Story in films and books is about other persons' choices and experiences. Story in games is about the player's choices and experiences.
I've harped on about game cinematics before, how they usually focus less on the player than on someone else's story. I like the use of quality cinematics to set the game's tone and relay the big picture (like those in Diablo 2), as well as a handful of other uses (like Gears of War's controlling the player's camera for just a moment to direct the player's attention), but cinematics more often make the mistake of following the narrative method of non-interactive mediums.
Don't get me wrong. I liked the story of Halo. But that wasn't the player's story. The story of Halo was told in between the player's adventure segments, not as part of that adventure. Like most game developers, Bungie thought of game narrative as a film which the player unlocks and views bit by bit (watch movie -> play game -> watch movie -> play game). Not surprisingly, I call those "film games" -- the cinematics are essentially separate from the actual gameplay, so it's a combination of film and game (analogous to silent movies, which combined literature with film).
So, if not that, what is a developer's role in the game story? How can a story be individual to the player and truly represent his or her own involvement in the gameworld?
- 1) Set the stage with dynamics, depth, and room for individuality.
- 2) Encourage the player to predict, reflect, qualify, and organize his experiences into a unified and cohesive narrative.
SETTING THE STAGE
Humans are social animals. It's in our nature to want to share our experiences. But not every story is worth telling. Players have a much easier time finding their own stories when they have a good setting and props.
Ever started to tell a joke and the listener says he's already heard that one? Did you go on telling the joke? Probably not. We like to share, but not the same story over and over again.
That applies not just to the stories we tell others but to the stories we tell ourselves, the memories worth keeping. If fighting bandits, fighting goblins, and fighting trolls are all essentially steps in the same old grind, then the player doesn't distinguish the memories strongly from each other. But if bandits manage to ambush the player, the goblins are cowards and try to run away when they lose the advantage of numbers, and trolls are big tough bastards who have a bad habit of camping out in the middle of the road, then those are three distinct experiences...worthy of rememberance and being told.
The more dynamics, the better. Dynamics keep the game feeling fresh.
Ideally, the game should feel like a continuation of one story (the character's epic adventure) with various sub-plots and a good helping of fluff. In order to not feel disjointed, the sub-plots must all tie in to the greater adventure somehow. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, from shaping the character to horizontally changing the player's circumstances (including setting) to advancing the player toward a particular encounter.
Fluff is the stuff that doesn't tie into the larger story but embodies a memorable experience. Noticing an NPC drunkard being thrown out of a tavern and yelling slurred curses back at the barkeep is an example of fluff. A clocktower that makes you stop and gape in awe at its size and ornate gilding is an example of fluff.
What are the choices offered to the player? Is he deciding between killing human simpletons or orc simpletons? between a "Shortsword +1" or a "Handaxe +1"? Most of the player's choices should be more meaningful than that. For example:
Many of Baytown's militia are dissatisfied with their captain. Do you help them depose him? If you do, will some of the militia fight against you? Are they acceptable casualties? You might have to face their families afterward. Will the next captain be better than the first? Will the town mayor support the action? If he does so only because he fears the militia, your relations with him may be strained (no more quests or other help from him).
You've discovered an epic weapon which belonged to a great hero of the city Stoneridge. By removing the weapon from his bones, you have upset the hero's spirit. As long as the weapon is parted from the hero's tomb, his angry spirit haunts the city. Stoneridge citizens are angry with you for dishonoring their hero and causing the haunting. Do you return the weapon, despite its great stats? Do you abandon the town, ignoring the NPCs' troubles and the complaints of other players that some of the Stoneridge merchants are charging higher prices to people of your faction and/or guild? Do you seek out the ghost, and make a compact that allows you to keep the weapon if you'll use it to follow in the hero's footsteps as long as you possess it (such as keeping the city's surrounding population of bandits down to a particular level, perhaps with the aid of friends)?
NPCs, places, and objects should have as much depth as possible. For each NPC of Mass Effect, Bioware has a character bible; a compilation of character histories, connections, views, quirks, etc. I would do the same for MMO characters. And I would spend every waking hour between other tasks expanding the dialogue trees of the NPCs. For Endwar, Ubisoft is creating and recording a ridiculous amount of dialogue for NPCs, so that each NPC really feels like a character and not just a caricature, a painted face. Dialogue trees require time for careful creation, but not a lot of programming. Adding dialogue is a smart use of time for writers during the game's polishing phase, provided not every line is translated into a voiceover.
A feeling of ownership goes a long way toward heightening a player's appreciation of the story. Especially in American culture, we love to be reminded of and learn what separates us from other individuals.
I've heard people talk about good dev-written stories, like those in Halo or Neverwinter Nights, but their enthusiasm for those stories pales in comparison to their enthusiasm when sharing personal stories. The Sims offers individually unique stories through AI dynamics. Individual stories in MMOs more often result from social dynamics between players; like how one's guild decided to tackle a raid. The fact that MMOs already have dynamics leading to individual stories suggests that the genre has tremendous potential, considering the actual gameplay is presently so static and linear.
