Of games and stories

2010-12-22

So, I spent much of last week preparing and then running an RPG session. Normally, I suck at making up stories (believe me, I tried for years). But as a game master, I'm actually adequate, or so my players tell me. Which used to puzzle me: if static, linear storytelling is hard, interactive storytelling should be much harder, right?

It took me a long time to understand that it's the other way around. With the imagination of other people helping you, it should be much easier (for reasons I will explain in a moment). But this conclusion raises another question: if that's the case, why do videogames, as a rule, have such sucky stories that some people question whether they should try for stories at all?

There are exceptions, mind you. But only a few of them. Every time somebody needs an example, the same handful of titles come up: A Mind Forever Voyaging, Fallout 1&2, Myst, Planescape: Torment. More lenient types might include Silent Hill and/or Knights of the Old Republic... and that's pretty much it.

Not that videogames are the only medium afflicted by this problem. Having an incoherent story is the most common criticism leveled at Hollywood movies nowadays. And I'm not about to cast stones -- as I said, my own storytelling skills are lacking -- but shouldn't professionals be good at it, by virtue of experience if nothing else?

The answer struck me one day, during the aforementioned preparations. It's not because I lack experience. I've been reading since the age of four; I've been writing since 1996; I know elements of literary theory. My single but fundamental failure was not understanding where absolutely all stories come from. Namely, from people pursuing their goals under specific circumstances and getting into conflict with each other or the environment.

That's it. That's the essence of storytelling, and if you don't grok it, years of writing will get you nowhere. And it's not common knowledge; most of the time, you'll get advice that is vague at best ("you need conflict to create drama") and sometimes plain wrong ("setting doesn't matter except as a distant backdrop for the story").

Note, I wrote "people" above, not "characters". That's because stories happen all the time in the real world; it's just that most of them aren't interesting. Consider a simple scenario: you're walking down the street when you see someone about to be run over by a bus. What do you do? You might freeze in place, or you might jump in front of the bus to save a life... and you may or may not be fast enough. The bus driver might himself manage to slam the breaks in time. Or not. Or he might veer at the last moment... which in turn could cause him to hit a bicyclist. There's a whole maze of possibilities. Occasionally, events will take the most interesting path in real life, and then you can make a movie based on them; otherwise, it is the storyteller's job to navigate the maze and come up with a story worth telling.

And this is where the elements of a story matter. If you don't know where your characters come from and where they are now, you can't determine their goals. If you don't know their goals, you can't tell where they might conflict. If you don't know the world they live in, you can't determine the obstacles they face, nor the means they may employ to overcome those obstacles.

What does that have to do with games? Well, consider how a storyteller does his job: by using the brain centers that allows any of us to predict the behavior of others -- what enables us to form a society. Now, when writing a story all by yourself, you need to simulate every single one of the characters yourself. But in a tabletop RPG, you get to offload some of that work onto the players. Which makes the job a lot easier... except of course your players might not take the most interesting path. And you know what? That's perfectly all right, as long as it's more interesting than your average day in real life. Similarly, in a single-player computer game, you give the player goals and potential means to accomplish them, and let them navigate the maze of possibilities; with any luck, they'll hit upon the sequence of events making up the ideal story you had in mind. And if they don't, well, at least they had fun trying.

Right there you can see several ways for game stories to fail: one, putting a story in a game not because you have a good story to tell, but because you think you're supposed to. Two, trying to force-feed the player a carefully crafted story, when the whole point of a game is that we get to make the story ourselves (to a degree), or at least we're given the illusion that we do. Three, not knowing what stories are made of, and throwing together a pile of random events that make no sense and NPCs who seem mentally ill, because there is no underlying logic to their actions (not even a faulty one).

The upside is that an interactive story can get away with being much weaker than a static one, as the players' emotional investment will be greater simply by virtue of their active participation. But it still has to be a genuine attempt at creating a compelling narrative. Otherwise you may end up like the creators of Metroid: Other M, who can't seem to understand why the vast majority of reviewers criticized the story so harshly. At least the one in Mirror's Edge was largely glossed over.

Will I be a better storyteller from now on? Not automatically, no. But at least I'm not stumbling in the dark anymore, and sometimes that's the best one can wish for.

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