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Oluseyi

Story and 'fun': orthogonal or counteractive?

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The question was recently posed why games today aren''t as much "fun" as the games of yesteryear. Ignoring the question of whether that is actually true, given that fun is subjective, or whether it isn''t just nostalgia, I reviewed the games that I had played and found fun. Here''s the interesting thing: they lacked substantial storylines. I mean, these are videogaming classics I''m talking about: Double Dragon, Shinobi, any Mario game, Ninja Gaiden, Contra. None of these games has much in a way of a story; all they actually present is a premise - the bad guys have your girlfriend/wife/daughter/other helpless maiden/buddy/master; go rescue him/her (kicking major butt along the way). Even when the games purported to have a backstory, like Metroid, they usually only paid lip service to them. I mean, if Samus Aran is a bounty hunter, how come she never seemed to actually be hunting anything - or even be sought out for some hunting? Naturally, people attempt to refute this argument by providing counterexamples. "Look at the Final Fantasy series," they say. "That was fun!" Actually, I never was interested in Final Fantasy (I''ll admit, I''m not really a gamer), but I also never heard any of my gamer friends describe it as "fun." They''d go on about the incredible graphics and deep, involved story, but they''d never use the term fun. In any case, it would appear that generally the more story your game has the less sheer "fun" it is, as again evinced by Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. One review characterized it as similar to "playing a movie", and it wasn''t entirely a compliment. I think the problem is that interactivity and narrative are like endpoints and we locate our games somewhere along the continuum between them. The more definite the story you wish to tell, the less probable it is that the user will be able to get that sense of shaping events - especially upon replay - because there are too many narrative "choke points." What do you think? Also, do you think it is possible to devise mechanisms that develop the "story fabric" in response to player action, so that a set of motives, premises and unresolved tensions are all that the game presents and the final outcome is completely dependent on user action? Thanks for reading.

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I know what you mean, and I''ve found that I enjoy trigger-finger games a lot more than turn-based, chatty RPGs or (ugh) strategy games. But that''s a personal thing. I think comparing Contra to Final Fantasy is like comparing Football to Chess.

RPGs in general are very involving plot-wise. You have to solve puzzles, you have to find treasures, and you have to level up until you can beat the next boss. Plot twists are a big deal because you''re emotionally connected to the characters, and the plot gives you added motivation to accomplish the given goal and beat the mission. RPGs also require some imagination, along the lines of "if I was a king who was accidentally sent a thousand years into the past, where would I be hiding?". When you beat the game, you feel like you went on an adventure into a fantasy world.

Trigger-finger games give you level after level with more or less the same objective in increasing difficulties, and you have to get more and more adept at accomplishing that objective. When you beat the game, you feel like you mastered a skill.

These kinds of games generally appeal to different audiences, and there are many people who find one or the other "fun".

Doesn''t mean you can''t have both, and cater to both audiences. For example, the sheer artistry and originality of the cutscenes in Max Payne made the gameplay more interesting without being a major bore.

Tom

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I think that many game writers are too eager to tell a story. With the technology today, it is easy and tempting to make predesigned movie-like scenes. Almost every game from ye olde times had simple rules that were the same through the whole game, and only the challenges varied.

For example, in Mario games, you might have a wide pit that you have to cross. It''s your choice how you do it. Maybe you still have the blue Yoshi from the previous stage, and use his flying ability. Maybe you wait for the flying koopa, and jump on it. Whatever your solution, it follows the game rules. When you succeed, you have the feeling that you are quite good at crossing pits. You start to make your own tactics. The solutions are yours. "Take that, level designer! No pit can match my skills!"

In Half-Life, some electric wires touched a puddle of water in a hallway. In a few seconds, you realized that this is a predesigned puzzle in the game. You had to find someone else''s solution. Not too surprisingly, there was a handy stack of boxes that reached all the way to some ventilation pipes, which could be used as a bridge over the puddle. I had absolutely no feeling of triumph crossing it. It wasn''t fun.

Don''t take this as an offence to Half-Life. I loved the game.

