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Heya Space Cadets,

Sorry for the long delay, the Holidays entirely overtook me and I’ve been juggling matters ever since then. We at Lunar Giant were busy over the vacation season, coming up with a bunch of side-project ideas even though we were supposed to be relaxing and spending time with families. We did some of that too, of course. But you can’t just turn it off when you go home!

Something I wanted to talk about at an extreeeeme length, but decided not to (for everyone’s sake) is the idea of stories in games.

I’ve seen a bunch of stuff here and there about stories. It happens, I get a lot of my “What’s big in gaming chatter now” from hearing other people talk, and the idea of storytelling was being dragged out to the woodshed recently. Narratives in games are often seen as developer speedbumps or Don Quixote windmills that distract from the “important stuff,” like the “mechanics” and “buttons” and “pew pew.” Right there I’m going to fly my colors and say that story is as much a mechanic as jumping is, or shooting, or anything. And furthermore, most of the problems with stories in games amount to the person writing the story being very bad at it.

In fact, I would say that depending on the game, it is a hugely important mechanic. How is storytelling a mechanic? Let’s approach it from another angle. Sound isn’t usually considered a mechanic either, but in a survival horror game sound will be used to create the sensation of terror that is hugely important to the game working. That’s a mechanic. Don’t believe me? Health is a mechanic, right? Health and wounding? In a survival horror game, health and wounding and sanity are usually used to help reinforce a feeling of vulnerability and terror, so the “health mechanic” often visualizes this with limping, blurred vision, hearing voices, and so forth, and often a thumping heartbeat. The heartbeat, the sound of breathing… that’s part of the “health mechanic,” and if you ditched the healthbar entirely (Dead Space isn’t far from it) you could basically call the “health mechanic” nothing more than the sound effects. Right?

So essentially, despite the fact that sound isn’t usually seen as a “mechanic,” the idea of game mechanics is a smoke-and-mirrors operation. You assume mechanics are like little gears that “do” stuff while sound, art, and story aren’t–and that there’s a way to break one from the other. I’ve been heard to say that chasing graphics is a waste of time, and that graphics don’t really matter, but what people don’t usually hear is that graphics don’t really matter so long as what you’ve got is effective.

So back to story. In that survival horror game we’re envisioning, story is also a mechanic, though one usually underutilized. Sanity effects are pretty clearly a mechanic, right? Why aren’t we linking the story progression to the sanity depletion of the main character? Why do we treat story like an inviolate railroad? It’s not surprising so many people think story is either a tertiary goal or something that can be handled via emergent or procedural elements when your stories suck and work against the flow of the game.

One narrative (pun intended) in the talk about game stories is that coming to the table with a story written out is a sure recipe for disaster. This isn’t true, but you gotta remember that all genres play to different strengths. Are you making an adventure game in the old Lucasarts model? Well, then I’d really recommend you write out a good, solid story right from the get go and then make the art, puzzles, and mechanics serve that story. Are you making a platformer? In that case, I can see adding story later, once you know what kind of world you’re creating.

What people are failing to do is to see story as an element of design alongside all the rest. By identifying story as some “other” element, of course it feels tacked on. You’ve decided to tack it on at the end! Games with an emergent narrative, like X-COM, work well because their story mechanics suit the game mechanics. If you’re going to slap a Hollywood story on the back-end of a game not designed to support it, then yes, it absolutely will feel stupid, and that’s the fault of bad design and bad writing, not a failure of narrative as a convention.

Shoehorning in a story outside the scope of the experience is as bad as shoehorning in any other mechanic that makes no sense. Shoving a sanity mechanic into Mario might sound funny as an experiment, but it doesn’t improve the gameplay as-designed. Forcing a Mario-esque jumping and platforming mechanic into first person shooters was the cause of… I don’t even know how many headaches back in the early days. People didn’t have a game-design vocabulary that didn’t include jumping and platforms. Nowdays people are suffering the same way from story. Not only do some games benefit from a procedural story, sure, but a lot of games do not. If you don’t want to continue creating the negative narrative spiral of bad game stories, look to what you’re doing as a developer (and look to what developers are trying to pawn off to you gamers) and fix it.

It’s that simple. Fix it. Write a better story.

You accept bad stories at your own peril, game industry. In great part the explosion of the Mass Effect 3 Ending Controversy was squarely due to the fact that the ending was just not written well. I’m not saying the plot of the ending was bad, or that it didn’t flow from the action preceding it, as I never played more than a little Mass Effect 1 and never really got into it. But since the videos were everywhere, I watched the ending, and what really struck me was how clear it was to me (an outsider to the game) how badly written that piece of game was, despite the fact that it should have been the most well-crafted element of the entire SERIES. People care, and even if you have no artistic pretensions, there’s a lot of money to be made.

Story is one of the ways you create an attachment to a character or a franchise. It doesn’t need to be a deep story, but if it is a good one, then people will come back. Why developers would show such barely-veiled malice towards story writing is beyond me, especially when it is such a powerful tool, is beyond me. I can only imagine that the poor way the industry handles story-writing leads to projects being handicapped by someone’s pet story, and that the idea of storywriting as a occupation within the game development community challenges some degree of authorial control a game director has. I see that changing though, I really do. I think we can only get better and better stories from here out, though dragging some of our community there may be in the “kicking and screaming” variety.

Spacelab Signing Out

As a final kind of point, narratives can shape the game’s development in an very positive way if the story is the main vehicle of the game’s experience. For a game like Journey, experience is nearly the entire selling point, not an adrenaline kick or competitive tournaments or anything, so story is very important. That story is very simple, and it is told in music and level design and a bit of cinematic now and then, but the experience was powerful enough to get at a bunch of people in a major way. You can’t get that without sitting down ahead of time and planning how you’re going to advance the game in accordance with the emotions you want to evoke. Those kinds of games cannot spring from a “mechanics first, story second” mindset. Even having a vague idea and then moving onwards won’t cut it for a game with more meat to it than Journey.

Its okay to have a lousy story, it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes you’re there just for the spectacle and the fun. You can also have a competent but very basic story, that’s fine too. But the idea that a “good story” in a game is still something you’re best served to do last is backwards. Coming up with a broad theme is fine, but you cannot simply bide your time until you’ve got mechanics figured out. Someone has to be there thinking of really clever stuff the whole time. Do it collaboratively, I’m not saying the mechanics serve the story, remember. I’m saying they’re all mechanics for serving the experience.

Neil Wickman will go to war for narrative.

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