Beyond the String of Beads: More Systems for Game Narrative

Beyond the String of Beads: More Systems for Game Narrative

2008-03-18

Monica Evans extends Costikyan’s analysis of the narrative/game debate, but ultimately concludes that battles over genre categorization miss the point of electronic media, and that we cannot yet accurately assess how the tension between story and play works out because digital games are “products of a technology still in its infancy.”

It’s official: the field of game studies is obsessed with storytelling.

One can’t argue with Costikyan’s summary of the Game Developers Conference. This year’s GDC included literally dozens of panels, presentations, and roundtables in which everyone from career developers and academics to players and fans discussed the role of stories in games, including some very familiar arguments. Is there a place for storytelling in game development? Which is more important, narrative or game design? Can you have good stories and good gameplay at the same time? At one point, during a particularly fractious argument between two developers, the person sitting next to me whispered, “They do this every year, and I’m not learning anything new.”

As of yet, there seem to be no definite conclusions or even agreed-upon definitions of story and game, and no sense of why the debate continues to cover the same ground - other than that storytelling in games is a fun thing to talk about.

And it is fun. As gamers, we are fascinated by our own medium, both in its structure and in our collective experiences within game systems. But the debate needs to move forward, away from simple but unanswerable value judgments, and into areas that will help us better understand the limits and potential of digital games.

At the end of the day, I don’t personally care whether the game I’m playing is best described as a game that includes storytelling, a narrative that includes gameplay, an interactive fiction, or some new and as-yet undefined experience. I care that my experience, in narrative or gameplay terms, is compelling, meaningful, and worthwhile. That said, creating worthwhile stories in a medium defined by its interactive qualities - a medium that on the grand digital scale is necessarily collaborative and iterative as well - is a tall order at best, particularly considering the age of the medium. Games and stories have been around since the proverbial “dawn of time,” or at least of human remembrance, but by Costikyan’s measure we’ve only been struggling with the game-story problem since the early 1970s - less than forty years.

The current arguments over stories and games won’t be solved with words but with the games themselves; that what we’re debating is the potential of the medium, not its current state. As Costikyan says, the tension between what we consider “story” and what we consider “game” has inspired some interesting experiments, although it has yet to inspire something that “deserves to be called interactive fiction” (Costikyan 13). I also agree that the “beads on a string” approach to storytelling has been thoroughly, if not completely, explored, although that doesn’t meant that future games can’t make use of the structure in innovative ways.

But the most telling part of Costikyan’s essay is his sense that games and stories are two different, possibly opposing things, and that the relationship between them is one we haven’t yet fully explored. There are a variety of game structures that attempt to balance, integrate, or otherwise blend gameplay with narrative content, with varying degrees of success. From a player’s perspective, and looking in particular at digital gaming, I wonder that the game experience and the story experience can be described not as two separate, intertwined pieces, but as two aspects of the same experience: perhaps in some cases, the same thing viewed through two different critical lenses. With most of the games in the Final Fantasy series, for example, I can easily separate my gameplay experience from the narrative content, but I have a much harder time splitting my understanding into strict “game” and “story” categories with recent titles like Portal or Bioshock. It’s even more difficult with Façade, which is either an experimental adventure game or an interactive fiction or both, depending on who you ask. There is something to be said for what we might call experiential or environmental narrative, which depends as much on exploration, interaction, and the player’s individual experience as it does on traditional components like well-rounded characters and structured plots.

Additionally, I’m not convinced that the lines between “story” and “game” are as strict as Costikyan describes, particularly where he uses linearity to differentiate the two. While I’ll agree that traditional narratives are linear, at least in their presentation (never mind the reader or audience’s understanding of the work), Costikyan’s description of game structure as non-linear seems insufficient. Our sense of “free will” in games, or at least the illusion of freedom “within the structure of the system,” is in many games extremely limited, as much or more so than the accompanying narrative. In fact, there are entire genres of digital games where the overall gameplay experience is constrained to a linear path; one can even argue, as Penny Arcade does, that “all games are on rails…of varying thickness and ornamentation” (Krahulik 2007). My individual play style and second-to-second gameplay choices in games like Final Fantasy VII or Super Mario Brothers may differ from other players, but I still have to move through the game experience in essentially the same way each time - and skipping from World 1-2 to World 4-1 doesn’t give me the illusion of free will, merely the sense that I’ve managed to jump forward on a linear path. And yet, this prescribed experience doesn’t destroy my sense of “meaningful play,” or my enjoyment of that experience. Gameplay may be constrained to a single set of actions, but those actions must be successfully completed, which is sometimes enough to provide active engagement to the player.

That said, there are games that present richly interactive, malleable worlds, in which players are rarely required to move along a predetermined path, and a vast number of gameplay options encourage a highly personal, deeply immersive experience. But even in these worlds, linearity is inescapable. The structure of the game may be non-linear, but only from the perspective of the designer. For players, each individual playthrough of a game occurs in a linear fashion, regardless of the possibilities inherent in the system. We are restricted in a very real sense by linear time.

