Yesterday I was at Control Gamelab in Amsterdam, an event with short talks about games and gamedesign, this time centred around storytelling in games. The day after, this post appeared online on Gamasutra. Both illustrated to me once again how very misunderstood the narrative and story of games appear to be to most designers. I have been thinking about doing an ‘x points to remember when writing for games’-styled post for quite some time now, but while working on it I thought of so many points and material that it would never fit a single post.
So that’s where ‘Playful Narrative’ comes from, as a series of short posts each focused around a single lesson or point to remember when writing for games. Note that this does not mean you necessarily have to be a writer to find these posts instructive. Many writing aspects for games are traditionally (and sadly still) done by game designers with little experience in actual writing. Also, as a game designer and writer I like to seek the middle ground between the two to find out why many conceptions about storytelling and writing in games are what they are and how we can improve them. And last but not least I try to convince the scene out there that it is long due time that qualified writers became a core member in a development team.
The interactive story misconception
The point I will start with is a commonly raised issue in the discourse about stories and games and how they should relate to each other. It is mostly coined by people inexperienced with actual storytelling and writing, though not exclusively, and believed to be just by many industry veterans. I have dubbed this issue ‘the interactive story misconception’ and it is at the base of many misconceptions about storytelling in games. It can be described as follows: Because games are rooted in interactivity, stories in games must be interactive too and cannot have a predefined plot. Players must be able to influence the story.
This of course, is a wrong assumption. It is true that games thrive on interactivity, also dubbed meaningful interaction. This does not however mean that every single part of a game needs to be interactive in itself, it means that every part should as a rule of thumb support interactivity or at least not hinder it. To say that a story in a game can only be good if it allows the player to interact with it and influence/control (parts of) it, would be the same as saying that visuals in a game that are predefined and not influenced by the player are bad.
There is an extra dimension to this claim which makes it even more defect. It attributes the aspects of a game that define its architecture solely to the writing. However, in most games, other factors like gameplay and available development resources decide the architecture and in turn the story. The Gamasutra article linked earlier illustrates this assumption by using Mario as an example where the architecture would be dominated by the story of the princess that is captured, and force the player on a linear quest from castle to castle to save her. The point this misses though is that the story was only designed to justify the architecture of the game, which was in turn designed because this linear quest from level to level was the best way available to present the gameplay to the player. This gameplay and the available funds, time and manpower to create the game dictate that this is a good way to present it to players. The story is stuck onto it to make it perceivable as more than a system of rules and mechanics to the player. Would the player have been allowed more freedom in the narrative and as such the architecture of the game, the careful build-up in difficulty per level would have been lost, or the development team would have been forced to make excess amounts of levels or randomly generated levels to allow the player to choose his own path (or give the illusion of him doing so).
It is hard to image a classic Mario game with an interactive narrative. Does this mean the story of Mario is bad, at least in terms of stories for games? No. It means Mario is a game that is not served very well by an interactive narrative, like many games out there. Interactive narratives and games that give the players freedom to tell their own stories can be very interesting. But what game designers need to realize is that this is not the ultimate form of storytelling for games, there is no such thing to begin with. There is no one-size-fits-all story type for games. So a plot heavy linear story may be just as suited for one game as a completely freeform story that allows player control might be for another game. The type of the story doesn’t say anything about the quality of that story and the game, as long as the chosen form of storytelling suits the game in question.
It is true that a largely predefined story can cause friction in a game when the gameplay would allow the player other options but the story doesn’t respond to these choices, also known as the ludonarrative dissonance, but I will talk about this in another post.
This week’s point to remember
There is no ultimate type of story for games. The quality of a story depends on a lot of factors considering writing quality and suitability for the game it is made for. Stories in games do not have to be interactive to be good, neither are interactive stories automatically good.
Next week in Playful Narrative: Realize the player is playing a game.
Whether you totally agree with what I’m saying or feel like I completely miss the point, let me know in the comments or get in touch! See you next week.