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What Every Game Designer Needs to Know about Story

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What Every Game Developer Needs to Know about Story by John Sutherland (Gamasutra registration needed)
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Article Spoiler: Increasingly, story is a hot item in games. Partly, this is because the quality bar is rising in this relatively young art form. As games evolve, people want more depth, not just higher polygon counts. More to the point, game developers want to sell their wares to more people. Selling them to the same ones every time doesn't lead to a lot of growth. It's clear we need to tap into something more universally human. And story is a universal human experience.

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This article is a good start, but there's a lot more to what he's driving at than presented. Probably didn't have time, its a book at least.

I was just thinking about this thing last night. Stories are going to be one of the helpful, solid footing approaches game developers can use to help linearly comfortable people transition to interactive mediums. Two, its a huge embed in the human perception. The writer of that article said "It was a universal human experience" but why it is needs to be explored in more detail for it to be useful for developers.

Plus, we have to see storytelling for what it is. Its a concretized unvariable abstract description method for conveying human concepts from the trivial detail to the symbological archetype. As a descriptive language, man, I'd hate to see it used for programming, but in essence, in terms of human acquisition of knowledge, before programming and human/computer interaction came along, it was and is the primary tool, oral tradition and academic approaches notwithstanding.

What more I was thinking about last night was that when I went to the Stanford Game Lecture series on "Do Games Need Stories?" the overwhelming majority of speakers sounded a resounding 'no', but a few voiced reservations by not saying yes, but by saying 'entirely not' as ambiguously as possible.

They probably said this because of the economic relevance of stories in games in terms of enriching the gameplay experience, thus increasing play value, thus selling more units. They probably had a grasp of the transitional aspects of cultural adaptations of games in terms of the number of players we will see in the future. I sure do, and I'm betting the company on it. It is because of the former that the Sims ironically, will peak and eventually expire, though like a lot of old games (or simulations in this case) there will be a loyal following to the end.

In the presence of total interactivity and no story whatsoever, to surrender authorial control to the player is to turn over the manuscript responsibility to the hands of an amateur, who is weaned on convenience. OTOH, if the player is a core player, they have such self authoring skills bourne of high intelligence, high technical skill and exposure to zillions of titles and thousands of hours of gameplay, they have to practically experience personal growth to become self entertained through interactive self authoring gameplay. Do you play a game for escape of for personal growth? Not all games spawn from seriousgames.org

Humans need stories. So sayeth the MIT Media Labs guru at the GDC presentation on "The Splendid Tangle of Games, Life and Cinema". I'm still trying to decipher the notes to write something up about that. What I think he might be driving at was an uspoken addiction culture and civilization has to stories because it helps us cope with the unknown buy describing probable, graspable and survivable universes in an uncertain future, a bloodied past, a fluxic now and worst of all, a abscense of a comprehensive understanding of what is our reality.

It should also be said that we have to look at the state of story. Anybody who says there is no new ways to tell a story is certainly not onto the fact that only 6% of dramatic structure survived the greeks. That means that 94% is out there working. In my view, as a professional writer looking at the storytelling business for almost twenty years, the peaks we have seen in storytelling in the last decade were The Matrix and Harry Potter. That's just an example of how tough it is to tell a great story, and how easy it is to as hollywood and the theatre describe it "dramatic reenvision [insert classic title]". Well, a dramatic reenvisionment of regurgitate is in the 'safe art' area of suit guaranteed income. But that is a matter of risk aversion, a business (and human consciousness) issue requiring other study.

Most of the professional writers I know don't dare experiement with their described programming language like a programmer would try to come up with something new functionally or methodologically. There's less of a guarantee of income in risk. These are our conservative times, I guess.

Plus, most of the professional writers I know, or amateurs for that matter, simply don't know and use all the tools available to them to reduce the risk of failure in story innovation. All I can say is that I am glad that I am not like them, and, if you hire a writer, really, really check him out and have other writers check out the check out.

Welcome to the story driven game, the next phase in our industry for the next few years to a decade. The story driven game you are used to, know of and expect are not what will be in the near term. There's now something beyond "the epic" in plot construction, and speaking from personal experience, not only is it a thrill to take on creatively, but a bear to manage a functional, palatable telling of it.

Guess what? Writers are amazingly competitive and cunning people, we spend all day becoming better plotters. That is why a homeless woman can write children's books and become a billionaire in assets. And she did it with pencil and pen. On paper. You should have one on your team, and they should be the least vocal person in the crowd, but the best one at description and context.

Adventuredesign

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Well written, adventuredesign, although I have one question for you:

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Original post by adventuredesign
Welcome to the story driven game, the next phase in our industry for the next few years to a decade. The story driven game you are used to, know of and expect are not what will be in the near term. There's now something beyond "the epic" in plot construction, and speaking from personal experience, not only is it a thrill to take on creatively, but a bear to manage a functional, palatable telling of it.


