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Why I Hate Stories in Video Games
by Josh Foreman on 07/29/10 08:53:00 pm   Expert Blogs   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.

 

Let me clarify that I'm referring to "story" in the most common sense that most game players perceive as story. (that is: cutscenes as opposed to world design, mechanics and other intrinsic communication cues.) I'll go into what I think future storytelling in games should look like after the critique.

The video game industry. So here we are. 40 years old. (give or take) For some perspective, let's look at where the movie industry was at 40… making films like Gone with the Wind. What do we have that compares? (This is not actually a snarky rhetorical question, it's good conversation fodder.)

To be fair, our industry has bigger technological and logistical hurdles to leap than the film industry did. Yes, cameras, film, sound and color all developed and put that industry through its growing pains. But within ten years they had created the formula for the medium that is still used to this day. They took the linear story telling of novels and plays and put them together with the power of music and editing to create a new experience that transcended the artforms they utilized.

But when it comes to video games, we are nowhere near the point at which the technology is stable enough to start building a game media paradigm that will last for a hundred years. This causes major problems for us. First of all, it gives us a moving target. Our design is constantly constrained and changed by these technological limits.

We operate on an ever-shifting landscape that defines our jobs as game creators. 

Every game I have worked on started off as something that a host of technological limitations made impossible.  Every vision has been seriously curtailed and restrained by this force.     

Now imagine if this happened in film. Imagine if an arbitrary technological deficit kept a director from pointing the camera in certain directions. Or made it so the film could only pick up 3 actors at a time. Or if background extras could never move. These limitations could be worked around, sure. But they would put definite limits on the kinds of stories that could be told, and certainly on the tone or mood that the films convey.

Of course there were big limitations early on in the media of film. Not having vocal dialog is huge. Lack of color is pretty big. But I can make good corollaries to video games that illustrate my point that our similar leaps have already happened and we still have many, many more to go. The gradually increased resolution of video games is sort of like the finer film quality that developed over the first half of the 20th century.

The change from colored blocks representing warriors and race cars into pieces of art that clearly represented said objects was slow and granular so it's hard to call that a "leap". The same goes for the evolution from synthetic bleeps and bloops to fully orchestrated soundtracks and real dialog. But one thing that that was a clear and definite transition was the leap to the 3rd dimension.

To me, that seems like a bigger leap than film's sound and color put together. It opened up such a huge world of possibilities for designers that simply weren't possible before. And yet we still have so far to go before our medium is stable.

The reason I want to establish this before telling you why story in video games suck, is because I believe that our industry's attempt at story telling is simply a stop-gap for something far greater that is to come. After we get through our growing pains. Right now we hire writers to fill out our games with story. And most of the time, these stories are just like those you would find in movies and novels and plays and epic poems and opera. Not that they are as good. In general, they are terribly derivative, juvenile, and would be boring if translated to a script or book. (Of course there are terribly derivative, juvenile books and plays and movies too.)

But what I want to point out is that video game stories are like these other media in one important way. They are linear narratives. They are situations constructed by an author to tell a story in a particular way. And most important to my point: THEY DEFINE THE PROTAGONIST. To me, the most obvious strength that the medium of video games has is that they cast the player as the protagonist. In fact, a strong case can be made that this is the defining element that makes the medium what it is. The player has Agency within the world of the game.

And this is what most video game stories actively combat! They say: "You are X, a brawny barbarian who solves his problems with an axe." Or "You are Y, a femme fatale who must use her cunning and magic to defeat Z." These I don't object to because they are part of the theme or genre. The problem is when they attempt to shoehorn a 3 act structure into the game by denying the player their Agency while they show you poorly animated and acted scenes of …"you" saying and doing things that you, the human, probably would not say or do in the same situation.

This undermines the Agency that is at the heart of the medium. This implicitly says that our medium is not legitimate. That we need to be more like those other well-established art forms like film and literature. To me, this is like a child in the workshop with daddy. Daddy is building a chair, and the kid is using his little plastic hammer to repetitively bang on his little plastic work bench pretending to be daddy. The child sees the actions that daddy is doing, and tries to imitate it, though with much less success. And what I'm saying is that we need to stop trying to be daddy. We weren't meant to be carpenters. We were meant to be painters or astronauts, or some other non-hammering profession.

