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Sometimes narrative as narrative is the answer

A few weeks ago in Game Set Watch, movie and screenwriter Justin Marks chided the game industry for calling the story in Grand Theft Auto IV "Oscar-worthy". In the article, Marks wondered if gameplay as narrative is the answer.

The adventure of Niko Bellic, complete with its comic assortment of ethnic cliches, is pretty much on par with the rest of the franchise's self-conscious worship of movie archetypes and genre tropes. And there's nothing wrong with that. Rockstar has made clear that's all they've ever wanted to do, and they've done a damn fine job at that (although I do miss some of that charming humor from Vice City and San Andreas).

The problem here is not the quality of the story, but the manner in which it is incorporated into the gameplay. After skipping over countless cut scenes so I could get to the action, I slowly began to regard plot in GTA IV as being something akin to the Clinton marriage: why do they bother with the charade? Is there anyone in this country who honestly thinks these two people still sleep in the same bed?

After all the incredible advances in their game engine, why does Rockstar insist on making its story an accessory – a needless, comparatively inferior element? More to the point, how did narrative become such a side bar to the real point of gaming, i.e. our ability to play out our deepest fantasies in a virtual world?

I found myself nodding in agreement at the start, but then wincing at some old, overworn ideas as his essay continued. By the time the essay started to near the end, Marks was returning to some familiar, obvious claims:

We need to stop thinking about story as a device to make us care about the gameplay (it doesn't), and start thinking about the gameplay as the narrative itself (thus, making us care). Now that the technology has finally reached a breaking point, a place where we can genuinely craft sophisticated worlds, we have to understand that plot is not forced upon those worlds artificially, but grown from our interactions within their environments.

Story design needs to be less checkpoint-focused and more focused on implementing a meta structure that makes us believe we are shaping events with our choices, even if these choices have already been made for us.

The "story on rails" has now been exposed. Game engines are strong enough that we can see the seams in the narrative fabric. It's no longer acceptable that we can take our girlfriend on a date and never once have her mention the fact that we're carrying a missile launcher by our side. We need to believe our actions have consequences within the virtual universe and that the experiences we are living are wholly unique, even if they aren't.

This is all very, very old news. Marks' assertions and observations are fair enough, except that like most generalizations, when extended out to encompass everything it falters and fails.

The truth of the matter is that in some games, having the interactive bits lead to stories on rails works very, very well. His timing for this assertion is especially unfortunate given the recent release of Metal Gear Solid 4. I'd be willing to bet that the people who have stuck by Hideo Kojima so far are more than happy to sit back and watch as Kojima's "story on rails" unfolds – which illustrates my contention with Marks' argument. To my mind, the issue isn't with stories on rails, it's with bad stories on rails.

Personally speaking, I love a great story on rails, as evidenced by the number of Final Fantasy games on my shelf. However, I have little to no patience with bad stories on rails, which is why after playing Lost Odyssey for a couple of hours I flatly lost interest. The game had some interesting premises, to be sure, but it squandered them way too quickly. Lately I've been looking forward to playing MGS4 even though I haven't played through the first three, opting instead to catch up through the excellent video retrospective series being offered up by GameTrailers. Doing so is cheaper than picking up Metal Gear Solid: The Essential Collection, sure, but more to the point it takes up much less time – although I never use Cliffs Notes for books and still largely resist using hintbooks for games, when presented with the option to get caught up on Kojima's epic story through these summaries instead of playing through 100-plus hours of gameplay, the decision was an unfortunate no-brainer. To me, the play experience is important, but it's the story that brings me to the gameplay, not the gameplay that brings me to the story.

I still suspect that the best way to handle interactive narrative in games is to treat it like a series of rubber bands strung between nails – the key plot points are fixed (what Marks refers to as 'checkpoints') but the manner by which you arrive at those points is flexible. This is the philosophy you often find deployed in games with lots of side quests or mini games – they improve the quality and the duration of the game, but these diversions (or expansions) still remain optional. I'm not a big fan of sandbox games for many of the same reasons cited by Marks, but I remain skeptical that the Crawfordesque, Holodeck-esque model that he's wishing for will ever realistically come to pass. I'm firmly in David Jaffe's camp on this one; in a blog post from last weekend, he derided the impact of the sandbox model on the recent games based on Marvel Comics:

Please stop putting Spiderman games in big open sandbox environments where you swing around and do oh so slight variations on 4 pretty dull mission types (chase/race/collect/etc) and then once in a while toss in a boss fight and/or a somewhat unique mission.

