Up until this point, we have talked about games from a purely ludological viewpoint. That is, we have looked at games as a system of rules, with the implicit assumption that the rules are the game, and that a narrative of any kind is just window dressing. (Any word with the root lud- or ludo- is referring to games; the root is Latin for play. We use words like ludology and ludography and ludic because everything sounds more distinguished if you say it in Latin.)
But this is not entirely true. As mentioned when we talked about kinds of decisions, some player choices may have absolutely no meaning within the game system and yet they are still meaningful because they are emotionally charged.
Those of you who play tabletop Role-Playing Games are probably more keenly aware of this. Think of the most interesting play session you’ve ever had. You’re probably not thinking of a die roll, or an interesting strategic decision that a player made in combat. You’re remembering something dramatic, emotional. You remember the story, not the die-rolling.
What makes for good stories? Game designers often reference three works in particular that tell us how to make useful stories that apply directly to games. If you’re curious, these works are:
- Poetics, by Aristotle
- The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
- Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee
Today we will look at these works and their effect on game design. We will build up a set of guidelines for how to tell a good story within a game. And then, at the end, we will tear it all down again.
As I’ve been out of town and offline since early Friday morning, I have not had time to validate new user accounts for the forums, read email, moderate comments on this blog, etc.
I will catch up on these things later today, or tomorrow morning at the latest, after I have fully recovered from a nearly-sleepless (in a good way) weekend. I’ll say this: playtesting your games with skilled game designers is very different from playtesting with typical gamers.
Here are some new kinds of fun that were proposed from last time:
- “Servant”: opposite of a griefer, someone who gets pleasure out of making sure other people have a good time. (I would actually call this something else, like “Party Host”… and yes, it makes sense that this would be valuable to a hunter-gatherer. You are showing value to your tribe. I understand that Disney has identified this as a customer archetype, usually associated with the mom in the family.)
- “Maker”: someone who gets joy out of constructing and building things. (The example given was user-generated content for video games, but you sometimes see this in standalone board games as well, like Settlers of Catan. Certainly, building and construction are useful to survival, even if all you’re making is a tool or a crude hut.)
Read the following:
- Into the Woods: a Practical Guide to the Hero’s Journey by Bob Bates. This article summarizes Joseph Campbell’s work, as it is relevant to game design.
- What Every Game Developer Needs to Know about Story, by John Sutherland. This article summarizes the book Story by Robert McKee (which itself is essentially a practical guide to Aristotle’s Poetics), rounding out the Holy Trinity of storytelling for game designers.
- Understanding Comics, Chapters 2 and 3, if you have a copy of that book. As you read, pay particular attention to how any of this might apply to games. Scott McCloud isn’t going to come out and say it, so you will have to connect the dots yourself.
A lot of words were different in Aristotle’s time than how we use them today. Poetics is not about poetry, but about how to write tragedy. Tragedy, as Aristotle used the term, did not mean “a story with a sad ending” but rather a story that is serious and lifelike – a story devoid of the supernatural or fantastical (which he referred to as comedy).
However, one thing that hasn’t changed in all this time is that there is still a lot of really bad writing.
Aristotle may not have been the first to notice, but he was certainly one of the first to actually do something about it. He wrote about how to write a decent story. If a lot of his advice sounds familiar, it is because it is often repeated in writing classes, even at the elementary school level – although Aristotle may or may not be credited for the idea in any given class.
For example, have you ever heard that stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end? That was from Poetics. It is a reminder that there are different parts to a story, and that the writer should be aware of how it all fits together.
Poetics also defined what is known as the three-Act structure for stories, basically a division of a story into three parts. In the first part, something happens to set the events of the story in motion. In the second part (which tends to be the longest), the protagonist tries to deal with the events as they happen. In the final part, a resolution is reached. (I’ve heard it described thus: in the first act, get the hero up a tree; in the second act, throw rocks at him; in the third act, get him down.)
