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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