Do games need stories?

Will Wright, Haden Blackman, and Sheldon Pacotti put the concept of Story on trial at Stanford University game conference.

STANFORD, CA--“Do games need stories? No! Any questions?” starts LucasArts producer Haden Blackman. Odd first words, perhaps, for the keystone panel of a conference on storytelling and computer games.

Nevertheless, this rejection of story--at least in the traditional sense--turned out to be the overarching theme of the afternoon.

The session, titled “The Big Picture: Do Games Need Stories?” made for a provocative ending to Friday’s conference, Story Engines, hosted by Stanford University. In addition to Blackman, the lead producer of MMORPG Star Wars Galaxies, the panel featured Ion Storm’s Sheldon Pacotti, as well as legendary game designer Will Wright.

Wright, the creative mind behind SimCity and The Sims, presented the most direct rebuke of conventional narrative. The somewhat tongue-in-cheek title of his talk “Why I Hate Stories… That My Computer Tries to Tell Me,” matched the simultaneously academic yet humorous atmosphere of Wright’s presentation.

“I’ve never really wanted to tell a story in a game,” Wright declared, arguing that traditional, linear stories impose more structure, while interactive stories “open possibilities.” Wright further pointed out that interaction implies that “you control the flow of causality.” As a result, Wright lambasted the idea of cut-scenes in games, stating that they “take away the power of the medium… something we should be avoiding at all costs.”

Wright instead proposed treating games as “vehicles” that allow players to tell their own stories. Discussing his Sims Exchange project, a website created for The Sims fans to share their gameplay experiences, Wright showcased elaborate comic books and novellas that players crafted via the game.

Pacotti, the lead writer behind Deus Ex and Deux Ex: Invisible War, echoed Wright’s sentiments, stating that “a good game lets players create their own stories.” Citing the eminently well-known strategy game Civilization, Pacotti pointed out that games can be dramatic in their very context, even with a minimal amount of storytelling. In Civilization, for example, encountering a new civilization is a very dramatic moment drastically affecting, for better or worse, the progress of your own tribe.

But Pacotti didn’t seem ready to totally give up on the idea of story, claiming that “any new medium needs to find a way to tell the stories we expect with the available tools.” Pacotti even expressed the desire to capture the narrative excitement of grand-scale novels. In particular, making comparisons to Tolstoy’s classic War and Peace, Pacotti entertained the idea of covering longer spans of time in games, “swooping down” to cover the most dramatic moments of a larger story.

Discussing his own work on Deus Ex, Pacotti also underscored the difference between “global” decisions, which affect the main narrative, and “local” decisions, which only affect the most immediate story. Although local decisions “give a sense of owning,” Pacotti observed that this ownership is “partly an illusion.” For instance, while Deus Ex: Invisible War players can choose which faction to align with and how to achieve certain mission goals, all story outcomes still bottleneck through the same major events. Consequently, Pacotti expressed hope of better facilitating global decisions in the future, a feat that he believes few games have achieved.

Blackman too emphasized games in which “the story really becomes about you [the player]” and even suggested that all games tell stories anyway. In particular, Blackman cited Counterstrike as a game devoid of any real story, but a game that “we talk about for hours and hours and hours”

And although Blackman placed supreme importance on gameplay, he did add that story and character can still embellish a game, stating that “story can make a good game great.”

Blackman also made a point of distinguish story and storytelling, remarking, “Do games need good storytelling? Definitely.” Using Half Life as his example, Blackman asserted that the story of Half Life, a science experiment gone freakishly wrong, is wholly unoriginal. Instead, he argued that the storytelling aspects, such as well-timed environmental events and skillfully framed views, are what make the game really gripping.

All three speakers also offered their ideas for approaching story in future games.

Pacotti suggested his idea of “crunching down” the game space, drawing inspiration from the boardgame Clue, which takes place in only nine rooms. Claiming that it is impossible to fully handle all possible situations in any regularly sized game, Pacotti reasoned that in such a smaller game space, the developer could allow greater player freedom while also handling many more situations intelligently.

Blackman seemed primarily concerned with figuring out ways of giving players “experiences to talk about.” Blackman also mentioned that this is a particularly pertinent problem for MMORPGs like Star Wars Galaxies, in which there are far too many players for the developers to write the story by themselves.

Wright also seemed intent on facilitating player-created narratives, stating, “What I’d really love to do… is help make players’ stories more dramatic.” In particular, Wright proposed the idea of “Adaptive Mapping.” If a game could analyze its state space and predict which goals a player was heading towards, Wright theorized, the game could trigger dramatic obstacles on the fly, and alter game aspects like lighting, sound, and story events accordingly.

All three speakers were well-received by the audience--especially Will Wright, whose fast-paced talk, filled with amusing anecdotes, elicited laughs on several occasions. Stanford undergraduate John Shedletsky was particularly impressed with Wright, commenting, “Will Wright is one of the best lecturers I've ever heard. Every idea he presents is fresh and innovative.” Symbolic System major Brendan O’ Connor also seemed to think the event was academically worth, stating, “Wright's presentation was fascinating, when he was showing narratives created by players. It really broadened my view of interactive media.”

The conference, organized by Stanford’s How They Got Game Project, was the brainchild of Science, Technology and Society Professor Henry Lowood, and was hosted in conjunction with the current Cantor Center for the Visual Arts exhibition “Fictional Worlds, Virtual Experiences.”

Earlier conference speakers included Lowood, Stanford professors Scott Bukatman, Tim Lenoir, and Katherine Isbister, UC Berkley’s Jane McGonigal, Stanford graduate student Casey Alt, and Sony Online Entertainment’s Kevin O’Hara.

Lowood, who teaches a course at Stanford entitled “History of Computer Game Design,” was pleased with how well the academia and game developer perspectives seemed to complement each other, remarking, “It's always refreshing to listen to people talk about the same thing from different perspectives. That's why we mixed academic speakers and game developers about half-and-half.”

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