Thursday, January 04, 2007

The New Holy Grail

People tell me about how good the stories are in games nowadays, but I have never seen this to be true. The games are exciting and the graphics are great, but they do not tell stories. (I can hear some of your knees jerking from here, but hear me out.)

Because video games have many of the elements of a story -- characters, settings and exciting events for instance -- it is easy to be fooled into thinking that you are “in” a story when playing a game. You are not. What you are doing is playing out a scenario.

If the object of the game is to kill the dragon and save the princes, that is a scenario, not story. Take chess: it has characters and goals very much like a video game. The object is to capture the opposing king without losing your own. There are bishops, knights, and foot soldiers called pawns, to help in this task – yet it is never called a story. Why?

I believe we have been tricked by our technology. If chess had been invented as a video game, people would undoubtedly say it had a great, interactive story, different every time. Same thing with board games: in Monopoly you can go to jail, buy a house, run a hotel, or own a railroad. But would you say a board game tells a story?

In the old days -- the very old days -- a hunter might go out and have an adventure while tracking a killing his prey. Upon his return home he would tell the story of his quest for food. Exactly how the trip went (“First I turned left at the rock...”) was not a story, but the retelling of his adventure was.

The term “interactive story” is a misnomer. Interactivity turns a story into a game.

People have been playing games and telling stories as long as there have been people. (I believe the oldest chess reference comes from Persian literature in 600 A.D.) People go to games for one reason and stories for another. The two forms serve very different functions.

Stories are primarily a way of passing along information from one person to another. Good stories remain essentially the same after many retellings.

Games are a way of practicing, physically or intellectually. A good game varies its scenario, and makes us change how we play it.

Each plays its part very well. There is no reason to try to merge them. And pretending that you can fails to acknowledge the specific purpose and power of each.


son of lim said...

I sometimes wish that game designers would stop trying so hard to make great stories within their games. I understand that by providing the user with a great story, the designers hope that the user will become more invested with the characters and setting that they are playing with. But more often than not, the story and the storytelling just get in the way of the game.

For instance, I played a game recently called "Neverwinter Nights 2" (an computer RPG). Almost all the reviews of the game say that the story is pretty much the greatest story to come out for a game in a long time. So when I actually get to play the game, I very quickly start to hate it more and more. The designers seem to have the strange idea that dialogue=story, so more dialogue=even better story!. As a result, most of the gameplay experience is spent reading lengthy descriptions and long-winded text conversations. On top of that, the game often "rewards" you by giving you story cutscenes involving the characters standing still, and talking a lot (this shows that you are progressing in the game). One review said that it told a one hundred word story with one thousand words. If that weren't bad enough, most of the designer's short development time was spent creating this story and the literally thousands and thousands of lines of dialogue and text, so not enough time was spent actually designing and fine-tuning the game. The result is a very generic, long-winded novel with some buggy, fighting inbetween with choppy animation. Talk talk talk, fight, talk talk talk, fight--then crash to desktop.

Need more inventive gameplaying, and less story.

Augie said...

I've been in the video game industry for over a decade, and I hear this time and time again. "You don't need a good story in a video game, it's all about the gameplay."
I've had the opportunity over the years to work with artists and game designers that DO care about the story and try to weave a good tale in between game play. It is a hard task. I agree gameplay should come first in video games, but that doesn't mean the story has to suffer. I read something awhile back where Peter Jackson was trying to do some video game stuff, and was stressing the story aspect of the game. I'm curious to see what he does with a video game. With the technology we have today, there's no exscuse to not "try" and incorporate a good story. Games right now need a new template anyway. The same boring way of presenting a game is getting old,and dealing with people that don't have the vision to even try and let the artists and game designers incorporate a story with good gameplay is frustrating as hell, and needs to change. I deal with it every day. To not try is to lose. I want to work with the cats that will stick it out in the trenches so that a good story is told, along with good game play. It's a longer harder road, but I think it's worth it. If you don't believe me, read Brian's last post, "The artist's vision". Anyway, sorry for the long rant. Glad you're still doing the blog Brian.Very inspiring posts. These last few have really hit home for me. Keep it up. -A

M Kitchen said...

The last video game I played was Max Payne 2. I would argue that this game did have a story...

...though I do understand the point you are making.

Brian McD said...

Thanks for reading my rants and for writing in.
I knew when I decided to post this particular blog that I would get a lot of comments. I also knew that people would swear that some games had stories. It reminds me of something Albert Einstein said: “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” This is exactly what happens with this game/story idea. It is an illusion. I know that this comment will get even more people to claim that there is a game out there that has a story, but the very nature of story makes this impossible. Our technology does not change this. But I know that this will fall of deaf ears because some of these games create such a great illusion of having a story. We live at a time when most films don’t even have a story, so I know why there is a lot of confusion around this issue. A few years ago there was a screenwriting magazine that asked on it’s cover: Is Story Dead? No, it’s not dead, but I would say that it is very ill and should think about making out a will.

