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 Thoughts on Story Telling

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Dinwar
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PostSubject: Thoughts on Story Telling   Sun Sep 12, 2010 11:24 am

One of the guys I'm working with this shift is a movie buff. We've had a lot of good conversations about movies--good ones, bad ones, ones that are so bad they're good, ones that are pretentious, etc. The guy has a very good eye for storytelling in movies.

He also is a gamer. In this, he fails horribly.

Yesterday we had a discussion about what makes a good videogame story vs. a good movie story. My coworker discussed plot, character development (not in terms of leveling up/equipment gains/stuff like that, but in terms of what happens in the cut scenes), and the like. It all struck me as increadibly irrelevant--something akin to discussing a painting in terms of tempo and vocal range.

It got me thinking about storytelling in general, and how video games are both the ultimate expression we've found ot that art so far and how they're completely different from any other style.

Back in the caveman days (or back when I was a kid sitting around my grandma's supper table) the main form of story telling was precisely that--people telling other people stories. A good story teller makes it interactive. They watch what their audience is doing/saying and match the story to it. I'm as interested in the technical details about raising pigs as I am the hillarious antics of said pigs, so my grandfather will go into more detail about what the pig's doing, how much they ate, etc. My sisters are more focused on the hillarious antics, and so grandpa skips the weight of food they ate that day. Same story, different audience.

Books changed that. Now, the audience has to find a compatable story-teller. Most of us found Mr. Goodkind, for example. There's SOME interaction, in terms of sales figures, but once the story is told that's it, no more adjustments (any adjustments are new stories, essentially). The audience can't ask for more detail, and the writter needs to figure out what the audience wants in advance. Not that this is bad--the author has MUCH more control, and can get into topics that are nearly impossible for verbal story-telling because of their complexity (imagine Atlas Shrugged as someone telling a story around a campfire). It's just an entirely different medium, and the old rules no longer apply.

Movies are the next big leap forward. It has many of the same limitations of a book--the author can't guage audience reactions, and must establish what they want us to see up front. However, people can focus on things that the author didn't intend. There's setting, there's minor characters, there's weird things going on in the background. The Simpsons is a great example of doing this well--often there are sub-stories going on during potentially boring dialogs/monologs (simple ones, but stories don't have to be comlpex). The old rules still partially apply--characterization, plot, etc. are more important in movies than in verbal story-telling--but there are enough new ones that we can say it's a new rule set.

Video games take us full circle. The story-teller can adapt the story to how the audience reacts. The main quest in Morrowind holds no interest for me, for example--I just don't care. However, there's this fun thing going on in the fighter's guild that I can play with. Or, there's interesting things going on in towns that I can help with/harm. What I, as the audience, do dramatically affects the story, to the level of the pig story mentioned above. And more so, given that I can create my OWN stories to some extent--right now it's on the level of the background skits of The Simpsons ("I'm going to fight this random guy"), but it's still there. The old rules are no longer aplicable.

The sad thing is, a lot of games don't get that. Final Fantasy has essentially turned into movies where you press buttons. Yeah, there are side quests and the like, but those merely serve as additional movies. Being able to tell multiple stories at once is a staple of movies, after all. Diablo also ignores it, to the extent that the only side quests in the game are those the player makes (collecting artifacts, or gaining powers). The Elder Scrolls games are embracing it more. World of Warcraft has totally integrated the concept, to the point where the story is only there as an almost invisible framework upon which users hang their own stories (the whole reason The Guild can exist in the first place is because MMOs have done this).

We're continuing to judge stories by criteria developed for an entirely different form of expression, and it's really holding back development, both in terms of the medium and in terms of our appreciation of that medium. No one would expect a movie to make a good campfire tale, and no one would expect a funny story told at supper to make a good movie. Why do we expect games to make good movies, or movies good games? That is, in essence, what our discussions of games as a culture does--because we use the exact same terms.

I think we need to understand how telling stories changes from one medium to another before we can really figure out what video games are. Stories are as much a part of humanity as rationality and reason are, and like I said, videogames are pretty much the ultimate expresison of that drive. And we just don't know what to do with it.
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BrassButtons
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PostSubject: Re: Thoughts on Story Telling   Sun Sep 12, 2010 1:10 pm

This is a very well thought-out post, and I agree with your sentiments completely.

I think a big part of the problem is that in order to really learn how to utilize the specific opportunities games present developers need to experiment and take risks. But taking risks is dangerous. Publishers aren't going to spend millions on a brand new idea that could fail when they could spend that money on a successful model instead.
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rainshadow
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PostSubject: Re: Thoughts on Story Telling   Sun Sep 12, 2010 11:36 pm

I'm going to have to think pretty hard on this topic in order to come up with a decent reply. I think it's a very well thought out post and the topic deserves some discussion on this site, but I've never been a huge gamer, so right at this moment I don't have many strong feelings toward the subject.

On the topic of storytelling... well, I hope once I have thought it out I can have a reply that fits the topic at hand. Smile

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BrassButtons
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PostSubject: Re: Thoughts on Story Telling   Mon Sep 13, 2010 7:47 pm

I thought about this a bit today, and I think I realized something. Dinwar said that with games "the old rules are no longer applicable," and he's half-right. But I don't think this is really an accurate description of the problem. Yes, some of the old rules no longer apply. A lot of them still do--rules on how to use scenery and costumes to tell part of the story, for example, absolutely apply for games. The trouble isn't getting away from the old rules--it's figuring out the new ones.

