Problem, Black Box, and Feedback
January 23, 2012 8:57 AM   Subscribe

"I love stories. My chief hobby is reading. I was formally trained as a writer, not as a game designer (there wasn’t really any formal training for game design I got started, but that’s another story). I think most game stories are not very good. And I quite enjoy games with narrative threads pulling me through them. When I find a game with a good story, I frequently prefer the story to the actual game! So please keep that in mind as you read: I love story."
Narrative in a game is not a mechanic. It’s a form of a feedback, by Raph Koster
posted by codacorolla (10 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting, and it made me think of one of the best pieces I've read on what story means in a video game, at Zompist.
It was an epic end to the round and definitely a tale to retell, and as Bissell recognizes, it’s not a story told by the developers. It emerged from the game and the actions and capabilities of eight human players. And really, it has all the elements of the best art: terror, a pragmatic selfishness, shame, redemption, catharsis. The emotions were real, and perfectly in sync with the game situation. And none of this could be done in any other medium.

I think when we talk about the stories that games can tell, and the art that games can make, you have to take into account the stories that are told by the players, and the art that is made by the players...
posted by Jeanne at 9:27 AM on January 23, 2012 [3 favorites]

I heart Raph Koster. His A Theory of Fun for Game Design totally changed the way I think about teaching.

Also Inside UFO 54-40 was the first Choose Your Own Adventure book I ever owned, and it is totally awesome.

I need to ponder how this relates to tabletop RPGs.
posted by BrashTech at 9:35 AM on January 23, 2012 [2 favorites]

you have to take into account the stories that are told by the players

Exactly. It's actually surprising how uninsightful this piece's definition of "narrative" is, given that it's coming from a guy who's often very insightful about the formal qualities of games. I mean, the essay is a completely reasonable take on narrative in games, provided you think all games dispense a linear narrative divided up into cut-scenes in between episodes of play, with the next cut-scene only shown when when the player has triumphed over the last episode. But that's a terribly blinkered vision of how and why games tell stories (and perhaps more importantly how we, game players, tell stories about, and with, and through, games). If the argument is just that big-budget console games should stop being driven to shitty writing by Hollywood envy, then that's fine; but if the piece is trying, as it appears to be, to say something about the nature of storytelling in all games, it's a terribly limited take.
posted by RogerB at 9:59 AM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, man, Inside UFO 54-40! That is, like, the Choose Your Own Adventure book! I (heart) Koster that much more just for reminding me of it.
posted by a small part of the world at 10:27 AM on January 23, 2012

Exactly. It's actually surprising how uninsightful this piece's definition of "narrative" is

I think he's just talking about QTEs and cutscenes (the feedback part of his grammar), not the stuff that happens while the player is playing the game ('input' as it's called by the grammar and which is traditionally called 'gameplay' as opposed to 'narrative').
posted by codacorolla at 10:33 AM on January 23, 2012

I'm not a big gamer, but I love stories and think narratives are core to being human. If a game designer can weave a narrative into his game in a way that feels organic, that's great! What I hate is when stories are used as spice.

I'm something of a minimalist and not into artistic spice in general. If it's not integral, cut it. Kill ALL your darlings. I've never been a fan of, say, space-invaders-like games that begin with a splash screen telling you some story about an evil galactic empire that you're at war with. Which then turns out to be useless information. You could skip it and the game would be exactly the same. There's no evil galactic empire (except on the splash screen). There's just your ship and the enemy ships.

I know some people like that stuff -- or don't mind it -- because "it adds a little spice," but ... you know how I feel about spice. (Make your game compelling enough so that it doesn't need spice. Or make the spice the whole point of the game.)

I feel the same way about didactic books that use storytelling to entice the bored reader: "Alice in Economics Land" and such. Don't try to spice it up! Just tell me about Economics. Or tell me a story about a girl named Alice. Don't make clunky monsters that are neither fish nor fowl and aren't satisfying as textbooks or dramas.

Of course, sometimes someone manages to make a story integral to a (traditionally) non-narrative experience. Or they make a non-narrative experience require a narrative. That's awesome. It happens rarely, but it's really cool when it does, because all of the sudden, you're not looking at a jackalope; you're looking at a pegasus: the sum greater than its parts. I think "Myst" got close.

I just wish game developers would ask themselves if the story is necessary or if it's spice. Could they pull it out without damaging the gameplay? If so, pull it out! Kill that darling! Kill it! Kill! Kill! Kill! Humankind can not bare much gratuity!


Funny story: I used to play weekly games of "Cosmic Encounter," a sci-fi-themed game that was kind of like poker. There were rules about when you could take cards, how many you could take, when you had to discard and so one. But each player would, at the start of the game, draw a secret power that allowed him to thwart or add-to one of the rules. For instance, your special power might be that, every turn, you got to take one card, at random, from anyone else at the table.

