Saturday, August 12, 2006

Stories Etc. Redux

I was quite happy to note that the story articles that myself and Danc came out with over the last few weeks generated quite a bit of interest, and I've enjoyed replying and refining the points with various people in forums and so on. In particular, however, I want to spend a bit of time replying in depth to Brian Green (he of Psychochild fame), as he's taken a long look at the topic.

Brian essentially makes a stab at countering my assertion (which quite a few have objected to) that all stories are structure). For example (I'm going to be doing a lot of quoting here):

I think that for most storytelling-based entertainment, the assertion is mostly correct: the best stories are fragile and complicated beasts. I really enjoy digging into the complex political stories of George R. R. Martin's wonderful series, A Song of Fire and Ice and think the stories would be diminished if they were simplified. However, I don't think the stories are necessarily that fragile. [Warning: minor spoilers in the rest of this paragraph.] You could change a few of the details and still have a powerful story. In fact, this is what I love most about the stories: you think you know the "rules" and suddenly a main character dies, or some dead character is back, or some other detail changes the direction of the story. Yet, the change fits within the book: this is a world of deep political intrigue and magic, so it makes sense that "important" people would end up dead during a war or that someone might come back from the grave. So, I will argue that stories are more resilient than the original assertion gives credit.

What I feel Brian is missing out on here is how much effort is required to make a convincing change.

Can a story be changed? It surely can. It just cannot be changed easily. How easily it can be changed is directly connected to how complicated the structure of the story has become. A great political thriller, for example, is a carefully woven mesh of pace, character discoveries, motivations, back-stabbing and so on, and these elements have to be put together in a "just so" sort of arrangement or else things stand out (like obvious clues, clangers of bad plotting and so on). The author can change the story around, but to re-weave it together so that it makes a new kind of sense can take months if not years. Story structures are brittle.

I also think that Brian's point confuses departing from the established rules with a departure from structure. In the case of good storytelling, you know that your audience expects the story to go a certain way, so when you pull the rug out from under them this is often good. This is not departing from structure, however. For a sudden shift like this to work well, the story requires even more tightly structured storytelling than if you were following genre convention. The shift has to be believable, and that is entirely dependent on the structure. It's no good suddenly dropping the mask randomly and expecting your audience not to feel like you've cheated.

Brian also gets into the subject of what he calls 'universal stories' and 'personal stories'. The broad distinction between the two is that the universal story is one that can be enjoyed by anyone (a movie, a book, etc) whereas the personal story is a private one, like a recounting of the day's events to our wife. So, for example, two roleplayers telling about the feats that their characters did, boring the pants off each other but really getting off on their own tale is 'personal stories' in action, and

In both these cases each person has a story they care about. This more than a "fiction" as Tadhg Kelly refers to it; it becomes a story when you tell it at the very least. Just because most people find the story boring does not invalidate it: it is very meaningful to me and probably to the other people that participate in the game. Unfortunately, most people share Tadhg's perception that universal stories are the important ones, and tend to overlook the personal stories.

This discussion may seem familiar to those that read online RPG developer blogs. It is, because this is exactly what many online RPG developers argue about players. Raph Koster and Dave Rickey are probably the most vocal in claiming that each individual's story is important to them. (Of course, that leads them to the conclusion that user-based content is the way to go; they're wrong, but that's a whole other post.)

So, while Tadhg is correct that playing a computer game (or a paper RPG) isn't going to create the next Schindler's List, it can create stories that resonate with the individual or group. And, I think this is still valuable to us as game developers as long as we keep this distinction in mind.

My simple answer (to the bit I've emboldened) is no, that is not correct. What Brian is actually talking about is the stories that we derive from experience, but what he's missing (in my opinion) is that these stories just derive out of the random events of life. For every interesting thing that happens with a roleplayer's 20th level paladin, there are 45 hours of trudging around killing orcs. For every day that I come home from the office with something interesting to tell, there are four where the day was just dull.

In neither case is the game nor my office creating a story that resonates with me. It's just stuff that happens. For every exciting game of football there are ten that are pretty average. The thing that made it exciting on the day was that interesting stuff happened. This kind of emotional excitement derives through happenstance. It is not created by the game of football.

In all three cases, with an office, a game of football, a roleplaying game, all you really have is the potential for interesting things to happen. The environments are not creating stories of their own accord. It is the people who create the stories, and that is outside of the control of the game designer, the office manager and the Football Association. You can lead a horse to water....

What can be done is to try and create environments that generate interesting potential, i.e. good games. A good game is one that is balanced, where the rules are easy to understand and where the fiction of the game is such that it provides an interesting context. Whatever dramatic situations and re-tellings that arises out of this are totally outside the control of the game's creator. World of Warcraft does not create the Leeroy video, it is just something that happens within the environment because the rules and mechanics of the game are such that it can happen. It does not mean that it will happen, however. And it does not happen all of the time, or even most of the time.

