Videogames and Storytelling Mix like Water and Sodium

At best you get tears & corrosive salt water, at worst you get a sodium explosion.

My philosophy of games:

  1. Games are about environment and gameplay only.
  2. Graphics don't matter much, as long as they communicate.
  3. Character and story are what you bring to it, they should not be part of the game.

So, I just dropped a lot of words there with fuzzy definitions:

  • Games: I mean all of tabletop boardgames, role-playing games, and most often videogames of all genres. There's less difference between the Warlock of Firetop Mountain gamebook and Myst than there is between that gamebook and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. And if you tear out the system from Warlock, you get Advanced Fighting Fantasy or Troika!, which is a very nice little RPG for wandering a weird, almost hallucinatory fantasy world with no book, no defined character, no story.

  • Environment: The world you explore. Some of this uses traditional writing skills for designing non-player characters and describing the tone and events, but also architecture, painting, 3D modelling for designing environments, music for writing soundtracks, foley for making environmental sounds.

    I recently enough mentioned this in Videogame Exploration, and I want to especially repeat my suggestion of Bernband, which is goofy, low-rez, standee sprites… and one of the most immersive environments I've ever played in.

  • Gameplay: The continuous loop of doing something, getting feedback on what happened, maybe scores or your position or just your understanding of the environment changes, and then repeat forever. That loop might take milliseconds in action games, to minutes or hours in hard adventures. There's a… fixation? a high… you get from that loop when it works right. "Just one more turn" says the Civilization junkie at 4AM before blowing off work. "Just one more mineshaft" says the Minecraft player. "Just one more quest" says the ESO player.

  • Graphics: This is almost irrelevant, really, despite the huge amount of effort and money spent on it. It doesn't matter if it's text adventures like Colossal Cave Adventure or Infocom's games, character-grids like Rogue and many descendants, 2D or 3D tiled graphical environments like Ultima IV, Super Mario Bros, or Castlevania, painted images along with text like Sierra's King's Quest or the LucasArts SCUMM games, up to 3D FPS graphics like Doom or Elder Scrolls Online. Good gameplay with any graphics is immersive, bad gameplay with perfect graphics is not.

    Easy way to test that: The most popular videogames of all time are: Mario (2D tiles), Zelda (2D & very simple 3D), Minecraft (blocky 3D with the worst programmer-art textures), Animal Crossing (very simple 3D imitating 2D). Graphics-intensive games pop up and vanish, because they're uninteresting.

  • Character: Who you are. In the better kinds of games, this is left blank for you to fill in. If the game engine doesn't accomodate dialogue even as well as Ultima I did, you're a mute wanderer who breaks into peoples' homes, smashes their crockery looking for coins & drugs/potions, maybe hits X to hear if they have any rumors or leads, then leaves. In action games, very little dialogue is necessary, your weapons speak for you.

    If you can freely define your Character, that interferes with Story. Until recently, at least you could rename your character, but with full voice acting for many games, they either obnoxiously refer to you as "Vestige", "Adept", "Friend", etc., or don't refer to you at all… or don't let you rename your character.

  • Story: This ties in closely with Character: What do you do? If you can wander as you please, make your own fun, whether that's good or harmful to the environment or NPCs, then you have no story, only gameplay. If you can only ride along like an amusement park railroad ride, get a story told to you and then pew-pew-pew to shoot targets, move on to the next stop, you have no gameplay, only story.

    The Disneyland ride model is a big influence, but AAA "games" with story are mostly frustrated Hollywood wastrels in the wrong medium. The obvious recent example is Death Stranding, which has hours of awful cutscenes with Hollywood people who have nothing to do with the game: A mediocre walking simulator/platformer; without the cutscenes, it might even be fun, if tedious.

An unfortunate result of focusing on Story has been forcing the player to make bad dialogue/action choices to advance, stay on the railroad unable to get out and wander away. Heavy Rain's no-choice "Press X to Cry Jason" rather than man up and go look for your lost child.

The now-defunct Telltale Games' Minecraft Story Mode had a painfully fixed main character and plot, and a doomed character, but let you choose social consequences with allies… which were then forgotten in the next chapter.