Every other storytelling medium utilizes all of it's features to help do the job of storytelling. An orator uses his voice, his body language, and his ability to judge what the audience wants to hear. A book uses not only words, but the arrangement of those words on the page, and the cover. A movie can use scenery, movement, and sounds to aid in storytelling. None of these mediums let major elements go to waste. Good storytellers don't speak in a monotone, good books don't leave half the pages blank, and good movies don't turn the camera off.

So why aren't games utilizing their main feature for storytelling? Why aren't they utilizing the gameplay? The controls? The interface? All of these have great potential as storytelling devices.

Consider the following scenarios:

Quote :
You're playing a game. Your avatar is walking down a hallway, and you pass over a gun on the floor. A prompt appears: "Wield SG 550?" You accept, and your avatar takes the gun and some ammo, and loads it. You keep walking and enter a room. Blue lights appear on the screen for a moment showing you two possible exits, while a minimap in the corner marks those same spots.

One of the doors open, and three monsters rush in. You move the control stick in the general direction of the first monster, and the reticle moves over him. One shot, he's down. You move the control stick towards the second monster and fire. This time a symbol flashes to tell you the gun has jammed. By now the two monsters are in front of your avatar. Press a button, the guy on screen does a series of fighting moves, killing the first monster. Another button press and the second monster goes down. Your avatar walks on.

Quote :
You're playing a game. Your avatar is walking down the hallway, and passes a gun on the floor. A prompt asks "Pick up Big Gun?" You accept and your avatar picks up the gun. You keep walking and enter a room. A door opens and three monsters enter.

You push the control stick towards the first monster, and the reticle wavers as it moves where you point. You fire and manage to hit the creature. You aim for the second monster and fire. Both of them keep advancing. You fire a few more times before they are on top of you. A button press causes your avatar to swing the gun like a club. Another press and he kicks one of them. Both remain standing. You turn the control stick and press another button, and your avatar begins to run away.

These scenes obviously involve to very different characters. The first guy is John McAwesome, a highly trained member of an elite military unit. The second guy is Henry Baker, from accounting. Using only a desciption of game mechanics I was able to show some simple characterization. That's the kind of thing games need to pay attention to. It's not about breaking away from the old rules, but about figuring out how to use the new tools at their disposal.

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PostSubject: Re: Thoughts on Story Telling   Mon Sep 13, 2010 9:37 pm

That's a very good way to put it, BrassButtons. And after the video you showed me in the chatroom (any chance we can get it in here?), I think games are missing a fundamental part of storytelling, THE single rule: They need to integrate everything into the story. And a lot of the problem is that thus far, the story has been secondary or tertiary to video games.

One of the first wildly popular videogames was Super Mario Brothers. The plot was...............Then you get games like Kirby's Dreamland, whos plot was............... I mean, both can be described--"Hero rescuse kingdom from evil king". But that story is 1) so generic that it really fits the term "genera" better than "story", and 2) isn't the point of the game. And that's fine--playing the first few Mario games for their story is akin to watching Family Guy for its complex characterization. The point of those games was to play with mechanics, and really just to see what works. Back then no one knew what people would play and what they wouldn't. Mario was designed the way he was because the artist got lazy, for crying out loud!

The problem is that we've stuck with this mentality. And the medium is suffering for it.

Look, for example, at graphics. Yeah, a game like Morrowind needs good graphics--the whole point is to make the world feel real, and part of that is making it LOOK real. However, would the Mario franchise have suffered if the graphics weren't so high? NetHack is an amazing game, and it uses ASCII graphics. And how much do the subtle (hyper-subtle, as in "If you don't know what you're looking for it's invisible") advances, which eat processor time like it's candy, really add to the story? Sometimes a 3-hour monolog is appropriate for a novel, but it's a very rare book that can pull it off.

Game mechanics are another example of this. Finding a new, more intuitive mechanic is a wonderful thing. That said, at this point in gaming I think it's safe to say "new" isn't necessarily "better". We can easily utilize previous mechanics to tell different stories. Imagine something like materia from FF7--there are many, many stories this could easily be integrated into?

The problem is that game designers don't start with a story. A movie, a book, a campfire tale all start with some core story, and grow from there. The weight of a bag of hog feed is important because it contributes to the story--or not, because it doesn't. The act of picking up a ring is important because it advances the story--or not, because it doesn't.

Part of the reason (a lot of it) that games don't do this is because there's multiple stories every game can tell. Some try to integrate the various aspects to a central story, with some success (Final Fantasy 8, for example). Some try to give you mechanics to tell your own stories, without trying to tell their own (Halo's multiplayer versions, and sandbox games like Morrowind). But many, I'd go so far as to say most, don't even try. We're still at the point where we're learning the pieces, without trying to put it together into the whole picture.

I'm not sure how to fix it. I know we've got to start with the story, though. We need to know what tales we want to tell--even to the point of "this should be funny" vs. "this should be serious", if we can't get deeper--and then build the game on top of that.

Reading back through this, I'm not sure if I've said anything new or not. But it was an 11 hour day today, so I have an excuse! Laughing
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PostSubject: Re: Thoughts on Story Telling   Mon Sep 13, 2010 9:50 pm

Dinwar wrote:
any chance we can get it in here?
Absolutely. I'm also going to link the page with all of them because it seems like quite a few episodes touch upon the topic here, and I imagine future episodes will as well. Plus, I just really like this series.
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