Saturday, 1 May 2010

Games and Stories - in which, in a roundabout way, I try to tell you wat I'm talkin' 'bout.

While I talk and the flies buzz
a seagull catches a fish at the mouth of the Amazon,
a tree falls in the Adirondack wilderness,
a man sneezes in Germany,
a horse dies in Tattany,
and twins are born in France.

What does that mean? Does the contemporaneity
of these events with one another,
and with a million others as disjointed,
form a rational bond between them,
and write them into anything
that resembles for us a world?

Great art is most commonly defined as that which casts some light on the human condition. This poem, Fulcrum / Writing a World, by David Morley, is one of the current crop of Poems on the Underground and a perfect illustration of the conundrum facing the storyteller. In a chaotic world, full of overwhelming irrelevance, we seek meaning. The storyteller takes on the fearful task of linking disparate facts, events, places, people, in ways that resonate for us, that help us to make sense of it all. We cannot take in every detail, and we tire quickly of information without pattern, without story.

So there are two fundamental aspects to a great story: that it has a resonant theme, and that there be 'rational bonds' between the various elements of the story. Narrative theorists define 'story' as the series of consequential events that unfold through the telling (not a far cry from what's usually understood by 'plot'), leaving us with the word 'narrative' to encompass all the specifics of how the story is told: characterisation, point of view, setting and so forth.1 All these narrative elements should support both the theme (the passionate heart of the story) and the plot (the thrilling twists and turns of the tale), allowing us to be immersed, entertained and enlightened.

It's a tall order, even for a novel. It's not easy with a film. For games, it's a whole new order of challenge.

As I've said before (insert link), questions such are 'Are Games Art?' and 'Why aren't there any great game stories?' are being asked left right and centre, and rightly so given how many of us play games these days. I'm throwing my hat into the ring specifically to try to address the peculiar challenges facing one kind of game: the MMORPG.

There are several theories floating around as to why stories in games as a whole are un-brilliant. Of course there are also plenty of dissenting voices citing this or that game as an example of fantastic storytelling, and already there is a sensible middle section pointing out that we are probably looking in the wrong place for the wrong thing. Taking it from first principles though, what might stop a game from telling a great story?

Firstly, that whole business about casting light on the human condition; having a resonant theme. There's nothing, absolutely nothing, intrinsic to games that's stopping games writers from tackling the big questions. The bugbear of course is that to provide fresh insight, the theme has to be handled in an original way. You can tell the story of two tragic young lovers striving to find happiness despite lethal opposition from friends and family a thousand times over, and we do, we do, but fail to add something new and what you get is a tired cliché. Add to that the undeniable fact that many games, especially the ones non-gamers tend to consider representative of the medium, are based on the most generic of genre fiction, and clichés abound. But they don't have to. From Grim Fandango to Portal to Bioshock 2, there are plenty of examples of inventive story-creation in games.

They may or may not move us to tears, which is one oft-mentioned test of emotional impact. It is certainly arguable that although games may on occasion reduce us to tears, they are most likely to do so when they are at their most linear, when the player has the least freedom and the storyteller2 has the most control, i.e. when they can utilise the techniques available to novelists and film-makers. Yes, I mean cut-scenes, but not just cut-scenes; in any linear story the storyteller can manage, if not outright control, things like a players feelings towards the characters in the story, and thus can predict with a reasonable degree of certainty that when the main character's stupid-but-faithful companion of the past several hours is brutally killed in an act of pointless heroism, the player's going to feel a bit sad about it.

This is an appropriately massive problem for MMORPGs. No cut-scenes. No faithful sidekicks, unless these are other players, in which case the game designers can hardly engineer a heroic death for them, and if they did they'd have to allow them to be resurrected thirty seconds later, that being the way things work these days. In an MMORPG, rarely are things allowed to change. Thousands of players must each be offered the same play experience, both at their own convenience (you don't want to upset the casual players) and in real-time (these are persistent worlds, after all).

I believe very strongly that it doesn't have to be that way, but it involves a major shift – a shift that may already be happening – in the way we approach the emotional content of multiplayer games, and above all a shift in who it is that's taking responsibility for the player's emotional journey. It's nothing new; in fact it takes us right back to the genesis of the MMORPG. It's a dirty word in many gamer circles these days, but the 'R' in MMORPG has a lot to teach us about games and stories.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Opening the Box

As I said in my introduction to my interview with David J. Williams (game writer and novelist), I've become fascinated by storytelling through the medium of computer games. Unsurprisingly, being an MMO junkie, I want above all to look at the state of storytelling in MMOs, which present tremendous obstacles for writers, but also really exciting possibilities.

There are a lot of assumptions to examine along the way. What are we talking about when we talk about stories, and games, and narrative, and play? What are designers trying to achieve, and what are gamers looking for, and are they the same thing? It's a rich field in every sense, what with the games industry having been widely reported in 2009 as having overtaken Hollywood as the biggest sector of the entertainment market.

The recent feature on The Culture Show I linked to last week thrust forth the assertion that games are an art form about to blossom into maturity. Computer-mediated narrative has allegedly been on the cusp of this maturation for at least thirteen years: one of the major arguments made by Janet H. Murray in her book Hamlet on the Holodeck, a seminal book on the subject published in 1997, is that computers are simply awaiting their 'digital Homer'; a bard who, having been immersed in the possibilities of digital storytelling, can fully exploit the medium to tell compelling tales to the eager masses. However, there are still plenty of voices proclaiming that the games we have played to date are in a state of arrested development, with thin, cliché-driven storylines written and consumed by people more interested in boobs 'n' bombs than in casting light on the human condition.

