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Story Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Story

July 27th, 2006 @ 10:42 am
by Vince Twelve

Let’s see if we can’t wrap this up here so I don’t have to start up a prequel trilogy (which would be particularly troublesome since, in a lapse of foresight, I named these articles episodes I through III instead of jumping in at IV).

All the hubbub in the recent week kicked off by David Jaffe (my comments here) about the importance of story to the gaming experience has led to yet another piece on 1up. This time they get statements from a number of industry vets.

Here’s what Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk of Bioware have to say:

We believe that stories are becoming more, not less, pivotal in making great games. Our vision as a studio is “to deliver the best story-driven games in the world” and the reason why we pursue this goal is simply because our fans really do respond positively to great stories and compelling characters in an emotional way.

So, yes, these two, as gamers, believe that stories are important to the gaming experience. But I also get the subtext in there that these two, as developers, believe that stories are good for the commercial performance of a game.

Most gamers really do want a compelling story beneath their gameplay experiences (and I use the word “most” without hesitation). No, a story is not necessary in every game. Some games can rely entirely on their excellent gameplay and be tons of fun. But regardless of the story’s importance to the quality of the game, the story will help attract gamers, which in turn attracts money. And since everyone must hanker for the butchness of a banker, it’s money money money that makes the world go ’round.

To sum up: “Story good.”

Warren Spector, the man behind games such as the Thief series and Deus Ex has more of a “Story good, but…” to say:

Games are all about the player experience — about DOING things, not about watching things or hearing about things. And that means that a narrative game has to put the player experience first and the narrative second. However, left to their own devices, most players aren’t very GOOD at crafting compelling experiences — just as most readers aren’t good writers, and most moviegoers aren’t great directors. And that’s where story comes in.

So the players not only want a story, they need one.

I don’t think putting the “narrative second” shouldn’t be interpreted as “make a cool game and then tack on a story as an afterthought.” Spector means that the game shouldn’t feel like a movie with a few seconds of game in between. This goes back to one of those game design evils Dr. Zaiss was talking about.

Instead, Spector is dreaming of a game in which the players choices can finally have a real impact on the game’s story. He continues:

We can create an overarching storyline, something players CAN’T impact TOO much through their choices. We can give the character a brother, a nemesis, a mystery to solve. We can create a beginning situation that sucks players in, and follow-up scenarios that get players into huge amounts of trouble, and an endgame that forces players to decide how they want to world to end up. We can throw all sorts of characters at the player, each with his or her own agenda that may or may not match each player’s agenda, and we can have those characters respond to player choices in all sorts of interesting ways that affect the player’s minute-to-minute experience without breaking the overall narrative.

This ideal seems great. However, many limitations stand in the way of its realization. Even a game with branching story lines will take a lot of extra development time and work and usually still end up feeling artificial and forced.

Let’s ignore the technical difficulties for now. Making a game world that seems fluid, changing, and open ended rather than constrained has to be done at a trade-off with the developers’ narrative control. This usually will result in a weakened story. If the developer retains to much narrative control, the world becomes constrained again, and the player’s choices stop feeling like they have real impact on the game world.

I would love for someone to root through this connundrum and come out golden. Cris Crawford’s trying, but he’s a long ways away from something that I see as commercially viable (not that that’s necessarily the point). If a game comes out where the story can fluidly change along with the player’s gameplay decisions and not feel like just another branch in a “choose-your-own-adventure” book, we’ll all bear witness to a new era of gaming.

4 Responses to “Story Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Story”

  1. gnome Says:

    Another brilliant posts. Also, nice to find at least one more person who actually thinks Chris Crawford has a valid point. Have you by any chance read his (quite freeware) book on game design?


    I just wanted to add something I recently realized. 99.9% of video games do have some kind of (even rudimentary) story, or at least some allusion to a story. Minesweeper’s title for example is just a hint, but it does evoke players’ imaginations, and it drags them on in an implied and admitedly almost non-existent story.

    DOOM also has a story, Prof. Fizzwhizle does, Arkanoid did, even some versions of Tetris had one. see? Stories are everywhere, as it seems that humans tend to crave them… They give context to action…

    (Didn’t come out exactly as I meant it too, but I hope you get what I mean.)


  2. Eric Says:

    I’m still looking for this ideal game balancing user control and planned narrative. As a consumer, I encourage all of you game-making types to explore this.

    I really like the idea of lots of different possibilities because it also lends itself to replayability. Diablo claimed they had great replayability because of random dungeon layouts and a few random quests. But honestly, did that really make you want to play it again? I’d play the game a few times if I knew I had a genuinely different experience to look forward to based on my choices. So, I don’t think the extra development effort would necessarily be wasted. I think it’d add greatly to the game’s appeal.

    Vince, definitely a good treatise on stories in games.

  3. Vince Twelve Says:

    Yeah, I’ve read Crawford’s book. I think I have an actual paperback copy around here somewhere.

    And it’s a good point about the 99.9% of games having stories. My guess is this is a direct result of players being more attracted to games that have at least one story bullet point on the back of the box (or website in Fizzwhizle’s case). Stories help sell games.

    Thanks, gnome!

    EDIT: And thanks Eric, who posted as I wrote this. I know it’s not the best written treatise on the subject as I pumped each one out in thirty minutes or so (while playing poker), but I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  4. gnome Says:

    Welcome Vince :)