Archive for People

Story is Essential in Game Development

This post was written in response to Ian Bogost’s article here:

Let me point out that I highly respect Ian and his work, but since my bailiwick leans toward narratives and visual development, I felt he missed a few points and would like to respectfully respond.

Story is essential to games.

The linear progression of an idea from point A to point B to a logical conclusion lies at the corner of almost every single type of gameplay. In order to build a game structure, a progression that most people will understand right out of the box, you’ve got to structure it as a narrative of some stripe.

Most games have a beginning, a middle and an end.

When Ian sketches out the difference between the “narrative” of the game and the “environment” of the game he seems to be putting forth the idea that, by building your story into the world you are thereby doing away with the need for narrative.  But that story is still needed to inform those design decisions, in order to maintain consistency throughout the design of multiple environments, multiple levels, a narrative is required.  The artists and designers need a story that will steer the design choices they make so that the entire game fits together in the mind of the player.

Even when it comes to the mechanics of the game, the key component that makes a game “fun” and “compelling” the narrative is important with regards to how the mechanics are presented to the player.  The player, ideally, never sees the math.  They see the UI, the visual (and story-centric) elements that allow them to run those mechanic.  Without an overarching narrative to guide those decisions, you get a series of “really cool” mechanics that may never quite come together into a whole.  You get a “meh” experience that loses it’s lustre fairly quickly.

Even puzzle games like candy crush benefit from the addition of a story. As cheesy and clunky as that narrative may be it’s still provides an essential path for the player to follow. It allows them to get the satisfaction of “completion” in a game that will truly never have a conclusion.

Remember when Computer Generated Imagery first became a big THING for film?  It stumbled and staggered quite a bit.  It INHIBITED storytelling in a great many cases, it broke the suspension of disbelief that decades of practical effects had honed to a believable experience.  Filmmakers leaned on the tech too hard and gave up good narrative in favor of vertices and ray-tracing.  It took Toy Story finally push through the idea that you can’t take the narrative design out of an experience.  You can’t rely on the tech to tell your story for you, you can’t rely on the mechanics to make a game that will last longer then ten minutes.

The argument has been made that “narrative” games tell stories poorly, that they cannot compare to the experience that one gets from cinema, or television, or even reading a book. Games as storytelling art-form are still in their infancy. The technology has advanced, absolutely.  We can build you worlds that absolutely look and feel as real as the one you are sitting in while you read this blogpost.  But the use-cases for that technology always take longer to catch up.  They need a breakthrough.  We are still trying to find ways to keep a player’s focus on a linear story in a world that is so much bigger than what you have in books or film.  Linear narrative is all about constraint and that is exactly where our problem lies.  How do you keep the player following and interacting with a story when they can go ANYWHERE in the world you built?

The current example of games as simply linear narratives with player engagement is far too limiting. It’s too simple of an idea. It’s the easy road out for an industry that needs to pay it’s staff.  The potential for games can, and will, go far beyond that point. We just haven’t made that next leap yet.  It’s coming, someone out there, some grad student or assistant producer or overworked QA tester has it in them to make that leap.  We are looking for our Toy Story, our IMAX, our Gertie the Dinosaur.

There are (as there always are) notable examples.  The Halo franchise being the shining AAA example, but also on the indie-games front we have experiences like Undertale and A Night in the Woods that use simple graphics, simple mechanics but strange and compelling narratives to pull the players in.  None of these games really have their “secret sauce” in the mechanics.  If you take out the story, you can simply reskin those exact same mechanics with another world, another time and have an equally serviceable game.  None of those titles would be the breakout hits they have become without a compelling story.  A story so strong (in all three cases) that players are continuing to tell their OWN stories, to build new narratives in those worlds, to fill in the blanks left by the constraints of game design.

Is it possible to have a game whose mechanics are so good that players will be compelled to play it?  Absolutely.  They will play *that game* and go home.  It will be swapped out by another mechanics driven title as soon as they get bored or frustrated.  They are as interchangeable as the sneakers you have in your closet.  But a game with a story drives loyalty, brings players into the world (and allows for multiple iterations) in a way that mechanics only games cannot.  Players will forgive not-perfect mechanics if the story is compelling, if they have a *reason* to keep going.  They will come back to a franchise and play something new even if those mechanics don’t get a significant update of change between story one and story two.

So, while games may not deliver pure narrative quite as cleanly as books or film or TV, I think saying that narrative is unnecessary is far too limiting a view.  From the overarching idea that drives the underlying structure and creation of visual assets to the final delivery of your shiny shiny game mechanics, games are built on a narrative experience, and trying to take that out limits the experience for everyone.



