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The Essence of Gaming as a Storytelling Medium

By ToastyKen in Media
Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 12:00:20 PM EST
Tags: Software (all tags)

I've been thinking lately about the gaming as a storytelling medium, and what new avenues there are to explore. Thing is, games today are still mostly linear. People still leap in joy when a game merely employs branched linear structure or a few parallel threads. Given the amount of interaction that's possible with a computer, I'm rather surprised at the limited importance the player generally has to the plot.

I'm particularly interested in two things: (1) What makes gaming a unique medium for storytelling (and how to exploit it in new ways), and (2) what makes games actually playable and enjoyable (which needs to be kept in mind or no one will play your game, no matter how inventive).

What makes gaming unique?

The obvious answer is "interactivity", but what does that bring us, really?

  • The ability to see the consequences of different decisions.
  • The emphasis on identification with the protagonist.

What else? And how can we exploit these traits to do things that can't be done as well in any other medium? What can we do to stress these traits that no one has ever done before?

What makes games enjoyable?

This may seem simple, but I think it's actually the tougher question. What is at the core of "playability"? Why do we play want to keep playing a game after we've started? Why might we, in some cases, want to re-play a game?

  • Desire to see the ending. This is where games have a similar appeal to most linear stories that are sufficiently interesting. In branched linear or parallel thread games games, the player may desire to see all possible paths. (This can actually prove disruptive in trying to create a true sense of non-linearity.)
  • Desire to "prove to yourself" that you can beat the game. A self-challenge kind of thing.
  • Competition with others, both for high scores and during competitive, multiplayer games. (There have been very few attempts to put significant storytelling in the latter type, however.)
  • Curiosity about emergent phenomena. This is different from the first point in that this applies to truly non-linear games (simulations, for instance) with events that can happen without explicit scripting.

What other basic motivations for gaming are there? Which of these are truly fundamental, indispensible, and what kinds of balances can be reached?

Specifically, I think that simulations with complex AIs for a large number of NPCs (think of it as a massively "multiplayer" single player game) hold a lot of promise for generating really interesting storylines that the player may relate to and learn from. While a game like The Sims has these sort of complex interactions and emergent behaviors, it has very limited story-telling ability, and it only really exploits the last of the reasons-for-gaming listed above.

How can we merge simulation and authorship to create, say, a thrilling spy or detective adventure where the suspects are all complex AIs generating large portions of an interesting and engrossing story as they go along.. where the author merely sets up the mood and theme, while the computer generates the plot? It seems quite plausible to make the simulation, but how would we generate a plot that's interesting enough to make the player keep playing? How can we randomize it enough so that players might want to play it again?

What do you all think? What are the most prominent unique features of gaming as a story-telling medium? What causes players to want to keep playing the game? While computers may not be able to write good novels any time soon, I think that gaming may be a perfect medium for computers to start playing a larger role in doing the storytelling.

We just need to figure out how to make those stories worth playing!


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What is the most important factor in gaming as a storytelling medium?
o Human-authored core plot with meaning and substance 24%
o Machine-adjustments to the plot for variety and novelty 12%
o Puzzles and gameplay to involve the player in the plot 12%
o Player's role in helping to shape the plot and become a co-author of sorts 51%
o Something else entirely; I'll let you know in the comment I'll post :) 0%

Votes: 33
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
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o Also by ToastyKen

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The Essence of Gaming as a Storytelling Medium | 37 comments (35 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
Fixed link (5.00 / 1) (#3)
by ToastyKen on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 12:46:31 AM EST

Here's the fixed link, in case my submission gets posted despite the broken link. (Apparently, previewing screws up the URL. *sigh*)

What makes a game fun? (4.50 / 6) (#4)
by gblues on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 01:38:05 AM EST

A game, loosely defined, is a set of problems with rules governing how those problems may be solved.

It is not about providing a "rich interactive multimedia experience." It is not about telling a good story. It is not about seeing the ending, competition, accurate simulations, or any of the other bullshit you hear spewed by PR firms from failing development houses.

The core component that makes a game fun is the rules that define the game. More commonly known as the gameplay.

Now, "rules" is a fairly abstract term when it comes to computer games. It's easy to understand in a common sport like basketball, where the rules are all based on common human behavior (such as running around without dribbling the ball). The "rules" in Super Mario Bros control how high Mario can jump; what he can and cannot stomp; how fast he can run; what can and can't be killed with a fireball; what objects Mario can stand on; and so forth. What makes Super Mario Bros a fun game isn't the storyline (ooh! save the princess!), it's the challenge involved in negotiating the obstacles provided in each of the levels. It's the electronic version of the obstacle course you ran through in the park as a kid.

As you no doubt learned as a kid, some obstacles are more fun to overcome than others. Climbing an oak tree might be fun, but climbing a holly tree is not. The same applies to games. Sometimes it's as simple as an interface problem (like the holly tree example), sometimes the rules are too hard or too easy.

