"We can still redefine what 'video game' means."In advance of GDC Next, which runs in Los Angeles on November 5-7, GDC director of online community Patrick Miller asked Storyteller creator Daniel Benmergui about how he grew his narrative-puzzle game Storyteller from a two-day experiment into an IGF 2012 Nuovo Award winner.
Benmergui will be speaking as part of the GDC Next 10 session series, which highlights forward-looking work in upcoming games, in a talk called Using Plot Devices to Create Gameplay in Storyteller".
Patrick Miller: Tell me a little bit about the back-story to Storyteller. What inspired you to turn narrative devices into plot mechanics?
Daniel Benmergui: Storyteller was born out of desperation, not inspiration! During 2008 I was submitting I Wish I Were the Moon to Japan's "Sense of Wonder Night" indie game event, but I felt just having that game was not good enough. Two days before the submission deadline I sat down and crunched to get another game, any game.
I remembered how I liked the illustrations in old childrens' tales, and how I wished I could play with them when I was little. Thus, the first ever prototype of Storyteller was born: a game about manipulating pieces of a story.
The game got selected at the festival, I got to go to Japan, and I was happy. But I kept wondering... what if instead of having a story with moving parts, I had story parts that could be assembled into stories?
But it didn't happen until a few years later...
PM: I first saw Storyteller at IGF 2012 -- how has it changed since then?
DB: I tried making the game three times: In 2008, I made the prototype. In 2009 and 2010 I tried again, and failed to find how to make everything work. It was 2011, when reading Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics" and "Morphology of the Folktale" by Propp (at Chris Hecker's suggestion), that the missing keys materialized and I envisioned the mechanic that would make everything work.
Since then, I've been trying to find what Storyteller is really about. I am constantly trying to find the magical mix of story rules, level design, and audiovisual feedback that makes the game shine. It's a delicate balance when making a completely new game about "soft" issues like stories: The fact that we are familiar with stories means that every player is going to have his own assumptions about how things should work, so the game must guide and earn the trust of its players exceptionally well, because a single misunderstanding will end up confusing and frustrating players.
PM: How'd you go about reducing story-telling into a puzzle? Were there any particular narrative devices that were hard to turn into something you could sensibly use in the game?
DB: I actually design the game the other way.
As I add new concepts like love or death into the game, they themselves tell me what kind of interesting levels they enable. When I decided to try adding marriage, levels with infidelity, betrayal and death automatically became richer. I follow what the game wants.
Instead of wondering how to put amnesia into Storyteller, I ask myself: "What plot device would make this level possible or more interesting?" The upside of this approach is that I don't have to force mechanics into the game: New mechanics always fit like missing pieces.
PM: Has working on Storyteller changed the way you think of your own stories for future games?
DB: I realized something interesting while making Storyteller... western middle-class culture is highly trained in consuming stories in various forms, but the moment you have to trace a narrative, that skill is almost useless. Making stories is still in the hands of storytellers -- we are just more sophisticated consumers.
Storyteller picked a small island of the possible stories that can be created and try to guide players through it smoothly. The surprising part is that even with simple elements, you can create pretty sophisticated situations.
I am trying to say that making stories is hard. Storyteller tries to make a part of that accessible, engaging and interesting.
PM: What do you think other fellow game devs can learn (or have already learned) from Storyteller?
DB: It happens with Today I Die that it's arguable whether it is a game or not, where Storyteller is very different from anything else, but still indisputably a game.
Storyteller proves that there's a vast territory of unexplored game ideas out there. We can still redefine what "video game" means.
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For more on the GDC Next 10 session series, read the GDC Next 10 listings, and previous interviews with Next 10 speaker Nathan Vella (Capy Games) and David Nottingham (Dynamighty).
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