The first is a real billboard. The second is what they should have used.

The Challenges of Interactive Storytelling (Conclusion)

With the closing of Irrational Games, I’ve seen discussions sparking on the nature of narratives in games. While I personally enjoy games with a strong, engaging narrative, there are several problems that will only get worse as games mature and are played by wider audiences:

Part 1: Not everyone experiences the same game.

Part 2: Not everyone finishes games.

Part 3: Not everyone plays games for the same reasons.

Part 4: Not all stories are equal.

In case you didn’t read all four parts (I wrote a lot, I know), the takeaway here is that storytelling in games is hard. It’s a huge amount of work that many players won’t even appreciate. Some games have done it better than others, but it’s a huge gamble that sometimes costs millions of dollars even when it is done well. 

Storytelling is as old as time, but just as motion pictures needed a new visual vocabulary for telling stories, games need a new interactive vocabulary. In time, I’m sure we will get there, but we aren’t there yet. 

The Challenges of Interactive Storytelling (Part 4)

With the closing of Irrational Games, I’ve seen discussions sparking on the nature of narratives in games. While I personally enjoy games with a strong, engaging narrative, there are several problems that will only get worse as games mature and are played by wider audiences:

1. Not everyone experiences the same game.

2. Not everyone finishes games.

3. Not everyone plays games for the same reasons.

4. Not all stories are equal.

 
 

Part 4. Not all stories are equal. 

Some games might seem like movies, and some recent movies have been described as little more than video game levels strung together. But not all stories can jump between mediums. The book is almost always better than the movie, but is the same true for games?

The best game stories realize the player is an active participant in the narrative and weave a tale that takes advantage of this fact, or at least makes a commentary on it. Not every story can use this player agency as a benefit, though. Happiness and triumph are low-hanging fruit in this sense since the player’s victories are also the protagonist’s, but if the player lacks the ability (see Part 1), the triumph can turn into bitter defeat. Scary games can take advantage of jump scares for a little while, but cease to be frightening once the player acquires enough firepower to blow away the monsters by reflex. 

Truly horrifying movies or stories (horrifying, not scary) gain their emotional punch partly from the audience’s inability to prevent something terrible from happening. In a game, this is much harder to achieve and still allow satisfactory player agency. If the player is prevented from taking certain actions, they begin to feel cheated, and the sense of immersion breaks down. This is again where ludonarrative dissonance creeps in the farther the storyline deviates from the player’s possible in-game actions.

Many other storytelling genres are not a good match for game mechanics. Take a romantic comedy, for example. Audiences enjoy watching the two protagonists move back and forth until they usually end up together. Translating that into gameplay mechanics is hard. It could be possible to create challenges for one protagonist to overcome in order to woo the other, but characters in games cannot yet replicate the spontaneity of real people. This leads to canned results for success and failure which makes the relationship feel less authentic and more like simply a puzzle to be solved. Even a game that mostly succeeds at modeling relationships, such as The Sims, does so by focusing exclusively on the emergent narrative created by the player. 

As technology advances, it is likely that more story genres will open up given more convincing character interactions. But, by the time players are convinced that an AI is a real person like in the movie Her, will the gameplay even be necessary, or will it be seen as an unwelcome distraction? 

In the meantime, creating stories for games take an incredible amount of effort, probably on the order of writing several books and a TV season’s worth of content at the same time. It can be hard to justify the work needed to create a convincing encounter between a new character and the player protagonist when perhaps only 10% of the players will encounter it (see Part 2) and not skip through the dialog to get back to the action (see Part 3). The non-linear nature of same games makes this even worse as you cannot write cause and effect, foreshadowing, or plot arcs properly when you don’t know what the player will encounter first.

The Challenges of Interactive Storytelling (Part 3)

With the closing of Irrational Games, I’ve seen discussions sparking on the nature of narratives in games. While I personally enjoy games with a strong, engaging narrative, there are several problems that will only get worse as games mature and are played by wider audiences:

1. Not everyone experiences the same game.

2. Not everyone finishes games.

3. Not everyone plays games for the same reasons.

4. Not all stories are equal.

 
 

Part 3. Not everyone plays games for the same reasons.