Those were the raw mechanics, but to spice things up, the game designers had written little stories on each special-power card, explaining it in terms of alien races. You got to take cards from people because you were "a TAKER, from planet Varvovox, whose inhabitants rip out the hearts of anyone who visits their world..." or whatever.

It was clear to me that those stories were just spice to help the arbitrary special powers make sense in a sci-fi context.

But one of the guys I played with felt very, very differently. He was a big roll-playing gamer and a member of the Society of Creative Anachronism. To him, the whole POINT of the game was the stories on the special-powers cards. If his special power was skipping two turns, "because" he came from the ancient race of SLEEPERS that hibernate for centuries, he would actually put his head down on the gaming table and pretend to sleep -- and not as a joke. He felt he was not playing unless he did this.

(I am not making fun of him. He and I were just very different. I actually come from a theatre background and love improve and role playing, but, to me, that wasn't the point of this particular game.)

One time we got into a big argument, because my special power forced me to give away one of my cards every turn. This was "because" I was from some super-benevolent planet -- a planet of HELPERS who are always generous to beings of all kinds.

Towards the end of the game, I found a really dastardly way to rack up points -- via a method unrelated to my special power. I pulled my big stunt, made everyone's mouths hit the floor (they weren't expecting it) and grinned, because I knew winning was a sure thing.

My friend was LIVID! "You can't DO that," he screamed!

"Why not?" I asked. "I'm playing by the rules."

"No you're not! You're CHEATING!"

"I don't understand," I said, genuinely puzzled. "What rule did I break?"

He looked at me as if I was an infant. "You REALLY don't understand what you did?" he asked. "Don't you see that what you did was really mean!"

"There's no rule against being mean."

"Yes there IS. For you! Read your card! You are from a planet of benevolent beings. Your race would NEVER do something like that!"

"Are you serious?" I asked. "Don't you see that those stories on the cards are just ... they're just to add interest. They're just to make the game sci-fi-ish. They're not really part of the game!"

"Not really part of the game? Dude, they are ON the CARDS that COME in the GAME BOX! How can you say they're not part of the game."

At which point I gave up. I knew I was right. But I knew he was right, too. Our contexts were too different. And I knew I could never explain to him that the stories on the cards weren't part of the game mechanices, because they WERE part of the game mechanics for him. In fact, while I would have been just as happy -- maybe happier -- if the designers had left the stories off the cards, he would have hated the game if they'd done that. For him, the stories were the whole point and the spice was what I was calling the mechanics. The "poker" aspect, to him, was just a way to hook people into an elaborate sci-fi world, peopled with extraordinary alien races, each with its own special abilities and character traits.
posted by grumblebee at 2:23 PM on January 23, 2012 [5 favorites]

I think he's just talking about QTEs and cutscenes (the feedback part of his grammar), not the stuff that happens while the player is playing the game ('input' as it's called by the grammar and which is traditionally called 'gameplay' as opposed to 'narrative').

isn't gameplay part of the narrative ?
posted by Pendragon at 3:04 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think this is a much more insightful piece on storytelling in games, which absolutely no one will ever actually listen to. It's not really about the game it purports to review, but what made it appealing and why that appeal has diminished. In summary, going by memory: "a good story" is not a mechanical thing you can plug into a game, and the medium really doesn't have very many people capable or interested in telling good stories (and doesn't encourage any change in that), so the result is lots and lots of games where the story is just a justification for the mechanics, which isn't very fun for anyone because the mechanics people fervently want to skipskipskip the cutscenes, and the story people are left totally unsatisfied by them. Good stories have more to do with what makes human life meaningful or interesting than problemsolving or feedback.

posted by byanyothername at 3:05 PM on January 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Humankind can not bare much gratuity

Speak for yourself. There's not much I wouldn't bare for a gratuity.
posted by howfar at 5:04 PM on January 23, 2012

Re grumblebee's story: I'm not buying the claim that "he was right too". Even in a full-on RPG, even in a group where everyone acknowledges that playing your character is the main point of the game, there's a distinction between the characteristics you're acting out and the rules you're not allowed to violate. D&D traditionally describes dwarves as "dour and taciturn", but if I decided to play a cheerful, garrulous dwarf, no one would accuse me of cheating or say that I couldn't do that. They may have their character comment that "you're not like the other dwarves" or something, but that's as far as it would go. Even in a more narrativist game, like Fiasco or the various "storytelling" games where there actually are rules governing what sort of plot developments can happen when, there's a pretty firm boundary between rules and non-rules; indeed, games of this sort tend to adopt the "Yes, and" approach from improv and explicitly forbid simply rejecting anything another player says, as long as it fits within the rules.

No, this guy just doesn't understand what a rule is. If you asked him what the rules of Bridge are, he'd probably include a bunch of bidding conventions.
posted by baf at 12:03 PM on February 1, 2012

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