I’ve been watching walkthroughs for The Last Express. Funny that a concept I thought was innovative a year ago has in fact been done close to two decades ago.
As a game designer, I often find myself awkwardly maneuvering game elements in order to fit the story. Why is writing for stories so hard? I think the problem is interactivity.
Consider the traditional written or oral tale. In the story, not every minute gets assigned equal weight. Seconds, days, or years that are not essential gets skimmed over. This is the convention, without which both writing and reading would be unbearable. Movies embrace this convention through cuts.
In order fit a good story to a game, we naturally want to extend the above analogy to games, but interactivity works against this in three important ways:
1. Major gameplay sections usually do not support the “cut to the interesting part” structure.
2. Conventionally, gameplay sections must be engaging, which does not necessarily correlate with interest points within the story.
3. Gameplay affords the opportunity to deviate from a single storyline, often in so many ways that covering all scenarios is prohibitive in terms of cost.
In any given imaginary timeline, in order to seamlessly integrate story and gameplay, we must slice the timeline in a way that satisfies both the conventions for good story “cuts” and the conventions for good gameplay “cuts”. #2 and #3 are both difficult to account for while maintaining a good tempo for story, and #1 seems outright contradictory to the convention of a good story “cut”, unless the story or the game mechanics are somewhat special. Writing and gameplay are not a true dichotomy, but it’s clear that extremely specific requirements must be met to optimize both simultaneously.
If the player is playing as a character in the game, then the “seamless integration” would also have to carefully avoid ludonarrative dissonance, a complex topic (and navigation) in its own right.
I think designers who write existing stories into their games are in a world of hurt, yet most games now still ship with an existing storyline. I think this is because for a long time, existing storyline is the only way of storytelling we know of.
So what are some potential solutions? The Last Express incorporates a highly interesting setting to sustain engagement throughout a stable timeline, while utilizing vast amounts of writing and technology to work around #3. Forgoing elaborate stories altogether may be a good choice (consider Threes and Angry Birds). Simple but well-crafted stories may be effective (Shadow of the Colossus) too. A sense of determinism can be built into the game to combat #3, which may also suitably evoke a sense of the tragic.
I think that increasingly, building the narrative out of player experiences rather than in-game story has become a popular choice. Games like Pokemon, League of Legends, and Journey have minimum built-in stories and rely on gameplay scenarios unique to each playthrough to generate evocative stories. One can think of this as analogous to “emergent gameplay”, expect instead we are designing for potent story scenarios – “emergent storytelling”.
I updated the bookshelf on this site last night to include books I read before October 2010, the month I started tracking my readings. The quantity of books came as a genuine surprise to me, especially the amount of books on fantasy.
What struck me as more interesting is that in the meantime, I never felt a desire to write something of my own. Simply traversing another reality was enough for me. It would be a lie to say that I never entertained for a moment the possibility of writing a story, but calling it a “desire” is definitely too strong.
But one day that unfamiliar sense of desire did strike, and I sat down and wrote “Paper Boats”. I remembered that Raymond Carver usually puts his first draft away for weeks in order to make final adjustments with a fresh eye, and that is what I did.
And this is what I wrote:
I feel that out of any media, writing is one I especially like to see feedback on. If you took some moments to read the story, I would appreciate an extra moment for feedback. As usual, no pressures.
Writing in such a way was fun, though I’m sure unreliable too. But it’s strange and exciting to regard my own unexpected creations, and I hope that there will be future stories to come.