One important thing that Aristotle really hammered on is that each scene should follow the previous ones with a logical cause-and-effect relationship. Weak writing goes like this: “X happens, then Y happens, then Z happens.” Stronger writing is more like this: “X happens, and because of that Y happens, and because of that Z happens.”
This cause-and-effect rule is even more restrictive when it comes to the protagonist. When bad things happen to the main character, it should not be random; it should be caused by that character’s understandable human action, and it should follow as a plausible and inevitable effect of that action. This makes the audience pity and empathize with the hero, because we can see the human weakness, we can understand why the character did what he did, and yet we also see that it causes his undoing. This explains why Aristotle really hated what was called deus ex machina (that is, an ending where everything is suddenly made better through no fault of the main character – for example, “…and just as the main character was about to die, he woke up, and realized it was all just a bad dream, The End”). In a deus ex machina, the hero is not the cause of the ending. The main character is not in control of the story.
Applying this to games, it becomes clear why it is sometimes so frustrating when, for example, a character in a video game dies during a cut scene. The one time the player doesn’t have any choice – the one time when the main character is not in control – is the one time when the plot advances.
Lastly, it is worth mentioning that Aristotle defined a stage play as being comprised of six elements. We have similar elements in games with a strong story component:
- Plot. The narrative that describes what actually happens.
- Theme. What does it all mean? Why does it happen?
- Character. As in, a single role within the story.
- Diction. The dialogue, and also the actor’s delivery of that dialogue.
- Rhythm. This does include “rhythm” in the sense of music, but also the natural rhythm of human speech.
- Spectacle. This is what Aristotle called the “eye candy” or special effects of his day. He often complained that too many plays contained all spectacle and nothing else – sound familiar?
I’m not sure if Robert McKee ever actually wrote a screenplay that was made into a movie. Mostly, he teaches screenwriting. If you’ve ever come out of a movie saying “wow, that was a really great story,” the screenplay was probably written by one of McKee’s students. (I would love to be considered the “McKee of games” some day. Note to my former students: go out there and make me look good!)
Story is essentially a re-telling of Poetics, but made specific to screenwriting for movies. I found Story to also be a lot more accessible to read; it is written in a conversational style (not to mention that it is written in contemporary English and not ancient Greek). To paraphrase a few of the many lessons from McKee’s book:
Story is not about formulas, it is about forms. You do not create a story by following a template. However, by understanding the common links between different stories, you can make one that is unique. (I would add that the same is true for everything in this course.)
All stories have this form:
- The protagonist has a goal, which is created by an inciting incident.
- The protagonist tries to reach the goal, but a gap (that is, some kind of obstacle, not necessarily a literal gap) opens up and prevents the immediate achievement of the goal.
- The protagonist attempts to cross the gap. Either the gap widens and they are unable to cross, or they do cross the gap but a new gap appears.
- This cycle of gap-crossing continues until the protagonist either finally completes the goal, or is prevented from completing the goal in an irreversible manner.
- In a typical three-Act structure, there are two reversals (new gaps) that happen between the Acts.
Stories are, at their heart, about change. Every scene should change something, or have something unexpected happen. If a scene has the characters in the same state at the end as it was in the beginning, that’s a sign that you should remove that scene. Think of it this way – if you were to convert your life into a two-hour movie, would you waste any screen time on your day-to-day maintenance tasks? Or would you only show the times when something big changes in your life, and allow the audience to assume that things are carrying on normally in between?
Notice how nicely this dovetails with games. Games are about decision-making, which causes a change to the game state. Games rely on having an uncertain outcome, and it is only at the very end that a goal is attained or lost in an irreversible manner. It is not surprising, then, that some games have very strong emergent stories that arise from a particular play experience.
Another interesting thing McKee talks about is the difference between what he calls character and characterization. The things we normally think of when we define a “character” are superficial data: favorite food, blood type, hair color, and so on. McKee calls these characterization. Character is what defines the person – used in the sense of “this activity builds character” or “she has a strong moral character.” What McKee says is that character can only be revealed by putting a person in opposition. For example, we may say that someone is “selfless”… but until they’re in a burning building and have to make the choice between trying to save a total stranger or saving themselves, it’s all just talk.
