Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Someone else's story

As you might have noticed this week my thoughts revolve around story-telling in games. Or you didn't notice, because up to now I mostly wrote about story-telling in D&D, and nobody reads my D&D posts. Anyway, I was reading a post from Green Armadillo on Diablo III, and the following phrase struck me as very poignant: "In some ways, it reminds me of SWTOR - you are definitely experiencing someone else's story, between the heavy involvement of NPC's and the relatively non-customizeable player characters, but the story experience and production values have been excellent."

I wasn't a big fan of the story in SWTOR. It sure was excellently told, but I felt railroaded, because whatever decisions I took, the story proceeded the same way. Diablo III doesn't even pretend to give you any choices. Furthermore I find it very hard to care about the story of my monk, who is a sanctimonious prick; his dialogues with his templar follower are cringe-worthy. The hints on future story developments (Belial's secret identity, my monks secret ancestry) are so thick, that there are hardly any surprises left. And as Green Armadillo says, it is someone else's story. Why should I care about it?

Now of course the difference is biggest if I compare that to pen & paper games. But even other computer games, like Skyrim, do a better job of making me feel as if I am playing my own story, and not that of someone else. Or at least they tell a story which is I find it easier to identify with, with characters that are believable and not unfeeling robots without any human weaknesses. If the story is one where I wouldn't have wanted to read the book, turning that story into something more or less interactive doesn't make it any better, as long as there is no way to change the story.

I wonder if certain games wouldn't be better off with no story at all. If the game design demands that I play through the same content several times, having a story which is always the same being retold repeatedly isn't really much good. Repeating content is about collecting more loot, about your character getting stronger, and it is that "story" of character progress you care about, not the canned events and dialogues. Why aren't NPCs talking to me about my shiny new armor instead?

The quality of story in (computer) games is really poor in comparisons to published novels and novellas from decent authors.

Even the much feted Skyrim's story is dull and telegraphed compared to that crafted by a competent author.

If you read a proper fantasy novel then go read one of the WoW spinoffs, for example, it's as though it was written by someone who'd decided 'just good enough is good enough'.

Surely no-one expects the story telling in games to actually be anything other than a device for moving one's character along?
This post poses several questions and I think the answer is "yes" to all of them depending on the type of game.

1. Are some games better with no story at all? Yes. Ken Levine declared that "Nobody cares about your stupid story" and for Tetris, and Bejewelled that is true. But for many games even a paper thin back story gives important atmosphere which enhances the player experience. Plants versus Zombies is an example but so is Call of Duty.

2. Is the story you make yourself more important that the "official plot"? Again the answer for some games is yes. Open ended games like EVE and ATID are obvious examples but this is probably true for most RPGs or any game with a fair amount of player choice.

3. Finally the real question: In SOME games can a well written tightly scripted story work well and even be enhanced by the gaming environment? I believe the answer is yes. Two examples that stick out for me are Mafia and Call of Juarez. Both of these have competent well scripted story lines that benefit from the extra immersion that a game provides.
"Or at least they tell a story which is I find it easier to identify with, with characters that are believable."

For me this is the key: I'm not particularly hung up on playing the character of my choice; I'm quite happy to play a predefined character so long as that is a worthwhile experience.

Quick points:

1. Plants versus zombies has a story??

2. Some games don't have much of a story as such but have great atmosphere. Half-Life is an example. But the nature of gameplay in Diablo is such that its demonic invasion is never going to feel anything like Half-Life's alien invasion. It's plainly about shinies rather than survival.
I think the 'someone else's story' feeling is symptomatic of Blizzard's recent trend towards using NPC companions to make an experience feel more 'epic'. In WoW's Dragon Soul raid, you are helping the dragon aspects defeat Deathwing, in Diablo 3 your quest entails following Deckard Cain's daughter around.
I don't mind being central to the story or just a nameless hero that helps the main characters. As long as the story is good, I'm in.

