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Dramatic Gameplay
by Alexander Kerezman on 04/26/10 11:20:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Robert McKee's Story seminar is considered the premiere writing guide, particularly when it comes to film and screenwriting. I happened to get the book from a friend. It's an excellent read whether you're writing for novels, plays, films, or just about any other medium because of its explanations of universal storytelling structures.

But applying Story to video games is tough. Not only is storytelling in video games a sensitive issue at the moment, video games have one element that completely separates them from every other medium: the player. Accounting for player involvement and interaction makes applying tried-and-true principles for other mediums (like Story) almost impossible.

Fortunately, I've already discussed the player and its archnemesis, the game. By taking that step and treating the game as an entity on par with the player, the balance of postive and negative forces essential to storytelling is restored. Which means we can start applying traditional storytelling principles to video games under this new context.

The strength of story structures lies in creating patterns that crescendo to an ultimate climax. Two of these patterns are: 1) the swinging pendulum of positive and negative outcomes, each pushing stronger and stronger until one ends up victorious, and 2) the protagonist's effort to achieve his or her conscious desire, and the gap that appears between expectations and reality that forces the protagonist to try a different, more risky action.

When these patterns are applied to action sequences in film, the result starts to look very much like a video game. I'll give you two examples.

While babysitting my little brother, I found myself watching Toy Story 2. You know that sequence with Buzz Lightyear at the beginning of the movie... that turns out to be a video game? You should probably watch it.

Buzz Lightyear in an imaginary gameplay scenario.

The action starts with Buzz Lightyear flying onto a rocky planet. It starts out simply enough, with Buzz diving into the atmosphere and weaving through a canyon. He then stops in a clearing, looks around, and finds that there's no intelligent life nearby. He looks down to make an entry in his mission log... and soon finds a thousand red laser sights trained on him from killer robots nearby. They prepare to fire and obliterate him, but he dives and fires a laser at a crystal nearby, which reflects and multiplies the laser to fire at every single point in the surrounding crowd. They are all hit, but they all explode in green fire and robot parts, sending Buzz flying.

He hits the ground running to avoid getting squashed by falling debris and flattens himself against a rock. But a mounted camera pops out of the rock and spots him. Buzz destroys the camera, but a hidden Z-shaped door opens up in the ground. He falls, the door closes behind him and leaves him in darkness, but his suit has a glow-in-the-dark component that lets him continue on. He enters a hallway, and the lights suddenly turn on. A spike wall appears behind him, and he starts running. A door threatens to close in front of him, but he jumps through.

Now he finds himself in front of a bridge spanning a bottomless gap. Ahead is the power source for the base. But the bridge is made up of small platforms suspended in midair. So he jumps forward, one platform at a time... and then the platforms begin to plummet into the pit below. Buzz manages to activate a button on his suit that, through some kind of hokey magnetic physics, allows him to fly back up to the platform. He approaches the power source and makes a grab for it... but it turns out to be a hologram. Zerg, his archnemesis, rises up behind him and attacks.

And then it turns out Rex is horribly proportioned for gaming, but that's beside the point.

The point is that there's a pattern in how the action progresses. It just keeps going back and forth: he's safe, he's in danger, he finds a way out, there's another trap, he steps on a platform, and the entire thing falls from beneath his feet. The situation swings between positive and negative, constantly.

The other example is an episode of Human Target - in fact, the only episode of Human Target I've bothered to watch. In episode 6, Lockdown, the main character Chance is required to rescue an unwilling engineer from the high-security headquarters of a corrupt weapons manufacturer. There's a Splinter Cell feel to it already...

Human Target's Chance attempting a rescue.

The action opens with Chance skydiving onto the building's roof. All's well and good until they realize halfway that there's a camera on the roof with a two-foot wide blind spot. Whoops. Chance barely makes it, though his parachute nearly drags him off the side of the building due to the wind. He takes out the camera, but that alerts the security office inside. A guard notices him, but he takes the guard out and makes his way into the building. He disguises himself as a janitor and makes his way to the nerdy engineer's office. Undercover, he blows open a window, but that sets off a security breach alarm. Guards come in and shoot up his parachute, removing their initial escape plan. Now they have to escape a high rise that's been locked down.

