Thursday, January 31, 2008

More thoughts about gameplay and story structure

It seems to me that the discussion of storytelling and games is hampered by the basic fact that a lot of games don't really need or want to tell stories. Think of Tetris, or chess, or gin rummy -- games that are intrinsically story-less. One could say that there is even a bit of story in Monopoly; the kind of story where you regale listeners with who landed on what and who had to mortgage his hotels to pay for it. That's not writer-directed story, but it's certainly a series of events and obstacles with protagonists and antagonists leading to a climax. By most literary definitions, that is the backbone of story.

But I think that this definition of "story" is misleading, because unlike in Monopoly, story has a purpose in most video games. In a huge, open RPG game the story guides the player and tells him where to go next -- or, in a more dramatic way, tells him where his unique services / skills are needed next to forestall the collapse of civilization as we know it. The story is not merely dramatic, it is practical. It serves both a narrative purpose, and a pragmatic one.

So it seems to me that, depending upon the type of game, what we call story has widely different functions. I am batting around a list of these ideas, trying to see what may and may not make sense.

1. For anything in the FPS-Survival horror-Action-Suspense genre, the story really drives the gameplay. The player has a total immersion in the game world; even the tips and hints are often given in the guise of NPC's or in-game documents, furthering the sense of immersion in the immediate environment.
The point of view (cinematically speaking, not literarily speaking) is first person or tight third person. The game advances in a series of quick, action-filled, life-or-death moments where the player must constantly move and take decisions.
In the literary world, this is classic hard-boiled private eye stuff. Tight first person, action and violence, life-or-death stakes.
The purpose of the story is to drive the gameplay, to lead the player almost by the nose into (and perhaps even through) the next series of obstacles and challenges. The gameplay is largely linear, though it may pretend not to be with a series of linear-but-parallel sub-quests available.

Okay. Now I have to go off and think about other literary and ludological genres, and how they compare.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Game writing: Back to the basics

I am working on a (potential) article about beginning game writing, but in trimming the article an awful lot of thoughts are ending up on the cutting room floor. I'll drop some of those into my blog from time to time, because writing these things out helps me to better understand the proces of game writing and what I have learned.

The problem for a fiction writer is that writing games is like writing a story, but without the story part.

I jest. It's actually like writing a story, but without exposition, setting, internal dialogue, description -- it's writing a story when you can't say a thing about what's going on in the protagonist's brain, because the protagonist is the player. They have to know what's going on anyway, and you yank their chair-shaped butts right through the fourth wall if you dare to actually stop and tell them.

Everything happens through what the player sees, what the player chooses to do, and what dialogue the player hears and/or selects. Those are the only colors left out of the fiction writer's entire palette for creating the story--visual setting, action, and dialogue. Three damn fine ones, admittedly, but they make it a real exercise to develop an entire picture without using all the others tools that a fiction writer usually relies on.

It's even worse, actually, because all you can do is hint at what the action should be; leave a trail of breadcrumbs that the player will hopefully want to follow. The more you make him follow a given path, the less he feels like he's playing the game and the more he feels like the game is playing him.

And that's really the big difference. You can't say what your protagonist is going to do, only the player can say that. You can lead him by the nose, but the heavier the hand is that guides the player's actions, the less immersive and interesting the story becomes. If things go that way you get what I think of as "dramatic rupture" -- it's not the player's story any more because the player doesn't feel like they made it happen. Instead, the player feels like it's someone else's story and they're just along for the ride.

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