Whether a story is required, that depends on the game, no? You don't need to wrap a Chess or Poker game in a story. An RPG? I think a good story is crucial, or I won't stick around long enough to play it to the end.
Here is my take: every story is boring if the game is easy and you don't need to pay attention. That's it.

When a game is hard if you are at risk of losing something you identify with you pay a lot better attention to it.

I still remember XCOM UFO Defense games that were super intense for the fear of losing my best soldiers, or harrassing Stiches as a lowbie that could easily die to it in WoW and getting it to the other zone,

What is the common element of each - risk and reward. No risk, no story.
Depends on "better"

A complete sandbox is "better" - inexhaustible, self-generating content that tends to be more realistic/consistent.

The tiny problem is that the inferior rails games sell dozens of times more.

I don't expect any game, except a sandbox MMO, to be other than one (or a few WoW 2, SWTOR 8) stories with me as the hero. Limited stories are due to technology and a consistent, multiplayer world. Hero because people pay entertainment companies to be heroes & villains, not Willie Lomax or Tom Joad. Why would anyone expect anything different?

[I read one sentence of CCP's WoD wanted to add some rails/questing to a sandbox environment. The best of both world's is always preferable and rarely/never obtained outside of press releases.]
@djinn - re risk: The flip side is the more risk there is, the fewer people will do it. How much effort can you put into content for the 1%

A game needs some intense & difficult-for-that-individual content to not be boring. But if a game, esp MMO, is about being with friends and/or doing shared things, then sometimes you log-on with no explicit goal. In this case, you need something that is the exact opposite of what you say: Something simple & risk free to do while you are chatting or waiting for something to coalesce. MMOs are menus and you need both spicy entrees and quick and bland appetizers.

@dmreturns: niece (or that's a spoiler and you're not a nice person.)
As an older player I like games with a story. I used to ignore the back story but these days experiencing the story is the main selling point and the main motivation for completing the game. The ideal ratio of story to game has changed as I've grown older. I still want "game" but I want less of it and I want it to be easier with less effort required.

With my reduced level of interest in the game element I have no interest in replaying games. I am perfectly happy to pay £30 for 6 hours of play and finish there. I won't repeat the content as a different class/spec etc and I won't repeat the content for the purpose of making different decisions to see different outcomes.

One of the best games I've played recently was Alan Wake. There is practically no "game" there especially on the easy mode I use. You learn the basic technique in the tutorial and that is it - that is the entire "game" right there.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching the story unravel and learning what had happened to him. Note I said "him"; it wasn't my story and that was why it was so good. I am happy to roleplay as someone else. That is why I create game characters with the opposite race and gender to my own and never use any of my internet aliases for the name.

On the other hand I used to play tetris and spent a lot of time in Counterstrike. They are pure game and I would avoid anything similar like the plague these days.

As I've lost the vivid imagination of a child I now rely on others to provide me with what in the 8 bit days I would have created for myself. I want to experience someone elses story and I am dependent on ever more realistic graphics to maintain the illusion.

I have become far too cynical and lacking in imagination in my old age to come up with my own story or imagine the rich worlds that I somehow saw when playing on a ZX Spectrum.

The average age of gamers has risen, perhaps this experience is not unique to me?

All I know is that I can no longer be bothered to repeatedly die and work to matser level 1 purely to earn the privilage of repeatedly dying and learning how to do level 2. Sounds more like work than entertainment these days yet as a kid the challenge was everything.
Movies and books are about "someone else's story" too. Why does it matter that the story isn't about you?

You don't need NPCs to compliment you on your gear...thats what friends are for.
"A complete sandbox is "better" - inexhaustible, self-generating content that tends to be more realistic/consistent."

It MIGHT be brilliant occasionally, but it also might be worse or utterly boring for hours upon hours on end. That's sandbox games for you. Frex, what was so exciting about Burn Jita if you weren't one of the organisers -- you maybe get to lag out and say that you saw a big space battle.

Whereas the on rails game offers a consistent gaming experience to everyone who plays it. And you actually get to be part of the story, not just get told that it happened at 3am your time after you logged out.