After dealing with the guards, they escape to a floor still under construction. They figure out that they can use one of the experimental weapons to shut down the security system, but it's many floors below them. And with the security office monitoring the temperature of every room, they're going to get found. So they enter the vents. They avoid detection for a while, but then someone in the security room gets a bright idea and opens up the secondary shafts in the ventilation system. As Chance is crawling through the vents, a whole section opens up from under him, leading to an insanely long and narrow drop. He barely hangs on, but now he has to get his shy engineer buddy to make the jump. After some convincing, he tries, nearly falls, and Chance has to pull him back up.

They make their way into the "black room," barely hiding in the blind spot of a camera. They use a digital camera to fool it. They make their way across tables to avoid detectors on the floor. They reach the weapon, but it's not finished. And their heat signature has been picked up, so guards are on the way into the room while they are trying to fix it. At the last second, the engineer says, "Well, it could work or blow up in our fac-" and Chance flicks the switch. It works. With all power and security down, they make their way into an elevator shaft. But the head of security himself picks up an automatic weapon and finds them. An intense gunfight plays out in the elevator shaft, ultimately ending in the antagonist's demise.

They reach the entrance, and the FBI has shown up to take control of the situation. Chance gets thrown into a car... but one of his friends shows up in a suit and covertly steals him away.

Barring several of the obvious issues, this whole episode would actually be very engaging to play as a video game. It's full of dramatic twists and turns that directly affect the protagonist on a physical level. And when another obstacle appeared, Chance was forced to pick a riskier action: escaping to a different floor, moving into the vents, turning on a potentially unstable experimental weapon... There is a progression there that is deeply linked to storytelling principles.

These are examples of creating dramatic shifts in the physical plane - creating dramatic action. If that action were to be put into the hands of a player, it would become dramatic gameplay. With this principle of progression, you can now weave storytelling into the gameplay, strengthening the overall storytelling of the entire game.

In your single-player game, create dramatic shifts that directly affect the player. Arrange them so that each one is stronger than the last. And then give the player avenues to fight back with gradually increasing strength, creating the positive back-and-forth that can result in an ultimately satisfying climax. All other great stories - movies, plays, books - do the exact same thing, but only games make people feel like the ultimate climactic action is their own. That's the kind of power we want to wield.

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Dan Felder
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Another great piece Alex, glad you're making our theories come alive. I'll need to have to start stepping up my game and writing about it too!

Alexander Kerezman
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I just took a look at your piece, Stephen, and I'm very glad to hear this same kind of idea from a different source. I think you basically said formally (using Aristotle and Plato) what I said informally (using Toy Story 2 and a TV show).

The thing to do, I think, is to take this idea out of the realm of theory and try to work it into a real method of creating games and game narratives. I think the idea is ready to move from talking to doing.

Dan Felder
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Agreed. Also I think it's important to look beyond the basics of story into the fundamental drivers of player action. We can't simply ignore the player, we must UTILIZE him or her. Story events must drive the player to want to follow the main plot line, not go along for the ride.

This is an important distinction, and I think one of the reasons stories have had less success in games than in other storytelling mediums. It requires a different framework, as the writer no longer is trying to simply get the audience to identify with the main character... The audience IS the main character, and must be handled as such. Motivations that might make the main characters of some stories want to do something won't excite the player at all. The player should want to defeat the boss for his own sake, not just because it's the only way to progress.

There is an exception of course - in a RP story a player can artificially don the thoughts and attitudes of a specific character. This must be delicately done however, else the player will simply be hitching a ride on the story and not the driver of it. And if a player is not the driver of the story, then we are losing much of what gives Dramatic Gameplay its true power.

Chuan Lim
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With screenwriting especially for Hollywood fare there's a very precise structure to follow. The Bruckheimers and Weinsteins of this world know that if you mirror the peaks and plot points of a classic 4-part Greek tragedy then you'll hopefully have an audience enthralled for the next 90 minutes. However, if you stretch those same peaks & troughs over a 20-hour experience then the dynamics are not the same.!

Taking the example of the scene you described above, how long do you think it would take to play out in a game version? Problem is that a film can infer alot of information in a short amount of time and it's ok because an audience can take it all in and read the 'tells' that the cinematography or sound can evoke. The domain of a game is different and usually has more to do with [1] recognising a problem or obstacle [2] then applying a hypothesis to it whether that's a move learnt or asset used in a particular way. How do you go about creating drama with this variable timeframe? Most games seem to take the approach of allowing the interaction [ or problem solving ] to happen at it's own pace and then jam in a cut-scene or some other canned treat to create the right mood for that moment.

