Game stories and meaningful play

A couple of weeks ago Naomi Alderman, who should quite clearly blog more because she is brilliant, left some extremely insightful comments on my post about stupidity in video games and its link to poor storytelling. I wanted to pull them out and talk about them more, because some of what she says is key to how I think about games and stories. I also need to write about Saturday’s GameCamp, because the big theme of my day was (surprise) stories and games again, but this bears on those thoughts so I’m doing it in this order. Yes! Anyway. Insight!

I can’t tell you how depressing it is to be called into a meeting about a game and told that my job is to “wrap a story around” pre-existing gameplay. The only way to do this well is to involve writers/storytellers right from the start, to give story a place at the table and to keep thinking about what you’re trying to produce until it works for *both* gamplay/level design *and* story.

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I’m going to keep saying this till the cows come home: games motivate action, stories give *meaning* to that action. There’s no intrinsic problem with meaningless action: Tetris gets on fine with no meaning. But if you want people to feel genuinely emotionally invested you need to be involving a storymaker from the moment you start *thinking* about your game. Otherwise the things you’re being asked to do and the meaning of the things you’re being asked to do will always feel at odds with each other (“so I’m supposed to be this by-the-book cop, but I don’t have any problem ramming my car into lampposts, passers-by, other cars?” *cough* LA Noire *cough*).

This backs up the impressions I get when I play a lot of video games – big & small, indie & industry – as well as the impressions I get when I play bad tabletop systems. Tabletop systems are a great way to examine the interplay between rulesets and stories – because (with a few exceptions) any story you’re telling with them is going to be mediated through a GM’s imagination and through contact with the players, the rules have to work with the themes and feeling and general ambience of the rest of the game. Story is integral – you’re building a storytelling tool, after all.

Video games are also storytelling tools, quite literally. There’s different types of story in video games: the story that the player tells themselves in order to make sense of their experiences of play, and the story the game imparts. The story the game tells isn’t just told by the cutscenes or the narration or whatever – it’s also told through the gameplay and the interaction between player and game.

This is what I mean when I talk about story mediating & being mediated by gameplay. The player’s experience of the game mechanics is filtered through and affected by their interpretation of the story it tells; the player’s experience of the story is filtered through and affected by their interaction with the game mechanics.

In later comments, Naomi goes on to talk about character, values and causation as all being important elements of meaning within game stories – important elements to do well in order to create meaningful experiences for players. Choices that feel important, relationships that feel genuine, a story that evokes emotional investment – all elements I recognise as being present in most of the games I keep going back to replay, and mostly absent in the games I set aside. But these are basic storyteller’s tools, drawn from the same workbox as not just other sorts of games but also literature, film, television, radio, theatre. In many ways, when gamers call for these elements, we’re just calling for good writing; there’s no need to reinvent that particular wheel.

I’m thinking a lot at the moment about how Barthes’s Death of the Author applies to video games. It’s long been a staple of literary criticism that there’s no such thing as one interpretation of a story; cultural & critical readings of all sorts abound. In art there’s a running debate about whether meaning resides in the object of art itself, in the web of allusions, connections and contextual & biographical threads that allow the art object to be produced, or in the viewer’s mind, or in the web of similar threads within which the viewer exists. Authorial intent is pretty unimportant when it comes to creating meaning; the text is what matters, not the thinking behind it. So if a video game creator means to make Nathan Drake a loveable charmer but the “text” of the game makes him a genocidal fuckhead, then… the game wins. Canonically, he’s a mass murderer. And the story breaks.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm a journalist-type tech-ish geek person, working in that interesting ambiguous place where reporting the news meets all sorts of peripheral skills. In my spare time I herd zombies, design games and write stuff.

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