[MUD-Dev] RE: Storied Games

Lee Sheldon linearno at gte.net
Wed Dec 5 16:02:16 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001


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

> 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.

Better writing alone isn't enough.  I'm not the only one on this
list (there's you too) who hates the long-winded expository text
passages we're so often forced to wade through.  Making them better
written wouldn't hurt, but interactivity still grinds to a halt.

> 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.

What we need is better writing that is presented with some knowledge
of how to approach exposition to avoid stopping the action dead in
its tracks.  The craft of dramatic writing includes all sorts of
techniques to do that.  I've already mentioned the primary law of
"exposition through action."  It's essential to know how this works,
and how important it is to adapt it to game writing.  Writers in
other media don't always get this one, so it's not surprising
writers in games seldom do.

We really need to get away from novels and short stories as our
models for how stories develop, and focus more on drama (including
here TV and film).  These are visual media.  Games are visual media.
It may seem a paradox that the storytelling in a game, since it is
presented as text usually, should be visual.  But it needs to be
treated in the same way: short interesting spurts coming at the
player from a variety of different directions that the game already
provides: everything from signposts to scraps of paper (not 30 page
ancient books please!) to NPCs.  And it doesn't have to be text.
Forgetting voice recognition for a moment, we are way behind other
media in our ability to present story and character through graphics
and animation.  I'm not talking about more polygons or sprites, but
simple emotes.  DAoC has some great emote animations.  Some are even
used to support character and story.  Much much more can be done
however.

I think you're right to look at it as a design issue.  It is every
bit as much a design issue as a writing one.  The game needs to be
designed to accomodate the telling of story.  The game engine needs
to be able to accomodate a more sophisticated structuring of stories
that is not linear and not dependent on huge expository passages.

You want some more techniques?  Others have mentioned how annoyed
they are by current NPCs.  If you haven't guessed by now, I'm in the
same camp.  NPCs are treated like objects, probably because they're
coded like that.  If we approach them as legitimate living creatures
existing in the world with their own feelings and agendas, we get a
built-in mechanism for storytelling.  I've written about this before
on the list.  A single NPC in Gryphon Tapestry could handle merchant
duties, quest assigning, storytelling, gossip and skill training
(not all did).  But they weren't thought of as merchant
quest-assigning storytelling gossipy skill trainers.  They fit all
those roles because of how the NPCs were created: as characters
first, and yes, always with an eye to game functionality just as any
auther has an eye on her characters' function in a plot.

Another?  Incidental storytelling.  This can crop up as a "B" story,
or simply an aside that reveals character it may be important to
take note of.  For example in a quest you run across an NPC who will
help/hinder you in regards to that specific quest, but it isn't
always clear (other than vague factional generalities) -why- they're
a help or a hinderance.  It is very cool to throw away a line or two
about an ancient grudge or a new love that doesn't pertain directly
to the quest, but will be remembered in another quest or story bite.
No over-explaining is needed! You can often tell an amateurish
character by the fact that he/she is far too self-aware.  They
explain themselves to the player as a kind of nasty shorthand
technique for getting some character out there.  If the character is
-revealed- through action, interaction with the player and other
NPCs, etc. it can be delivered in small digestible bites that when
put together create a far richer and more believable character that
a single long speech about why they are the way they are.

  SIDEBAR: It could be argued that people don't bother to read the
  text (for whatever reason), and if we snuck too much in, if we
  don't retrain them, they'd just miss it.  I'd reply that a) It
  shouldn't matter to some, if they -do- miss it.  The game should
  be supplying their entertainment in non-story ways as well.  And
  b) For those who might come to be interested in the story, the
  great thing about these worlds is the easy exchange of
  information.  A player who misses a subtle clue in one place, may
  be authorially reminded elsewhere; reminded by other players in
  game; from websites, etc. etc. etc.

Really, I could come up with tons of examples.  I spend eight hours
of my GDC tutorial just skimming the surface of this stuff.  I could
write long-winded blocks of expository text here (as you can see),
but I much prefer bits and pieces... suggestions... that people can
run with or ignore as they choose.

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

Yes, my hyperbole can often get the better of me.  I do think if you
don't consider other approaches to a problem, and just assume a
problem has no solution (e.g. story and interactivity don't mix),
you're limiting your own horizons as well as the people who
experience your product.  And that segues into...

> 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.

...my point that the current player base -appears- to be satisfied.
But for how long?  How many more clones before that player base is
saturated?  It's one thing to aim low in a solo game.  The players
buy it, and your job is done.  But in an ongoing world, if you don't
have a variety of rabbits in your hat, I really believe even those
players will just move on.  Right now, if the story bunny is even
-in- the hat, it's suffocated to death.  No wonder the players are
unimpressed.

>> 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 think it's a matter of degree, and sophistication of presentation.
Until we see it done as well as it can be, we can never be sure.
But I'm really truly not advocating "data-intensive" intrusive
storytelling.  I'm advocating a near-transparent (to gameplay),
dynamic storytelling that empowers and helps shape player stories,
reacts to the give-and-take, and still moves a story forward that is
every bit as rich and rewarding as what we've come to expect from
other media.  I -know- it can be done.

> 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.

"Gamers" is such a tricky word, isn't it?  It can be used to cover a
single, cohesive group, or it can be used to blanket a vast spectrum
of tastes.  I don't -know- which group is larger either.  All I can
go on is the numbers of people who are online, who want to be
entertained, what has entertained them in the past, and what has a
good shot at entertaining them in the future.  We're not reaching
the vast majority of them.  I've entertained through games.  I've
entertained in non-game media.  All I want to do is try to create
something that appeals to both groups.

> 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.

I blabbed on about a few above.  Please check out the notes from
last year's tutorial on my website.  Understand that it is more an
introduction to concepts than detailed solutions.  We have to start
someplace.

> I'm looking forward to seen the "Fellowship of the Ring" movie
> that is opening up later this month.

Me too. :)

> 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.

And there is a primary reason why books, even though we use text,
are a bad model for interactive storytelling.

> In a similar manner, I believe that people go to games for
> interaction.

Yup, and I think anybody who falls back on blocks of text for their
storytelling feels badly about it, but either doesn't know how to do
it any other way, or is forced (by engine limitations and/or
management ignorance) to do it yet again in the same old
game-stopping way.

  SIDEBAR: BTW, I use the word "ignorance" here not in the
  "trailer-trash beer-guzzling ignorant SOB" way at least one other
  person has chosen to take it, but rather simply meaning a lack of
  knowledge or education in other possible approaches.  Something
  like what the dictionary says in fact.  I'm adding this
  clarification here since I'm not going to directly respond to the
  email that was sent to me, a copy of a post that I guess did not
  make it to the board.

> 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.

We are absolutely agreed that story shouldn't get in the way of good
interactivity.  I'm firmly of the belief also that we should stop
letting interactivity get in the way of a good story.

Lee

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