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Before I get into this day’s topic, I’d like to remind everyone that there’s a lot of really promising stuff going on recently in support of women in gaming and game development. At the same time, it’s insanely frustrating to see good people getting such terrible treatment from what should be a gender-neutral creative environment. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to see “female developers” and all variety of “nerd girls” work and play without our community feeling the need to throw a gender qualifier onto developer or nerd. Thanks!

Heya Space Cadets,

Welcome to our Monday Concept Diary. I changed my previous idea to hit on something else I’ve been reading about: Storytelling in games, specifically the questions of how to elevate the narrative in gaming and if pursuing a traditional storytelling structure in an interactive medium like games is worthwhile, sensible, or appropriate. Cutting to the chase, I think linear pacing has a place in gaming so long as the experience is interactive, but the question of story versus experience is interesting anyway. To what degree does the interactive medium of gaming require an emphasis on interactive storytelling or non-linear story progression, or even losing the idea of “progression” entirely as a storytelling convention?

First off, let’s establish what I’m using as my terminology, since when people use story or narrative or plot or whatever interchangeably, it gets confusing. One of the interviews I read on this subject, this one by Dyad’s creator Shawn McGrath, seemed to use these terms fluidly and it gave me a bit of a headache trying to figure out what was being asserted. Let’s skip definitions and just say, for this article, we’ll call the story the script of events, and the narrative is the experience of it playing out within a context and from a point of view. If story were your goal, you would be better off writing it down in a book, where it can be savored in a much less complicated manner. I don’t think that’s really what is being questioned here, since the focus seems so much less on story events than it is on narrative.

However, to me, the idea of a linear narrative in a game is a confusing one. There is no doubt that when I play a strictly linear storyline that I’m seeing the same story as everyone else, but the narrative is heavily dependent on how I feel about what’s going on. This isn’t the case in a movie, where you can have different interpretations but can agree on the length, content, and language of the film. In a game you’re viewing these events through the lens of personal investment and unpredictable experience. You have no idea where someone got stuck, what was easy, and what they cared about. This is why people can create compelling stories in their own heads for their XCOM teams despite the fact that the story is as thin, and generic, as a cracker. The story is a lot less important than the narrative, but a story that wrenches back control is more than capable of screwing a good interactive narrative up.

A good example was the original end of Mass Effect 3. While I could never get into the series, I found the ending a fascinating design decision. The game  had sought to establish, over three installments, that inevitability was an illusion that could be conquered by superhuman effort, and that one person can make heroes of others, and change the fate of a galaxy. The end seemed to change rails so hard into fatalism that the new story actually seemed to contradict the narratives some players created through the uniting of AI and Organic life-forms earlier in the game.  Hell, it changed rails so hard it derailed the whole train for some people who didn’t buy into the ending as a metaphorical or allegorical epilogue to a hero’s last act. The harsh rebuttal of the “be your own person, your choices matter” core concept of the game, especially with so much of the buildup to that moment being focused on the essentially meaningless task of uniting a galaxy to oppose what is essentially just a big enemy army, would have been suitable in a movie like The Empire Strikes Back,  but within the interactive medium of a game it just appears to invalidate the entire point of player choice. It was glorious in its strangeness.

I believe the outpouring of rage was because those options represented the heroic narrative being crushed in such a traumatic way that many of the players were unable to remain in the moment. Without an ability to maintain that emotional commitment to the drama of the moment, players will look to the story to give them an explanation, but with so much of this happening out of nowhere it wasn’t a “Would You Kindly” and more like… like… I don’t even know. People searching for a coherent narrative made some amazing leaps, and the indoctrination theory was a brilliant example of players making the story of what happened fit the experience of how it felt to play. But that’s not an example of linear storytelling failing, it’s just story that could have been done better, and didn’t connect with the audience it had cultivated.

One of the alternatives to a linear storytelling structure is emergent or procedural story, or some kind of post-modern structure-less game where “story” is entirely the player’s job to construct. I think that’s a really wussy solution, and it also turns every game into a role-playing game, which seems pretty absurd. This doesn’t do anything to increase the narrative agency of the player, in the sense that the player’s ability to write their own story, meanings, metaphors etc are not improved, just shoves the hard work of writing story onto the audience and blames them if they’re not getting really into it.

I could enjoy a piece of abstract art that is just a blank frame or white canvas, because I’m enjoying it intellectually rather than viscerally, but art is not a story and we shouldn’t confuse experience and story, or ignore the hugely rewarding experience that story can also provide. Games, which are generally much more of a physical experience than art because it is interactive by their very nature, can benefit from that self-written narrative instinct by giving players a bit of mystery and letting them fill in the gaps.  I do encourage that. Humans are natural storytellers. We arrange events into narratives, we search for meanings, and we ascribe motivations to happenstance. Providing players with the tools to invest and invent their own narratives is a great thing, but this has nothing to do with the linearity, so long as the presentation is interactive and doesn’t stomp all over the game’s natural narratives.

If you really want to tell a great story in a game, write a great story, and structure it to be played rather than told, and make sure the playing part is pretty awesome too. Actors tell stories through the smallest of gestures, directors write stories with their camera angles, and games need to grab as many of these tricks as possible and look for ways to tell stories through the actions of the player. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

Spacelab Signing Out

I would like to point out games like Bioshock, Portal 2 and The Line as examples of how clever storytelling manipulates and enriches the player’s personal narrative. These are also games that make the experience of playing the game integral to enriching the narrative experience, because they are recognizing the emotional and physical “context” and “perspective” that the gamer has within their tiny portion of the game’s totality. Games where you are required to escort a flimsy character around, and yet are supposed to feel attachment to them, forget that the player is going to end up hating them because there’s a disassociation between the game’s punishment system and the intended narrative. But if you’re never told to like this character, and then when given an option to be predictably cruel to them the game reveals a horrifying result of that moment of spite… that could be powerful.  While Ebert’s criteria for games being art may be making you feel depressed, I don’t know of many if any, movies that have left me feeling regret and personally responsible for something terrible. Leaving the game bereft of story removes any possibility for players to experience anything as personally challenging as those moments have been, and that’s certainly not the way to enrich the narratives in gaming.

Neil Wickman is the Railroad Tycoon of storytelling. Choo Choo! Get on those rails!

He has been working for Lunar Giant studios since its inception, one of the lead designers and the Creative Director. Listen to his arty nonsense @LunarNeil on Twitter.