Depth is an important factor here. There are differences and then there are significant differences. Titles shouldn't be handed out like consolation prizes. "Epic" armor shouldn't decorate every long-time player, or be unheard of in a player's first months of play (think of Diablo 2's rare, set, or unique items).
The pinnacle of individuality in narrative is personal relevance. We each have a particular sense of humor, particular interests, particular perspectives and viewpoints, particular aesthetic tastes, and particular desires and favored roles during gameplay. You can't reach all people, but a good game makes players notice when they've been reached. When most players can agree on an optimal skill combination or group composition, then you're deafeating personal involvement to an extent. When players can go on forever in friendly debates about which skills, classes, and combinations are the best, then you've made those preferences personal... and made those choices more rewarding, those stories more interesting.
MAKING IT A STORY
What is a story? It's not just a chaotic amalgam of choices and experiences. It's also how those choices and experiences are placed into an order, into a context, and the meaning we draw from them.
Part of what makes something a story is the feeling that it's leading somewhere.
I'm a huge fan of open worlds in games. There should be some direction, but that direction should be fluid. Water from a mountaintop must flow downhill, but there are countless paths the river might take. Ideally, developers should try to design story possibilities similar to river path possibilities. Rivers follow the paths of least resistance, but they also break through barriers and carve their own paths. It makes sense to encourage players down particular avenues, but allow them to stray from the paved roads. Skill reassignment, ala Star Wars: Galaxies, is an example of allowing the player freedom to take unusual routes (less-than-optimal skill combinations) while also preventing the player from hitting a dead end (not being able to recover from poor choices).
Our ability to predict is based on trends in past experiences. Facilitating the sharing of stories between players is important to this end. But be careful not to make all player-stories too similar.
Another component of stories is the knowledge that certain events and circumstances led to the present situation.
NPC commentary on player choices is one means of encouraging the player to reflect. Inter-faction conflict is easy. Class-only quests are easy. But how about NPCs reacting to player gear? Afterall, you'd think an orc wearing a skull for a helmet and a fetish on his belt might get a rise out of some homely elves in a small village (though big city merchants might not care). How about real difficulty in making up for offenses? Allowing player's to switch sides after killing hundreds of the enemy's faction might please some, but just as many would be pleased by the believeability of real NPC grudges and reputation.
Also, devs can promote certain judgements over others through NPC reactions. Most films and novels state or imply certain lessons or ideas, without beating the audience over the head with them (a lot of people complain about didactic storytelling these days, but they consume it all the time without realizing it). Present opposing viewpoints through opposing NPCs or factions, if you want; but encouraging the player to really think deeply about what's going on in the gameworld can, if done well, immerse the player and arouse character empathy. It's also the most necessary step toward establishing games in society as more than mere child's play.
Speaking of judgements... Part of what individualizes a story, what makes a story our own, is which experiences we value, which we seek out and which we avoid, which choices we savor and which we regret, etc.
Moving screenshots in-game is one means of encouraging players to qualify experiences. One player can invite another into his or her home and use the in-game pictures to share some of the best parts of his or her own personal story. Among other benefits, reminding players of their story highlights also reminds them why they play the game (improves player retention).
Perhaps the most important element of any story is organization. How are separate events and objects connected? How we categorize things affects how we perceive and interpret them. The heart of a story, its meaning and impact, is largely a result of organization.
This goes back to what I said under "Dynamics" about players needing to connect the dots, to feel that their many small adventures are truly connected to one grand adventure, one life as it is developing and exploring. Fluff is good, but there should be more meaningful content than fluff.
Helping the player see the big picture is probably tied closely with developer's own ability to remember the big picture during the many months or years of development. The developer will intuitively impress his own perception onto the game, so it's probably smart to plan continual reminders of the game's central themes and conflicts in which all players will ultimately be involved.
In Star Wars: Galaxies, I identified my character more with his skills in creature-handling and range survival than with his participation in the Galactic Civil War (he fought for the Empire, of course). I thought of him more as a lone wanderer and explorer than as a soldier in the world's grand conflict, so the majority of my game experiences were filtered through that lens. It's good to have a variety of players with different playstyles in the same gameworld (some soldiers, some guilds, some loners, etc.), but the developer needs to remain aware of all the possibilities the game allows so that players can be prodded out of stale repetition and overly harsh avenues.
You may have noticed me talking about the player finding his or her story, rather than creating it. The dev work that this article proposes concerns storytelling, but it's storytelling in a different way than films or novels. It's similar to how we "find" ourselves in life as we age and mature. The developer creates and controls the potential experiences and the choices that face the player. The player's involvement is more in choosing than in creation (which isn't to downplay the potential value of user-created content, but that's a whole other issue).
Please feel free to respond to only the one or two parts of this long rant that you read.