PAX '07: It's all about the story

Monkey Island creators join Sly Cooper vet to dish on the challenges and opportunities associated with incorporating worthwhile narratives into interactive entertainment.

SEATTLE--One of the primary driving factors in the games industry has been technology. The current console climate has made huge strides in this most recent generation in providing immersive environments, intense action sequences, and highly detailed graphics and character models. However, technology has also presented a unique opportunity in one of the hallmark areas of potential in gaming: storytelling.

Telltale's Dave Grossman shares his thoughts to the rapt attention of his peers...

Kicking off the panel circuit at this year's Penny Arcade Expo is "Once Upon a Time...Storytelling in Games Today," which set out to explore the challenges presented by storytelling in games, as well as the unprecedented opportunity to convey a story through the interactive gaming medium.

Speaking at the Q&A-oriented session were three of the more prolific names in the industry. Dave Grossman, currently with Telltale Games, is the writer of the universally acclaimed adventure game series The Secret of Monkey Island, as well as Day of the Tentacle. Also of Monkey Island fame, and currently working with Hothead games on Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, is Ron Gilbert. Lastly, Nate Fox has worked with Sucker Punch on the well-liked Sly Cooper series of stealth platformers.

Getting the ball rolling, the three addressed the problems associated with telling a story through a game. Opining first, Grossman noted that there's a serious disconnect between narrative and gameplay, and therefore designers lose control of a lot of important aspects of storytelling. He continued, saying that pace and context are extremely important in developing a story, and these elements can aggravate players more interested in a linear style of play. Gilbert expounded on this further, stating that the difference between movies and games is that gamers can and will do everything in their power to mess up the designer's intended purpose. Consequently, game designers must incorporate into the story certain eventualities that players happen upon through creative gameplay.

Continuing with the association between movie storytelling and game storytelling, the three universally agreed that games are far easier to get emotionally attached to. According to Grossman, you have more buy-in with a game. After all, when you spend five or 10 hours building up a character in a role-playing game, and then that character dies, players want to punch a hole through their monitors. On the other hand, when a character in a movie dies, often the response becomes, "I totally saw that coming." Fox followed, noting that it is far easier to explore a situation in a game than a movie. Therefore, it is possible to incorporate more diverse viewpoints or takes on a situation.

The panel then shifted to how important the story is in designing a game. Here the panel split, with Fox stating that in his games, story is often shoehorned in after the game mechanics have been established. After all, he said, it isn't possible to know what a character will be until it is known what a character can do. Not parsing words, Gilbert rebutted Fox's approach to story implementation with a terse "Nate's wrong." However, he followed that statement by saying that different people have different methodologies, and Fox's methods clearly work for him.

The panel was then asked for their thoughts on the decline of the adventure game genre as a whole. Grossman summed up his cohorts' thoughts by saying that adventure games are very tricky, because it is easy to do them poorly. As opposed to a first-person shooter or action game, there is no middle ground with an adventure game: It is either solid or it is unbearable. According to Grossman, a lot of that has to do with finding the sweet spot on the puzzle elements, given that audiences will quickly grow bored if the puzzles are too easy, yet are just as quick to give up if the puzzles are too difficult.

A second obstacle to the wide appeal of adventure games noted by the panel is that it is far more difficult to create tension than in fast-paced shooters or action games. As Grossman put it, adventure games are in many ways like reading a book due to their relative lack of gameplay. Accordingly, instead of a visceral tension, adventure games provide intellectual tension, which is increased, according to Grossman, by having the player juggle an increasing amount of information.

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36 comments
ananda81
ananda81

The Secret of Monkey Island...my favorite game ever!!! XD I really miss the good old days of point&click Adventure game Classics...

bodyhugger79
bodyhugger79

DAY OF THE TENTACLE! It is one of the best game from LucasArts I owned. Also the FULL THROTTLE game. The best... Wishing they'll improved its graphics and way of delivering the 2D cartoons into 3D one with the same (or more) impression just like the old one.