So it's kind of swings and roundabouts. It isn't true thought that sandbox guarantee amazing stories for every players. They're also capable of being very boring, and unpredictable, that's part of the charm.

People generally are happy with railroading if the view is good and there's a decent emotional kick to it. Because good stories are probably better than the ones players would tell in sandboxes.
Koster talks about this in his Theory of Fun book (which is a very quick read, so I'd recommend it), and Frank Rose has a whole chapter in his book Art of Immersion about how lousy games are at making people feel empathy. Rose specifically talks about one of the success stories: the dog in Fable 2, and the studies that have been being done since by one of the designers on that game, who went and got himself a PhD in neurobiology to better understand how the brain works so that better AI could be developed... to better make players feel empathy.

I didn't consider SWTOR to be good storytelling. I think D3 is even worse. Then again, I can just go read a book. I think narrative is a great addition to games as long as it's recognized for what it is - a little fluff to make the fiction of the game more understandable. When we try to elevate it to real storytelling, like we see in Pen and Paper RPGs, it just doesn't hold up. Sure, there are some masters out there who can pull it off, but for the most part, I think the allure of D3 is smashing demons in the face, and the story should be treated a vastly secondary.

Good post!
I wouldn't say pen and paper RPGs were paragons of 'real storytelling' unless the GM and players are unusually talented. Some of our more memorable sessions have been dungeon romps.
NB: don't get me wrong, I like to think I'm pretty good at working on collaborative stories with players in pen and paper games. But I have also run daft one offs which make Diablo 3 look like Nobel prize winning literature, and the players had fun regardless.
I think there are different games for different tastes. Diablo games have always been about the gameplay, the hack and slash. It would have been a mistake to focus a lot on the story with branching choices. Play Skyrim if you want player choice. Play Diablo 3 if you want fun combat.
Perhaps I'm terrible at the self-insertion, but I just can't get as deep a grip on the stories which AREN'T someone else's stories.

I know full well that I am no swashbuckling swords-and-sorcery adventurer or space marine. As far as I can see, games are the only things that try to convince us to pretend to be. We certainly don't get it from most TV shows, books or movies.

Mass Effect, for example? That's Shepard's story. And people get that. Guiding Shepard along in more customizable ways is part of the real thrill of ownership in that story, but you are never left believing for a moment that 'your Shep' isn't still the story of Shep, rather than the story of fantasy-you. Look also at Red Dead Redemption. John Marston's story is his own, there's no doubt of that. There are NO dialogue choices. Hell, even when you perform certain actions in-game which go against the character, he voices his disapproval. As players, we merely follow along, admiring and helping him to his retirement.

The interesting thing is when you look at that philosophy in the context of Dragon Age. DA:O and DA2 had that critical divide in that DA2 definitely relied on many of the ME story mechanics (fully-voiced, dialogue choices were summaries, not verbatim) to enforce that this was the Champion of Kirkwall's story, not your own... and I saw a lot of people panning it for that. People, I presume, who played DA:O with a heavy degree of self-insertion.

Granted, there were a few DA2 game mechanics which were also worthy of criticism, but it's always interesting to read DA2 criticism and see just how much of it is related to the story-telling choices, how often you see people complaining they didn't feel like the story was about them, anymore.

I suspect it's not that folks are averse to that kind of storytelling (universally-acclaimed storytelling classics like Mass Effect and Red Dead Redemption prove otherwise), but that folks don't like changing gears, or expecting one thing and being given another.

Which is where MMOs (in before people deny D3 is a MMO wannabe) get tricky. They try to cater to SO MANY demographics as it is, that getting even that definition down is tricky.
@Gerry Quinn asked if Plants versus Zombies has a story. Well yes in fact it does. It goes as follows: You live in a house with a garden (beginning). It is attacked by waves of zombies and you fend them off with plants(middle). Eventually you defeat the big bad boss of the zombies (end).

As trivial as this seems it does actually cover all five bases of good story telling. It has character, setting, conflict , plot and theme.
Do you ever play jRPGs? Those games are all about "someone else's story"...
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