Garden of delights

Narrative manifesto

Storyteller_2 A curious convergence has emerged around the design and direction of narrative video games. Many of the most thoughtful and articulate members of the games community are collectively pointing us toward a new mode of storytelling - one that will deliver genuinely interactive narrative experiences to the player. These visionaries (and I believe they deserve that designation) do not all agree, nor do they share a single strategy or roadmap. But each in his own way has planted a flag in the soil and declared "This I believe." Now, it would seem, is the time for a narrative manifesto.

Perhaps "manifesto" is too strong a word for what I'm describing, but at the moment I can't think of a better one. Most dictionaries define the term as a public declaration of intentions, motives or views. Beyond that simple definition, however, manifestos are intrinsically anti-status-quo. Regardless of its framework -  politics, ideology or art - a manifesto is a defiant call for change and an implied "Who's with me?" All of the people I'm about to describe are plugging into something that sounds very much like a collective manifesto to me.

As far as I can tell, the current momentum for change has its roots in a presentation by Doug Church entitled "Abdicating Authorship," delivered at GDC in 2000. Church observed:

Our desire to create traditional narrative and exercise authorial control over the gaming world often inhibits the player's ability to involve themselves in the game world. ... The revelation of the [game] designer's intent is not interactivity. [1]

This core notion - that "interactive gaming" in its current state is essentially a sender-receiver relationship between designer and player - serves as the basis for nearly all the brainstorming and deep thinking about narrative video games today. These are a few of the thinkers: 

Patrick Redding and Clint Hocking - Dynamic story architecture
Redding and Hocking want to redefine the narrative process by getting out of the player's way. They believe what a growing number of designers now believe: the designer builds a system, but the player authors the story.

That means you need a game designer working at a dedicated role on the game design team, who's focusing just on that, who's really not principally concerned with whether the guns are balanced, or whether the vehicles are driving properly. And at the same time on the level design side isn't primarily there just to kind of help concoct missions, but is really there to try to make sure that every time the player feels like they ought to have a say in the way things are unfolding, that there's some system that supports it.

We just say, let's take the player as close as we can,...put him into this really, really difficult position, a terrible situation that probably most of us would like to avoid if we could, and try to get him to make decisions in a way that will help him survive, that will help him pursue his larger goals, that will allow him to potentially change those larger goals if he decides that he doesn't believe in them anymore, and to be able to deal with characters and situations on a case by case basis. In other words, give him the freedom to fuck up, give him the freedom to have a moment of triumph, or a moment of weakness, or moments of regret.

These are all things that we try to let the player do, but since we can't know what's in the player's heart, we can't know what the player's thinking - and hell, maybe 80% of our players are just like, "Yes, this is great fun! I'm blowing stuff up and burning things." Maybe only a small piece of that message gets though. And if that's the case, that's fine. We've still built a really good shooter. But what we're saying is, for that percentage of gamers who are affected by these things, and who think about these things, we want it to be there. [2]

Jonathan Blow - Conflicted games
Jonathan Blow sees a disconnect between the storytelling many games profess to value and the gameplay they actually provide. The conflict that emerges prevents games from affecting players in the ways linear media like film can do.

As our computational abilities have increased, our aspirations have raised to movies. ... Gameplay elements have meanings outside of the visual and linear; the meaning of the gameplay rules is often in conflict within the visual meanings from the linear meanings, which results in a game becoming conflicted. [3]

He cites Half-Life 2 as an example of this conflict:

You often end up in a sealed-off area with your in-game companion Alyx Vance, and when you kill enough enemies you can move on to the next arena. Alyx will open these doors when you’ve cleared the room. Finally, opening a locked door gives you in-game rewards. Blow notes: "In other words, doors are the obstacles keeping you from the good stuff." In the game, the writers want you to feel close to Alyx, so you have short cut-scenes, and story elements happen as the doors are being opened. In this case, the game designer has taught you to get through the doors quickly so you can get your hands on the goodies - while the scriptwriters want to use this opportunity for you to get to know Alyx. The gameplay is well designed, and so is the fiction, but "...they fit together disingenuously." [4]

One solution to close this gap, according to Blow, is to design games whose narratives are implicit, rather than explicit, and his recently released game Braid is clearly an effort to do just that. Blow has generously made available his recent lecture and accompanying slides from which the above remarks were taken. Chris Dahlen has also written about Blow's ideas in context with Braid, and I recommend giving his essay a look.

Steve Gaynor - The game designer's role
Gaynor sees the designer as a "hands-off" creator who enables the player with the tools and agency to co-author her experience. Gaynor believes the most powerful experiences are the ones the player creates for herself.

Video games are not a traditional storytelling medium per se. The player is an agent of chaos, making the medium ill-equipped to convey a pre-authored narrative with anywhere near the effectiveness of books or film. Rather, a video game is a box of possibilities, and the best stories told are those that arise from the player expressing his own agency within a functional, believable gameworld. These are player stories, not author stories, and hence they belong to the player himself. Unlike a great film or piece of literature, they don't give the audience an admiration for the genius in someone else's work; they instead supply the potential for genuine personal experience, acts attempted and accomplished by the player as an individual, unique memories that are the player's to own and to pass on.

This property is demonstrated when comparing play notes, book club style, with friends-- "what did you do?" versus "here's what I did." While discussing a film or piece of literature runs towards individual interpretation of an identical media artifact, the core experience of playing a video game is itself unique to each player-- an act of realtime media interpretation-- and the most powerful stories told are the ones the player is responsible for. To the player, video games are the most personally meaningful entertainment medium of them all. It is not about the other-- the author, the director. It is about you.

So, the game designer's role is to provide the player with an intriguing place to be, and then give them tools to perform interactions they'd logically be able to as a person in that place-- to fully express their agency within the gameworld that's been provided. [5]

L.B. Jeffries - Non-linear reactive stories
Jeffries is the wild card of the bunch since he's not a game designer, but he consistently produces some of the most astute game writing around, and his perspective as a critic is informed by a unique set of experiences. In this case, he brings to bear his training as a tarot card reader to suggest players are hard-wired to create meaning.

Long ago, at the young age when awkward boys are thinking up unique ways to impress girls, I opted to learn how to tell fortunes with a tarot deck. It was just something that fit my personality. This might shock you, but the real key is to not actually believe you’re predicting the future when you do a reading. Instead, pretend you’re giving someone an elaborate ink blot test. It’s like holding up a giant symbolic mirror that will, thanks to our mind’s natural inclination to assign meaning to chaos, create an incredibly personal and profound story for the subject. This means I don’t need to be in control of the meaning the cards create for a person, because I know the meaning they create will be far more powerful anyways. It also means they’ll take care of any flaws in the story I project at them.

In video games, where interactivity creates such an impossible headache for writers, I think the tarot offers a lot of insights on how meaning can still be created in an environment where the author has little control. A series of reactions like someone crying for help if you shoot them or a dog following you if you feed it could be created in response to the player. Rather than worry about how these relate to some grand linear story, simply leave them as short vignettes that connect and relate to one another through A.I. With enough potent symbols and a willing subject, you don’t really need much control over the narrative at all. The player will create the story for you. [6]

I find it interesting, and terribly exciting, that all the essays referenced above appeared nearly simultaneously. Change is afoot in narrative game design, and while these things usually arrive more like a slow tide than a lightning bolt, it's enormously encouraging to discover the many ways these ideas are nurtured, shared, and cross-fertilized. It's easy to be skeptical about dreams and promises, but I'm hopeful about where these ideas will take us.

Many thanks to Gamasutra, the go-to resource for in-depth interviews and games industry coverage. I could not have written this piece without them.