Story in games: lean forward, lean back, meet in the middle

100 Cupcakes GameMost stories in video games are pretty rubbish. Yes, there are exceptions, but that’s why I said most. I mean, most of everything is rubbish, but stories in games tend to be particularly bad. Even Kingdoms of Amalur, which has Proper Named Writers on the cover and everything, has pretty bad stories, in part because the stories aren’t well woven into the game. (Also because the poetry is doggerel and the accents sound like everyone’s been punched in the throat, but I digress.) They’re poorly conveyed in conversation segments that break the flow of the game and are Not Fun. Much like Assassin’s Creed cut scenes and Final Fantasy cut scenes and all the other cut scenes pretty much ever – a story that isn’t embedded in the game itself feels like a pretty bad story, even if it’d be a pretty awesome story in a film or TV series or book.

There’s an inherent conflict in videogames between lean-back and lean-forward interaction. Generally the game itself is lean-forward. We’re doing something interesting with our hands (or whole bodies) that’s affecting what’s on the screen. We’re physically invested in making a thing happen. But story is more of a lean-back affair – it’s something we want to absorb and be entertained by. Modern video games spend a lot of time trying to integrate the two. Bioshock had partial success with this – make story something you come across as part of the scenery – and some failures too (scattered diary pages are not a good storytelling technique, even if the pages are audio recordings for some reason). Not many video games have much success, and most have a lot of fail.

Cut scenes are the best example of this – they literally make you stop playing in order to absorb the story. Some cut scenes are so lean-back that they make you leave the room to make a cup of tea while the game gets on with talking to itself, so you can come back and do the fun bits. It’s a jarring, completely bizarre experience to go from a big boss battle where you’re really engaged in pushing buttons and seeing Stuff Happen as a direct result, to a scene where you’re expected to just sit there and absorb as control is taken away from you completely.

But story matters. Without a story of some kind, events are just events. Luckily, humans are hard-wired to make stories out of pretty much everything we experience. Pong is fun not just because of its mechanics but also because you can make up a story about playing tennis on your computer. Pacman is fun in part because of the story you tell in your head about getting the power pill and eating the ghosts. But neither of those things are stories told by the game; they’re stories that emerge from the game as you play it – from the intersection of player with technology/rule systems. Emergent stories are my favourite kind of story, because they’re the ones that games sustain really well. (Not just video games either. Live, card, tabletop and more. Board games have been doing emergent story well since Go was invented.)

Emergent stories can be far more engaging than the stories designers try to put into games. Beating your mates at Soul Calibur is a better story than the Soul Calibur story mode (not hard, I know). But emergent stories don’t actually have storytellers while they’re happening. Game designers can’t actually design the emergent stories they want players to have, because those are born from context and from the physical places and ways people are playing and stuff designers just can’t control. You can build a really good framework for generating stories, but you can’t force the stories to happen. Often emergent stories don’t actually get told, in any real sense, until after the events of the game; they’re reconstructed from divergent events in retrospect, not in real time. That’d make the player the storyteller.

What I think I’m getting at here is that story, like all meaning, is not contained within the cultural artefact itself but instead is created anew at every reading at the nexus between the artefact, the viewer and the contextual forces that surround both. The problem with a lot of video game stories is that story is fundamentally separated from gameplay, and often gameplay actively works against story or makes story unbelievable (LA Noire, Uncharted, GTAIV, to name a few). In tabletop gaming one of the marks of a bad session is that the players feel railroaded into taking certain pathways or choices because of the GM’s conception of how things should go. But that’s exactly what most video games do – even those with pretty branching endings and multiple pathways and meaningful choices that affect the game world.

I’m not a ludologist. I like my games chock-full of story, but I want story that’s meaningful in the context of gameplay and delivered in a way that isn’t head-snappingly oblique to the rest of the play experience. I just don’t know if that’s actually something video games can do.

This post is part of an ongoing conversation with Si Lumb and Mark Sorrell, and is written at some speed, because my thinking is slippery and if I stop to think about it for too long I’ll start disagreeing with myself.