Jamie Baker said...

Brian, that was a very interesting read. I like very much how you made your point about the fact that we never think of Chess or any board games as being stories even though on the surface of things they have some elements that you would find in a story (characters, goals etc). Until you hit me with that one I wasn't quite on your wavelength.

I suppose when a new technology gives rise to a new medium (or a dramatic variation on another) there are inevitable comparisons to the previous one, and it is also inevitable that some people will try to apply principles from the old to making the new.

I recently watched quite a few early silent films and in many cases you cant help noticing that they are made very much like a stage play, because that is what people were most familiar with at that time. The acting is often very broad and there is very little use of close ups or cutting because,I suppose, that both the actors and the directors were trying to film a play.

And then you see another film made at almosrt the same time as those others, but this time the story is told in different way, a more cinematic way.

I dont think that it is unworthy of game-makers to try and "raise their game" and come up with more compelling plots (or scenarios as you say) and ideas that go deeper than the classic point and shoot. The trick is to find the ways of doing so that dont bog the game down with comparisons to classic story telling

M Kitchen said...

I was thinking about this one some more... and realized that it's the cinematic sequences between the game that contained the actual story.

In the case of the Max Payne 2 example I cited above, it's the comic book cut-away sequences that contained the story. And I would still contest that those sequences told a story, and accede to the fact that the in-play game portion is nothing more than a scenario.

Using the chess analogy, it would be like telling the tale of King Arthur followed by "and this was his battle:"

(cut to game sequence)

Brian McD said...

Yeah, I think that's the way video games are. Players alternate between game-play and story-time.

Mike said...

Most games definitely don't have stories, but rather serialized narratives that set up each spectacle one after the other. Such a thing is no more a story than the contents of my RSS news feed for the day are, by themselves, a story.

The closest execution I can think of in a video game to actual storytelling was in a Playstation 1 title called Vandal Hearts. It had a clear hero protagonist with an ensemble cast as his band of brothers, and every character had an arc, with the depth of each arc varying depending on the importance of the character.

The gameplay in Vandal Hearts was NOT the decision-making in the story, but instead the "action scenes" -- the military confrontations -- that set up dramatic scenes that the player watched cinematically and did not interact with. For example, one character reunites with his estranged father, who hires the heroic band to suppress bandits on the edge of town. The action scene is the battle with the bandits, and that is the only part the player actively "plays." Afterward, we learn in a cinematic that it was a set-up and the heroes are in even hotter water. This leads to an escape scene that the player actively "plays." And so on.

It wasn't Monsters Inc. or Lord of the Rings by any stretch, but it approached much closer than any other game I can recall to mind.

Trumgottist said...

The funny thing here is that I started reading this blog because of my interest in making story-based games. (I'm reading it chronologically, so I don't know if you've addressed the issue again later.)

"Stories are primarily a way of passing along information from one person to another. Good stories remain essentially the same after many retellings.

Games are a way of practicing, physically or intellectually. A good game varies its scenario, and makes us change how we play it."

In that case, most games I'm most interested in are good stories rather than good games. (Adventure games and Interactive Fiction.)

Yes, Plants vs Zombies or Archon are fun games, and not stories, but something like "Slouching towards Bedlam"? Slouching is actually an interesting example to pick, as it has multiple endings, and can thus be said to be game rather than story, but I'd argue that the multiple endings add to the story rather than taking away from it.

Brian McD said...


Thanks for checking out the blog. If you care to you can find more of my thoughts on games and stories in this interview:

Thanks again for reading.

-- Brian

Trumgottist said...

Thanks. I obviously disagree on your view of (and dismissal of) stories in games, since the games I like the best are the story-based ones, but I still think we who'd like to make game stories can learn from what you're saying. What you're saying about the nature of stories is worth thinking about.

(And I'm not alone in thinking that - I've been told that your book is used in playable fictions classes.)

Brian McD said...

Hey Trumgottist,

Thanks so much for writing.

I understand that many people disagree with me on the game/story thing. Which is fine, but there are a couple of things I don't understand. One thing is that gamers and game designers often say that games have stories, but when I ask folks to define "story" they can't.

I find it interesting that people swear that games have stories, but can't define what a story is. I wonder just how people know a thing has a story without knowing just what a story is.

A story is a narrative of past events. The word "story" comes from the Latin word historia -- History.

A story is an accounting of a thing that has happened or, even in the case if a future event, is told in past tense. It has happened.

In Middle English, as I understand it, "story" meant a record of past events.

In Greek historia meant a learning by inquiry; an account of one's inquiries. A record.

There is no definition anywhere that says that a story happens in the present -- in the current moment.

Games happen in real time -- in the present. By definition a game and a story cannot occupy the same space.

May people feel otherwise, but they never address the definitions of either games or stories in their arguments -- they mostly say to me, "I don't agree". This is not an argument.

Many things feel true that aren't. A body of water is not blue -- the sky makes it appear blue.