This is why game cutscenses annoy and… almost offend me. I don't like my little plastic hammer! I don't want to pretend, and do something half-assed. If I have Agency, let me be my own Agent, not some amalgam of me and something a juvenile fiction author came up with. And here is where I must make an important distinction. Most video games -with the exception of puzzle games- put you in the shoes of a defined protagonist. A chubby plumber in Wonderland, a pro baseball player, a busty warrior chick in middle earth, etc.

This type of role-playing does not offend me. Because this is presented to me, the consumer, when I'm making a choice about how I want to spend my precious entertainment time. When I choose a world to act in I'm looking for themes and aesthetics and mechanics that seem fun to me. Listening to Solid Snake apologize to his whiney girlfriend about missing her birthday when he's on the most important mission in the world is not part of that. I'm 35. I'm not looking for angsty teen melodrama juxtaposed over grizzled war vets or anorexic fantasy bois. I don't care about saving princesses. I just want to play in a world that appeals to me.

Make my own story. Be the kind of character I choose to be. I'm a curmudgeon, I know. And I know that the current hybrid game/movie paradigm will probably never go away. Too many people like it. And that's fine for them. I just personally think it's a disgusting chimera. And I can't wait for the day when we can hack the goat head and snake tail off and proudly declare that we are a lion.

Maybe that is why I'm such a fan of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. These games present you with a world, theme and minimal set of characters. Then let's you go. They give you simple mechanics that you have to creatively combine to progress, and even though the action is mostly linear you are not having your character constantly updated and defined with cutscenes. Ico made me FEEL empathy for Yorda.

Not because the game yanked the camera out of my hand and force fed me a bunch of dialog about how endangered and pitiful she is and how she needs my help. No, they built the mechanics around the concept of empathy. This is an exploration of a theme through ACTION and CHOICE, rather than dialog. This is what I think the future of games as an art form will be. In Shadow of the Colossus (Excellent review here: http://tap-repeatedly.com/Reviews/Shadow_of_the_Colossus/Colossus.shtml ) your Agency is actually used by the designers as a foil to progression. There are no cutscenes where the Wanderer stops and questions his motives or pontificates about the nature of the beautiful, majestic giants he is impelled to kill, or composes a Fichtean critique of revelation.

Instead, the designers use the tools that are intrinsic to video games to cause the player to think these things. Music, sound, atmosphere, repetition -even the down time of traveling from one location to another- giving the player time to reflect. Distance and sparseness as tools of communication are examples of a transcending element that video games can utilize. Just as film transcends music and images through a gestalt process of combination, becoming its own art form, so video games can bring together music, image, and Agency to create a truly new and unique form of artistic expression.

But there's something missing still. I think that games like Shadow of the Colossus are so rare because our industry lacks definition. We are still under our father's shadow, and seek his approval before we can be proud of ourselves. After all, daddy is big and successful and popular. (Not many game designers being chased down by the paparazzi.)

But when we grasp that Agency with both hands, eschew our training wheels of artificially linear narrative, and go with our strength, I think we will find the wings that will let us soar to undiscovered heights. But as I pointed out, the hurdle to this nirvana of gaming is not simply philosophical. It's devastatingly technological.

After the jump to 3-D I consider the next leap we made to be the invention of the sand box game. Here, rather than being given a path from A to B with various obstacles, we are given a toolset of mechanics and given the freedom to use them in creative ways, exercising our Agency in the pacing and flow of the game. There is still generally a linear narrative (defining the protagonist) that can be accessed at points the player chooses, but… baby steps. Baby steps.

Now, it's not that designers had never conceived of a big open world with a suite of mechanics for a player to experiment with. It's simply that the technology was not ready until recently. Had a game company made a sandbox game in 1995 it would have been a big flat plane with some pyramids. I'm looking at our technology now, and seeing all sorts of problems that only have technological solutions.

The Uncanny Valley, the expense of physics, the foolish A.I., and the need to hand-generate most of our assets. What sorts of new innovations will emerge as these limitations are overcome? I don't know for certain. Obviously we designers will never run out of ideas for games. And we all long for the Star Trek Holodeck. The question is about what we will do with it once we have it. Would we still create linear narratives where the player is forced to watch her character develop according to some author's ideas? Or will we empower the player by granting them the full power of their Agency, allowing them to define their own character?