Knowing what makes a given set of rules fun or not is a talent few possess. A few notables I can name off the top of my head are Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario, Zelda), the late Gumpei Yokoi (Metroid), Warren Spector (Deus Ex, System Shock, Thief 1&2), and Sid Meyer (Civilization II, Alpha Centauri, Pirates!). None of these games are known for their compelling storyline (well, maybe the Thief games, although Warren was more of an influence/consultant on those games), all of them are known for being top-notch games of the highest caliber.

The most a good story can hope to do is make a fun game even more entertaining. However, most story-driven games only get replayed when the player wants to see the story again, not because the game itself was fun. Fun games are those that keep getting played long after reaching the end (if the game *has* an end). Bad writing never kills a good game, but it can be the only thing that saves a bad one.

... although in retrospect, having sex to the news was probably doomed to fail from the get-go. --squinky
Well put. (4.00 / 1) (#35)
by Mantic on Tue Jan 30, 2001 at 07:28:24 AM EST

Interactive Fiction (IF) is a kind of game, rather than an aspect of every game.

But a lot of us do like real world correlatives in our games, even when they don't fit the IF category, as it's perhaps easier to relate to the knight in a computer role-playing game than the knight on your chess board. For certain I enjoy conquoring China in Romance of the Three Kingdoms much more than cornering the same old king on the same old grid, because I'm given a world full of interesting resources that are tagged with the visages of Sun Ce and Lu Bu (OK, maybe this is an obscure reference, but I love that old game).

Nonetheless, making the distinction between IF and other game-types with story elements would probably be the best place to start such a discussion. Interactive Fiction as a game-type has all but disappeared in the last decade, but maybe it's secretly mounting a resurgence.

[ Parent ]

You really have limited yourself to technology (4.00 / 4) (#5)
by turtleshadow on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 02:32:31 AM EST

The defined used of "gaming" is very narrow here. I understand your doing so for a purpose; you post reads like a programmer or a developer.

The biggest importance for me in any game (since Zork ) is interaction with people.
Regardless the 1st, 2nd, 3rd person, maps, skins, whistles, cow bells and flashing buttons; the people interaction in real life is what makes a game memorable.
I spent countless hours debating what a grue looks like, pleading to the D.M. for that saving roll to eject out of my mech, reminiscing how I inadvertantly did the wrong thing and killed off Roger Wilco, bragged and counter bragged on being the first of the group in figuring out how the moon stones worked or most recently had public conversations about "you know when you opened the door & I was there and blew you away with [insert weapon]I only had 1 point armor/health left!!" and laugh and laugh and laugh.

Games are never fun when there is no one on earth that you can talk to about your exploits, problems or adventures.
All too often discussing a game to someone is so disjoint from their solo experience -- why bother?
Pick your most despised activity and then find people who talk and talk about it. The field study should give some insight; "that which people enjoy is that which they can share and talk about."

And for all the developers listening that's much more than setting up a fan site with forums, allowing the public to make maps or put their face on the avatar. Its the "thing" that is hard to define that sets people to talking.
  • 10 years ago I got out of text base Adventure games. The challenge to figure out the medium was addictive. I could identify with other gamers. I understood exactly the items, rooms etc they were stuck in. I could share stories and experiences, when that was lost I left.
  • 6 years ago I got out of MUDDing. The allure to participate in games similar to those H.S. D&D sessions was addictive. I could associate with other MUDD players, share info, tell stories, when that was lost I left.
  • 2 years ago I got out of FPS. The grandure of knowing of all the maps was addictive. I could associate with other FPS players, share strategies, tell stories, etc, when that was lost I left.

If I had my way the companion book for "game" trend would be discouraged. Its a bad way to distribute a poorly written manual that people ought to have in the first place

If you haven't gotten the drift great games make a story teller out of you in the process of telling you the story.
That a truth in gaming, that's a truth in real life.

player as the storyteller (none / 0) (#10)
by ToastyKen on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 02:40:53 PM EST

I totally agree with your point that players telling each stories about their experiences is a vital aspect of it... But I see that as very analogous to sports.. i.e., "He got past two of the guards but I rejected him just as he was going for the basket." Telling stories about your games..

But the thing is, I think good story-telling on the author's part is important too, or there would be no novels or movies. The multiplayer trend is already exploring the player-player sports-like storytelling aspect quite well. It's the author-storytelling part that's not as well-investigated, so that's what I'm more interested in at the moment.

[ Parent ]

what makes gaming enjoyable & realism (4.66 / 3) (#6)
by _Quinn on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 02:40:25 AM EST

   As you noted, what makes gaming unique/distinct from 'normal' storytelling is the interaction. Good interaction promotes game enjoyability, and you can see this in the push for realism. A realistic game, since it borrows from reality, can usually provide a wider range of interactions (and therefore strategies, skills, etc) than a game which does not. Realism is not necessarily about the here and now; for instance, Deus Ex is 'realistic' science fiction. Nothing in the game jumped out at me as an engine/simulation limitation.* As another comment noted, gaming is a set of problems with rules for solving them. 'Realistic' games happen to include the rules of physics. There's nothing to say, however, that a game's rules couldn't also happen to include rules about characters.

