The term “grounding” refers to the frequent resetting of the reader's imagination into the time and place the author wishes them to experience. In written stories, a lack of grounding leaves the reader guessing where the story is taking place, what time of day or year, how cold the air, what century. This confusion will be nagging the reader's mind, preventing him or her from concentrating on the events and emotions the writer is attempting to portray.
|Half-Life 2 achieves a very high level of technical storytelling.|
Grounding in games is easier to maintain. There is always a visual presentation on which the player can concentrate and from which the player can infer details of setting. Remember only that the angel is in the details here, that small things such as the state of the paint on the walls, the amount of trash on the floor, the color of the clouds (note how the sky changes accurately with time-of-day in Half-Life 2) can all contribute to grounding and should all be exploited deliberately.Reaction
Reaction in written fiction is the primary vehicle by which writers evoke empathy. A piece of writing always relates a sequence of events. A piece that refuses to illuminate the impact these events have on the character who experiences them is lifeless. A reader will use a word such as “dry” to describe writing like this, and will display their own reaction by putting down the book. Reaction is one of the hardest things to do well in written stories. Some writers have a gift for it, but others must gain proficiency only by steady practice.
Reaction is a difficult thing to port directly to interactive titles because there is no direct analogy. In first-person genres, the character from which we are most interested in eliciting a reaction is the player. We cannot therefore simply show the reaction. However, we can be aware of the fact that we are seeking to evoke one, and ensure that we employ as many visual and auditory queues as possible. Many of these are well-established in our medium, such as the red flash and visual jolt that accompanies an injury in any first-person shooter. It's still refreshing to come across a new example, such as the temporary deafness delivered by a nearby explosion in Half-life 2, and it's not wasted effort to seek as many avenues as possible.Authorial Intrusion
One of the surest ways to bump a reader out of your story is to reveal the fact that a person invented that story. Authorial intrusion can take many forms, and can only be rooted out by exposing the work to other readers. Overly florid prose, explicit political statements and exaggerated walk-on characters who serve an obvious story purpose are all good examples of this error.
In games, the author who might intrude is either the writer or the level designer. We need to define two new classes of authorial intrusion for games: the classic types as listed above, and the pragmatic constraints imposed by the fact that we cannot hire enough artists to create an entire Universe. An example is the crate full of rocket launchers that tells the player that a helicopter gunship is just around the corner. This is a form of intrusion, because it reminds us that we are playing in a world that was created by a human being, and we are bumped from the story. Those levels should be tweaked such that the means to defeat an enemy are not visible until after the enemy is met. This doesn't eliminate the problem, but it does push it off to a point where the player is so engaged in a fight for survival that they are less likely to notice they have been bumped.
Pragmatic intrusion is of course unavoidable, but classic intrusion can and should be expunged wherever it arises.Critique Groups Become Critique Testing
Working writers, even experienced, successful, multi-book authors, always participate in critique groups. The writer will bring in a short (a thousand words or so) sequence from their work and read it to a small group of diverse individuals who will then comment on their reactions to the piece. The reason this is done is again the fact that the reader's reaction is necessarily invisible to the author. Time and again, an author will hear reactions in critique that were completely unintended. If these reactions are negative, and if they are consistent for more than one member of the group, the author is well advised to change what's written.
We can apply this technique to games. All you have to do is sit a stranger down in front of the game and let them play for a few minutes. After which, you ask the player for their reaction. Ask them to describe the story they have witnessed in their own words. Some points to watch out for that come straight from our experience with literary critique groups:
Critique testing like this is separate from general play-testing. Critique testing seeks to unearth bugs in your storytelling. Treat the process as entirely different from technical play-testing, and don't attempt to do both at once.Some Examples
By way of illustration, I'll give some concrete examples and thereby contrast some interactive titles that have achieved mature storytelling with others that have not.
This list is a good opportunity to assess the efficacy of these techniques. Which experience was the more involving? Which seemed to have the best story? Now think about the actual story, its complexity and power devoid of its vehicle, the game. The difference is in the quality of the presentation, and this arises purely from technique.In Conclusion: Trust Your Writer!
Writers of prose fiction have been working the bugs out of their presentation technique for a long time, and we can learn a good deal from them. It's true that a skilled writer can break these rules for dramatic effect, but it's a prerequisite to understand the rules first.
Perhaps the best lesson to be learned from written fiction is that a production house should always have an experienced, professional writer on-call if not on-staff, and should always listen when the writer says something that doesn't at first sound important. It might be!
I expect that, as our medium matures, we will see a standardization of accepted technique, and deviations from the well-established methods will be few and far between, used consciously for dramatic effect or to increase usability. I look forward to that day.For Further Information
There are many books on written storytelling technique. Some good ones: