In light of the "Nacht des nacherzählten Spiels" (Night of the retold game) https://www.facebook.com/events/544571355612922/ that will take place on 26 October in Berlin, I thought it might be appropriate to share a perspective on story and storytelling in games. Because what better measure is there than to listen to players' stories, recounting their experiences of games played? What stuck with them, the story or.. something else more akin to gameplay?
And sure, not everybody will 'get' everything about a story, and some will make up their own interpretations. Take David Lynch's movies or a random abstract piece of art. But with most videogames our biggest issue is worrying if players want and can skip dialog and cutscenes, so it's usually a different angle. But that also points to how story in games doesn't work the same way...
So. I always thought I simply picked up my opinion on story and storytelling in games from one of Chris Crawford's lectures, but a couple of weeks ago it was pointed out to me that he apparently means something different than I do. Alright, so it might be worth the trouble of scribbling some of it down then.
Street Fighter is a game that has great storytelling.
And maybe Superman 64 and Family Dog told some of the grandest stories of frustration in the history of all mankind.
I know, but there is a point to it.
You've probably heard of the troubles writers and developers have with integrating story into a game. That's the traditional view on stories and storytelling. But it's not the only interpretation.
The basic think I took from Chris Crawford was that Story is the static data. Maybe Setting is a better word if you shove more of what is traditionally called Story into Setting, or something. But let's not quibble over terminology now where we're still learning to understand this medium and things are so unclear.
The storytelling part is actually what the game does and allows the player to do, the interaction with the static data. I guess you could interpret this as some of the books a player can find and read inside of one of the elder scrolls games. Or the audiologs from bioshock. Or maybe even more traditional exposition like cutscenes and monologues or half-dialogues.
But from the perspective I'm trying to describe, these are actually pretty weak examples since the interaction is so limited or pretty much nonexistent. I'm not saying that to be disrespectful, I remember the world's end, the opera house and ultros pretty well from final fantasy 6 for instance. This has nothing to do with respect or disrespect, it's trying to look at things in a different light.
So, I claimed Street Fighter has great storytelling. I'll explain why.
What do the players do in that game? They fight. They fight and fight and then fight some more.
The story? The static story data? Well there's a backstory for each character. Maybe you're interested in how Ryu is always looking to get stronger, or that Ken is rich and married or perhaps you feel sympathy for the green fucker that electrocutes people because he was in a plane crash somewhere in the jungle and he survived all these years on his own just to grow up into a horribly mutated man looking for his mother? Or that there are secret corporations with evil intentions trying to exploit the best fighters in the world?
What is really going on is that the story is nothing more than: There's a fight between two people. All of those backstories are really low level, very vaguely contextual to the fight. The real story is found in the specifics of the fight. The parts the player can interact with.
And that's not the character's history, it's the character's body. How does it move, how fast does it move, in what way does it move, what do these moves do, what can I use them for, what properties do these moves have, stuff like that. Which is all still static data for the most part. This all serves far more directly to influence the core story of: a fight between two people.
The storytelling is the interaction between these elements. As soon as you have two human players getting accustomed to their characters, learning what they do, they are exploring the static data. And they will use this knowledge to interact with each other, and thereby creating their own narrative together. And the more the players start to understand and master this, the more something magical happens. I think this is because interacting is also exploring each other's understanding and perspective on the static data, in effect exploring each other's minds. Are they fooling you? Are they pretending to fool you? Are they pretending to be pretending to fool you? etc..
And loads and loads of people talk about this lots and lots in great detail, a great introduction to this are the UltraChen TV videos for example, which can be found on their youtube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/UltraChenTV/videos. Try looking at match analyses or "first attack". Or "level 3 focus" if you want something more in depth. The first 5 minutes of this is probably a good allround example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aRUE_ksaObY They also really can talk for hours just on where a player positions his or her character on the screen. Street Fighter did a great job making everything, the tiniest detail, have consequences.
What is great to take note of as well, is that as soon as the other player is taken away and replaced by an artificial opponent, the game is nowhere near as fun. There is no magical bond, there are no mind games. Maybe capcom wasn't good at programming good character control algorithms (it's more likely to be very hard to program a noticeable sense of anticipation and adaption to player behavior in a fair way, something which comes natural to humans) or maybe it's because exploring an algorithm as a player is just not something humans like or appreciate.
And sure, you could use this as an argument to say that Street Fighter is bad at storytelling because it's the players that actually tell the story, or make up and share a story between their minds. And I think that's a fair point, but if you wanted to force a clear distinction you could probably say that the story is just: A fight (with all the character backstories etc.), and the storytelling is the movement and actions of the characters.
So, where does this perspective leave the traditional story? And what do we do with all those backstory elements?
I don't know. To me it's like flavouring, atmosphere, which is also very important (for me it really stands out in games like super metroid). And for many people this can be an instant turn on or turn off. This may also be what people mean with books when they separate literature from pulp.
Also I don't think it's a great idea to overload words like story and storytelling, novelists think about storytelling a great deal and these things are very established. So maybe we should use different or new words, or just put "interactive" in front of them.
But this probably explains why traditional writing and story is so often just an afterthought when it comes to videogames.
In any case, I hope this illustrated a different view on story and storytelling. It is certainly not the only one but maybe it helps to contribute to your own views.
I do actually still wonder if, measured absolutely, people talk more about traditional story material, like: "mario is trying to save princess peach from bowser" or more about the interactive experiences they have, like: "I cannot get past the ice level, it's so damn hard and that stupid Birdo hits me all the time!"
Thanks for reading.