Can you care to elaborate on where you see the story driven game going in the next decade? I've played and enjoyed story driven games for my entire life, and I'm wondering where you see them going that is different from what has gone before.

Personally, I see a greater fusion of interactivity with stories, giving greater agency to the player as the protagonist in a dynamically scripted plot (this is what I and a large number of other people are working towards, although since my project is more of a hobby I doubt I'll get there first).

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I vehemently disagree with the above quoted portion of the article. Most of the games on the market between DOOM and Serious Sam adopted the attitude the article takes, and I can honestly say I was getting a little disgruntled with many of those titles. Serious Sam was an old-fashioned breath of fresh air. It allowed me to simply blow the shit out of bad guys, the way games were meant to be.

I DO NOT like the turn modern games are taking toward becoming movies. No sir.

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does anyone else have more appreciation for the half-life series? These games dumped 100% of the experience of the plot on to the gamer. i think this is great. Everything was up to me as the player to discover and find out. no cut scenes, no narrators. a story was clearly told, but it wasnt told, it was experienced, and such a thing can only happen in a videogame.

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I sure do, and I'm betting the company on it. It is because of the former that the Sims ironically, will peak and eventually expire, though like a lot of old games (or simulations in this case) there will be a loyal following to the end.


What games with stores are still popular? I hate repeating myself, but the two most popular games (world-wide), Broodwar and Counter Strike, have no story (Yes, Broodwar has a campaign mode, but no one pays any attention to it. If it were secretly removed the game, no one would notice).

In fact, I'd say that it's mainly games with stories that "peak and eventually expire", not the opposite.

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Original post by Shingtime
does anyone else have more appreciation for the half-life series? These games dumped 100% of the experience of the plot on to the gamer. i think this is great. Everything was up to me as the player to discover and find out. no cut scenes, no narrators. a story was clearly told, but it wasnt told, it was experienced, and such a thing can only happen in a videogame.

That's why even now I can still keep playing Half-Life.

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Original post by Trapper Zoid
Well written, adventuredesign, although I have one question for you:

Can you care to elaborate on where you see the story driven game going in the next decade? I've played and enjoyed story driven games for my entire life, and I'm wondering where you see them going that is different from what has gone before.


Hmm. Well, in a orthodox technical sense, if you branch a plot line out with enough branches, and in each branch design parallel while diverging away from the plot (say as a subplot, which can easily [sometimes] be designed as a sort of subquest, bearing in mind it must eventually [and plausibly/believeably], return home to the forward progress to the game goal), and then merging back to the main plot line, you can really take somebody an astoundingly long way away from where they think they were going. It's sort of perception engineering by way of designing action and subobjectives relevant to main plot advancement.

This is pretty common knowledge and is practiced all the time. What a lot of writers don't do but are able to most of the time, is make the depth of character, complexity of branch, and probably most important of all, scale of the size of the conflict related to by the player large enough (we're talking the mega-epic, because I lack a better term). I choose to compare and illustrate utilizing Homer's Iliad and Oddessey, because it is a big enough, long enough (in terms of time to outcome) to demonstrate.

Because you have established up front perceptually with the player in the infamous "hook" (what gets them acquainted and engaged in the first ten pages, as it were): "Welcome to the Iliad and Oddesey game, you are HeroDuJour, this is your challenge/predicament, it will take you your whole life to return home to do what was your goal all along, to hang with your fine lady and chill, and oh, while you are at it, you gotta change the whole world one trouble spot at a time"

The player knows they are in for the long haul, and settle down to play long games. This was the great model for epic saga for a few millenia, until scale (in terms of space and time) was reinterpreted by science fiction writers. /me bows humbly to the shoulders of giants he stands upon. These plotists took the concept of ancient back to the known limits of interprable science, having races of species go back (or forward) billions of years, leave behind objects or entities we did not comprehend or interface with functionally until it was appropriate to do so dramatically, when all of a sudden, arnold presses the button and presto, the machine from long ago cranks up and lo and behold, experience interaction investment payoff for the reader/viewer/user.

These all followed a basic pattern, much like the MMORPG's and Epoch (not epoch entertainment, but epoch in terms of span of the era the setting relates to; arthurian games might serve as a good example) related games that MSFT has produced.

Have a great timescale or compexity scale isn't enough, or you will be in (good company nonetheless) the same pattern of epic pattern storytelling as the other offerings presented, and actually not really be doing anything new, or at least in terms of player interpretation (the ball court where it counts in terms of critical review and popular opinion/consumer perception), and you will be doing what I always preach against, competing in an existing market instead of innovating a new category to be the first developer brand in.