Farewell to the CowCat










I had to bury my cat today.
I attended to it before I took out the garbage
It seemed right as an order of operations
as acts of importance go.
The ground was hard
in all the wrong places
Like it wasn’t quite ready to take him in.
I had to say goodbye to my cat today.
He was quite bad at being feline
Fell off the ledge
Played fetch
Would rather go under than over
He had no fear of home repairs
or power tools.
When the baby cried
he was the first to the door
hoovered up goldfish crackers
dropped green beans and cereal.
I had to bury my cat today.
He came to say goodbye
played swats over the food dish
with the kitten.
Had a lick-face-fight
with the hunter.
Napped on my lap late into the evening.
Checked on each family member in turn
then sauntered out into the dark.
I found a spot for him, down by the garden
where the sun always pauses.
I had to bury my friend today
and my world got a little bit smaller.

The Lens of your Lifetime

There is this ongoing problem that I’m (and most likely you) are aware of.  Because we do love to lament the “dumbing-down” of our current crop of kids (just ike out parents did, and their parents did on back through time).  It’s been brought back into focus for me by some of the recent goings on around the Hugo Awards, but also I just had a glowing, glaring example shoved in my face this morning by my own two kiddos (which was disturbingly topical).

The Things downloaded the newest Black OPS Beta this morning and are going through it, nitpicking every single thing they have ever seen in another game.  Thus far we have: Jetpacks being stolen from Halo, Giant Mechs being stolen from Titanfall, Supers/Specials being stolen from Destiny…  Do you see where this is going?

All of their references are from recent games they have played in their very short lifetimes.  They have no clear knowledge of the history of Mechwarrior as a tabletop RPG, or the many attempts to bring the Giant Mech Battle games to the videogame fold.  They have no idea that jetpacks in the FPS genre are decades old, in fact, you might as well say that Jetpack Joyride stole their jetpack idea from Halo, for all the sense that makes.

Now, because I’m a bit of a Legacy-buff, I’ll spend some time educating my kiddos on this (as I do on a number of topics, including the history of science fiction, robotics, spycraft, space exploration, etc).  I also know from experience that it will probably not stick as well as I’d like (or, they will continue to kvetch because it’s a power and control thing, rather than actual, genuine kvetching).  But it brings to mind the question, how do we, as fans, as developers, as CREATORS or a product, widen that lens of experience?

Historically (or so I am given to understand) this was the job of the previous generation.  The established would tell their stories to the new and the new could move forward with a better-informed fanview.  But there are a couple of key problems with this.

One, fandoms (games, pop-culture, etc.) are bringing in people faster than ever.  You no longer need an entre to become a part of fandom, you can hop online and find a group of new fans to join and even meet up with at conventions.  That means that the influx of new people is looking through the aforementioned lens of limited experience.  That’s not a BAD thing, but it means that those that went before have to spend extra time and effort to educate (which, granted, is annoying, I get that.  You don’t get to rest on your laurels, you have to show the color of your boxers every time you meet a newbie).

Two, no two people remember things the same way.  So what might be an insult to one party was a clever turn of phrase by another.  Yes, we should all be able to sort these things out, but when the grievance was decades old, reliable information may be hard to come by, and the “newfans” won’t know if a mistake has been made, if they are just listening to one piece of a complex issue, and where/how to correct it.

Ideally, there ought to be a frictionless way to sort this out (yes, I know EFFORT should genuinely be put in, but humans, all humans, are designed to be lazy critters, we need to work around that).  But barring that, I think a certain level of awareness might be the best, first solution.  If newfans are aware that they are missing something (because many of these fan-bases have stunningly and engagingly rich histories and a stunning number of fans seem to be unaware that fandom existed long before they were born) and the fanbase can find ways to make that information obviously available, then we might be able to reestablish a coherent, fully-shared experience.

Witness File 770, for example, which was established as a single-source record of the recent Hugo divide.  Almost every writer with a fanbase of their own has repeatedly referenced it so that newfans know, and that unified sourcing has made a very big difference.

Thing is, there’s no way around this yet without a metric butt-load of work on the part of one or more people.  This kind of thing has been tried before, with varying degrees of success.  And it does have to be a small, ongoing group, you can’t pass this kind of thing from one elected keeper to another because then you lose the purpose, and agendas get involved and eventually the whole thing goes down under a pile of bit-rot.  We have hit a point where those databases of memory can be easily searchable, the trick now is going to be making sure they contain the best (and preferably impartial) reporting on events, as well as including all the old histories as far back as we can go.