I'll be arguing that point, starting from first principles. I'll be looking at the history of computer games, and attempting, in a very basic way, to connect actual games development with the theoretical literature on narrative, play and the interaction between the two. I want to try to make sense of the criticisms of game stories, both from the point of view of those clamouring for stories with more depth, and those dismissing the idea of games as art as inappropriate, wide of the point. Eventually I hope to come up with a useful assessment of progress to date, and an analysis of the specific hows and whys of satisfying story-like experiences in games, and, finally, how (and if!) all this can be brought to bear to make MMOs more emotionally engaging for players.

Along the way there'll be much talk of magic circles, make-believe and emergent narrative. I'll be including more thoughts from folks in the industry, and gamers of various stripes.

I have plenty of opinions about what's got to happen to make games better, but I'm expecting to have at least half of those turned on their little pointy heads as I solve the puzzles of this unfolding adventure.

Monday, 15 March 2010

It's Officially Time

The latest edition of The Culture Show (BBC2) contains an eight-minute report by Jacques Peretti on the status of video games as art. It's only available until Thursday, but if you catch this post in the next 4 days and are interested in seeing it, click here. The piece starts at #11.10.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The Story of Homeworld: Interview with David J. Williams

With Apocalypso firmly on hold, I've had time to do some reading. For the past several months the focal point of my interest in games design has been converging with my interest in narrative, which is a boring way of saying Stories! Gameplay! WTF?

WTF, because stories and gameplay do not always seem to get along happily when tied up in the same canvas sack. There's no shortage of commentators pushing the opinion that games are unsuitable as a medium for storytelling, that games will never be 'art' nor contain anything of literary value, etc., etc. Some folks are fine with that, some are pissed off about it, and some of us just think it's a load of crap. Games can tell stories, and well.

So to kick off a series of articles about games and story, I contacted a man I thought might agree with me: David J. Williams, author of the Autumn Rain trilogy, and story creator for the first Homeworld game. I started off by asking him how he first came to be involved with Relic, and Homeworld.

DW: I went to elementary school with Rob Cunningham, who ended up being one of the founding members of Relic. We fell out of touch for a long while, but hooked up again after he moved out to Vancouver.

PI: What was the process of creating / writing the game like?

DW: The Vancouver scene in the 1990s was a pretty magical one: there were a lot of start-ups being revved up on a lot of different launch-pads, and a real sense of possibility. Relic was breaking new ground with its rendering engine/tech, and Rob was drawing off-the-charts spaceships way more gone than anyone had seen up to that point in video games. But they were searching for a narrative concept to tie it all together. I was out on the west coast taking a break from my corporate slave job at the time and pitched Rob the story of a people who discovered their previous legacy as galactic rulers and set off on an epic quest to return to their homeworld. I also brought my obsession with history to the project: a lot of the language of the game -- Kushan, Kadesh, etc. -- comes from that.

PI: You came up with the story concept for Homeworld before you'd ever written a novel: now that you've written 3 novels, how would you compare the two?

DW: I guess the most basic difference is that with novels you're a one-man band, whereas video games are done by committee. That worked for Homeworld because of a special alignment of people and circumstances; it was less successful for the game's sequel, which was torn by competing visions, and never really figured out exactly what it wanted to be. But I can safely say that I'd never have tackled novels if it hadn't been for my experience with Homeworld. Unlike a lot of writers, I hadn't spent my whole life writing, but HW put me back in touch with a love of science-fiction and story that I hadn't really engaged with since childhood. Three years later, in the midst of a premature mid-life crisis, I turned my attention from space opera to near-future space warfare: what will it *really* look like when we have weapons in space across the next century? What would happen if simultaneously the Internet splintered along geopolitical lines? That became the genesis for the Autumn Rain trilogy, and I thought of basically nothing else for the next decade.

PI: Would you say you were thinking like a storyteller when you were working on Homeworld? How were the storytelling elements meshed with the gameplay to create the overall play experience?

DW: Honestly, I wasn't really thinking like a storyteller. I was a total amateur and had no idea what I was doing beyond the fact that it was a damn sight more interesting than dealing with spreadsheets and corporate best practices. As for the meshing of the storytelling with the gameplay, I can't take credit there: that goes to folks like Adam Bullied, who served as game designer.

PI: Homeworld is often cited as one of the best game stories ever - what do you think of games as a medium for telling stories (v. films, books etc) Do you think games can hold their own as a narrative art form?

DW: I think games are where movies were in the 1920s -- just starting to scratch the surface of their possibilities as narrative. Ultimately, they'll be recognized as one of the great forms of cultural endeavor.

PI: What are are obstacles - again perhaps drawing on your novelist's props - to telling a really compelling story via a game?

DW: I always thought of novel-writing as creating a really big, complex machine . . and games are even more so, since there are even more moving parts---literally--and you've got to figure out how all the potential paths intersect. It's like combining several novels with several movies within a choose-your-own-adventure framework.

PI: What do you think made Homeworld, in particular, a successful story?

DW: Homeworld was a successful story because it was a simple story, imbued with huge archetypal drama. And the actual game experience was nothing short of an aesthetic masterpiece: the art of Cunningham and Aaron Kambetz and the music of Paul Ruskay combining to make you feel like you were out there among the suns.

PI: Finally, are there any other games you've played (I know you're too busy for games but I have to ask) that you think do it right?

DW: Bioshock is the standout. They do a better job at creating atmosphere than anything since HW.

And with that I thanked David and let him get back to playing with his nuclear powered train set.

Over the coming weeks I intend (real life permitting) to look at the relationship between gameplay and storytelling and consider the emergence of games as a valid art form. You can find out more about David and the Autumn Rain trilogy at