Interview on Game Story with Wired Magazine

I was delighted to be asked about writing in games last week for a Wired Magazine piece by David Cornish. You can see the finished piece featuring some of my comments, which is well worth a read, here: Press X to skip: the challenge of storytelling in computer games.

Answering his questions gave me an opportunity to refine some of my own theories, so I decided to post my full responses here. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Firstly, do you think games do a good job of telling a story? Can they compete with books and films?

Even if you compare one book to another book, it can be very hard to say which does a better job of telling a story. And if you did reach a conclusion, it would certainly be a matter of taste and open to debate. When you consider how hard it is to make comparisons within the same medium, how much harder must it be to compare between media which work in fundamentally different ways? Whether you think that ballet does a better job of telling a story than film, for instance, might depend on your own biases for or against immediacy, music, and physicality.

Having said that, I think one fundamental difference must be in the verb, ‘telling’. It’s rare (though not impossible) to have an interactive book in which the reader influences the outcome of the story, and even rarer in film. These media ‘tell’ the consumer the story, whose action becomes purely one of comprehension and interpretation. While film techniques (such as ‘cut-scenes’) do still play a part in many big games, and the player still has to comprehend and interpret the world, the difference is that, often, the player can directly influence what happens in that world on both the micro and macro level. From small defeats and victories, to major character developments and plot changes, the degree of agency the player has within the game universe depends only on which cases the developers decided to program for.

One question I’d take away from this rather unsatisfying answer is – do games even possess a ‘story’? In a classical sense, aren’t stories stable structures with beginnings, middles, and ends? Structure is so important to traditional story forms, whereas a game is only as good as its ability to react and change in response to the player’s actions. Given that, even games marketed as having characters and big stories might not always fit the traditional definition. As a result I think we need to widen the definition of story, and call it something more general, like ‘art’. Art engages aesthetic and often emotional responses, subtly reshaping one’s view of the world. In the case of narratives with characters, this partly occurs through viewing the universe with the characters’ experiences as a prism. In games, those experiences occur even more vicariously through the player’s direct agency in the game. The intensity of the aesthetic and emotional responses may or may not be stronger than in other media – I think this depends solely upon the combination of player and game. But finding those experiences and pushing them further is, at some level, what all game developers are trying to do.

Who do you think has the main control when writing the story of a AAA game, the developers or the narrative designer? Who should get the final say when trying to strike the balance between gameplay and story?

The balance of control entirely depends on the particular studio and publisher. It frequently has come down to the priorities of those running the show – whether they come from a more traditional gameplay-centric background, or whether they view the game as a sort of high-production-value equivalent to a Hollywood film. I’m not saying that I like this dichotomy, or that I wouldn’t prefer it to go away, but there’s still a prevalent view of story in its old-media definition that I tried to distance myself from earlier. Increasingly, though, publishers are recognizing that gamers like the idea of big stories in games, and player money talks, which means that the people running the show are investing in story departments, writers, narrative designers, and handing over control of story to them. But generally, where ‘Writer’ even exists as a separate role in game development, it has a degree of control roughly equivalent to that of a screenwriter on movies: the director ultimately decides what goes on the screen. And just as sometimes combination writer-directors do a better job where their vision propels a film all the way from conception to execution, sometimes combination writer-creative directors do a better job on games. Nowhere is this more obvious than in indie productions, where a small team – sometimes one person – operates in every role by necessity, without some of the corporate, bureaucratic, and economic concerns ever-present in larger productions.

If you’re trying to strike a balance between gameplay and story, then this greatly depends on the game you’re making. But here are some general thoughts: a) I’d prefer they be integrated (where appropriate) in such a way that they are combined, rather than balanced against each other in a sort of opposition, and b) games are distinct and unique through their interactivity, and not their story elements, which for me means that by definition, gameplay has primary focus – but mainly see point (a).

What were the largest challenges you faced when working on Driver and Halo 4? Were there any points at which storytelling or narrative had to come second to gameplay and design?

Absolutely. This has been written about eloquently elsewhere, but the challenge of integrating story with gameplay was crucial to making Driver: San Francisco a success as a game. With the latest Driver, we backed far away from the Grand Theft Auto mold of combining guns and death with driving in the city. Ubisoft wanted a game with no killing, which took what was good about Driver – the driving – back to the essentials whilst adding a compelling, brand-new element, which ended up being the concept of Shift. Shift, which was actually called ‘Zap’ for the longest time during development, is a game mechanic where the player’s awareness can bounce out of their car and up into the sky anywhere in the city, and then jump back down into a different vehicle. This has obvious benefits for making driving gameplay interesting, but what on earth does it do to story?

Now, you could view this at a high level as a big publisher concocting a gameplay formula based on the marketplace and then forcing a story that fits the formula they want, but the extensive development time on the project, and repeated prototypes and new approaches, attests to their determination to make the game work as a coherent whole. And, as in many artistic endeavors, the bizarre combination of constraints of time, money, materials, and vision ended up producing the most interesting solutions, story-wise. You could say that where some games are sunk by blind commitment to gameplay, viewing the story as nothing more than a wrapper, Driver worked because we took that exciting gameplay mechanic and saw the craziness it would inflict on the story, and then actually followed through on it, working through all the insanity of three hundred open-world characters, and body possession, and dream narratives that resulted. The whole process didn’t lack for stress or conflict, and it took a ton of dedicated writers and editors, both internal and external to Ubisoft, but the weird and wonderful gameplay led to a weird and wonderful story full of humor, and we were really happy with how it turned out.

