Here‘s an interesting post from Brenda Brathwaite’s blog about how new media forms look to previous ones for inspiration, and how perhaps we should look to opera for inspirations about how games can tell stories. As a games writer, it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a little while, and then this interview with Jonathan Blow came along and triggered further thoughts along similar lines.
Challenge and stories aren’t really pulling in different directions in games. It may be that we’re trying to use traditional storytelling techniques with games, and that’s where we fall down, but the reality is that with games, it’s just the mechanisms that we can use to tell stories are different than they are in other forms. Brenda’s example of opera is a really good one, but you can easily find examples in other media. Comics spring to mind as a form that shares elements with both film and prose, but how you interact with that is different to both.
And, I think that’s one of the key things – interaction, or how you engage and derive meaning from the medium – but games aren’t unique in being interactive.
I’ve often spoke in the past about levels of indirection in story-telling. In prose, you’re effectively 3 levels seperate from your emotional response to the story. You need to parse the sentences, imagine the events unfolding, then have your own individual experience of it. With film, you’re 2 levels away. You no longer need to parse and imagine, but you do need to form a bond with the characters on screen, and then your emotional response is filtered through that. Games, or good games, remove the engagement barrier to a single level. There’s no need to imagine events, they’re presented just like a film, and as the player, you’re the one controlling the characters and, hopefully, engaging in their emotional journey along the way.
As game developers, we believe that we’re unique, but the truth is, all media is interactive to some degree, it’s just the level of engagement and imagination we have with our audience is unique. Not better though – there are things prose does better than other mediums, things that film does better, things that comics do better, things that music does better – the trick is to work out what the strengths of our medium are and play to those.
One thing that games do better than other media is brought up in Jonathan’s interview when he talks about Fallout 3. In it, you come across a nurse who tried to hold off a horde and failed. Jonathan thinks this moment works, but is an example of how the rest of the game fails, because there aren’t other moments like this. I think that’s important to consider how effective that single element would be without the rest of the game around it. There may not be a particularly strong central story to Fallout 3, but there is a consistent world, with consistent characters, and the player experience is built around that, rather than on the beat by beat, linear progression. In this case, the player is encouraged to take on the identity of a post-apocalyptic wanderer trying to survive, and the world is designed to support that. Story, or at least a linear story, is almost secondary to that identity-adoption.
Testing identities is one of the fundamental things that we do when we play, both as adults and as children, but we can’t do that without construction of some sort of fiction. However, once we have that fiction, we can tell stories. Games with stories provide fictions that encourages us to adopt the identities and goals of the characters and to believe that the actions they take and the challenges they face are important. I believe that challenge alone isn’t important, that actions themselves aren’t important, but that it’s why we take those actions to overcome those challenges that is important. Games connect with us directly, and those that work, enable us to adopt those identities and want to solve those problems alongside the characters.