I think this is the very essence of designing games. Players must be able to play the game, not try to move from scene to scene. Players must be able to feel that they are good at the game. Not just skilled "in character". You can''t brag to your friends that you crossed the electric pool by climbing the pipes, no matter how heroic it might have been. The kid next door did the exact same thing. Your sister did it. The whole climbing was assigned to you when you bought the game.

The problem imho comes from the idea that games today have to be big. Big leads to Epic Stories. Epic Stories lead to breathtaking scenes. Breathtaking scenes lead to a loud sigh.


I tried to grenade-jump over the puddle. Just for fun.

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quote:
Original post by ParadigmShift
RPGs in general are very involving plot-wise. You have to solve puzzles, you have to find treasures, and you have to level up until you can beat the next boss.
Okay, brief detour from the realm of writing into game design. As juuso points out, trigger-finger games present you with a situation and let you apply your skills in any way you wish to solve it. Plot-based games present a situation with only one (approved) way of surmounting, which is restrictive and destroys the immersive experience. It also creates that dissociation that makes you feel that you're "playing a movie." Is it possible to devise puzzles that leave the exact manner of the solution up to the player? The problem with this is that game designers feel such puzzles/challenges are "too simple" - jump over this platform, get to that level. They want complex, "involved" puzzles that are more "challenging" and help to prolong the game completion time.

A good movie isn't substantially longer than a bad one; it's all about the quality of the entertainment.

quote:
Plot twists are a big deal because you're emotionally connected to the characters, and the plot gives you added motivation to accomplish the given goal and beat the mission. RPGs also require some imagination, along the lines of "if I was a king who was accidentally sent a thousand years into the past, where would I be hiding?"
But in reality, often in such games the king would be hiding wherever the designer chose him to hide. That's okay for reactive elements, but the story often compells the player to outcomes that she wouldn't necessarily suggest. For example, if you place my character under my control early enough in the development of a conflict, I would probably choose to compromise or otherwise defuse the situation. But since the game story requires a fight so that character X can die, I'm compelled to an outcome that I wouldn't necessary select.

Here's the question: we're dealing with an evolving medium for narrative content, and we should explore how the medium can enrich the nature (and responsiveness) of the narrative. Can we author story arcs that are "triggered" by various events and let user actions string them together to create the actual story? For example, say we have John, Alice and Bob as friends from college and you play Bob. John and Alice start dating. If you respect that, the ending you end up with is them living "happily ever after." If you fail to respect that and make a move on Alice and she rejects you, you lose both friends. If you make a move on Alice and she accepts you, you'll eventually lose John's friendship when he finds out - but you walk away with Alice. These are story arcs; the specifics of what happens are all up to the player.

There are primitive narrative generation tools that can take a bunch of descriptive inputs and produce paragraphs that tell the story based on those inputs. I think we should investigate approaches like this more and see what they can do for game writing and design.

[Edit: Quotes all wrong.]

[edited by - Oluseyi on June 17, 2003 1:08:25 PM]

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Hi everyone, first post, hope this isn't too much of a rambling...

quote:
I mean, if Samus Aran is a bounty hunter, how come she never seemed to actually be hunting anything - or even be sought out for some hunting?


Very true, although it can and has been argued that the story is in the gameplay - so while reading a paragraph about how Samus jumped through the corridors is not terribly exciting, maybe it was for the person actually playing it. That interactive element cannot really be expressed through text.

quote:
...as again evinced by Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. One review characterized it as similar to "playing a movie", and it wasn't entirely a compliment.


Now, I must admit I'm a fairly big fan of the game. What seemed to throw many people off, however, was not necessarily the weight of the story, but the length - some of the non-interactive conversation sequences could go on for quite some time. The gameplay is in fact strong and substantial - I would consider the second edition, "MGS2 Substance" to be evidence enough of how well the core gameplay works.

