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Who is the author of a game?
by Trinh Elise on 11/26/13 06:14:00 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.

 

I have worked for several game companies, with very, very, very different philosophies. I also enjoy playing many games. As a writer, I have done some work for different medias.

The more I talk to people, the more I wonder:

God, where are you?

Nah, 'kidding.

But something not so far from that:

Who is the auThor of a game?

Oops, wrong caps – yes this joke is completely lame – whatever. You may think this is a shitty question from an aspirant Author who is trying to be smart. Nah, I am not – smart – and I am not an Author either. But as the industry is growing, and growing, like a beautifully ugly monster... Well, asking if there is an author somewhere and who he might be, it is just asking if in this big mess, there are some guys, with some visions, with some greater expectations... or not.

 

God only knows

Let us be simple and short: an author is someone who makes choices to defend a vision.

I will not tell you who is the author for now, because I am a good writer and I know that teasing your audience is very important.

I will also mainly focus on storytelling... because it is part of my job and it is quite fancy these days. Hehe.

So let us start with what a "creator", an author, can do.

In any other media, storytellers have to choose which character(s) we will follow, which character(s) will lead the story and interact with the world they created. Once they have chosen, they define a specific charaterization that serve their purpose and voilà ! They are Mighty Gods who have full control of their universes.

In a game, it cannot be the same. First of all, an "author" have 2 choices:

  • being the Mighty God of an universe, by designing a specific path for the player, which is embodied by a specific character... because the Author is the Author – with a very big f*** A... ffirmative

  • not being the Author but the Creator of the game – with a big but nice curved C, like a hug, or legs or... well, whatever – who lets the players use their free will as much as they can. The Creator lets them shape their own story, their own character and their own "message", or meaning, among chaos! The players are the real Authors. The Creator is only here to give them some tools to make it happen. It is the "maieutics" choice.

Any "in-between" will be hard to handle, and often disappointing for the player.

But authors/creators/whatevers often look for something "in-between", especially when they want to tell a story.

For example, "open world" games usually have a main linear story and subquests. So the writer is the Mighty God of the main plot, but random and/or independant subquests can generate some chaos in the game. The players can choose between a linear path if they want a story-driven path, or design their own path/story through subquests.

But the problem is that usually you cannot play both options without feeling frustrated at some point: main quests and subquests are often contradictory. If they are somehow linked, NPCs create awkward dialogues which disrupt the famous "suspension of disbelief" we are looking for in stories. Because they have no brain – no real memory.

If subquests and main quest are not connected enough, you often lose interest for one of them... In the end, as players, we are usually torn between two paths: the one with no freedom but the promise of a good and well-written life – in the best case scenario – or the one with more freedom, but no grandeur, no main focus, no grand scheme, only small shitty objectives.

(Story of our lives, maybe.)

Moreover, there are often ways to force the player to play the main story – by gameplay – because the main story probably cost a lot and the Authors do not want you to miss that. In a game universe, the main plot is like the History of it, and the subquests are the gossips.

Indeed, everyone prefers gossips; but making some sense between them is almost impossible.

But how can you create a chaos that could make sense in the end for the player, without designing any specific path in it?

Let us see about the "maieutic choice". Used in God-like games.

With a Tamagotchi, as a player, you are interacting with a little creature that expects things from you. You, the player, have to feed it, to raise it, to teach it some tricks. The way it evolves depends on you, and only you. There is no real "intermediate" between you and the character (the NPC) in the game. There is no real "playable character". You are not pretending to be someone else. You are the player, and you play a game. End of story?

This is also what we can see in games... where you control every aspect of a civilization, an army, a city, a whole world or, let us say, a theme park.

 

(Such a good game) All the non-playable characters are talking to you directly, and you have a full control over your world. As a player, your part in it is to be... God. The Author! The world is defined by your game actions and decisions in a specific setting.

Thus, players are facing a system designed by a Creator... and create their own story in it. Not a "conventional" story though. But building something, protecting it, facing obstacles – enemies, lack of resources etc. – without being sure that you are going to win in the end... Is it not a story after all?

But can we let the players have a god-like power AND deliver them a good story at the same time? The big problem is: you mostly tell a story by actions/decisions made by a character. In a game, actions/decisions are ment to be fulfilled by the players. So players have to make the story happen somehow. How?

 

Who's telling? Who's seeing?

If an Author can be a Mighty God or just a Creator, what about the player? Can he be the Creator? A Mighty God? An Author? Or is he just an actor? These questions lead us to the point of view aspect. Normally, a point of view determines the whole structure of a narration. It also has a certain meaning: as a reader/a viewer, being omniscient is not the same as being in someone's head or a spectator. In the end, you do not live the same story at all.

