Which came first, the game or the story?

I’ve read a few posts recently on immersion in gaming, and Toskk summed up the problem neatly here. There are different types of immersion, and they don’t all happily coexist.

If I’m immersed in a story, the absolute last thing I want to do is stop and min-max my character stats (or worse, be forced to go back to a previous save point, redo my gear/stats and play through some of the story I have already seen). If I’m immersed in a game, I don’t want to have to sit through seventeen cut scenes and have to care about which option would give me the best reward. If I’m immersed in exploring an area, I don’t want to have to fight through some scheduled event or be forced to grind out reputation just to be allowed to enter the next zone. And if I’m immersed in a solo resource management game, I don’t want to be forced to group.

Immersion (or we can call it flow) is not only the goal of many gamers, but it is also the problem. Having to switch between a gaming mindset and a storytelling mindset not only kills immersion but also will annoy people who liked one side of the game but not the other.

Figuring out how to neatly merge some of these styles is the big challenge for the next generation of game designers. But most MMO gamers will agree that they’d enjoy a virtual world from which stories and interesting gaming challenges both flowed naturally. We know it is possible to some extent, as long as players are willing to compromise – games like Uncharted 2 merge the storytelling and gaming brilliantly well, to a limited extent. Dragon Age charmed over 3 million players with a similarly engaging take on a similar problem. And it looks as though Mass Effect 2 will be at least as successful.

Playing the game badly

It’s very easy to play a storytelling game badly. All you have to do is completely ignore the story so far when making decisions.

If you decide that your character has no social skills so you will insult everyone you meet, you’ll still get through the game. You may also get some very amusing interactions and possibly more fights. It will involve picking non-optimal conversation options, but from a storytelling point of view, it’s a perfectly good way to play through the game. And that’s a player decision, you CAN choose to not try to pick the ‘best’ option in any conversation and … it won’t lead to disaster, just a story consistent with the choices that you have made.

In a bad storytelling game (like, many old school text adventures), making the wrong decision early on can cripple you in endgame. It’s like having a sadistic storyteller just waiting for you to slip up. But a good game, like a good storyteller, will give you plenty of hints as to where a decision might lead. Or if a decision has random and unforeseen results, then you will be given a chance to deal with them.

I was pondering this when reading Ravious’ post on why he feels stressed by storytelling games. I feel he missed the point. In a good storytelling game, you don’t need to stress about making the wrong decision. If the decision is right for your character and the story you are telling, then it isn’t a wrong decision.

But what this means is that a true storytelling game should never be heavily reliant on min/maxing from the player. Because that would lead to one preferred route through the game, and would cut out any character concepts that were not in line with the min/max result.

For example, mages are really powerful in Dragon Age. A min/maxer would tell you to pick a mage, would tell you how to spec it, and would tell you which specialisations to select. But I finished the game on my dwarf rogue and never felt hampered – being able to play on an easier mode was a way for me to tell the game that I didn’t want min/maxing to get in the way of my story.

When stories flow out of games

Storytelling is all about the art of giving meaning to things that we encounter in life. If you read a good biography, it will read like a series of anecdotes (ie. small stories). No one’s life is really a story until a storyteller sits down and pats and moulds it into the right shape. A news story might be dull when it happens to you personally … until you see it written up in a newspaper at which point it becomes a proper narrative.

Or in other words, that sword +1 that you got from the GM is very dull. But Caliburn, the sword +1 which was a rare drop that you cleared an instance 40 times to get, and that you then used to go tank a raid boss? That has a story. Adding difficulty or grind to a game is one way to add meaning. When you overcome those barriers, the results feel more meaningful than if you just woke up and got your quest reward in the post.

But difficulty isn’t the only way. Seeing the virtual world around us respond to decisions we have made in the past makes those decisions more meaningful too. It’s just that difficulty is by far the easiest way to make these achievements meaningful to all players in a multi-player game.