This is something I’ve encountered trying to rustle up players for board games and video games alike. There are two main motivations when it comes to playing games: some people play games so they don’t have to think, and others play games to think more. Neither motivation is good or bad or right or wrong.

Someone will probably suggest that this is the division between the casual and the hardcore gamers. Even if those are actually separate groups, it isn’t the deciding factor here. Your grandpa might play Bejeweled because he loves the challenge of trying to plan ahead to beat his high score (and turn his brain on), and your college roommate might unwind by playing World of Warcraft on autopilot (and turn her brain off). Everyone has different gaming touchstones, and one game might be played by two separate people for both reasons.

The players looking for a mental challenge may be disinterested in the story since it delays their pummeling of the bad guys with (as they see it) pointless exposition. They’ll be skipping every cutscene and plot revelation they can and complain about any that are unskippable because they’ve seen them 100 times already. 

The players looking to relax may want to soak up every last bit of story your game can provide and skip the more challenging obstacles. They’ll read every bit of lore provided and watch cutscenes over and over again since they don’t have to make any decisions when they’re watching. 

These are certainly ends of a spectrum, and many people fall into the middle, and may even change position based on the specific game. But even if one game can satisfy both audiences, the narrative won’t be able to. The individual expectations can color their experience and compound the problems from Part 1 and Part 2

The Challenges of Interactive Storytelling (Part 2)

With the closing of Irrational Games, I’ve seen discussions sparking on the nature of narratives in games. While I personally enjoy games with a strong, engaging narrative, there are several problems that will only get worse as games mature and are played by wider audiences:

1. Not everyone experiences the same game.

2. Not everyone finishes games.

3. Not everyone plays games for the same reasons.

4. Not all stories are equal.

 
 

Part 2. Not everyone finishes games.

Games are expensive. For the price of a typical new video game, you can get probably five paperback books or maybe four movies on DVD. With that in mind, you would think that a game player would have a greater incentive to finish what they started, but there is lots of data suggesting that a given game is only finished by about 50% of the people who start playing. Obviously this is focused on games with overt stories and doesn’t count games without endings where you try to get the highest score possible before failing (though those games can have emergent stories: see Part 1). 

A coherent narrative requires an ending, and you would expect that a competent story would drive the players toward its conclusion. If most players don’t finish, it has to be because the stories weren’t worth finishing (a frequent complaint of video games), or because the players could not finish. 

As mentioned in Part 1, players need to have both the will and the ability to move the story forward. Passive entertainment like books and movies require no ability to experience, and ask very little from the will department. The average person can get through a movie in a single sitting, or read a book in a few dedicated sessions. Many video games with critically-acclaimed narratives can take upwards of 20 hours to complete which can be longer than an entire season of a TV series. All that time can serve to create a very strong sense of immersion, but it’s a huge demand that can sap the will of even the most dedicated player who possesses the ability to keep moving the plot forward. 

Some games may posses hundreds of hours of content, but tailor the game based on player actions such that the main narrative experience is only a fraction of the content available and takes a similarly shorter amount of time to finish. While this does reduce the time commitment and will necessary to reach the end of the story, it falls further into the problem from Part 1. The story you experience may be even farther from the story someone else experiences not just because of emergent narratives, but because the designers have woven together a tapestry of stories, of which you only get to see a few threads. 

This fragmenting of the story actually ends up triggering the paradox of choice. While it may be done as an effort to further engage the player and shorten the game time to a reasonable length, it creates a wealth of content that the player misses out on. This ends up forming an incentive to replay the game in different ways to experience what you missed the first time. Even if the player lacks the ability or doesn’t choose to replay the game, there is a sense of loss as to what could have been in the story. Every choice they make means not choosing several other things, which creates a sense of loss. This is the paradox. 

