Saturday, September 8, 2012

Video Game Storytelling Part One: Involvement and Affection

I'm not sure how long this article series will go on, as I'm not sure how much I have to say.  I have at least 3 segments planned, but I have a feeling I'll think of more while writing.  Also, this is a very long post.  But I think it's interesting! :D

Note: This post contains Bioshock spoilers if you somehow haven't heard about what the twist is.  There also Gemini Rue spoilers shortly after.  If you haven't played Gemini Rue, please avoid them because Gemini Rue is awesome and it'd suck to have the twist killed.

So, part one of storytelling: Involvement and Affection.  It's a pretty simple concept and it's at the core of every single story in every single medium: Getting us to care.  There is not a single piece of media produced which does not care about involvement, because involvement is the end goal of every piece of media.  No matter what messages you have, no matter your characters, no matter your story, the true measure of success in a medium is involvement.  That's not to say those aren't important.  They're building blocks.  Together message, story, and character combine and build upon each other to involve the consumer as much as possible.

So how does this apply to video games?  Well, video games obviously share plenty of techniques with other media.  However, video games are also fundamentally interactive, and this means that there are some things that video games can do far better, or just differently, than any other media.

First I'll talk about what video game storytelling, in its quest for involvement, shares with other media.  In my opinion, storytelling can essentially be boiled down into three elements: Character, Story, and Message.  Who we should care about, what we should care about, and why we should care about it.

First: Character.  Pretty self-explanatory but also extremely important.  Your characters are the emotional heart of your story and are what the consumer will be connecting to.  You have to make sure that the consumer can feel some sort of affection for at least one of the characters, because there's nothing more off-putting than a story filled entirely with disgusting, unrelatable people.  I'm not going to go much into what makes a good character here, as that's an entirely different article (but one I do plan on writing).  But let's do a short little list of what I feel make good characters.  This is of course my opinion, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments:

-At least one character has to be identifiable in some way: In my opinion, identification boils down into appreciating the character's motives.  This doesn't mean that they have to be goody-goodies.  Let's use the manga Death Note as an example: The main character is unequivocally the villain, and gets crazier as the series continues.  However, he's doing what he's doing for a sympathetic cause: He believes that he's cleaning the world up by killing bad people, the problem is that this gradually transforms into him killing anyone who crosses him and then using his goal as justification.  The reason why he's a sympathetic character despite being crazy and a horrible person, is because you understand why he's doing it.  And you understand that in the same position, you might do the same.

Here's a picture of Edward Gorey with a very large stuffed bear to break up this wall of text.
-All characters need a "personal background" that they're coming from: Now, this isn't to say that every single one-scene side character needs a complete family tree and 10 pages on their life up to adulthood.  Instead, look at your character's interactions with each other.  Single out what would be important in said interactions: Financial situation, ethnicity, religion, etc.  Define these relevant aspects and poof!  Instant personality.  For example, say I'm writing a fantasy story and my main character is trading with a merchant from another continent.  My main character is poor and from the empire, whereas the merchant is rich and from the Asia-surrogate lands to  the East.  In the empire you don't have to haggle, you do in Asialand.  This merchant loves to haggle, but he's also very cunning at it.  The interaction will likely result in the main character getting ripped off.  He's also very boisterous and is very much a patriarch.  Took about 30-45 seconds to write, but it adds a bit more color to their interaction than straight-up winging it.  Obviously for the development of persistent characters you want to develop more, I find the easiest way is just to spontaneously write out whatever I think and then cull it.  But even for main characters, the most important traits are those that affect how they interact with the world.  Developing lengthy backstories and histories is completely meaningless unless it affects your character during the time of the story.  Speaking of which...

The second element of storytelling is the story itself.  In my opinion, the value of a good story is often both severely overrated and severely underrated.  A good story doesn't work without good characters, but good characters aren't interesting without a story to work within.  Now, in school they tell you that story is driven by conflict.  Which is true, but not the best way of phrasing it.  Instead I'm going to steal something from Scott McCloud: Story is driven by Want.  Pretty much every story begins with at least one person (usually more) wanting something.  In other words, story should be character-driven and should arise from your characters.  It shouldn't feel like you planned out an entire lengthy, rigid story and then just slotted characters into it when appropriate.  That's not to say that it's wrong to develop your story before your characters, you just need to make sure that it feels like your characters are actually creating the story, instead of being led by the whims of the author.

