Games and/or stories

Now that we have some idea of what goes into a great story, the types of game stories out there and the ways in which game stories can be structured, it’s worth asking why developers-and players-should care.

Warren Spector in “Next Gen Storytelling”

No, it’s not. It’s the wrong question.

Games are only one possible way of creating art with interactive media. To assume that you have to make a game is not necessary. The question should not be whether we can add stories to games but whether we can add games to stories. The answer to that question might be yes or no. But should not impact the desire to tell stories with interactive media.

The real question is not why but how.

Games allow us to tell stories. Stories make games more desirable. But the very nature of games limits the kinds of stories that can be told. Games are about overcoming obstacles and challenges. So if you want to tell a story through game interactivity, the story needs to be about that. This why most protagonists in games are heroes who save the world.

To achieve more diversity in interactive stories, we need to abandon the idea that we should be making a game. While interaction as such probably implies a certain playfulness, there is no requirement for this playfulness to take place within a game structure.

If you want to make a game, please go ahead and make one. If you need a story as mental lubricant, don’t let me stop you. I enjoy pretending to be superhuman once in a while as much everybody else. But, please don’t make any claims as to the artistic merit of your story. Your creativity is enslaved by the format you have chosen. You might get lucky and end up making great art, but chances are slim.

If you want to tell a story, please consider the rich interactive medium. It has enormous potential for telling new kinds of stories in entirely new ways, for creating experiences that no one has had before. Tell your story through interaction. Find ways for the interaction to express your theme, your character’s personalities etcetera. Use game concepts where they suit this purpose but reject them where they don’t help the telling of the story.

Note that I use the word “story” in its broadest possible sense. By no means should the concept of story be limited to linearity or the requirement of a plot. We’re not writing books here.

22 thoughts on “Games and/or stories”

  1. Yes! As I say over and over–“games,” or “new media” or “interactive media” as you prefer are themselves a storytelling medium, so use them i their entirety to express story. That’s the central premise behind PJ’s Attic and the reason we created a storytelling model which incorporates games, not a game model which incorporates story.

    Inserting story into game has already been done, admittedly sometimes quite well. But it’s time to move on… Upwards and onwards!

  2. I actually disagree with you, but we’ll discuss this at some future point when I have some games to reference that use storytelling technique in interesting ways.

  3. This sounds like good advice about storytelling. When I go about making an interactive story, I will not also try to make it into a game. :)

    It seems to me now that there are several distinct forms of interactive media, and goal-oriented games are only one of them. Games operate differently and achieve different things than interactive stories do. Maybe games are unable to be art (though I would disagree) while stories are, but whatever you call the result, they are both important. And I think there are several distinct divisions of goal-oriented games as well.

  4. It doesn’t really matter if you call it art. If only because there’s a lot of bad art. A good game is better than a bad artwork in my book.

    My concern is with expressiveness. Games in the strict sense of the word don’t allow for a wide variety of subject matter. That doesn’t mean they don’t tell stories. Only that their stories tend to be uninteresting most of the time. One of the reasons for this is that because of the game structure, their stories almost always need to be about conquest in some form or other. And that’s not a very poetic theme for my taste.

  5. I actually agree with this, I think you’re starting to convert me. Maybe it’s only the repetition of the same message so many times though ^_^

    However, until a model of this exists, it’s still hard to conceptualize. Games are an established form, but interactivity + stories (especially in the sense of having interesting characters) without goals isn’t yet. I can’t think of very many examples where it’s been done at all. So it’s hard to think of how to do it. Can you point out any particular examples of this having been done? Maybe The Path will indicate some of the possibilities.

  6. Don’t agree with us, Rinku. We’ll lose a worthy opponent! 😉

    But you’r right. It’s largely unexplored territory. This is one of the reasons why we keep repeating the same message, I guess. There’s so much work to be done! Everybody feels this potential in interactive media. But continuing to make games prevents us from exploring this potential. A lot of research needs to be done. The Path will do some of this (so has The Endless Forest). But we certainly cannot come up with the solution for everything. And there are many solutions. The general idea is to open up the interactive medium to a greater diversity, not to find a new formula.

    I wouldn’t worry too much about the goal or absense of it. That’s just a detail. It’s more a matter of attitude: do we let the game structure lead our expression or do we let our themes and subject matter lead it? Things are always going to be a combination of the two. All that we are advocating is letting the latter have the last say: if game elements do not help express your story, get rid of them, replace them, etcetera.

    I consider games to be a well explored craft. The newest generation of console games makes me even think that game design as such has entered a decadent phase. Too confident of itself and too conservative.
    Let’s start exploring some other ways of playing with interactivity!