I think many games feel like they are stories and use many of the same ingredients, but are not, strictly speaking, stories.

Eggs and flour can be used to make a cake and these same ingredients can make noodles. Games and stories share ingredients, but not form.

I am not sure why people feel that games need to be stories to be validated. But people do seem to need it for some reason.

Either way, I am glad that what I say has an impact in the gaming world since many of the tools are the same.

There is one more thing -- stories are told and retold, but no one has ever played a game and retold me the story of the game as if it was a story. I wonder why not.

Thanks again for the comments.

-- Brian

Trumgottist said...

I've been thinking about this a bit now. Not because I need to convince you, since I don't (if you don't like games that's ok, and I can still learn from what you have to say even if you don't agree that games can have stories) but I find the discussion interesting.

I like the definition of story that you put forth in the High Bar interview: "The telling or re-telling of events leading to a conclusion."

What I don't agree with is your definition of game: "Games are a way of practicing, physically or intellectually. A good game varies its scenario, and makes us change how we play it." My favourite computer games don't vary their scenarios and make us change how we play them. They have stories to tell that usually can't be altered by the player, who is basically taking the role of an actor in a play. The environment (and characters) in these kinds of games is built to direct the player. (I'm not talking about the kinds of games where the player has a sandbox to create their own stories in.)

On the other hand, Graham Nelson, one of the big names in contemporary interactive fiction, has described IF as "a narrative at war with a crossword", meaning that there is a real risk that the puzzles in a game gets in the way of the story. So the real question for me then is why do I want to make story-based games instead of animated movies? An animation has the ingredients I like the most about making games: the story, the music, the drawing… I don't have an answer for that yet.

"There is one more thing -- stories are told and retold, but no one has ever played a game and retold me the story of the game as if it was a story. I wonder why not."

I'd say it's probably because of who you talk to.

/ Rikard

Brian McD said...


Sorry that it has taken me a while to get back.

You may not agree with my definition of games and that’s fine. All I can tell you is that no game person who I have ever had this discussion with ever has a working definition of story. They insist that games can have stories without being sure what a story is.

I think what folks are really saying is that some games sure do feel like stories. They may even stimulate many of the same parts of the brain, who knows?

I have worked for several years with the computer science department of the University of Washington and often with students who specialize in game design. So I have had this decision a lot. In fact, I spent an entire quarter have just this discussion because the University was interested in exploring this game/story connection. So, I do not come to my conclusions without much discussion and thought.

That said, I am not going to comment further on the subject. In these cases I always let the commenter have the last word, so please feel free to respond if you’d like to.

Thanks for continuing to read the blog and for your comments.

Trumgottist said...

I don't have anything to add (at this point in time - maybe in a few years when I've thought more about it, and maybe even attempted to write a few stories), except to say thanks for writing. I'll continue to read your blog.

/ Rikard

Daniel Smith said...

I realize this post is cold, but I have some thoughts to add.

I started reading this post in disagreement with you Brian but you make an excellent arguments. I now have to agree with your division between game and story. You communicate in an incredibly clear manner.

Nonetheless, games are attempting to incorporate story elements. I see your post as explaining why the two don't gel together very well. Simply put, they cannot, but that doesn't mean a game cannot have a story even a good one. And stories can add something to gameplay if only by creating expectations. In short, I see the distinction but I think there are good reasons for the continued effort at incorporating the two. All games benefit by including a good story.

Brian McD said...

Hello Daniel,

Thanks for writing again. And thanks for reading my stuff.

As for the game/story things to be honest I wish I'd never said anything. I think it is the most contested thing that I have said.

I have had this discussion so many times that I have said just about everything I can say and few people have changed their minds.

No one has EVER argued the basic premise of my position -- they argue around me position and ignore it.

Is life a story as you live it? Or does an incident become a story after the fact and someone recounts about that incident?

You can read all I have to say on the subject here:

I respond to someone named Nick and my answer to him may help clarify my position.

But the most concise answer I know how to give is that I don't think that games and stories can occupy the same space and unless there is a game that has found a way to fold space/time I stand by my position. If someone can give a simple definition "story" that includes game-play I will listen. But as I have said many times when I stand in front of a class and ask them to define a story they cannot. Most people have no working definition of story, but will contend that they know what one is.

I hope you can understand that I have been around and around on this subject and would rather not talk about it anymore.

I really am happy that you took the time to write though, Daniel.

-- Brian

Trumgottist said...

"No one has EVER argued the basic premise of my position -- they argue around me position and ignore it."

I don't ignore your position, but I can agree with the premise (that the story of an event is not the same as the event - that's it, right?), but not its conclusion. Because there are different kinds of games. You also say "Interactivity turns a story into a game." but the thing you always return to when talking about stories is the natural storytelling occurring between people every day. I claim that's a form of interactive storytelling of the same kind that some games have. The person being told the story can shape the way it's being told, but that won't change the story itself.

Brian McD said...

I'm done.