are far more anomalous and have far less influence on “mainstream” prose and film than is the case with non-narrative games.
    If games are seen primarily as narrative vehicles it is because many more people understand much better the value of narratives than they do the value of arbitrary ambiguous interactive systems.

    Finally, I do not agree that novels and films are better or more pure narrative mediums and should be used at the exclusion of videogames. If this logic was correct we would probably stop making films too and just stick to novels, since prose is the best and purest form of narrative.
    But we can incorporate other elements with our prose without detracting from the story. Comic books add colourful pictures, radio plays add sound effects, films add both visual and audio elements. These things can also be great on their own, without stories but if they can be created specifically to support and even improve a narrative then why can’t interactive ambiguous systems be created to complement a narrative?

  16. Dinofarm Games » On “Indie Game: The Movie”
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  19. DBSharpy 12/05/2012 - 12:04 am Reply

    Hello! I’ve been following Aero’s progress for a few months, mostly attracted by the various posts about spriting. I’ve wanted to write a proper response to this post, so I did as much here.

    http://superfxtwochip.dbsharpy.com/post/37241858009/lone-wanderer-on-tallon-iv-an-example-where-games-and

    Here is my rebuttal!

    • keithburgun 12/05/2012 - 12:54 am Reply

      Hey! Thanks for the great response. The major divide here is that all of the examples you’ve listed fit into my definition of “puzzle”, not “game”. Of course, they are all games by the colloquial definition. I have a breakdown of interactive systems that’s more specific and clear. You can read about it at Gamasutra:

      http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/167418/what_makes_a_game.php

      Anyway, puzzles aren’t at all hurt by stories. Stories and puzzles go pretty well together, since they’re both linear and completion/solution based.

      Also – the game is called Auro! Just so you know.

  20. McDuder 08/17/2013 - 11:04 am Reply

    Mechanics and processing can enact story; interactions and progression through playing can form a coherent narrative.

    It’s a matter of priorities, some developers tend to focus less on mechanical intricacies and commit to storytelling, others try blending the two, some only care for mechanics and abstractions.

    Games tell a narrative, there are more then enough games that do so, by that very nature games are stories and stories are games. The reality is games are a cosmopolitan form of media and what constitutes as a ‘good’ story in a traditional sense may not translate to a media form with different properties, namely realtime computing. Sometimes they do.

    Whatever you’re categorising as ‘better’, ‘fundamental’ or ‘good’ speaks primarily to your own values; what is clearly defined at the end of the day is that games have storytelling ambitions and do tells stories, even if there’s many that have entirely different values.

    If you’re talking about a form of media that’s a convergence of pre-existing media, namely games, than traditional understandings are going to change. People like Walter Benjamin rattled on about this in the 1930s about photography and film and it’s the same case now. Our understanding of media is in a constant state of flux as technology evolves. Videogames are entirely subject to this, sure the naming conventions can suck but we don’t choose the popular lexicon just like we don’t choose how the form evolves and shapes itself. We don’t choose what it is, we can interpret it however and more often than not understanding change means being inclusive.

    Either way it’s an interesting post of yours and hell, I didn’t know about your game and I’m interested in checking it out now!

  21. Austin 11/18/2013 - 1:07 pm Reply

    I’m a little confused. You write an article about stories in video games but you use almost no video game examples. Could you provide examples where the story “hurt” the gameplay? I bet for every game you can name, I can name five that the story actually helped. And you can name just generally crappy games, they have to be of quality, like Uncharted, or Bioshock, ect.

    What response do you give to the greatest game (most popular opinion) of all time: The Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time? Do you think it would be better without a story?

    • Keith Burgun 11/18/2013 - 2:46 pm Reply

      Hi Austin.

      Ya sure so, let’s take Bioshock, or Half Life 2. Basically when stuff is tied to a story, it has to follow a mostly linear progression, which turns the game into kind of an asset tour rather than a system of rules.

      Actually, to really explain this, I need to describe what I mean there by “systems”. Which, luckily, I just did at the PRACTICE conference! That video will be up soon.

      Also, this article is a couple of years old. I plan to write a new article on stories for keithburgun.net.

