Story is Essential in Game Development

This post was written in response to Ian Bogost’s article here: https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/video-games-stories/524148/.

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.

 

 

On the Exit of Mary Watson

An Image of Abbington as Mary Watson

Abbington as Mary Watson

 

Let us be clear from the outset, I am a fan of Sherlock Holmes, from the original texts penned by Doyle to the “what the h*ll were you thinking” Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century (Google it, I dare you) to the modern incarnations of Elementary, Sherlock and, of course Guy Ritchie’s bombastic cinema spectacles.  So while the originals will always be, to me, the “true” Sherlock Holmes, with all of it’s promise and problems, I do have a very high tolerance for f*cking with the source material.  But to me, the eventual death (implied in the originals) of Mary Watson was a given. Having Mary in the mix took the edge off, made everything just a little too easy.  Having guest geniuses is fine, but Mary was written to approach Sherlock in deductive skill and while the riffing between the two characters was delightful, it changed the nature of the show.  Had this been any other showrunner, I would have expected her to last just long enough to get “fridged”, a single Sherlock-length episode would have been standard, in fact.

But, like most of the women in Sherlock, I feel she went out in a way that was entirely within her own agency. Mary Watson and Irene Adler both prove themselves to be on a par with either Holmes or Watson (and they give Mycroft a bit of trouble as well). They were both dynamic, aggressive women, not given to the satisfaction that comes from serving others, but rather in engagement with themselves and their broader possibilities.

Mary Watson went out in a way that was suited to the character we had come to know. International assassin, spy, mother, she made a split second choice. A choice that in many instances would have been relegated to a male character. Women get sacrificed, they do not sacrifice in the same way men do so often in film and television. There is a distinction there and an important one.  So important, in fact, that the writers feel compelled (or perhaps they thought we would all miss it) to have John Watson repeat it out loud to the camera at the reconciliation in the second episode.

Steven Moffat and the stories he is the caretaker of are often said to have problems with female characters. I cannot say I agree with this assessment.  Can one see the underpinnings of stereotypes in them?  Sure, but that can be said in equal parts of all the characters in the show, including the titular Sherlock. There are problematic moments, to be sure, Ideas that probably seemed awesome in the writer’s room but then when brought into the light turn out to have a poor intersection point with reality, that trigger something unexpected in the audience.  His female characters almost always have agency, they have deeper backstories than you’d think (“You’re not my first smackhead, Sherlock Holmes” will always be a favorite line from now on) and to me that is one of the most important elements.  I’m far less concerned about whether or not a character is wearing short skirts or is prancing around bare*ss naked than I am about the character themselves and how they fit into the broader picture.  I’d go so far as to say Moffatt and Gatiss fairly accurately represent many of the complexities of *being* female (whether you are born with the requisite hardware or not) right now.

 

Before Leia dropped the “Princess”

I have to admit, when I was younger, I always hated Princess Leia (I knew nothing of Carrie Fisher, the person, until decades later so for me, at the outset, there was only Leia). Perhaps not the most popular idea right now, when so many women are coming out and citing her as their inspiration, their role model, the quintessential “non-princess”.  As her character evolved (and I grew older), my opinions of that character certainly changed for the better (particularly when she took out Jabba the Hut), but for a very long time the idea of Leia was tainted by how she was translated into real-life.

Princess Leis in her detention cell.

Post the release of Star Wars, this was the only subject on which all the kids in the neighborhood could agree to play.  Every group game became Star Wars, no more Cowboys and Indians, no more Firefighters and Forest fires, which was AWESOME for a while.  Everyone on the block had seen the movie (some had actually seen it TWICE, which was almost unheard of) so we all had a common world to build on.

Except for that annoying “Princess” thing.

In practical application, Leia got categorized with every other Princess (note the Capital “P”). Nobody remembered that she was the only one other than Han who could shoot straight.  Nobody remembered that she had kept her secrets under torture, that she was the one who stepped up to lead when Han and Luke’s half-baked rescue plan unraveled.  She had Princess in her name and that meant one thing only.

Whomever played her had to sit on the sidelines and wait until someone bothered with a rescue.

So for a very very long time, I HATED Princess Leia and would simply bow out of any game that involved her.  There was never a win to be had, I had to be Leia because I was the girl.  Fortunately, the boys in the neighborhood took the hint and we eventually agreed on an “invisible” Princess who would wait and do all the boring things until the game came back around to rescue-time (yeah, okay that may not have been a “better” solution per-se, but we were little and it solved the immediate problem).

I feel that a lot of people forget where the world was back in the 70’s when this film was first released.  That girls were still supposed to be “girly” and boys were supposed to be “heroes in training”.  The value (to me) in the Star Wars franchise, is not that they provided a strong female character to identify with in science fiction, because at the outset they didn’t, not in real concrete terms.  Instead over time that character evolved.  The writers and showrunners learned and grew and took a character that was supposed to be a slightly more exciting Girl in a Tower and turned her into force to be reckoned with.