Tobold's Blog
Monday, March 12, 2012
 
Same old story

It is claimed that there are only 36 different dramatic situations on which all the stories of the world are built. I can't guarantee that number, but it sure seems that I'm getting more easily bored by stories of games or films these days, as they appear same old, same old to me. For example I finally got around yesterday to watch Avatar, and I while the technology is impressive, I found the story far too cliché. The evil corporation with no redeeming feature on the one side, and the totally good earthbound natives on the other side, you knew how the story would end as soon as the conflict was defined.

Fantasy literature especially had more than its fair share of reuse of old stories and concepts; how many fantasy worlds have you come across that had elves, orcs, and wizards? Games usually spend a lot of effort on game mechanics and technology, and little effort on story: WoWHead shows that World of Warcraft now has nearly ten thousand quests, each of them a small story, and most of them as repetitive as forgetable. Even the much better told stories of Star Wars: The Old Republic got old quickly after a few planets.

The only good thing about having the impression to already have heard all the stories there are is that it makes it easier to write stories when I am creating or modifying D&D adventures. Or even make up a story on the fly in a sandbox situation where the players wandered off the prepared path.

And by the nature of pen & paper gameplay, you don't want the stories to be too complicated anyway. There is only so much a group of players can do in one evening play session, and when you meet again in two weeks you want them to remember the important points of a story. Add too many characters and sub-plots to the story and you risk running into the situation where the game bogs down, because most of the session is spent remembering what the players already found out. A short and rather straightforward story with some surprises is often better, because (just like in online games) the story the players are actually interested in is the story of their characters. I recently listened to series 1 of the Penny Arcade D&D podcasts, and all the funny stories are how Jim Darkmagic burns Binwin Bronzebottom with his area effect spell, and completely independent of the story of the adventure itself; in fact I was surprised how little storytelling and roleplaying the DM did in series 1, but that was probably more for the start, the PAX video live games look better there. As long as the players care about the game, the quality of the story is of secondary importance.
Comments:
It is not about the stories but about the way they are told. It is a bit like saying - there are just two turns in the world - left and right, so i get easily bored of driving/don't enjoy it as much. The simple truth is there are few great storyteller nowadays in an entertainment industries that try to deliver risk averse non controversial products. Also we have the grand scale that creators adore that messes things up. Not every quest and story must have the fate of the world depending on it for it to be interesting.
 
People who are very good at storytelling and have original idea or approaches have better outlets for their talents than writing story arcs for video games, let alone writing the actual quests. The story arcs and lore will be handled, at best, by competent professional writers - the equivalent of the people that write technical manuals or magazine articles. The quests will be done by people whose main job is something else (game design, management etc) or by someone trying to make a career in game design (interns, recently-promoted QA or CS staff etc).

Add to that the intentionally formulaic and repetitive nature of all genre fiction and it's amazing that any of the stuff is readable at all. Originality is far too much to expect.
 
At it's core, avatar is just more White Shame movie making, like Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves and all that. But I found it sufficiently good eye candy to keep me entertained :)
 
I think immersion is important here, as it used to exist in WoW but doesn't any more. Yes the quests were often very derivative but if you felt connected to the world that didn't matter as much.

Now with so much easy and fast travel, so many mini-games which make your choice of avatar void and the super fast leveling speed it's hard to ever feel connected to the world. Of course at end game you spend most of your time inside instances which makes the problem even worse.

One simple example, duskwood was a scary place to level through. There were pretty dangerous areas with rapid respawns, nasty/evil mobs a plenty and some rare elites that could appear and smite you without breaking a sweat. Even though the same old tropes of kill quests, collect quests etc were there I noticed them less as the atmosphere and sense of danger had a big effect on the experience of playing that zone.
 
Regarding Avatar - I kept on hearing about how the plot is the same as Pocahontas, the Disney film. Can't say I disagree.
 
I guess I'm more easily pleased. I'm level 45 with my knight, and level 23 with my bounties hunter. I'm enjoying all the stories, especially my class stories, and I'm looking forward to more.
 
This comment has been removed by the author.
 
I believe from a superficial perspective Avatar is closest to "FernGully: The Last Rainforest". However, there is one scene in Avatar that makes the story very different: the scene in which they show that all life on Avatar is connected, basically making the whole of Avatar one huge sentient being that is suffering from a small parasite invasion. I love the part where it infects one of the parasites to work for it, and how it isn't afraid to waste large amounts of its cells (the Na'vi and other creatures living on the planet) to eliminate the threat.
 
Avatar: Eye candy, full of cliché. Story reminded me a bit of Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Word for World is Forest".

@Bhagpuss hits the nail on the head. Good storytelling would be wasted on many gamers. And I can't imagine the average game designer coming up with shakespearesque drama. I turned away from genre fiction and found fresh storytelling and drama in contemporary literature.

About the 36 stories: it's like @Kreeegor said: the more abstraction, the more fun is lost. In the end all stories are about birth, love, hate, death. But some are more engaging than others...
 
In a pen and paper rpg, the story writes itself as the game is played. The fun is in the small details, not in a pre-written, great story which must be followed on rails.
 
In some methods of play, you don't bother making a story. Instead the characters have concerns and you as GM think up morally troubling situations where they must act or something nasty happens (to someone else!) that would fit where ever they are. Then when they move on, repeat the above (to put it simply). Story results as a by product of the above.


As for a different and dark spin on swords and sorcery, look for the Prince of Nothing series by Scott Bakker.
 
What makes a good story?

I would argue that it is not purely case of originality, so much as the use of language and characterization to evoke emotion in the audience/player.

I love the old Lucasarts games, which had great characters and environments, but they never used player agency as a means to evoke emotion, which is really the USP of video games.

In SWTOR, I roleplay my light/dark decisions and occasionally feel guilty when a small evil leads to some unforeseen misfortune for a 3rd party. With 50 levels of Empire vs Republic warfare, there is a lot of repetition and the constant killing is desensitizing, but I would argue that it is a step in the right direction. In other games I tend to skip quest text by default.
 
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