"Everything is Possible": Inside the Minds of Gaming's Master Storytellers
Five of gaming's greatest storytellers share their thoughts on their industry, their work, and their medium of choice.
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You don't need games. As much as they may seem like an integral part of your everyday life or even your thought process at this point, you could give them up if you really had to. And no matter how addicted you may be to the games you play, you'd have to admit that games are intended to be entertainment. They're just for fun.
Here's the real question: For a medium that's unnecessary and therefore all about excess, why is it that so many games seem to aim only for the bare minimum--to meet your expectations and call it a day? Shouldn't more of them aim to move you or otherwise surprise you?
I share the theory that the game industry is like a private eye who's so busy following the wrong lead that he lets his real target slip right through his fingers. Look at what games are doing: They're pushing more polygons and piling on more features. It's the equivalent of adding more explosions to an action movie; at some point, you start to get diminishing returns for your crazy budget even as the whole thing just turns dumb.
I think game designers should be pursuing a much more elusive objective: tapping into the true potential of this medium, using it to give the game player an eye-opening, virtually life-changing experience and turning the game player's world completely upside-down. And I believe the only way to accomplish this is through storytelling--using a game to tell a good story. This does not mean tacking a best-selling author onto a game as an afterthought; this means fundamentally constructing a game out of a story.
"What I do is create games and not create stories. I merely include story elements that are necessary for the game to work."
-- Hideo Kojima
Of all the games I've played, nearly all the ones that gave me an eye-opening, virtually life-changing experience did so through their stories, and other game players I've heard from or spoken to suggest to me that I'm not alone in this. The games I'm referring to have stories to rival all the greatest stories I've ever seen or read. The chance of experiencing such stories is probably the main reason I love games.
It's a slim chance. Of the hundreds of games released each year, very few evidently bother to make storytelling a priority. And for certain genres of games--sports games, driving games, strategy games--it's expected that their games will be largely devoid of stories. While I think all this is unfortunate, I don't find it surprising. After all, games without any real plot development must be easier to make--the developers set up a situation and then run with it. It's you against them. Here are your abilities. Here are the levels. You'll find new weapons and health pickups as you go.
However, the key to a great story is that things happen. The situation changes, dramatically if not drastically. In development terms, I'm sure this means having to write a lot more code, design many more features, and so forth. It's extra work. So it's extra difficult to do and extra difficult to justify.
Some game developers are clearly willing to put in that extra work and take the necessary risk. I wanted to find out why. So here we are: I got in touch with five of gaming's most legendary storytellers--people responsible for some of the greatest games of all time, not to mention some of my personal favorites--to bring you their perspectives. What do these individuals know that other game designers don't? What drives them? You're about to find out.
Anyway, in Ultima Underworld the moment occurred when I got to the end, resurrected Garamons in the hopes of getting him to tell me what I need to do to save my ass and the rest of the world, and when I ask him the question he says--get this--"he has no idea." Then he asks you if you have any ideas. I stared at the screen for five minutes in disbelief--this game was asking me how to solve it, which I thought was brilliant. It also scared the hell out of me.
The other moment was in Wasteland, when I went inside Finster's android brain and was facing my childhood fears and enemies. I thought the presentation was amazing, and the way you used your intelligence and skills to fight back against your opponents--it was just evidence that even "low-tech" games could pull off some cool ideas without much resources at their disposal.
Again, these games are pretty old-school, which should give you a clue as to how old I'm getting to be. Also, I didn't get started into Japanese RPG console games yet, otherwise there's a ton of those that have excellent story moments, if I'd only been playing them at the time (Final Fantasy III comes to mind). Also, some of the early Infocom games also scared me (The Lurking Horror), made me feel loss for a buddy (Planetfall), and creeped me out with a doomed ending (Infidel).
"I really have never been blown away or struck by a story in any game that I can remember."
-- Tim Schafer
I'm a big fan of emergent storyline. I remember growing my squad of beloved characters (who never had a single line of dialogue) in X-COM and watching with bated breath as they entered the treacherous corridors of the final boss with only a single blaster launcher missile left. Why? Because it was a scenario conceived by a partnership between myself and the game. It was a moment that existed uniquely in my gaming experience and not shared the same way by any other soul on earth.
But as a designer, it's hard to give up that control. We want to craft moments of gameplay. I've done it myself---hey, I've written my share of cutscenes. But what we conceive as designers is never going to be as good as what the partnership of gamer and game creates.
Again, for me it's rarely story per se, but the unique moments of gameplay storytelling. I loved the beginning of Beyond Good and Evil and how they defined Jade's character. You meet her by seeing her environment. She's living under an alien dictatorship, and she's built her home into a makeshift orphanage. As you walk around her house you see why she's a hero, how much the kids love her and why her life is important. By the time any real gameplay happens, you want to protect her, you want to help her succeed.
And the whole thing is done with almost no actual dialogue.
