58177 is a quasi-random number.

Stories in Games, Part 2: Story Substance

October 16, 2002 essay

Part 1 of this two-part article went over very generally the way stories are told in video games. I only hinted at the psychological aspects of this, as it’s not very important to this particular discussion. Now, though, we will talk about the substance — the meat — of the stories we find in role-playing video games, and why there really isn’t much to them. We’ll examine a generic sketch of these stories — an outline of its common elements — and then discuss their merits in more details. We’ll wrap it up with an important question: what’s the point?

First, these stories are almost always fantasy, and when they are not, they are sci-fi. This makes RPVGs a very specialized genre. And sci-fi and definitely fantasy are already generally ignored by critics. We’ve already dug ourselves a hole. However, there is certainly nothing inherent about either fantasy or sci-fi that makes them unworthy of artistic merit. Of course the same is true for romance stories which, sigh, these stories generally have as a sub-plot.

I will, as a feat of magic, reduce almost all role-playing games into a single, broad list of key elements:

First, the characters you will meet:

  1. There will be a Hero. He’s either an older boy or a young man. He is generally well rounded statistically, except a tad stronger physically than at casting magic. He is either day-dreamy and adventurous or rough around the edges. (In the latter case, the love interest will smooth him out.) He will unexpectedly come across a great plot to destroy the planet, and the fate of the world will rest upon the reluctant and inexperienced ability of this Hero. He’ll need help.
  2. He will find a warrior friend. Quite strong, but lacking in the ability to use magic. A very serious person.
  3. He will find a magic-user. Gifted in casting spells, but weak both physically and mentally. She’s a woman.
  4. There will be an oddball character, usually some inhuman creature, who joins the team and provides plenty of comic relief.
  5. He will find a love interest. Very likely the magic-user.
  6. Most recent, “mature” RPVGs will also have a close acquaintance of the Hero — either a long-time associate or possibly a sibling — who becomes possessed/corrupted by the Evil Force and acts as the tie between the Hero and the Evil Force.

Now that we have the general cast, let’s talk about the Quest:

  1. Humanity, if not the entire planet, is in danger. The Evil Force generally has no sensical reason for his scheme, beyond revenge or hunger of some sort (physical hunger if it’s a planet- or soul-eating creature, a blood lust, or hunger for power).
  2. The Quest will take the Hero to these locations: towns, plains, forests, a desert, a lake, a hidden village, a volcano, an ice cavern, and possibly a sky palace.
  3. The Hero’s world-wandering is for the sake of collecting relics and/or slaying guardian creatures. Otherwise he will have no access to the Evil Force. Sub-rule: Dragons will be fought.
  4. The Hero will gain access to a large vehicle, probably an airship.
  5. The Hero will, at least once, rescue the love interest. She didn’t like him much before; now she will see him in a new light.
  6. The world of the Hero happens to have very storied mythologies, and every single one of them will be an obstacle in the Hero’s path. Sub-rule: There are no gods, only goddesses.

Obviously this can’t and doesn’t apply to every RPVG ever made, but imagine how many it does belong to. The fact that this so accurately sums up the genre is a very, very bad sign. What it means is that it has become a genre not of artistic vision or the conveyance of a rich story, but a product of player expectations. In other words, it is made so that players will like it. In that way, it’s exactly like any movie starring Hugh Grant.

Because text is reserved for dialogue, we cannot discuss the story’s use of prose. And we cannot talk about composition and editing to tell a story except in the case of cinema scenes. The story has to be discussed at the more basic building blocks: character development, structure, pacing, use of themes, and — unique to games — player interaction. And, inevitably, we must discuss the one important virtue of a story: was it even worth telling?

While we like to imagine that our characters go from point A to point B as people, they only do so in very superficial ways. The Clouds and Squalls are hardened men who fall in love and come out of their shells. WOW! That sure is an amazing look into the wonders of human emotion. Or you have the Zidanes and Hiros, the free spirits who, in the end, become free spirits… in love. Love is apparently the only major guiding force that will ever send the Heros out into the world to slay those hell-bent demons.

