These days, it seems as if every game publisher and developer is determinedto make computer games that tell stories, one way or another. Inthe early years of computer gaming, when nearly all computer games werefound in arcades and games such as Asteroids and Centipede reigned supreme- the "stories" found in computer games existed only as general settingsfor games; flying around in space shooting rocks in Asteroids or killingbugs in a garden in Centipede. No one seemed to complain overly thatthere wasn't more of a traditional narrative to these games. Thesedays anyone who fails to put some sort of story (it's actually qualitybeing seemingly irrelevant) into their computer game is promptly lambastedby the press - witness Quake's chilly reception and near universal chastisementfor doing away with the story altogether. (Strangely, its sales seemto have been unaffected.) Quake II would appear to be a direct resultof such chastisement, featuring a shell of a story to accompany a gamewhich is, for all intents and purposes, the same. Closer to homeon the Macintosh front, Double Aught's Greg Kirkpatrick - one of the keylevel designers and story architects for all three Marathon games - statedon Usenet some time ago his opinion on gaming storylines: "Computergames tell stories. That's what they're there for." GrantedI'm quoting Kirkpatrick wildly out of context, but his statement makesfor interesting reflection. Is storytelling really what games arefor?
Many traditional, non-computer games feature no story at all. Poker, Checkers, Pictionary, Solitaire, or Chess have nothing like a storyto them. Chess does seem to have a medieval warfare theme to it,but it's not something one thinks about while playing the game. Infact Chess's extremely limited use of storyline as setting is very similarto a classic computer game's use of the same. For example, compareit with Centipede. Chess has a medieval theme while Centipede hasan garden/insect theme. Chess takes real-life characters - kings,bishops, knights - and limits their movements in the game-world in a waywhich bares little to no relationship to the real-world. Centipededoes the exact same thing with fleas, spiders, scorpions and centipedes,making them behave in the game nothing like how one might expect. The setting in each provides some color to the game, giving each a bitmore life than if the games were played with generic pieces and adversaries,but it's not something which keeps one interested in and of itself. That is provided solely by the razor-sharp gameplay featured in each game.
Another branch of non-computer games that do tell stories are role-playinggames (RPGs). In these games, instead of pitting equal adversariesagainst each other, one of the people involved with the game isn't reallyplaying at all, but is rather regulating and guiding the game. Thisperson is called the Game-Master (GM) or - in the popularized, trademarkedT.S.R. word for the job - Dungeon-Master (DM). While all the otherpeople playing the RPG have characters whom they control in the game-world,the GM instead acts as a regulator for the game, explaining the situationsthat the other player's characters are facing, and regulating - hopefullyin a fair way - what happens to them. Though combat between charactersand non-player characters (NPCs) is handled through a predetermined andoften quite complex rule set, all other interactions between the playersand the game-world are handled relatively on-the-fly by the GM. Thoughthe GM almost always works from a pre-written story-outline, a good GMwill be able to alter the story to complement a player's actions; insteadof saying - as computer games so often do - that "you can't do that," agood G.M. will be able to quickly reconfigure his story to react appropriatelyto whatever the players want to do in the game-world.
Playing Roles, Creating Stories
Of course in a computer RPG (CRPG), the GM is replaced by the computer. Though the computer is more than skilled enough to regulate combat andthe like - number crunching is basically all that computers can do - itis far less able to dynamically react to the actions of the player. In short, the computer is stuck with whatever storyline the game's designergave it, and many designers will have supplied only one narrow storyline,not anticipating very well (if at all) the different actions the playermay try to perform. Over the years many CRPG designers have recognizedthis limitation and as a solution - instead of working on complex, non-linearstorylines - have made their CRPGs combat-intensive and storyline-light.
But why is it that we as designers want our computer games to tell stories? I have a couple of theories about this. One is that most of the entertainmentmediums popular in the U.S. - movies, TV shows, books, pop music - tellstories, and we want our games to be as popular as possible. Thecomputer gaming industry's desire to tell stories in its games may wellbe just another facet of our nasty case of "Hollywood envy," a conceptfirst put forth by Chris Crawford and which I explored in a pervious column(Computer Games, Not Computer Movies; Inside Mac Games 5.8). We wantto be more like movies - or at least more popular like movies - and assuch we foist linear storytelling methods into our non-linear medium.
No, No, What I Really Want To Do...
