With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog!
Those who know me much will might be slightly astonished to see my name under that title. I’m a narrativist through and through, and always have been; the game experiences I love the most are consistently from story-driven games, even if they are gameplay experiences. That’s why games with a lot of story are the kind of games I like to play, the kind I like to talk about, and the kind that I most enjoy making.
Today two Gamasutra articles caught my eye, both of such a similar nature that it almost feels like there’s method to it. The first was a snippet from an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto himself, in which the Mario creator observed that if a game (in this case, Paper Mario: Sticker Star) was fine without much story, it doesn’t need one.
The second was a similarly pro-gameplay sentiment from Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment. He notes that the storytelling style employed in one of his most-lauded titles, Planescape: Torment, is not the best style for games (though better wasn’t possible at the time). Sometimes game trumps storytelling.
These are things I agree with.
The story vs. gameplay debate really lights fires under some designers and writers, and hybrids thereof. I’ve seen it ignite arguments that devolve into flame wars amongst people who I’m sure are quite intelligent and reasonable when they aren’t on the internet. These tend to feature the extremists on either side, I think, as many such debates do. The game side arguing that nobody cares about story and character and it’s all a waste of time (a stance that cannot logically live in a world with the Mass Effect phenomenon, the huge sales of Heavy Rain, or the fact that people still talk about that time when Sephiroth killed Aeris). The story side tends to disparage the repetitiveness of some games (and genres; but I don’t think anyone actually denies this exists) and be of the mind that if only the stories were good enough everyone would see the light (which both denies the happy existence of the deathmatch gamer and the fact that the lion’s share of game stories are shit). I try to stay out of this. I don’t always succeed.
So here, really, for real, is where I stand: games don’t need much story. Story is nice to have. It’s extra. It’s icing on the cake. But it isn’t necessary.
Now, don’t mistake this for games needing no story or for story being unimportant. A lot of games need a very light story, as Miyamoto acknowledges; Mario has always had a story, it’s just been very simple. Mario’s story gives the player an objective, a reason to be doing things. That context does, I think, tend to attract people more than saying, “It’s this game where you jump on or over things and sometimes throw fireballs” – at least if those people have no idea who Mario is.
The second fallacy – that story is unimportant – is one that too many people in the industry seem to hold, though I don’t necessarily mean designers or anyone else involved in making the game. The unfortunate state of things is that often game stories are tacked on late, after much of the game is completed – “Here’s a game, make a story for it” – as if the story really has no particular importance. I would like to think it was obvious that this is a foolish approach. If you’re putting off giving your game a story until the end of development, you should probably take the Mario approach: kidnap a princess, put her in a castle, and hope your game is actually good enough that nobody will want more. Miyamoto’s almost always are, so he can get away with it.
Which is to say, if you’re going to bother to try to capture the “story players” that look for narrative as part of their experience, it at least needs to be done with the same quality and care as the rest of the product. Games like Call of Duty and Mass Effect have popularized the idea that games need story, and that’s fallacious; story can add to a game, but it can also take away. I have played mediocre games because I wanted to see how their story turned out; I have dropped good games because the story was just that bad. The thing that Call of Duty and Mass Effect tend to achieve is that their stories are engaging, exciting, and well-told – certainly relative to other game stories. They don’t succeed because the story exists; they succeed because their stories are good.
Stories in games do not spell the extinction of gameplay. Gameplay should remain the most important thing in games. I think story-driven games like Heavy Rain will eventually branch off into a subgenre that probably will diverge further from “games” as we go. These are parts of a whole, and there is a market for heavy focus on each.
I’m glad to see some discussion from a few giants in the field that can amount to: “Story has a place. Know how and when to use it.”
Because, who knows? If you do, maybe they’ll see the light.
“I think story-driven games like Heavy Rain will eventually branch off into a subgenre that probably will diverge further from “games” as we go. These are parts of a whole, and there is a market for heavy focus on each.”
Divergence for story games can only go so far. Interactivity is the advantage that games have over every other storytelling medium – the simple act of directing a character involves you in the story in a way that you can’t get from film, television, or the written word (although reading involves you in an entirely different way – by forcing you to use your own mind to turn words into images and voices and feelings, but that’s another matter entirely). Go too far cutting down gameplay and you make the player into a passive watcher or reader, which robs you of the entire reason to tell your story as a game in the first place. You’re left with a dead end.
