August-September Roundup

For our last theme, “What’s the Story?”, we ran a little competition. Kris and I have read the BoRT submissions and made our decision, but until the end of this blog post… here’s a roundup you might be tempted to scroll straight through. Don’t do it! It takes me ages to write these things!

Auguseptember’s theme was “What’s the Story?”:

“Videogame stories are where interactivity meets cinematography, decisions change destinies and players become poets. How do games tell better stories than other media, and where do they fall short?”

Five out of Ten: Storytellers

For all the focus on game stories – press obfuscation of plot, spoiler warnings, post-release analysis – do they really matter that much? We have always played games that allowed us to create the stories in our own minds, and recent titles like Pivvot show we don’t need a compelling story to have a great game.

Although ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ usually refers to the tension between the narrative elements of a game and the actions it has our character perform, maybe the real tension should be our feelings towards the existence of the story itself. Is our reliance on stories holding games back?

Bad news: Tauriq Moosa’s submission includes spoilers for The Last of Us.. Good news: he labelled them, so I don’t have to kill him! Knowing Tauriq, this is probably a very interesting read.

Peter Shafer calls game stories another tool at the creator’s disposal, and a potentially hindering one at that. I reckon that’s an argument against crap stories in games rather than for the redundancy of stories as a whole. Or perhaps it’s the delivery of game stories which is the problem: Pacific Rim isn’t far off Half-Life 2 for character development, but they’re both successful stories through execution. Shafer goes on to discuss “foldback” story structures and how unravelling plot threads can be problematic by a story’s conclusion, but again – is this why Mass Effect 3’s ending was bad, or rather because the fault was in the telling rather than the tale?

Over on Medium – “That Place Words Go For Some Reason™” – Adam Boffa talks about the storytelling nuance of recent games Gone Home and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. I haven’t played either yet – the hyperbole surrounding Gone Home had its usual effect of puttting me right off, but I’m pretty sure Brothers will reduce me to a sobbing wreck – but as Boffa explains, these titles highlight the strength of gaming as a creator of context. In Gone Home, we can explore objects in an uninhibited way where films or books must focus an authorial lens on a few key points of interest. In days gone by, games had faux doors and newspapers painted onto tables, but Gone Home is about exploring the environment rather than traversing it.

Evan Conley talks about the ‘first rule’ of storytelling: “show, don’t tell”. Although, like all rules, they exist so you’ll think about your writing, not because they can never be broken! Conley invokes the dreaded ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ here, showing how far we’ve strayed from Clint Hocking’s original useful term and into Inigo Montoya image macro territory. If only there was a resource that existed to help illuminate these terms… one can dream. There’s a good example in Mega Man X here, unfortunately wrapped in an Egoraptor video, but it’s also an argument stemming from experience: with a modern game controller covered in buttons, how is a complete newcomer meant to know which ones to press? Perhaps mainstream developers should stop pretending that they’re aiming for an audience other than experienced players.

Leigh Harrison writes about Remember Me’s reliance on tired narrative clichés and gaming tropes (warning: contains spoilers): an evil corporation, mutant variants on standard enemies that appear around the halfway mark, an amnesic protagonist, a non-sequitur of a final boss. It’s enough to make you wish for amnesia yourself (or perhaps, Amnesia) and experience these stale gaming conventions for the first time.

‘Mistuh Pond’ has written a frankly bizarre Choose Your Own Adventure of sorts. He says (I think) that as military shooters are essentially linear roller coasters, it’s difficult to convey the feeling of unpredictable attack that comes with real-world terrorism. Although perhaps he is looking in the wrong place – XCOM: Enemy Unknown does a great job of this, albeit in a different genre.

Desmand King from Plus 10 Damage takes a look at Spec Ops: The Line and Year Walk (spoilers for both). There has been a lot written about The Line, but it’s still one of the standout games of 2012 – I was thinking about it last week while watching Apocalypse Now. It falls into the category of “mediocre story, well-told”. I disagree with King that our choices in a game start to matter when the player ‘becomes’ the character, because I think the limited decisions available to the player dull our capacity for empathy. We break the fourth wall every time we make such a decision, to an extent. There’s more to be said on this than a single paragraph, but now is not the time to say it! Also, don’t get me started on “a game is not about wasting time”.

Also on Plus 10 Damage, David Gutsche argues that games are good at stories, and cites as evidence… a big pile of Twine games. I find that argument tautological, since a Twine game is usually an interactive story, so you’re saying “stories are good stories”. Which is true, but come on! Yet besides Gutsche’s examples, Depression Quest offers an interesting story and a degree of agency within a Twine framework, so there’s definite potential.

Mark Filipowich over at Medium Difficulty started his piece with a sandwich metaphor, and I am starving right now. Be right back.

Alright, armed with a cheese sandwich I can push on through and finish this. Mark argues that games don’t just need a good story; they need good storycraft as well. We don’t need to look at it in such narrow terms as plot and character: even games like Super Mario Bros and Tetris have their own ‘design grammar’ that helps us contextualise their worlds. Story is one part of the language of game design, but if it is there, it has to make grammatical sense.

Sylvain L. looks at ‘cinematic’ storytelling in games.. I’ve just started a Film Studies night course to help me understand this kind of inter-disciplinary writing, but I can appreciate the argument that “the way cutscenes are conceived is inherently videogame-y: it may borrow the visual language of cinema, but only to the same extent that cinema borrows the dialogs of theater.” I think it is problematic to talk about games as ‘increasingly cinematic’ when, as Sylvain points out, cinema is hardly a pure artform itself. In a second piece, Sylvain goes into further detail about the problems of gameisms in narrative, which I whizzed through to avoid more The Last of Us spoilers.

Last but not least, Seb (last name lost in the Tumblrvoid) expands on the points made in previous articles. It’s always nice to read about games you’ve never heard of before, but I really hope A Good Husband is a parody of marital life and those Boyfriend Points I joke about aren’t being recorded somewhere.

And we’re done! As you may recall, this month we ran a competition to celebrate BoRT’s birthday. Kris and I judged all of the entries and the winner is…

Mark Filipowich with “Tighten up the Narrative in Level 3: The grammar of videogames”. Mark wins a copy of Ghosts in the Machine, a new short story anthology about videogames.

Thanks to everyone who submitted this month: it was by no means an easy decision to pick a winner (that’s why we don’t have a competition every month). Tomorrow we’ll be back with a new BoRT topic. See you then!