less is more of a story

I recently listened to Jon Blow’s montreal lecture on how narrative and gameplay generally contradict each others operation in videogames. As usual its an insightful and thought provoking talk, however it did make me question how much the definition of these two aspects could be flexed in order to improve their collaboration. It seems inevitable that attempting to meld traditional narrative with a strict ludic progression is going to be difficult. As Blow hints, other forms of transmission can be used to project ‘story’ that don’t rely on the historical approach of verbal storytelling. In fact, unless the game is reduced to a less interactive form (ie cutscenes, and yes MGS im looking at you!) traditional verbal style exposition is always going to suffer at the hands of the usual game interferences (user time control, replayability, skipping etc). A perfect example of these failings is demonstrated by Fallout3, a game I’ve been wading through with increasing pessimism.

The world itself is fantastic, its abandoned hamlets and suspension bridge squats are detailed and atmospheric. There is a degree of lore and local color scattered in posters, photos, charred belongings and dumped vehicles. I was delighted by a sidequest involving entering a heavily mined village where I had to dispatch some lone sniper. In this case I felt that the sense of story was delivered by the environment itself. This wasn’t even marred by the fact that the only npc present was one I couldn’t converse with. In fact our lack of communication made the encounter more believable. My mind constructed the narrative drive of this opponent as expressed though the broken structure of the tower he was camped in.

Compare this with the actual storyline… I have rarely come across more examples of how gameplay mechanics and narrative exposition ruin each other. Its the usual issues; I can try to stack 10 rifles on and around my in-game dad while he pours out his heart to me. I can ask him about my mother, shoot him in the head and then ask how his work is going without any impact. I can similarly shoot anyone he is talking to without any break in the autopilot discussion. At one point my ‘genius’ father tells me about his advanced science project and then moments later is incapable of opening doors and jogs into a wall for several minutes. Aside from this the actual conversation trees are awful, full of stilted options and even a well constructed set of exchanges is ruined by the same dumb exit phrase.

Fallout3 is hailed as a triumph by many critics, but to me its an outstanding example of how not to do narrative in games. My early enjoyment of exploring the world dissolved into depression when the main story decayed into a fairly linear badly plotted, badly delivered familiar narrative drone. Granted, the ‘growing up’ introduction at the beginning of the game was a decent way to shell a tutorial section and did give some context, but it still felt like a tutorial.

So what alternatives are there? At the risk of fanboyism I return to the ICO games as a guiding light of the ‘less is more’ approach. The late J.G.Ballard frequently reflected his characters internal states via their external surroundings. In a similar fashion, ICO/SOTC use the game world as an extension of the game characters and their internal moods. The melancholic vistas act to instill the sensations of loss and exile that we identify with the games protagonists. There is a narrative cause and effect to your actions that develops throughout the games without direct exposition. Detail is perhaps abstract or sparse but it is so necessarily, allowing room for personal interpretation. This is perhaps just another way of telling a different type of story. Why should we assume that games are the best medium for every type of story. Even hollywood admits that many novels are essentially unfilmable, so we can imagine that games also have some restricted venn-like shared space with the total world of narrative.

A different approach, one which subdues gameplay almost entirely for the sake of atmosphere and narrative is the HL2 mod Dear Esther. In this adaption the combination of fantastic voice acting, emotive soundtrack and atmospheric environment combine to create a story ‘experience’. It’s more akin to an on rails musuem ride, where fragments of story are whispered into your ear in a semi random progression as you explore the environs of a deserted island. Although the path is fairly linear, there is a reasonable sense of freedom, and the plot pace becomes your own walking speed (running is banned for atmospheric reasons). Even once you realise the format, the reward is still worth tracing through (unless of course you are only looking to pwn stuff). It’s not a game in a traditional sense, but as a format it suggests another way in which the two disciplines can coincide.

Perhaps one of the problems is that people are too concerned with finding a solution, or providing everything in one single game context. I would never want to get a gaming twitch fix (a la tetris) directly combined with a multiplayer FPS and an epic RPG narrative all in the same bag. We can’t have it all, like balancing MMOs one element will always be buffed to the detriment of another.



2 Responses to “less is more of a story”

  1. Lewis Denby says:

    Hmm.

    This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately – not least because I’m in the middle of writing something about it myself.

    Your criticisms of Fallout 3 are interesting. Aside from your dislike of the script and bugs – totally fair – you seem to be moaning about things that it was possible for you to do that broke the illusion. Is that the game’s fault? There’s only so far you can push things with present-day technology.

    In other words, the game wasn’t broken; you actively set out to break it. You wouldn’t buy a game, snap the disk in half, then complain it wasn’t up to scratch. Why do that on a more etheral level?

    And really, Fallout 3 strikes me as exactly the sort of game in which – as you acknowledge – you can extract your own stories on an astonishingly regular basis. That’s a remarkable feat, and I wouldn’t like to see games abandon that sort of thing any time soon.

    Of course, the minimalism thing is dead useful as well. There’s room for both. And I agree that games should take more care to bind their stories with the actual actions you perform. A lot of tiny, free indie games do this remarkably well. It’s a shame so few professional devs pick up on it.

  2. JP says:

    “Aside from your dislike of the script and bugs – totally fair – you seem to be moaning about things that it was possible for you to do that broke the illusion. Is that the game’s fault? There’s only so far you can push things with present-day technology.”

    Lewis, what technological developments do you think will occur that will make it possible for games to properly support the kinds of behavior described in the original post?

    I think gamers are fairly naive about what sorts of design problems are tractable and thus will fall simply with the march of technology. I think the original post is right to identify that the coherence of the story and world a game tries to present will always be at odds with a design that tries to give players large amounts of freedom in said world and story. We get these messy collisions because too many modern games are trying to be all things to all people.

    So yes, I do think it’s the game’s fault that it lets you do things that make its story out to be silly.

    If you were watching a movie where both the protagonist and the antagonist were named “Adam”, and even though the screenwriters had it perfectly straight in their heads who was being referred to in every line of dialogue, would it be their fault or your fault if you kept getting them confused?

    It’d be their fault, because they made a choice that hampered the cohesion and clarity of the story they were telling. They could have taken steps to avoid it, but they pretended it wasn’t a problem.

    Don’t assume from this that I’m saying more games should curtail player freedom in order to tell “better” stories. I’m saying that you can’t have it all, and that some games would be better served by focusing on what they really want to do well.

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