    As for examples, the one that inspires us the most is Alex Mayhew’s Ceremony of Innocence. We’ll be publishing an interview with him soon. He’s working on a lot of new stuff. There’s probably other things of that CD-Rom era that can insipre us: work by Peter Gabriel, The Residents and Laurie Anderson come to mind. Also, internet art has explored interaction in different ways. What’s interesting in these examples is not necessarily the kinds of interaction they come up with (though I find their simplicity often very inspiring), but the diversity of themes that they tried to express through interaction.
    We also shouldn’t underestimate the work that has been done in computer games themselves. There’s a lot to be learned from the moments in games where you are not facing challenges or pursuing a goal. We should pay close attention to things that are unique to computer games and that cannot be expressed in traditional games.

  7. Well, agreeing in one aspect doesn’t mean agreeing in all either 😀

    I agree that it’s *possible* to make stories which are interactive like computer games and yet have no goals. But I’m not convinced it’d be necessarily more interesting than doing the same thing with goals, provided the goals are selected carefully and achieving them involves careful thought and it’s not too skill-based (not too obviously about clearly winning/losing).

    There’s also the point that in most stories, characters have goals. In Shakespeare, Harry Potter, whatever the story is, the characters each have their own goals; those goals may change, but I don’t think totally removing goals would work well if I want to maintain interesting characters. In real life there exist people without goals of course, but in fiction that type of person is usually boring, and a plot is the process of those characters working out their differing goals against each other.

    So I don’t think it’s necessarily true that having goals in games means that all stories are restricted to save the world stories. It’s possible to have interesting goals besides that in a game, like winning someone’s friendship or a lost child having a goal of finding her way home. So for the time being I’m more interested in exploring “games with goals that haven’t been done before” rather than “games without goals”.

  8. You’re quite obsessed with goals, aren’t you? 😉
    We’re not. It doesn’t really matter. If a goal-oriented structure suits your content, by all means use it. We advocate trying to not be a slave to any type of structure. We think that the story you are trying to tell (however vague) should drive all of your decisions.

    I agree that there’s many types of goals in stories. I just don’t agree that most of them or best expressed in game-type win-or-lose structures. If only because stories often get more interesting when characters don’t achieve their goals, or when they change their mind, or when they forget about their goals altogether. We don’t believe such subtleties can be expressed well (as in “poetically” or “in a way that moves people”, etc) in the structure of a game. But feel free to prove us wrong. :)

  9. You keep mentioning stories, but I don’t think stories are the only way to convey or express something. The strength of games is not in stories – while I’m not exactly sure what to call it, or whether it is only one thing, I’d say it’s more about systems. And of course as you say, interactive stories do not become stronger by making them game-like.

  10. Hello all,

    I read your interesting discussion. Let me try to give another point of view. One more in terms of the survival of the “artist”.

    I’ve done what now I call an Interactive Drama, Masq, , however I’ve changed the name many times because nothing seems to fit it.

    I didn’t want to call it a game because it breaks a lot of the rules of commercial interactive games, but most players call it a game anyway, and they even claim they “gamed” it to achieve certain self imposed goals. I was clear stating that in Masq there is no winning or losing, however in some degree the story set-up some expectations. And as you’ll see if you play it, in Masq the story really means the game.

    I have read this tread as well as the one “Ten reasons why computer games are not games” and I believe is important to have these arguments about terminology, (and as you point is easier to have them with some concrete examples) words are tools to create better abstract models, so…

    What about authoring interactive “works” that become attractive enough for a market so by a given “business model” or other mean this “popularity” allows the author to keep creating more work.

    In my opinion, the problem with calling it or not “game” arises when trying to communicate mainly with those who fund our endeavor, or those who we want to convince to “play” or “experience” our work, and maybe even pay for it. At least our reality is that these two groups of people may define if we get or not to make or not another “work” :)

  11. Axcho, I find it difficult to use the word story as well because, especially among game developers, stories are often seen as rigid linear constructions, almost as functional as computer code itself. But for me it is a much more poetic notion. When I say story, I think of representational painting and scultpture, about architecture and about the emotions that music evokes. Story, for me, is how a work of art is linked to the viewer. When it talks about things that the viewer recognizes and can fantasize about.

    The look in the eyes of a character as she turns to the camera, the way a flower moves in the wind, the sound of a truck going by. All of these are story elements, if not complete stories for the poetic soul. In games, these are often treated as “icing on the cake” but for me these are the things that really matter, that make a game memorable, that make it meaningful.