It's an obvious answer, perhaps, but the ones that have really stuck with me are the old-school adventure games: Loom, Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island, the first Gabriel Knight. There were stories before that--good ones, too--but they didn't have the emotional resonance of those early-'90s graphic adventures. They weren't just great game stories; they were great stories, period.
We tend to focus on stories a lot more in RPGs for obvious reasons (and there are times at Black Isle when we made story the driving force, like in Planescape: Torment, and we try to give it as much importance as gameplay at Obsidian on Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords and Neverwinter Nights 2)--players are expecting an engaging story when playing a role-playing game. When you encounter deep characters, interesting plot elements (and twists), and NPCs in the game-world that seem to have agendas of their own, I think it just challenges the player to think at a higher level when playing the game--suddenly an NPC you meet isn't just someone who gives you a quest; you have to figure out how and why he wants you to do it and what the consequences might be, especially morally, reputation-wise, and financially, for your character.
However, being given a simple "container" (i.e. the role) is not enough to share the life of that character. Even if you are assigned the container of a police officer, if you are given 100 percent freedom, you are no longer a cop. In order to simulate the life of a cop, one must provide the player the sequences of a cop, the people he/she should be meeting, and the drama of a cop. Virtually experiencing all of these elements interactively allows you to experience someone else's life, just like when watching a movie.
In addition, a game will be monotone if the player is simply required to accomplish the assigned goal.
By adding the element of "infiltrate enemy territory without being discovered and save the world" to the simple rules of "hide and seek" (i.e. "do not get found"), you get to experience much more thrill.
Unlike film and novels in which you experience the story, in games I simply add the "story element" so that the player can enjoy the virtual experience.
"The narrative is finding its way into every nook and cranny of this medium."
-- Ragnar Tørnquist
In Shock 2, I always made an effort to tie together things that were going on with the logs and e-mails to things that you saw in front of you in the world. You'd come around a corner and find a guy leaning dead up against the wall, with a corona of blood splattered behind him and an empty shotgun next to him. On his body you'd find a log that dramatized his final moments and let the player know that it was either take the coward's way out or face the monster who has made a nest 50 yards away....
And after the player read the log, we'd introduce him to that that monster...
The story should serve to unify the game experience and the narrative, not to exist on a separate track.
So no, all games don't need stories.
But the fact is, once you're dealing with quests, characters, worlds, role-playing--and more complex human (or, hey, alien) emotions--then you need to tie everything together with some sort of narrative.
Context and motive are the operative words. Context places you in the world and gives you a sense of belonging; motive gives you a reason--an emotional incentive--for playing. In games that don't solely rely on our competitive instincts, we need both context and motive, and that's what a story provides.
Back in the heady days of 2D, it was enough to drop us into an abstract world and tell us to run to the right. That was fine. Today, we want to know where we are, why we are there, what those other guys are doing shooting at us, and why we need to shoot back. We want to feel something--an emotional connection to the characters and the world--and we want a strong narrative to pull us along to a satisfying conclusion. We want a pay-off.
"I think the reason people have dug some of the stuff I've done is because I've tried to integrate the storytelling into the gameplay as much as possible."
-- Ken Levine
Gamers have become more demanding. Early moviegoers were happy to see flickering black-and-white images of a train heading straight towards them or a crowd of people leaving a factory, but they soon wanted more. They wanted characters they could relate to, stories that resonated with them.
The mechanics were no longer enough. The same thing's happened with games. Once upon a time, two paddles and a white ball was enough. Then, later, running and jumping from the left to the right gave us our kicks. Now, we want it all: a realistic world, recognizable characters, an interesting story.
Of course, with games--unlike movies--mechanics can be enough, if the framework is interesting and the gameplay unique. Take Katamari Damacy, one of last year's best games: It's all about the gameplay, and it's hard to relate on any level to the story, although you could argue that it serves to establish context and motive. We understand why we're rolling stuff up. We might not care, because the very act of rolling is interesting in itself, but if we look for context and motive, it's there.
The narrative is finding its way into every nook and cranny of this medium, and while sports and racing games will, for the most part, remain narrative-free (you could argue that Need for Speed Underground has a narrative structure to it, but let's not, because it would be silly), other genres are certainly benefiting from the inclusion of stories.
I find writing for games interesting because I think games are the next untapped ground for storytelling. It's an interactive entertainment experience, so instead of passively watching a movie or reading a novel, you are actually interacting with the story, which I think is the next stage of entertainment evolution. There's been a trend of games becoming more like movies and delivering a cinematic experience and drama, and I think that trend will continue. When working on Knights of the Old Republic II, I felt as if we were scripting a movie more than a game at points, and the sheer amount of cinematic direction we (and LucasArts) had for our cutscenes, blocking out character movements and scenery, and then directing the voice actors was staggering.
But on the plus side, movies are always the same start to finish. Movies never provide unique experiences for each user the way a game does.
Games allow me to bring more of my talents to bear. And they're a lot more challenging to do well. Writing good game story takes a very detailed knowledge of what your technology can and can't do.
