March 16, 2005

Story and Game

by Nick Montfort · , 11:47 am

I spoke to Norm Badler and Stephen Lane’s Virtual Worlds class here at Penn on Monday about storytelling and games. I hope my talk wasn’t too theoretical for this class, which has been busying producing virtual worlds all semester, but I took the angle that it’s important to first distinguish how we want storytelling to serve game design. I did treat the class to the beginning of Shenmue, Crazy Taxi, Grand Theft Auto 2, and Soul Reaver, on Dreamcast and PSX. My notes are below…

How can storytelling help us design games?

Games aren’t stories. Jesper Juul gives a good argument as to why they aren’t in “Games Telling Stories?,” which I asked the class to read.

Still, ideas from storytelling can be useful in game design — we’ll see how.

What games have good “story”? (Half-Life, GTA, WWII simulation games and many others were listed…) What about non-computer games? (Chess, Monopoly, Risk, Life, and many others were listed…)

Example: How can architecture help us design games?

There’s a relationship: Adjacency between areas, choke points, orientation/disorientation in space, and, as one student suggested, lighting and surfaces that make opponents more or less visible.

But, games aren’t buildings. Ventilation, cost of materials, building codes, etc. are pretty much irrelevant.

Still, architecture can help us design games. We could learn things about the design of virtual spaces from talking to architects. (Some great ones to talk to would include Michael Benedikt, Bill Mitchell, and Marcos Novak, by the way.)

Juul’s argument in “Game Telling Stories?”

Common arguments for games being stories:

1) We use narratives for everything. (So narratives don’t tell us anything special about games.)
2) Most games feature narrative introductions and back-stories. (These are seldom at the heart of games. But we’ll consider how these might be better or worse.)
3) Games share some traits with narratives. (True, but they don’t share many of the most important traits.)

Why games aren’t stories:

1) Games are not part of the narrative media ecology. (Can’t “translate” from games to movies the way you can from novels to movies.)
2) Time in games works differently than in narratives. (Flashbacks don’t usually exist. Consider a basketball game: You can “stop time” but not go back and play part of the first quarter again.)
3) The relation between the reader/viewer and the story world is different than the relation between the player and the game world. (Essentially: You have to actively operate or configure a game.)

What do we mean by “story,” and how can we improve some “story” aspect?

Backstory – Some story happened before the game started. It’s probably important to relate introductory cut-scenes to play — to interest the player, inform them about what play will be like, but not to present an extraordinary short film (as in Shenmue, maybe) that is more fun than the beginning of the game. Grand Theft Auto 2 has an odd-looking video introduction to a more or less 2D game, but, as a student pointed out, this non-narrative film shows what sorts of things the player can do in the game. Keep in mind that there could be different backstories/different length introductions, and they could be paced differenly: Soul Reaver interleaves letting the player play with providing more information about the world of the game.

Story ecology – The game is part of a media/story landscape along with movies, action figures, etc. WWII games evoke the historical narrative of WWII (although they might overturn history). If this is what you’re interested in, you can focus on evoking an existing story effectively, not worry about writing your own. Even games with elaborate backstories will probably do this to some extent, e.g., Shenmue evoking the well-known “you killed my father!” revenge plot.

Story generated in play – Player’s actions cause different events to occur, causing different “stories” to be enacted. Fairly difficult to achieve, although it’s attempted in many wide-ranging adventure games. Causing a certain story to exist through play should be fun; players won’t see the whole possibility space of the game.

Story revealed in play – Player’s actions cause the same sequence of important narrative events to occur, causing one overarching story to be enacted if the player is successful. This is the “quest” that Espen Aarseth has written about lately; these sorts of games include Half-Life and other “progressive” games.

Good to tell stories about – After the fact, I can relate what happened in-game and it makes for a good story. Chess is like this — witness chess commentaries. People are pretty good at telling stories about fun experiences, so you may not have much to worry about as a designer. But you could “scaffold” players in some way. Tetris is hard to tell stories about, as it’s a test of skill that happens too rapidly to narrate in detail; turn-based games of strategy and conquest build “tellable” situations out of simple rules.

Finally, I wouldn’t call this “story,” but those who consider that Crazy Taxi has a story probably mean this:

A rich fictional world – The rules and system of the world are compelling, either because they’re wacky and fun, or dark and disturbing, or for some other reason. People who play Crazy Taxi may not care about the narrative of their play, but the discoveries they make about the world (I can jump off ramps, I can drive underwater, etc.). If this is what you’re going for, don’t worry about a sequence of events or rich and compelling characters. Just make the system of your fictional world rich and interesting to play around in, and the process of discovering its rules fun.

Successful games often relate to story in more than one way. My point in this talk is that even before you worry about the general rules of good storytelling, you should figure out how you want your game to relate to story. If you’re just trying to evoke existing stories, you should go about that in different ways than if you’re crafting your own epic quest.