  12. Javier, are you saying that it is easier to get funding for an interactive project if you call it a game? (I’d say: depends on where you’re trying to get funding from)

    As for the word “game”, academics and game professionals can be as rigid about it as they want (and given that many of the latter are programmers, their rigidness is not to be underestimated) but as you point out, the audience is not so critical. The audience has already embraced the idea that a (computer) game can be many different things. I feel that many people play games for entirely different reasons than game designers might think. I know I do. And I want to get closer to those real reasons with our work.

  13. My point is that from an author perspective I was not doing a game or anything else, but I was creating something I wanted to experience, assuming there were more people like me. I was not thinking in the marketing side of life (to some degree it was a mistake, you can do that once you’re successful or if you’re a student)

    When we finished Masq and tried to get a distribution deal or get funding for new projects in the US, we talked with many people thanks to the connections of advisors such as Noah Falstein. But at least in the US, you have to explain what you have in what is called an “elevator pitch”; a 30 seconds explanation or one or two paragraph in an email, and trying to find out the best words we realize that we were dealing with all the preconceptions about what is a game; it is for young males and about winning or losing, it includes Artificial Intelligence elements as well as 3D, sound and offer at least 10 hours of entertainment (even if 9 of those hours are just walking around in repetitive and boring 3D environments, or solving puzzles that feel more like an obstacle to the real fun.) Most people in position of funding interactive entertainment have those preconceptions, and as an extension of that they obviously are afraid to invest in something that has not been tested as commercially successful. In our blog…

    we explain all the mistakes we did trying to commercialize Masq and one of them was not anticipating the profile of most decision makers in the industry. My feeling is that in Europe you have more funding alternatives.

    And the same problem raised when we tried to market the game with our limited advertising budget. The market (including the channels) expect a game to be the same that I already described; and non-gamers and the female market had already tried many games and didn’t liked them, so how you convince them that yours is different, a game is a game and sucks! right? In advertising as well, you have very limited space to catch the attention of people so you also have to choose your words carefully. Most of the market doesn’t know what is an Interactive Drama, a Social Simulation, an Interactive Story, an Immersive Graphic Novel, but they know what a game is, you jump and collect coins, you shoot aliens, solve puzzles, rule armies.

    That is in the US where there are great advantages for business start-ups but that is not one of them. How is Europe?

  14. We haven’t been able to find any commercial investment so far. All our work is funded through art grants. And there we also have to deal with prejudices. But then anti-games and anti-commerce.

    As for the audience of non-gamers, I agree that it is hard to reach them in large numbers but in my experience they are very quick to identify a game that is different. Many non-gamers have told us that they would never touch a game but that they would like to try ours. Many non-gamers are currently playing The Endless Forest. Even though they dislike games as a rule, I think they are still a very receptive audience for interactive art. I think you have to talk to them in terms of content (stories, pictures, etc) and not in terms of mechanics.

  15. I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed with goals, it’s just that I believe that interactivity is inherently about doing things. Of course it doesn’t require narrow win/lose situations like most games do with bells and whistles when you reach something and GAME OVER when you don’t, but goals will arise from interaction itself; The Endless Forest does have goals, they’re just less explicit, and I imagine The Path will as well. So the difference in our approaches isn’t goals versus no goals, it’s intended goals versus unintended goals.

    I agree that less intended goals can work better than more intended ones, and that too narrow goals (as in Immortal Defense) are too restrictive, but I think there’s a golden mean in there; if the goals too open, it becomes a toy, or a virtual reality with a different setting, like SimCity or Second Life, which can be enjoyable, but what artistry there is in such things is usually accidental and created by the player rather than by the designer.

    I also think that anything you allow the player to do — anything you make interactive — is creating implicit goals. As in your recent entry: if you put in a gun, you make killing a goal. So I think the whole idea of a goalless interactivity is self-contradictory. Anything interactive has goals, even the random flailing around of the arms of a baby has the goal of learning to use its arms.

  16. I think I agree with you. It’s ultimately a matter of priorities. I guess that’s why I made fun of you being obsessed. I think goals are but one part of the whole interactive process. And Auriea and I have always been more interested in the journey than in the destination.

    I firmly disagree with you that a virtual environment can not be artistic, though. Or that it would be a toy. A landscape painting is not a toy. The interior of a cathedral is not a toy.

    And anyway, I think you’re nitpicking. Obviously one can find goals everywhere and in everything. But that’s not what people mean when they talk about the goal of a game.

    I used to agree with you that interactivity was about doing things. Maybe I still do and maybe I’m not so convinced anymore that interactivity is the holy grail of digital entertainment. But that may be heavily coloured by our current work and needs further research. I have this strong desire to just be in a virtual world, without any requirement to do anything.

