Do all games have some narrative? Let’s see, or better, let’s listen.
You know that game where you have to purge the dungeons of the cursed town to stop the evil from spreading? Or the one where you are trying to save the world from the hordes of demons from hell with not much more than your trusty shotgun? How about that one where you have to neatly stack these parts falling from above to get the chance do the more of the same stuff? And what about that one where you fight your opponent’s army with your own using your peons, knights, bishops, even the king, and the queen in a bitter battle where the better strategist wins and looser loose even his king’s life.
Do you recognize at least some of these games? Well, I think all the games have some narrative, yet not all of them succeed in telling it well. I will try and share some of my thoughts about this matter in a hope it might help you ease the troubles you might be having with the narrative of your game. Or simply offer my perspective on the theme, to help you find your own stand by agreeing or not.
Why stories work, and why we care about them?
Telling a story is usually chaining events that are somehow linked. Usually, it is a cause and effect type of connection. You know somebody does this then somebody else does that as a reaction to the first action, and so on. Theoretically, we could chain such events forever once we start, and that is what soap operas do as long as they are making money. That is also what life does to you until you die.
Philosophical difficulties aside, all of the events we encounter in our lives have some cause. Sometimes we find these causes obvious, sometimes convoluted and unfathomable. Sometimes it is important for us to understand them and most of the time, to be honest, it isn’t. To accomplish anything and I mean anything (apart from breathing and other involuntary activities) in our lives we must get along with the idea that we have to cause the effect we desire by doing something. It is no wonder that our brains happily get along with stories. Stories mirror this primitive, practical, and realistic principle of causality in an abstract, immaterial, thought form.
People are good at understanding stories, as our conscience could be considered an auto-generated narrative. We construct a story out of what we collect with our senses and call this story the reality, deciding what to do or not to do next, and we do it (or not), pushing this story further. We do it all the time, and rarely even think about this fundamental loop.
The story of our lives
As I said earlier, our whole lives could be told as stories, that unfortunately end by death. Well, opinions differ according to your stand on this God character that some people believe inhabits their life stories. Since we rarely think about our own auto-generated life story as such, we like stories that are told to us to have a meaningful and approachable duration so it fits into our time slot called “attention span”. We also like if they offer us something different from our own life. But not too different so that we can correlate and immerse our conscience into it. Almost like switching our “life story” with another one for a moment, and then jumping back in.
I think we enjoy stories so much because they give us so much. If our conscience is an auto-generated story, other stories we hear are a source of fresh motives, perspectives, ideas, new elements to use when we are unconsciously telling ourselves our own “life story”.
Long story short, I think we humans like stories as they seamlessly blend into our stream of consciousness. We understand all of the reality through some kind of narration. Logically linking what we observe into meaningful thoughts and narratives that can be told.
What is also very interesting to me is that we enjoy both “realistic” and fictional stories. We wake even from the worst of the nightmares, moved so much by it that we have to calm ourselves it is only a dream, a fictional story we did not enjoy much. But it felt really real, didn’t it? Sometimes we hear a story about a real event, but it just does not strike us as real. For instance when it is so out of the range of our own experiences that we can not relate.
When thinking about such curious cases it is hard not to wonder not only what is real and what is not real but wonder how can we constantly live, think, and make decisions based on our understanding of reality that is obviously uncertain. I would call our conscience a virtual reflection of reality and one on a very steamed up mirror indeed. No matter how realistic or rational one may consider oneself to be, we all are living in our own narratives. We share only some of the characters and locations, and only some of the time, that is.
It might sound like a cynical point of view, but actually, it is quite inspiring to me. This narrative of mine gives me a good and encouraging starting point when thinking about narrative in games.
Art, medium, and narrative
Full of stories, make-believes, and characters our lives are indeed, but what does that have to do with games? Quite a lot in my opinion. Good understanding of the nature of narration and its relation to our own nature is even more important in games than in older more linear media. The great majority of the stories the linear narrative media, such as film or literature serves us, have classic linear structure. Rarely if ever has this tradition been challenged until modern times when some new technologies entered the workshops of artists.
Film and other recording technologies showed us that if we edit recordings of reality, the narrative does not disappear. But can actually appear “in the eye of the beholder”. As seemingly unconnected information is assembled into new meaningful stories by our own brain.
