Game stories: Passing the buck?

Before sitting down to watch the awe-inspiring Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, I was speaking to my friend and fellow gamer about his reading habits. Once upon a time he read fantasy novels almost exclusively. Now he sticks largely to non-fiction. Why? Because these days when he’s looking at fantasy, he’s seeing the same stories over and over again — the princess, the elves, the orcs, the questing hero. More and more he feels that creativity has gone out the window, with few exceptions. As a largely recommendation-driven reader, I was surprised by his description of the sorry state of fantasy fiction. I couldn’t help but think it all sounded familiar. It sounded like the many complaints about games.

We posted previously on who’s to blame for game writing, but my friend’s diatribe, coupled with watching the latest Fantastic Four movie prompted me to offer a different explanation. If a game has a bad story, why is anyone surprised? Look at the examples you have to draw from! Like the old anti-drug commercial, if any fiction or film creators ever ask how the industry learned to create story, you can say we learned it from watching you! Of course all of us can think of great examples of fantasy/science fiction in both fiction and films, but we must realize that these are the exceptions, rather than the rule.

In short, the game industry is not alone. Instead of feeling like the red-headed stepchild of the media, we, the game industry, need to realize those models miss the mark as often, or perhaps more so, than games do when telling a story. As many players and developers who say story doesn’t matter, there are gems within our industry that prove them wrong. So instead of trying to be as good as film or fiction, let’s aim to make the best game stories we can.

Who’s with me?

Question Mark Guess that game dialog! Today’s line: “I’ve just locked an open door. Strange…but symbolically compelling!

Check later this week to find out what game it came from!

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Published in: on July 11, 2007 at 2:35 pm  Comments (5)  

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  1. I think game (generally) have poor stories because we haven’t learned yet the specific tricks of the trade. Every medium’s way of conveying a story is, at the core, unique, and we haven’t tackled the way to do things yet.
    a) Games often don’t need great stories on par with other media because the level of complexity and/or formal aesthetism of those would be detrimental to the gaming experience: you generally want stories to be felt as genuine and personal by the player. Go too complex or too dry for your public and you break the second suspension of disbelief. Which leads to:
    b) We’re still in the process of aquiring a public with the proper gaming grammar, who could absorb much more sophisticated works.
    See the devellopment of popular culture into high art in other fields (comics or kabuki/bunraku are the exemples first coming to my mind… others such just in the music field abound too).

    Always said Death’s sense of humor was so much more decent than Life’s. -_^

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. I will have to respectfully disagree with you on point A. We believe that a strong story can only add to the gaming experience for many players. Read our two-parter “Motivating with Story.”

    As for point B, I’m a little confused. Are you saying story only belongs in games that evolved to a high art? I find that artsy independent films and games tend to have the worst story in them, because they think they’re above the rules we mere mortals must contend with. What do you think?

  3. Aargh… I need to stop explaining myself infering the core of what I want to say, my phlisophy teacher was right.

    *bangs head onn desk*

    I agree with you, a strong, well crafted story can only add to the gaming experience (if, of course, the game can sustain it). Hell, I love it myself.
    What I meant to say is that what we call a great story (either in term of complexity of devellopement and analysis or elegance and refinement in the use of crafting tools, tricks and structures) with other media isn’t often a necessity per see with games.

    Take Silent Hill. As far as game stories go, it offers a pretty nice experience (though I personally hate both gameplay and half assed puzzles, not to speak of European censorship… but that’s another debate altogether). Yet as soon as they announced the movie and I read in an interview Gans wanted to remain faithful to the original material, I could have gambled my right harm they would fail making a proper good movie out of it.

    And I don’t think it’s because the original story was too poor to make a good film. It’s rather that each medium has different needs.
    A film story is a set of flowing sequences. Control of tension and variation is mainly where it’s at (for the story itself, I’m leaving editing aside). A game story is like a classical japanese garden: you want the illusion of wandering and nature in a very tightly controled artificial environment in which the maker offers select views in a semi-preordained pattern (you can’t control the whole of the visit, but you can make sure one wanting to go from A to B will have to pass by C while not seeing A’). Games can use the tool for making a good movie (or book or comic but we’re introducing other twists here) story pretty easily, but not all those tools will be beneficial, as they deal with controling time, while games are mainly about controling space (it’s my theorie that time in games exist because of narratives. A pure game is timeless). I think tools that help make a proper game story will be mostly inconsequent as far as movies are concerned.

    As for B, no. What I meant is what you see with the passage from popular to high art culture: popular is raw, shameless and blunt, hight art is refined, self-conscious and sharp.
    Kabuki starts as crass, deeply sensual, representations by prostitutes and street performers. It ends up a highly complex codified set of echoing representations voluntarily enforcing high-end philosophy (at which point, separated from it’s core audience, the form dies, replaced by another… I’m taking shortcuts here).

    I think video-game narratives have just left popular level and are going in the high art direction, which announces the most creative period that reaches both poles. We’re still missing people who’ll start giving various proper critical theories and a (large) public that have interiorised the (formulated or not) rules inherent to the genre so that authors can start fooling around with them.

    Back later, people are waiting for me. 🙂

  4. Aha… so you didn’t mean to say “Games don’t need great stories on par with other media”… you meant “A great story will have a different format in a game.” As a writer for TV, games, and comics, I know this is true regardless of medium. In comics you have the unique opportunity to reveal both the inner thinking of the characters as well as convey information through visual subtext. In fiction you must detail everything or leave it to the imagination. Any translation across media, whether it be SILENT HILL or FANTASTIC FOUR, will suffer some losses. And earn some gains.

    I must say I kind of dig the SILENT HILL movie. It felt gamey in places, which I liked, and it had this oddball ending that was so different from 90% of the horror movies out there. This might have been a loss for lovers of the game, but it was a gain for horror movie lovers like myself. Could it have been better? Certainly, but that goes back to my original point — that poorly executed stories are everywhere, not just in games. A poor translation doesn’t necessarily mean the medium couldn’t handle the story. Hollywood can’t even adapt its own stories sometimes — remakes often aren’t as good as the original.

    Overall, I think you misunderstood the purpose of my original post. I never advocated taking stories from the world of fiction or film and transcribing them lock, stock, and barrel to games. I don’t think anyone thinks that’s the way to go. However, there are certain genre conventions that remain the same regardless of medium — the orcs, the elves, the questing heroes in fantasy. This is where my friend found the least amount of creativity and the most generic storylines in fiction. We have seen the same problem in games. I’m suggesting this unfortunate similarity is more than just a coincidence.

    The different media will continue to influence each other… comics influence movies, movies influence games, and licensing ensures that just about every medium will get a crack at exploring certain worlds or characters. We as an industry should think long and hard about who is influencing us as we embark on our unique and sometimes difficult path of creating compelling story.

  5. […] the one born of modest means who ultimately triumphs over evil and fulfills an ancient prophecy, is a story often told in RPGs. This storyline appeals to those of us in the West, where the culture strongly values […]

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