   This is the defining difficulty of interactive story-telling. Simulating a world with known logical and mathematical laws and properties is hard enough; 'breakable geometry' is still a gee-whiz feature instead of the norm. Populating that world with the bundles of motivations and fears and loves and tempers (etc) that are people is at least an order of magnitude harder, and it's worse, because most of the time you can get away with invariant geometry, but having someone repeat themselves when you talk to them is utterly unbelievable.**

   Why my emphasis on characters? Because there are two main genres of stories. The first, the plot-driven stories (the thriller and detective genres, mostly), are the equivalent of the first-person shooter. Dirk Gently and Jack Ryan are much more important for what they do then who they are. These kinds of stories are already pretty well established in gaming. There's more work to be done: the 'what happens next?' motivation for a plot-driven story must become 'What if?' for a replayable game. For instance: what if Neo and Trinity hadn't stared at each other for so long before picking up the phone in the subway? If they both got out before Neo fought the agent (and later died), how does that change the story? And then there's the other type of story, character-driven: how does that change how Trinity and Neo feel/act toward each other?

   So I think character is the fundamental problem of story-based gaming, more so than mood or theme or location or time; you'll notice that pencil & paper RPGs provide sourcebooks for locations and times, and typically have a theme associated with the system, and a mood with the prebuilt adventures. For example, the Shadowrun main rulebook supplies a place, Seattle; a time, 2058+; and a theme, cyberpunk + magic. Similar things can be done in story-based gaming: the bedroom of the protoganist probably varies from story/game to story/game, but there's usually no need to change the kitchen.

* Well, actually, I killed all the Men In Black when they invaded Paul's apartment, and he still refused to come to the chopper with me. This was necessary for the plot, but it was really jarring.
** OK, fine, two things about Deus Ex. People repeated themselves. That was OK, though, because I got used to only 'talking' to them once.

Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
Characters repeating themselves repeating thems... (none / 0) (#11)
by ToastyKen on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 02:51:27 PM EST

This is the defining difficulty of interactive story-telling. Simulating a world with known logical and mathematical laws and properties is hard enough; 'breakable geometry' is still a gee-whiz feature instead of the norm. Populating that world with the bundles of motivations and fears and loves and tempers (etc) that are people is at least an order of magnitude harder, and it's worse, because most of the time you can get away with invariant geometry, but having someone repeat themselves when you talk to them is utterly unbelievable.

I totally agree.. The thing is, how can you possibly avoid that? To get sufficiently different dialogue, are there Eliza-like engines we can use for the AIs? Why haven't we seen more generated-speech for NPCs, rather than just scripted ones that keep repeating when you talk to the same character again? Is this doable? Does anyone know of any games that do more complex dialogue-generation?

Or is this a hopeless cause, and we should just aim at interesting behaviors for now because speech is too hard?

[ Parent ]

avoiding repetition (5.00 / 1) (#14)
by _Quinn on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 03:32:12 PM EST

   The very simplest kind of avoidance is to have them get progressively more irritated with you when you keep pestering them, until they do something -- ignore you, call the cops, whatever. This just a very simple behavior simulation for a certain type of NPCs like hotel desk clerks and the like. Truly free-form conversation defines AI (according to Turing, anyway :)), so some way to truncate the conversation tree in a believable way is necessary. "You think he doesn't want to talk to you anymore," though, doesn't cut it. Part of it, I guess, is that the game must make you want to not talk to people too often -- that is, have distinct converstation end points, make it clear what the NPC knows and that you've gotten everything useful out of him/her without the dreaded repetition. Deus Ex did a good job of this; JC asked (pretty much) everything I wanted to know.

   The alternative, of course, is multiplayer RPGs, where you don't need AI because you have people. Game design might be able to eliminate 'uninteresting' characters -- fully automated stores, for example. Or maybe when you 'talk' to a store clerk, instead of starting a conversation, the game dumps you into an interface screen. It's an interesting problem, and I'm not sure how much research is being done about it.

Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
[ Parent ]
re: avoiding repetition (none / 0) (#19)
by ToastyKen on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 09:41:31 PM EST

Hm. Getting to the point where they don't want to talk to you is an interesting approach, and probably rather realistic,even..

Actually, this reminds me of the other issue, which is that you should have something interesting to say to THEM, right? I mean, freeform questions probably won't work anyway, so usually you just have canned questions or maybe you can ask them about something.. In the first case, I think the "I can't think of anything else to say" approach could work quite well. In the latter, they can easily just get annoyed that you're asking them the same thing.