And in the end, it doesn’t seem to help. Games that heavily feature player choice as a feature such as Mass Effect and Dragon Age don’t see a majority of players finishing the game even once, let alone multiple times. It could be players lacking the ability to complete the game. It could be that they get bored and lost the will to finish after hours of side quests that were padding out the length. Or it could be the pain of choosing option A and hearing from their friends that option B had a better ending. No matter the reason, it’s a likely bet that any game narrative experience won’t have a happy ending, or even any ending at all.

The Challenges of Interactive Storytelling (Part 1)

With the closing of Irrational Games, I’ve seen discussions sparking on the nature of narratives in games. While I personally enjoy games with a strong, engaging narrative, there are several problems that will only get worse as games mature and are played by wider audiences:

1. Not everyone experiences the same game.

2. Not everyone finishes games.

3. Not everyone plays games for the same reasons.

4. Not all stories are equal.

 
 

Part 1. Not everyone experiences the same game.

If you took a dozen random people and had them watch a movie or read a book, they would all experience the same story. They might have differing interpretations of the story based on their personal experiences, but the narrative elements are fixed. There is a clear line between the elements that compose the story and the viewers (readers) of that story. Even in the case of a choose-your-own-adventure or any story told in second person, that line is still present. The skill, motives, or interest of the reader will not alter the resulting narrative. Two people making the same decisions will experience the same “canned” choose-your-own-adventure story even if the decisions are made for different reasons.

Games, however, can blur that line to the point of non-existence. It isn’t simply because most games involve the player as the protagonist in the story (as choose-your-own-adventures do), but because they make the player an active participant in said story. It not only involves the player, but it cannot proceed unless they make it do so. 

This doesn’t mean the will to make the story progress, but the ability. If the audience of a movie or book gets too scared or bored and loses the will to continue, they can choose to pause the movie or not turn the page. They always posses the ability to do so, and can continue the narrative at their leisure. This is the nature of their passive participation in the story. 

In a game, even if the player possesses the will to find out what happens next, they have to have the ability to move things forward. Sometimes this is in the form of skill, or reflexes, or puzzle-solving. But the key is that the game posses obstacles that need to be overcome inside the narrative itself. “Defeat the evil overlord to save the planet” clearly outlines the in-game obstacle and the in-game reward. Something like “Insert 25¢ to continue” isn’t inside the narrative, and is more akin to turning the page of a book. This distinction is crucial, since by immersing the player in the story, the previously mentioned line between audience and story melts away. If the player overcomes an obstacle easily, then that confidence becomes part of the story. Conversely, if they cannot get past a certain part, that frustration, too becomes a narrative element. 

This is because games introduce emergent narratives. Simply put, these are stories that come into existence not because they were planned, but rather as a result of the players interaction with the game world itself. Even games without structured narratives can result in emergent stories. You probably remember that time you almost lost a game of Tetris until you got a straight piece at the last second and got a high score. Tetris has no plot to speak of, yet it is capable of creating stories. 

These stories, then, are locked behind gameplay. Two players won’t experience the game the same way even if they posses equal ability because they don’t unlock exactly the same emergent gameplay as each other. Even games with beautiful, carefully crafted stories won’t result in the same narrative experience for the player once emergent elements begin to clutter the message. Where one can find an exciting tale of victory, the other can find a crippling tale of defeat. An author can write a stirring description of a new location and a director can capture a spectacular vista on film and trust that every member of their audience will see the same thing. A game designer has to create things knowing that the player will be bringing baggage with them and what could be a simple encounter for one player could become an epic battle for another. 

Some games try to combat this by separating the heaviest narrative elements into cutscenes so that everyone sees the same thing, but this can result in the awkwardly named ludonarrative dissonance when the game tries to re-establish the aforementioned line between the story and the player. This is when the protagonist in the cutscenes has abilities or acts differently than the player-controller protagonist does. At its worst, this can turn a game into a series of movies locked behind moments of gameplay that lack narrative meaning, but still carry emergent connotations that can dilute the entire experience. 

