Systems vs. Stories: A Response
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Mr. Dan Whitehead over at Eurogamer published last week another entry in the long running battle of “Systems vs. Stories”.
While I agreed with many of the sentiments expressed in that article, it seemed to me that the core of Mr. Whitehead’s arguments were based on the premise that “events that don’t require player input” = “stories”, and “events that do” = “systems”. This is somewhat problematic for many reasons, not least of which is that it’s entirely possible to have largely pre-written—or “scripted”, as Mr. Whitehead phrased it—stories that are systems driven.
Fallout 1 is the game I always point to as an example that does this exceptionally well. FO1 works primarily because of the strictness of its systems—how hard it “pushes back”, to once again borrow from Mr. Whitehead. In FO1, significant restrictions mean that developing one set of skills is always done at the real expense of all the other skills.
At the same time, many of the game’s essential narrative choices (challenges, really) are skill based (that is, they require skill checks). Coupled with the relatively punishing difficulty of combat survival, these conditions create serious, system-wide competing demands for every single skill and attribute point.
A low level cap (20) and extremely limited opportunities to increase base character attributes compound the tension. So, unlike Planescape: Torment, for a comparative instance—or even FO1’s sequels for that matter—the player can’t simply grind herself into omnipotence. (PST has attribute checks for plot crucial dialogs, too. It’s just that they basically don’t matter.)
As such, narrative (or, indeed, any sort of) progress in FO1 is always a matter of juggling mechanical priorities. Systemic, mechanical, exclusive choices about character build directly become systemic, mechanical, exclusive choices about the story. By causing dialog demands to genuinely impact all the other build considerations (and vice versa), and by giving skills mechanical potential both inside and outside of dialogs, FO1, for the most part, is able make story-mechanics integration transcend mere disconnected, standalone events or one-time pass/fail conditions.
I’m trying to avoid sophistry or pedantry here, but really, what actually does a script do? It takes an input and returns an output. What we perceive to be “systemic”, then, is really just a bunch of co-dependent scripts—layer in enough scripts and it begins to appear systemic.
Let me repeat that. The number and randomness of the scripts involved are pretty much the only things that change an event from being “scripted” to being “systemic”.
Obviously, it’s true that you can have “stories” that unfold in games without any input from the player. But it’s also true that the most compelling events in “systems” equally happen completely independently of the player. This independence is precisely what makes them compelling—what causes them to be perceived as stories. And again, none of this means that you can’t also have “stories” that require player input in tangible ways.
In the modern sense, though, narration requiring player input has fundamentally been simplified to a state which makes Mr. Whitehead’s arguments against “story” entirely valid. They are often no more than forced dichotomies isolated from the rest of gameplay, or non-simulative “choice and consequence” chains. These divergences exist either purely for their own sake or to artificially inflate replayability, as opposed to existing in order to systemically simulate believable reactions and outcomes—existing because they are part of the systems of the game.
As much as I dislike employing an overused scapegoat, my opinion in this case is that this type of divergence is almost certainly a result of prioritizing “accessibility”. The thinking, it seems, is that we don’t want to punish players in their narrative options because of character build choices that they’ve made. (Honestly, it’s more or less come to the point that we don’t even want to punish the player in combat, or “actual gameplay”, for these decisions either.)
And that, for all intents and purposes, is the “modern” divergent narrative—excised of all mechanical consideration.
But that’s not all. Taking out mechanical wrangling from these decisions makes them eminently boring—unchallenging. The “modern” response? Just double down. Manufacture difficulty by removing the player’s ability to make informed decisions. Force them to pick between two unknowns. Then call it “moral ambiguity” to disguise the fact that there’s about as much player decision-making involved as resorting to flipping a coin.
I said that as if I believe this entire line of thinking to be mistaken, which isn’t actually true. It doesn’t really make sense to hold players accountable for failing mechanical requirements they had no way of anticipating. And having to try to pre-empt these requirements by dumping points in attributes you don’t really need feels wasteful and unfair. It’s precisely this type of thing that causes players to just hoard unspent character points. Or, when the player does decide to gamble by investing in attributes she thinks might eventually come into play, well, gambling is precisely what it is—just another flip of the coin.
