Stories about their Games.

I am in America right now! I am working with Tommy! We are in his basement! I am excited! Mainly because I didn't get interrogated and strip searched on the way in! Like I did last time! (!)!

While driving to a stripmall to grab FinalFantasy XII (for Tommy) and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (which I almost worked on), Tommy made me think of an interesting point, and I figured I'd write it here to congratulate myself.

We were talking about how separate story and game play often are in contemporary games. The Narrative vs. Interactivity debate is not one I'm going to dig up and clobber again, because I will fall the fuck asleep mid-sentance.

I was explaining to Tommy in my most patronizing tone, how Kevin Levine at Irrational tries to work game play and narrative into a symbiotic relationship. When he gets his way, the story tends to be about the things in the world that you interact with. He once gave an example of how, in Theif, he wanted one mission to be about the Rope Arrows that you use - make them a big plot point, rather than just a "tool". In Bioshock, the story is about how the genetic alterations you make to yourself (part of game-play) change and corrupt your identity, and your morality, and how that process has extended to the under water city of Rapture - furnature re-appropriated, and existing walls cracked and crumbled. Levine is, in a way, merely amplifying the inherent message in the gameplay, rather than creating unnecessarily detailed backstories which have no real relevance to the player's moment to moment actions.

I compared that to Kojima, where the story is about memes, genetics, terrorism, conspiracy, but the game is about moving around stealthily. Story in the Metal Gear series is treated a little like a string of rewards - you're playing to unlock an almost unrelated movie. There's real dissonance between the story you're being told, and the game you're actually playing. How much does finding and defusing bombs really have to do with the machinations a clandestine group of "Patriots", who are trying to filter the meme-o-sphere to their own liking?

So here came a hypothetical question: what if all games' stories were forced to be about their gameplay? Here's what I think might happen, (apart from seeing the games industry instantly implode, of course):

We're no longer allowed to have stories about things unrelated to gameplay, so for better or worse, we have to leave behind government agencies, gritty backstories involving murdered wives, children and parents as these aren't really "about" the abstract game play.

If stories start to be about the game play, and a continuing stream of cookie cutter Beat'em 'ups, Tunnel FPS, RPG, RTS and racing games come out, we become inundated with stories about "the way of the warrior", "the totalitarian control of one man's freedoms", "self improvement through toil", or "the art of war"... philosphical interpretations which aggrandize pretty standard games to the height of Go, or Chess's ivory towers.

When every game's story becomes introspective with regard to its game play, and the game play is the same, you get the same story, over and over. Black, Fear, Prey, HalfLife, Halo - these all draw from the same well in terms of game play, and would all have the same intrinsic story to tell - the upkeep of costs involved in travelling through life, the inability to form a path that hasn't already been specified, and ofcourse, the art of pointing at a thing and pulling a trigger until it falls over or explodes. Without the typical unrelated back-story/theme to differentiate them, there is not much left to hide their similarities. People grow tired of hearing the same story much faster than they grow tired of playing the same game, since games have replayabilty. (Except, probably not, because video game stories are already so damn similar as it is. "Oh, you're in a super special forces squadron? Oh, but you have 'special abilities which make you viably different from other products in a highly saturated market'? Oh really?! Wow!").

As a result, I'd love to think that this would force storytellers and designers to think much harder about their game play, and what its intrinsic message is. Y'know - rather than what currently happens - sandwhich whatever existing gameplay you like with whatever story you like.

Of course, we're much worse at coming up with fundamentally different game mechanics than fundamentally different themes and stories - not because it's very hard (though it's not easy either), but because of the costs and risk associated with exploring new territory. It's also very hard to work on this "Message from the Machine" level. Systemic messages emerge naturally through iterations, combinations and chaos in general - it's out of your hands, to a degree. (I do believe that we can get better at this art, and science. For me, that's really what mastering the medium is all about, and it's clear that it's still very early days for us as an artform.)

But if Bioshock is anything to go by, then focussing the story on the game play has forced Irrational to try a fair few new ideas - the focus on AI's interelationships, and creating a social ecology within each level, rather than a series of rather restrictive linear levels. Sure, you'll still shoot and frob your way around, but they're trying a lot more than most would at the same budget level.

And what does this have to do with our game? Well, I've never really had any kind of story for the game - it's rather abstract. However, it still needs some kind of encompassing theme to bring all our ideas into one cohesive bundle. After talking to Tommy about it, I think we've got it now. I'm not saying what that is, yet... but I'm pretty sure it'll win me a Wank Hat.

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