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.


Nathaniel Gage said...

Oh, wow. I thought I was the only one out there thinking about these kinds of issues.

I think one of the major problems with MMORPGs is that the designers, writers, and whoever else is involved is forced necessarily to tell a disjointed and non-linear story. The player has to have the freedom to choose their own pathway in the open world, and as such unless they're lured in with an appropriately massive reward, most gamers are probably going to explore a good deal before going on the epic-of-epics quest that has the most potential storytelling power. And without linearity (which most people are attached to when experiencing a story) any kind of overarching plot falls flat.

The other issue is that of not having a definitive ending. You can have arcs, perhaps—a story that carries players through one part of a game to another. But MMORPGs don't end, and all stories, when it comes to it, have an end. And more importantly, a climax. An epic moment when all things are at their height, and all that has been done is on the line.

I could say a lot more on that subject, but I'll refrain.

As for other genres, Naughty Dog has done a fantastic job of blending game elements with Uncharted, and by god their newest game (The Last of Us) looks like their best effort yet. So much of the problem is making the characters feel human, and so much of that is getting the movements—the AMBIENT movements—down exactly. Hands shifting, head turning, tensing up as you approach someone you're about to stab (to use Splinter Cell: Conviction as an example), each of these needs a unique signature. Humans are complex creatures.

And then there's weight. Not just literal weight, as in Skyrim or other Bethesda games. Weight to movements, weight (figuratively speaking) of knowledge, weight (literally speaking) of weapons and ammunition. Most FPS game protagonists hold guns like they're made of plastic. And most people are too concentrated on the shiny graphics to care.

I've given up games for the next year (link to post on that issue: because I've found them more harmful than helpful, but there are some great stories out there for sure, and I'll be sad not to be able to experience them.

I was about to wonder aloud why no one has commented here, but I just noticed that I'm commenting on a post two years gone. Ah well.

I hope you'll post something new soon, if you have the time. I've looked for someone else to be aware of these issues for years now.

Roz Clarke said...

Hi Nathaniel! Nobody's commented because I'm not good at posting consistently, so I've never drummed up steady readership. Thanks for chipping in! I'll check out your link.