There's something I highly respect and value that I need to make clear up front. It's your opinion, your feelings, and your personal story. Seems like a strange way to open an article about the craft of stories in video games and other media. But, believe me, stories are perhaps the most important tool we have for understanding the world and each other.
I have a degree in English with a concentration in creative writing. So, story design is my area of study. Over the years I've found that many talk as if they understand what a story is and how its parts work, yet their statements are far from anything substantive. Before one can talk about what a story is, it helps to be clear about the parts of a story.
I started the Critical-Gaming blog by creating a bridge between the theories of literary critique and game design. I figured that starting with something familiar (stories) we could understand game design more easily. From there I created and defined many terms and explained why descriptors like "good" are utterly imprecise and unhelpful. The idea is by breaking down every facet of game design, we can be more clear about what's happening design wise, which would in turn shed light on why we like or dislike a particular aspect of a game. I think this is a solid approach. So it's time to do it again with stories.
The following is a universal system to break down and compare all types of stories. While I've come up with some revolutionary and radical game design theories in the past, I believe tackling story design will be much simpler. Our intuitions about the craft of storytelling should go a long way here. So, be patient if it all seems somewhat obvious.
To best understand stories, we must understand three main categories: content, execution, and discourse.
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A story is nothing more than a series of events. Before we worry about deeper meaning or execution, we must focus on the fundamental details or the content.
- Setting. The place where the story is set. Everything from the universe, world, country, town, and time period make up the setting.
- Characters. "The representation of a person in a narrative or dramatic work of art" wiki. Flat, round, foil, realistic, absurd, lead, support, human, animal, ethereal; Characters come in all varieties. Realism is not best type of character. Rather, being relatable or functional to the story are qualities that can be just as, or more, important.
- Plot. "A literary term for which the events that make up a story, particularly as they relate to one another in a pattern, a sequence, through cause and effect, or by coincidence" wiki. Action and conflict are two categories that can fit inside plot.
- Complexity/Simplicity. Details create complex stories. Some tales are rich with many characters, locations, and back stories about everything. Other stories do very well with very few of these elements.
- Theme. General or abstract ideas, messages, or morals. Motifs (reoccuring symbolic elements) can develop the theme.
Stories are more than a collection of details or a list of qualities. Whether linear or non-linear, how the events are presented is storytelling or execution. If the execution is too slow, too obvious, too jumbled, or too fast even the best story content can fail.
- Efficiency. It's all about doing more with less. Conveying more story content with fewer scenes, lines of dialog, loctions, actions, events, and fewer repeated scenarios is efficient storytelling.
- Coherence. It's possible to take a completely simple and straight forward story, cut it up, and rearrange it so that it's incredibly difficult to understand. Since storytelling is the process of presenting narrative events, the order order and the delivery shapes how coherent the work is.
- Pacing. Small poems can be like emotionally charged snapshots. Short stories tend to feature a small wave of exposition, action, climax, and resolution. Long running series, novels, and others large stories generally contain multiple "waves." How quickly these waves come and go and how steep they are is a simple way to think of pacing.
- Style/Language. On first thought, the obvious idea here is verbal languages like English or Japanese. But there are also colloquial terms, lexicon, body language, cultural symbols, inside jokes, and other examples that qualify. Style is very broad category. Any way you of conveying information that you can think of can contribute to the style of storytelling.
- Medium. Every medium has pros and cons. As a result, every medium has developed particular methods of storytelling based on their strengths. While these methods work great for each medium, they tend not to work so well in others.
- Poetry excels in concentrated text where every punctuation, letter, and formatting decision matters. Rhythm and form help to create layered contrast and juxtaposition.
- Short stories do well presenting snapshots and slices of narrative. By selecting a few key moments, rich story waves can be conveyed in a relatively compact space.
- Novels are large works filled with many details. With so much text, writing to the fine degree that poems and some shorts stories feature isn't practical. The delivery in novels tends to be more direct. (In general, written language excels at introspection because reading text mimics inner thought).
- Graphic Novels/Manga/Comics use a combination of images to convey information and blocks of text to where the images fall short. There's always a balance between whether information will be shown or told.
- Plays/Musicals use lots of dialog and staging (positioning). Expressive, visual storytelling is important. Also, explanatory or expository text is sparingly used.
- Films/Movies are similar to plays in that they focus on visuals and dialog. Films have a lot more flexibility when it comes to visual presentation. Multiple cameras, special effects, and editing give films the edge.
- Video games often borrow technqiues from other mediums. Some offer poetry (Braid), short stories (Lost Odyssey), novels (Wow? Halo? Mass Effect, Ni No Kuni), graphic novel like presentation (XIII, Metal Gear Acid, inFAMOUS), play like performances (Facade, FF6), and movie like scenes (Heavenly Sword, GTA4, Metal Gear Solid 4). Some pull it off better than others. But ultimately, the strength of the medium comes from interactivity.
- Dynamic. Video games aren't the only source for dynamic storytelling. From choose your own adventure books to plays that work off the audience, dynamics refers to how the variable/interactive elements of a story.
Though we may not do it consciously, we're always evaluating the quality of a story based on how it compares to everything else we've experienced (especially other stories). In other words, we're constantly looking for originality. On the one hand we're drawn toward the familiar. Yet, on the other we crave the new. It's a tricky line that most of us don't realize we walk.
- Creativity. Many people are turned off by copycats. It seems that the higher we value creativitiy, the more we devalue replicas. All art can be thought of as the reflection, repacking, and repurposing of life (which includes art). It can be hard appreciating a story for its 10% creativity when you've seen the other 90% before in another work. The better we understand the design of stories, the better we can determine how unique one work is to another.
- Series. Many series are a collection of smaller complete stories (within the same medium). Naturally, we evaluate the quality of later entries by how they keep in line with the series. However, it's important to consider the merits of a story as an individual entry.
- Transmedia. Danielprimed puts it best: "Trans-media storytelling is a concept first put forward by academic Henry Jenkins in his book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide to define storytelling told over multiple forms of media. The crux of the idea is that each form of media supports the others and provides the reader with different, medium-specific viewpoints in which to interpret the text as a whole. Naturally, these types of texts are rich in content and artistic styles, commanding a dedicated user base who are required to spend more money to invest in the entire narrative web. In this regard, building a trans-media franchise is like building a universe."
- Resonance/Harmony. This is a measure of how well different facets of a story (listed above) enhance each other. For example, if there's a story called Cycles and the theme is cycles there could be harmony in the following ways: The conceit is of a futuristic world that slowly phases through time cycling back to previous years. The setting is a giant space station ring that spins in place. The characters are criminals afraid of relapsing back into the life they run away from. The characters battle with boomerangs like weapons. The pacing and scene progression runs on a cyclical day/night cycle. All of these elements would resonate or harmoize nicely with the theme.
If a story has one of these elements great. If it doesn't, it's no big deal. One habit that we must move away from is looking for the details that make a "bad story." Like with game design, the real impact of a story emerges from all of the smaller pieces. Because this process is so complicated, it not very helpful or accurate to look at an individual detail, or lack of a detail, then judge the whole. A better way to discuss "bad" stories is to explain how various facets actually undermine or deconstruct its better qualities. More on this later.
In part 2, I give examples, lots and lots of examples because that's the best way to grasp these concepts.