In games, it is quite rare that point of view, or as we say, "focalization" should have a real impact on the story.

Games usually rely on cutscenes to tell good stories... Focalization is usually something that matters for gameplay; not for the story.

Authors of games have to choose the focalization carefully... especially when they want to tell a story. Today, when you play a game with a branching storyline... There are two things that may disrupt your experience:

  • you do not know what the consequences of your choice will be: you are not omniscient

AND

  • you cannot identify with the character: you usually do not know who he really is and what he would have chosen. It is not his point of view either.

You often do not have enough information regarding the whole plot or the character itself to make choices that really matter. 

 

It seems that in many games, sometimes you are the "director" of a movie but without knowing what movie you are shooting; sometimes you are an "actor" who does not know his lines and has to pick up dialogues at certain points. The whole game just switches between these 2 roles. 

With branching stories, games often try to let the player live one question: "If I were him/her, what would I do?" But this question is quite biased and way more complicated than it appears to be. Especially the "if I were him/her" part of the question: can you really be him/her? In any other story, you are driven by a story, by a character... In games, the player is the driver.

Finally, as a writer/author/whatever, when you tell a story, you want to surprise your audience. But you cannot do that if you give too much information to the player. Why? Because knowledge is power. It is even too powerful. It can create chaos!

But can you play a game without knowing all the rules of it?

 

What is the meaning of all this?

Nowadays, when you ask if there is any author in a game, people think the question is related to stories in video games (if a game needs a story or not). The usual fights gameplay VS story, mechanics VS emotions, art VS industry and yeah... yeah... whatever.

I am (kind of) a writer but I think a game does not need to tell a story to be a good game. That does not mean there is no storytelling or, as we say, a real narration in any game. As in movies: all movies does not need a script to be movies. The narration and the Author questions are not related to any story matters. Not exactly. 

In fact, about the famous Gameplay VS Story combat, IMHO, the easiest way to think of it is: gameplay can create emotions in a game; story can give a meaning to them. They do not have to fight each other!

In a movie, editing generates emotions, it is its unique core language, something that no other media can achieve; still, you can choose to combine editing with a story or not. In literature: with words, with your writing style, you can tell a story... or not. (I love poetry.)

But, if we need to think about stories in games... Story can be part of the gameplay. For example, if branching dialogues are a main feature of a game, dialogues should be gameplay actions. Nothing more, nothing less. We could think about how the player can use timing, speed... They need a designed system, linked to all the other features of the gameplay.

Can you imagine a shooter with a gameplay like: choose between hitting the head, the torso or the foot - just pick up some answer and see what happens? Without letting you choose when, where and how you will do it? Without being challenged, without using most of your skills? (My bad, that is what QTE is all about...)

A good dialogue is about timing; about pace; about speed; about the range of your words, the tone of your voice, the way your body acts. You can attack or defend yourself. You can play it smooth, stealth, sneaky, you can fight with your words like a warrior. What you say is as much important as when and where and how you say it. 

Gameplay can also be thought of as a very special way to tell a story. But in this case, every gameplay aspect should be thought of as... narrative elements. Does it make any sense to have a character who wants to be the good guy for his family, to be responsible, but can kill people randomly, without any consequences?

Of course story can give a certain meaning to a gameplay... but any gameplay has its own meaning in itself. Because game design is about rules: what a player can do to win or to lose, and what he can win or lose. Those mechanics could be way more powerful than the simple: more points I win, less points I lose. In a world like ours, there is so much more to tell about those questions. I think that anyone who wants to be the Author of a game has to think carefully about these questions: what do I want my player to win? And what will he do to achieve it? Not only in terms of systems, but also in terms of meaning. (And if you want to be a Creator, you may let the player choose what he really wants to win and how.)

 

So who is the author of a game?

Someone who makes choices to defend a vision in a game.

I use the singular on purpose: it is one vision, even if it is a collaborative work. (Do not make me argue on that, it has been debated for ages already, for movies, TV shows etc.)

And any player can be one of the authors of a game, if wisely guided by a creative creator.

End of story?

 

 

To see further:

Focalization in 3D games

Are we ready for shorter game experience?