In a more freeform simulation-like game, which is kind of what I have in mind, I think it'll be a whole task in and of itself to figure out what YOU, the player, can ask and say! Thanks for bringing that to my attention! :)

[ Parent ]

text-based adventure (none / 0) (#33)
by kubalaa on Mon Jan 29, 2001 at 08:28:29 AM EST

That's why I think the future of good games will be a return to the text-based adventure style, but with more intelligent parsing engines and dialogue generated on the fly. It's like they're always saying about CLI vs GUI; an adventure game where you point and drool can't be anywhere near as deep as one you can talk to, even if it's always saying "I don't know what blah means."

Ever play Starship Titanic? It sounded cool when it came out but I never had the time.

[ Parent ]

Zork (graphical) (none / 0) (#34)
by _Quinn on Mon Jan 29, 2001 at 02:27:42 PM EST

   I can't remember the name of the game right now, but IIRC, the very first graphical Zork (by Activision, IIRC) has this intro section where they had what amounted to a transparent xterm layered over a 3D (looked to be voxel) rendering of a small white house with a mailbox to the west. (Or was it east?) And the animation typed in 'go west', and the POV swung around and headed off to the mailbox. I always that that was amazingly cool, and it pissed me off to no end that the actual game wasn't like that.

Reality Maintenance Group, Silver City Construction Co., Ltd.
[ Parent ]
Fallout... (none / 0) (#28)
by CyberQuog on Sun Jan 28, 2001 at 06:07:32 PM EST

Fallout did a good job with the dialog tree cutting off. You could anger people just by talking to them too many times. I think Fallout is a great example of an interactive story working well. For instance, at one part I had a choice of stealing a water generator for my village, and letting an entire city of people die, or fix the big cities water supply and then bring it back.....I let the bastards die.

[ Parent ]
I loved Deus Ex (none / 0) (#25)
by roystgnr on Sun Jan 28, 2001 at 03:17:16 PM EST

Deus Ex is simply the best single player FPS I have ever played. Of course, I know this is an empty accolade on the order of "Babylon 5 was the best SF on television"; the competition isn't exactly breathing down their necks. Still, they managed to keep the sci-fi plausible, the action fun (with bloodshed avoidable in many cases if you were moderately clever), and even the conspiracy theories weren't too hokey. It had the feel of moving through a self-consistent world, not a series of levels.

That, I think, is what I want from an adventure game. The feeling like this isn't all some script crafted around me, but a much larger world which my protagonist just happens to be viewing a small slice of. That means that NPCs should have their own motivations, not just the desire to block or advance your progression through the game. Settings should be expansive, not linear. Decisions made in the game should have major, discernable consequences.

Of course, this is all hard to do, for the main reason that there isn't a larger world, and the game is a script crafted around the one player. Massively multiplayer games do something to correct this, but the ones I've seen fall under zephiros' description: "throw a lot of towns, monsters, and quirky NPCs at the player and call whatever happens a 'story'".

The second reason, of course, is that giving a player "choices" is freaking hard for a storyteller to do. Suppose you want a player to have just 4 choices in a game which change the outcome of all future events. Well, that gives you 16 endings you need to write, and about 6 times as much plot to write over the course of the game. We need either AI sophisticated enough to make much of the dialogue and events in such a game autogenerated, or a team of writers tireless enough to do 5 times as much work as any given player ever sees.

Of course, people expect that kind of branching. Deus Ex's solution was to allow branching on a tactical level but not a strategic one. There may have been three ways to accomplish any given mission, and one or two side missions to involve yourself in along the way, but by the end of the level you got to the same place, regardless of how you got there. This sort of limited decision making tricked and annoyed a lot of players like you and I who simply expected the Men in Black raid to be beatable (it was) and expected capture afterwards to be avoidable (it wasn't).

I didn't mind people repeating themselves, by the way. Most NPCs didn't repeat a thing until you had talked to them a dozen times, which meant that when they did repeat it was clear that further conversation wouldn't be productive, but it wasn't immediate and annoying. You simply had to talk to most characters more than once if you wanted to hear the whole story, by the way.

I think we'll see some interesting developments once an open source gaming engine reaches the level that Deus Ex is at. The "tireless team of authors" approach may just be workable when you can recruit from all over the internet, and when the financial and software barriers to entry are nonexistant.

[ Parent ]

Forgot one: (5.00 / 1) (#27)
by roystgnr on Sun Jan 28, 2001 at 03:27:23 PM EST

There's one interesting way to have a truly branching storyline that I completely left out (perhaps because I've never seen it in action on a computer): the Dungeon Master.

Neverwinter Nights is working towards something like this. They'll have a Baldur's Gate type single player game, but also allow multiplayer gaming with a dungeon master who can step into NPCs' shoes, make world changes on the fly, etc. You play in a premade module, just as you might play a paper RPG in a premade world, but the DM is given sufficient control to extend that world as play goes on.