Might be interesting to think about how dramatic intensity can be created in other ways that can mesh better with the 'doing' or player game mechanics used for progression. For some reason closing Ebay auctions come to mind as an example of a dramatic event with a similar "intensity" curve as your typical 4th act. Discovery, build up, expectation, hero protagonist wins again.! Another aspect would be to explore and re-think how time + linear progression works in games to try and create an interesting story structure that takes advantage of the medium qualitatively.

-- Chuan

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Alexander Kerezman
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@Chuan: I'd think Robert McKee would disagree with you. "Story is about universal forms, not formulas." I am not saying that the three- or four-act structure in films is to be perfectly translated to games. I'm not saying the two mediums work exactly the same. I AM saying that there are patterns in great storytelling that heighten emotional impact and player satisfaction, and that those patterns can be applied to video game action, no matter how long it lasts.

@Bob: Blaaah, I'm not sure WHAT to think about BioWare games nowadays, to be honest. They're impressive examples, to be sure - I've had moments of real emotional impact in their games - but I'm not sure if I would like to actually use that sort of dialogue system. It doesn't help the action much, and... it just looks like dramatic structure is being given up in favor of player agency. Sure, the player will find reasons to care in that system, but... not as strong, I think, as structured dramatic play could be.

@Stephen: I see what you're saying. But while the task is massive, I'd agree that the best thing to do is to at least start trying now. Testing the method, figuring out how to do it right, then figuring out how to do it faster.

In any case, thank you for your comments. They mean a lot.

Glenn Storm
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Human Target does have some of the best writing currently on TV imho. Nice post, Alex.

Christopher Braithwaite
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"Not only is storytelling in video games a sensitive issue at the moment, video games have one element that completely separates them from every other medium: the player. Accounting for player involvement and interaction makes applying tried-and-true principles for other mediums (like Story) almost impossible."

I disagree with this statement. It fails to account for the tried-and-true principles of the performing arts, such as theater or comedy, which videogames also resemble. Even when quiet and not laughing, crying, cheering or heckling, listeners are communicating loads of information that is used by performers to tailor the stories they tell. Let's not forget the act of storytelling itself, which is all about knowing how to engage listeners (and is especially interactive when involving children!). Game developers can learn a lot about applying the principles of story to game design by understanding how performers adjust the stories they tell to the feedback they get from audiences.

Alexander Kerezman
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@Christopher: Okay, but video games are not the living two-way street that theater is. There is an audience, but there is no storyteller. The video game is not listening to its audience, trying to gauge its reaction and change accordingly. It's just a real-time interactive simulation.

In that sense, there's not a whole lot to be gained from pure theater.

Dan Felder
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Additionally Christopher, as someone who has worked and written extensively for the theater, I must say that the audience factors in on a completely different level. The audience is a passive spectator while the player is an active participant. The player can certainly be relegated to a passive role, but that kills the main storytelling power of games - the ability to break the walls down farther and put the player in the center of the story.

Audience responses factor into performances much less than you would expect. There is not much difference between an actor responding to audience feedback (such as laughs or yawns) and a movie producer changing things in anticipation of audience reactions or after unsuccessful previews. The only difference is that the change happens in real time - and this is fundamentally different than the power of a videogame where the player is no longer a spectator... But IS the main character himself.

John Mawhorter
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Dramatic Play is exactly what D&D is. Every game developer who ever even thinks about narrative in games should play D&D because it is a perfect example of what video games can't do well (yet). I am intrigued by your concept, but I feel that in terms of development there are too many difficulties on both a culture of the industry side of things and the nature of technology. One could make the examples given here into a game, but that would require creating several different kinds of mechanics for each specific narrative section and then only using them once or so. This is intriguing, and with todays 4-10 hour games maybe even feasible, but it'd be difficult to get a developer or publisher to see things your way.

John Mawhorter
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Left 4 Dead's AI director and the concept of a narrative AI director aren't very different from what a DM is doing constantly, but a DM is infinitely more capable of adjusting to the subtle nuances of the situation (and of flights of imagination and storytelling that add that extra touch of interest and brilliance).

John Mawhorter
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Also another key problem is that the player may ruin your dramatic tension by being too good or bad at the game, or by moving too quickly or too slowly, etc. etc.