This is why games are hard to share and review scores are almost meaningless. Games have all the problems of books and movies, plus new problems from removing the line between the audience and the content. Not only are there different interpretations of the game, the gameplay itself is different for every player in a way that is outside the designer’s control. 

The next person who says “the Great Lakes freezing means global warming isn’t real” gets a one way ticket to the middle of California. 

What makes a game?

3forthewin:

insidioussquid:

A game needs 3 things:

1. A goal.

2. Obstacles preventing you from reaching that goal.

3. Meaningful choices.

Puzzles are similar to games, but the obstacles are internal to the player rather than external. The only thing preventing you from reaching the goal of solving the puzzle is you…

I think that limiting your definition in this manner is somewhat odd. For example, by your standards, would The Stanley Parable or Super Mario 64 qualify as a game? The Stanley Parable doesn’t distinct obstacles, but it has plenty of choices. How meaningful they are depends on how you choose to see the game. Super Mario 64 has a goal and obstacles, but no choices. 

My main question for you would be how would you define meaningful?

I was thinking of a more of a strict academic definition and was trying to account for things like board games and things kids play at recess. I actually started thinking about this before the current debate because I was playing A Kingdom for Keflings and realized it wasn’t a game; it was only an activity that I would eventually complete or give up on. There was nothing preventing completion beyond investing time. The resource system adds an artificial obstacle, but it requires no choices or skill. The only way to lose is not to play.

The idea of a meaningful choice came from a Sid Meier quote. If Mario automatically jumped every time you came to the edge of a pit or next to a bad guy it would rob you of the only meaningful choice you have in that game. When to jump. There is a measure of skill required to chose when to exercise that choice. Too soon or too late can both result in failure. Yes, it’s a simple choice, but like many games, simple doesn’t mean easy. So, I would consider Super Mario 64 a game.

Something like The Stanley Parable is more like a work of interactive fiction. The medium is less traditional, but just like IF or a choose-your-own-adventure book presenting a more compelling narrative because of player agency, they don’t become games because they have more than one ending or things to do along the way. What makes Bioshock a game isn’t the choices (or lack thereof) surrounding the story, but rather the RPG mechanics about what elements of yourself to improve. Some of the “gaminess” (ugh, poor choice of word) in interactive fiction also comes from the meta element that you as a player create. “What if I choose X and Y, but not Z this time? Will that lead to a different ending?”

The colloquial term “video game” includes all manner of things that I wouldn’t consider games but that doesn’t make them any less fun or mean they shouldn’t be considered entertainment. Having everything from Duke Nukem to L.A. Noire to Child of Eden to Gone Home all under the same header does them all a disservice just like calling all novels, poems, blog posts, menus, tweets, and emails simply “text words”.

What makes a game?

A game needs 3 things:

1. A goal. 

2. Obstacles preventing you from reaching that goal. 

3. Meaningful choices.

Puzzles are similar to games, but the obstacles are internal to the player rather than external. The only thing preventing you from reaching the goal of solving the puzzle is you being able to see the solution.

If there are no obstacles at all it is more of an activity. A coloring book has an obvious goal and lots of choices to make about color and composition, but there is nothing stopping you from coloring as fast or as slow or as much or as little as you like. You could get a bucket of paint and achieve the “goal” in about 5 seconds if you wanted to.

Candy Land and games like Ludo/Sorry have goals, they have obstacles on the board and in other players, but there are no compelling choices. You roll a die or flip a card and move accordingly. Eventually someone wins, but there is little you can do to affect the outcome. These are more like anti-games. They look like games on the surface, but lack the thing that would make them fun.

"The vast of majority of cards I create are junk." You stated this in your very own article, "Design 102". Can we still trust you as a MTG designer?

markrosewater:

Anyone that tells you the majority of their designs aren’t junk are lying to you. The key to good design is finding the gems not avoiding the clunkers.

Design isn’t like baseball where you can theoretically avoid misses and only get hits. 

Design is mining where you have to get past the dirt to get to the diamonds.