This kind of system could work in any number of ways; the trick is interface. It takes months of fulltime work for designers to create the world of traditional RPGs; a "dungeon master" has to be able to extend a world in realtime, albeit with many of the hard jobs (models, monster types, much of the terrain, etc) done in advance.

[ Parent ]

Why do you need AI when you have RPGs? (2.66 / 3) (#7)
by extrasolar on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 04:00:03 AM EST

You speak about non-linear play and emergent phenomena. I have found such a thing and it is called a Role Playing Game. And it doesn't use any artificial intelligence at all!

You simple subscribe to a mailing list or web forum and post a message about your character. Then you write about the actions of your character. Other posters then reply with the actions of their characters. With a dose of creativity, it can end up pretty involving.

Is this what you are looking for or is the lack of 3D graphics not giving you enough of a "immersive experience" ?

BTW: If anyone knows of some great online RPGs of this sort (the story-telling sort, not the final fantasy kind) I would love to know. I've been using Yahoo! clubs. But I would like to know about what else is out there. Perhaps a link to an FAQ, newsgroup, anything would be great. I am rather new to this myself.

Are you kidding? (none / 0) (#9)
by Mantrid on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 12:05:33 PM EST

What's the average attention span these days? 30 seconds. I want see my spells go off now dammit and they'd better be shiney too!

Computer based games are fun, though perhaps they don't offer as much room for your imagination. Things will continue to get better as the Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Game genre matures past meta-quake levels.

Actually one that sounds interesting is Dawn, they really seem to be trying to set up things for the hardcore roleplayer (consequently it may not be the game for me, but we'll see).

[ Parent ]

Multiplayer vs. Single-player (none / 0) (#12)
by ToastyKen on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 02:56:20 PM EST

I agree that the trend now is toward multiplayer RPGs, where other people take over the role of the author so you don't have to program a bunch of AIs because real people take their place.

However, I think this is only one possible path, and it's the path we're taking now because it's easier. I mean, saying that you shouldn't care about single-player stories because multiplayer stories are better is like saying that you shouldn't bother reading or watching movies because it's better and more dynamic to participate in a real-life RPG. The latter isn't better; it's just different. And there's already a lot of attention being paid to that path.. I'm thus more interested in the authored story path, which isn't being explored as deeply, I think, because it's harder.

[ Parent ]

I don't understand what you are saying (none / 0) (#26)
by extrasolar on Sun Jan 28, 2001 at 03:23:02 PM EST

I don't understand what you are saying.

What kind of a game would there be with one character? That sounds like Tic-Tac-Toe, Minesweeper, or maybe some maze that you must traverse. But what most people want to play are games where there are more than one character interacting with the rest. Of course, common are Char A shoots at Char B, Char B ducks, gets a mega-rocket and shoots back. Then Char B swims through all the blood.

As an RPG, that would be boring as hell.

I am also not sure what you mean by an authored game. Does this mean where the player has no say in the storyline? This is done all the time in video games. You go from level 1 to level 2 to level 3...usually there's a story that explains this progression. The only real decision the player makes is whether or not you will die in this level.

[ Parent ]
My two examples... (3.00 / 1) (#8)
by johncoswell on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 10:08:45 AM EST

I've been thinking a bit about this topic lately as well. My little brother just got a Dreamcast and a copy of "Shenmue", and while we had to wait a few days before he could get a VMU to save those 80 file block save game files, the experience of the game was well worth the wait.

After having played the game through in a four-day gaming frenzy, I sat back and thought about why this game seemed to stand out in my mind as something "different" than other RPGs and adventure games I had played. It wasn't a "Dragon Warrior", nor a "Final Fantasy", even though I enjoyed both immensely. Only one other game had stood out like this in my mind..."Chrono Trigger" from Squaresoft, and I think I've drawn some big similarities between this and "Shenmue"...particularly in the areas of player controls and character development & story.

The controls for both games are very natural. In "Chrono Trigger", I think the most controller-wrestling you have to do is hit L and R repeatedly, to run away from a battle. In "Shenmue", navigating the 3d world is even easier, and the only difficult part was figuring out how to feed that darn cat (by "looking" at the cat, then bringing up an inventory. Go figure.). I don't like having to prop the manual open on my lap to remember how to work all the controls ("Rainbow Six" for Dreamcast comes to mind). The learning curve for controls, especially for a console game, is really important.

Both games also have engaging story lines, and a great set of characters. The storyboard artists and directors for these games did a very good job in laying out the scenes in the game, and while the "acting" and dialogue weren't exactly the best in the world (like Ryo's monotone "I see..." after every converstaion in "Shenmue"), they were signifigantly better executed than in a lot of games I've seen. Character development is also really important. While Crono didn't talk too much in "Chrono Trigger", seeing the history behind the other characters, and how they got to where they are in the game, was exceptionally done.