2w-sephiroth
2w-sephiroth

Well I hope to see more games that follow a storyline, I cant wait to enter an era where games will be divided into crazy fun games and into interactive movie entertaiment. In other words a movie heavily constructed on a very good storyline and characters with a very deep world where the user can control the characters... erm yes I know its still a game but gamers they dont have the pacience to stop to read or watch the cinematics :S I have met so many people that just skip and winch saying "i just want to play the bloody game" sigh. I played Sly2 awsome game really good story line too.

kappareign
kappareign

so tru... i kinda miss the monkey island games. they were a lot of fun with very little violence. great for younger kids

lamprey263
lamprey263

I miss the old point and click adventures that LucasArts used to come out with; damn them for pulling the plug.

omerdv
omerdv

good old days with monkey island...what a great game it was... still one of the best. the story and the gameplay... even comedy... comedy is always good in a video game... it makes you be relaxed... and not so lets say "jumpy" when you play a FPS although fps's are just fine they should do a new version of the monkey island series.....

omerdv
omerdv

good old days with monkey island...what a great game it was... still one of the best. the story and the gameplay... even comedy... comedy is always good in a video game... it makes you be relaxed... and not so lets say "jumpy" when you play a FPS although fps's are just fine they should do a new version of the monkey island series.....

arc_salvo
arc_salvo

Personally, I wish there were more good Adventure games out there, but what the panel said about them being hard to make good is quite right, there is almost no middle ground, and it's easy to make an adventure game too boringly easy or too frustratingly hard. I think the Phoenix Wright series on the DS got the difficulty just about right though, as an example. I do like the fact that more and more genres of games that didn't use to rely on strong storylines are getting more into them nowadays, with shooters like Bioshock and The Darkness and even Gears of War getting more in on the story thing. I -really- miss all the CRPG's we used to have back in the late 90's though. Fallout, Baldur's Gate, Planescape Torment... gone are the days when we had tons of good western style "you play the character you want" story-based RPG's coming out left and right, and I wish that developers and publishers would get it into their heads that there is -FAR- more demand for those types of games right now than there is supply, and that next-gen consoles in addition to PC's are fully capable of supporting good games in that genere. It's nice that Mass Effect is coming out for the X-box 360, but it's also very sad to me that it's the /only/ non-mmo "choice" based single player RPG coming out on the horizon. I suppose there's the Mask of the Betrayer expansion for NWN2, but I find it very very sad that I can only think of 2 truly story based RPG's coming out this year.

cayne_phoenix
cayne_phoenix

when are they going to wrap up the monkey island series>?

ketsuatama
ketsuatama

Damn I miss those games! Although I love to play quality FPS's ,what a welcome break they would be from time to time!

Reetesh
Reetesh

I agree completely with the statements about adventure gaming.. And also its very true that to have great story related game, there should be a little bit of linearity.

swyg
swyg

The most important thing in any game is entertainment. However, I'd say the experience of the game is by far the most important (combination of the gameplay and the story).

True_Blu3
True_Blu3

I am seeing some games getting great stories. BioShock and The Darkness are one of those games. We are defiantly going into the "next-gen" of story telling in games.

c_rakestraw
c_rakestraw moderator moderator

I find that story's in game haven't been as good as they could be, and another thing that seems to happen a lot is, how you'll see the same story as another game. And I think story is pretty important part of game development, and it would be nice to see developers creating more original story's for games.

hector1313
hector1313

How good a story has to be for a game really depends on the genre of the game, to be honest. Obviously it helps if a game has a strong story (especially with the likes of RPGs) but if a game has a lot of varied gameplay in it, or if it takes a while to get to different parts of the story (some RTS games for example) then the story isn't of the utmost importance. And since everyone else is doing it, my priority list for games - 1. Gameplay + Story (I like both to be very good) 2. Sound (especially in games that need a particular atmosphere) 3. Graphics (they're never, EVER important) I don't need fancy graphics to have a good game...

