In the mid-nineties I became fascinated by the storytelling potential of interactive entertainment. My interest peaked in the early aughts, during what I now think of as the second great wave of interactive storytelling mania. While the potential of interactive storytelling seems obvious to everyone, the mechanisms — the actual techniques — by which interactive stories might be told are complex and at times counterintuitive.
After finding my way into the interactive industry and meeting with some professional success, I was asked in 2000 to write an article for SIGGRAPH’s Computer Graphics magazine about the future of interactive storytelling. While great effort was being put into replicating techniques from passive mediums, including, particularly, film, it seemed to me that such an imitative approach had everything exactly backwards.
Recently, while conducting periodic maintenance on my computer and sprucing up Ditchwalk, I ran across that article, which for some reason I had never gotten around to adding to the Docs page on this site. That omission now stands corrected.
The title of the article is Graphics — the Language of Interactive Storytelling. Coming from someone who primarily made a living with words that may seem odd, but it and the accompanying text goes to the heart of the interactive storytelling problem, and why so little progress has been made. In fact, the only thing that’s changed is that we no longer worry about having enough processing power to do what we want — yet today’s enviably high hardware ceiling is still rarely used to facilitate aspects of interaction that might truly drive emotional involvement.
Fifteen years on, during the fourth great wave of interactive storytelling mania now taking place in the industry, little has changed. Another generation of eager developers is grappling with the same questions, reaching the same inherently limiting conclusions, attempting to once again adapt non-interactive techniques from passive mediums, and confusing the revelation of pre-designed outcomes with choices that determine outcomes.
— Mark Barrett
Wolfgang Walk says
Have you played “This War of Mine”? They manage to create a unique story for every player (and sometimes cruel stories that make you feel guilty) – without even having a predefined story.
(Sorry for not dropping by more often recently).
I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to get rid of the whole notion of storytelling for games. What we need to achieve is creating a good set of tools for the narratification of gameplay.
And once you’re there and start to think about it from this angle you’ll find that it’s entirely possible. It isn’t even very difficult. It just needs awareness – and a change in the production pipeline.
And I’m sorry for neglecting your comment. 🙂
(I saw it, then promptly forgot out it. You know, because I’m old. LOL)
I haven’t played This War is Mine but I’ll check it out.
[Taking advantage of the internet, Mark looks up the game immediately. He sees that it concerns the Bosnian War, which has spawned numerous grim films, and thinks that it might make for an especially grim game. Which is probably for the best, because war tends to get a free pass in most interactive works.]
I agree about changing the production pipeline, but until the industry segments (as it should have a long time ago) it’s going to be very hard to convince people to do this. Talk about ‘computer games’ or ‘gaming’ or the ‘interactive industry’ is really talk about three or five or ten different genres all clumped together under one label. Until the people who value story/narratification focus on that aspect of design and insist on being judged on that basis — and then make money — I think the AAA mentality and emphasis on gameplay will crush storytelling in most projects before it is ever really established.
I also agree, and said a long, long time ago, that interactive works must stop competing with and wantonly borrowing from passive storytelling techniques. In terms of storytelling power you cannot compete against a medium like the novel, which is 100% authorially controlled. You have to find ways of making the interactivity in your work make up for the aspects of story that you cannot emulate. Unfortunately, every crop of new designers/producers seems to gravitate toward passive techniques.
Wolfgang Walk says
> Unfortunately, every crop of new designers/producers seems to gravitate toward passive techniques.<
Because it's the easy way to do. I read your mail exchange with Chris Crawford on this side, and a lot of things you said there are completely true, especially when you see a possible solution in simulation (the example you fleshed out immediatly reminded me of TWoM).
But you do not call for the last step, which is: We must not stop with the abstraction of semantic elements like text, graphics or sound. We have to go the whole way and have to start with the abstraction of the gameplay.
If we do this we can find the nodes between game rules and the meaning of game rules: every rule changes its meaning in a different set of rules (this idea is related to Björk/Holopainen's game design patterns).
If you can – in the abstract – define the full rule set (where a chess game does not know a figure called bishop anymore, but a game element with certain movement rules) you can start building the game on it: giving the game elements names, putting them in a setting, creating graphics, a sound environment are already elements of narratification. Then you can build on it: character expressions triggered by certain game engine states, etc.
A pre-defined story or plot might become unnecessary along the way, but where it doesn't a narrator will exactly know how to tie her story to the gameplay.
This is a bottom-up approach that needs a completely new thinking and tool set. But the good thing is that it supports "reverse engineering". If the publisher already has fixed genre and setting, a skillful author might deconstruct what's already there, find the common denominator in the abstract – and can at least create something way better than just a story stapled onto the game.