Friday, March 19, 2010

When Boring is Fun

Stories and games have been being chewed on this week in a way that I find a lot more fruitful than the usual dance, and I explicitly want to point over at Chuck's blog and Gameplaywright for good stuff to read on the topic. I've found a lot of good fruit in this thinking, and the question of what it is that games do well (and poorly)[1]. My short suspicion is that games look like stories not because they are but because the events in games are the kinds of things you tell stories about - that is to say, cool, interesting, exciting things - and the similarity to stories has more to do with the compression algorithm that makes fiction than something inherent in their structure.

But that got me thinking about things that are exciting, interesting or compelling but make bad stories. Are maybe those sort of things in an area similar to where games live? Specifically, could the difference be found within? That required thinking about what you can't storytell about well, and at first that seemed a daunting challenge. A good writer can make even very mundane things compelling, but there's the rub. There are certain tricks that are used to write about certain things to make up for the fact that the thing itself doesn't make a good story.

This is best revealed in any long activity, where endurance is part of the satisfaction. Climbing a mountain is long and hard work, but it can be intensely rewarding and satisfying. Telling the story of a climb in any irect way will be very boring indeed, and capture none of what actually makes it compelling. Instead, an author will turn it into a story by focusing in on a single, emblematic moment, or using the climb as a framework to tell other stories that might symbolically resonate with the climb[2]. There are plenty of tricks to do this, but the point is fiction compressed (or perhaps more poetically, distills) the experience to find something compelling in it, even if that thing you find is not the reason someone climbed a mountain in the first place.

Games, and in this case I especially mean video games, have a different sort of compression algorithm, and most notably, endurance is in their bag of tricks. Done badly it's slog or grind, but games can have their player commit hours to activities which would be described in a few sentences in text. Sure, it's not a full mountain climb - it's still compressed - but its much closer to the experience.

What's interesting me most is that as I've been writing this, I've found I don't have the words for these things. Because we can't represent it in fiction, there's not a lot of common language for satisfaction out of endurance[3]. I've got tons of words for other types of satisfaction, but not this. Yet despite that lack of words this is a real thing, and something that games serve well.

And that feels to me like a blind spot. We've talked about how it might be worth having the game experience have its own word to distinguish it form the structures we've associated with story, but that has also come with an idea that the stories you get out of games are more raw, unfinished clay - full of power, maybe, but not much else. But thinking about endurance makes me wonder how much of this is really about our limited (and self perpetuation) understanding of stories rather than some shortcoming in games.

1 - And whether we'd all be better off if it was called something other than story. A lot of this came out of my trying to think of how one describes Shadow of the Colossus.

2 - This isn't limited to writing. In film or TV, for example, this will be a montage.

3 - I'm sure there IS a word, something latin-y and used by people who use "Fiero" in sentences, but jargon doesn't count.


  1. Isn't satisfaction out of endurance (or anything you strive toward through adversity) "accomplishment?"

  2. Chuck keeps talking! More good stuff here.

    @cam I think Accomplishment is pretty broad. It includes endurance, but I don't think it's limited to it. Though that's probably the closest term in common use.

    -Rob D.

  3. I always thought that traditional rpgs were much closer to theatre than storytelling (except perhaps the audience is in the mirror).

    But like computer rpgs, it also relies heavily on dopamine triggers for enjoyment (commonly referred to as the anticipation of success). Like rolling that 20 to kill the monster, or climbing that cliff. It is an immediate, rather than delayed,* fulfilment.

    Attempting to create this same feeling as fiction is impossible (especially if you are part way through the book). It is slightly easier in film and television, provided that you manage to get the audience to empathise closely with the protagonist.

    Which is why the good fiction based on game franchises consistently breaks the paradigm of the game rules. You can only game the storyline presented in the book by fudging the game.

    [Of course, with the bad fiction, the common complaint is that you can hear the dice clattering in the background. The Battletech franchise has copious examples of both types of authors.]

    And why should you really expect the reverse transformation to be true. The elements of good authorship don't necessarily** make for good gaming. In fact, strong plotting often occurs at a detriment to good game play (as the players become helpless to change their situation and are at the mercy of the storyline).

    As always, YMMV.

    [* A delayed fulfilment would be probably called an accomplishment, such as reaching the peak of the mountain. The immediate fulfilment is getting that grip in the crack that you need.]

    [** The exception probably being games that are complete in and of themselves. Such as convention one-shots (especially with predetermined characters performing a specific mission), or gamemasterless games such as Fiasco, Polaris, and Gangaganganagangarok (I never spell it right, so why bother trying), that have a definite end. To borrow Robert Carse's description: a finite game. Which, even given that they may be storytelling games where you take a role, are not really traditional role-playing games, which have more in common with being an infinite game (one where the objective is to continue playing)]

  4. When it comes to games, boring isn't fun for me. I'd rather abstract it, somehow. A die roll at the beginning of every session, representing progress made on down-time. A montage focusing on the few exciting bits.

    If I want to experience a long period of little gain cumulating in success, I have real life for that.

  5. I think this is a problem of analogy: similar is not the same. Other media handle this differently from games and from each other, and games shouldn't be looking to mirror another medium exactly. I'm not sure that it should be trying to portray boring, either, for the same reasons other media tend to shorthand it. Computer games are a bit of an exception here, since the actual act itself can be fun, and there's usually a reward cycle of some sort, even at the micro level. An RPG *could* do that, but I don't think it's a strength and certainly not a necessity.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.