There have been more sensible touches of character development, though. Such as, in Final Fantasy 9, Vivi’s search for identity and Zidane’s realization that he and Vivi share a common dilemma. Vivi stands out to me, as his character — no matter how generic his “type” is in the Final Fantasy world — felt very real in his methods of dealing with his emotions. By that I mean, he didn’t always know how to do it. He didn’t suppress his emotions, nor did he feed it into some sort of brave but blind drive to unlock “the truth”. He was actually afraid of the truth, and at times wanted to withdraw. That quality is something not typical in a video game character. His interactions with other characters were also nice touches, even though the others didn’t really do much in the way of developing, themselves.

Whew. So now, let’s talk about plot structure. This is a bit tricky, but it goes like this: Hero comes across small, seemingly harmless plot. Gets involved. Unravels great, world-threatening plot. Must stop it. Walks around for a while. Fights demons, meets people. Meets love interest. Gains vehicles. Wanders around a larger portion of the world. Fights demons, meets people. Love relationship grows, although they are still pretending to not like each other. Better vehicle is found. Now, with the entire world available, the last obstacles to the Evil Force must be tackled. The love is proclaimed between Hero and love interest. Evil Force is destroyed. Everyone goes back to their lives in a different but hopeful tomorrow.

The other details are grafted into the structure. But notice: small world to large one. Adventures are by definition about discovery. However, this is generally a literal discovery of land rather than a personal discovery. Furthermore, this is mostly a discovery for the player, not the characters. They very rarely seem awe-struck about the new, mysterious lands they come across, although we can generally be certain that they’ve never been there before. And monsters are apparently the most second-nature thing you can imagine in their world. Man, those green imps are always a nuisance.

Anyway, I’m not about to look at individual plot structures. Typically, there is none to speak of. It’s just going from place to place, scene to scene. It’s like an Adam Sandler movie. Just a bare plot to tie separate events together.

Pacing. Pacing is a weird one to talk about, and pretty closely related to structure… I won’t spend much time here. It means something a little different from a story aspect than from a gameplay one. Typically, events of an RPVG are timed so that there is one major climax per disc. Just before the final dungeon, there is generally no pacing at all: the player is free to roam, find things, level up, tie loose ends, before making the decision to face the Evil Force. The game becomes more “open” as it progresses and more areas and abilities are available.

Themes don’t exist in games. Not visually, not symbolically. They simply don’t occur. I don’t know why this is. I don’t know why it’s any more difficult here than in a novel or movie, but apparently, it is. FF9 again tends to come closest to using this, as it several times discusses the issues of conformity and individuality. But it treats these themes so bluntly that they tend to lose their thoughtful quality and become very didactic.

Ah, player interaction. What I mean by this is the control the story has over the player, and vice versa. Do the player’s decisions have an important and lasting effect on the story? Typically not. Play decisions generally do nothing more than make the characters stronger or weaker over time. This is a gameplay aspect, not a story-related one. There are often different endings to the game, but this is, again, often a gameplay issue, and not something that stems directly from the player’s interaction with the story.

A very special exception to this rule is Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross. The second time through the game, the ending is very much determined by the player’s choice of when and how to beat the final boss. The outcome will be different, sometimes subtly. And not always for the better.

The story can impart on us, the players, a sense of action. But this is typically not used with full force. Typically, our path is laid out with us in bold words. We know where we’re supposed to go. It’s just a matter of getting there. Dialogues are sometimes kind enough to ask us some Yes or No questions, but these typically amount to nothing of substantial importance. Maybe we’ll miss out on an item, and that’s always a no-no for the hardcore RPVG player, but it’s such a trivial matter for the story.

But let’s consider the grand question of all stories: do they need to be told?

Hmmm. This is a tremendously complicated issue, because eventually, you have to address the very core of what games are about. What makes them unique from novels, movies, plays, or graphic novels. Considering that games are — relatively speaking — still in their infancy… then maybe, yes, they have to be told. But as stepping stones to more mature stories, with more mature themes. Not “mature” meaning “for adults only”, of course, but in the sense that the game designers begin to take hold of the medium and explore it in a profound sense, sharing with players an experience that couldn’t be had anywhere else.

There are far too many books about epic quests in mystic lands. There are too many movies about scruffy punks who learn to straighten out and fly right. And how much more do we really need to be reminded that love makes the world go ’round?