More to the point, I guess, is that this is a valid way of making a game with strong storytelling - cleanly seperate the storytelling from the gameplay when possible, yet make sure they don't alienate each other. It's not that different from having more intro sequences (as mentioned with Double Dragon), but the MGS series in particular has done a good job with how they present it:

-Compelling to watch (the most obvious part)
-Clearly non-interactive (this is a benefit, not a detriment. Camera angles and character movement draw a firm line between when the player is and is not responsible for control, as opposed to many in-game cutscenes that not doing much more than playing a portion of the game for you)
-Non-alienating (the scenes are either real-time rendered or look it. Something extraordinairy may be going on, but at least its not breaking from the world the player has been in. Enter the Matrix would be a good recent example of alienating the player with the cutscenes)

quote:
I think the problem is that interactivity and narrative are like endpoints and we locate our games somewhere along the continuum between them. The more definite the story you wish to tell, the less probable it is that the user will be able to get that sense of shaping events - especially upon replay - because there are too many narrative "choke points."


That sounds about right, but I don't think its a problem so much as a state of gaming. If we dump predefined story altogether, we're in the realm of board games, and if we use it entirely, movies. Part of what is so exciting about this industry is that there is no set point between the two we have to stay at.

quote:
A good movie isn't substantially longer than a bad one; it's all about the quality of the entertainment.


Possibly even further than that; I've noticed most of the really successful titles out there curb the length a bit in many respects. GTA3 and MGS2 are not actually that long in the core game, but have enough gameplay depth that the player, under their own direction, will usually try to extend that playtime after completing the main objective.

It's not that different from cutting scenes from a movie: get the core -the really interesting stuff - in there, but then leave some hints of the cuttings on the floor. Through MGS2, that might be from finding new codec conversations or hidden story elements. Through GTA3, that might be something as simple as taking on the Taxi missions (completely player elective)

quote:
But since the game story requires a fight so that character X can die, I'm compelled to an outcome that I wouldn't necessary select.


I do not necessarily see a problem with this either - player choice need not always directly relate to a final outcome. RPGs with heavy plotlines would be my example, where just because you save the girl from falling doesn't mean she is not going to be shot by the archers on the castle walls, orchestrated long beforehand to fire at her no matter what.

Now some games do let you try anyway (Baldur's Gate comes to mind in a few instances), and while the principle of choice is good, it can also be irritating and counterproductive to know you always have the option even when it has no effect.

quote:
Can we author story arcs that are "triggered" by various events and let user actions string them together to create the actual story?


To a tiny extent, this has already been attempted: BAM's "Way of the Samurai" on the PS2 is a prime example. That game in particular is the "Run Lola Run" or "Yojimbo", in that you are given a limited period of time and a large amount of flexibility. Compared to the RPG idea of a long time and limited flexibility, its like stretching the rubber band horizontally instead of vertically, but it works. Konami's "Shadow of Destiny" also does this to a slightly lesser extent.

The biggest problem with this game type is complexity. It's Choose your own Adventure on a grand scale, where you have multiple arcs and endings, and you need to be able to jump from one section to another seamlessly without writing each plot path as wholy unique.

By the example listed, if Bob can still wiggle his way into Alice's heart after several mistakes, you would need a design capable of slicing into the "Bob and Alice" relationship thread, instead of just writing up a unique, one time only "Bob and Alice after 2 Bob mistakes" thread. Valve, in their Half Life 2 commentary, has been a strong proponent of reducing pre-scripting, and its easy to see why with project types like this.

Anyhow, just my two cents. I love reading these threads.

Cheers,


-Richard "KZ" Knight

[edited by - Richard Knight on June 17, 2003 3:40:23 PM]

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Read this article "http://www.gamedev.net/reference/articles/article1511.asp"

It talks about how to use both Low level and High level storyline in the same game. Enjoy.

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I agree that interactivity and narrative seem to be counteractive qualities. For me, too, a game with a high level of interactivity is infinitely more "fun" than watching a game that aspires to be a movie. You just made me think about things I consider to be fun in playing video games. For one, in Super Metroid, you can roll up into a ball and drop bombs. The bombs make a cool-sounding thud and they propel you in the air a little. Very satisfying. Also, my girlfriend was playing the Harry Potter game (against my wishes). Listening to her play on the couch next to me, I kept hearing a "boing" sound. This boing sound happened every time she jumped on a pad or something. Now, it may sound dumb, but that boing sound was cool. I thought it sounded cool, and I liked hearing it. And she could make that sound any time, just by jumping. It was a simple reaction, but I think it hints at a very powerful reaction gamers have to stimuli. Another example of this would be the prevalence of rumble-type controllers. Players like having that immediate, viceral feedback. I do, anyway. This, of course, represents direct interactivity, pure cause and effect.

