Friday, June 13, 2008

playing for someone else's story

I'm a writer. Since I was very young, I've written poetry, short fiction, long fiction, philosophy, analysis, and just about any type of writing you can think of. In fact, I'll be extremely disappointed with myself if I never publish a novel, a book of philosophy, and a collection of short stories.

So it's ironic, to say the very least, that story has never been my primary interest in a game. Games are about my choices... how I, as a player, decide to use and mold my character. I loved Deus Ex. But do I remember much of its story? No. Mainly, I remember the few times it let me decide what happened next. All I can remember of KOTOR is the robot who hates meatbags. In a game, any game, it's about my story.

So I'm surprised to find my mind made up about purchasing Star Wars: The Force Unleashed because of this video teasing about the game's narrative. I was, and remain, cautious about the game, because the thrill of playing with the physics technology could easily be short-lived (if LucasArts fails to include other dynamics or if they stage every encounter rigidly). But now there's no question that I'll be buying the game. I will. I'm buying it just to see what happens between Episodes III and IV in the Star Wars saga. I must know, and I don't want to simply read a summary or transcript online.

This begs the question: Are only Star Wars and LOTR capable of so powerfully compelling a gamer like me through story hints to buy a game? Could an IP not belonging to books or films entice me so strongly with story alone?

I don't know. But I can say this much: if such an IP is possible, it sure as hell ain't Halo or Tomb Raider. ;)


  1. Excellent!

    ...agreed I think the generations that have grown up with Star Wars & later LotR have kept those stories as archetypal feel good moments in their lives.

    In comparison, with MGS having a bloated story, it would struggle to hit a mass nerve with that same generation.

  2. This is quite possibly breaking off into a tangent (admittedly a specialty of mine, sorry) but I'd enjoy hearing thoughts on the whole "my story" concept.

    In particular, I hear this from sandbox fan(atics). "I hate quests! I want to tell my story, not theirs!" Ok, but what exactly is "your story?" I'll go out on a ledge and presume most of these people are, in fact, not role-players so why do they give a flying [censored] about "story" be it theirs or anyone else's?

    An NPC offers me compensation to do an errand (let's be honest, that's what 99% of these so-called "quests" really are). Let's say that errand is to kill N mobs of a particular type. Now, if the sandboxer refuses to take that quest and simply goes out and kills N of those same mobs, he is rewarded less (I get extra xp, money, loot, etc. for quest turn-in) but our stories are the same: we each killed N mobs.

    When you boil it down, the majority of these MMO's are still stuck in the videogame stone age: we spend most of our time mass-murdering the wildlife and unfriendly inhabitants, who respawn to be mass-murdered all over again. Telling that "story" to anyone out of game, is it any wonder we're looked upon as anti-social freaks of nature?

    If you want to take the angle that "your story" is simply that you get to choose your action (ie. you chose to mass-murder all the mobs on your own) doesn't that apply to the quester as well? Our quest logs are jam-packed, we can't do them all, so we have to choose which errands to run and which to ignore and perhaps abandon. We choose which area we want to adventure in, same as the "stand there and grind my own story" guy. What's the difference?

  3. Think about it this way, Scott. In Halo, everyone fights the exact same enemies and follows the same linear narrative. But what are the stories Halo players share? They're stories of crazy situations with sticky grenades, guns running out of ammo at unfortunate times, enemies grouping up in interesting ways and acting unpredictably, etc. In every game with dynamic possibilities -- including linear, hard-coded adventures -- players tend to talk about personal, unique experiences.

    There's nothing wrong with static content like quests. Any game should be a smart blend of static and dynamic content. But even the static content must be personally relevant to be meaningful. You're right that a player's choice of which missions and goals to pursue is personal... but to what degree?

    A story isn't just made up of choices. It's made of meaningful choices. This morning, you might have decided between cereal, eggs, or a bagel for breakfast. That was a choice, but you wouldn't think of it as part of your story while reminiscing. Stories skip to the important parts. When we recollect any series of experiences, one of the things we do is decide what really matters.

    "Kill [x] number of [y]" quests are not inherently bad, but current MMOs don't make those kills truly meaningful. Warhammer Online is making a step in the right direction by tying every kill to the factional conflict in which all players act a part. That's only a small step, but it shows how simple quests can be made meaningful without need of deep dialogue or extensive planning. Sometimes, context is everything.

    Anyway, you're right... MMOs are stuck in the stone age. Fortunately, I think WAR and The Agency are providing some key steps for the genre to move forward, but we'll continue to be stuck with a lot of pisspoor decisions from the collective design community for years to come.

  4. Using the Halo analogy -- which actually applies to any game, I suppose -- that's the player telling stories about his in-game experiences, which is entirely separate from a character having "his own story," if you follow me?

    I can tell all sorts of crazy, fun stories from just about every game I've ever played, video or real, but... that's me, the player, telling these experiences. What I get from the "sandbox/tell my own story" people is that they're referring to their character's stories (these are supposed to be RPG's after all) rather than the player's stories, and rather than their character telling some NPC's story which every other player character is doing.

    But again, I wind it down to: if we're all just mass-murdering the wildlife, how is anyone's story all that different or unique, whether quests were involved or not?

  5. This old post explains my overall view on story in games better.

    In Halo, not many think of themselves as the Master Chief during multiplayer matches. You're right. There's no roleplay connection between player and character. In the single-player campaign, there is... but to what extent depends on the player.

    Even something like a fun experience with sticky grenades can be both a player and character story if it demonstrates personal relevance. For example: When I was a kid, I used to wander by a creek and throw rocks at sun-bathing cottonmouths (also called water moccasins -- a poisonous snake in my area). That's a simple, easily-repeatable experience that many kids might have had. It's a small experience, but I still remember it and include it in my personal story because it says something about my personality at the time (that I did things just for the hell of it, that I didn't think too hard about consequences, and that I like being outdoors). Small, simple experiences which are not inherently personal or deep can have great personal relevance and depth.

    Few games should focus on simply exterminating wildlife, as you say. But even that can be simultaneously a character story and player story... something deep and telling. In Star Wars: Galaxies, I once spent close to an hour crawling into a cave full of narglatches (demon cats) with my camouflaged ranger/creature-handler. That was an intense and memorable experience, and was possible due to a kill-the-wildlife gameplay system that was open enough to allow for actions beyond killing and direct assaults.


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