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AGC: Finding New Models for Game Stories
AGC: Finding New Models for Game Stories
September 8, 2006 | By Wendy Despain

September 8, 2006 | By Wendy Despain
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More: Console/PC

John Sutherland, a writer for Microsoft Game Studios, introduced his presentation at the Game Writers Conference in Austin using the metaphor of football. He said too often game writing is like structuring a game of football so at random intervals all the players leave the field and read a book. Writers often misunderstand that story is text, when in fact story is conflict and conflict can be found all over the place.

One major example he used was reality television shows. He said ideally the main characters in a story shouldn't agree on anything, and that's one thing reality TV does really well. They collect characters with violently different viewpoints and put them together in a confined space - literally and/or socially. Sutherland suggested game writers should do the same thing.

Tension And Release

However, the story can't be entirely about conflict. To illustrate this point, he brought up the example of Arnold Schoenberg, the music composer who invented the concept of "the twelve-tone rows." This is a very systematic method of composing music resulting in sounds that are almost entirely dissonant and hard to listen to. There's usually no discernible tune or musicality. The theory was that the audience would get used to these new sounds and come to enjoy it, but the style never gained wide popularity.

Sutherland noted, however, that most composers use dissonance in their music. It becomes creatively moving and interesting when music uses the concept of tension and release. The jangling chords of the dissonant sounds give way to pleasant, singable tunes. Music is pretty shallow if it's all hard to listen to, and it's just as shallow if it's all harmonic as in a barbershop quartet. They can be fun to listen to, but just for a little while.

This pattern of tension and release models the movement of conflict, and it's found in every art form that moves across time - movies, ballet, opera, everything but static art forms like sculpture. Even in reality TV tension and release is patterned into the material through editing before it's aired. Sutherland said the show "The Contender" especially demonstrated how editing can introduce tension and release. This show involves boxing matches which are obviously edited down to the most exciting parts, with pauses introduced between climactic events.

In games, Sutherland said, the pattern of tension and release is called pacing, and the whole development team is involved in tuning the pacing of a game. Testers help uncover problems, project leaders make sure the iterations are productive, marketing departments can build suspense by introducing characters early. Even the physics engine can contribute to pacing. As an example, he referenced the Halo Warthog physics video created by Randall Glass. When the physics are isolated from the context of the game they look broken, but they're not intended to model our reality. They're intended to contribute to tension and release.

Getting The Story Across

The pattern of tension and release models life. This is how people experience their day-to-day existence, periods of excitement with lulls between them. Sutherland believes ultimately stories are about people, and games can be too.

He said life can seem like a game. In his pocket at that moment he had a bunch of magical cards. One gives him the power to drive, one gives him access to a fortress called Microsoft, he can use another one to replenish his health when he gets sick. He held up a debit card, "This one lets me go to a machine and take out gold." He held up a credit card. "This one's pretty cool, it lets me spend gold I don't even have yet." As he put them all back in his wallet he said, "My favorite magic card lets me spend gold I don't have yet and Microsoft pays the bill."

His point was that these gating mechanisms in life look like things in games, but too often things in games don't mirror life. That's something game writers could work to improve. He said for something to be a story connection, these mechanisms need to have meaning for people. They can't be arbitrary.

Sutherland says he has an ongoing argument with Chris Crawford about whether games are about things or people. Sutherland agrees Crawford may have a point about the current state of games, but Sutherland thinks the situation can be improved and the focus of games can be moved back to the more potent subject of people. "We can make them deeper and more meaningful. The technology of games allows players the chance to experience stories in a more immersive form than ever before."

Practical Advice

Sutherland suggests game writers concentrate on allowing players to make more choices and more important choices. He says writing has always been about choice, whether we take our inspiration from Dostoyevsky or the Surreal Life. We need to be open to inspiration where it comes from, and choice of any kind has conflict inherent in it. This will help connect the game with people.

He also suggested avoiding formulas when approaching game writing. This includes avoiding laundry lists of dramatic requirements. He says formulas from other media especially don't translate directly, and the art form of games is so new experimentation is critical just to find the boundaries of possibilities. It's the only way we'll know what works and what doesn't.

Finally, he suggested being open to inspiration from everywhere. New habits of seeing will open up new ideas for what game stories can be.

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