I think it can only go so far and still be a game in some way, but I do not think that that is a “dead end”. “Interactive” and “game” do not necessarily go hand in hand – some would argue that titles like Heavy Rain are already not really games (though I still would call it one).
I’m thinking less of things that are still “games” in some sense and more of things that take game-like components and possibly mix them around with other interactive components, things like hypertext and so on – I think they’ll diverge, and I think a lot of them won’t be games but will still be something quite different from a movie or a book. Games may just be in their DNA.
Well, I think you already know my feeling on whether we should call games that are mostly story still games (that answer is yes).
But I agree it does no service to a game story to just slap it on there at the last minute. It’s totally disingenuous. If a game is going to have a story – no, they don’t all need one, but if a game has one – it’s got to be woven in from the start to do it right.
I think there’s a certain type of game writing that is like “well, we have this set piece, we have this set piece. Let’s get a writer to try to link those coherently.” You can tell that it’s choppy, and it’s not the writer’s fault.
You guys are absolutely right on all counts. Games do not need stories any more than chocolate needs peanut butter. The view espoused here is the one that should be drummed into all developers: you don’t need both. But if you’re going to use both, make sure you use good chocolate, and good peanut butter. Because one can always ruin the other.
Extremists on either side (Harbour Master of Electron Dance discussed this well in his Narratology vs. Ludology series a while back) sort of muddle the message. Instead it’s a matter of what kind of game you’re trying to make. If you’re making a story-driven game, you need a story; preferably a good one. If you’re not, you don’t.
Anyone remember Arkanoid? Great example of a game that DID NOT need a story.
My point was that games have big advantages and disadvantages as a story-telling device; to get the fullest use of the medium you have to make use of those advantages. If you’re not going to make sufficient use of the power of interactivity to suck the player in, then why are you telling this story with a game when there are better options available, considering what you want to do? I AM a classic PC-gamer/Planescape:Torment-loving/story-comes-first type player, but if you’re going to use a game to tell a story, then take advantage of what a game can do and what other mediums can’t!
I definitely agree with you, Arouet, in general; I’ve defended that line of reasoning many times elsewhere. That said, I do think that there are plenty of games that would be best served to have a lightweight story that really just contextualizes events: I don’t think this is an all-or-nothing sort of proposition. I think there’s definitely a place for the cinematic triple-A experiences of something like a Call of Duty: Black Ops or an Uncharted – big but linear. There are ways to execute that poorly, of course, and often that’s because it’s an afterthought.
As a sometime student of new media, though, I find relatively few things that games can do narratively that no other medium can at this point in time – there are certain pie-in-the-sky hopes for the future as AI progresses, of course. Granted, the media that can compete with games’ narrative techniques are not exactly mainstream (hypertext, ARG, interactive fiction – yes, the latter two are sometimes termed “games”, but I take that as a misnomer) but there’s a lot that they do that can develop into, or at least influence, something entirely else.
Games are meant to be fun. Can they be fun without much of any story? YES! Can they be fun with lots of backstory and plot lines? YES! Each game is a unique case in point. Mario games are fun to pick up and play, no story needed. Adventure games do need a story, since the puzzles should fit into the environment and actions lead to moving the story along, etc. RPGs (at least the good ones) almost always have a reasonably good story to enjoy and give motivation to spend 100 hours leveling up characters and caring about them. I like game like Neverhood that had a huge back story to explore and read should one want to, but it wasn’t necessary to enjoy the game.
While I agree that games don’t need much of a story, but I very much prefer those that do. When I was younger I played and enjoyed plenty of games that didn’t have much of a story or at least a story that I had any interest in or paid any attention to. As I have grown older, however, unless I am playing with friends, more often than not, playing a game without a story is just incredibly boring for me. I enjoy good (or decent) game play with a story. I like games that can elicit an emotional reaction in me based on the writing, characters and story. Those are the games that I like best.
Even the games I love that don’t really “have a story” per se, are games in which creating your own narrative is easy to do. The “Civilization” games are a good example. There is no story there, but everytime you play a new game of “Civ” or talk to someone about their game, a story always emerges. There are grudges, attrocities committed, your culture takes on a personality, you create a story of your world and your civilization. That’s what makes the game so great. Same thing with the “Football Manager” games. It’s a sports sim. There is no story there, but the thing that elevates those games over other sports games is that there is ALWAYS a story there. The players have personalities, the coaches do too. The drama of trying to manage a team of disparate people and what not is, again, what really elevates the game to another. Talk to anyone who plays those games at any length, and you’ll hear stories for hours about their ficitional team and players. “X-Com” is another example. The new game has a bit more of a story, but you create one with your squad.
