Thursday, June 21, 2007

Directing attention in stories

There's an important difference between (1) all of the information a storyteller lays on the table and (2) the small range of information that the audience is able to instantly internalize and respond to. Placement is pivotal. If the author places the most vital information in the wrong place (effectively, in the background), the audience receives future information with false assumptions; they may even construct a flawed avenue of interpretation which they will follow to end, then wondering why the story's conclusion feels so unsatisfying.

In literature, the word's placement in the sentence, the placement of the sentence in the paragraph (and so on) influences focus. For example: "The mother placed the blanket gently on her daughter" versus "Gently, the mother placed the blanket on her daughter." By changing the placement of the word "gently", more attention is called to the word. In a paragraph, opening and closing statements tend to be the most remembered. The first and last lines of a story are absolutetly vital. And quotation marks usually denote action, rather than description (only), so they tend to receive more rapt attention.

In film, the camera usually decides the audience's focus. If Jack is talking while Bob is listening, Jack is the center of attention only as long as the camera stays on him. If the camera shifts to Bob during this scene, then the audience is encouraged to focus on Bob's reactions to what Jack is saying, rather than what specifically Jack is saying.

Body language, setting, background movement...these things can relay a lot of information; enough that their messages will sometime drown out dialogue. If the camera zooms in on a character's eyes as they stretch wide in terror or pain, any cooperative dialogue may be effectively silenced. If the character is off-center, any potentially relevant object in the center of the frame may distract from the character.

It is only in recent years that game stories have been written by professional writers, rather than programmers or artists (which isn't to suggest that a Renaissance man can't trump a specialist). So it's perhaps ironic that game writers have so commonly missed the narrative boundaries of their own medium. In a game story, the player's focus is typically on his or her own potential actions and involvement. The player is almost always the primary protagonist (intended or not).

As a player, if I'm watching a cinematic cutscene, I want to know how everything in that cutscene relates to my character and my choices. Most cinematics in games thus far have been largely unrelated to character choices. Developers have incorporated cinema as it was already known, rather than take limited elements of film to adapt its visual storytelling capacity to a new medium. If my choices have had no obvious effect on the events of a cutscene, then that cutscene is more a distraction from than a progression of my story-experience.

The player needn't be in absolute control of the story. In fact, the vast majority of popular stories (of any medium) involve the natural conflict between things in and things out of the protagonist's control. It is perhaps desireable that game audiences should experience this conflict more than they do currently. Gamers up until now have accepted a lack of story control as a perhaps-regretable but necessary trait of the story medium.

A better way
Anyway, it's something to consider. In my own experience, cinematics can be greatly appreciated even when they're not related to gameplay much at all. Diablo 2's sporadic movies and World of Warcraft's intro movie are good examples, but note the quality of those cinematics.

Generally speaking, I think cinematics are a poor method of storytelling in games, and zoom-in character conversations aren't much better. The medium is more rewarding of narratives that are less fixed and are experienced while the player still has full mobility (and capacity for actions in general, including combat skills). Not simple, I know, but such methods have a much greater affective impact on the player.

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