[MUD-Dev] RE: Storied Games

Paul Schwanz paul.schwanz at east.sun.com
Mon Dec 3 15:02:40 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001

Lee Sheldon wrote:
> 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.

Your response is probably a bit nicer than I deserved. :P Thanks for
being patient with my upstart-ish attitude.

>> 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.

I agree with your last sentence.  This is a bit different than
saying it wasn't even a professional *attempt* at a storied game,
though.  I'd call all of those badly-written solo games professional
attempts as well.  Poor attempts, but still professional.  Maybe I'm
just playing around with word definitions, though.

Back to a game's story being entirely incidental to game play.  Do
you think that this will be fixed through better writing or through
better game design?  I guess I'm looking at it as more of a game
design issue.

>> 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.

When you talk about better delivery of story in gameplay, you mean
through writing techniques?  I'd like to hear more about this.  How
do you make exposition unobtrusive?

Again, I think I am approaching the delivery of story as a game
design issue more than a writing issue.  Maybe that's because I am
not as familiar with various story tools or they are for some reason
more difficult for me to comprehend.

[Some Snippage]

>> 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.

Actually, I got the impression that Dave, Derek and Jeff are all
well aware of the limitations of the sandbox approach.

>> 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.

Yes.  Maybe it would have been more correct for me to talk about the
fact that gamers for the most part understand the limitations of
this approach to the point that expectations have been set.

>> 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.

I don't see story and interactivity as mutually exclusive.  I do
believe that a data-intensive approach where focus is strongly on
the authorial will of the storyteller cannot help but preclude
interactivity to some extent.  Whether or not gamers are willing to
tolerate this preclusion is open to debate.  I personally would
rather not have to.  I don't think I'm alone in this.  I'm also
aware that there may be other gamers who see things quite
differently.  I won't pretend to know which group is larger nor will
I speak on behalf of other gamers.

>> 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.

Again, I am very curious about the writing techniques that can be
used in this middle ground.  I'd love to hear some examples
especially.  I'm afraid it is quite difficult at the moment for me
to determine the potential for games that these tools hold, since
I'm having problems imagining what they might look like.

Of course, I'd also be very interested in other sorts of game design
techniques that might accomplish the same thing.

[More Snipping]

>> 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.

We're not talking just about entertainment though, but entertainment
in the context of a particular medium--that of games.  I believe
that interaction is primary in games in a similar way that visuals
are primary in movies.  I'm looking forward to seen the "Fellowship
of the Ring" movie that is opening up later this month.  I have to
say, however, that I will be quite disappointed if, upon arriving in
the theatre, the movie is frequently interrupted by screen after
screen of text.  But why should I be disappointed?  Haven't I found
the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy to be quite entertaining as text?
You see, I have some expectations about a particular kind of medium,
such as movies.  I go to movies for the visuals.  If I just wanted
text, I'd read the books again.  In a similar manner, I believe that
people go to games for interaction.  I like the visuals at movies to
form good stories, so I don't doubt that I'd like to participate in
stories through interaction as well, but the interaction is primary.
As you say, exceptions are tolerated (there is typically no great
outcry if movie goers suffer a few brief interruptions of visuals
during the course of a film in order to read a small amount of
text), but the medium itself sets some expectations about what will
be primary.


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