Empathy in Game Design, or Why Some People Like Beyond: Two Souls


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Comments


Hussain Patel
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U R GOOD RITTUR! :P

I enjoyed reading this so thank you! I think there is a lot of potential for sandbox like games (Skyrim, GTA etc...), especially with a buzz (or stronger buzz) about how to allow the player to make their own stories within a controlled environment. I imagine the next Skyrim or equivilant to have a smarter world, so that the NPCs know they are talking to a Thane or King or Theif or whatever rank you chose to become! Wouldn't it be amazing for the player to have created two characters; the King and Theif, and have them both in the same game world? (Ok it might break the suspension of disbelief but the player could create some unusual partnerships between characters they know really well)

Besides from this I got the hint from some of this that games don't need have a super deep life changing narrative? (One second scrolling up to check) "you can tell a story... Or not" (I know it's taken out of context so bah) it reminds me of an Oscar Wilde mentality (something for something's sake?) that not all literature or work needs to portray a complex emotion that reflects the degrading personality of society, instead make something that is fun (not saying that hard hitting literature isn't fun :D)

Trinh Elise
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Hey! Thanks for the comment :)
Being Thane and King or a Thief at the same time, well, some games have tried to let you play different characters in the same time (such as... Heavy Rain) I don't think it will break the suspension of disbelief: it is more about letting the player be the "director" - because with 2 characters, it means more knowledge of the whole world and... yeah, it could be quite interesting. :)

And finally, you can make something fun, something that portray a complex emotion that reflects the degrading personality of society, you can even do both - depends on your vision ;)

Jim Murphy
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Personally I create different characters for different paths I got 13 on PC alone , Wolfborn is just as good as being dragonborn , just different abilities are enhanced .



The beauty of the scrolls is You the purchaser can choose how you immerse yourself in an open world .
Yes you have a main quest , but essentially the character you have created is the story .
In this day an age of gaming , its been proven that those who want story focused game is one thing , genuine role playing is another
Bioware , EA, activision and others manipulate you choices for you , its a game with a story , but it NOT role playing in the true sense is , as conflicting yet various the paths maybe , the fact you can make genuine yet random decisions sets Bethesda whilst not perfect set them apart from the rest of the pretenders and why they win awards .

The future of gaming should be dictated by character creation by the punters paying for the game not the saturated marketed ,linear story driven ,3rd person developers that produce what is essentially an interactive animated movie release annually for regular cash flow purpose.

Robert Crouch
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The secret of games is that the player is not the character. A character driven game is built around the illusion that the player is in fact the character.

However, the character responds to limited verbs. I can't make my character say anything I want it to. I can't get him to pick up a rock and throw it at a bad guy if the rock isn't scripted to let you pick it up. I can't crawl over a fence. I can W, A, S and D. I can move my mouse and click my buttons.

You ask who is the author. I say it is the person who imparts their vision on some audience. The audience can even be themselves. A game rarely has a single author. The author crafts the narrative, but what is the narrative? I put a player on an empty field. I have authored the environment, I have told the story "There is an entity on an empty field". The player takes control of the keyboard, and he tells a story "The entity makes a few figure-eights, and then stops, the world ends." (because the game was lame and pointless). Who is the author? Both the designer and the player are authors. I created the initial environment, the player told the rest of the story in their actions.

You talk about QTEs. "Can you imagine a shooter with a gameplay like: choose between hitting the head, the torso or the foot - just pick up some answer and see what happens? Without letting you choose when, where and how you will do it? Without being challenged, without using most of your skills?"

The problem with QTEs is in my first statement. The problem with QTEs is that they shift the player's perspective so greatly that it's jarring. You realize that you're not the character, the subset of actions you have access to are much more limited than the actions you had access to a moment ago. This perspective shift makes you feel powerless. But a question is how much control did you really have before? It was less limited, but it was still limited. You couldn't stop Jason Brody from being a jerkhole.

A game can be thought of as a decision tree. Each frame, or at least each time that input is polled, you have another n paths you can go down where n is the combination of distinct inputs that you make. For some games this is infinite. For others it is finite assuming you don't consider restarting the game a continuation. For instance, if you don't consider pausing, world 1-1 of super mario brothers will terminate. You will either reach the end of the level or you will run out of time and lose all lives. The same can't be said for the whole game, because some paths will allow you to get infinite lives through creative shell bouncing. A player, if they chose, could perpetually collect lives and run the timer down and never terminate the game.

When you write a game, you define the domain. Is the game infinite? Will it terminate? How many decisions can be made per second? How many decisions can be made per frame? What output do I provide to the player? What agency do I provide to the player?

With the agency you provide to a player, the player tells a story. If you give her a quick time event, you give very limited agency, you give very limited authority. You say, here is a button. Did you press the correct button? Did you press the incorrect button? Did you not press a button? There are only 3 paths. Consider a frame in a shooter with a controller. You have two analog sticks, but we'll say that they each have essentially 100 steps along each axis. You have 10,000 potential positions on one stick, you have 10,000 potential positions on the other stick. You have say 10 more buttons that can be hit in any combination 1024, and maybe a D pad which can be one of 4 positions. In all, each frame you have some 400 billion potential input combinations. Not all of which would be valid or provide a unique result.