Brian also talks about my point of games and elegance:

I'm also going to disagree with Tadhg when he says:

* But in order for them to become more robust, they must become simpler

I absolutely disagree with this. The recent fashion has been to simplify games in order to achieve "mainstream" appeal and better sales. Obviously overly complicated rules can hamper a game, but simplifying too much can hurt the game just as much. Tic-Tac-Toe is a very simple game with easy-to-follow rules. Yet, I think few serious game developers would go on record as trying to defend it as the most robust game, and therefore the best game. Yes, this is an absurd simplification, but it demonstrates the point. I think, as with most things, the truth lies in the middle: a great game is an elegant mix of simplicity and complexity. The old saw about "easy to learn, hard to master" applies here. And, while a good game is fun and people assume fun is easy, trying to create a great game that follows that old saw is anything but simple. And, before anyone tries to argue sales figures, don't confuse popularity with quality.

So, even if we accept that stories have to have a complicated structure, I don't think this means games are incompatible. It means that games have to adopt the structure of stories, or we need to adapt stories to the structure of games.

And again, no.

Brian is right in that games are all about balance. Tic Tac Toe is simple, but it is not balanced. Therein lies its flaw and the reason why it doesn't have much potential. There is one winning tactic, and therefore all games of Tic Tac Toe are variations on the same game. Chess and Go, on the other hand, are also pretty simple. But they are balanced, and so there is not one winning tactic. As a result, all games are not the same by any means, and so the room for potential is large. Football is also pretty balanced, going into the arena of sports, although there are some discussions going on in football over the over-powering strength of defenders in the modern game, which is a situation that is slowly pushing football into one-winning-tactic territory. The people in football recognise that balance is key to a long lasting game full of potential.

At the heart of balancing a game is the ability to see what is going on and see how the elements interact with each other. So the vogue for simplifying games is not really about marketing, it's about elegance and balancing and, therefore, potential. Complicated rules make a game much harder to balance, and that's no good. At all times, simplicity is the key. You can only simplify to a particular point before things make no sense any more (which I'll be talking about in greater detail in my next article), but the overall goal of good game design is to simplify to that point.

This is entirely at odds with stories. The whole skill of writing good stories boils down to the ability to build an intricate matchstick house of elements. It's nice to suggest in abstraction that this complexity can be somewhat adapted to become more robust, but in practise what we're really talking about here are two entirely different things. As I said in one of my many replies, it's like redefining the wheels and bricks as 'part of a greater set of objects, some of which may be rounded, some of which may be angular' and then going on to theorise that there must therefore exist some kind of brickwheel because the logic dictates it from the set.

Only it clearly aint so.

Brian later addresses God of War, which is interesting because I think God of War is one of the best examples of fiction in action that I've seen in about three years. If I may summarise, Brian faults God of War in these areas:
  • Inflexibility: What if I don't want to be an anti-social tattooed freak with a soft spot for women
  • Linearity: What if I want to avoid this very blatant trap?
  • Destiny: What if I feel that it's more appropriate for the "hero" to slip into Hades and suffer eternal punishment for his sins?
So, yes, you see Tadhg's complaint right here: the rigid story conflicts with the more fluid nature of an interactive game. One has to win out, and it's the rigid story structure. Unfortunately, this means that some of your actions are immutable, something that is antithetical to a truly interactive game. But, this does not mean it's the only possible outcome when you focus on story...

...I think the developers did a great job establishing the characters and making the whole thing very entertaining. But, the game was limited by the story and did not allow players to do things that would harm the story.

So you see the thing is this:
God of War is not a story. It's a game.

It has rules, it has mechanics (which were doled out throughout the course of the game). It has a setting, all historical and spiky Greek stuff, and it consists of a series of threaded challenges based on those rules and mechanics. The setting, which is part of the fiction, changes throughout the course of playing the game. This informs new challenges, provides a context for opening out new mechanics and in most cases that results in new developments in the gameplay for you to grok, new excitement in the context and so on. It is a game.

How can it not be a story? Simple. It has no structure. It has a series of pockets of potential and mildly expanding rules (which expand on very methodical lines, that keep the game fairly simple). It also has, as Danc pointed out in his article, small rewards in the form of the backstory that act as pauses to the main gameplay, but they are the equivalent of the half time show at the SuperBowl. They're nice, enlightening, even enjoyable. But they're not really relevant to the playing experience. Yes, you find out how Kratos is such a bad man and a couple of questions are answered along the way, and the overall multimedia experience of the game would be lessened without them a little because the odd reflective pause is nice.

But that's basically it. Primarily, they serve their function as little bits of rewards, or enablers of new missions, things that change the fiction inside a context, and that's it. It's the same in Vice City, Max Payne 2, Grim Fandango, Zelda, Halo, Ico and whatever else we drag up. The half time show is nice, but it's not the main event, and the moment that it starts to impinge upon the main event and get in the way is the moment that players lose interest. Nobody likes the epic cut-scenes in Metal Gear Solid 2 except for their unintentional comedy.

As I said, I'll be trying to map the reasons for this in my next article, but my essential point is that God of War gets it almost exactly right and that's why it's such a great game. Inflexibility, linearity and destiny are pretty much beside the point.

Lastly, I broadly agree with Brian's points about the need for a better understanding of technique. Regardless of whether you look at it in terms of fiction or story or whatever your term of choice is, there's always room for improvement in the manner in which information is delivered. Even if it is just a better choice of camera angle, a fade-out effect or a particular piece of paper that your character discovers on the ground, there are almost always ways to do things better.

The question is more what the goal of this is in the first place and understanding the reasons for doing them.

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