Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Jumping Turtles

I've been playing Bastion lately, and enjoying it very much. It's a very pretty Xbox game with some reasonably fun gameplay and fantastic music and visuals, but what's been keeping me hooked is the story it's telling. Some of this is from interesting gimmicks, like a narrator who is very responsive to events in play, but some of it is because the story being told has absolutely captured me, and I'm curious where it's going (it does not hurt that the story in question speaks right to some of the sensibilities that I like to bring to Amber). It's not a long game, and I find myself playing it in only small bits to stretch out the experience.

I've been struck by how well the narration works to illustrate the relationship between the story and the game. This seems to be a result of the narration being in a true storytelling cadence - that is, one which speaks to the essentials of a story more than the details. To understand what I mean, consider the difference between the telling of a legend like Hercules or Beowulf to a modern fantasy novel. The old epics, designed to be told rather than read, might have as much violence or as many events as a novel, but they're described in a few sentences rather than some number of pages.

This is, I should note, not a criticism of either legends or novels - both are awesome - but they definitely deliver the story in different ways, much the same way that movies or comics do so as well. What's interesting to me is that most modern methods of storytelling tend to drill down further into the details because they can, and because they have the tools (Special effects, cool art, patient and well trained readers) to be able to do so. They take pains to make the scene interesting and compelling and - if all goes well - the scene reflects well up onto the story being told.

But there is a disconnect between that level of detail and the story. A master can smooth over that disconnect easily, but the seam is usually visible. A tale may have fantastic scenes but little real story or vice versa. The thing is that, as an audience, I think we are better trained to be forgiving of good elements/poor story than we are of the reverse (though it may also be a case where it's hard to make a good story out of bad parts).

This, in turn, leads to some interesting shifts in perspective to the point where the details can _becomes_ the story, and that gets very weird because then the story is something very different than we're talking about when we go back to King Arthur and Theseus and such.

If all this seems a weird set of distinctions, there's a very concrete way to illustrate it - pick a movie or novel you like, then think about how you'd tell its story. You won't be able to remember every detail, and even if you could, just giving a blow by blow is not a very good story. You're going to drop details, smooth hings out and change focus so it's interesting to your listener. Much the same way a movie changes for a novelization, you're to change the story to tell it. Try is with Star Wars.

Anyway, this comes back to video games because the disconnect between the details and the story being told is MUCH broader than it is in something like movies or books. It's not a total disconnect - the details (that is, the part you actually play) can feed back to the story, but usually only in highlights and details. But at the same time, the width of that disconnect means that there's more freedom to actually tell the story without fear that the details will overwhelm it. Compare this to a movie: If you have a cool story, but make every scene awesome, it's possible the scenes will be what people will take away. In a video game, making play more awesome does not intrinsically detract from (or add to) the power of the story. That's pretty potent.

Now, some qualifications are in order. There are plenty of video games where the story follows a more traditional model, and which do so by making the gameplay experience more like a movie or book. Most modern RPG's are like this, including some of my favorites like the Mass Effect and Dragon Age series. There is art and skill to doing those right, but it's familiar to me.

Wat has surprised me is how much story I've been finding in simpler games, ones which are much more about gameplay. Side scrollers like Braid & Limbo or fighting games like Bastion. Yes, absolutely, video game designers have used story as a coat of paint & spackle to justify the details of their games since forever. Some have tried to buck this trend by making the game into the story (think MYST) but it's always been an odd match.

But now, as the games have matured to a certain point and there's less of a need to desperately justify why the blue colored blob of pixels wants to kill the green blob of pixels, story has moved beyond mere explanation and started finding a home in surprising places. I'm pretty happy with this.


  1. Have you read anything by Walter Ong? Check out Orality and Literacy (1982) if you get the chance.

  2. Off topic, can anybody tell me how to find Rob's post about making story hooks by looking at an NPC connected to the character... and then not attacking them, but instead attacking somebody they care about?

  3. http://rdonoghue.blogspot.com/2010/11/glass-bead-fate.html and http://rdonoghue.blogspot.com/2010/09/trick.html I suspect

  4. "But now, as the games have matured to a certain point and there's less of a need to desperately justify why the blue colored blob of pixels wants to kill the green blob of pixels."

    We never really needed to know why that plumber guy was climbing scaffolding to save the princess from a large ape, but it does make things more interesting if we do know.

    There's a compelling place for story in games—Myst was made a far better game with ambient music—but there's always a place for games that are simply games.

  5. "There's a compelling place for story in games—Myst was made a far better game with ambient music—but there's always a place for games that are simply games."

    And amongst people who study games, there's an ideological split--ludology vs. narratology--where the former sees games as something to be approached on their own terms, and the latter views games as another form of narrative.

  6. Thank you, Rob, for looking that up yourself and for finding not one but two links -- it was the second one that was just what I was looking for.

  7. "ludology vs. narratology" -- learning things like this is why I come to game designer blogs, thank you.

    Is there a third camp, one where I can think both approaches to games are fantastic in their own right? And is it selfish that I would like more RPGs to explain the design approach in the "about this game" section?


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