The third element of storytelling is the message.  What does your story say, why do we care?  This is perhaps the trickiest part of storytelling, but I need to get a disclaimer out of the way first: There is a difference between message and moral.  Message is the point of your story.  It can be a moral or an observation on the fragile state of humanity, or it could just be "explosions are cool".  So, pretty simple.  Most stories have a message that comes through naturally and you don't have to worry much about it.  In fact, I'd say that it's literally impossible to write a story without a message of some kind.  Even if you're doing some sort of post-modern story where there's no point and no message, that's the message.  So if you can't write a story without message, why is it the trickiest part of storytelling?  Simple, it's really easy to get carried away.  See, it's easy to believe that a story only has value if it says something about our world, if it transcends escapism.  I don't agree personally, but this article's not about that particular debate.  The problem is that it's really easy to get carried away with a high-minded message, which causes it to eclipse both story and character.  This is bad.  Message is subtext.  The key part of the word subtext is sub.  Message, whether it's deep and meaningful or fun and silly, is meant to give a point to your story, to make it feel like it matters in one way or another.  When a message eclipses story and character, you're left with preachy goop (or explodey goop if we're talking about a lighter message, but this tends to be most endemic with "deeper" messages).  Perhaps an even worse trend is people taught that message is most important: bringing it to the forefront, fishing up dreary symbolism to support it, and generally ruining the story.  Anyone who's taken a college English class can probably attest to this.

Mmm, preachy goop...
So I've talked for a while about the three main aspects of storytelling, but in the title up there it says this is Video Game Storytelling.  So let's talk about what games do uniquely with the three elements, and involvement in general.

Every media has a certain degree of natural consumer involvement.  That is, discounting all of the factors mentioned above, a consumer will be mentally involved with it to a certain degree anyway.  On the low end of the spectrum is television, which doesn't require much contribution from the user.  On the higher end we have "silent media" such as books and comics, which require a certain amount of mental filling-in to supplement what's presented to you.  Games are unique in this regard, and kind of transcend the scale.  On one side they could be compared more to television, in that you don't need to fill in mental details in the same way you need to with books and comics.  However, you're also actively involved, unlike the passiveness of movies.  Even in the most linear, cinematic game, I can still take my guy and repeatedly walk him into a wall for my amusement.  This is a silly example, obviously, but it highlights what games can do that no other medium can: they can have direct consumer interaction.

So how does this interact with the three main elements of story?  Well let's take it one at a time again.  First: Character.  The most interesting thing about character in games isn't the way you can implement characters, but the way you can leave them out.  A story in other media without characters wouldn't really work (again, discounting experimental pieces), and even media with only one character through most of the story wouldn't work very well.  But let's take something like Myst.  There are characters besides the player in Myst, the warring brothers and Atrus.  However, the brothers are trapped in books throughout the entire game and you don't even meet Atrus until the end of the game.  The vast majority of gameplay time is spent walking around by yourself, fooling around with puzzles and figuring out exactly what's going on (emergent storytelling is something I'll talk about in another article).  Imagine Myst as a movie: The Adventures of Genericman On The Island of Ridiculously Obtuse Puzzles!  Or as a book: "the Stranger turned the lever.  Then he grunted and turned the other one.  Nothing.  He then turned around and pressed the button.  Then he turned some more levers.  Still nothing." etc. etc.  This probably seems obvious to most people who think about it for a second, but it's worth noting because it's something that no other medium can do.

Though to be fair, Myst's unmarked lever content isn't nearly as ridiculous as Riven's.
Another interesting thing games can do, that's tied into a player's connection to the main character, is identity reveals.  This is pretty common in most media: "You mean I was the murderer all along but then I erased my memory so that I wouldn't give anything away?  Gasp!", but in a game the player is tied directly into the main character, which makes these reveals much more powerful.  It's less, "Oh it was Steve, who is the main character, all along" and more "What?  It was me all along?  Oh no!".  Let's take Bioshock (the previously mentioned spoilers come into effect now) because it's a played out example and everyone hates it now.  In Bioshock you are Jack.  All you know about yourself is that you have an affection for somehow water-resistant sweaters, and are mysteriously good at gunplay. Throughout the game you're guided by a friendly Irishman named Atlas over the intercom, who gives you "advice" on where to go and such.  Except then it's revealed you've been mind-controlled the whole time.  Atlas always prefaced his instructions with "Would You Kindly", which turns out to be your trigger phrase.  You never questioned it because of the intrinsically linear nature of the game.  But anyway, it's revealed that you've been manipulated the whole time through this rather odd and complex plan to bring down the leader of the underwater city so Atlas (real name: Frank Fontaine) can take over.  What makes this twist so interesting is the way it interacts with the player.  You're Jack, but you're also the player.  And as the player you've been taught that you are the master of the game.  So when it's revealed Jack's been manipulated throughout the whole game, you feel manipulated as well due to this reveal.  This, not the Ayn Rand references, is why Bioshock's intelligent (let's just forget about the last third of the game. >.>).

[Bioshock spoilers over, Gemini Rue spoilers begin]  Now, this sort of reveal tends to be more effective in first-person games due to the usual blankness of the main character and the additional immersiveness of the format.  It can still be effective in other formats though.  For example: Gemini Rue, a Sierra-esque point & click adventure game by Wadjet Eye.  Throughout the course of the game you switch between two different characters: Delta-Six, a prisoner on some sort of correctional criminal-reprogramming facility IN SPACE, and Azriel Odin, a bafflingly named PI on a Blade Runner-esque planet, looking for information about his brother.  As the game progresses you begin to assume that Delta-Six is Azriel's brother, but things don't quite line up...  And then it's revealed that Azriel is in fact Delta-six, reprogrammed with new memories, and that the entire Delta-six story was taking place in the past.  This is another example of gameplay adding to the twist: The game sets up for you to assume that the two stories are happening concurrently and then shouts, "NOPE!" and pulls the rug out from under you.  In another medium this'd still be an interesting twist, but it'd feel less personal.

