What I’ve learned about stories in games

Storytelling in games is a huge subject, dividing opinion across the industry. Were one to listen to certain industry figures, one might quickly surmise that the industry had better decide one way or another about story-driven games and gameplay-driven stories, and games that are just games and might have stories and oh isn’t it all terribly confusing and what ought we to do? Looking at it from a functional perspective, I think that there are two reasons, with respect to stories, why people play games. One is obviously to experience the game’s story, whether it be completely linear or branching like in the excellent game Way of the Samurai.

The other reason, and this is something I’ve wrongly scoffed at before (and even very recently), is experiencing the game. People have said to me that Tetris tells a story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. It sounds ridiculous in the context of a plot, but where the idea holds water is in retelling this story to other people. I can’t be sure how many players of Dwarf Fortress were introduced to the game after reading SomethingAwful’s forum goons “Let’s Play” session in the fortress of Boatmurdered. I bet it’s a huge proportion. Many games become popular through word of mouth and the best way to get someone interested in something is to tell them a story about it. If a game can create accounts that are interesting to tell and interesting to hear, as well as interesting to experience first-hand, that is a powerful thing for the players and their friends.

When I first heard about Chris Crawford’s Storytron, I scoffed at that, too. I downloaded it and couldn’t make head nor tail of it and that was that. I recently downloaded it again, and tried to read the web site, and didn’t get much further than before. But this time I actually understood what he is trying to do. He’s trying to make it possible for people to create a set of data that will produce interesting stories. Imagine a game like Way of the Samurai, with its branching plots and intricate character layers, but it’s not a fixed tree any longer; each time you play the characters interact in a different (yet still predicatable) way. It would make for some excellent whodunnit style games, at least. The systems in place in Dwarf Fortress are the same, really – you have a large set of data and a simulation, and running that simulation with player interaction, even if it’s a fairly simple simulation, can produce intricate stories for retelling.

Some of the greatest game stories I’ve ever heard came from people who had been playing MMO games: Player versus Player conflicts on a massive scale in Dark Age of Camelot; epic raids in World of Warcraft; spontaneous gatherings to mark a real-world death in City of Heroes; pilots going rogue and spying on other corporations in Eve Online. Surely the draw of these games is driven by this, whether the players know it or not.

2 thoughts on “What I’ve learned about stories in games

  1. Bezzy

    Yey. Another convert :). Well said. And I’m glad it was said, because I always end up feeling like a complete hippy for supporting any of Crawford’s views while talking to industry blokes.

    I really think that Crawford is just framing patterns which already exist/could exist in the natural evolution of game design, but from this sorta left-field perspective, giving focus to natural properties of systemic output that most people feel is secondary. That’s cool and all, but I have been noticing some… “issues” emerging.

    His main problem is not that he hasn’t got a good idea (it can spawn some very different games!) but that he has to get an industry of designers to understand his mind-set before he can get them to develop games which can make the most of Storytron, or story-tron-like properties.

    Ironically, I think he’s converting the wrong set of developers to his cause. Storytron seems far more apt for the politics of 4x games, or mission generation in open world games etc. than for highbrow linear story-heavy games.

    Storytron could take the wonderful polish and systemic integrity of things like Grand Theft Auto, and suddenly render their inappropriate (though entertaining), fixed mission-stories as something that is as systemically complete as the core gameplay, complimenting its style far better.

    But because stuff like GTA is “mainstream”, it feels as though there are snorts of derision cast at it from the other camp (unfairly, I think – just because something is popular doesn’t mean it has bad design).

    Instead, the developers making the most story obsessed (yet systemically fragile) games flock to this technology, bringing with them a false-sense-of-superiority as they rail against the mainstream’s hubris. He may be attracting a less compatible community.

    MAYBE. If you’re DUMB LIKE ME. I’m sure there’s just as many systemically bent developers looking forward to Storytron. I know I am.

    Anyway, I truly believe that the best stories told by games are those created by the player, and resonated by the game. And as we get better at carving possibility such that emergent playthroughs gravitate toward the interesting and away from the dull, we’ll essentially be bridging the gap from the mainstream over to Crawford’s prospect. He’s ahead of his time, but people are catching up, fast.

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  2. Bezzy

    And apologies to Crawfordians for my sweeping generalizations. That is WRONG. I am SORRY. I am looking forward to your GAMES. O Wait, I meant “Interactive Stories” doh.

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