Entertainment Factor

GDC is both invigorating and frustrating for me. It’s invigorating because it brings a lot of really intelligent people together to talk about creating in a field that I have a lot of interest. It’s frustrating because, at best, I don’t even qualify as an amateur game designer. Nor am I a game design theorist, or scholar, or anything but a player and wanna-be. The conversation stimulates and excites me, but my level of expertise probably doesn’t even qualify me to eavesdrop at the window. And really, it’s only because of Michael Abbott’s coverage of the conference through his podcast and blog that I even know what GDC is and who some of these people are and what they have to say.

I love stories. And I’m fascinated about how stories can be told in video games. My genre of preference has always been the rpg, in no small part because of its emphasis on story, but also the strategy, exploration, and player agency to shape or participate in the story. I’m not equipped to compose a treatise on story in games, and I’m sure that this ground has been well-trod by many, but Abbott’s posts about storytelling started me thinking yesterday about how it might be useful to chart the narrative continuum in games.

The idea is to plot a continuum for how narrative is used in games that rely on story, in an effort to try to better understand how games tell stories. At one end of the spectrum would be games with a fixed narrative that are watched more like a movie, and at the other are games without a scripted story where the narrative is completely developed through playing the game.

I’ve been thinking that emergent gameplay has become a buzzword, and it probably is, but it may also be the best descriptor of how games differ in how they tell stories from other media. The first movies, not yet knowing what else to be, were like filmed stage shows (I don’t particularly like them because of it). Now, movies have matured into their own – diverse – story telling medium. Games where narrative is important, often try to tell their stories primarily in ways that are familiar, both for ease in understanding and designing. But games intrinsically have a built-in narrative aspect that mediums such as books or movies or theatre (to a lesser degree) generally lack – the agency of the player. While this agency may be separated from the story, the act of playing the game creates an experience for the player that is its own story. (Is this what is referred to as the ‘ludic narrative’?) That combined with the scripted narrative form the whole story of the game.

The ludic experience is closer to the way one experiences music or purely visual art, where the work evokes a feeling from the viewer and that response is the emergent story of the work for that individual. Movies, books, etc. can have a similarly profound impact on their audience, and perhaps that is the intangible ‘art factor’ that separates the cream from the rest of the commercial drudge. I think the effect is more focused in paintings where there isn’t the same intrinsic entertainment value. Which leads me to wonder if entertainment needs to be filtered out when evaluating commercial art…

This morning I read Nels Anderson’s post about meaning in games, and he too brings up a point about the entertainment value of games and music and other consumed art forms – namely that it isn’t necessary that games all have ‘meaning’ other than being just for fun. In art criticism, it is important to judge a work by the appropriate set of rules – you don’t analyze a cubist painting from the perspective of an impressionist, or at least you can’t determine whether or not the cubist painting is successful at being a cubist painting using impressionist criteria. Perhaps ‘Fun’ games becomes its own genre, akin to the ‘popcorn’ flick. Maybe we can coopt ‘Monsters and Mullets’.

What a game means, the story that it’s trying to tell, and the experience that the player has are all intertwined. What I’m most interested in exploring is the telling of a scripted story that is experienced through the agency of the player, where the role the player assumes affects the relationships within the environment and the story. A dynamic equilibrium of both ends of the continuum. And still be entertaining. What examples exist already and how successful were they at achieving their aim? How does one improve the storytelling in the next iteration, or have we reached the limit that “proscriptive monolithic narrative” can be integrated meaningfully with gameplay?

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