Enter my solution, imprecise and untested as it may be (and is not to say I have arrived at any sort of viable advance in plotology; let it suffice to say this is the piece of art that is creating me, or more scientifically, the problem I chose to solve), the multi-genre game. It took me seven years of plot design to arrive at the right percentage, balance and scope of mystery, history, magic, timescale, originating setting, science and technology, contemporary drama, politics and in general gameworld/storyword design before I could employ upon this cumbersome, multilimbed beast perhaps the greatest device ever invented in all of perceptual mechanics, the venerable, reliable and highly unstable and difficult at best to manage 'twist.'

Plot twists are the oh factor on the low end of the scale, bringing audiences back to the edge of their seat and squeaking and bouncing in their seats like a non-sexually suggestive cheerleader, to on the high end, actually doing what good filmic storytelling ought to do, and that is to have you walking out of the theatre thinking about thinking something from a different point of view (rare these days, but that is to me and others, the standard).

Perhaps more importantly, surprising the audience (and for the sake of engagement, whether linearly or interactively, engagment is what players cede to our designs so they may have an experience, whether escape, enlightenment, education or entertainment, so for both forms engagement is necessary to obtain any sort of cathartic experience from audience members, which for all intents and purposes, is the take away value that will cause them, upon reflection, to say, wow, meh or omfg I want to live there).

The twist, usually rendered sparingly, precisely and in just the right construct and size, can take your audience for a mental ride no fantastic setting, no amazing feature, no archetypal attribute, characteristic or character could even hope to do. It is the thing that says to a person who has poured everything they have into keeping you hooked, panting for more, racing to keep up or slightly ahead, "Everything you knew to this point is wrong, so tighten your seat belt even more, because the lid just came off your brain, all bets are off, and the rabbit hole is just a portal, not a destination, my friend."

Twists can be in setting, paradigm (this was not the world I thought it was) acceptance (nothing was more descriptive in a sense of what I was talking about than when [I think it was the character Cypher in the Matrix said, after Neo was first exposed to the way the world actually is in an Everready sense] it was uttered, "He's gonna pop!), relationship (No, not my brother, he's not an evil world domination plotting genius, he's a puker! [bet you'll never guess what film that was from, lol]) and just about anything you want to manipulate on the through line plot of action scale.

Twists are like mental meltdowns when poorly handled, and cause the greatest sin of all, the loss of the suspension of disbelief, and masterfully handled (few better examples of master twist development can be cited than Rod Serling, but he only worked in one 'type' of twist, which took me seventeen drafts and six biographies on him to get a clue about how he did just this one thing masterfully well. I'll never forget how cavalierly the director was when he said, "Give me something Sci Fi and something Serling; as if that was a walk in the park assignment for a screenwriter") can simply and perhaps only be described as transcendental.

So, I began testing, in a very programmatic sense, twists across the array of standard plotting elements and devices, and eventually through alot of tinkering, arrived at the type of twist I felt was most effective (in terms of a tool in my bag of literary tricks of the trade) in blowing my audiences mind away significantly enough so I could do what every communicator feels they must, which is, "Get my message across."

Granted, few writers really have any message to convey worth mentioning, and the proof of this lies simply in the numbers of unpublished and unproduced works in ration to those that are, or, as I like to say, "So much communication, so little understanding, I ought to be in the cell phone minutes business."

In terms of interactive writing, the notion exists that players ought to be able to self author in an interactive environment. Well, that is fine, but people are terrible writers, there is no truth to the notion that there 'is a story in everyone'. What actually exists are the sum of all media exposure filtered as a personal communications paradigm with the speaker in the starring role the vast majority of the time. If this were not true, the phrase, 'we have heard it all before', literally would not exist.

So in a truly interactive environment, you surrender authorial control, and the fun extracted from the play experience engagement time is a function of the number of pre-prepared archetypal buttons the designer/writer can produce in terms of setting, conflict and character, plus the individual ability of the unique user to self author. Not a seminal design strategy, but certainly hits the sweet spot in the market in many cases, and, the game business is like hollywood in that respect, only Warren Spector can really risk, without qualitative evaluations withstanding.

In a story driven game environment, you write a designed response where the branching plot lines by design simulate the impression of interactivity, because you write a play experience with enough lattitude of probable behavioral player choices to simulate almost imperceptably from the player's point of view an interactive experience. Think of a delta comprised of starting at the source, branching into thousands of tiny streams, yet all lead to the sea eventually. You can design each steam and the eddies, rapids, rocks and falls in them any way you want, knowing your player fundamentally wants to get to the game goal to have payoff for meeting the victory condition they accepted when the hook was planted way, way back in your dramatic construct, and if the streamlet leads to the sea, they will most likely enjoy that diversion immensely or not, depending on the personality of the player, something we have only so much control over, as audiences and critics have amply demonstrated over time.