As mentioned in the article, wanting to beat the game is a great motivation, but there are only a few games that you want to beat over and over and over again. For me, the story is the biggest motivator (and good controls make it easy to get into that story), even if it is linear and unchanging. It's like watching a great movie -- you know what's going to happen, but you don't care, because what you're enjoying was so well done, you can't get enough of it.

johncoswell - http://www.coswellproductions.org
Gaming as Narrative (3.33 / 3) (#13)
by zephiros on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 02:59:37 PM EST

There are several challenges associated with delivering a compelling story using a game as a the medium. While gaming companies have, over the years, developed various coping mechanisms for these, at a low level they are still a barrier to delivering literature as a game.

1. Player as Character
Well, yes, the strongest selling point for delivering a truly immersive experience is that the player essentially takes the role of one of the characters. This, however, presents a problem. The more strongly we characterize the protagonist, the more likely we are to drive a wedge between the player and the game. Obviously, personality drives actions. If the author controls the main character totally, there's no interactivity. If the author offers a tabula rasa main character, the author no longer has access to all the "interesting main character" tropes.

2. Choice as an Obstacle to Plot
Here's the "well, duh" one. Simply put, an author needs control of the plot in order to drive the story. Sure, we can simply throw a lot of towns, random monsters, and quirky NPCs at the player and call whatever happens a "story." But I think, qualitatively, we realize that there is a difference between a well crafted story and a laundry list of events that happen. However, of course, the more we shift control from the player to the author, the more we make the player an observer.

3. Game Genre Limitations
Game characters seem to spend most of their lives killing hordes of wandering monsters, collecting enough plot knick-knacks to open a curiosity shop, having strained and linear conversations with NPCs, and playing odd little logic puzzles (which seems to be the de facto method for locking doors). In short, the characters participate in a lot of highly-interactive mini-games, presumably in order to make up for the fact that they're getting railroaded in the big picture. While this no doubt makes for a fun game, it's tricky to have only a half-dozen tools for expressing authorial intent.

4. NPC Limitations
Here's another "well, duh" one. Ever try to become friends with one of the bit-part NPCs in a game? Unless the game is scripted such that NPC X is actually a key character, NPCs have all the character and background of a plank of wood. IMO, this is one of the reasons why the "survival horror" genre works. Zombies that can only say "graaauuughh" are a bit easier to buy than villagers that can only say "Welcome to Hotatoba Village!"

To be fair, genre and npc problems are technology limitations. Just as Diablo built dungeons on the fly, I fully expect future games to build new areas and characters on the fly. Like the Diablo dungeons, there will probably be X set templates with Y opportunities for variance and Z constraint to insure the new people/places still drive the plot. In fact, in my free time, I've been working on a database-driven engine to do just that. I'm sure I'm not the only one.

Characterization and choice issues, on the other hand, are much more difficult. Choice could probably be fixed by an engine that allowed some open-ended event progression, while still nudging the plot to follow certain archetypal patterns. Wayne C. Booth, in "A Rhetoric of Fiction," identifies three things which drive readers:

1. Interest in the welfare of the protagonist (Will Jane go back to Rochester?)
2. Desire to learn new things (How many cities are in the game?)
3. Desire to see certain patterns completed (Good triumphs over evil. Scrappy young outcast works his way up to overcome decadent social elite villain.)

An archetype-based story engine could simply be told that the author wants to use pattern X and Y. The engine could then script events to drive them toward X and Y. However, such an engine would be a technical marvel. I'm betting on Bullfrog or Square being the first to pull such a thing off.

Regardless, IMO, the characterization problem is a genre limitation. As long as there is "you" in the game, stories will necessarily be constrained by "your" personal morality, playing style, and tastes.
Kuro5hin is full of mostly freaks and hostile lunatics - KTB

NPC's (4.00 / 1) (#17)
by janra on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 07:21:27 PM EST

Ok, I'm not a programmer, so I have no idea how hard this would be to implement, or how much it would slow the program down, but... Couldn't you use something like purl and her database functionality for NPC's with information, mixed with something Eliza-like for chit-chat? (or maybe not Eliza.. a therapist type wouldn't always be appropriate...)

Discuss the art and craft of writing
That's the problem with world domination... Nobody is willing to wait for it anymore, work slowly towards it, drink more and enjoy the ride more.
[ Parent ]
Foundation, anybody? (none / 0) (#32)
by kubalaa on Mon Jan 29, 2001 at 08:21:43 AM EST

The first thing that came to mind when you said "script events to drive them toward X and Y" was "Wow, he's talking about psychohistory!" In all seriousness, a game engine which can hold to a large-scale realistic plot while dealing with a human and even slightly-interesting AIs would be incredibly useful in statistical studies of real societies. Now I'm excited.

[ Parent ]
A Couple of my favorites.... (3.00 / 1) (#15)
by GandalfGreyhame on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 04:49:14 PM EST

A couple of my favorite games of all time would have to be Xenogears and Chrono Trigger, both by Squaresoft.

