Hey! There's a game in my story! (Or is there a story in my game?)

TelltaleGamesTelltaleGames Telltale Staff
edited 1:19AM in Blog
For many years now, a debate has echoed through the vaulted halls of academia. Professors, grad students and authors of distinguished books have been seen spewing venom from their lips and shooting daggers from their eyes at each other in the hallways and ballrooms and hotel bars of international conferences. The argument is usually termed "the narratology vs. ludology debate"� or, more commonly "you know, that game-narrative thing"�. I will not go into great detail here about the battles fought, victories won, casualties lost or narrative readings of Tetris since it will most likely result in staggering levels of reader boredom, especially in those familiar with the debate. Suffice to say, the question is this: does (or should) narrative have anything to do with games?

Given the name of our company, I'd be shocked and appalled if you feel yourself ignorant of our stance on this issue. To me then, the more interesting question is: what is the best way to tell a story in an interactive medium, such as games? Opinions on this are just as sharply divided as on that game-narrative thing.

A few Game Developer Conferences ago, I unexpectedly found myself sitting with an esteemed group of game types in a round table on "Stories in Games"�. A "round table"� is a session during which a group of esteemed game types stuff themselves into a small room no bigger than a shoe box (not unlike Telltale's former offices) in order to listen to the loudest and most extroverted of the group attempt to force their opinions on others. In this case, the opinions seemed to fall into two camps: the "meaningful stories need linearity"� camp and the "non-linearity is KING baby!"� camp.

Arguments were hot and heavy, but the basic concern of the first camp can be summed up as "We have a meaningful story to tell. If we put this meaningful story into the hands of the players, they're just gonna mess it up!"� Across the shoebox, their opponents insisted "The holy grail of games is non-linearity and letting the players make their own stories"� "But those stories will suck!"� whined the first group "Games are interactive! You just want to steal the players' freedom!"� whinged the second.

No one was brave enough to step between the two unruly mobs and suggest that there may be a place in gamerdom for different games with different takes on story. That, in fact, the type of game one wants to make and the goals of the developer may inform what exactly the role of story might be for that particular game. That in fact there are trade-offs between story and interactivity and the amount you want to do both.

But wait...trade-offs? Can't stories and interactivity work together? Well here's the crux of the problem, my adoring fans, and the reason those two viciously vocal camps had formed in the first place: stories, as we are used to them, are highly linear affairs, whereas the nature of games is interactivity. Yes, there has been exciting work in film, television and books that play with this linearity, but the bulk of audiences around the world LIKE their stories nice, clean, and linear. Linearity makes sense, from our own perspective of how the world works. We as human creatures have many choices at any given time but ultimately we make a chain of selections which comprise the story of how our day went (or our week, month, life, etc). Watching a movie is not about watching all possible choices the characters COULD make, but rather the results of the choices they DO make. A story is telling something that has happened. A game is happening now. The nature of interactivity is agency and choice. Interactive means that I, as a player, have some control over the possibilities presented to me.

One can see how this might make linear medium storytellers nervous. If a writer has a specific story she wants to tell, then giving the player the ability to run amok in her carefully crafted world decapitating all her richly developed characters is enough to make her wake screaming in the middle of the night, waking her spouse, and disturbing her herd of guinea pigs. It's hard enough to communicate through a linear medium: how on earth is one to communicate to players of an interactive game?

One solution is to allow the player the tools with which they can make their own story, such as with The Sims, Animal Crossing, or Grand Theft Auto III (depending on your play style). However, there are times -- such as when pouring over the design of Bone 2 in the light of a pale and gray early morning -- where the designer does want to tell a specific story. Games do have one megalithic advantage as a story-telling medium over other mediums -- games can bring the player into the story through interactivity. But the interactivity needs to support the sense of being a part of that story and a part of that world. Which once again leads to the problem: how much a part of the world does one allow the player be while still supporting the integrity of the story one wants to tell?

While this is not insurmountable, neither is it trivial. The challenge is to allow the player to play the important parts of the story, and yet to sneakily guide the player along the points that they cannot be given the power to change. This is the challenge that I, as a game designer, most want to meet head on. I feel that it is laziness to plan the most critical and important story moments as cutscenes. This changes the role of the player from being a part of the action to being a mere spectator. In the end I want the player to lie awake at night re-living the game in the haze of pre-sleep and think "wasn't it great when I did this?"� instead of "wasn't it great when this happened?"� Being more than a ghostly, god-like spectator is the true magic of games as a medium and I feel that as a developer it is my responsibility to make the most of that magic and twist it to my own wicked ends.
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