Somebody recently (and I'm sure a million people have before) proposed a game that essentially simulates our world down to the tiniest detail. Among the many criticisms that it would be impossible was another asserting that it would be boring. Presumable, this is a person who prefers heavy narrative. For a player who prefers interactivity, though, it would be the ultimate game.

Imagine a game that accurately simulates life down to the smallest detail. Anything you can do in real life, you can do in this game, and it reacts accordingly. You walk up to a scientist and he starts to give you your instructions (a-la Half-Life), but you walk away from him. "Hey, come back here," he says, and runs after you. You continue to ignore him and walk away, whereupon he fires you angrily. Doesn't this level of interactivity generate narrative? Perhaps a happy medium betwixt the two?

[edited by - hunterb on June 17, 2003 4:44:36 PM]

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Guest Anonymous Poster
Some of the statements in this thread are simply silly. Or, at least, there''s some confusion between fun and enjoyable.

It should be perfectly obvious that it is possible to have a fun game, for some values of fun, with little or no story. We''ve all seen abstract puzzlers that have no story at all, and whether or not we personally like them, we know *some* people do. Card games don''t have storylines.

It''s also clear that it''s possible to have a fun game with a superficial story - many platform/action games will make at least a vague mention of plot, even if you never see any sign of it between the game''s loading screen and the eventual endgame movies. Other games stick cutscenes between chapters like candy - jump through this hoop, see the next bit of the story.

There are also enjoyable games with strong storylines - good RPGs often have them. Adventure games sometimes have them (less so since Myst, but I digress). Text adventures often have them (yes, there still is an active text adventure community, it''s just a lot smaller than the number of people who play half-life). Japanese storybook games often have them - but we only get a handful of porn games translated into bad english to judge that category by, so it''s hard to say how good they are.

And these games woudln''t be getting made if *some* people didn''t like them, even if the majority opinion is more interested in twitch.

Now, I admit, when I''m asked to describe how I felt about Fallout or Torment, ''fun'' isn''t usually the first word that passes my lips. In my standard usage, ''fun'' is often only half the phrase - ''mindless fun'' being the whole thing. I like mindless fun games... but I lose interest in them after about ten minutes. Games that I can load up and play for ten minutes and put away again therefore clutter my hard drive.

I *loved* Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid. I would much rather play an interactive story-game with great writing than any new action game, no matter HOW pretty the graphics are. This is not to say that I want to play nothing but text adventures. No. I''m one of the grumbling fans of the old Sierra Quest games, or good RPGs like the aforementioned Fallout and Torment, or possibly those Japanese games if they were available. Interactive is the key, though. Sure, I played d2 - once - but pretty cutscenes do not make it an interactive story game. I *do* want to be able to make choices, ally with some NPCs, alienate others, pick my own romantic interest, see meaningful results of my actions... and dammit, if developers would stop blowing their money on 3d models and shiny water effects and hire some writers who don''t suck, I would buy some games.

Even the indie field doesn''t save me - indie developers think nothing of hiring someone to do their graphics or sound if they can''t do it themselves, but hire a writer? Or even a *proofreader*? They don''t proofread their webpages half the time. Nope, I''m clearly not an interest group they''re targeting.

The benefit of the RPG over the text adventure, the sierra adventure, or the japanese storybook is that it can have a bit of something in many fields. You *do* have a range of physical action available to you in an RPG that you probably don''t in the other. You have things to do that are not completely scripted out. In a system that lets you design your character, you should have multiple ways of solving problems you encounter (or else the game designer is crap). You can make the boing sound as often as you want. If the writer isn''t a chicken, you can slaughter the helpless townspeople and children and laugh hysterically before reloading. And still have people to talk to, puzzles to solve, choices to make.

Not everyone loves RPGs. They don''t have to. But you can have an interactive narrative, and it can be enjoyable. (The text adventure community has been trying to rename themselves ''interactive fiction'' for years, after alll...)

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