Musing about Great Stories

First, a brief linkage: yesterday, I wrote a post on It was supposed to be about what it’s like to live with a literary agent, but it really ended up being about what an agent’s job is like, from the point of view of a writer. People seem to like it a lot, which is kind of a happy surprise. Check it out.

A couple days ago, I blogged/reposted a comment I made about Games and Stories and Could One Be the Other and Other Big Questions Like That.

Today, not so much.


  • Chuck is already talking about that, and
    • I chimed in there (a number of times) and really can’t bear to repeat it all here (twice in the same week)
    • That “can games, which inherently have more than the author creating the end product/story, really produce Something of Meaning, if the creators didn’t really have final say in the end product?” question, while worthy and interesting, wearies me, because I’ve been having that discussion for about (checks game blog)… huh. Almost exactly six years ago, to the day. Interesting.  ANYWAY, it’s all good discussion that I’ll follow avidly, but after thinking about it this morning, I really can’t bear to get into all of that again personally.
  • While the “are games breaking into that high-level of story product” question is interesting, there’s something else I find more interesting. Here’s the quote that got me thinking about it.

Chuck: ME2 is […] a dumb story in a rich storyworld — a generic adventure amidst great characters, fascinating situations, and troubling moral quandaries.

Which got me thinking. (Obviously. I mean, here I am, thinking.) When Chuck talks about ME2’s dumb story, what he’s referring to is “the plot”. I infer this because he then mentions great character, situations, and quandries, so “plot” is about the only other story element left.

I want to make this clear: this post isn’t about/attacking/defending ME2 or Dragon Age or anything. I have a post I want to write for the game blog about those games, but I’m waiting until Kate’s done with ME2, and it’s much more about the games as games, hence the eventual location of the blog post. That’s not what this is about. Suffice it to say I enjoy games and move on.

I like some games more than others.
I like some games more than others.

It’s also not about taking apart Chuck’s statement. I feel like I’ve been picking at his stuff for the last couple days, and that makes me hate myself a little.

In this case, I’m quoting Chuck because he got me thinking about what stories are — what elements they must contain in order to be called a story, and how “concentrated” those elements have to be to be called a good story.

So. I just posed two questions.

One: what elements must a story contain in order to be called a story? I go back to that quote, above, and extract this list:

  • Plot
  • Characters
  • Situation/Setting
  • Quandaries

I’m sure I could google up some kind of official list of story elements that hundreds of literary experts agree on, but frankly I don’t care to; this list works for me. If you have a list you like better, use that one.

Two: How “concentrated” do those elements have to be to be called a good story?

Okay, in order to judge levels of ‘concentration’, we need some kind of rating system.

Hmm. I see where I’m going here. No. No, I don’t think I’m going to use the FUDGE rpg’s “ladder” to rate literature. The end result is going to sound like that horrible essay the kid reads near the beginning of Dead Poets Society. No.

(Even though it would totally work.)

So anyway, let’s just focus on the descriptive words.

“Man, the plot is piss-poor, but the characters, the quandries, and setting/situation? All great.”

Okay… so, looking at that, that’s three elements where the story is ‘great’, and the one where it’s ‘poor’.

Is it a great story at that point? Over all?

I think it is.


Okay, well, what if I told you that that quote above wasn’t Chuck talking about Mass Effect 2, but me talking about Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Road?

Because it totally is.

Great characters. Gut-punch quandaries. Very compelling setting/situation. Plot?


A guy and his kid walk from Point A to Point Z. They almost starve and almost freeze to death… about a half dozen times. I mean, I don’t mean to spoil the book for you, but… that’s the plot. The Road is (in my opinion) ALL in the characters and quandaries.

Or I can make it a little more personal: I’ve got a book out with an agent right now where, so far as the plot is concerned, nothing changes. The situation in terms of plot as it exists on page 3 remains completely unchanged at the end. The characters travel from point A to point Z. That’s it. I’m willing to mention this ‘weakness’ because, judged objectively, that doesn’t seem to fucking matter to anyone.

I’ve done seven full revisions on the story at this point, as requested by my agent, a publisher, and others, and not once did anyone say ‘this lack of plot kills it for me.’

You know what they ask for? Over and over? More stuff with the characters. More psyche delving.

So I have to wonder: if some of the elements are strong enough, does it matter if one of the others is weak? Or absent?

Or… dare I say it… unimportant?

Another example: I love reading Greg Rucka’s stories, in part because he writes really good yarns that I could never write myself, not in a thousand attempts. Densely packed international intrigue, these things, with double- and triple-crosses and international political ramifications you need the CIA Factbook to comprehend, let alone create.

