Stories within Games

“That,” Kate said, her face lit with a kind of bemused, awestruck, lopsided grin, “was the best damn movie I’ve seen in a long time.”

The context?

This was last week. She had just finished playing Mass Effect 1.

For pretty much as long as there have been computer games, people have debated their value, or worth, or effectiveness at storytelling. Zork. Myst.

Ugh. Why make up a list? Think of pretty much every ‘big’ game in the history of at-home video games, and someone probably brought up it’s effectiveness as a story medium. Once upon a time, the line between the one and the other were stark. Limitations within the medium were evident — sometimes even celebrated — and in a lot of ways, that was seen as a good thing.

That line has gotten pretty damned thin in the last couple years, and someone drew it in charcoal. That stuff smears, man… it’s indistinct.

Me and my bias

I do a lot of gaming of all kinds, but by and large my computer-based gaming for the last four years or so has been allocated to MMOs. MMOs are fine and good things – very enjoyable, if that’s the sort of thing you enjoy – but they’re really not what I’m talking about, here. In an MMO, there may be a main but largely irrelevant-to-daily-play story line (CoH), it might be a big sandbox (Eve Online), it might be a means to play around inside an Intellectual Property you like (Star Trek), or maybe a mix.  I play a lot of LotRO, and while I love the game, I don’t really think of myself as being a star in the story — at best, I’m playing through a good stage production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (complete with cyclical death), knowing that almost everyone will only ever remember Hamlet, if they’re aware of the story at all.

But in the last year or so, I’ve gotten back into some ‘solo’ games. Mirror’s Edge. Portal. Left4Dead.

And of course Mass Effect and (just recently) Dragon Age: Origins. Mirror’s Edge is quite something, and a good kind of mystery/action story, but it’s really these last two games that have got my brain bubbling about successful storytelling in games.

I mean, when asked, I told someone a few weeks ago that the Mass Effect series was one of the most enjoyable books I’d read in a long time. Kate’s quote is above. Clearly, these games aren’t either movies or books, and we know that, but we say it that way because that is the best language we had to convey the experience.

Consider that for a second: it was easier and it felt more accurate for us to say “that was a great movie” or “this is a great book” than it was to say “this is a great game” or even “a great game with a good story.”

So what’s going on?

I have no idea, really. I’m still thinking on this.

Games make Joe happy.
Games make us happy.

Chuck poked at this a couple times last week — a discussion I didn’t jump into because I was still playing through the games that I suspected might have been contributors to the brain-stew, so I’m getting to it late, but in it, he draws distinctions between books and movies as being passive entertainment, and games being more interactive and thus (I’m sort of interpreting/paraphrasing here, so apologies in advance if I misrepresent) more likely to dilute the story to the point of not being a story anymore.

In that post, regarding that passivity, Chuck said:

“Your only real options as the recipient of the [written/movie] story are: a) Keep listening (reading, watching), b) Quit, c) Change the pace of consumption.”

And my first thought was “Dude, I think I can find a post *you have written* that disagrees with that.”

I was too lazy to look for it then, but… well, I got unlazy.

A while back, I posted some thoughts about writing descriptions. Specifically, about acknowledging and utilizing the fact that the reader brings a lot of their own stuff into a story, and how to use  “less is more” with descriptions, so that the reader fills in their own stuff.

And someone commented:

My favorite thing about description is how a targeted absence of description can make something stronger. The reader will do work on behalf of the story — you never want them to do too much, but you want them to fill in enough blanks that they have ownership over it, mentally, and are as much a part of the fabric of the tale as you are.

Now, I’m not picking on Chuck — dude’s the hardest working band in rock-and-rock, as far as I’m concerned — I’m pointing out these contradictions to illustrate that even though we’ve had since Zork to puzzle this fucking question out, we still don’t have a handle on it.

All I can reliably assert it my own reaction.

“I don’t know if it’s story or not, but I don’t care too much. I’m willing to call it whatever is most useful to help get more of it.” – Rob Donoghue

Yes. A hundred times yes.

In the last… I dunno, month? I’ve played through Mass Effect 2 four times, and when the “end game” series of events starts, I never fail to find myself standing in the middle of my office, hopping up and down with excitement and cheering. It has been a long time since a movie got me feeling that good. Moreover, I have at least one other character I intend to play through the game (alongside, if not “with” Kate’s play through), and even then I know that, if I wanted, there are at MINIMUM five additional play-throughs I could do to get different end results (at least insofar as concern the characters in the story and how they “end up” at the end of the game.)

You get that last bit, though? It’s not so much the different ways the story could end — I’m a bit too much of a perfectionist to invest too heavily in one of the story outcomes where I completely fail, but I enjoy watching that conclusion on YouTube — but about what happens to the characters.

Last night I finished up my first play of Dragon Age. It’s a different kind of story — one that doesn’t leave my jumping up and down and cheering at the end, but still impacts me profoundly. In fact, I have no doubt it affected my mood for several days this week, leading up to the end, as I started to see and suspect where things were going; there are endings which are ‘better’ or ‘worse’, but none I’d wholeheartedly embrace as “flawless victory” — no matter what, best case scenario, you’re going to lose friends in the worst possible way: by driving them away from you.