I would be hard pressed to think of a single-player game that I really enjoyed or would be all that interested in simply because of game play. Maybe quick little games like tower defense type games? But those never really hold my interest for very long. They are more distractions than anything. Anything more than that won’t hold my interest. I think that’s one of the reasons I never really enjoyed “Demon’s Souls.” It was super hard, for one thing, but the other thing was I never really got the story. To me, you were just a guy running around very creepy (and awesome looking) places, trying to kill very creepy (and awesome) looking things. Despite the stellar game play (I found it a bit wonky to be honest), that, alone, is not going to do it for me. As Evil Willow says: “Bored now.”
Using Telltale’s “Walking Dead” as an exmple, story is key for me. The game play for that game is very basic. It’s no great shakes in that regard, but one of the best games I’ve played in a while.
The other games I’ve enjoyed over the last few years, the “Mass Effect” series, “Dragon Age Origins”, “Fallout 3” and “New Vegas”, “Vampire: The Masquerade” (I just played this recently, so it’s “new” to me), are all games with strong stories. Then again, I don’t mind the game play in any of these either. I liked the game play well enough, if not down right enjoyed it. (Except maybe Vampire. The game play there was a bit basic).
The conversation about emergent narrative is one I thought about engaging here, but I felt like it probably belonged elsewhere in its own article, perhaps, and bringing it up in the same breath as games with explicit story often muddies the waters and invites the “You think Tetris has a story?” straw man.
As long as it’s here, though, I think that’s also part of the appeal of multiplayer experiences, both MMO and otherwise; players live out their own story of who they meet and who they guild with, who they develop rivalries with, and those times they had that particularly thrilling deathmatch. These are more “water cooler stories” than sweeping narrative, but I think it’s in human nature to arrange the events in that fashion.
I think a major problem in the story versus gameplay debate is expectations. What are your personal expectations?
It is true that most of the discs we insert into Xboxes or PlayStations are called “games,” but I would strongly disagree with anyone who argues that this must remain true. An Xbox or PlayStation is a vehicle for, largely, video entertainment; however, that can be broadly defined.
Certainly leaps and bounds have been made with some trends in independent game development, but still, most often in the discussion I see the key note being “games must, at their core, be games, with gameplay.” I disagree with that. That is nothing more than personal bias and expectations.
A developer has no obligations to fulfill your expectations. They can make absolutely whatever they want. If they advertise their products honestly and accurately, the market will decide individual successes and failures.
Games without gameplay are already here, we just don’t fully accept them yet. Mass Effect, Heavy Rain, The Walking Dead: what do these games have in common? Well, for me, my favourite parts of them are looking at a handful of speaking options and decisions. The in-between sections can be good, but the meat of these games– what increasing amounts of players come for– have almost nothing to do with what “gameplay” is considered to be.
Call it interactive drama, call it whatever, but these experiences are happening, and eventually they’ll dispense with the filler (yes, the “gameplay”) and embrace what they want to be. For now they’re still mostly cocooned, trying to find their wings.
Max — it kind of sounds like you’re talking about visual novels, or at least Christine Love’s visual novels which are all that I’ve played. Have you looked at them?
Ajax I usually prefer games with a good story as well, but the Souls games grabbed me in a way I’m not very good at articulating. I also gravitate towards games with great atmostphere – something difficult to define. They had that in spades, so maybe that’s a big part of the appeal for me. It’s all highly subjective of course.
Dix, where do games without much of an explicit story, but a story nonetheless fit in your spectrum? I don’t have a good definition for that so I’ll just give some examples: Fumito Euda’s games, as well as the Souls games.
Story is absolutely optional though, like a lot of people here, I get a lot more satisfaction from games with a strong narrative than those without one. Especially rewarding are games that have story tucked away for the player to discover. New Vegas did this well. You had the main story that propelled you along but if you broke out and really explored you’d find all these neat little side stories. Some were no more than character sketches but it made the game so much more richer.