I hope the answer is obvious. If it is, if our pipe-dream is to fully empower the players, then it seems to me that our current game/movie hybrid is simply the result of our lack of technological sophistication. Perhaps in the future our game writers will be working on creating compelling interaction concepts for A.I. and making the world resonate thematically, supporting my choices as a player, rather than yanking my leash from point A to B and undermining my Agency with motives, attitudes and personality that aren't mine.


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Comments


Robert Anderson
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Nice one!

I think that part of the issue could stem from the need for a basic paradigm shift as well. You mentioned early in your article the caparison of games at film at the 40 year mark and how tech is playing a role in the constraints of game evolution.

I think film had a slight advantage in this regard not because the tech was easier to develop but because of the invention of editing non-related images together into an apparent linier frame of reference. Film editing is an artform that is unique to film(video now too of course) and has not been seen in any other art form in history. The ability to inject emotion into a series of images largely based on the order and length of time you decide to keep them on screen for is very powerful and has shaped how we perceived mass entertainment for quite some time.

For example, an early film test done by Eisenstein (I think) had a single image of an old man looking at the camera repeat between a series of unconnected images. A woman bathing in a tub, a baby crying, a battle taking place and so on. The people watching the test felt the the image of the old man was different every time it cut back to him and that he was reacting specifically to the last image the viewer saw.

I agree with you that games should not try and mimc the experience of film. We need to collectively find that one fundamental element that allows us to break out from the narrative trap of seemingly linier story telling.

kevin wright
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Interesting article- I did enjoy the opener about the movie industry having great works 10-20 years in. But it is one I have heard before; "Gone with the wind" 's fame was not determined at it's inception, but rather decades later. Which makes your statement about whether gamng has such a comparison likely premature. Not to mention possibly subjective (movies passiv, games interactive, yet another item to add to the mix).



A comment near the end of your piece: "the need to hand-generate most of our assets"- do you suggest that they generate themselves? Whatever happened to the value of craft in code, art and design? You want to push discourse about innovation, and working harder not smarter, I am up for that. But this feels more bashing. I'm sorry, but trying to dismiss and devalue development (40 years give or take) in one fell swoop (and as a blanket statement) is - well, you gain no points in this area. Makes me wonder if you are a developer or more of an academic/journalist: Cred and Personality Hit: -10.

Chris Embry
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I agree whole-heartedly. We need to define "narrative" in games as "what the player does," rather than "what the writer says happens."

Tomiko Gun
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40 years old



First 10 years - has trouble displaying eight colors and producing audio bleeps



11th-20th year - industry crashed; still an enthusiast, closed, extreme niche market



21st-30th year - revival of home console market, kiddie titles and adolescent fantasies, a few gems here and there.



31st-35th year - tech maturing, audience becoming more varied, but the main focus is still mainly on topics and tropes that interests adolescent boys



36th+ - finally, tech is on the point of diminishing returns, the audience is extremely varied, more genres for all types of tastes, a healthy indie scene, etc.



Video games are still at its infancy.

Dave Endresak
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We just went through this with Ian's post so my and other peoples' disagreements with your assertions are recently documented there.



Film relied on live performance adaptations and audiences during its growth period so that is not a proper comparison.



Without story and character, I have little reason to play a game... any game.



That said, I (and many others) want to play games with characters I (or we) empathize with.



In other words, claims that a character does not do or behave as I (or we) would in circumstances as they are established in game means nothing aside from the fact that such a work is not for me (or us). Instead, we look for a different work. The same is true for any medium. Gone With The Wind is not a great film in my personal view; I vastly prefer Wizard Of Oz from the same period, or other works, for that matter. Not that I hate Gone With The Wind... it just isn't that great for me, personally.



Here's an idea for those who "hate story in games" - don't play a game focused on story and character. Or at least not one with story and/or character(s) who you do not empathize with. Or play the many arcade style action games, puzzle games, etc that are more about competing for high score than immersive, emotional experience. That's diversity, and the industry has it, at least on a global level.



Tomiko, keep in mind that the industry only crashed in America and the English market. In Japan, it never crashed. I'd also argue that the PC market never really crashed, per se, even in the English market.

Nilson Carroll
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People talk more and more about this everyday, but I still don't think it's something we can argue about. People play Xeongears and Xenosaga for the story specifically. Why all this bashing on game script writers? I'm all for in-depth sandbox games, and I agree that in thr future these games will be even better, but I would hate to see great storyline games to disappear.