  17. Even then, there’s not such a clear distinction between being and doing. Most of what we do are habits, and a habit is “being” thing. Matter and energy are interchangeable, what you do depends on what you are, and vice versa. This may be nitpicking too, though.

    I think another term that we could use would be “objectives” — it’s a synonym of goal, but when you talk about there being “no objective” in a game it doesn’t have the implication of it being “goalless” which I almost equate with “pointless”.

    An example of a game with a goal but no objectives is the first Zelda or the first Metroid, or more recently Seiklus, where you were just walking around and exploring, there was an ultimate goal, but you weren’t really concerned with that and most of your time was spent exploring the world in different directions however you chose. And most of the areas to explore are open to you right from the start, you don’t need to go through them in any particular order.

    I realize those are still very goal-oriented games, because they have an ending and they have things you have to do in order to win, but I think that type of game is a moderation between strict missions and objectives and being goalless. My next game is more like that.

  18. It doesn’t really matter what the ultimate end goal of the game is. That is fairly irrelevant in games that typically take hours if not days or weeks to complete.
    For me the distinction has more to do with attitude than with the actual presence or absense of goals. It’s about what motivates the player. And what is important to the designer. In my opinion, it’s the designer’s task to express the story.

    In my experience, goaloriented structures and meaning oppose each other. The more a player is focussed on achieving game objectives, the less he is involved with the story. So in that view “goalles” and “pointless” are each other’s opposites. Either there’s a goal, or there’s a point. The more you have of one, the less you have of the other. In my experience.

    This may be very much coloured by the fact that game designers don’t often find a harmony between the story and the play activity, and that, if they do, the stories are of little interest to me personally.

    I guess I just don’t see why we can’t start with a blank slate when designing interactive pieces. Why do we have to start with the assumption that it has to be a game?

  19. Are reasons, goals?

    Most likely whatever you do, as a creator, will find somebody who validate you creation, even if is only your grandmother who loves you pretty much. But I assume we’re talking about experiences that enough people find interesting to support (in any way) your next creation.

    So let’s think in what most people like. In a virtual world, they like to do something, if they can’t do, they better watch a movie, a painting or read a book (and even there I believe they are actively participating). So doing means having a goal (or a reason) even if they are not aware of it.

    Also, all artists or creators have an agenda, even if they are unaware too. Even something that seems as passive as “inspiring” your audience, means causing a change in them. And the “audience” or “participants” may be there for that very same REASON; their GOAL is to feel inspired. Reasons-goals will be always there. Let’s better be aware of them.

    Are reasons, goals?

  20. Please don’t stretch the meaning of the word “goal” to make an argument. It has been used in the very explicit sense of a game goal. You know: the end result of a game mission (defeating the boss, solving the puzzle, etc).

    In terms of validation, I think at this point in time, it would be good for designers to focus on expressing ideas rather than catering to what they perceive as the likes and dislikes of the people. Or at least focus on macro-concepts like the desire to see something beautiful or the desire to be entertained.

    And also at this point in time, I think it would be good for designers to experiment with passivity: can we create a realtime environment that in and of itself expresses something, that is enjoyable as such? Think of it as a blank slate.

  21. I’m not advocating for everybody to do massive entertainment, but trying to point that someone else will experience what we do, and to some degree we all (people) respond the same. I guess we agree that people are not a blank slate.

    People will generate goals or adopt what we give them. Masq explicitly warns players from attempting winning or loosing and invited them to explore, but anyway many of them generate goals as in a traditional game, yes, almost as missions. A 3D environment may be less pushy than the story context of Masq, but if there is any degree of freedom or the illusion of it (interactivity), people will take some sort of control and will direct their “power” somewhere.

    If I was trying to stretch the meaning of the word “goal” is because I don’t see “explicitly defined goals” vs. “no goals” as black or white. If it’s interactive, there will be always shades of gray; some sort of goals, and I believe is better to anticipate them because these will be tied to whatever meaning people get from any environment-experience.

  22. I agree that some/many players make up their own goals in games. And I also agree that linear plot-driven works like Masq will stimulate that behaviour more than sand-box oriented games like The Endless Forest.

    But I’m not sure why we should try to anticipate them. I’m actually quite open to what meaning people find in our work. Art is not about the straight translation of an idea into a visual or other form. Art is not a way of encoding information. Art is a form of communication that expresses something that cannot be expressed in any other way. If you did that well, people will get it, and any “extra” meaning they find will be complementary to what you were already aware of.

    I would advocate a design style that allows players to do things that you did not anticipate as a designer. But care must be taken that these things don’t break the experience. I guess that’s what you mean by anticipation. Maybe this too is a matter of “shades of gray”. And some themes or formats require more authorial control than others.

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