I just mentioned this on the More-ment thread but I’ll say it again. One of the reasons Torment was so great was how much story was packed into the game, yet depending on your approach you might never find half of it. Again, a great overarching narrative and then all these character “reveals” along the way. It’s hard to quantify, this sort of “x-factor”, but like porn, I know it when I see it.
I prefer not to think of story styles as on a spectrum or continuum, because that tends to imply some sort order to them or evolution from one to the next, which I think is not always terribly true. I think of them as different kinds of story altogether. For what games do, I think of the following (very broad) categories:
Linear: There’s a story, you can’t change it, you experience it like a movie or novel. (This is pretty much always explicit/mandatory.)
Non-linear: What things like Mass Effect do – you can experience events in varying order and/or outcomes. There’s a lot more to say about that, but I won’t here. (This is also usually explicit/mandatory.)
Ambient/Background: This is where I’d often put the Souls games, a lot of the storytelling in Elder Scrolls games, etc. – things you can completely avoid in large part, but are there if you look for them through in-game books, audio diaries, and the implication of the setting and level design. (Almost always completely optional.)
Emergent: Most often present in simulations and procedurally-generated games like Civilization, Master of Orion, and so on. The story develops based on the player’s perception of the simulated world and his/her effects on it. (Optional in that it depends somewhat on the player’s preferences.)
These are not exclusive, so plenty of games have elements of more than one. The Souls games would have both elements of non-linear story (your quest, non-linear mainly because characters and events can be triggered in a different order) and ambient story. The fact that neither of these things are conveyed through cutscenes or direct “I’m going to tell you some story now” fashion is just the delivery system.
Ico and Shadow of the Colossus I would call strictly linear story games with some (light) ambient story in the world and level design, since you experience that story in the same order and with the same outcome regardless of what you do. The interesting thing about these games is the delivery of that story, which I think is a different conversation. Linear stories are by no means a bad thing, I think, especially done as artfully as those games do them.
Please note, finally, that this is not a classification system I’ve spent a great deal of time refining, so there are sure to be holes in my reasoning somewhere here.
Ahh, good stuff, unrefined or no. I’m perfectly happy to jettison the notion of “spectrum”.
I guess what I was really looking for was how much you enjoy games with a good degree of that ambient style.
I understand it’s not always easy to generalize one’s likes or dislikes, but the attempt is pretty much always interesting.
It may not be agonizingly refined, but it seems pretty comprehensive all the same. It would be interesting to formalize some aspects of narrative style in games, complete with examples like you provide above, to define the existing structural options for narrative and leave the door open for innovations down the road.
@Botch – To answer your question, then, in general I personally really like games that employ the ambient style well. (I don’t usually think that the encyclopedias of games like Mass Effect or the dusty tomes of Skyrim are particularly good examples, however, even when they are interesting and informative.) Consistently, this is what I think of as the main triumph of games like Colossus and, especially, BioShock and the great ambient story master, Riven.
Souls does this reasonably well, better than most, but I think their merits are greater elsewhere, as a whole (most vectors of design, for instance). I address another of my favorite games that employ this tactic in one of my MIoF articles.
That said, I realize that this is an area that not all players like or care about, and isn’t necessarily a replacement for something more explicit. Most of the games that do ambient storytelling have an explicit story to drive the action, because a highly passive story is a big risk.
Botch, that’s a good question. The Souls games didn’t grab me for the simple reason that I pretty much suck at the game and I got frustrated and annoyed long before I ever really had a chance to let the atmosphere take hold.
If we’re going with Dix’s categories, which seem great to me, there have been some Ambient games I’ve really enjoyed. Bioshock, definitely. Fallouts, for sure. I haven’t played Skyrim yet. I am sure there would be others.
On average, I much more enjoy liner or non-linear story games, or emergent games. For example, I have owned a PS3 for just over one year. I have played exactly one game on it: “Heavy Rain”.
(To be fair, though I own an Xbox 360 and a PS3, I don’t play console games by myself anymore. I used to all the time, but over the last 2 years I have played all of three solo games: Heavy Rain, Red Dead Redemption and Batman: Arkham City. The last two I only played for a few hours.)