On the other hand, we aren’t restricted to literal repetition. Games that adopt the above structure are often intended to be played for hundreds of hours, and players can form very strong attachments not only to their characters but to their individual experience in the game world. The designers of The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion describe their game as “about great depth and variety in creating any kind of character you want and going out and doing whatever you want…taking the idea of a virtual fantasy world as far as it will go” (Howard 2004).

This highly individual, personalized experience may be compelling but doesn’t take full advantage of the multiform storytelling potential inherent in the system. Oblivion may contain a huge variety of possible narratives, but it’s unlikely that one player will experience more than two or three variations. As an alternative, game narratives might be specifically constructed to be played multiple times, where the aggregate experience, rather than one personal thread, illustrates the true meaning of the tale; perhaps a natural extension of the short, highly variable story in Way of the Samurai. This approach could create a narrative not only best told through an interactive structure but dependent on it, one that is likely impossible in a traditional medium.

Yet sometimes a familiar, linear experience is what players want. I initially played through and often return to a particular set of games because I enjoy earning my way with gameplay through a familiar story, one that I have no desire to change. At other times, I want the freedom to follow my own inclinations and desires, regardless of what the designer may have intended. This second kind of experience doesn’t qualify for what we traditionally define as story. So perhaps we need a wider definition.

Costikyan’s definition at the moment is as follows: a story is a controlled experience, with predetermined events chosen carefully and presented in order by the author. This is an excellent description of the designer’s story, but doesn’t take the player’s story into account. Perhaps there is tension between the demands of a traditional, heavily authored narrative and the demands of a traditional digital game, but I see little tension between gameplay structure and anecdotal, player-authored narrative: in fact, one seems to lead directly to the other. The player of a heavily-authored game may struggle with what the “character” wants, but what about the war stories encouraged by Battlefield 1942 and collected on the Planet Battlefield forums, or the after-raid tales told by World of Warcraft guilds? What about the detailed character profiles and backstories created by Everquest players? These are narratives inspired by and in many ways dependent on gameplay, narratives made possible because the game provides a focus for experience, and the experience - and sometimes the retelling of that experience - becomes the player’s narrative.

Perhaps including player-authored narratives stretches the definition of narrative father than is practical, but the fact remains that game narratives cannot be created through the same techniques used in other media. Many game narratives blur the line between not only story and game, but between fiction and actual events. Regardless of the siren song of interactive narrative - one of the holy grails of game design, and one that Costikyan urges us to move towards - most players, most people even, are not good writers. But most players, like most people, are intensely interested in their own experiences, and stories that happen directly to them or in which they play an authorial role are automatically engaging. Player-authored narratives don’t need to be well-constructed or widely appealing; they only need to matter to the player in the moment of game experience, and can provide just as valid an experience as more traditionally authored stories.

To create interactive fiction in the traditional, designer-authored sense, Costikyan’s approach is a good one: that an effective method for construction is to constrain the game structure and the player’s actions so that a story is told, and to ensure through the narrative’s structure that the story is meaningful and worthwhile, not just personal. This type of narrative also seems to be unique to games, or at least to interactive media, and a step in the right direction towards games that qualify as art forms in their own right, not just luxury entertainment. What’s missing in interactive narrative, at least for digital games, is a sense of the details of that structure. The narrativist RPGs and free-forms Costikyan describes in his summary are nearly impossible to translate into digital games, as he says, based on the limits of that system.

But there’s no telling what the limits of the system will be in the future. To borrow a term from Janet Murray, games are currently incunabular: products of a technology still in its infancy, and indicative of a “period of technical evolution” (Murray 28). I’m not convinced that games will ever move out of this incunabular state. The tension between digital games and the technology that makes them possible has not only inspired interesting experiments but driven both the medium and the technology to its current state, and we’ve barely scratched the surface of human-computer interaction. Costikyan’s lessons from tabletop, free-form, and other analog game systems might soon be not only possible but highly desirable for digital games, particularly those games that thrive on player creativity. I look forward to this next wave of innovation: to experiences that are difficult to classify, define, or describe with our current terms, and to the day when game designers find they don’t need the string of beads at all.

References: Literature

“War Tales.” Planet Battlefield.

Holkins, Jerry (2007). “The Home of the Gods, Part One.” Penny Arcade.

Howard, Todd (2004). “Bethesda Softworks Announces The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.” elderscrolls.com.

Costikyan, Greg. (2007) “Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String.” Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Murray, Janet (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

References: Games

World of Warcraft. Blizzard Entertainment: Blizzard, 2004 - present (ongoing). PC.

Everquest. Sony Online Entertainment: SOE, 1999 - present (ongoing). PC.

Battlefield 1942. EA Games: Digital Illusions, 2002. PC.

Final Fantasy VII. Sony Computer Entertainment of America (SCEA): Squaresoft, 1997. Playstation.

BioShock. 2K Games: Irrational Games, 2007. XBOX360.

“Portal.” The Orange Box. Valve Software: Valve, 2007. PC.

Super Mario Brothers. Nintendo: Nintendo, 1985. NES.

Façade, a One-Act Interactive Drama. Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern; Procedural Arts. 2005.