I LOVE Marvel Comics and I LOVE the promise of games based on Marvel Comics. But why can't you guys make a game that feels like a comic? I don't mean art style wise; I don't mean like Comix Zone with panels and cliche stuff like that. I mean feels like a comic in a story based, narrative way: a game that shows off the OTHER aspect that makes Marvel Comics so special: The characters/story. It's not JUST about the powers, you know. But your games are always ONLY about the powers.

The thing that made Stan and co's comics so unique back in the 60's is he was the first guy to say, "Hey, let's treat these stories with some respect, let's treat these characters with respect and in doing so, we'll grow the audience well beyond 8 year old boys- who ONLY care about the powers"....and with that thinking, the entire medium of American comics was reinvented.

As a huge comic and game fan- and as a game designer as well- I really hope Marvel stops ONLY using the HOW TO MAKE A MARVEL GAME template that seems to demand: Open City, Hero Powers, Recycled Missions ad nauseam, and a few Unique things tossed in. And I hope they stop because this template- in most cases- goes against the very thing that makes the comics so special: story.

The games- as well made as some of them are- get boring fast and betray the source material upon which they are based.

If I was making the calls about Marvel games, here's the #1 thing that I would do:take the templates of story based games like God of War, Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry 1, etc. and use that template as a jumping off template for games with Spidey, Wolverine, Captain America. Make STORY based games, not POWER based games. I'm not suggesting you take the powers away. I AM suggesting a much more scripted experience that allows players to revel in what makes the comics upon which the game is based so special. You can HAVE some open areas within that structure. Have like 3 really amazing web slinging areas that really show that mechanic off in a fun, excitingly designed way. Just don't base the WHOLE game around it.

And heck, if you gotta go open environment, at least TRY To do unique missions every time. GUN from Activision- who publishes alot of the Marvel games- did a good job of this. It was a big open world but it still felt like I was living in a very cool story/adventure. And I loved that about it.

Hear, hear. More to the point, what I want is the opposite of Marks' prescription: I think game writers should write better stories and work with the game designers to develop better game mechanics to mesh with the narratives. Despite the frequent claim (that Marks himself makes near the end) that "the game industry is not the interactive little brother of cinema", I still kind myself marveling at how easily these types of claims map onto criticisms of film. People that claim that narratives in games should take a backseat to gameplay strike me as characters that claim that narratives in film should take a backseat to cinematography. It's a short-sighted, tunnel-vision type of claim – because X is what media form Y does uniquely and independently, then all instances of media form Y should focus almost exclusively on X. It's a bad model and a rotten philosophy: many films do okay with an iffy story and spectacular cinematography, and many films do okay with an amazing story and mediocre cinematography. It's the ones that do both brilliantly that truly prove themselves memorable.

I think that the proper first step is to determine what kind of experience you're trying to produce when everything is said and done. This will allow you to start deciding what type of narrative experience or gameplay experience is best for what you're trying to create, and then to develop an appropriately matching narrative or gameplay right along with it in an organic, intelligent fashion. Let the ratio of gameplay to narrative – and the ratio of interactivity to 'rails' – be determined not by your media type but by the type of experience you're trying to create. Just like with narrative and cinematography in films, an ideal blend of gameplay and narrative is the holy grail – but what that ideal blend happens to be depends wholly on what your desired end experience happens to be. The beautiful thing is that the media type of games is big enough to accommodate all kinds of these desired end experiences and ratios.

Long story short, just because you don't happen to like games with stories on rails doesn't mean that they shouldn't exist. I think that to assert, as Marks does, that we should "stop writing high-minded stories. Start writing games. And let the stories grow from them", is way too one-sided and, frankly, way too overreaching. Sometimes gameplay as narrative might be the answer, sure – but for me and the scores of others like me, sometimes narrative as narrative does just fine.

(Note: an earlier, much rougher draft of this essay first appeared in my personal weblog here.)



Re:MGS, I don't care if it's a great story: if I have to sit and watch a 20-minute cutscene in order to get that story, I no longer am playing a game. (Granted, MGS4 lets you skip cutscenes from what I hear, so that's a step in the right direction from MGS2, which is the only MGS game I've played.) I vastly prefer the storytelling you get in the Half-Life series (I was particularly impressed by Episode 2) or in a game like Deus Ex, which uses cutscenes but actually a good 60% of the story is embedded in the environment itself.

I general, I agree with you. Look at Jason Rohrer's latest column at The Escapist.

He says, "We should figure out what we want to express with our games and then devise game mechanics that best communicates that message. The heart of our games, the gameplay, should be our primary vehicle for expression."

In other words, we shouldn't design a game and let the story grow from it. We should figure out the story we want to tell and devise gameplay mechanics that create dynamics that generate the aesthetics we require, aesthetics that support and ideally sometimes supplant the written story.


Darius, I'll give you a dollar for every one minute of cut-scene you can't skip in the entire Metal Gear series. :)

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