[MUD-Dev] RE: Storied Games

Lee Sheldon linearno at gte.net
Wed Nov 28 11:53:17 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001

-----Original Message-----
From: Paul Schwanz

> Is it much easier for a professional writer to understand the
> nature of games than it is for a professional game developer to
> understand the nature of writing?

Ack, no.  Probably harder.  I know more programmers who have proven
to be good writers than writers from other media who have attempted
games.  Of course there is a gleaming macadam highway leading from
one to the other in the former case, and an over-grown rutted trail
in the latter.

> Or are you saying that something like Asheron's Call is not a
> valid professional attempt at a "storied" game because they don't
> have paid writers on staff?

Chris Foster told me that their lead writer -was- a professional by
my definition of the word: a writer who makes either all hert or his
income from writing, or at least half her or his income primarily
from writing, and the other half related to the writing (These are
called hyphenates: writer/producer, writer director, writer/game
designer for example).  But hiring a professional writer doesn't
guarantee good writing!  Rememember all those badly-written solo
games that even put on the box "Written by Hollywood Writer!"  Not
hiring any professionals ever however is an even iffier proposition.
AC is not a "storied" game IMO because the story is entirely
incidental to game play.

> Personally, I don't think the lack of story in MMO's can be passed
> off as simply a staffing issue.  Interactivity itself has some
> characteristics that make it antithetical to being *told* a story.
> It is not simply that the stories are often poor, but that having
> a story told to a player is an imposition on that player's
> interactivity. Certainly both can exist together in the same MMO,
> but when the story *telling* begins, the interaction stops.

Yes!  I agree!  That is the way it's done most of the time.  That's
the way it was done (still is often) in solo games.  But it doesn't
have to be that poorly structured!

> The question is not whether players like stories.  They do.  The
> question is whether or not they like to stop interacting in the
> game.  I think that in many cases, they would rather not suffer
> interruptions to their interaction.

I sure don't like it.  That's why I try not to force them to stop
interacting just to tell stories.  Just as writers learn to deliver
exposition in action, writers need to learn to deliver story in
gameplay.  Instead in games we get long reams of text to wade
through.  Why?  Making exposition unobtrusive seems to be an unknown
art to most writing games.  They... we... suffer because it is
treated as an interruption.  And if it needs to be an interruption
(as some times it may - no law is carved in stone), it must be
entertainment on the same level as the gameplay.  End of story.

> Apparently, the MMO industry is not alone in its inability to
> deliver a "storied" game.  So far, that "crew with a somewhat less
> insular vision" has failed to produce as well.  This, despite the
> guarantee that it will leave all the others in the dust. And when
> this crew does show, won't it then be part of the MMO industry
> (what's left of it)?

Actually there are examples of good storytelling in solo games.
Outside this list it would be easy to come up with several from Shen
Mue to Metal Gear Solid.  I wouldn't include Max Payne on that list
however, lol.


> The issue is not that we are having difficulty imagining or even
> building an environment in which players can tell stories and game
> developers can also tell stories.  It is certainly possible to
> have an environment that allows for multiple authors.  I've seen a
> "story" written by dozens of authors with each contributing two or
> three sentences.  The result was chaotic to say the least.

Gad, yes they're awful.  In the 1930s a group of some of the best
mystery writers of what is today considered the "Golden Age" of
mystery fiction collaborated on a novel called "The President's
Mystery Story."  (Or something like that...)  It was called that
because the premise was suggested by FDR.  Each one did a separate
chapter.  Here was a group of professional, GOOD writers, and the
result was silly.


> Certainly good interruptions are more likely to be tolerated than
> bad ones, but they are still interruptions in the interactive
> nature of the game.

I suggest that an occasional respite, if well done, might actually
be welcomed by some gamers.  It's only when that's the ONLY way
story is delivered that I start to shift uneasily in my chair.  Heh,
OT.  That phrase reminded me of the worst typo I ever perpetrated on
the world.  It was read by several major studios, sigh.  I meant to
type as a stage direction: "He shifts uneasily in his chair."  It
came out: "He shits uneasily in his chair."

I see three approaches to telling stories in MMO's.

> The sandbox approach.  Here, the stories are totally up to the
> players. The developer may help facilitate player storytelling by
> providing in-game medium and forums for such, but when it comes to
> the stories themselves, they take a hands-off approach.
> Interaction will typically by the main focus, which is fortunate
> since the sort of stories that arise from this environment may
> leave a lot to be desired. The problem is not only that the
> storytellers are amateurs, but also that what they are trying to
> tell (whether deliberately or simply through interaction) can be
> quite disjointed or even at odds with other stories being told.

Please explain this to Dave and Derek.

> For instance, the story about an adventurer out to slay a dragon
> may run afoul of the story about a thug who waylays unsuspecting
> travellers.  (A typical solution to this is to not let anyone tell
> any stories about anything which might unduly influence another
> player's story.) In any case, the sandbox approach to storytelling
> suffers from a lack of continuity or an overall theme to provide
> context and structure to the myriad voices.  The result is often
> something like what one would hear from a choir in which each
> member is singing a different song.  But since the focus isn't
> really on the story and the developer has (hopefully) done well
> with the interactive portion of the game, no one seems to mind too
> much.

Well, whether they mind or not is an open question.  They don't have
any other choice.  There's never been a real alternative.  So, as I
mentioned before, what shows up on the boards is more of a whimper
than a roar, and therefore largely lost in the noise.

> The data-intensive approach.  Here, the developer *tells* a story
> to the players.  The emphasis is strongly on the authorial will of
> the developer.  The players lose much of their ability to interact
> with or influence the resulting story.  In many cases, the players
> seem prone to ignore the story and return to their interaction.
> While this may be in large part a result of poor writing, it
> remains to be seen whether players are interested in being pulled
> away from their interaction at all.

As long as story and interactivity are seen as mutually exclusive
you'll be stuck with this unecessary dilemma.


> The process-intensive approach.  It seems to me that there may be
> a middle ground between the above extremes.  Or maybe even lots of
> middle grounds.  I believe that a developer can be very deliberate
> about introducing theme, context, and structure in the form of
> process.  In some cases, they can even introduce very specific
> data, but still leave most of the story unfinished.  I've given
> examples of this in recent postings.  The deliberate design of
> mining and item creation to facilitate varied goals and quests is
> one example of how process might be used to nudge players toward
> telling stories (interacting) within this context.  You could also
> introduce something like the One Ring with its nine companions as
> specific data, but then let player interaction determine how the
> rest of the story will read.  Here, instead of singing a specific
> solo part (data-intensive), perhaps the director suggests a chord
> upon which others can improvise (little data, mostly context or
> process).

There are many techniques you can use in this middle ground, which
is precisely where I operate.

> I suppose there still isn't much to keep choir members from
> heading off on their own,

We shouldn't be worried about that.  There's already plenty in these
games for them.  WE just need to make sure the normal PvE or PvP
gameplay is compelling enough to hold them.  They're the easy part
of the potential audience.

> but I think there is much less chance that the effort will be
> ignored, since it still allows interaction to be primary.

I agree with the thought, if not the emphasis.  Primary?  To me
entertainment is primary.  Entertainment holds people.  I'm just as
flexible as I can be to guarantee that.


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