If you want specific conflicts, I would say that the common developer refrain of ‘make it shorter’ was even more painfully true here, since the player could willfully interrupt any exchange by Shifting out of a car and straight into another. The more constraints we put on the player in terms of their movement, the easier it was to write the missions – which goes directly back to my earlier comments about the battle between the structure of story versus the interactivity of games. But the player’s abilities that made the story so hard to write were also what made it so interesting, so overall I think it was a clear win.

Do you think story is vital to the success of a game? Classics like Tetris don’t require any element of saving princesses or stopping the world from blowing up. When should storytelling take centre stage, and when should it move over for gameplay?

You know, when I interviewed at my current employer, Austin-based developer Certain Affinity, one of the questions I was asked was, ‘Do games need stories? If you had to write a story for Tetris, what would it be?’ And in retrospect it amuses me, because in the last week I’ve seen several presentations and videos where well-known game writers use Tetris as a classic example of a game that doesn’t need any sort of ‘traditional’ story. In my interview, I suggested that you could call Tetris ‘Buffer Overflow’ and make it a server protection game, where a malicious hacker is trying to gain access to your computer system by sending in a stream of malformed packets, and you have to sort them into data structures and file them away before they overwhelm the data buffer and start rewriting executable memory to take over the system. That’s not the actual narrative of Tetris, but it’s a story with an unending onslaught of data that you have to reorder, and which, as it turns out, never ends. It becomes a Battle of the Alamo scenario, which is more or less how it feels to play Tetris – an unwinnable defense – but it’s spun as a futile attempt to exert order over chaos, which is the mental mechanic of ordering pieces that you see when you fall asleep while experiencing ‘Tetris brain’.

This Tetris narrative probably says more about the pleasure I get from constructing wacky scenarios than anything else, but I think it demonstrates that Tetris could have a story, and it could be a tragedy about the ultimate futility of an attempt to control the uncontrollable, to overcome your inevitable demise. But perhaps the beauty of Tetris is that you can get this from the game itself. You don’t need or want extensive cut-scenes to imbue Tetris with meaning. You can give the player that feeling from the mechanics, the visuals, the music, without uttering a word, and to me, that in itself demonstrates how powerfully games can tell stories without even considering traditional methods such as dialogue.

Certain Affinity is best known for crafting multiplayer experiences in games like Halo 4 and Call of Duty, and the skyboxes, environments and soundscapes in the latest, Majestic Map Pack for Halo 4, which CA designed, demonstrate that environmental storytelling. For instance, one of the Majestic maps, ‘Landfall’, is set amidst a mass evacuation on a planet under attack, and that whole context is expressed through the skybox, which is effectively ‘anything outside the playable space’ that you can see in the distance while engaged in the battle at hand. We have an extensive iterative process for devising and integrating story scenarios as a backdrop to those spaces, because it’s so important to creating an immersive game. In the future, we definitely intend to push the envelope within the single-player space, but it’s important to realize how prevalent and refined the art of environmental storytelling is, now, within any sort of work on most big-budget games.

In your experience, do the best games start with a story that needs telling, or a gameplay hook that a story is then built around?

I think it depends on the type of game you’re making – it seems like Bioshock is based heavily around the setting, even though clearly the plasmids and abilities are an important part of the game. By contrast, Portal started as a student project called Narbacular Drop in which there was no story, only gameplay. But when you look at the finished game, Portal (and Portal 2 even more) has an incredibly rich, very linear and structured storyline which massively increases the value of the experience. I think game developers more often start with gameplay mechanics – understandably, since they’re game developers, after all, not novelists or playwrights. But the truth is, once you start making a game with objectives and characters, an art style and a universe, story quickly becomes important, and it’s the decisions you make at that stage, and your ability as a team to iterate over new story ideas and gameplay adjustments and find how the story and game mechanics complement each other, that leads to a successful end result.

One of the main values of Narrative Designers, still often untapped, is to help developers figure out what story could mean in their universe, from early in development on through to the end. All too often developers make assumptions – ‘story is cut-scenes’, or ‘story is voiceover’ – without considering how story itself could become a mechanic, an integral part of the experience. Finding that sweet spot is what a Narrative Designer is there to do, and that’s why if you have writing chops as well as the technical skills to define logic and program functionality, you’re in a prime position to contribute meaningfully to a story-driven game.

Can you recall the first game narrative that left an impression on you?

The earliest videogames I played were the Sega Mega Drive games from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, like Revenge of Shinobi, Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage, Golden Axe. Those all had stories, but somehow the text never transcended the barrier of dubious on-screen translation to be truly gripping. What those early games really showcased was the ability of music and setting to influence the player’s emotions. Going back and listening to the last level soundtrack from Sonic the Hedgehog 2, for Wing Fortress Zone, in which he makes his way through a craft jetting through the sky, evokes an emotional memory stronger than any block of game text could provide. Just as in real life, where scents and music can evoke powerful memories, the interactivity of exploring a game environment provides a palette of visual and audible cues and triggers which can delight and haunt us for years to come. The tools available to game developers have come a long way since Sonic, but I think it’s still true that narrative can, and should, be a part of the game experience – rather than the game experience being considered a part of the narrative.