Myriam_D
Myriam_D

Adding to the last paragraph of the article, games other than pure adventure sorts and RPGs are starting to establish themselves in the story world. We all know Bioshock, which plays like an fps, and we always had Starcraft. Also, there seems to be a discussion of priorities-from my own experience, it's Game play = Story > Price = re playability > Graphics = Music > Sound effects. Music falls under graphics in a fair few genres for me though.

Mr_Sam-ich
Mr_Sam-ich

the hard thing with games is that the gameplay really always trumps the story, and that's compounded by the fact that it's so hard to work a really good story into a game without one of the two being harmed by the process. bioshock handles telling a story well, in a very interesting way, but that doesn't work with all types of games. it doesn't help that a lot of players just don't care about story to begin with.

osirisomeomi
osirisomeomi

As far as I can tell, the priority games should go for is gameplay > story > graphics > sound. If the game plays really well and has a really good story, then that's a must-buy for me even if it doesn't have the coolest graphics.

1PSman
1PSman

i havent realy ever disliked a game cuz of a a bad story i have cuz of bad gameplay so to me gameplay is more important.

metroidprimegmr
metroidprimegmr

Mmmm... brain-food. I especially agree with Grossman in the last paragraph. Story is of UTMOST importance, which is why I love the MYST franchise; with every entry in the series, Cyan has wrapped the gameplay AROUND THE STORY, rather that the other way around. Plus, a game's story is always more interesting and immersive if the player has to sort through the plot on their own, rather than having it force-fed to them.

StarFox-Elite
StarFox-Elite

Hmm, intresting read...worth passing on a link to any friends who might be intrested...

comthitnuong
comthitnuong

Good to see the guy recognize the problem with adventure games. It is very hard to strike a balance with them.

caesarbites
caesarbites

I know it's probably wrong of me to say this, but if a game has a really great storyline, I would suffer through horrible graphics and gameplay just to see the story through to the very end. But the story would have to be REALLY good. Of course I'd much rather play a game like Bioshock that does everything well.

kca89
kca89

The original Monkey Island game was awesome along with some of the other games around its time like Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis as well as one other that started with an L that I forgot the name of. If they made newer games just as good like that I would definitely buy them asap. Heck, even if they re-released those 3 old games and more in a value pack that works for XP, etc. I would probably pick them up.

Pete5506
Pete5506

BioShock is just plan good, and it sorta is an adventure, the story line was good

Humorguy_basic
Humorguy_basic

I have been saying this for ages - and boy am I not like on here for saying things like that! Bioshock's story is not bad, but neither was System Shock 2's and that didn't sell, so stories are important, but No.1 is making the game run on average PC's and stop asking gamers to upgrade all the time, because PC gaming is suffering as more and more are saying 'I can't afford it any more....!' So get cracking somebody on still using the Far Cry (original version) and Half Life 2 engines, along with a cracking story and characters and you will have a huge hit on your hands, as you will have dealt with No.1 and No.2. No.1 Your game will run on average PC's because of the engine you used,. the graphics will still look hot enough for most gamers, and with a rollicking story you will pull in all those people with average PC's and even those with uber PC's who will forgive the slight lacking in graphics if the story/game is good enough (look at STALKER as a good example!) Here endeth the lesson for today....

marioraider
marioraider

Interesting read. BioShock had a great story, but more games with different plots would be so awesome.

zeus_gb
zeus_gb

Bioshock isn't an adventure game, it's an FPS. "is that gamers can and will do everything in their power to mess up the designer's intended purpose" yeah that's so true.

W_Claiborne
W_Claiborne

Of course one really good adventure game was just released -- BioShock. It's got a terrific story so far from what I've seen, and the atmosphere it creates hit home more than any book.

dchan01
dchan01

It's nice to see some of the Lucasarts dream team employees back together again.

RaiKageRyu
RaiKageRyu

Interesting read. I hate to see adventure games decline, but we're seeing a somewhat resurgence on the DS and Wii. I also hate that character's persona are often created after the game's mechanics.