In a solo game, there are other options. The game can adjust more easily to the player. But in a MMO … if anything is going to be genuinely difficult, it needs to be designed assuming min/maxers. So in an MMO, either everyone must min/max or else difficulty is going to be somehow adjustable and high end achievements lose some meaning.

Freeing up the stories

Then there are players like me who love the stories and the virtual worlds and even the gameplay, and don’t enjoy the min/max side of the games at all. I’d have much more fun in games if I never had to care about how my character was specced or geared. Those things are not fun for me. So I’m glad in WoW that people make up gear lists – I wish they weren’t necessary but at least they let me skip the parts of the game that I hate.

This is also why I don’t like collectible card games. I love playing them, but only if someone else puts together a deck for me. Deck Building, like other forms of min/maxing, simply doesn’t appeal. So really I’d be happier playing a non-collectible card game like Bridge or Fluxx (which is an awesome game that everyone should try) where it simply isn’t part of the game at all.

No wonder I loved Dragon Age so much. The game was designed to let you downplay gear and talent choices. And gave you a great personalised story anyway. I can only pity the people who played that game badly, because they were too scared to veer from the min/max path in case anything non-optimal happened.

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13 thoughts on “Which came first, the game or the story?

  1. I’m reminded of Morrowind. Would you classify that as a “bad” storytelling game? Not only would a poor decision cripple you, it could literally end your game on the spot (killing an essential NPC, for example).

  2. Sorry, never played Morrowind so no idea. But if killing an NPC could really end your game on the spot and there was no warning that this might be a bad idea, then I doubt I would have enjoyed it much. On the other hand, if it was pretty freaking obvious that it was a bad idea to kill that NPC and your story ended due to some plausible consequence such as being captured and executed by the town guard then … gg story :)

    There is actually a balance to be drawn between simulation and narrative. So in other words, I suspect Morrowind leaned more towards the simulation side which means sometimes you can get narratives which aren’t very compelling :) Not everyone’s life story is an /interesting/ story. On the other end of the spectrum, you can have something like DAO which will tend to nudge you in the direction of story, which also means cutting off some choices and consequences that a fuller simulation would leave open (ie. you can’t just kill any NPC you can see, only plot appropriate ones.)

    • You have to judge Morrowind in its historical context.

      Most story driven RP games were Torment-style – branching interactions that gave more illusion of choice than actual choice since most choices folded back into one or other of the same paths.

      Morrowind was much more open. You could say screw the main plot and go work for the Fighter’s Guild. Or become a Vampire. Even certain apparent losses such as getting jailed could open up interesting and unexpected story elements.

      Morrowind is a good story telling game that had more full stops (save and reloads) than a linear game because it had more flexibility.

  3. Morrowind was wonderful, you’d love it Spinks.

    Its just a little bit of a Mind-melt compared to even its pretty but dumb offspring Oblivion that really your playing a sandbox game that has a main plot in there somewhere. Go Explore…

    It’s parent Daggerfall was even more like this with a truely EPIC world…I spent a year playing it before I realised I could freely journey to other countries….lots of them. Pity it was so buggy :)

    • The problem I had with Oblivion was that I never really understood how the whole levelling thing worked. It looked like such a cool game, but I had to not level up the skills I most wanted so that … I don’t even remember why it was a bad idea but I hated that so much I never got very far with it.

      Do they use the same sort of levelling up scheme in Morrowind? (I realise I am now sounding like the fussiest player ever but it really put me off. Like I say, I don’t much like min/maxing, especially when it involves not doing something that would be intuitive otherwise.)

  4. “I can only pity the people who played that game badly, because they were too scared to veer from the min/max path in case anything non-optimal happened”

    This kind of bothers me; it’s possible I’m merely thinking about this from a slightly different perspective but ultimately gaming environments do not, or tend not, to, support failure in the same way they do success. I don’t think this kind of thing is players being foolish or hidebound, I think it’s the fact we’re inevitably steeped in a meta-textual awareness of The Way Things Work. Ultimately what you get out of a game for playing “non-optimally” either from a story or a mechanics perspective is LESS STUFF. I don’t mean less phat lewts and character improvement, but you generally get to experience less of the game, and you get less ‘story’ for your trouble too.