      Anyway to just hit up your question quickly… I think we need to figure out some real criteria for judging interactivity. I have some criteria which is “are the interactions interesting or not”, do you have to make interesting choices. I would say for OOT, that game actually fails hard by that metric. And yes I think it being tied to story has a lot to do with that. The original Zelda I consider to be a much better game. Tevis Thompson writes a good article touching upon why: http://tevisthompson.com/saving-zelda/

      • Austin 11/20/2013 - 2:07 pm Reply

        But do you honestly believe that the cut scene where Gannondorf chases Zelda away from the castle hurts the gameplay? I believe if the game didn’t have a story then the dungeons would be mindless tasks with no real reward. and the original Zelda had a story.

        But as for Bioshock, the game has only one instance during the whole thing, except the end, in which control is taken away from the player. and that is when Ryan “controls” you. it fit perfectly with the story and used the gameplay to tell it. That is the opposite of hurting.

        and as for the fact stories are linear: I believe that’s absolutely fine. I prefer that my games have a linear story, unlike Mass Effect, (but i really enjoyed that game, and it’s story.) I want to take on the life of someone else. Like most resonantly I’ve been playing Batman Arkham Origins, and I love being Batman, the game play wouldn’t be as good taken out of context, there wouldn’t be the same satisfaction as taking on 20 guys as Batman, and you can’t have a Batman game without a story.

        I’m also curious, have you played Legend of Zelda Majora’s Mask?

        And thanks for responding, I realize this article is pretty old. I would like to continue debating this with you if you don’t mind.

        • Austin 11/20/2013 - 2:14 pm Reply

          Also have you played Journey, for the ps3?

        • Keith Burgun 11/20/2013 - 2:21 pm Reply

          It’s not as simple as “that one scene hurts Zelda”, it’s that the fact that the game is put into a non-randomized, linear structure, for the sake of story, absolutely hurts gameplay. A single player game needs to have randomization to avoid allowing memory to take over where decisions once existed.

          >>I believe if the game didn’t have a story then the dungeons would be mindless tasks with no real reward.

          Well, you said it – Zelda *is* a series of mindless tasks. Basically, Zelda can be likened to an advent calendar. Go through the thing, eat all the chocolates(watch the cutscenes), and throw the rest in the garbage. I advocate for interactive systems that have their own value, that have strong, interesting interactivity for years, which is impossible if you’re tying it to a linear pre-authored story.

          >>the game has only one instance during the whole thing, except the end, in which control is taken away from the player.

          Yeah, but I also count the fact that the entire game is like COMPLETELY linear as at least partially due to being tied to the narrative structure. Bioshock is essentially one long corridor you run down.

          I have played Majora’s Mask. I haven’t played Journey, but I’ve watched gameplay videos and a talk by the designer.

          • Austin 11/20/2013 - 2:51 pm Reply

            You should really play Journey, one of the best games ever made and not a single word was ever said.

            But as for OoT, the reward was saving the day, returning lake Hylia back to its restored glory, defeating the boss and saving the tribe. I’ve played almost all of them and they are on of my favorite series ever. And its not because of the interesting dungeons or settings, its because they do something different each game yet something the same, such as wind waker, another amazing game.

            But Bioshock. Yeah the map structure can be pretty linear, except some places where there is a lot of exploring/backtracking/running around figuring out where to go. The actual details of the setting and the completely diverse gameplay, actual gameplay, is what makes the game “non linear.” especially the part where you take one of the antidotes and your plasmids start cycling through. That encourages all sorts of divers gameplay, people can play that game in completely different ways, and i really like the story, they just throw that statement in your face the whole game without you realizing then pull out the surprise.

            I can’t really talk to you about journey because you should go play it, it is the perfect example of how video game stories can be used and told to make amazing things. absolutely amazing.

            But I agree with you that a lot of games have stories that hurt their games, but I just think they are doing something wrong. I can’t name a single game that I’ve played and liked where I wished there wasn’t a story. I just have a lot of good example, but don’t want to write too much, games like: ICO Shadow of the Colossus, MGS series, Final Fantasy series, and so many others, I can go on forever with a list like this in which the games have amazing stories and gameplay that do not hurt each other.

  22. keithburgun 09/08/2011 - 8:35 pm Reply

    Dear Mr. Enlargement Pills,

    Begin the debate. What do you disagree with?

  23. Inrideo 09/09/2011 - 2:46 am Reply

    you realize you were just called out by a random cut and paste penis enlargement spam post?

  24. keithburgun 09/09/2011 - 3:34 am Reply

    Ha. So I was. So I was…

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