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.