Stories

My year in AmeriCorps is ending in 4 days. It’s been terribly hard to shift gears out of “finish work, say goodbye to children and teammates, graduate AmeriCorps, sort out life” to “MAKKING GAM!”

But now! Stories.

what is the storytelling medium?

I’ve been poring over, recently, what it means to be a storyteller, and what goes into picking how you tell your story. Do you pick a movie? A book? A radioplay? Television? I’ve believed for a little while now that there’s no such thing as a “storytelling medium.” Every medium can do a lot more when it isn’t reigned in by a story (see also: experimental films, poetry, sound collage).

For example, watch Flex.

Really, do it now.

How do you interpret this? My friends and I used to talk about how, in 3 1/2 minutes, this infers a lot of information. Nothing is direct, so the responsibility is on you to translate it, but while the interpretations might differ from person to person, the feelings and sensations they get from it tend to be pretty similar. Me, I see a kind of Adam & Eve story.

I consider this to be a kind of film-poetry. It’s a lot of abstracted content in a very short form. I don’t think you could find a way to stitch these kinds of audio-image experiments, these editing tricks, these images, into a narrative. Not without really distracting from the narrative, anyway.

A good narrative is one that allows for these moments of, to be a total artfuck, “pure cinema.” Moments that give you feelings using only the tools of cinema: light, sounds, images, music, rather than words and text and inciting incidents. To be populist about it, I think the robotic dance on the outside of the spaceship in Wall-E is a wonderful example of it.

As a storyteller, every medium has different tools to offer me, unique to that medium. So with every idea I have to ask: which do I pick?

what makes games good for telling stories?

A lot of game developers think that games don’t really lend themselves to stories. I’m inclined to say that we’re still figuring out how to tell stories properly in games, but I do agree that we should continue to explore “pure gameplay.” I don’t think Tetris would benefit from a plot. I actually wish more filmmakers and novelists would explore their form more, but in those practices story is king at the moment. We’re humans, we love stories, we think in stories. Stories, in my opinion, are how we make sense of the world.

So what can a game do for a story that films and sounds and words alone can’t?

There are a few basic things: for one, character identification. A standard conceit behind most stories with a main character is that the audience will identify with them. I don’t mean that we’ll necessarily like the main character, but to throw out terms like “subjectivity,” we see the story through the main character’s eyes. We understand their motives, which we can relate to our own motives for doing things. Maybe we completely disagree with their decisions, but we are allowed to see their process. Characters more secondary to the plot sometimes don’t have their motives and desires fully explained; only as much as it affects our protagonist.

In a game, you play as the protagonist. So their motives quite literally become your motives. One of the things that irks me so much about cutscenes is when the character makes decisions without me. It completely breaks the one thing that set the game apart from films and television; I should at the very least think that I chose to go on this plot. Creating a character that is believable and relatable but still a puppet to the player is one of the interesting challenges in a game, but some have done it well; the secret seems to be in focusing on the characterization, the voice and mannerisms and look, while letting the meaningful stuff play out in the action.

Another basic thing is immersion. I have trouble with movie theaters sometimes; I know everyone is bothered by people who talk through a movie or don’t silence their phones, but I think I’m more bothered than most. Because I like to forget the theater completely. I like it when I stop seeing the frame and get completely absorbed in a movie, to the point where, when the lights come back up, I’m a little disoriented by the theater around me. It’s why I like to stay through the credits; I’m not completely back in this world yet.

A game can do this better than any other medium (books are a close second I think). You can spend quite literally hours in the world of a game, with no distractions at all. If that world is someplace you like to be, you can just stay and stay. It helps that most narrative games take the length of 4 movies to complete. The music is around you and you are controlling every step, and if it’s well-designed there’s lots of world for you to take in. Who hasn’t spent time in Hyrule playing every single side quest, just to spend a little more time in that kingdom?

This kinda segues into the next point, actually: balancing plot and setting. This may take a few words to unpack.

A movie is the same every time you see it. Beat for beat, line for line. If an actress looks directly into the camera, she looks directly at you, no matter which seat you occupy in the theater. This is something that sets films apart from live theatre, really, which can never be precisely the same every time, and looks different to every person in the audience. Film is definitive. And it takes the exact same number of seconds to watch your favorite movie as it did last time.

Books, on the other hand, take a different amount of time to read every time you read them, though the number of words is constant. Both run into the same struggle of plot vs. setting: in a book, if the author has designed some fascinating world, every word spent writing about that world and setting is a word not spent progressing the plot. There are tricks, sure, like using the setting to tie thematically with the story (“the soot smeared across the London cobblestones were like the killer’s heart, thought Holmes,” say). But these are tricks. It’s one of the reasons fantasy writers can’t ever finish a story in less than five books. They want to tell you about the world they’ve created, so they need a plot that takes you through all of it.

No matter how much you like that world, the end of the book is drawing near. You could try to read it slowly, but that doesn’t make more words magically appear in it. Films have, generally, the opposite problem. They’re slaves to pacing, and a really elaborate world is hard to explore in 2 hours. They save on words by just showing you the world, but every frame spent lingering on the scenery is bogging down the plot. What happens in the most lavish productions is that these huge, gorgeous, intricate worlds are lovingly constructed and imply an enormous amount of history, and they probably cost several million dollars to make and occupy 3 whole soundstages at Universal Studios, and in the end they occupy 2 minutes of screen time. I call this Steven Spielberg Syndrome.

What I love about games is that they have built-in balancing for this tug-o-war. The player can stay in a scene as long as they want. It may pain the developer to know that they spent months developing a village in a game and a player might just breeze through it learning only as much as they need to get to the next plot point. But they can content themselves knowing that there are players out there turning over every rock to find each bit of content the developer left them. A game is different every time you play it; even a speedrun of Cave Story, where the two fastest times might be off by a matter of milliseconds, will not be precisely the same down to the pixel. No player will ever replay a game and get exactly the same experience, and the differences are under their control.

If the plot is what interests them, they can follow it. If the setting is interesting, and the designer knew to embrace this, they can sit by a lake and fish for a while before they progress. And what’s wonderful is they can play the game one way, then hit reset and play it the other. In a game, there are no missed opportunities.

These are the tools I think we shouldn’t neglect. Story is king in most other art forms, but I don’t think most stories are well-suited to their medium. Since game makers are still discovering what games are and what they will become, we have the freedom to really explore this space, something that most other forms stopped doing in any widespread way a long time ago. Let’s explore every road.

miscellaneous updates

We’ve got the first attempt at how the camera is going to work; it’s a little crusty right now so I’ll share a SWF when we clean it up a bit (I owe Fareed some notes about the tuning). Loren showed me a breakdown of how he did some of the lo-res art for his upcoming Tin Can Knight, so I’m trying to get him to make a blog out of it and I’ll link to it when/if he does. And I’ve been putting all of the planned design for episode 1 into a full-on design document for the first time! It’s been in my head/in 4 different notebooks for months, parts of it for years. Laying it out in order is giving me a lot of ideas, and leading to some refinement. Things are starting to come together.

As AmeriCorps draws to a close, I’m facing the prospect of a summer where I could be working about 15 hours a week, which would make OEM my full-time gig and my day job just the thing that covers my rent (should really move to Boston and get free health insurance someday…). I have a few ideas in the pipeline that could negate the need to work a day job at all, but I won’t announce that til I know if it’s happening at all.

I’m posting about story today because it’s possible you’ll hear my voice in tonight’s TIGRadio; I submitted an audio essay. Tune in and find out, I know I will be.

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