Even worse, it often seems that many of the designers working on computergames secretly wish they were making movies or writing books instead. Witness the recent shift to movie production of such industry heavy-weightsas Chris Roberts (designer of the Wing Commander series, now directingthe first movie based on that property) or Robyn Miller (co-creator ofMyst and Riven) who left Cyan to pursue film-making. It's a simplecase of lack of pride in the work we do and the games we create that leadsmany of us, when given half a chance, to jump ship and go work in otherart-forms instead. After all, what sort of respect do computer gamesget in our society? I think this frustration can manifest itselfas designers working to tell linear stories in their games, as if practicingfor the day when they'll get to pursue their novel-writing careers.
I think another explanation for the obsession with storytelling is thatmarketing people love it. As I've mentioned in previous columns,it's hard as the dickens to communicate excellent gameplay to a potentialconsumer on the back of your box. In video arcades a player onlyhad to invest a quarter to see if the gameplay of the game was any good;if it was, she could then keep dropping quarters, playing the game againand again. Hence Atari didn't feel the need to foist a story ontoany of its classic games from twenty years ago. To this today, thegames you find in arcades really don't have much story attached to them,and no one seems to be complaining. But for the home-market, wherethere's not only the all-important back of the box that needs to be filledup, but also oodles of puffy preview articles to be written about upcominggames, having a storyline to write about is all but essential (since storylinesdo convert awfully well to the written word, unlike, again, gameplay). A sure sign that storylines are nothing more than marketing tools whenmarketing hacks work them out for game designers before the gameplay iseven designed, and said designers are told to use the storylines regardlessof whether they can feasibly be integrated into the gameplay or match inany way with the game being created.
Let Me Tell You About My Dream
But there's still another reason why everyone's interested in gameswith storylines; simply put, putting the gamer in the middle of astoryline and letting him make the decisions is a damn compelling idea,and one that has enraptured me for the last decade. I've been interestedin storytelling in general for the same amount of time if not longer. I always thought of stories as a way of showing people interesting situationsand the consequences of decisions made in those situations. To me,the logical extension of this to a more interactive media is: "Wouldn'tit be more interesting to allow the reader/viewer/player to make the decisionthemselves and see the ramifications of any given decision?" That'sthe dream, anyway. Getting it to actually work is another matterentirely. But it's such a compelling notion, who wouldn't want itto work? Who wouldn't want stories in computer games?
The problem is that how stories have been used in computer games thusfar has not been working toward the end of allowing the player see theramifications of her actions. Most of the stories we've been presentedwith have been largely linear affairs, where at any juncture there aretwo possible things the player can do: the Right Thing and the WrongThing. Often there are multiple Wrong Things, but this still pigeonholesthe player into doing the only Right Thing or losing the game. Somegames have tried to have multiple Right Things, with varying results. I'm quite concerned when probably the most famous designer of adventuregames, Roberta Williams, seems entirely uninterested in allowing the playermultiple options that still lead to satisfying resolutions, as I discussedin a previous column. (My Dreams Are Non-Linear, Inside Mac Games5.6)
The notion that the player needs to see everything the designer putsinto the game is a misconception that leads to a disinterest in non-linearstorytelling. For if the player's not going to see it, why put itin? If there are multiple paths that all lead to a positive resolutionfor the player, if a player only plays the game through once - which inall likelihood he will - he'll be missing a whole section of levels, art,music, and the like. And those things cost money, don't youknow, and if the player's not going to see them, isn't it just a waste?
Of course, it's not a waste to a game designer interested in non-linearstorytelling, but a business-centered thinker will realize that insteadof paying for the art and whatnot in multiple game-paths, the developercould spend double the money on one part of the game, force the playerto be able to see only that section, leading to all-the-spiffier screenshotsfor the back of the box. Of course, the back of the box has littleto no value to the game-player once he's removed its contents, but by thenthe publisher already has his money.
Multiple Mixed-Up Media
Stories have often been melded onto action games in the worst of allpossible ways, through the dreaded disjointed cut-scenes. The actiongame itself stays relatively unchanged, but between missions or levels,the player is presented with an entirely non-interactive affair which endeavorsto tell the player the story. The cut-scene is often of the full-motionvideo variety (either using real actors or pre-rendered 3D animation),the visual appearance of said cut-scenes usually barely matching with thevisuals in the actual gameplay. The player then returns to the interactive part of the game, playing on as if nothing has changed. Some games actually make an effort to work some of the storytelling intothe gameplay itself, or at least have the game-worlds reflect the storylinewhich enfolds in the non-interactive cut-scenes. But this entireway of telling a story is inherently flawed and frustrating to the player. Suppose that you went to a movie, and at one point, the projector stops,the lights come on, and you're asked to read the next scene from a book. This would serve only to frustrate you. If you're at the movies,you want to be watching a film, you don't want to be reading a book. Similarly, then, if you're playing a computer game, do you really wantto be watching a movie? Though expository moments where the playerisn't directly interacting with his game-world may be necessary, they shouldat the very least be smoothly linked into the standard gameplay and theirtime should be kept to a minimum. Perhaps, instead of investing vastsums of money in pre-rendered or filmed cut-scenes - sometimes as expensiveas the entire rest of the game - we should concentrate on developing newstorytelling skills which allow us to communicate storylines from withinthe actual gameplay.