What is the implication of character and characterization in games? First, that linear stories have the best opportunity to show character through cut scenes, not gameplay. Having the player make moral choices for the main character is hard, because the choices often don’t involve real consequences. Because this is play (“only a game,” the “Magic Circle”), the player is safe, and therefore has nothing in their own real world to lose. The player is therefore not making choices that reflect their own character, because their character is not being tested by extreme opposition. Taking a bullet for a friend in the real world is not quite the same as deciding in a menu whether or not to gain Light Side Points. It is certainly not impossible to embed moral dilemmas in a game, but it is a lot harder to make the emotional consequences of those choices felt by the player, because the player is making those decisions and not the protagonist. It is therefore much easier to show strong character when the player is not in control of the story.
But of course, that also makes it less interactive and thus less like a game. And this is one reason why storytelling in games is hard.
Joseph Campbell spent a lot of his time studying myths, legends, and hero stories, and finding the similarities and differences between them. He found that most myths follow a common structure, which he called the Monomyth or the Hero’s Journey. It is a specific kind of story and therefore more specific than McKee’s story description. Because many games put the player in the role of a hero, this is obviously useful to know.
The Hero’s Journey goes something like this:
- The hero starts off a commoner in a common world, and this “normal” world is established.
- The hero receives a call to adventure.
- The hero may decide to follow the call, or to ignore it. In the latter case, new events then force the hero to follow the call anyway.
- The hero starts their journey and encounters the first barrier. There is often a guardian that must be overcome to proceed.
- The hero then moves through the barrier into a new, darker world. They follow a trail of trials, each more difficult than the last. Along the way, the hero grows – not just in the “experience points” and “levels” sense, but in the “coming of age” sense. The hero becomes a better person. They become, well, a real hero.
- Eventually, the hero encounters the final evil, and is able to overcome it.
- The hero claims the prize.
- The hero starts returning to their world. Along the way they encounter the final barrier.
- Finally, the hero returns to their common world. The world may be the same, but the hero has changed.
You may recognize this structure in many hero stories, and Campbell’s book goes into detail about why each of these things happens, what it symbolizes, and what it says about our values as a society. In short, hero stories are about what a particular culture sees as the ideal set of ethics and values, and the hero character embodies and demonstrates these things.
Now, you might be tempted to use this as a formula. Get a list of archetypes with a checkbox next to each, and presto, you now have a suitable story! Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. As McKee says, stories (and hero stories are included in this) are not about formulas, but forms. The purpose here is not to follow the Monomyth blindly.
What use is it, then, if we cannot use this to make a story? I think the most important thing to take from this is to be aware of what the common story forms are, so that you call follow each step or not as appropriate to your own story. But, it is important to do so deliberately and not just “because Campbell said so.” Note that not all games follow this structure – especially games where you play an anti-hero.
Bob Bates comments on the structure in his article:
- When writing, start with a core premise or vision first. Choose a hero and villain that embody your premise.
- Show the hero’s common world, then disrupt that world through an inciting incident. This is typically what happens at the beginning of a game.
- Enter the “woods” – the game itself.
- “Encountering the evil” is essentially a description of a boss fight – suggesting why we see so many boss fights in games!
- “Claiming the prize” can be thought of as the hero realizing the Premise of your story. It does not have to be finding a literal “prize” like a bag of gold or a princess or an ancient magical artifact.
- During the game, the hero character should grow. Again, it is easy for us as designers to fall into the trap of only having the main character “grow” in terms of power level (and it is convenient that the player is growing in their skill at the game as they play). Still, it can often make a better story if the hero’s character grows during the story as well. They don’t have to start out as a god. It can be more interesting if they start out as a peasant and become a god. Remember, it’s the hero that must grow, not just the player.
Understanding Comics doesn’t say a lot about telling stories in Chapters 2 and 3, but it does give some useful advice on creating strong characters and dramatic moments.