We need role-playing video games that will either shed these adolescent ideas of dragons and robots, or shed light on them. It is indeed a fact that the game-playing audience of the past has grown up now. We are adults. We will start needing something with more substance. We’ll look back and enjoy these works for what they were. For what they meant at a time. We’ll say “Those were nice, innocent stories. Without their place in history, we wouldn’t have what we have today.” Much like we wouldn’t have post-moderism without the medieval paintings of the dark ages. But then again, in a world where we are still expected to march obediently to the theaters to watch a sequel to Dude, Where’s My Car?, can we really expect a mass-market entertainment industry to start taking its medium seriously? I believe we are very ready to explore these new landscapes of video game storytelling. The question is, when will these stories be told?

Stories in Games, Part 1: Narratives

essay

We begin exploring the, um, wonders of video game storytelling.

I wanted to discuss rather specifically the stories found in role-playing video games. (I’ll call them RPVGs, since it’s important to distinguish them from their Dungeons and Dragons table-top counterparts.) Then I realized there was a lot of material, so it’s now broken down into two parts. This is the more academic of the two sibling pieces. We go through written stories, stories in movies, and finally, stories in games, comparing and contrasting each. This might bore you, so feel free to skip to Part 2 if you want the sweet sugar without the essential vitamins and minerals.

So, let’s jump in immediately with written stories. There are two kinds of narrators: third-person and first-person. There is, technically, a second-person, but it’s pretty obscure and I don’t see much difference between it and first-person. A first-person story is seen through the narrator’s “eyes”. We experience nothing he or she does not experience. A third-person story is told by a voice that tells a story but does not take part in it. We are usually let in on a lot of knowledge the characters don’t know.

The novel isn’t a very immediate medium. Even when stories are told in the present tense, we still feel like we are reading about events that have already happened. This is because we are in control of the story’s telling: the story stops when we stop reading. Obviously, engrossing stories can shake this reality from us and keep us turning pages, but in general we have this inherent sense that what we are reading doesn’t exist on its own.

Now we jump to movies… what narrated games are starting to resemble much more than written stories. Films don’t have to have stories, let me point out, but we’re focusing on the ones that do. They also have points of view much like novels. Third-person is the vantage point of practically 95% of all movies. It happens when we place the camera whenever it looks best and just let the scene happen. We see only what cameras see and know only what editing lets us know. First-person… well, first-person doesn’t happen much. First person would technically be where the camera is the eyes of the narrating character. We see only what he sees and know his thoughts. We aren’t granted special knowledge of what is happening around him. This has happened more with digital cameras, though. But often the “eyes” of the character are just the camera he is holding… a la The Blair Witch Project. So we are a degree detached.

There is a third point of view available with movies. This is when we have voiceovers and, occassionally, when the narrating character talks directly to the camera/audience. We aren’t restricted to what that character sees, but the story obviously revolves around his presense… we don’t go too far away from him. This is typically what happens when a first-person novel is translated to film. An example is High Fidelity. This, I guess, is second-person.

John Cusack talks directly to you as part of the narrative in High Fidelity

Movies are much more immediate than films are. If you turn your head, the story will still be going when you look back. It continues of its own accord. Stopping it requires actively participating in it. Novels, as we said, happen only when you participate with it. Of course, movies are generally less intimate than novels for this same reason.

And so, the malleable art form that comprises games. It has adapted over the years. Before graphics were feasible, they took many cues from literature. And now, as polygonal characters look more life-like, cinema-like techniques of storytelling reign. But text is still used for dialogue, even though voiceovers are now possible. Time will tell whether text in games becomes practically extinct.

RPVGs are taking to a lot of cinema moments to advance the story. These points remove the player from all control.

As it is, games are generally third-person. Games that use first-person are not really story games. And also, I haven’t played enough to get the feel for how their stories are told… but I’m sure it’s not a tremendous boost to our literary heritage. The story of Halo, for example, was enough to get the character from scene to scene, giving a reason for the increasing difficulty. RPVGs are almost always third-person. In fact, please tell me if there are any non-third-person RPVGs. I’d like to know.

Games also have a strange way of combining the immediacy of movies with the intimacy of novels. Like in most stories, we begin to connect and identify with the main character. Which is no difficult task since, as players, we control him. (Or her… I just don’t like typing “him or her” all the time, and 90% of RPVGs are lead by males.)

While we have the power to turn off the game as we want — usually after saving — the game, when on, still breaths with life… even more life than a movie, as its events are not entirely scripted. They will wait for you to come to them, and then play out as you watch and read. Reading, as mentioned, is more or less reserved for dialogue, since we are easily able to see the events going on about us.