I think at this point in the discussion, it would help to touch upon a hypothetical solution that attempts to address these issues. How can we maintain “accessibility”—that is, lower the psychological barrier to mechanical commitments—without reducing mechanical complexity or tension in systems based scripted narratives?
Something I’ve discovered in the thousands of hours I’ve spent playing RPGs is that, generally speaking, I don’t actually care what narrative results the game gives me as long as the course of action I’ve taken embodies the identity I am trying to build in the game. Negative or positive, give me that chance again and I’d probably just do the same thing, because the principle of action and my sense of self (either as the player or the player character) are stronger than the judgment made by the game upon that decision. If the game “rewards” me for it, so much the better.
Let’s extrapolate from this. Say that we base fundamental aspects of the build mechanics straightforwardly on worldview and personality. For instance, consider the classic offensive/defensive, attacking/turtling, expanding/entrenching behavioral split. These are fairly deep, consistent preferences—usually one style is strongly favored over the other for each individual player.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that these preferences stem from the familiar extrovert/introvert personality orientation. Applying this to a game with path-finding and survival mechanics, say that you can invest character points in extroversion or introversion, which would then translate into differing approaches for affecting self-rescue from a hostile environment.
An extroverted approach seeks to gain as much ground as possible, taking serious risks if necessary, in order to achieve extraction from said environment. Morale/willpower is gained when risks are vindicated, and lost when the player behaves in too stationary a fashion. On the other hand, an introverted approach is going to excel at creating shelters, extracting every last usable object from each area, while receiving penalties to movement. Take too many risks, and the player’s morale will plummet. Specializing in one orientation or the other unlocks access to extreme abilities, like being able to hunt bears or alligators with a sharpened stick (for the extrovert) or being able to create blazing fires out of a handful of wet hay (for the introvert).
Taking this to dialog integration, then, instead of basing dialog checks on specific proficiencies, what if we based them on the strength and orientation of the player character’s personality or approach? An introvert with a liberal leaning is probably going to be more successful at persuading an NPC with a similar outlook than an NPC that’s stridently conservative and extroverted. Similarly, an introverted NPC might be more open to process-oriented solutions coming from an introverted PC than to goal-oriented proposals coming from an extroverted PC. Etc.
It’s tricky though; once you start going into behavioral generalizations, you risk introducing implicit judgments and cultural stereotypes that can alienate the player (already, the idea that introverts can’t be goal-oriented or open to risk-taking is pretty absurd). As well, it’s hard to say what kind of reaction the player will have when a character build so strongly based on personality fails.
Anyway, the actual point of this hypothetical proposal is that simply by changing a few descriptors, we can make what are ultimately still just skill checks seem far more deeply integrated into the overall systems of gameplay, as well as make the systems seem more firmly integral to the scripted narration.
In the end, I can’t say with complete certainty that I’m not intentionally missing Mr. Whitehead’s point here. I mean, I get what he’s saying. That the most interesting narratives in games happen through the interplay of rules, not through dictation. It’s just I can’t shake the feeling that the idea that “storytelling” and “interaction” are mutually exclusive is misguided—or more accurately, reactionary.
Is it possible that the desire to differentiate games from films as “unique” is just another manifestation of insecurity in our favorite medium? A thought process still operating under the shadow of the accusation that games don’t matter? Why actually do we need this distinction, except to be able to say (as if we can’t already) that games are culturally significant in their own right, too? And aren’t we doing games a disservice if we stigmatize certain forms of expression within them?
It’s a difficult situation, and it’s complicated by the fact that cultural significance does indeed matter. But I think that a real danger exists in trying to escape the perceived clutches of the influence of other media, leading games to be limited to not-films and not-books—that is, still defined by other media—instead of being whatever form of expression that best suits the situation and experience the game is trying to communicate. And that downward spiral would be truly counterproductive.