On pages 44-45, McCloud notes that art styles can vary between iconic (like a smiley face) and photo-realistic, with many potential steps in between. He points out that the more iconic something is, the more we project ourselves onto it; the more detailed and realistic, the more we see it as something other than ourselves. (Taking it back to Koster, we can say that this is because our brains are wonderful pattern-recognition machines, and we will fill in the blanks with what we already know from the vast library of patterns we’ve built up.)
What are the implications of this in games?
- Consider the main characters in many video games – Master Chief, Samus Aran, Gordon Freeman, Chell. You do not typically see your own character much at all, nor do you hear them speak much. This is not an accident. It is done deliberately to allow the player to project their own personality onto the character. The character becomes an extension of you as the player, and you feel an emotional connection to the character specifically because they are not very well defined.
- On the other hand, you can also have a strong character that is very defined – Duke Nukem or Lara Croft, for example. In this case, we immediately recognize the main character as not ourselves. To compensate, they must show a strong personality.
- In general, then, I would say that you can go one of two ways with the main character. Make it iconic and do not define its personality (to allow the player to create one for themselves), or make it realistic and define its as a very strong character. Any other combination makes it harder for the player to connect emotionally with their avatar.
- Also, consider the enemies and opposition within the game. Since realistic visuals impart a sense of otherness, enemies that are highly detailed will seem very alien, while enemies that are cartoony or iconic feel more familiar. The monsters in the video game DOOM are drawn in a realistic style, making them seem more alien and thus more dangerous. By contrast, the monsters in Pokemon are cartoonized, making them seem more friendly, which is fitting for a game where you can recruit enemies and turn them into allies. In board games, we would expect that games with iconic tokens (like colored pawns) that represent players make the pawn into an extension of the player (a sense of familiarity), and also that other players’ pawns have a sense of the familiar – it promotes togetherness. By contrast, games with highly detailed tokens (realistic miniatures, or detailed art or photographs of player characters with in-depth character descriptions) gives a sense of separation between player and character, and also would cause players to regard each other as opposition.
- This also has applications when dealing with environments. If the environment (whether a 3d computer level or a 2d physical game board) is photorealistic, it is a reminder to the player that this is an other world. This is more suitable for games that wish to make the players feel like they are in an exotic or unsettling location. For example, suspense and horror games would do well to include highly photorealistic environments.
Another point that McCloud makes (on page 38) is that we are made to use tools, and we see those as an extension of ourselves. Our sense of self extends not just to our own bodies, but to everything under direct control. As he points out, when you are in a car accident, you are more likely to say “hey, they hit me” than “their car hit my car.” It becomes personal.
What does this have to do with games?
- For video games, a console controller (or mouse/keyboard) becomes an extension of the human body. The player thinks of the controller as part of themselves. This explains why play control and a good user interface is so important for video games – if you have trouble figuring out how to use the controller, it is just as frustrating as if you tried to pick something up with your hands but your hands didn’t respond.
- For both video games and tabletop games, the avatar (that is, the representation of the player within the game) acts as an extension of the player as well. As with an auto accident, if your opponent lands on your pawn and sends it back to start, you are likely to say “hey, they just sent me backwards.” As a designer, be aware of the player’s emotional attachment to their avatar within the game.
The last thing I’d like to draw your attention to is McCloud’s concept of the “blood in the gutter” (pages 66-69). In the book, there are two panels, one with a murderer swinging an axe at a victim and then the next that just shows a scream. When did the guy die? Between the panels… and it was you as the reader, with your imagination, that killed him. Nothing was actually shown.
This has implications in all other kinds of storytelling media. Alfred Hitchcock was a master of not showing anything. As an example, in the famous Psycho shower scene, you actually never see anything. There is one shot of a guy making a stabbing motion with a knife (but not showing any victim), juxtaposed with another shot of a woman screaming (but not showing her being stabbed), back and forth, and eventually a shot of fake blood running down a drain (without showing either the murderer or victim).
How do we apply this to telling stories in games?