So what we typically have are characters who walk about and talk, plot events that are triggered, a limited third-person view of the world, limited generally to the hero and his allies, and every once in a while, a movie-inspired cut-scene where we learn of things happening elsewhere. What is specifically unique about the way games tell stories is that, for one, the story can mutate. RPVGs generally do not allow much of this, however, since they are about the telling of a very particular story, and branching storylines are very difficult and resource-consuming to create accurately. Also, scripted events generally become divided into short, controllable sequences: the next line of dialogue won’t be spoken until the player presses a button. As a compromise, though, these sequences will often “time out” and continue when the player doesn’t respond for a certain period of time. This is the closest example of the novel/movie hybrid storytelling.

Games sometimes play out like the mix of a novel and a movie. Read and watch!

So now we understand how role-playing video games tell stories in a more abstract manner. They are intimate, like novels, but immediate, like movies. They are always third-person, so as players we have a greater understanding of the environment than the characters do. But Part 2 of this article starts to look at the substance of these stories, and why RPVGs just haven’t been pulling their weight as a storytelling medium.

Mega Man: get equipped… with suboptimal choices

review

Capcom released onto the game world something very magical and rare when they published Mega Man. They gave us the power of choice. They built in the possibility — even the likeliness — that players would choose suboptimal paths for the game.

For those not familiar with Mega Man’s system, here is the gist of it. Before playing, the player is presented with a menu of boss robots. But if you haven’t read up in your recent Nintendo Power, you wouldn’t know which to choose. Not only that, but you really wouldn’t understand why you must make the choice. Making that selection takes you to that robot’s stage, and you will battle your way to the boss, itself. Here is already part of the designers’ genius, which I will discuss in a moment. You may do well in your battle against this robot, but statistically you will do worse than average. Why?

Let’s say you managed to defeat the boss through shear skill and determination. Your blue hop-happy friend will be bestowed a new power; one which he steals from the very soul of the bested robot. This new power is typically a weapon, but occasionally it offers some utility. But whatever it is, you can be pretty sure there is one robot who is susceptible to it.

Ah-ha! Though they’ve presented it to you as a choice, Capcom has actually built a very particular order to the game. But the cleverness of Mega Man is that it won’t tell you want that order is. And this is why you likely made a suboptimal choice for your first level and first boss. Now you shamble through all the levels and note which robot is weak to your newest weapon.

Here is the other tricky bit that I made note of above. The designers have to know that players (who aren’t cheating) must trounce through most of the levels several times. And so each stage must be engaging. It must be interesting enough to bring players back, but not so frustrating as to cause them to give up. But they typically walk this balance very well.

Certainly this is not the first game that gave players choice in their exploration. Consider that Zork and its brethren had already broken that sort of ground. In fact, that is one of the things text games were very strong at, in a way that is very strange to players of today. Exploration is almost a prerequisite of our games. It is, sometimes, painfully restricting when the world is not opened up for us to poke and meander around.

Perhaps a game like Super Metroid would not exist if Mega Man had not prompted this idea of freedom to roam and end up in quite possibly the worst possible situation. The concept was tweaked and refined and expanded as the many millions of sequels came through the pipeline. The Mega Max X series is a prime example. Not only would Mega Man obtain the weapons of the bosses through combat, but exploration of hidden spots along the map would present the hero with power-ups. Imagine high-jumps, wall-breaking blasters, and the power to slide. These weren’t granted by the bosses, but were found in other places and offered their own new means of exploration. And so stages were intentionally developed to be revisited with both new weapons and new means of mobility.

What does it mean to give players the choice to pick a suboptimal path? How does it affect us to learn only by doing? Is the Mega Man system different from the try-and-die mechanics of some FPSes or the wonky kinetics of a physics-based game? Does it count as a puzzle? On the surface of it, one might not think so. But it does give the impression of a puzzle after some thought. The goal is to arrange the pieces in their proper order, through trial and error. Sometimes, perhaps, by logic. But sometimes it’s not straightforward: would ice disarm heat, or would fire beat cold?

Much of the fun in the Mega Man line is figuring out the correct order for oneself. Some of it comes from cursing graphically at the TV. But players owe Capcom a thanks for the blue bomber who, curiously, never really bombed that much after the first game.

I think Mega Man and Bomberman need to have words with one another.