My action game, Damage Incorporated, had it's own faults in this department,probably relying more than necessary on overly-long mission briefings betweenthe actual gameplay sections. At least the player could page throughthe briefings and fast forward or rewind through the accompanying audioat will, giving these non-game elements some hint of interactivity. Efforts were made on my part to bring the storyline more into the gameby having the player's team-mates continually talk to her, sometimes sharingtheir thoughts on the current mission and what the player's team of Marineswere being asked to do. Though the player couldn't speak back toher team-mates, their lines did occur during the actual gameplay, and Ithink it helped to communicate a story while gameplay actually progressed. Efforts were made to have the levels the player was moving through andthe tasks the player was asked to perform lock in somewhat with the storyline,though whether this was more successful than in other games is debatable.
Funny, no one ever complained that Alexey Pajitnov's Tetris didn't havea story. Interestingly enough, when Tetris first came out it wasentirely pushed (from a marketing standpoint) as a "Russian Computer Game!" The reason to buy it was to be in the spirit of détente with ournew Russian friends, not because it was a fabulous game. Indeed,how could anyone market such amazingly innovative and unique gameplay onthe back of a box? The game's subsequent financial success was basedalmost entirely on word of mouth. Surely, without the whole Russianangle, how would the marketers and publishers have initially sold the gameto consumers and (perhaps more importantly) retailers? Perhaps theywould have foisted a storyline of some sort onto it? Or perhaps itwouldn't have been published at all, a much more likely scenario, as itfeatured none of the extreme violence, cutting edge technology, or full-motionvideo that businessmen continually seem to think game-players want.
The storyline for my computer game Odyssey - The Legend of Nemesis,which I consider a hybrid adventure/RPG, came before any of the puzzles. I tried never to think "This would be a cool puzzle, what storyline canI conjure up to justify it?" Certainly I understood what was possibleusing the technology or "engine" I was working with, but with that initiallimitation in mind, I worked out what story I wanted to tell and what situationsI wanted to place the player in. I presented the player with variousmoral and human interaction problems, and tried to consider what the differentsolutions to a given problem could be, and which ramifications would resultfrom these different solutions. To nearly every situation in thegame there are multiple, positive actions the player can take, though oftenthere are not as many different options as I would have liked. Andthough these different situations and solutions don't always make for themost interesting puzzles, they function properly and, I think, believablywithin the story. Almost by force of habit - perhaps from havingplayed so many computer role playing games - I threw some abstractpuzzle sections into the game, almost divorced entirely from the plot. In the end these were probably what frustrated and confused players themost (aside from the downer-ending, my defense of which is worthy of acolumn all by itself). I think a similar story-first approach wastaken on Jordan Mechner's masterful The Last Express, wherein the playeris confronted with puzzles which almost always work seamlessly into thestory; the question for the player is "how do I dispose of this body soI don't get caught" instead of "how do I solve this abstract puzzle soI can get through some story and move onto the next abstract puzzle?"
I originally started working on this column because I thought it wouldbe an easy subject for me to write about, since storytelling has alwaysbeen at the forefront of my reflections on game design. But as Iworked on it, I found myself wondering just why I was trying to put storylinesinto computer games, and, if I could figure that out, just what new anduseful ideas I had on the subject. Here I've presented a lot of what'swrong with how stories are being told in computer games now, and offeredlittle in the way of solutions. That's because I don't really haveany. I'm so bereft of solutions that on my current project (whichmust be completed in far too little time) I'm focusing all my efforts inmaking the gameplay as smooth and sublime as possible, pushing the storylineto the side. For, as I firmly believe, computer games really don'tneed to tell stories to be brilliant in their own right. Nonetheless,I still can't help but wonder how we can make computer games function sothat the computer can act more like a real-life Game-Master, creating astory on the fly to suit the player's needs as they make their own, uniquechoices in the game-world. Storytelling is something that computergames have only barely begun to explore in any meaningful way, and as ofthis writing, I don't have any easy insights into how we should move aheadtoward the dream of truly interactive stories. But I'll keep thinkingabout it.
This column was originally printed in InsideMac Games.