The discussion of narrative and story in games has cycled back again. I started this blog because I found myself reading a number of blogs and articles on the subject and in need of an outlet for the overflow. Here we are again, this time discussing the role, or perhaps roles, that story and narrative have on games.
A reiteration, in a brusque and slightly inaccurate fashion, of the posts and positions recently presented:
- Computers can’t tell stories, because stories are complex, so a computer creating interactive fiction is silly. (link)
- The story is not the game. It is just a small element, like other aspects of gameplay that give the user feedback and should be used as such. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a story snob. (link)
- Stories follow certain forms, granularities, styles, and levels of immersion. Despite current “wisdom”, story is not expensive and perhaps necessary to draw new players in. Story is therefore obvious. (link)
- Any story that can be seen, or is being delivered is a bad story. All interactive stories should be transparent, any visible story is worthless. Story is everywhere and should not be treated as a separate segment of design. (link)
The thing that bugs me the most about almost all of these posts/articles is that they assume (or come close) to an absolute version of what story should or should not be in a game. It has to be an element and cannot be the gameplay itself. It cannot be told in a recombinant form because stories are fragile things not conducive to reassembly. Story must be delivered this way, or that way.
Gah! Who said story was absolute enough to define? We are talking about a form of communication, creation, and art that is older than any other. Before there was recorded history there were stories, it was how people remembered. Stories are oral. They are written. They are visual. They are interactive. They are static. They are serial. They are a great many things, none of which is absolute. Hell, we can’t even agree on a definition for story, narrative, fiction, drama or a half-dozen other words.
So, of course, we have done the one primary thing that humans do when faced with an amorphous concept: we’ve classified it. The first level of classification is, arguably, medium: how the story is delivered. Written stories are different from film stories, are different from interactive stories, etc. Each medium has shared tools and medium-specific tools. You have to show things in a film where you could allude or describe in print. You can evolve characters in games according to play where you’d have to evolve them (or leave them static) by specific choice in other media. The medium of the story defines a toolset available for telling the story.
Another common classification is genre. From theme, to style, to emotion, to mechanics, genre provides a common framework for a story. Independent (to a degree) from medium, the genre of a story provides a further specific toolset based on convention and commonality. New genres are created through creating new conventions, while new mediums are created through new technology and formats. In this way, genre becomes a subset of medium by further defining how the story can (and should) be related.
But a story is not specifically defined by these characteristics. A story is defined by the characters (including settings and props), and the events presented. The medium and the genre that they are presented through affect the consumption without altering the underlying story. This is why fairytales can be retold – the interpretation changes the narration without affecting it on the story layer. Archetypes exist outside of medium and genre, allowing them to appear in any form. Stories, or at least the core of stories, do the same; often boiling down to base archetypes.
Thus you have the ability to take a story, consisting of particular characters and events, and present it as a romance novel, or a thriller-noir film, or a tongue-in-cheek cell-shaded action-platformer. Each time it is presented it becomes a specific narrative. If I’ve gotten the terms story and narrative backwards, according to your particular world view, please feel free to reverse them. The idea I’m trying to get across is that the mechanics of media and genre have only superficial effect on the story, changing its presentation. At the same time, each presentation is a unique narration, and independent from each other narration.
So why do people think that Books = Movies = Games? Or even that one genre of game would transpose to another genre? Why would the same set of story tools be used to create a story for an RPG and an FPS? They might share a small set of tools; indeed as they are both of the same medium (broadly) they do. But as different genres there will be particular conventions that apply to one and not the other. The gameplay is not the same, why should the narration be?
Designers are trying to use the wrong tools to do the wrong job. Hollywood mentality and storytelling will not work in most games, just as comic book pacing needs to be adjusted and changed for the silver screen. Neither can we create a single set of tools for all interactive storytelling. There can be a shared language, common conventions that reach across genres, and even the creation of certain pluralistic tools. But when you get down to the nitty-gritty, the designer will have to find a voice for the story that is unique to the game, and the play, that they are trying to deliver.