Gemini Rue also gets additional points for actually giving a reason why it's always rainy in Sci-fi Noir Land.
[Gemini Rue spoilers over]  Story in games is interesting.  Mainly because a story is completely optional, depending on the type of game.  Minecraft, for example, doesn't have a story (Well now it kind of does, but it's sort of tacked-on and stupid so I'm discounting it), it's also a brilliant game.  There are many straight-up puzzle games without stories (Cogs, Qube, SpaceChem, etc.).  And lastly, there're a lot of games where the story is basically unnecessary and completely ignoring it doesn't detract from the gameplay experience at all (Painkiller, Just Cause 2).  That being said, if your game's not a pure sandbox game like Minecraft or a pure puzzle game like Cogs you're probably going to have some sort of story.  For story in games, the requisite player interaction is a double-edged sword.  On the bright side it means your player is likely to be quite invested in your story, even if it's a simple "stop the baddies" plot.  But it also means your players will want things to do.  This is tricker than it seems, how do you balance storytelling with player agency?  Do you use cutscenes to interrupt the gameplay flow and get your story across entirely in between-play nuggets?  Do you go the Half-life 2 route and have people monologue at you as you stand there completely unable to react?  Do you try to work the storytelling into the gameplay and risk it coming across unnaturally (such as finding diary pages inexplicably scattered in random places) or falling flat completely?

Obligatory Metal Gear Solid reference: When cutscenes get out of hand.  MGS4 had around eight hours of cutscenes, including at least one ninety minute one.
Besides expecting to be able to do things in general, your players will also want to do interesting things.  That often means action, but that can also be detrimental to stories.  After all, if a story's just a stream of gunfights it'll get boring quick.  A big part of the reason why I love Adventure games despite their (many) failings is because their nature allows them to have slower-paced stories that wouldn't be suited to other genres (imagine Grim Fandango as an action game.  Cringing yet?).  Video games are often criticized for a lack of good stories, but it's hard to write good game stories.  It's entirely different than writing a good book or screenplay, because you have to admit at some point that it's a game and, while some people (such as me) will probably be willing to forgive bad gameplay if the story's excellent, there has to be gameplay at some point.  So a tip to game writers: Work with your designers on the best way of telling your story, before you write a single word.  Going off and writing a screenplay and then attempting to squeeze it into the format of a game often won't work well.  I'll talk some more about gameplay and story integration in Part Two (and by talk more I mean that's what the episode will be about), but suffice it to say that I'm not discounting stories.  Stories are awesome.  I love stories.  However, this is an interactive medium and you need to figure out the best way of telling your story while keeping the interaction intact.  Because without interaction, a game is just an 8-50 hour long movie without real people in it (unless we're talking about FMV games, but uh...  It's not entirely a bad thing that trend is dead and buried).

That's not to say there weren't awesome FMV games.
Message in games is interesting, because how traditionally it's handled depends on the type of storytelling you're going for.  If you're going for a really linear, exposition-y story than you can basically bring out your message like you normally would in any story.  But if you're using a more emergent form of storytelling (that is, having the player piece together the story instead of it being told to them), then it's much more effective.  I've never played Spec Ops: The Line, but from what I've head it's a pretty good example of this.  The game's basically a deconstruction of linear Call O' Duty-style military shooters.  What this means in the context of message is basically pointing out all the terrible things you did during gameplay as part of your standard shooter rigmarole (that's not the extent of it, but I already spoiled it a bit for myself and I don't want to do it to anyone else).  And that's how the message comes out, not by a guy walking up to you and saying, "By the way, war is bad.  Stop shooting at people, you jerk", but by playing along and repeatedly thinking, "I did this?  This is horrible".  This also ties into the whole character realization mentioned in the character section above.  I'll get a bit more into this when I write an article on Emergent Storytelling (which is my favorite kind of storytelling), but this article is already very long as I'm going to cut myself off now.  No more ramblings!

Next article on storytelling will be a side piece featuring games I think did exceptional jobs on storytelling, as well as those that had flawed but notable approaches.  Part Two will come after that.


  1. Very good article, and I think everything you had to say on the method of videogame storytelling was spot on. Looking forward to part 2, and learning what games you think are good at storytelling (I have my own picks, and I'm curious to see if we picked the same games. I suspect you'll mention Braid as a flawed example? No, don't tell me... spoilers, and all that :3)

    1. Thanks. :) And yeah, no spoilers. :P The article should be out pretty soon though, I basically just have to scan all my games to add some more besides the ones that immediately come to mind.

  2. Wow. Awesome article. Looking forwad to part 2 and 3. :)