Michael B
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I have to agree with Robert. I have had tirades from various colleagues and friends, in and out of the industry, regarding cutscenes. The people who seem to enjoy them are primarily higher ups that want to show off and feel that they are almost filmmakers, or watched one too many CG movies over the weekend. As one avid gamer friend of mine said/screamed, "Mike! Why can't I get past this! Do something about it! You're in games! I WANT TO PLAY THE F'N THING! I DIDN'T BUY THIS TO WATCH A MOVIE!" To which someone on the screen began to explain the back story and fade into almost, a decent cinematic, where he continued his tirade, this time directly to the TV and the character, "I DON'T CARE! LET ME PLAY THE GAME!"



Now, I don't mind a short scene, short narrative, about a paragraph long, or a nice intro at the start, or a few in between, but when you cannot pass them, or they go on for more than about a minute, I get a little miffed. I am here to play a game, the game should easily set the story itself, and the intentions of it's creators. The story should be basically obvious, otherwise, why would you buy the game?

JoseArias NikanoruS
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I totally agree with you on everything but on little thing...



I do agree that one of the main strengths of VideoGames is the power "to choice" that the player have and that we should encourage it. But also, I think there is room in our medium to allow for more determined stories. I had a lot of fun with games that have linear stories and I know I enjoyed the feeling of being said plumber or that I had such a great time "reading" the story of all those characters against the mad clown. I think both approaches have great advantages and another great strength of our medium is that we can do both (not always at the same time or in the same game, of course). Right now we aren't that good at either but... it's only a matter of time.

Josh Foreman
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@ Robert: Yes, I was trying to say that film had advantages that we don't.



@ Kevin: Good point about classics generally being determined to be classics much later. I don't doubt that there have been games that in 60 years will be considered classics. But I'll bet the 'story' aspects will induce cringes.



As to my 'cred and personality hit', I think you may be misunderstanding what I mean by "hand-generated assets." As a game artist I hand-generate assets all day long. Then I go home and generate more. I love the art and craft. (For the record I've worked in the biz for 14 years on games including Descent 3, Alter Echo, Red Faction and Guild Wars.) What I'm talking about is a future where we have smart systems for extrapolating an artist's vision into a multitude of props. There is an excellent book on the subject called Infinite Game Universe. http://www.amazon.com/Infinite-Game-Universe-Mathematical-Develop
ment/dp/1584500581 (Well, I guess a lot of programmers have problems with it, but I find the concepts alluring.) So, right now we just don't have the man-power to create a whole city with buildings that you can go in each one with realistic details, houses, furniture, etc. We are forced to contrive reasons why you can't go and do all sorts of things. Once we have good systems for intelligently and creatively taking an artist's concepts and rearranging them sensibly, we will no longer need these contrivances. This is already happening to a small degree in many games. For example, in creating levels for Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2 we level artists create Zone Files which is a list of different types of trees, grasses, pebbles, etc, and those get seeded into the zones we place so we don't have to hand place a billion assets. There are programs that take basic tree shapes and change trunk and branch length randomly. This is basically what I'm talking about. Changing the role of the artist from a grunt worker to a conceptual visual director.



@ Tomiko: You bring up some good points. I agree that comparing the film and game industries is an imperfect match for many reasons. But it's done all the time and hopefully serves the purpose of my point which is that our general immaturity as a medium is to blame for our over-dependence on cinematic techniques.



@ Dave: "Without story and character, I have little reason to play a game... any game."



Is this literally true? You have no interest in Chess, cards, sports, Tetris, or racing games?



"That said, I (and many others) want to play games with characters I (or we) empathize with."



I understand this. And I'm not against having empathetic characters in games. I'm against being told "Now you do this thing and say that thing which makes this guy mad for that reason... NOW FIGHT!!!" If I'm going to make this guy mad at me for that reason I want to be the one who chooses that. Right now we can't make a game world where EVERY choice is up to the player, and hence our reliance on cinematic storytelling.



"Here's an idea for those who "hate story in games" - don't play a game focused on story and character."



The point of this article is not to whine about things I don't like. I'm not saying "I hate anime" or "I hate puzzle games". I'm hoping to contribute to a movement that is about casting a vision for our industry that takes us out of the shadow of more established art forms that we look to for inspiration. Robert brought up the power of editing and the impact it had on film that caused it to really be it's own thing as opposed to being just a filmed version of a play or orchestra. My point is that I think our reliance on cinematic technique is retarding the development of our own unique "editing", whatever that may look like. I think it (the game/cinema hybrid) was a great transitional form, but will be considered a vestigial organ 60 years from now. Again, to put a point on it: If you got to design a game for the Holodeck, would you take control of the player and put cinematics in it?



