Sunday, June 27, 2010

What's the best way a game can tell a story?


Someone raised the question in a discussion I had a while back. This was my response:

I think it's important to consider what stories are, underneath all the different ways we tell them (all the mediums, plot structures, et cetera). I could bring up Robert McKee here, but instead I'll lift a quote from this piece:

OUR FRIENDS. THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE *INFORMATION* — AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US.

BUT NOTE:THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.

QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, *ACUTE* GOAL.

SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES *OF EVERY SCENE* THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?
2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?
3) WHY NOW?

During a good story, the protagonist is trying to overcome challenges in order to pursue their goal.
During a good game, the player is trying to overcome interesting challenges.
I suspect there may be some potential synergies here. :P

Let me shift from theory to the pragmatic end of the spectrum. The most powerful storytelling trick I've noticed in games so far has cropped up in these isolated moments in a number of different games. Some examples from video games:
-In Metal Gear Solid 3, standing there as you wait to pull the trigger of a gun- one that's pointed at a person you love more than anyone else in the world.
-In Modern Warfare 2's conclusion, staggering up to a crashed helicopter and its injured pilot, a knife in your hand.
-In The Darkness, watching a movie with your girlfriend on the couch, knowing you can press a button at any time to get up and leave.
-In Assassin's Creed, using your one available action during conversations (walking around within a 20' by 20' area) to pace in circles, turn your back on someone and walk away, etc.

Moments like these stand head and shoulders above the rest of the game experience in terms of having the story be engaging and meaningful to the player. It took some reflection, but I think I've figured out why. The thing all these moments share is that the narrative that's playing out contains a variable which has been given dramatic significance by the game, but is now determined by the player. If Solid Snake stands paralyzed while the minutes drag on until he finally pulls that trigger, that's a different story (in a dramatic/significant way) from the narrative where he hesitates for all of a second. While that moment lasted, the player had a degree of genuine control over the narrative while it was unfolding. Psychologically, they went from an audience member (albeit one who gets to walk around the set and sometimes give an order in the director's place) to one of the actors on the stage.

And as a bonus, the narrative has gone from being a mass-produced experience to one that only this player has had, something that can be very important to people.

Any of that make sense?

2 comments:

CorvusE said...

Remember that "good story" is a highly subjective concept that is most often informed by the values of the culture we were raised in.

Also--think how much more powerful Assassin's Creed's constrained conversational freedom if your decision to have Altair/Ezio turn his back actually influenced the dialog, or had consequences in the rest of the gameplay.

Dagda said...

I think that would have been a different *sort* of power, one that gives the player a choice between two stories chosen by the 'director'. Being able to move around during cutscenes gave *me* (the player) the opportunity to explore and act out *my* interpretation of the scene that was going on. When Altair's master said something that I felt was clearly a load of crap, I was able to have Altair turn away in disgust. When I felt impatient with a conversation, I had Altair pace around restlessly to reflect that (rather than just zoning out like I normally would). And if the conversation was actually something I cared about, Altair would be very cooperative and attentive.

Naturally, tabletop RPGs are a different kettle of fish. There I see this mechanic less as the key to reaching a new level of storytelling in games, and more as a useful spice the GM can apply to his game.

No disagreements on the "suggestive" bit. I do think "drama" makes for a practical and reasonably accurate priority, though.