- Some storytellers have a strong desire to give every last technical detail of how everything works and every last bit of backstory in their fantasy world. But this is not necessary. Players will fill in the blanks on their own. You don’t actually have to tell them anything.
- In fact, it is often more effective if you don’t! A player’s imagination is infinitely more vivid than the artwork in your game.
- Think of the player as an active participant in your story. They will be thinking about it anyway; write a story that rewards them for using their imaginations.
- This also has an economic advantage. We tend to pour a lot of money into detailed art and long, drawn-out cut scenes, but if we economize and show less, the net effect can actually be more powerful if we do it right.
- In other words… less can be more. Finding the balance between “enough information to understand what is going on” and “not so much information that nothing is left to the imagination” is one of the trickiest jobs of a story writer, and is another reason why storytelling in games is hard.
- Think of some examples of stories you’ve seen (from games or otherwise) where there was too little information, or too much, and the story suffered from it. Think of other examples where you were not told everything, but was fine, and the audience was able to still have an enjoyable experience.
Game designer Ernest Adams gave an inspiring talk at GDC 2006 called “A New Vision for Interactive Stories.” First he briefly summarized much of what I have written above, and then he proceeded to challenge all of our basic assumptions, and then he tried to take things one step beyond. What follows are my notes and personal commentary from the session.
- Aristotle’s Poetics is great, but never forget that it was written for stage plays and not games. Stories may have a beginning, middle and end… but in games, they can often have multiple beginnings, and middles, and ends. The three-Act structure works great for a two or three hour play (or movie), but is not necessarily appropriate for a 30-minute board game, a month-long RPG campaign, or a 100-hour console game.
- Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is limited to hero stories. What if your story isn’t about a hero? Also, as Campbell admits, the Monomyth is not a template, so we cannot use it as a tool to build our stories.
- McKee’s Story is focused on screenplays, so it may or may not be applicable to every game. Games are a different medium than movies. While there are some similarities, it is important to be aware of the differences, so any advice on screenwriting must be used with caution when applied to games.
So, if none of this stuff is useful, are we back to square one? (I don’t think so. We still have to start somewhere, and starting by studying what makes a great story in other media is still a useful starting point. We will get into the unique forms of interactive stories this Thursday.)
Adams then stated three assumptions that we often make when trying to tell stories in games:
- The “holy grail” of interactive stories is a complete sandbox, a “Holodeck,” a perfect world simulation that responds believably to all player input.
- Interactive stories aren’t games.
- When a player is involved in an interactive narrative, they should be thinking about story and not game mechanics.
He then challenges these assumptions.
First, what could be wrong with having a perfect world simulation? There is always the practical reason that it would be infinitely expensive. And then there’s the argument from Koster that we already have one of those, it’s called the Real World, and it’s not always fun. But mostly, the problem here is that even in the most “open-world” games, players do not get their enjoyment from complete freedom… but rather, from having freedom within a constrained environment.
Ernest proposed a rule from another designer, which her referred to as “Ken Perlin’s Law”: the cost of an event in an interactive story must be directly proportional to its improbability. What does he mean by “cost”? He explains that every writer has a “credibility budget” – and if too many incredible things happen, you violate suspension of disbelief. The cumulative sum of all improbable things that happen during your story need to not exceed a certain amount, or the players will call foul. (Naturally, some games have a higher credibility budget than others, based on their setting – chickens appearing out of thin air may be mundane in a high-magic world, but would be considered out of place in a realistic modern-day setting.)
As a designer of an interactive story, you are essentially making a pact with the player: if you (the player) act believably, you will get a believable story. This is important – both the designer and the player share the credibility budget. The player must accept the premise of the story as part of stepping into the Magic Circle to play. If the player acts in a manner that is inconsistent with the world of the story, and gets an unbelievable story back, that is not the fault of the story writer; it is the fault of the player. As such, it is not the goal of the story writer to create a 100% believable story in all instances; it must merely respond believably to a player who acts in a believable manner.
As we saw from Doug Church’s Formal Abstract Design Tools, there is a balance between player intentionality and narrative. However, we can extend this through the social contract of “role-playing” (in the sense of actually playing a role, not crawling through dungeons) between the player and the designer.
Of course, in order for the player to accept this contract, they must be aware of the rules of the game, and they must agree to play by those rules. In this sense, the rules are an important component of the game, but the interactive story and game are also linked together in a way that makes the experience both game and story.
A way to merge games and stories. That is what many of us are looking for, is it not?
Aristotle, Campbell and McKee provide some of the most often-cited advice for storytellers in general, so it is natural that we apply their advice to games. For those of you who are primarily interested in this aspect of games, I would highly recommend reading their books on your own time (after this course is complete, of course). You can find them here: Aristotle, Campbell, McKee. I provide these links for convenience only; they are not required for this course.
In games, identification between the player and their characters, avatars, tokens and so on is a common way to get players to be emotionally engaged with the game. As you are designing a game, think about this and how else you can get emotional investment from players.
Remember that there is a difference between the embedded narrative that the story writer creates, and the emergent narrative that arises from gameplay. Think about which is more important in each game that you make, and how you can make it stronger.
If you have time, before beginning the Homeplay below, please take the time to offer constructive feedback to at least two other posts at your skill level from the Griefing challenge from Level 8 (posted on the forum), and also at least three other posts at a skill level below yours (unless you posted in Green Circle).
Try to complete your feedback on or before Thursday, July 30, noon GMT.
The point of this homeplay is to give you some experience understanding the relationship of story to game mechanics, and what happens when the two are or are not aligned.
We start with a simplified version of the abstract game of Pente:
- Players: 2
- Objective: place your stones to either create five-in-a-row, or to capture five pairs of your opponent’s pieces.
- Setup: place a grid-shaped board (you can use a Pente board or a Go board, or make one of your own – try making it 19×19) on a table between the players. Choose a player to go first.
- Progression of play: on your turn, choose a blank square and place your marker in that square. (You can use colored glass stones, or you can just write “X” and “O” on a piece of paper as with Tic-Tac-Toe.) If there are exactly two opposing markers in a straight line (orthogonally or diagonally) adjacent to where you just placed, and on the other side of the two opposing markers in the same line there is one piece of your own, then the two enemy markers are captured. Remove them from the board (erase the symbols if playing with pencil and paper), and put them off to the side to denote that you have made a capture. It is possible to make several captures on a single turn if there are several sequences of two-enemy-one-friendly radiating out from your placement in multiple directions.
- Limitations to capturing: captures only take place when a piece is placed. It is legal to move into a place that causes an “X-O-O-X” or “O-X-X-O” line on the board, by placing in the middle. In such a case, the inner pieces are not captured.
- Resolution: If a player ever gets five of their own pieces adjacent in a straight line (orthogonally or diagonally), they win. If a player makes a total of five captures, they also win.
If you have not played this game, you may want to play a couple of times (either with a friend or just against yourself) to get a feel for it.
When you are familiar with the game, create an embedded backstory for the game. What is the setting? What do the pieces represent? Why are you placing them? Try to come up with a story that fits the mechanics. Do not change any rules.
Next, play the game (with unmodified rules, but with your narrative) with a friend. Note their reaction to the game.
Post the following to the forum:
- Your backstory, as written.
- Your experience when playing the game with the backstory. Did your story make a difference? Did it affect the play experience? Or was it exactly the same as if there were no story at all?
- Why do you think you got the reaction you did? Do you think it would have been different if you had chosen a different story?
Post in the forum that most closely resembles your skill and experience level as a designer:
Beginner, little or no experience prior to taking this course.
Intermediate, some coursework or exposure to game design but little or no professional experience.
Advanced, at least some professional experience as a published game designer.
Make your post on or before Thursday, July 30, noon GMT. Then, read at least five other posts in the same forum, and five more in the skill level above yours (unless you posted in Black Diamond). You do not have to respond. What I want you to see is the variety of responses that people will have. Do this reading before Monday, August 3.