At the beginning of the month I attended a talk on “Stories and Digital Games” at Les Conférences Jacques-Cartier. These conferences are interesting in that they are academic panels but open to the public. The organization and panelists took special pains to make sure that the conversations were accessible to all and simultaneously in both French and English.
I wanted to get a feel of how well the worlds of storytelling and computer games are getting along, as well as see if some product ideas I had in mind were worth pursuing. Also it was a chance to see bloggers such as Professor Monfort from MIT. (He’s exactly as I expected.)
I felt a bit of a stranger there, as one of the few white beards in a room full of young, eager students of game design. It seemed like attending the conference was a class assignment. But I found it fun to hear how seriously they take all aspects of game design. I don’t think I would have taken a sentence like “Could it be a method for analyzing the semiotics of inactivity?” seriously in any other context. (That’s not quoted verbatim, but close enough.)
The theme was ‘new methods of Interactive Storytelling’. I only attended half the conference, but I feel the theme was not realized as I conclude that they did not so much find new methods of storytelling as validated old ones.
There always are presentations of little or no interest, like using academic obfuscation (the word ‘circulation’) to try to redefine Assassin’s Creed 3 as something else than a pure platformer (Isn’t being in a specific place at a specific time the very definition of a platformer?). What was more impressive was the panel on copying the chapter headings of any RPG rulebook and passing it off as an academic framework to analyze games, or getting paid to play through Mass Effect 2 five times at university-level salaries…
But most of the panels outlined how what you can’t do in the game defines the narrative. You can only tell a story if the game mechanics support it, and you play only as long as there is drama created by how you can resolve a situation. The fun, the narrative of a game emerges not from technical limits, but narrative limits; the crises and drama the creator of the game wants you to explore. The artistry of a video game and its narrative relate exactly like a statue relates to its original marble block. You must remove potentialities to reveal the true shape of the creation beneath.
How to select a good narrative is outside the topic. The only mention of this was the comment that when someone tells you “You shouldn’t do that!” then you should probably try it. For example, how many games are about self-sacrifice? It’s contrary to the typical ‘survival’ credo of most games but in Lemmings you had to purposefully sacrifice some of your critters to win. And it was a success!
Several people asked during the day if game designers wish games had enough AI to be open-ended. They don’t. That would put writers out of a job. Nobody really plays ‘god games’ for very long, because being omnipotent and omniscient removes all drama. But limits, either physical (Being in a wheelchair, not seeing in the dark, etc) or mental (Being in love, not knowing the enemy strategy, being a pacifist) are the underpinnings of drama and narrative.
Finally, and this is the most difficult part for the design team, the game mechanics must support the narrative limits. This means literally taking away control from the player. For instance, the fun of Donkey Kong is in jumping over barrels to reach the top of a building. If you could fly in Donkey Kong, there would be no game. This chiseling away of ‘powers’ and capabilities is how you support the narrative. You have to watch out for emergent behaviours and side effects. For some people, this is the fun part. For others, it’s called debugging.
So are there new ways to inject narratives into video games? It doesn’t seem so; but more and more the narrative is there because of limits set by the writers, not the software engineers. And this means games have a hope of becoming serious works of the same calibre as classics of literature or cinema.