Saturday, July 15, 2006

Stories, Structure, Abstraction and Games

I've come to a conclusion on the subject of videogames-as-interactive-stories, and that conclusion is that to call a videogame an interactive story, or to call interactive stoytelling the future of the medium, is nonsense. So that's that settled. Fantastic. We can all go home now.

Well no, of course, there's a little more to it than that.

This latest line of thinking came from an interview that I read with Chris Crawford a few weeks ago, and a debate that followed on a private industry-only forum.

Crawford, one of the industry's many indefatigable self-publicists, came out with the extraordinary contention that videogames of the last ten years (I think) were all rubbish because they hadn't progressed. Crawford has been working on an interactive storytelling engine for a million years, which he considers to be a real innovation and that has resulted in a grand total of no actual progress. (I mean there's no doubt been lots of progress in the engine itself, but there's been no progress in interactive stories). Why not?

Well there's several reasons.

What Stories Are
The basic reason is that an interactive story is actually a paradoxical concept. This is a fact that is not popular in pro-interactive story circles, but it's true.

The short version of a very long argument that I had about this is that the key tenet under which the interactive story model is supposed to work is the idea that stories, being structures, can be systematised. So if you get a clever enough piece of software running on a decent enough hardware spec, the computer is able to judge which part of a story you are at and come up with a decent following piece.

That particular piece of rationalisation is George Lucas and Mark Rein*Hagen's fault. Lucas, of Star Wars fame, is the most direct antecedent for modern geek culture's belief in the story as a series of objects (though I doubt that was his intention). Lucas passionately believes (or believed at the time, I don't know now) in the theories of Joseph Campbell. Campbell wrote a series of texts, such as the 'Hero with a Thousand Faces' and others wherein he broke down and analysed thousands of stories and came up with a model for interpreting stories, understanding story structure and so on.

Various writing teachers have adopted these theories in one form or another (screenwriting tutors are particularly fond of them) to develop schema to teach story structure. The ideas have also passed into popular culture in general, with the idea of the plot twist, the love scene, the payoff scene and the setup all being understood by quite a few people in principle.

The problem with this understanding is that it is largely veneer. Quite often the movie producer (or latterly the game producer), the hack writer (or designer) and others will spout these ideas off as a means of either justifying poor material (especially when they invoke "The Audience" as a part of that defense) or covering tracks. It's also fuel for the fire for many an internet and journalistic debate over television series. A great example of this is the current run of Doctor Who in Britain which is wonderfully produced yet unspeakably bad television, yet written and justified by the many in terms of audiences, the basic terminology of hero's quest related material and so on.

What's missing here in the gulf of understanding is that Campbell (and Lucas's) ideas are a framework, and many people have confused the framework with the content. Including the interactive story community.

One of the better story teachers is Robert McKee, who is an advocate that stories are indeed structures, partly in agreement with what Campbell suggests. McKee asserts that "All Stories are Structure", but they are structures far beyond the basic three act setup-joke-setup-joke-setup-dramatic sort of pace. Stories are interdependent structures, in McKee's thinking, in that rather that all conforming to one model, all stories start with a rough framework in mind (such as Campbell) but that they then become more and more delicately structured on their own.

For example, sub-plotting and character arcs are part of a story's structure. Symbolic development is part of a story's structure. Scene construction and pacing are part of a story's structure. The more carefully structured a story becomes, the more individuated from the basic framework it becomes. The more that happens, the more it departs from any sort of specific rules of story construction, and the more that that happens, the better the story becomes.

All stories are indeed structures.
What the interactive storytelling community have failed to appreciate is that all the best stories are brittle structures.

What does that mean?

Simply put, the more delicately structured and better a story becomes, the harder it becomes to make wholesale changes. The rhythm of a story is affected by changes in pace, in the way that characters behave and operate, and in the way that the plot, sub-plots and other elements develop. It is relatively simple to change a basic fairy tale (which is why fairy tales are often used as examples by the interactive storytelling community) and preserve the general gist of it. However it is extraordinarily complicated to change Casablanca without destroying it.

The reason that changes become such a problem is that complicated stories are only conforming to the Campbell structure in a very general way. Campbell's structure is not a system, it's a guidebook. Good stories actually function according to their own internal logic. All stories are structure, but those structures are not transposable between each other willy nilly. That's why it takes more than a year of determined effort by a team of writers to write a mere 15 hours of entertainment for a Battlestar Galactica series.

So the problem that the interactive storytelling crowd face is that they are trying to create some sort of system that tries to model a system which they believe exists (if they only had the right tools) but which in fact does not exist. All stories are structures, sure, but they are all special case structures. Through rationalising on the basis of a hazy framework, they've tried to convince themselves that they only need to be smart enough and they'll figure it out.

And Mark Rein*Hagen is largely responsible for the perpetuation of the idea that games and stories are converging.

Mark Rein*Who? Again, an unintentional yet symbolic figure on the road to here, Rein*Hagen is the name most closely associated with the Storyteller school of tabletop roleplaying games. Rein*Hagen invented Vampire: The Masquerade and a bunch of other games at White Wolf, and while he certainly was not the first game designer to conceive of the idea of games as storytelling experiences, he is the one who most directly adopted the language of storytelling.

For instance, in games of D+D, the players engage in adventures to defeat dungeons, roleplay their characters and level up. A series of adventures became a campaign. This is moderated by a Games Master using a system of dice and arbitrary judgment, and the whole experience is called a roleplaying game. Rein*Hagen and White Wolf ditched this terminology. They called their adventures "stories", they called the campaign a "chronicle". The GM became a "Storyteller", and the game was to use themes and psychological concepts to describe characters rather than the old alignment systems. Vampire, Ars Magica and other similar games from the early 90s essentially changed the language (and therefore concepts) underpinning roleplaying games (they have since reverted somewhat), spawning a generation of gamers who were more into story experiences, live roleplaying, the whole bit.

