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January 12, 2009


Zac Moss

Oh, the irony.

I'd just spent the last thirty minutes typing out some kind of pretentious response to this post, but I feel it can be summed up thusly:

1. Games are not meant to tell stories. Your actions in a game world have consequences, and if a sequence of these consequences forms a story, then that is an added bonus.

2. Lack of detail can help spice up a game. Half-Life and Halo are two games built on incredibly cliched premises, alien invasions. However, the trick to both games is how they are both notoriously vague on details, such as who you are fighting, what with, and more importantly, why. Of course, Doom and Quake did this, but they are not regailed as having amazing stories. Once you've set up a world and a story, with characters who can get to grips with, lack of detail in anything else causes the player's imagination to run riot, enhancing the experience. The game world immediately becomes whatever you want it to be. This is probably why sequels usually recieve less praise than their predecessor, because people prefer not to know.

Eric Chahi used this to incredible effect (I believe you've met him, you lucky bastard! :D) in Another World. Here, the graphics, despite lacking in any sort of detail, remain lush, thanks in part to this lack of detail. The player is given a background and a structure, and left to fill in the rest with their imagination.

3. The best game/story mix is possibly Deus Ex. I won't go into detail (if you'll excuse the pun) so as not to spoil the plot for any readers, but needless to say that the material is nothing new. It's how the game approaches the material that makes us care for the charaters, care for the outcome. Sometimes you will have to proceed for entire hours without the slightest idea as to what the hell is going on, using just the hunch of another character, who you will need to trust. The game can invoke a sense of emotional connection in your fellow game characters unlike any other game I've ever played, which makes it all the better when things go down shit creek without a paddle. Half-Life 2 of course pulls this same trick, but I feel that Deus Ex is just a stronger exploration of the ideals of this argument.

Anyway. That's that.

Nathan McKenzie

One thing I've started getting really interested in, on this separation, is the funny way that stories-as-trappings require trust in a way that emergent stories don't.

You can easily go to a movie, watch it, and then leave saying, "I don't buy it - the main character would have never gone back for the girl. She really just wasn't likable enough."

That's just not possible with the stories that fall out of emergent systems. By definition they have to be possible (although you might choose to reject the rules of the system out of hand, and they might not be interesting in the retelling).

Ironically, that trust issue (which I think comes from a lack of simulation) is also the Achillies heel of puzzles in classic adventure games for me.

As an analogy to all of this, it might be interesting to look at how TV stations add color commentary to sporting events like football games and the Olympics - they're wrestling with some similar issues, I think. People are watching for the actual results of the games, but not all games played (and not all moments within even good games) are all that interesting - thus they inject a bunch of narrative (he was the first on his team in high school while his sick mom had cholera!) to balance out the fickle results of play and competition.

The other thing about all of this I find really intriguing is that narratives impose tons of restrictions on what is interesting, I'm guessing on a biological level. When I play Tetris, I have no problem identifying with... er, a disembodied thing that controls falling blocks, or maybe just the system? In an RTS, I can easily be interested in the fate of... a reticle? A collection of resources? It seems, though, the moment you start injecting narratives into things, people need 1) faces, 2) humans or at least anthropomorphic stuff, 3) dialogue and 4) well-paced drama of a human sort. One of the reasons that I balk at all the blah-blah-blah about "can games earn the right to be called art yet" is that I'm convinced that games can be respectful and interesting about a whole range of important topics that existing narrative art actually fails pretty badly at... or so I like to imagine.


This book by Chris Crawford seems way ahead of his time and has a wealth of info on this topic.



This is like pinning the "artiness" of a graphic novel against the "storiness," or the "filminess" of a movie against the "storiness."

Of course a game has to be a game first. As do movies. As do graphic novels.

Games don't have to tell stories. Story can potentially hinder them if told wrong, or if it's simply out of place.

But the idea that games cannot have interesting stories because no game would satisfy your movie/book/stageplay needs is a laughable leap of aristotelian syllogism. They're different mediums capable of telling stories. Of course the story will be different.

The idea that all games are stories is just as pompous. I wouldn't call the plot path of a pawn in a game of 'chess' a set story. Nor would I call a game of football a set story.

Neither of these games have set plot points. They are chaotic.

But to say that chess has no story, therefore no games have set plot points, is another flawed syllogism. Some games have writers behind them who tailor the plots specifically around the game. Just like a ballad is a story tailored around music.

I don't say that gaming or music are storytelling mediums primarily, but they are storytelling mediums because they are capable of containing traditional stories (unless, of course, you continue using the 'traditional stories are only equal to books, plays, movies, and other older forms of media' that you've been using, rather than considering plotting and rudimentary traditional structure.)

The 'gaminess' doesn't negate a thing, as far as story is concerned, and 'storiness' doesn't negate 'gaminess' either. Chess isn't any more a game than Grim Fandango/Planescape: Torment/insertstorygamehere just because there is no story. There is no trade off. Some games just incorporate story. That's the bottom line.

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Jamie's Bragging Rights

  • Spider-Man 2
    The best superhero games of all time Game Informer
    Top five games of all time Yahtzee Croshaw
    Top five superhero games of all time MSNBC
    Top 100 PS2 games of all time Official Playstation 2 Magazine
    1001 Games You Must Play Before You Die Nomination for Excellence in Gameplay Engineering Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences
  • Schizoid
    Penny Arcade PAX 10 Award
    Nominated for XBLA Best Original Game
    Nominated for XBLA Best Co-Op Game