I'll never forget the first story I wrote in gaming. It was for a (eventually canceled) Star Trek: Voyager game. I wrote the opening cutscene, which included this gem:
THE CAMERA ZOOMS IN ON JANEWAY...WE SEE A LOOK OF TERROR IN HER EYES AS IT REFLECTS THE INCOMING MISSILE
The lead programmer pretty much laughed in my face. First of all, our characters were low-resolution bitmaps, with one fixed expression on their face. Their eyes were maybe 4x4 pixels each. The camera zooming in on that wouldn't have shown a performance; they would have shown a scattered mess of random pixels.
It's been a learning process since then.
"Being a writer seems to require an odd aesthetic sense that doesn't always translate well into developing games."
-- Chris Avellone
I'm not saying movies or literature are stagnant, but the formats are established. A movie has to conform to certain established parameters.
Games, on the other hand, are still at a stage where everything is possible.
It's a shame, then, that costs are rising as quickly as they are, because huge budgets demand a more conservative approach. Even then, on the narrative side of things, there's room for experimentation. With Dreamfall, for example, we're playing with structure and pacing in a way that just hasn't been done in this medium before, and that's incredibly fascinating. And there's so much left to accomplish with interactive narratives, I don't think I'll ever grow bored with it. I really feel lucky to be working on the front lines of this medium, at a time when we're able to mold the future of games for generations to come.
I don't think technology has ever gotten in the way of storytelling, and I think Infocom games are the proof of that. Even as simple as they seemed to be, as long as text could be presented on the screen, you could bring across a powerful story experience even without graphics or a 3D engine. I guess in the end, I think technology can only enhance the story experience (facial animations, voice acting, animations, fully realized world, scripted reactive elements, physics-based engines, etc.).
"Technology can get in the way of storytelling by giving us really cool digital actors to work with, and suddenly (and I'm guilty of this) we think we're Spielberg."
-- Ken Levine
Technology can get in the way of storytelling by giving us really cool digital actors to work with, and suddenly (and I'm guilty of this) we think we're Spielberg. Face it, no game developer has the chops of a great film director, and no game character is going to emote like Brando. We've got different strengths and weaknesses.
It needs to be more than a gimmick, however. We need technology that fuels the narrative and the gameplay, and not the other way around. Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should do it. We're still at a gee-whiz stage where every new technological innovation is tossed in there, because gamers will love it. And they do! Hell, I love big explosions as much as the next guy. But we have to look at the technology as a tool, as a means to an end, and not an end in itself.
I think that interactive--or participatory--narratives will become increasingly complex and mature and that they will reach an ever-growing audience. We just need to get past the gee-whiz-bang stage and dig into the kind of stories that will make people feel. Mix interactivity with emotion, and you've got a very, very powerful tool.
"Even great games have bad stories, but that doesn't stop people from buying them--not until they have a choice"
-- Ragnar Tørnquist
I will also say that people tended to denounce comics and graphic novels for quite some time, but I think some of the best stories I've ever read have come from graphic novels--DC's Vertigo line comes to mind, which really put Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, and Grant Morrison into the limelight. Graphic novels are a lot like games in some respects, considering it's a fusion of art and story without the interactive element that technology provides.
As I said previously, the story of a game is only one component of the game design. The story should not be evaluated on its own.
To answer your question: Yes, for the most part, games have bad stories. Even great games have bad stories, but that doesn't stop people from buying them--not until they have a choice.
Another aspect we tried to experiment with on Planescape: Torment was that we'd do a story first and try to weave the game mechanics around it--so there'd be no load screen when you died, for example, or you could resurrect your companions, or that you were all classes at once, it was just a matter of "remembering" all your class skills when you focused on training to try to explain away a lot of the more RPG game mechanics that are taken for granted. I think there's a lot of room for doing this in future titles, and rather than slapping a story on top of a game, both of them become equally important, and each one drives the other.
"We always try to identify the elements that are going to be "fun" about the game first, focus on those, and try to make sure the story complements it."
-- Chris Avellone
With Dreamfall, we began with the story, and every decision regarding genre, interface, and gameplay evolved from that. We were very clear about what our focus was from day one. Still, the story we'd written was tailor-made for a game and wouldn't work in a movie or a novel, which is why we could do it that way. You have to balance compelling gameplay with a solid narrative, and the latter can never take away from the former. This is why Hollywood has struggled with games, because with movies, the story is everything. With games, it's part of a larger equation.
"You have to be constantly aware of the implications of every design decision, which is why it's hard for writers who aren't also game designers to write a game. And it's also why we sometimes end up with subpar stories, because most game designers aren't good writers."
-- Ragnar Tørnquist
Currently, I enjoy creating games. I don't have too much free time to enjoy. When I can find any, I enjoy what I have listed in the above. But if I were to quit creating games, I'd rather do a lot of things than settle down in the country.
I finally got married when I realized I should find somebody who has the same tastes I do. My wife and I are eerily similar: We like the same food, the same movies, the same TV shows. And we both have the sense of humor of your average 9-year-old.
Thank you very much for your time.