Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Writing for a dynamic medium.

EDIT: Someone called to my attention that I jumped the gun on assuming games had a story and plot. Certainly, there are games that do not have a story in mind. This post was written with games that have a story written for them. I briefly talk about games with "win" and "lose" states, and I was referring to games that clearly had a setting and characters and plot, but ended in only one of two ways regardless of how you played. In the future, I'll try to be less presumptuous.

As I'm writing a story synopsis for a possible game idea I can't help but think about how the game mechanics will affect the major plot points I have in mind. Because although the mechanics will have their place in the story, the mechanics ultimately drive the story, or rather give to the player the power to drive the story.

It's not like writing a book, or a screenplay. You do things to the book, you read it, and you just move forward. The plot can have twists, it can have conflict, but it's not your conflict. The conflict was already there and settled before you even picked up the book. You are on the outside looking in. You may feel for those characters but their fate is already decided. Movies are less interactive, you sit, and keep your eyes open, and things happen in front of you until they stop. Same deal, except you don't even lift a finger to turn a page. I enjoy movies, I enjoy books, but they are different mediums than games, and must be treated as such.

In a game, you have some level of control over events, but until recently there were not too many options. Fail states, for instance, have existed in even the earliest games. You could "lose", or you could "win" and any the only actions that allowed you to win were specifically planned for. Shoot, keep your health, don't let the ball get past you. Kill all these enemies in this specific order and in one of these specific ways. Failure was a lot more likely, since there were more ways to fail than to succeed. Jump over this enemy but accidentally hit the one after that, let too many balls go past you, drown in the sewers, drown in the ocean, hit an octopus as you try not to drown in the ocean, your mom pulls you away from the box even though you have one life left and 3 more quarters, ad nauseum. Point is, there were no grey areas, you couldn't just lose an arm and then have to shoot with your non-dominant hand, or just black out and wash up on shore.

 There has been a more modern movement to get writing to be more dynamic. The well known and well-loathed morality system in games has been one of these attempts. You get a "good" ending or a "bad" ending depending on whether you did good or bad things. But what could have been an interesting system never got past that point, you always got one of two endings, or maybe the dreaded "meh" ending, so it wasn't much better than "win" and "lose". Another system that outlives it's relevancy is Audio diaries. You pick up a snippet of story, and it plays for you. Bioshock was guilty of both, you killed or spared little sisters and got a different ending. It also played dialogue for you when you collected an audio tape. It was an early attempt and pretty effective at the time, but it's a system that they kept trying to squeeze into the sequels, and it ended up interrupting other areas of gameplay. You had to leave a combat area before you could listen, or stand still because if you moved forward there might be an enemy waiting for you. It became cumbersome and started to smell of desperation. I think I would have preferred to see those stories in the environment, which was Irrational's(Or 2k's) Strong point. A photograph on a dresser could tell me mountains about a mother and her child who wore a locket around her neck, and a pool of blood next to a dead woman with a gun in her hand, a familiar necklace and a dress that looked oddly familiar would tell me a lot more.* There were moments like that, but you have to wonder why we needed that, and to shoehorn in the idea that everyone carried these stupid laptop-sized tape recorders around everywhere and then just... left them?

Ideally, you want the player to discover things about your world, and it should be in a way that doesn't stop them from doing what they want to do, which is play the game. One should also keep in mind the player's personal experiences with the game. Should those not play into the narrative as well? If a player massacres 100 people, why should he feel guilty about one single Slate?(Yeah, sorry Ken, I'll stop bashing you now.)
If I have been playing stealth the entire game, why do you think I'd like the idea of an open boss fight? Also, why would I want exposition through cutscenes when I have been pressing every button on my controller for the last 30 minutes in an attempt to skip this so I can kill things oh god. If it's an action game, I expect action. If you give me the option to find additional information and I find it interesting enough, I'll come seek it out. I promise. I played half of Transistor with builds I would never have otherwise used because I wanted to know more about the people who kindly(sometimes begrudgingly) were helping me.

I guess the point is that if you are going to bother putting a story into the game, make sure there's a place for it. Also, make sure the gameplay supports, or at least doesn't conflict with the story. Suspension of disbelief can only go so far. Sure it's harder to do, but Video games are a new medium, it deserves the effort. So how can we do this? There are a few things to keep in mind:

  • This world existed before the player got to where s/he was. Even though on a technical level, the world WAS built for this player, it should not seem like it. There shouldn't just be goodies lying around for the player unless there's a good reason. Everyone shouldn't just be dependent on The One True Hero(you)(TM). There also shouldn't be single, obvious path, unless the game demands it.
  • Things shouldn't just happen to the player, the player should also cause some things. I don't mean just mow down 50 bad guys with a sneak attack,(Though you can have that option) I refer to environmental changes. Will there be a difference in the game from here on out if I do something in this one room? If I drain the water from a tank to flood the room I'm in now(For some reason, maybe to get a raft floating?) What will happen to whatever needed that water? That could have been a cooling tank for a machine or holding tank for some aquatic animal. In other words, the player's actions need to affect the world.
  • The player needs to be engaged. It's still a video game, but I'm not saying that like it's childish. Engaging game mechanics cushion an engaging story, and that Story needs to act within the expectations the mechanics, and the player using the mechanics needs to be able to affect the narrative of the story. It's a constant feedback loop, so designers and writers need to work very closely to make sure it runs as smoothly as possible.

It's a hard sell, and I realize that, but it's a necessary effort to turn this new medium into a respectable one, by critics and the general public alike. Peace out.

*(This scene was not necessarily in the game, I just made it up as an example)