Early Final Fantasy games had a totally blank slate. FF3 is right on the cusp; it gives you a sandbox to explore, eventually hit a switch to open the next, bigger sandbox, repeat a couple more times, finally a long multi-part endgame and post-game sidequests. The characters have a secret backstory, but you can rename them, give them any job you want, play them however you want. I did one playthrough with boring Warrior, Thief, White Mage, Black Mage, another using Monk/Black Belt, Red Mage/Dragoon, Scholar/Geomancer, Evoker/Summoner. Utterly different gameplay even if I ended up clearing the same dungeons. My bizarro party got to level 99 to fight the giants.

By FF4, the characters and story are locked in place, you can enjoy it or not, and certainly the art's great and I quote "you spoony bard!" all the time, but you have no choices. Not that I'm blaming that all on JRPGs — there's Japanese games with freedom of choice, and Western games fixed on one character, Gabriel Knight is one of the earliest of this archetype.

Gamebooks like Tunnels & Trolls solos, Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, etc. are odd hybrids since they have story, but almost never have a defined character (a few do, like Creature of Chaos). The more linear the gamebook is, the better the story is, but the less interesting it is to play; there's several I've done that had one win and many deaths, and so cannot be replayed. The more meaningful choices they offer, the more incoherent the gamebook becomes, just a bunch of random scenes because you can't build up any meaning like linear fiction does.

My objection to Dungeons & Dragons adventures from Dragonlance (1984) on, is that it went from a game of freeform dungeon crawls, hex crawls, or "West Marches", wandering the Referee's world, maybe loosely using a Greyhawk map or Outdoor Survival, often made up in the days between games or improvised on the spot; to railroaded "adventure paths" with fixed character roles (either named and unkillable like DL or just "must have fighter, thief, cleric, magic-user, bard, or you will fail"). 5E has become entirely that, their healing/action economy even requires a specific pacing along the railroad, and their world maps are just one-path flowcharts you move along like Candyland.

So in conclusion (almost), just say no to story in your games. Look for that infinite high of gameplay.

  • The Devil's Advocate: There are some attempts to make character or story "gameable", rather than just a railroad, most notably Chris Crawford's Erasmatazz, which he then replaced with Storytron, now Wumpus (no relation to the real Hunt the Wumpus game). These have computer-controlled drama, you talk/choose interactions with different "emotional weights", and the NPCs react appropriately. These suck as games. They can be a little interesting as a puzzle to talk to the NPCs, find out what's going on, maybe push one of them into a "win" state. Nobody'd spend long on one.

It's worth looking at Chris's development woes. Sequentiality and list of encounters in Le Morte d'Arthur he gave up on gameplay, it's a railroad click-thru of Mallory's book, with a single fame/piety score to get win/lose.

His Gamers or Storytellers seems to be an admission of defeat. Yet he still has bigoted, ignorant ideas like:

This also plays into the old “evolution versus revolution” dilemma. I have long held that games will never evolve into anything with artistic merit, because the gaming audience does not expect artistic content from games. You can’t sell Beef Wellington to people who want candy. You can’t sell poetry to people who read comic books. You can’t sell art-house movies to people who watch cartoons. And you can’t sell artistic content to gamers who want action and instant gratification. Games as a a medium are ill-disposed to evolve in a storytelling direction.

This is why he fails. Games can have artistic content, just not inbred Hollywood-imitating content. There is plenty of poetry in comic books, obviously Sandman but many an issue of Detective Comics (the smarter Batman series) has moved me deeply. Many art-house movies are cartoons, or vice versa, or were when theatres were a thing, I'd start with Don Hertzfeldt's Rejected and Ralph Bakshi's Wizards. You can't sell poison apples to gamers, not more than once anyway.

I had a look at his soi-disant "Wumpus", and got this, his "non-technical" user interface. It's incredible to me that this is the guy who made Eastern Front and Balance of Power, which were techy but not a giant wall of UI clickies, badly sized in a window. Yes, it's Java, but you can make attractive and usable Java UI, it just requires effort.

I figured out eventually that you can hit Editor/Run Rehearsal (?) to play in something like a dialog box UI, was able to play through a very dull conversation, and then it gets stuck with Jeff explaining widgets to Sam in an infinite loop. Excellent. Obviously story-gaming is a solved problem. 🙄

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