As those who have played it know, the second disk has lots of reading. Lots and lots of reading, often with just one pretty animation accompianing it, looping over and over. On one hand, this has the upside of being able to introduce alot of plot and story in a little time. The downside of course is that you're not actually playing the game then, you're just reading pages of text. I didn't mind this as I enjoy reading, but I know for some people its turned them off big time. In any event, Xenogears also included some beautiful graphics - both CG and anime. The story was also complicated, took alot of mucking through brain-wise, but I liked it once I figured it out:)

Not only was the storyline complicated, but the mechas and fighting system was also greatly to my liking. In other words, it wasn't only trudging through to get to the next plot point, it was enjoying going through the game.

Almost everybody has played this game. Myself, I never finished it through as I played it on an emulator, hard drive crashed, lost progress... *sigh*. In any event, everything about that game was beautiful. The music (Xenogear's music was equally as good), the graphics, the characters, the battle system. The storyline was a bit simplier, but for me it was still enjoyable.

Now I feel like breaking out the emu and grabbing a gamepad. Anybody know if a PSX controller -> USB adapter is out there? Know where to get it?


CT vs. Xenogears (none / 0) (#16)
by gblues on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 06:47:22 PM EST

Funny you should mention these. Both games were developed by the same team within Square (including the music composer).

As far as emulation goes, a standard-issue MS Sidewinder gamepad works great with any of the recent emulators.

... although in retrospect, having sex to the news was probably doomed to fail from the get-go. --squinky
[ Parent ]
Heh.... (none / 0) (#18)
by GandalfGreyhame on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 08:06:03 PM EST

Guess they're doing something right then, eh? :)

As for the controller issue, I need a USB based one and would rather use my PSX's rather excellent controller. (SB Live under Be is just as functional as under linux - read, the joy/midi port doesn't work)


[ Parent ]

Re: Heh (none / 0) (#20)
by gblues on Sat Jan 27, 2001 at 10:54:34 PM EST

Well, a quick search on Google should help you find what you need. :)

... although in retrospect, having sex to the news was probably doomed to fail from the get-go. --squinky
[ Parent ]
Hrmmm... (none / 0) (#29)
by GandalfGreyhame on Sun Jan 28, 2001 at 07:21:53 PM EST

Has anybody ever used what came up as the first result? Will it work in !windows?


[ Parent ]

USB HID support (none / 0) (#30)
by pin0cchio on Sun Jan 28, 2001 at 07:46:37 PM EST

Will it work in !windows?

A conforming USB HID (h*m*n interface device) will work in all conforming USB hosts that support HIDs. The Adaptoid N64 controller to USB adapter is an example of such a HID.

[ Parent ]
plot in the chrono* games (4.00 / 1) (#36)
by Puchitao on Thu Mar 01, 2001 at 11:43:31 PM EST

IMHO, Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross struck a nice balance between linearity and plot. Especially the latter; although I didn't like it quite as much as the first, the amount of say you had in how the plot progressed was a big plus. Don't want to look for the antidote for the poisoned heroine? Don't have to. Don't feel like joining her when you meet her? Don't matter; you'll get other folks. Feel like leaving her in a coma at the end of the game? That's okay, you can still beat the game. (For a main character, she spends an awful lot of time unconscious for my taste.)

The only downside so far as I'm concerned was character development. The seven characters of the first game was pretty much perfect; I can't make heads or tails of the fortysome characters in the second. They coulda reduced the party to maybe 15 essentials with no loss of variety. There's always a couple characters in your party you never use, forget who they are or where you found them, and really don't care if they meet their other self and have a touching moment alone/together. But mercifully, you obtain a fast-forward button in New Game+...


Speaking of nice balance between plot and nonlinearity, you can't beat:
Perhaps we can do *snappy fun* with you everytime! -- Orz
[ Parent ]
What would be a good forum for this discussion? (2.00 / 1) (#21)
by ToastyKen on Sun Jan 28, 2001 at 01:03:27 AM EST

Btw.. Does anyone know what a good forum for this discussion would be? One where people are pretty open-minded about gaming paradigms and so forth? (rec.arts.int-fiction is too text-adventure focused)

Not in rec.games.design, either. (none / 0) (#22)
by zephiros on Sun Jan 28, 2001 at 02:04:45 AM EST

The topic comes up every now and then in r.g.d, but it's usually attacked in a pretty practical manner (eg. what programming techniques to use in order to fake it). My past efforts to find research in this area have come up pretty dry. Text-based IF was trendy in english departments in the late 80s, but most of that work is concerned with classifying IF, not trying to improve it. Ernest Adams did a few articles for Gamasutra in which he tackles the issue of choice and character identity pretty well. In general, though, there seems to be a lot more discussion regarding object collision and pathing algorithms than storytelling.