    Now, I’m not a table-top roleplayer like Chas having played like one game of D&D in my entire life BUT again one of the problems with both the medium (and, ahem, I would suggest your average GM) is that success is rewarded by action and failure is met with inaction i.e. “you do that thing and this happens” versus “you fail to do that thing [and consequently nothing happens].”

    To take a spurious analogy taking the non-optimal path in a game would be the equivalent of reading a book but none of the dialogue, or just stopping reading on page 193. I think to some extent this is just a natural limitation of what a game is, and what it does, but I don’t actually think it’s because players aren’t engaging with story-telling games ‘properly’.

    • Computer games do tend to train players to minmax and that there is always one best solution to any given problem, it’s true. And it’s not always the case. What if you get LESS STUFF but it’s a game where the stuff doesn’t really matter, or you got equal amounts of story aside from that.

      So in DAO, if you beat Ser Whateverhername is, you miss the dungeon escape segment but get whatever stuff she drops. Losing there isn’t really non-optimal in any major sense, in fact it’s designed so that you probably will lose. And are you playing the game non-optimally if you don’t romance every single romanceable character? Or is it a better story for your character to be totally in love with one of them and ignore the rest, or even to hate all of them but give your life for them anyway? It’s your choice, but you see how the story might be more compelling if you don;t just chase every possible achievement.

      In a tabletop game, although it is possible to design a scenario so that there is one and only one true pathway through, it’s often hard to do. And the reason is that players will ALWAYS think of something you hadn’t expected (it’s like a law of GMing) and you will have to decide on the spot whether it might work.

      I’ll give you an example of this: I ran a scenario where a mad vampire needed players to collect some random stuff (a time honored backup scenario for a GM who is short of time), one of which was a house of cards 5 storeys high. I even gave the players a real pack of cards in case anyone felt like trying to act out what their characters were doing in game. But nope. My players ignored the cards and decided instead to steal a van, ramraid a bookshop and nick five copies of ‘House of cards” with the aim of stacking them up (ie. 5 stories high). This is the sort of stuff real players will do if they have enough freedom :) And it is also a way for the players to help drive the story — they wanted to act like nutty hoodlums, so that’s what they did.

      I do think that players who engage with the /game/ instead of engaging with the /story/ fret overly about minmaxing and achievements. Sometimes, a really good story requires you to be able to choose to sacrifice these things. And in return you get a different, but equally compelling and possibly more appropriate game experience. And games like DAO are just starting to recognise it.

  5. Sorry, I’m *still* thinking about this. A prime example, I think, would be influence mechanics. Now, if you want a RP a surly bastard who doesn’t pander to his PCs you get *nothing* out of that. Whereas somebody who takes the “correct” choices gets not only story progression and character development but mechanical advantage.

    • What’s the story progression of giving random shit to NPCs until one of them gets an influence bonus? It doesn’t come close to getting Morrigan to like you /by being a bitch yourself/.

  6. Pingback: the immersion paradox at Righteous Orbs

  7. Great post! I just saw it via a link from another site.

    Figuring out how to neatly merge some of these styles is the big challenge for the next generation of game designers.

    I think some games have already done this well. Deus Ex, for example, blends storytelling and gameplay almost seamlessly. You do have to make some character development choices, but the game is flexible enough to accommodate almost anything you do. Planescape Torment and Dragon Age also worked fairly well.

    It will be interesting to see how BioWare handles these issues in SWTOR. Presumably the game will attract people interested mostly in the story as well as traditional MMO players interested in min-maxing, raiding, and so forth. If story choices affect your character’s abilities (as BioWare has implied) then people might end up gaming the story, which would be unfortunate.

  8. Pingback: Killed in a Smiling Accident. » Blog Archive » Riding a horse is not a gentle hobby, to be picked up and laid down like a game of Solitaire.

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