November 6, 2007

Playing it Safe

by Andrew Stern · , 10:19 am

This week’s The Escapist is about stories in games, including articles about the literary significance of the Half Life series, roleplaying in online Myst worlds, and advanced facial animation in David Cage’s new game.

And most interesting to me, an article by Mark Yohalem suggesting that game developers should back off on making character-driven games with interactive dialog, and instead make physical action-oriented games that reveal some sort of backstory as you play. For example, how the original Myst did it.

Why? Because making good interactive characters is somewhere between really hard to impossible. Yohalem says developers have a “misguided notion that it’s worth sacrificing a player-driven game to achieve a character-driven story”.

True, avoiding interactive characters is a safe bet. The techniques and technologies for dialog-speaking procedural characters don’t exist yet, and it’s not clear how to get there. If developers that create games with problematic interactions, they risk frustrating players, and losing sales.

No one can disagree that games should be “player-driven”, another way of saying games with high agency. I take a purist’s view on this; I quickly lose interest in games that tell me a linear story, especially in large fixed chunks of exposition, such as cut scenes. I’d rather play a good action game with no storytelling, or if I want a linear story, I’d rather read a good book or watch a good movie.

But Yohalem’s suggestions are misguided in not leaving room for games that make incremental innovation toward being both character-driven and player-driven. Surely there are stepping stones, without the glaring imperfections that can frustrate players, that make progress toward procedural characters with narrative intelligence. For example, The Sims 3 looks to be doing this. I’m guessing those characters will go further towards creating high-agency interactive stories than previous versions, while still speaking abstract Simlish, not natural dialog.

How does Procedural Arts’ work fit into this? We’re pushing hard toward highly procedural dialog-speaking characters, knowing that even if we achieve our design and technology goals, the characters will still be imperfect, and there will be inevitable player frustration. Given that, we’re attempting to minimize player frustration, and we’re hoping some players will forgive some imperfection in order to gain glimmers of experiencing true interactive drama in digital games, and a few even be willing to pay for it.

One Response to “Playing it Safe”

  1. Mike Rozak Says:

    IMHO, Mark Yolahem sees “game” design too simplistically.

    For example: Procedrual content vs. hand-created content are not mutually exclusive. More thoughts located at

    For example: He assumes that an interactive entertainment experience on a computer must be a “game”. While a game is one possibility, other interactive experiences on computers exist. To date, games have been the most succesful, but that won’t always be the case. (Just as no-one in 1979 could conceive of a computer game that was not Space Invaders or Pac Man.) The non-game experiences must be engaging enough that people want to experience them, though.

    For example: As nice as Myst is, it’s actually a very poor example of using story in an interactive experience. When the experience is boiled down, the (incredibly simple) story in Myst is merely metered out based on semi-arbitrary puzzle solving. There is no interactione except for some token branching at the very end.

    For example: Stories are not entirely about characters (nor are stories about conflict). More often, stories are about circumstances and ideas. Likable/interesting characters (and conflict) are devices used to hold the reader’s interest. Simplistically: A typical story trys to make the protagonist so likeable that the reader cares about the protagonist. Then, when something happens to the protagonist (such as a conflict), the reader cares about what happens by association, just as you care about what happens to your real friends/relatives.

    Even more simplistically, a story/novel is a long meme whose purpose is to get the reader to recommend the story/novel to two or more other readers. The meme does whatever it takes to create a signficant mental impression (moral, theme, exciting events, etc.) so that several months later, the reader will still remember the story and get theirs friends to experience it. Usually, the foundation needed to create the memorable moment(s) takes hundreds of pages of setup.

    I suppose I would say that he’s right about his implicit assumption that “games” are not stories, and that they shouldn’t try to be stories. However, I’d say that “games” should use story-like techniques (character, conflict, plot, mystery, emotion, etc.) to keep a player’s interest.

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