I don’t think of myself as a particularly mercurial or unstable person, but I like my media experiences to engender some kind of emotional response, so while the decisions I have to make therein make me pull at my hair, I still kinda love it.

And, of course, as soon as I was done, I flipped open a new character and got the ball rolling to play it all again, but this time different.

Maybe that’s it.

When I was a kid, I remember reading Tolkien for the first time. I plowed through that epic fucking landmass of a story and, when I was done, slumped about for days because… well… the story was over, and I didn’t want it to be.

So I went back and read the books again. (And again, and again, and again. Fifteen times, before I was 20, I think. I believe it’s the desire for ‘more of that’ that led to so many very successful (if not actually, you know, good) Tolkien-esque fantasy series over the years.)

I haven’t done that with a book in a long time. I have done that somewhat more recently with movies, but it’s still not frequent.

But… man. ME2? Yeah. Dragon Age? Yep.

I mean…

What if you could read Tolkien again and have it be a little different every time?

  • … this read through, Boromir and Gimli both died, and Legolas talked Aragorn into leading Lothlorien troops against Dol Guldor, then taking the whole army down to Gondor? Rohan never even comes up.
  • … the next time, Aragorn picks the reality of Eowyn over the dream of Arwen. Legolas dies at Helm’s Deep.
  • … the next time, Aragorn picks Legolas, and Sam finally gets Mr. Frodo to see what all the hand kissing was about.
  • … Frodo dies on the way. Sam carries on, fights with Gollum and they both fall into the lava.
  • Sauron wins.

I think about what someone writing that kind of story has to be prepared to write — not just a story, but (in a way) ‘every’ story, and I’m impressed as hell.

So, if I judge a game strictly by my own personal emotional response — whether or not I have been given a story in my head to mull over and think about and ponder — then I thing yeah, the games these days are stories. Sooth. We have a whole new medium in which to enjoy a good yarn.

If I judge it by whether or not there is real story-creation going on on the part of the person/people creating the thing, then yes. Many times, yes. There’s something new going on here. Something different.

As a writer, that’s pretty damned exciting.

7 Replies to “Stories within Games”

  1. I think we’re going to have to agree to disagree on this one. :)

    See, I don’t think what I said is contradictory. Storytelling remains passive, even if the internal world (my mind) is active. No matter how much I fantasize, no matter how many details I create in my mind, I have not changed the story. Not one whit. Lord of the Rings? Still the same story no matter what I think about it. Mass Effect? Different story every time. Even a game with “one story” (say, Grim Fandango, to go old school) changes a little bit in the playing.

    To comment on the other stuff, I’ll just pull my commented response from terribleminds —

    ‘I think we’re going to have to disagree — or, at least, agree that we’re coming at this issue from two different angles. Mass Effect 2 is a game I liked a lot. I don’t know that it’s a story I liked a lot, though — in fact, it’s overall story is largely incomprehensible or silly, so generic I can barely commit much attention to it. And part of me wonders if that’s a necessary thing. What you describe — “Great action movie!” “Cheering and shouting!” are not the earmarks of a good story. They’re marks of a good experience. And ME2 is very much that. It’s a great experience. And it takes special crafting to come up with that level of experience. It’s a dumb story in a rich storyworld — a generic adventure amidst great characters, fascinating situations, and troubling moral quandaries.

    And, to be clear, I don’t consider that a bad thing.

    Now, when you talk about options — Frodo dies, Sauron wins, Eowyn falls down a well and is eaten by piranha — that’s great, and that’s part of the consideration that a *game* designer needs to think about. It’s a different toolset. Hell, it’s a different mindset.

    But, but, but! Tolkien probably would’ve shot himself if he thought that’s what people wanted from his story. A well-crafted story makes all the elements as they happen critical to the piece. Frodo making it all the way is important to the story. Aragorn’s choices matter. They all matter. Everything matters. But in a story where everything is *optional* then nothing can matter, not from the creator-driven, author-described experience.

    That’s a very big difference. It puts a lot of power in the player’s hands, and takes a lot of power away from the author. And *that’s okay* — but it’s an important realization on the road toward creating good game stories.’

    — c.
    .-= Chuck´s last blog ..Painting With Shotguns XVIII =-.

  2. I don’t know if we’re disagreeing so much as talking about slightly different things, because when I read what you’re saying here, I do totally agree.

    They’re different animals, these stories and games, but they can accomplish some/a lot of the same tasks, in different ways, and using different methods to get them to perform? Something like that? Maybe?

    It’s still kind of exciting to think about, from the creation side of things.

  3. Ultimately, that’s all I’m saying. You rely on the old tools and the standard structure(s) of storytelling, you’re going to create a staid, unengaging game even if the *story itself* is good.

    Games, then, might be less about the story and more about the experience — some alchemical combination of situation, character, dialogue. Similar parts, but different arrangement, different measurements of significance.

    — c.
    .-= Chuck´s last blog ..Painting With Shotguns XVIII =-.

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