The twist does things like: "There is no stream." "There is no source of the delta." "There is no sea." "This is not my environment at all." It really can, well used, probe fundamental questions about perception, reality and our place in it, perhaps the best iteration of creativity and purpose of art that can be.

Without getting specifically demonstrative of my choice artistically, and giving away the intellectual property farm without remuneration, the twist I chose to employ to create a new scale of plot paradigm were I to describe it would be like a high wire artist on a bicycle riding over a chasm, and the twist I have designed is the point on the balance pole the rider carries where I take the player and bounce them off it into a particular set of coords in the time and space continuum.

Doing this gives me a way to change scale of time and space instantly but plausibly, keeping me away from the unsafe zone of suspension of disbelief disconnect, while stringing several orders of heirarchal nature together like a string of pearls, so you can be in a tiny room in the dark, and know that it is essentially connected to the giant gulf of interstellar space you just left in the portal you just walked through in a plot advancing sense. Man, this is harder to explain than I thought, and I hope I am conveying my point, but this is the essential problem artistically, I can't show you how it works generally, I can only show you how it works in my particular design, and I have had intellectual property challenges before, and well, that is that.

So, using time and space, the glue of perception that is comprised partly of the suspension of disbelief and the engagement with character/avatar in terms of empathy and identification with similar parts of ourselves in their representations, plus the 'twistomatic labs' approach (wonder if I should call my company that?), I have been able to write a game oddessey that is linear but branching, scaleable to massive size without dwarfing the users ability to grasp (for we don't just design for the core anymore if you want to make money in this business) conceptual representations easily and with the 'I'm into where this is heading, wherever that is' rollercoaster effect and in effect, take a linear epic and turn it into intersecting and multiple timescales, subbranch scales and cohesive relevence of all to the main victory condition to maybe having something that is either a massive failure or something I can be artistically proud and satisfied of. In either case, its been a helluva fun ride trying. Because like you, I was dissatified with most of what had come before, and felt I could change that.

HTH,
Adventuredesign



Quote:

Personally, I see a greater fusion of interactivity with stories, giving greater agency to the player as the protagonist in a dynamically scripted plot (this is what I and a large number of other people are working towards, although since my project is more of a hobby I doubt I'll get there first).


We're all walking the thousand mile road, but enlightenment doesn't care how you get there. ;)

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Original post by Kevinator
I vehemently disagree with the above quoted portion of the article. Most of the games on the market between DOOM and Serious Sam adopted the attitude the article takes, and I can honestly say I was getting a little disgruntled with many of those titles. Serious Sam was an old-fashioned breath of fresh air. It allowed me to simply blow the shit out of bad guys, the way games were meant to be.

I DO NOT like the turn modern games are taking toward becoming movies. No sir.



I can see your point of view, and agree with it in a lot of senses. Do you think this is just a fuction of market demand, or the limiation of the interactive entertainment context as a function of what a player is able to actually take away in percieved fun because of their own self authoring capability?

I believe that this is happening mostly because of market conditions, and the public's growing need for a transitional device into game playing as a wider social activity (not that its already practically huge) but writing is full of transitional devices relied on all the time in games.

I definitely am not saying one is better than the other, but I do say I think this is where it is going because of what consumers are demanding, what games to date have too rarely been able to deliver. And who is to say that while on the way to movieville games, somebody is going to discover a way to make games that is better than everything that has come before?

I loved serious sam also, and for some kinds of players, that is their preferred entertainment choice, but for a growing segment of the game playing audience, deeper, more emotionally involving games are what the demand of the market is, which isn't ever necessarily what the art form principles dictate as good game making, not that I would presume to know them all, I mean, look at the 400 rules of game design. It's predicated and unliablized by the phrase "so far". This business reminds me of hollywood, where I have spent twenty years or more. And that is, "nobody knows anything." You may actually be the designer that changes it all and takes it to the next level, leaving movietown games far, far behind.

And, we have to consider the individual developer. I couldn't ever make a space game as good as Wavinator's because that is not the kind of game writer I am, but I do have skilz in mysteries and adventures. So, this is just works for me, and, that is the deal for every designer, or even the market. Even Peter Molyneaux and Warren Spector know their strengths. You aren't going to see either one of them writing and designing a game about romance. Plus, the person who wrote the article really only covered the basics involved, so it was by no means comprehensive in my view.

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Original post by Shingtime
does anyone else have more appreciation for the half-life series? These games dumped 100% of the experience of the plot on to the gamer. i think this is great. Everything was up to me as the player to discover and find out. no cut scenes, no narrators. a story was clearly told, but it wasnt told, it was experienced, and such a thing can only happen in a videogame.


That game got me to fundamentally alter my perception of how a player actually relates to an avatar,and how much farther a game writer can go with the player, because of the way that character was presented.

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