GCDC: Stories Vs. Games

GCDC provides another interesting debate, this time on the subject of story in games. Specifically, that games shouldn’t even try to make them more complex, as they’re simply no good at it. Say the writers of stories in games.

Find her. Save her.

Bethesda’s Ken Rolston and adventure veteran (and man responsible for the frattish Spellcasting series in the early 90s), Bob Bates, both agreed that, “our inability to pay off on all the choices that there should be available. It’s so difficult to make a genuinely complex dramatic choice,” in the words of Rolston. Which is, essentially, an argument against non-linearity in games. Which I strongly argue is a good thing.

In the world of storytelling, non-linearity has only ever existed as a novelty, perhaps a choose-your-own-adventure, or idiotic stunt on the BBC to let viewers call in and “decide” what happens next. But books, television and film have always survived rather well without letting the consumer dictate the story for them. Frankly, if you’ve got a story worth telling, the last thing you should be doing is letting anyone else get in the way. Games find themselves in a more awkward position, as progression becomes rather dependent on the player interacting in some way. And for most elements of a game, from killing to constructing, this interaction is necessary. But leave the story in the hands of the storyteller.

As Barthes would argue, we’ve got plenty of room for uniquely interpreting and the deriving meaning from a text, without the text allowing us to physically manipulate it. If we’re to be told a story worth hearing, it’s ending (or in rare cases its novelty multiple endings – having five completely valid endings to your story, and letting the player pick, is a clever move. So long as you really do have that many valid endings, which is rarely the case) needs to be set in stone from the start. It’s exciting to see developers responsible for storytelling openly recognising this, rather than the more familiar fanciful boasts of futuristic games where the infinite possibilities for a story can lay in the hands of the player. Because players would tell rubbish stories, compared to those of great writers.

However, things go a bit more wonky when Bates replies, “As an author of a story you have to push a character into doing things it wouldn’t want to do in order to grow the character. As a game designer it’s not fair to make the player have to do that.” Here my heart sinks.

Bates is quite the authority on storytelling.

This is precisely what a game can and should be doing. Replaying The Longest Journey after a number of years, it strikes me again how strongly the main character, April Ryan, grows as a character through the adversity the game forces you to experience. Your interaction is in finding the means of turning the page, but the contents of the following pages are not yours to control. And in this particular case, especially with the continuing story in Dreamfall, April is put into circumstances that both you as a player and she as a character desperately wish for anything but. Because this grows her, and in turn you, as a character. And TLJ is not unique in this.

To recognise the limitations of a narrative within interaction fiction is very wise. To impose further limitations on narrative because it is within interactive fiction is devastating. If there is a valid risk to be taken in gaming today, it’s to let the player not be a hero for once.


  1. JP says:

    The first question that always comes to mind for me when a designer rhapsodizes about the awesomeness of total authorial control (you know, that thing creators have been doing in other media for centuries) is “what does the player actually get to do?” Walker identifies this pretty clearly: “finding the means of turning the page”.

    What I’m wondering is how much value this really adds to the non-game bits. If I had to watch Citizen Kane via a projector that operated by a hand crank, I think the work would suffer if anything. Yes, I’m technically responsible for “turning the pages”. The problem is that designers who take this tack are frequently not very honest with themselves about how much they really care about what’s unique to the medium they’re working in, ie whether they might be better off just making a movie, writing a novel, drawing a comic, etc.

    There are plenty of reasons adventure games are no longer dominant, and one of them is certainly that in all but the very best ones, the player gets to play the most pedestrian, least involving role possible in the unfolding of the (only sometimes) awesomely amazingly epic storyline.

  2. Turin Turambar says:

    “Frankly, if you’ve got a story worth telling, the last thing you should be doing is letting anyone else get in the way.”

    If you want to tell a orthodox story, your story, don’t make a game, where the main point is interactivity and the decision power of the player. And i played my fair share of excellent games with great story.

    But i also played games like Dreamfall which would be really better in another medium, like a novel.

    Have you played a pen & pager RPG? I will suppose you have played. One of the old and true hints for GMs is to not try to tell your pet story, a good story in a RPG is instead created with the correct collaboration and interaction between the GM and the players. And i think it’s a valid point also for game designers.

  3. Kieron Gillen says:

    There’s a quote which Greg Costikyan lobbed out on his Revolution blog which argued that – in RPGs – that “story” was an epiphenomenon of the setting. Which struck me as basically true, and certainly something to bear in mind with games.


  4. JP says:

    On the other hand I definitely agree with the Legend guys that throwing nonlinearity into a story just to make it “interactive” is a great way to screw up both the story and the interactivity. The most commonly suggested form of “interactivizing” a story is to add branches, which is actually really poor from an effort-to-payoff standpoint – you gain only an illusion of dynamism at best, and you’ve probably had to create a lot more content to support it.

    What I’ve found works best is having a ludic layer that can stand on its own, with a fiction that weaves in and out of it to provide interesting context, explanation and flavor. You can play Shock2 or BioShock and completely ignore the logs and radios, and on the flip side you can think of the action in the game as just filler between juicy story bits. Different players want different things out of the experience and if it’s multilayered you can satisfy a larger part of the spectrum.

  5. John Walker says:

    I think there are innumerous ways to tell your story within a game. Half-Life 2 is an excellent example of having the environment provide your narrative, for instance.

    However, I think that which is unique among the games with the greatest stories (Deus Ex, Planescape Torment, TLJ, KotOR, and so on) is their stone-set nature. What each does so very brilliantly is tweak how you *experience* that story, which is why I firmly believe games are a valid medium for linear story. The key is to disguise that linearity. Deus Ex is perhaps the greatest example of this, where people live or die depending upon your decisions, but essentially, you’re being told the same story. You go to Hong Kong to rescue your brother, or recover your brother’s corpse – but you go to Hong Kong.

    Something like KotOR, where your behaviour dicates how the world responds to you, and your decisions toward the end decide how it will climax, are again clever, distracting decorations around a set story you’ll be told either way.

    This is really exciting – your behaviour changes how the story will be told to you, but not necessarily the story itself.

  6. Acosta says:

    I feel there is a need to split story from decisions: decisions are important and necessary as a way to keep the game always fresh and relevant; the better games for me are the ones when you feel your decisions are important. Sid Meier use today that a game is about decisions, and I believe he is right.

    Give the player the freedom he wants and need, let him develop his actions and character the ways he want and let him determine what type of character want to be inside your story, but your story, characters and universe must be fixed in stone, if not, just forget about the story and create some type of emergent universe where the content is generated by players and IA actions, S.T.A.L.K.E.R is a little but important step in that direction-.

  7. Zuffox says:

    Balls, how that went awry.

  8. Jonathan says:

    “In the world of storytelling, non-linearity has only ever existed as a novelty, perhaps a choose-your-own-adventure, or idiotic stunt on the BBC to let viewers call in and “decide” what happens next.”

    What about the original fairytales and folklore which were altered with each telling based on the audience and how they reacted? How about audience participation when improvising? How about chain writing where a fan would write the next chapter?

    I’m not saying any of it is any good but it still happens, happened and has will have going to happen.

  9. Kieron Gillen says:

    Jonathan: Oddly, Walker’s done exactly that particular take elsewhere, which makes me somewhat surprised to see he took this position here. Walker – how about reprinting that essay you did from The Book?


  10. Noel Wolfe says: