Let me tell you a story.

Any discussion of storytelling in games is going to run up against a barrier at some point due simply to the nature of games as (in very loose terms) “interactive systems governed by rules” seems to run counter to what defines a story. I personally prefer the term narrative as it doesn’t have the same connotations of a strictly linear progression, though there is still a dichotomy between narrative and games.

This appears to be something that is clear to Ken Levine, as the third major point he touched upon in his GDC Presentation was how BioShock was designed in a way to encourage the player to discover the narrative for themselves. He described the difference between the traditional linear narratives of films (and cut-scenes) as being designed to “… push information at the player” where as in games the ideal is for the player themselves to actively engage with the story and pull it towards them.

In her seminal book on the narrative potential of computers, Hamlet On The Holodeck, Janet Murray described the four essential properties of digital environments, [Chapter 3, page 71] that they are: “procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic.” The former two properties she grouped together as what makes such environments interactive. The latter pair she considered to be the defining aspects of immersion (A topic Clint Hocking dealt with specifically in his GDC Presentation “I-fi Immersive Fidelity In Game Design”, and something I plan to return to at a later date).

The primary two properties are of interest because not only do they encompass what is usually meant by the term interactive, they also cover a lot of what is inferred by the term gameplay. The remaining two attributes, that of being spatial and encyclopedic, are therefore what is present in addition to the core gameplay. It is within these two properties and how they interact with each other, and gameplay, that the narrative is found.

Of these narrative properties the spatial, or the ability to provide a navigable space, is prehaps the most significant difference between a narrative told within a game and one within any other medium. A film can represent a location but only a game (Using the broadest definition of the word), can let you explore that location; no longer are you bound by the viewpoint of the camera. Because it is not possible to be absolutely certain of where the you are or what you are looking at, attempts at providing narrative should be moved away from the critical path and out into the environment itself. There are ways to encourage the player to stand in the right place and look in the right direction, techniques that Valve Software are rapidly becoming the masters of with Half Life 2 and it’s episodic sequels. Even so these techniques cannot be universally relied upon, and furthermore if they are too prevalent or obvious they can feel artificially restrictive.

There will always be limits to your exploration in such games, but done right those limits can serve the narrative itself; handled correctly a blocked path serves both gameplay, by keeping players heading in a particular direction, and provides a narrative beat, by highlighting destruction that has occurred before you arrived.

Environmental narrative provides context. Throughout BioShock and Half-Life 2 there are areas where you are given freedom to explore within boundaries, and discover the background to Rapture, and City 17 (Alien Controlled Dystopian backdrop to Half-Life 2) at your own pace.

Players will be more willing to engage with a narrative if they feel they have some involvement in it, and what better way to encourage involvement than to allow players to discover the narrative for themselves.

Together with the final property of digital environments, that of being encyclopedic, this freedom to explore at your own pace is what allows games to including the level of depth required to satisfy all three audience levels, without overloading any one group with information. It’s what allows games to include both scope and depth, as Janet Murray herself describes it [Chapter 3, Page 84] “The capacity to represent enormous quantities of information in digital form translates into an artist’s potential to offer a wealth of detail, to represent the world in both scope and particularity.”

Games are not best served by the strictly linear storytelling techniques of other mediums, and it’s only by making the most of the strengths that games do possess that new and interesting ways of providing narratives, and presenting stories, can be achieved.

Nobody cares about your stupid story because you are telling it badly.

Can I tell you a story?

Though nobody cares about your stupid story it’s likely that it’s not entirely down to the audience and their preconceptions of games. There are people who do see games as a storytelling medium, whether they consider that to be their primary function or not.

This is something that Ken Levine went on to discuss in his GDC presentation, he talked about how BioShock had been designed to work on three levels, what I would consider the physical, the intellectual and the emotional.

The first level, the physical, he described as the very straightforward “Where do I need to go, who do I need to kill?”, BioShock needed to satisfy those people who simply wanted to play, to maintain forward progression and be engaged. The second level, the intellectual, is the group Ken described himself as being a part of, those with “… some interest in the story.” People in this group need to be satisfied by the immediate action, but also need some context for their actions. The final group is those people who are deeply invested in the story and background of Rapture (The failed undersea utopia where BioShock is set), for this group “… you have to give them all of that love, a novelistic level of detail.” This is the group for which every detail matters.

These levels are in very simple terms the “What?”, “Who?” and “Why?” of the game. If you don’t know what you are doing it doesn’t matter who you are doing it to or why.

Every level should build upon the previous levels, the secondary and tertiary levels cannot be successfully catered too without first satisfying the primary level; people shouldn’t be asked to fight through the core mechanics of the game in order to appreciate the story; and they will resent being asked to.

The major issues arise when trying to balance the needs of these three levels, to engage the entire audience at once. If the game is loaded with too much exposition up front, those players who simply want to play will be, at best, distracted and at worse feel patronised. Too little depth and a game will be incapable of holding the attention of those who are interested in the story and they will quickly move on to something else. At the same time nobody should be forced to wade through copious detail in order to understand what is actually going on.

I find that often when games attempt to tell a story they overload the core experience with information, rapidly devolving into a succession of over long speeches full of proper nouns. Halo 3, is a game that, for all it’s ability to provide the visceral thrills required by the primary audience, has difficulty balancing these levels. So much exposition is throw up within the first few minutes that it becomes very difficult to follow unless you have been keeping track of the Halo cannon since the first game; a title that managed to cater to all three audiences in a much more successful manner.

There are people who are interested in games for their story, but there will always be people who simply want to be entertained on a physical level, and whatever story a game contains should strive not to get in the way of that.

Nobody cares about your stupid story because you’re telling it to the wrong people.

Do you want to hear a story?

The role of narrative in games, and the relationship between story and gameplay, has been an important topic at this years Game Developers Conference. Once again developers seemed unable to agree on the importance of narrative in games.

The first person to speak up specifically about the role of stories in games was Ken Levine, President and Creative Director of 2K Boston (Formerly Irrational Games), and the person credited with “Story, Writing and Creative Direction” on BioShock. Though BioShock has received significant critical and commercial success and been awarded for it’s story and writing, Ken started his presentation (“Storytelling in BioShock: Empowering Players to Care about Your Stupid Story”) by informing the audience that: “… the bad news for storytellers is that nobody cares about your stupid story”. Though this was not the core of his presentation as he went on to qualify that statement, and present a number of other ideas that I plan to discuss at a later date, I do feel his initial remarks are deserving of specific consideration.

On the face of it I feel Ken has a point, I find it extremely unlikely that anybody who played BioShock choose to do so because of the story alone. I do however believe from personal experience that the quality of the story and it’s presentation are a contributing factor to some people’s enjoyment of the game. This is a situation true of many games, people might not come for the story but it is often what keeps them playing past the point at which they have mastered, or grown tired of, the gameplay.

Stories have been a vital part of human society since the birth of communication, it’s only natural for people to be interested in them. The nature of storytelling and basic dramatic structure is embedded in human culture to the extent that when recounting their day to a friend the narrator will describe the events in the structure of a story, with a beginning, a middle a conclusion and dramatic tension. When playing a game without a specific story players will invent one, and personalise it. They rarely refer to what happened by saying “my character fell”, rather they will say “I fell”.

Stories are part of being human and any artistic or entertainment endeavour that ignores them is greatly limiting it’s potential. There will always be an audience for games without explicit stories, games like Chess or Football, but the potential audience for games with stories is conceivably every human being alive.

The problem games have at the moment is that they are not seen as a storytelling medium, because of this neither the type of people who would be interested in experiencing the new techniques of storytelling made possible through games, nor those best suited to develop those new techniques are interested in games.

Nobody cares about your stupid story because games are not consider a narrative medium.