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Letting the Game Tell the Story

July 6, 2009

A post up at Click Nothing got me thinking about my old Narrative Systems post, as well as my recently released game, The Longest Night (it’s free, so if you haven’t played it, click the link, download it, play it. No excuses. It runs in Windows 98 for crying out loud). My first forray into integrating narrative into gameplay was pretty much just about defining mechanics in terms of the narrative, not about having the mechanics themselves define the narrative. This is where Far Cry 2 and The Longest Night come in. Currently, there is a game of FC2 being played where the player is denying himself the chance to reload a save game, basically playing the game with the constant threat of permadeath looming. This essentially makes every major choice in the game permanent, including whether or not to euthanize buddies when they are dying (and apparently if you just leave them to die they’ll come back to get their revenge. Never made it that far. Killed the guy who gave me story missions and the game came to a standstill. WHOOPS! But it just goes to show how open the game is to player choice).

Then there’s The Longest Night, something that I’ve realized I haven’t talked much about, even on here. It’s gotten its praises and its criticisms, one of the more interesting ones being, “It’s a bad game, but an amazing art-piece.” My goal for the game was for it to tell a story without actually saying anything, to make a game where actions speak louder than words. Since all actions are up to the player, it is up to you to create your own narrative. This is why the game makes no distinctions between any of the NPCs. If the game played favorites, there would be an obvious way to play and way to make the most money. Instead, everyone is worth a random amount of money, between $100 and $500. If you want, you can play the game like an arcade game and collect as much money as possible (a specific design choice), and the challenge comes simply from beating the clock. On the surface it’s an arcade game. Its depth comes from the player’s morality, not just making black and white decisions. You are not a superhero in this game, you can’t save everybody, so who do you save? For how long do you save them? Are beds reserved for the first six for the entire night? Is everybody only allowed an hour nap and that’s it? Is this a woman’s shelter and you don’t allow men or children any sleep at all? It’s all up to you.

In terms of mechanics, the game is nearly as simple as you can get. You move around with the arrow keys, interact with NPCs using the space bar, and walk over money to pick it up. After the instructions, there’s no text, dialogue, or anything else that would interrupt your story. Some people don’t even see a story, and that’s fine. Everyone interprets this game differently, and it’s excited me to no end to hear people talk about it, whether they have good or bad things to say. However, when the game gives people a moral impact, and they start asking questions like “Why can’t I save them?” I feel like I accomplished my goal of letting the player interpret a story strictly through the gameplay.

Some may think it is a daunting prospect to write a story without words, but really, many stories have been told this way since the beginning of time. It’s a matter of taking many, many steps back and thinking about when stories were told through action only, before language even existed. A designer may immediately be compelled to tell the story traditionally through dialogue and cutscenes. It’s a safe way to go and there is nothing wrong with it. The traditional approach has led to many fantastic stories in game worlds. However, that follows the setup of [Gameplay] – [Story] where, for a game designer, the ideal structure is [Gameplay]. Story should be seamlessly integrated into gameplay, told through actions instead of words. Take, for example, Mission Objectives. Let’s say your mission is get from Point A to Point B while collecting a bunch of orbs along the way. That’s a story. It has a beginning (Point A) a middle (Orbs) and an end (Point B). Granted, it’s not compelling, so you can do things within the game-space to make it more interesting. Say the path between Points A and B gets caught on fire and you can’t leave until the fire is out. Now the player needs to find a way to put out the fire. This is a basic gameplay twist, but there is no reason why the same approach cannot be taken to other situations. In The Longest Night, I have a snowstorm brewing up throughout the night, which leads to more people showing up at the shelter, and thus more chances for the player to play out his or her story. A story is a series of events, and a story that is told through the game is much more compelling than just watching it play out in small chunks instead of as a whole.

In Prototype, your story could involve you climbing to the top of the Empire State Building and then pile-driving a tank off the top of it. When it’s done, you did it. It wasn’t prerendered. You did it, and it was awesome. Contrary to that, a game that holds your hand the whole time to lead you through its story is not nearly as interesting. I am currently playing through Call of Juarez – Bound in Blood, and as awesome as the game is, I do wish it let me mess around more than it does. Its story is set up in a traditional [Gameplay] – [Story] fashion, and I can immediately tell, thanks to innovations in storytelling being intertwined with gameplay in both independent and mainstream games, that this is a dying setup.

We ignore what a game means under the traditional setup. We see the story, we do what we have to do to get more story, the game ends, and it’s on to the next one. Meanwhile, Passage narrows down a 50 year relationship into five minutes and shows you just how far love can take you. That’s a power that neither showing nor telling can achieve. That’s the power of doing. It’s a subject I’ve touched on much in the past and it’s one I will continue to touch on until someone can prove me wrong. The storytelling powers of games are far greater than that of a traditional narrator-based medium (books, movies, etc.). When games narrate the story to you, sure, they can be fun, but games are the only medium where the audience has the potential to be the narrator for the whole thing. Have we reached that point yet? No. Will we though? Absolutely. We are in an age of endless technological possibility, and if you can make your own story in D&D, it’s only a matter of time before video games are just as open-ended.

Of course such a game would also be newbie-ambition incarnate. So pick your poison: solid gameplay or completely open storytelling.

(And to anyone who wants to argue that point, I say this: Why must I go kill these guys when all I really want to do is find true love?)

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