Personally, I'd be thrilled to death to see a dedicated mailing list.
Kuro5hin is full of mostly freaks and hostile lunatics - KTB
[ Parent ]

starting a real game design group (none / 0) (#24)
by ToastyKen on Sun Jan 28, 2001 at 01:55:00 PM EST

In general, though, there seems to be a lot more discussion regarding object collision and pathing algorithms than storytelling.

Personally, I'd be thrilled to death to see a dedicated mailing list.

Hey, zephiros, mind emailing me your email address in case I ever get around to starting some sort of discussion list about this stuff? I'd appreciate befriending someone who has similar interests here.

Anyone else who's interested, please chime in, too! I promise I'm not some secret corporate spam agent. I'm currently just a college student with idealistic dreams about the future. :P

-Kenneth Lu, kenlu(at)mit.edu

[ Parent ]

A few helpful (I hope) comments (4.50 / 2) (#23)
by Joe Erasmus on Sun Jan 28, 2001 at 12:22:30 PM EST

Ken, the issues you raise have been debated long and vociferously for years, in other tiny pockets of the community. I suppose that the very size of the web makes it difficult for each little pocket to be aware of the others. Fortunately for me, a friend forwarded me a link to your work, which I enjoyed reading. First, I suggest that you concentrate on the difference between "story" and "storytelling". The former is data, the latter is process. Stories have plots, storytelling does not presume a plot in advance. "Character versus plot" is an old, old battle that is, in computer terms, a manifestation of "data versus process". Second, readers may find some of my own stuff of some utility. I have been working on the problem of interactive storytelling for some nine years (oh, my aching fingers...), and while I have yet to solve the problem, I have made some interesting stabs at it. If you consult the library at my website, you'll find a large collection of essays on many aspects of the problem. It's at www.erasmatazz.com. Chris Crawford

RPG stories (4.00 / 1) (#31)
by Beorn on Mon Jan 29, 2001 at 05:52:21 AM EST

I don't think the story itself should be left to computers. The difference between a cliche and a good story is creativity and genius, and this is one thing algorithms won't do for us any time soon.

My idea of the perfect RPG is a combination of Ultima 7 and Daggerfall. Ultima 7 (all four parts of it) had a great story arch, and countless independent shorter stories, all of which could be explored in a non-linear way. You were never actually free to create your own story, but it felt like freedom anyway.

Daggerfall was a huge non-linear RPG where everyone created their own story. There was some kind of default main story, but it wasn't important to follow it. Most of the game consisted of NPC's with no personality sending you on random quests to random-generated dungeons. Somebody described it as the perfect game for loners - you're all alone in a huge world of cardboard NPC's. What saved it in my eyes was the complexity of the game world.

A combination would have the complexity, flexibility and size of Daggerfall, and the story and realistic NPC's of Ultima 7. This is of course impossible for one developer team to accomplish, which is why I am fascinated by a feature of Morrowind, the upcoming sequel to Daggerfall, where a story-editor allows fans to create their own story plugins -- and merge them with the rest of the game. Fan creativity has been an under-utilized source in single-player RPG's, but this seems to be changing.

- Beorn

[ Threepwood '01 ]

The power to choose... FPS'ers (none / 0) (#37)
by wiremind on Thu Aug 01, 2002 at 02:28:31 PM EST

I am going to do a little rundown of First Person Shooters in relation to player controlling plot line and how things have changed.

Game:Doom, Doom2, Duke3D
Level of Control/Technology:No control, biggest concerns at that time were graphics, they were just trying to push computers as hard as they could to make things look good

Game:Half-Life, Soldier of Fortune, Quake2&3
Level of Control/Technology:>Graphics have advanced enough to make a storyline POSSIBLE, the games are very scripted, their is a good amount of story line, but it is not yet dynamic. Programmers still getting used to using real AI, (as opposed to whatever it was doom et-al had)

Game:Postal 2, Carmageddon 2
Level of Control/Technology:The game has so-so AI, the graphics are amazing, and the important part, YOU CHOOSE the story line, you COULD play the whole game without any violence, if you really wanted to. ( if you have played these games you will know that having freedom to kill pedestrians (IN COMPUTER GAMES) is just not something most people can resist.) But it is YOUR Choice.

Game:System Shock 2?
Level of Control/Technology:I've been quite busy with my job, so i have not had a chance to play many new games right now, but i know their are some new FPS'er that have more dynamic plot lines. You readers could probably qoute some better more recent games than the one's I am familiar with.

Game:Future projects.
Level of Control/Technology:The Graphics are at a point where they are not worried about, AI is also at a point where it isn't a concern, it is finally possible to start playing with storyline in more dynamic fashion.

So I believe that in the future dynamic plot lines will become very common, it has just taken alot of time for gaming to be at a point where the plot line (in FPS'er) is the biggest concern.


"maybe this is as good as it gets" ~ Jack Nickelson
HA HA, ya right......

The Essence of Gaming as a Storytelling Medium | 37 comments (35 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
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