Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Divisive 'Storytelling' - OR - Don't Make Me Play Tetris to Read Chapter 13

When I first remember encountering video games, they were simple. I found myself as a small American child right as the original Nintendo Entertainment System craze began, and for Christmas in the year of 1987 I did in fact receive my very own electronic input/output recreational implement.

It came with a game called 'Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt.' It was easy to understand, especially Duck Hunt. As all good hunting dogs do, your trusty pooch would duck into the grass, urging you to be quiet. Then, suddenly, an explosion of two to three ducks would burst out from the grass and you would have about six seconds to shoot them with your orange plastic gun. Or you could point the gun at a lightbulb and squeeze the trigger and win. That was actually preferable, because the faithful canine would laugh at you every time you failed. The sound of his laughter was like electronic bugs being squished with a still-hot frying pan.

If you were a child in the 80's, there's a good chance the sound of that dog laughing while he tried to cover his smirk with his paw has haunted every failure in your life for the last 25 years.

The story to this game was pretty good: have fun. Even still, it had a few plot holes.

Why was a dog laughing at our every failure supposed to be fun? The answer is that having such high stakes for failure made the thrill of the paltry success elevenfold greater. Unless you adhered to the lightbulb technique of gameplay, in which case you never really enjoyed anything in your life anyway.

Also, why didn't the ducks just strike out across land through the tall grass and avoid entering the line of fire? Why were so many ducks sitting in that grass (You could play up to at least 99 rounds, which is nearly 300 ducks) for so long? Why did only two or three of them fly away at a time? Why didn't the gunfire scare off the other ducks, who sat nobly by waiting for the next 97 groups of three to take off so it would be their turn?

Still, though the plot was full of holes, so were the ducks. The only thing that really kept this from being the best example of video game storytelling to date was that you couldn't kill the dog. Ahh, well it just gave us more hope for the sequel.

Yet the real star of that first cartridge was Mario. Mario was a game that was a lot like a book - you went from left to right until you got to the end. Like a lot of books, there were a lot of pits you could fall into that would make you want to stop, and one constantly encountered lots of things that just crawled back and forth on the lines repetitively, waiting to hurt you.

The story of this game was a real tangle of plot points compared to Duck Hunt - Don't fail to move from left to right. If you get all the way to the end, you won't have to go any more. You will reach a screen that says 'The End' and know you have finished.

To prove that this was a viable, meaningful goal, they made it so that the 'Princess' was at the end. This made total sense! Eight worlds, each with the same dragon monster at the end, who you kill eight times. The first seven times, our tiny hero must continue from Left to Right because he had gone, rather shortsightedly, to the wrong castle.

One would think that by the sixth time this had happened, he would make sure he was storming the right castle before risking his life. Maybe he was just a daredevil.

Finally, the eighth time you kill the dragon monster in the same manner as the previous occasions, the fates have decided you have proven your steadfastness beyond a shadow of a doubt, and we are mercifully revealed that we have gone to the right castle. Thank God.

Imagine this in book form. You read chapter one, defeat the primary antagonist and think you are about to set right the conditions which have so disrupted the protagonist's normal routine - only to find out that 'Sorry, reader: your plot resolution is in another chapter!'

Don't worry - there's seven more chapters in which we get to defeat the antagonist in an identical fashion! Maybe one of these times, something different will happen when we do the same thing.

After all, isn't that the definition of sanity? Do the same thing over and over again until it produces different results?

So we can see that the 'narrative' structure of early video games (i.e. 'ones that everybody knows about and have sold twenty times more than anything newer') is rather basic. It is like the 'narrative structure' of Tic Tac Toe or Boxing - try to win! The story came from the game itself - things would happen differently each time. It wasn't a story in the sense of having read War & Peace, it was just a narrative of an experience.

Nowadays we have problems. The problem can be best summed up this way: games are being made with 'high production values' and 'cinematic sequences' that in fact are nothing more than computer animated movies created by people who would not be able to find any degree of success in the movie field. If these video game 'scripts' were submitted as novels, shows, cartoons, or movies, their presentations would have exerpts on 'SlushPileHell' to the tune of gems like 'My silent protagonist is a stern warrior, but with a twist-his arm IS his gun!'

We have a field filled with 'visonaries' who fancy themselves 'master storytellers' - when really they are 'Masters of Making Game Budgets Larger,' and 'Experts at Getting you to Push 'A' to Skip Over Their Awkward Movie.'

When I am in the middle of reading 'The Dead Zone,' Uncle Stevie doesn't ask that I indulge him in listening to one of his acoustic renditions before finding out what Frank Dodd is doing in the bathroom. He doesn't ask me to draw a tiny picture of a clown with a puppy before I can finish the paragraph nor do I have to sit through five minutes of vacation footage from their first trip to the Florida Keys.

When I am in the middle of a classic game like 'Tetris,' it doesn't suddenly freeze and show me scores of dour faced dwarves laboring in mines under the earth to make the tiny blocks, nor the pelicans of the dawn bringing them in their beaks and letting them rain down like breadcrumbs above me for me to stick in place. I just play the goddamn blocks down and, when I'm ready for a story, I go read a book.