This whole chain of events also put legs under the idea of interactive storytelling in video games through the supreme feat of language conjunction. Eh? The idea that if the same word is used to describe two different things, then those different things must be related, if not in fact the same. So, "story", "game". If story means movie and game means Chess, then there's no connection. If "story" is redefined to mean "storytelling experience" and "game" is redefined to mean "conceptualised playing area" then the ideas seem closer. If you then make the leap to "storytelling game" in the sense of one kind of game and one kind of seeming story experience (as in Rein*Hagen's games) then through conjunction you can apply the reasoning through to all sorts of other forms.

So you get:

* Movies and games must be coming closer together because games have storytelling in them, and therefore characters and arcs
* The story of Chess exists because games and stories are linked. Since Chess has no audience, the story of Chess must therefore be a story that the players are telling to themselves
* And since stories are structures it therefore follows that since Chess is also a structure, and since games and stories are connected, that some kind of interactive storytelling engine is possible.
* So I can play storytelling games without the need for a Storyteller

And so on. Completely missing the basis on which the conjunction was originally formed, i.e. a re-branding of the roleplaying game to differentiate a product in a marketplace. And also missing out on one more thing. Rein*Hagen's games were never really "storytelling" games in the first place.

They are roleplaying games, just as D+D, Call of Cthulhu and Paranoia. Tabletop roleplaying games are not storytelling experiences, they are shared fantasies with a fluid and robust structure which share a fiction but not a story. All stories are structure, remember. The more structure the better. The more structure, the more brittle, the less easy to change. Roleplaying games have moments and bits where they appear to be like stories while you're playing them, but they also have many boring bits. They are games, and like all games they are robust.

What Games Are
You want to know what a game is?

A game (of any stripe) is an abstract space with robust rules in which one or more participants is able to take any kind of action subject to the constraints of that space toward a pre-determined goal. That's what a game is at a basic level. And furthermore:

* As game rules become more robust, the better they become
* But in order for them to become more robust, they must become simpler
* So a kind of elegance in game design forms, where the designer tries to use as few rules as possible to achieve the most streamlined outcome that enables players to play within the constraints of the space toward the goal. An unconstrained space is not a game. (An non-goal driven space is not a game either. It is a toy.)

And that's why Chess and Go remain as enduringly popular as they are, and why soccer is the most popular game on earth. Robustness and elegance are the key driving forces here, and they are in direct opposition to the brittleness and complexity, the defining traits of story.

Through robustness and elegance, playing a game is a real interactive experience. Because a game of football is so darned simple, players can play in whatever way they choose, and so games are never predictable. Within the confines of the game there can be titanic struggles, players sent off, dominance from one side or the other, the whole gamut of emotion. In a very real way this is an interactive experience (both for player and viewer) which sometimes provides real drama. Sometimes. Sometimes it doesn't.

In a tabletop roleplaying game, when the quest is on and the players are trying to figure out a way to storm the Castle Perilous, the rules may appear complicated, but the Games Master is on hand to short-cut all of the tedious bits, make arbitrary decisions that move the pace on a bit and otherwise get the game going where it needs to go. The Games Master acts as a counter-weight for elegance and robustness. Sometimes this provides moments of real drama. Sometimes it doesn't.

And so too in videogames. Deathmatch games of Counterstrike are no different to games of football, quest games like God of War are no different either. You have the space, the challenge and the abstraction that makes it possible to play within well-understood boundaries. To call this 'story' is utterly ludicrous.

What Fiction Is
So games are not stories and they never were. What games have, on the other hand, is fictions.

Fiction is a shorthand term that says "the imaginative character of the spaces in which games are played". All game spaces have character of some shape or description. Chess and football have a symbolic character, Tetris likewise. That is the sum total of their fictions.

Many games have more complicated fictions than this. Vampire: The Masquerade's setting, the World of Darkness, is a very long and involved fiction. Final Fantasy VII's is likewise. Most games fall somewhere in the middle in terms of complexity. The best games are those that mirror fiction and gameplay together to create a robust, elegant game that the players can functionally play with relative ease and symbolically/imaginatively enjoy likewise. Football would not be football with the crowd chants, it would be anemic. Paranoia would not be Paranoia without the whole "Glory Glory the Computer" songs and Resident Evil would not be Resident Evil without the zombiefied villagers.

The big difference between recognising the qualities of a fiction and misinterpreting it as am interactive story experience is in seeing that the system underpinning the fiction is robust (i.e. it's an abstract game) and therefore the best fictions are always the ones that are driven at the player's behest. Chess would simply be irritating if after every five moves a neutral judge read out lines of poetry, and many videogames are irritating because of their long ponderous cut-scenes that serve no purpose in advancing the gameplay or exploring the fiction. Great fiction always works at the behest of the player in a manner that furthers their exploration and advancement of their gameplay. (There is room for great writing in games, as a matter of interest, as long as it works within these precepts. The current vogue in trying to adopt movie storytelling wholesale into games is fundamentally broken for other reasons.)

Interactive storytelling, on the other hand, tries to square the circle, regarding players as actors, games as sets of stories, and lots of other misguided notions that derive from linguistic tricks, misunderstandings of the principles of both games and stories, and a healthy invocation of the Technology God as a lodestone of possibility.

Mostly, however, the notion continues to propagate because it keeps a variety of people in the news and mentioned in magazines. Like many other sources of self-propagating publicity (of which the industry has too many), it should be actively debunked. But that's a subject for another article.

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