There is one type of games in which I don’t need a story really at all to enjoy: co-op games. I’ve played through 2.5 “Gears of War” games and I really had no idea what was going on, nor did I care. I just had fun. “Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2” and “Rainbow Six: Vegas 2” are other examples. Had a blast playing those games, but had no idea why I was killing all of the people I was killing. “Left 4 Dead” is another example. I like the writing and such, but there really isn’t that much of a story, nor need there be. But that’s because it’s a shared experience with friends. I have no interest in playing any of those games alone.
Ajax, fair enough. Though I love the games, I completely understand why they could be off-putting.
I’ve enjoyed Gears of War as well. I played through all three with my wife and it was a blast. I really did enjoy the story as well though (mostly that of the first one). While most people seemed to dismiss it as generic-dudebro-manshoot, I saw it as a great “day in the life” tale of guys just trying to survive. Fenix had no love for war and killing, but saw no other alternative given the dire situation. My wife was in tears during that scene in #2 with Dom and his wife.
So in that sense I had almost as much fun playing alone. But couch co-op is tough to top.
Dix, The Dig is an excellent example. That game did so many things right – dialogue, pacing, voice acting, music. The first game I played which used the diaries/logs style was the original System Shock, and it just blew me away at the time. It was the perfect method for heightening the player’s sense of isolation. The fact that not many games back then had so much voice audio didn’t hurt either.
Botch, I really like the Gears of War games. And, I will be perfectly honest, a large reason (very large) as to why I had no clue what was going on story-wise, was a direct result of the amount of alcohol that was consumed while playing it. The point at which my alcohol-fueld and sleep-deprived addled brain can’t keep up with even the most basic of plot points grows earlier and earlier.
I blame Steerpike.
While, generally speaking, I think you should have strong core gameplay and then complement it with story, I’m not sure I would make that a universal rule (having, indeed, just released a game that arguably would violate that rule). But even in games where the “play” is quite limited, I think the stories being told cannot necessarily be translated to another medium. Not because of immersion (which I think is overrated, particularly in story-heavy games) but because of complicity. When the player participates in the protagonist’s actions — even when that participation is fairly modest, but especially when the participation becomes more significant (i.e., you are making meaningful choices) — he or she becomes complicit in those actions, and they have a much stronger impact.
To take Planescape as an example, I agree with Avellone that it’s a challenging game to play now because the walls of text are so high and thick, but all the same, its story is tremendous. That story would probably not be so tremendous if the game were a novel, not because (IMHO) game writing just tends to be markedly inferior to novel writing — in this case, I think Avellone and crew did a very good job — but because the key moments in the game only truly work thematically if you are complicit in them. What do *I* believe could change the nature of a man? Dear God, *I* betrayed Deionarra, who is waiting eternally for me, and I’m never coming back to her! Etc., etc.
In addition, good story-heavy games function a little like Wikipedia insofar as the player can engage with them in detail or in brief. While a reader of a static medium can skim, or look at appendices, or whatever, it’s not quite the same as digging deeper in a game. (At least not for me.) The sense of *discovery* isn’t there because, in a book especially, the threshold assumption is that you will consume every piece of it, whereas in a game, the assumption is that you will miss a great deal of it. Thus, when you find some little detail (say, one of the kiosk entries in Primordia or the polymorphed boudoir in Planescape), you feel like a sleuth, not just a standard reader.
That said, I think it’s tragic when game stories choke games or paper over terrible gameplay (as in, say, Xenogears or Dreamfall). Games best leverage their story-telling advantages when they are gamelike.
Xenogears is such a fascinating example. I like the metaphor of its story choking it. It’s almost like some kind of vine that starts to grow at the beginning… and at first it’s cool, it has some nice flowers on it, but it eventually, slowly, strangles out all the gameplay from the game until only those choppy setpieces between long cut-scenes remain. (I thought Xenosaga was worse about this, so I didn’t really play it.)
I quite like those games, even though they did feel less like playing a game than they did playing a game, then watching an anime with the same characters, then playing a game, repeat. As JRPGs go I’ve always liked the combat design in them, though that’s kind of a relative thing.
I’m not even sure the Gears story is easy to follow sober. It’s more the themes than the story as such that I enjoy I suppose. The good thing is that the gameplay is so solid that ignoring the story doesn’t really detract from the fun.
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to state that Gears is one of those games which changed the genre. The things it introduced are pretty much required for a third-person shooter to be considered competent now. Take active reload: It’s so fundamental to the action, it makes you wonder why nobody thought of it sooner.
I own the first Xenosaga, but have never gotten into it.