And if you simply must have a story in your games, pop in a book on tape (ha! like its actually on a tape) and start shooting those zombies.

If you can't shoot and think at the same time, don't become a cop or join the Army.

Hope this helps!


  1. Oh my friend, you are playing the wrong games. ;) I know I've mentioned Lost Odyssey on Twitter, but I'll mention it again here. And I mention it because the writer is actually a very, very popular and acclaimed novelist in Japan. And the majority of the creative editors and whatnot are mangakas. The entire reason I play that game, over and over, is for the amazing storyline. It brought me to tears on multiple occasions. I found myself so worried about the fate of these characters that I didn't even want to finish the game, in case it was a tragic ending.

    Sure, there are boss battles and mini-games and side-quests, but they all add to the story and the other half of why I play games is the gameplay. It's interactive storytelling, a story that you can participate in with a physical link to whichever character you identify with. And, in a sense, you're controlling that story. You're an integral part of that story. That story can't continue unless *you* fulfill the requirements. There's this sense of satisfaction that comes (for me) from doing all that stuff.

    And don't even get me started on the Silent Hill games! The storytelling and plot twists in Silent Hill 2 are on par with a King novel. Honestly, I can't play a game unless there's an involved storyline and fully fleshed out characters who grow and develop over the course of the game.

    Though I do think the biggest problem is that most production companies *are* sacrificing story in favor of shiny graphics. This started with Final Fantasy 8 (when I officially said 'bye bye' to the FF series) and hasn't changed at all. While there have been games that focus on graphics as *art* (Okami, Shadow of the Colossus, etc) and pull off story and graphics, the industry needs to remember that in the world of JRPGs and psychological horror, the story is the biggest part of the draw. There's too little of that these days.

  2. Okami I thought had a good story - it actually was a story. And I know you had mentioned Lost Odyssey - which answers one of the things I was wondering: have any game scenarios really been developed by a professional writer?

    I know that the Overlord II game had an author working on the story, though I haven't checked that out yet.

    I think the problem is that there are a few people actually -capable- of making these brilliant stories in games, and of these few only a few are working on gaming.

    The majority of games come that come out now in -general- are very cinematic and story based, which would be fine, except they need to think of the story first and make sure its an actual story before putting it in the game.

    Building a game around the story like Okami is very valid, and seldom done. If Lost Odyssey was concieved by a novelist, I'm sure that the story came first or at least the framework, as well.

    It's people who are engineers and designers who think they can just 'crap out' a story and stick it in their game as 'ornamentation' and that this half-assed cinematic will somehow stand up to the quality of the interactive elements of the game simply by virtue of their immense 'imagination' - as though imaginative people didn't have to work hard to become directors.

    Video Game story makers who don't actually know the first thing about -stories- are simply geeks with large budgets who get to make what they think is a story.

    All the more reason to applaud games like Shadow of the Colossus that start right out the gate doing their own thing, being their own medium, and not adhering to any rules or what not.

  3. The quick answer is always, "you're playing the wrong games." Even Roger Ebert, who dismissed video games entirely as an artistic medium, eventually capitulated to say that he'd never really played any and had no intention of doing so, therefore he wasn't qualified to judge.

    In the end, an argument like this is only sustainable as a kind of stereotyped view of games. You can say "most" games or "some" games but there will always be exceptions, scarce or plentiful. Like any other medium, it's up to you to find the good ones and spend your money on those, instead of dismissing the entire medium because some percentage doesn't meet your standards and expectations. I could, say, bemoan the quality of movies today based on Piranha 3D or the Scary Movie franchise and its offshoots, but I'd be ignoring Toy Story 3 and Inception.

  4. True, I should have been more clear:

    I feel I have played a number of games that were -lessened- in overall enjoyability for me because of the attempt to shoe horn a 'story' in where it didn't really fit.

    Aonuma frequently says with the Zelda games they design a gameplay structure, and then make a story to fit it. That is sort of backwards, but it works to a degree in Zelda because the story never becomes -too- overwhelming.

    Though I have to say that "A Link to the Past" is about as in-depth as non-scenario developers can get with an idea before it starts to be obvious that people are working outside of their core strengths.

    I guess it is the idea that games can have a story 'stuffed into them' at the last minute, a story with no thought behind it, and that this token story will still add value to the overall work in some way.

    If a movie seems to fit with a minimalist soundtrack, no sense shoving orchestras in just because you think it would 'enhance.' If you are tossing in entire elements in the hopes that it will 'ornamentally add something,' then the ideas of balance and structure are too foreign to you for it to be likely that you will randomly produce a piece of writing or storytelling that is on par with, for example, their programming or character design skills (which is what their job actually is).

    A good example is the way Stephen King feels about his one attempt at directing a movie on 'Maximum Overdrive.' The difference is King realized he was not a director and laughs about how bad the movie was - he doesn't go on trying to explore Samus's 'Maternal Instincts' and not realizing he has ruined his creations.

