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.
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 judgment – Minecraft 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.
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).
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.