@ Nison: "Why all this bashing on game script writers?"



I hope I'm not bashing anyone! I have many game writer friends.



"I would hate to see great storyline games to disappear. "



I would counter that if you could play in the Holodeck for a day you wouldn't give a damn about the storyline. I think the gaming masses have been lulled into thinking this is the best there is. And we are content to keep eating the swill that we are fed. And to be very clear, I'm not saying that our cinematics are awful because of a lack of talent. (Though as in every industry we have a few truly talented folks, mostly average ones, and a few real bad ones.) It's really the technology... no wait.. that's not true. Squaresoft makes hollywood quality cinematics and they are still awful. Perhaps it's as Tomiko said, "the main focus is still mainly on topics and tropes that interests adolescent boys".



@ Micheal: "I don't mind a short scene, short narrative, about a paragraph long"



Yes, these are tolerable. But again, I'm not complaining here because I don't like this or that. I play all sorts of games with cinematics and I'm not punching walls in rage or anything. But I think our energies ought to be put towards transferring the emotional content that cinematics are supposed to be relating into the game-world. What is it that these short narratives or paragraphs are communicating? And is there a way to take it out of the written word/cinematic form and placed into the game form?



@ Joseph: "I think there is room in our medium to allow for more determined stories."



Of course there is room. And the room is packed because group-think has ushered our industry into it. We have been conditioned to assume that certain emotions, ideas, and concepts are BEST told through a non-interactive form. I'm saying we should challenge that conditioning. Of course all games are "determined" in a sense through the gameplay mechanics and the setting. The real issue is how we want to present the player and their Agency in that world of mechanics. Right now we are bifurcating the experience into "story" and "play" sections. But I think there will emerge better ways to "determine" a player experience.

David Evans
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Great article re narrative and games. The best game narratives are a distant second their mechanics, just look at sports - baseball, football etc.



The technology for movies was 60 years old when Gone With The Wind was released.



Movies didn't have synchronized sound until 1929, 50 years after motion picture technology was developed.



The first narrative feature film wasn't made until 20 years after the technology was developed.



Going on Tomiko Gun's timeline for the games industry, it's about on par with the movie business at an equivalent age.

Brian Shurtleff
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@ Nison: I don't think most game writers would be offended by this article at all-- besides maybe the inflamatory title, although Josh quickly clarifies what he means by 'story' to neutralize that effect almost immediately.



Truth is, many game writers I know are in total agreement with his view here-- sure, cutscenes are (currently) a game writer's bread and butter, but the ones truly passionate about storytelling in games know that cutscenes are pretty much the worst way of going about telling stories in games.

It's just that the alternatives either simply don't exist yet, or are a much harder sell right now.

Tim Keenan
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I agree that our industry is young, and I'm excited about the places that story in games will go. I also agree that games which rely on atmosphere rather than the protagonist's narrative can be powerful. I feel that Bioshock was pure atmosphere and about "other" peoples stories (for me), not my avatar's.



However, when you remove character from a protagonist, ironically I feel you can disconnect me from the world rather than creating a stronger bond. I remember that it always bothered me how in Dragon Age my character never spoke, while in Mass Effect he did. While sometimes I didn't like the way he spoke (might not have been how I'd have said it), I'd still rather him speak with a sense of character than as a cold robot without a voice. Basically, sometimes it's more fun to be forced to play a unicorn that has a strong sense of character than as a silent protagonist. Not only that but I find that it forces me to be more imaginative sometimes. In Gears of War I distinctly remember hearing Marcus Phoenix walk and talk, and suddenly instead of being afraid of the hoards of aliens, I took on the mentality that I was gonna kick their asses. This was fun because it might not have been how I'd have perceived the game had I infused him with my own personality, or even one I'd made up on my own.



As always it varys from game to game. But I do agree that it will be fun to see us make more games which stray from traditional media.



Thanks for the blog!

Tim Keenan
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Just thought I'd throw this on here, an article about silent protagonists:



http://www.gamesetwatch.com/2010/09/defying_design_i_have_no_mout
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