  5. Have you tried the Silent Hill games? They're pretty graphically disturbing, and I don't know how you are with visual horror as opposed to literary horror (my fiance, for example, can read anything, but can't even watch The Stand because some parts are too intense visually) but the whole series is focused on story first. The first game of the series actually started life as a video game version of The Mist - and even after they realized 'there is no way we can do this original story justice in this medium at this time', there are so many little hints and symbols and whatnot that link back to The Mist. And lots of other Stephen King stuff, as well as Lovecraft, Barker, Poe, and all the greats of literary horror. Plus lots of influence from amazing movies, including Jacob's Ladder and Session 9. (And if you've seen the movie, ignore it, it has nothing to do whatsoever with the game series. Other than having a town named Silent Hill and one of the monsters from a later game running around.)

    I think there are two very different sets of gamers and games. Those who focus on gameplay (platformers, shooters, adventure, survival, etc) and then the ones that focus on story. Which I've only really found in JRPGs and horror. Ideally, most games should blend both. Realistically...if I just want to sit down and shoot zombies, I just wanna shoot zombies, I don't need a lame attempt at plot shoved in in an attempt to make a game that will broach multi-genres. There are games where no story is needed. I remember bitching about the same thing when I tried playing Mario Galaxy, and griping about trying to inject plot into Mario. It's Mario. I just want to run around jumping on turtles and hitting question mark boxes to bouncy music.

    Lost Odyssey comes from Mistwalker, which was developed mainly because Hironobu Sakaguchi was fed up with the shift in focus to cinema quality graphics and more 'creative' gameplay. He left Square Enix and now instead of crapping out generic, recycled type games consistently, they work for years on beautiful games that encompass everything you would want. It's been about four years since Lost Odyssey was finished, and The Last Story (their next project afterwards) won't be out until next year. And I'm willing to wait for the quality they offer.

    Also, going back in time a bit, I feel Xenogears deserves a mention. The storytelling aspect gets a bit weird right near the end, but that's unfortunately because the studio started withholding funds and some things had to be rushed. But considering the game offers well over 100 hours of gameplay and story...

    It gets forgotten a lot because it came out at the same time as Final Fantasy 7 (the game that sent Sakaguchi running) and despite having a far more complex, well plotted and layered storyline and much more interesting and flawed characters, it was up against a Final Fantasy and didn't get much recognition. And again, the creator/head writer left the company rather than sacrifice story and plot when it came time to introduce the Xenosaga series, which was *supposed* to be part of the Xenosgears mythos.

    Ahem. Yes. I'm quite the avid gamer, and two of my biggest soap box issues are smoothly incorporating storylines and the portrayal of female protagonists. :D

  6. Oh, the same guy did Lost Oddysey that is doing 'The Last Story?' That game looks amazing!

    He was saying how these days graphic expectations are so high that people sacrifice the content of the game because making a lot of it would be too expensive.

    Someone at Square Enix said that FFVII with today's production values would cost billions to make and take over 20 years to produce and not fit on any storage medium yet devised...

    So why are developers so quick to sacrifice the magical, inventive, incredible CONTENT of their games (worlds you could get lost in) for extra layers of 'intricate shininess?'

    I think good presentation is great, but if you are sacrificing content to put a better gloss on what little you CAN show, you have gone the wrong way in my opinion.

  7. PS Didn't Xenoblade come out from Monolith that had Xenosaga's creator work on it? It's out in Japan now - supposedly very good.

  8. My favorite video game story of all-time has to be Mother 3 - or just the Mother series in general. They're so insane and funny and yet they pull at your heart.

    I'm definitely a story driven player, so I like a good story in my game, but I can see where too much plot can ruin your fun.

  9. Ooh, I have never got a chance to play any of the English versions of Mother 3 (they are non-legit) and I am not gifted with Japanese - but it does seem like a very quirky and cute game!

    I like Super Paper Mario - it was funny and emotional. That had well-written characters. When a game is made -around- the writing, it can be really good. I just don't think throwing in a half-assed story ever makes a game better, and I also think a lot of game directors don't realize how really half-assed their cut-scenes are.


  10. Xenoblade is from the same folks who did Xenosaga, and actually has hidden references to Xenogears, but doesn't have anything to do with either of the two even though it originally was supposed to be the game that tied together the mythos of the Xenosaga series with the continuity of Xenogears. (The whole Xeno thing is an absolute mess.)

    YES! Mistwalker did Lost Odyssey. :D It was their first foray into really using video game medium to explore heavy philosophical and moral issues, beyond what has been done before. They have only two games out so far, with The Last Story next to be released. The Mistwalker team is just amazing. Story, character, amazing gameplay *and* beautiful graphics. Plus lots of awesome art in certain text-heavy sections. (Certain things are presented as stories, which is awesome.)

    And sadly, designers are willing to sacrifice because too few people demand story, and masses demand the amazing graphics and intricate gameplay tricks. They know they'll make more money if they splurge on the graphics and skimp on the story.