A Return to Storytelling

I’ve just returned from the Engage! Expo (formerly Virtual Worlds 2009), which focuses on virtual worlds rather than MMOs.  In the case of virtual worlds, sometimes developers have the Field of Dreams notion of “if you build it, they will come” and there’s nothing planned for activities or story other than “they’ll just do social stuff like mini-games and chat.”  For years, people have heralded emergent stories as the greatest thing ever, but if the realm of activities are mundane, the emergent story may be boring and uneventful.

In the first part of the hour devoted to narrative in the conference, Jesse Cleverly reminded us that stories exist to help people make sense of the world.  Therefore, stories have order.  If you look at a screenplay, you may realize that there is economy in words and action (“arrive late, exit early”) and that it’s nothing at all like slice-of-life vignettes.  Stories, in fact, are fashioned.  Emergent story is about taking what happened and fashioning it into a story.  It’s about storytelling.  If I just rattle off “I drove to Wal-Mart.  I bought toilet paper.  I came home.” —  Wow, that’s incredibly boring.  Obviously, there’s an art to storytelling.

Just as Jack Buser, who’s responsible for SCEA’s PlayStation Home, yearned for a missing social component in online play, Jesse Cleverly remarked that storytelling in interactive media is not a brave new frontier like people say.  Maybe we are yearning for a return to the storytelling of yore, those days when people listened to minstrels and poets.  They’d crowd around and yell comments.  Perhaps the poet would embellish or refine the story each time.  These storytellers traveled from town to town and eventually, these stories became myths.

When I did the panel on Writing for Fantasy Game Worlds, one question I asked was about how D&D compared to computer RPGs.  The panelists all had vivid memories of their campaigns in D&D.  The storytelling had reeled them in.  They remarked that computer RPGs were tremendously lacking in the level of interaction when compared to a D&D session.  The storyteller can modify the story at will, embellishing or altering the circumstances to heighten the drama.

So, what do you think?  Do you think computer games represent a desirable return to traditional storytelling or is it a divergence?

Posted by Sande for Writers Cabal, a game writing and design partnership.

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Published in: on March 12, 2009 at 8:12 pm  Comments (4)  

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  1. I think a lot of times game developers look at games as a storytelling medium…in the sense of “I have this story and I want you to experience it”. That’s not a bad thing (some might argue with me), but there’s certainly more that can be done with the medium.

    I’m of the opinion that Galactic Civilizations 2 offers some of the best storytelling in computer games today. The setting and goal are fixed–you control a race of beings that wants to take over the galaxy with sci-fi spaceships and colonies. However, there are many ways to get there; you could play a righteous civilization that exterminates all evil and allies with the rest of the good beings, or you could play an evil race that spreads their cultural influence through advertising and mind control.

    The really neat thing is that your opponents will act believably. If you take over enough of a race’s planets, they may surrender to you…or they may surrender to one of your enemies to spite you. Also, occasional random events will spice things up; if the galaxy is mostly good-aligned, a bunch of planets may secede to form an evil civilization for society’s outcasts. (That screwed up my plans in one memorable game!)

    My point is: There’s a well-defined setting, player choice, antagonists that react to and resist the player, a narrative arc and random events to keep the player on their toes. That’s pretty much what a roleplaying game master is supposed to provide.

  2. I think games might be one of the greatest storytelling mediums ever created. But like John was getting at, it shouldn’t be used just to tell the story that we want to tell. That’s what movies and books are for. It should be used to tell the story that the player is looking for. People love being able to relate to a good story, and they would be able to relate even more if they have some influence over where the story goes. Our responsibility, like that of the game master, is to give them that story.

  3. Thanks for stopping by! In a way, the game master acts as a facilitator to enable players to experience their own customized stories. – Sande

  4. In a good game the player doesn’t get to tell his own story he is merely a character reacting to the story as it unfolds. A great game reacts to the characters actions in either a predictable manner or an unexpected but completely believable way. At the end of Diablo I (spoiler alert) the character is possessed by the demon as a result of slaying him. Now that caught be by surprise but it was a terrifying and a tragic ending that there was no way to avoid.

    Recently a lot of games have gotten away from great story telling and instead relied heavily on game mechanics and graphics. I think the recent success of GTA4, Fallout3, and Call of Duty 4 shows a yearning for a good story. I probably should include the Witcher here but that might be seen as kissing up to the host.

    One of my favorite games of all time was Majesty. Where every mission was introduced with a well acted paragraph or two setting the scene for the adventure. This game had 2d graphics, very little control, and few options yet it is engrossing because the stories are interesting and the gameplay is addicting.

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