To quote the great master Paul Klee: “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.”. Artist’s job is not to reconstruct reality. It’s to construct a work that is able to “make visible” something that was not “visible” before. Such outlook together with the idea that storytelling is inherent to our very thought process, gives us the perspective to understand that expressive possibilities of games as a medium seem almost endless and growing with every technological innovation that gets incorporated into the games making process.
Where do we fit the story into the games?
Games, if understood as a medium, have almost endless capacity to convey even the most subtle or complicated of messages. Today’s games naturally synthesize many different media into a new one that is more powerful than the sum of its parts. However, games today also carry the heritage that is probably as old as humanity, that of the genuine play. All too often today we listen about this dichotomy of game mechanics and everything else in games. Although it is a tempting theoretical simplification that seemingly gives legitimacy to pure game rule designing as some form of completely abstract self-sufficient discipline akin to mathematics, that can, but does not have to be “topped” with the story. In my opinion, this view is not helpful at all.
By focusing on game mechanics design and forgetting everything else the players expect from games we start looking at the tree not seeing the forest. Fitting a story in the game then becomes like trying to fit a bunch of trees, a bear, three bunnies and a squirrel all into one tree. It’s impossible. Sure you could make small cardboard cut-out representations of these forest ingredients. Stick them all to that tree and pretend it is a forest, but it isn’t. As much one might be a tree lover, there is probably more of us enjoying the forest as a whole.
If you find yourself trying to fit a story into your game, it might happen you were caught unaware of the nature of both stories and games in general, and ultimately unaware of what your game could become. But not all is lost! Realising your position, means you have gained a new perspective. Your game could still shine, but be ready to question the work already done.
Think before you do!
If you jump right into the sea of technical problem-solving, coding or modeling, you can really easily get lost in particularities and loose the view of the whole. Or even forget that there was no clear vision to start with. Having an idea about some aspect of a game does not mean having a clear vision. Having a clear vision would mean being able to answer any question about your future game at any moment.
It is all too easy to start without the clear vision that could easily be written in the form of the game design document. However, it is important for the game to be able to give the player a very specific experience. To be able to align this actual end-user experience with what you aimed for during production, as close as possible, means mastering the game making process.
Achieving coherent, masterful, end-user experience by using carefully picked tools and procedures will result in a game that has a story. It will allow the player to tell everyone what your game is about, and how good is it. If a player experiences a coherent, and seamless chain of experiences, she/he will construct their story. Or even better, reconstruct exactly what you wanted them to experience. By achieving this you have successfully used a medium to convey a message.
Setting this end-user experience as a goal makes a frame and picks a theme for the metaphoric painting, game devs need to paint. It is a great start for the game development process. The rest of the process is then making creative decisions. A painter decides on the composition, the palette of colors, the right brushes etc. Game dev decides on these but game dev also chooses mechanics, balances them, chooses VO actors etc. By having a clear vision of the end-user experience you will not find yourself trying to cram a story into the game. You will rather make a game that tells its story in every subtle detail. Game’s visuals and audio, game mechanics, dialogues, all make up this experience. Even lack of some of those, will sometimes help you share this experience with your audience.
Instead of asking myself how to fit a story into a game, I ask myself what experience I want to share with the audience. When there is a clear answer to that question, everything else becomes much easier, and you end up completely avoiding many problematic situations.
See the bigger picture
This post might seem overgeneralizing, or vague at moments. It is like so because I tried to express my general thoughts on the theme. This mindset helps me steer the way to satisfying results when working on very different projects. You will find jumping in at different points in the production of projects. Thes projects will often be of different sizes or even in different media. Through the years I have worked on many projects ranging from animated and experimental films to music, TV, radio, visual arts and game development. Every project had its story to tell. Defining that story to myself helped me give my best to the cause at hand.
In my professional life, not all the projects I worked on were interesting to me. But finding something in them that speaks to me makes them worthwhile.
Or at least that is the story I keep telling myself. Ask me tomorrow I might tell you a different one.
Now is your turn! Tell me your story in the comments below. Or simply share some awesome moments with us on Facebook or Twitter!