The player can tell far more stories in the latter situation than the former. To an extent you've provided them with more agency.

But consider another example like minecraft with keyboard and mouse. But remove the option to use mouselook. Put in old doom style rotation keys. In fact, limit inputs to WASD, for forward, back, and turning. Use space for jumping, control for activation, E for inventory and R/F for pan up and down. You have fewer inputs by orders of magnitude, (maybe 512 per frame) but the player can express more.

So why is that? It's because minecraft has more mutable state information than your average FPS. The FPS might have more fluid control than my doomminecraft, but I can leave a lasting impact in the latter. You might be able to display a more interesting dance in the former, but you can allow the environment to show many more things in the latter.

The person writing the game can put in story. This is their prerogative. The player uses the components the developer included as components to make their story. If I put an inaccessible cut scene into a game, is it part of the game? Or is it only part of the game when a player can experience it? If it's the latter, then am I really writing the game, or am I writing what could be part of the game, and defining it's likelihood.

In the QTE, I can expect that one of four options will take place. The player will succeed, the player will make an error, the player will not act, the game will turn off. I leave it up to the player to make that decision. If I write another event that never takes place, it doesn't really exist in the game. The player chooses which of my scenes will play out, if any. The player chooses from the scenes I've made available. I don't get to choose.

If I make a cinematic, I can expect one of two things will happen. The player will let it play out, or the player will terminate it. Maybe I give them the option, maybe the just turn off the power.

If I make a world, I define the limits of that world, and the player decides what to do with it, where to go. What cinematics to watch, what dialogs to display, which choices to make, whether to make choices at all.

So the answer to the question about who is the author is, with the player as the audience, those who have imparted their own vision on the player are the author. As the observer, (the player being an observer as well), the player is the author, working with the tools that the game's developers have provided them.

The value and novelty of a story created by the player is determined by the agency and tools granted to them by those who created the game.

Trinh Elise
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Nice thoughts!
And if I read you carefully, I think we totally agree! :)

As I was saying to some friends of mine, you do not need infinite choices and infinite worlds to make worthly choices. You need a scope, and a full freedom in it. The hard thing to do, especially for a writer, is to define the right scope - or, as you said, the right agency and tools to let the player shape their own story.

I think for stories, we don't need characters who can do exactly what anyone could do, anytime: because players also needs consistency. So, I don't want to throw a rock at someone in any situation; I don't want to say shit if there is no reason to that.
The problem is, today stories are not designed as "tools" as any other parts of a game (in many cases): they are not systemic enough. That is why cutscenes often do a really bad job, as QTE - it feels like stories are "out of the game"

(And, it is quite funny the thing you wrote about "If I write another event that never takes place, it doesn't really exist" - it reminds me of "if a tree falls down in a forest but no one is here to hear it, does it make any sound?")

Jim Murphy
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Essentially ill play a game where I can make decisions not the game developer , if cant ill try mods the change it , if cant do that , its becomes nothing more than a Frisbee once played and completed in a weekend like most of the franchises marketed to buggery every xmas .

Jason Daniels
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I think the aspect I am most interested in is gameplay as narrative. I think that this ties into your question of who the author is (because if the game is 95% mechanics driven, any meaning taken from the game will largely be determined by the game that people have been playing), and it's also something that too many games that think of themselves as narratively driven fail to consider--They have one "author" writing dialog for a few weeks or months, and then a director dictating gameplay and interaction for two years and isn't thinking about what they are communicating to the player outside of a strict mechanic structure, and then everyone gets confused when reviews are mixed (despite the game being well designed and the writer being quite talented).

What is more interesting is when the writers are part of the design team, and the design team has a say in the narrative aspects of the game so that the story and gameplay work together towards the same effect. When I was in grad school for creative writing, the most productive parts of peer review were when a story could point to what the author was trying to say and what they were actually (accidentally) saying through structure and action--ie: a boyfriend who says he loves his girlfriend, but prefers to hang out with his friends and flirt with other girls is signaling that he isn't really serious about a relationship. Games do this as well, largely due to the fact that people have different skills that are compartmentalized, but since even a story written by a single person can drift in what is meant to be said and what is being actually said, it is even more of a potential problem. When the team can work together throughout development to utilize gameplay to advance the narrative (through mechanics, level design, art work, etc.) and when the narrative can be used to aid the gameplay (dialog to explain actions, etc., emphasize mechanics that are most helpful, create a subtle shift in influencing the player to go a certain way or do a certain thing of their own "choice" even when there is no actual other option, etc.), the idea of a single author goes away in favor of a collaborative team expressing a more unified vision, which is the best.

Thanks for the thoughtful article!


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