I wouldn’t say moral quandaries are very important to the story, though. They’re there, but the characters don’t sit there and agonize over them. They might drink themselves into a coma about what they did later, but at the point of decision, they just pushed the button/flipped the switch/pulled the trigger and walked away.

Does that matter? Nnnnoo… actually, it’s a spy story; that’s sort of the point.

Slightly different example: Neal Stephenson and Dan Brown don’t hinge their (quite amazing) stories on great, deep characters. In my opinion.

Hell, neither does Tolkien. Compelling archetypes and “great characters” aren’t the same thing.

I’m not saying you couldn’t have a wonderful, amazing, mind-blowing story that really gets all these four elements up in the “great” range. Certainly you can.

But… certainly you must?

I don’t know. I’m still thinking about it. But I don’t think so.

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.

Equivalent to a 3000 word post. 3000+, even.

<a href=”” title=”Diaspora personal combat by DoyceT, on Flickr”><img src=”” width=”500″ height=”375″ alt=”Diaspora personal combat” /></a>
<a href=”” title=”Green Day by DoyceT, on Flickr”><img src=”” width=”375″ height=”500″ alt=”Green Day” /></a>
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I find myself with not enough time to do the things I need to do today… all that Farscape to watch and those video games to play.

Oh yeah, and work. That. I’m actually more jealously proprietary about my work time now than I was when I was in an office.

Anyway, some quick things on my mind. This is no Painting With Shotguns, but it’s all I’ve got.

How many spaces can I move, again?
How many spaces can I move, again?

This is a phonecam shot of last week’s Diaspora game. It was our second session, and since we’d done a “social combat” the session before, I aimed to introduce the personal combat mini-game this time. It was both awesome and kind of weird. I overdid it on the map — too many zones, meaning that it took too much time and effort to get around the damned base. Still, lots of interesting stuff happened as part of the fight.

It was a weirdly ‘classic game night’ for me, because (due to the crazy map), the fight took up pretty much the whole session. Echoes of DnD, that. Ahh well.

Tonight, we play again. Lasers. In. Spaaaaaace…

Green Day
Green Day

My blue-eyed, red-haired daughter has decided that St. Patrick’s Day ranks somewhere just below Christmas and Halloween as her favorite holiday. It might or might not beat out Easter — there’s no candy, but there is themed clothing.

I got those crocs for her, by the way, when she was… 2 and a half (bought them a little big, since they have an elastic heel strap), and they remain the only pair of children’s shoes I can justify spending 30 bucks on. I’ve considered retiring them a couple times, but they fall quite firmly within Kaylee’s “from my cold, dead feet” category.

I feel I should also add: I’m a really lucky dad.


Let’s not dignify this with the title ‘beard’. It barely qualifies, and is hardly anything remotely Wendigian in its grandeur, but hey, it’s been all of a week.

Tim calls this “vacation face”. I call it “freelancer face”. Kate, of all people, loves it, and in fact requested it as soon as she realized (with some audible glee) that I was under no current obligation to shave.

I don’t understand girls.

“Loving Father. Devoted Husband. Never really understood girls.”

A fitting epitaph.

What else?

In the past month, I’ve played through Mass Effect 1 once, and Mass Effect 2… four times. Normal paragon mode. Hardcore renegade and middle-of-the-road. Insanity paragon. Everyone lives, though not everyone remains loyal to me. I’m probably going to play it one more time, concurrent with Kate’s play-through.

Kate finished Mass Effect 1 last night, and spent the last two hours of play shouting “whoa!” and “wow!” and “Holy. Crap. Mind. Blown.” and “I’m so AWESOME.” and “This is the best. Game. Ever.”

Afterward, she bought the super-deluxe-digital-download version of ME2 (so she could watch the behind the scenes videos), investigated the purchase of Mass Effect-related novels, and (I daresay) will no longer mock my purchase of an N7 t-shirt. I’m very much looking forward to discussing the possibility of a Quarian/Geth peace accord with her, next month.  It’s good to share obsessions. We’re watching Season Four of Farscape together during lunch breaks.

Currently, I’m playing Dragon Age, just because I don’t want to admit to running through ME2 again, then I’m going to do the original BioShock (never finished it before my old machine crashed), finish Braid, and redo Mirror’s Edge and Portal, just because all my save games were lost when my old machine died. (And because I like them.)

But not today. Today I have a training script to write and a game to prep.