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Well, I’m just throwing down the contenious terms in that title. Narrative, character driven. Maybe the use of lament if you think it’s pretentious.

Character driven is the tricky one. See, I thought this was the designation for the types of stories I want to describe – stories where there is little to no plot, and consist almost entirely of characterization. Robert McKee in Story does use this term in one spot, but then proceeds to tell you that it doesn’t matter what type of story you’re writing, you should read his book regardless (mostly true anyway).

Googling also fails miserably. A number of bloggers seem to use the term to describe a story whose plot is driven by character’s action, as opposed to external, uncontrollable events. Using character driven to describe this kind of story seems redundant. A story whose events are driven by character decisions is just a well plotted story. Then what the hell are we gonna call the stories in the above paragraph?

Characterization driven stories may be a little more accurate, but I’ve moved past the need for accuracy at this point. I’m talking about movies like Lost In Translation, Coffee and Cigarettes, etc. (And so yes, Bill Murray seems to be in a lot of these types of films in his lower-profile work, so the story thing could just be a confounding factor.)

It’s pretty rare that these stories work though, especially in indie film, but part of the problem is that when people start writing they may not know how to plot well, and so they go for stories like these. These stories are harder to make, not easier. When they do work, they make the character sketches compelling by pacing how you find out information about the characters, and each piece of information’s contextual relation to everything that’s come before.

My point, that I finally have arrived at, is that these stories are all about character exploration.

What is a type of play that games do very well?

Sort it out.

There are games, especially ones that have been deemed as having successful stories, that do a little of this. Bioshock and it’s audio tapes for example. I can’t seem to come up with another example from a game that does not use audio recordings, messages left on a computer, etc. There’s Facade, which does kind of qualify. I think perhaps there is a way to play the game that results in a well-plotted player story, but the time is more typically spent learning about the characters & playing with them.

Instead of fighting our way up the river of designer created sequential plot vs. player driven plot, instead of making the assumption that everything, mechanics and narrative, must blend together better and better until designers have reach this assumed ultimate peak where everything is perfectly integrated and all our brains will explode in gameplay-narrative ecstasy, how about… not?

Screw plot. At least sometimes (and more Bill Murray wouldn’t hurt either, just in case).

10 Responses to Lament of a lack of character-driven narrative in games

  • Though I’m struggling to remember some of their names, I know a large number of Interactive Fiction titles take this approach. I think maybe you see it more frequently in that form because they are naturally better suited to dealing with the interior of a character, and explorations of their emotions and motivations.

    In other titles, you can find some elements of this type of story but usually confined to providing background information and are often optional, as in the example you gave of BioShock. The structured plot is tied to the need (Or at least perceived need) for clear objectives and until the latter goes away I suspect the former will linger.

  • Dave Mark says:

    I suppose what would be interesting in this pursuit would be games with the depth of character that you see in The Sims (esp. 3) where the story just sort of falls out of them in an emergent way. The problem with this is that the potential state space is near infinite. Therefore, the content creation time has to account for all the possibilities of where the winds of chaos theory could take them.

    While you can get away with this in the iconic nonsense vernacular of Simlish, it’s a bit more difficult to pull of in a world of pre-recorded voice files. You simply can’t record enough audio to account for all the possible conversational interactions that could result. Text only speech is a bit of a saving grace here. Eventually, I would like to think that a good text-to-speech engine (with extensive markup abilities for emphasis) would render the necessity of recording every single line of speech a thing of the past. (I’ll wait… Ok… maybe not.)

    Until we have the mechanisms in place to let the characters’ personalities and quirks mix with the player’s interactivity, we are almost forced into the comparatively linear world of plot-driven narratives. That is, the content creation team knows where the player MUST go and can plan for it.

    In the mean time, I believe there is plenty of room for more fluid personalities and the engaing characters that would result. The best conduit would be through personality, mood, or emotion that affects the way the characters react to given situations. We have the AI technology to do this already. (And if you don’t, perhaps you should hire me? B^) ) It’s a matter of working it into the game design patterns we already have.

  • Borut says:

    Justin – Yeah, I thought that was the case too, but I had problems coming up with solid examples (mainly by scouring Emily Short’s blog It’s true the need for a clear player objective immediately makes the characterization stuff more optional, in that as soon as you give players a non-related goal they won’t mess with anything that won’t help them achieve it.

    Dave – yeah, sure, I mean, there’s combinatoric expansion problems with content, but if a game’s story is written properly, such that elements are not explicitly sequenced and instead allowed to be defined declaratively, you greatly expand the # of ways the player can move through the same amount of content. You’re basically removing the predefined links in the story web letting the player replace them with their own path through (with some specific constraints). It’s much like the state machine to planner switch, there’s still a lot of bang for the buck to be had there in and of itself before getting to more involved AI.

  • There’s a hint of this in Vampire Bloodlines, getting to know the Voerman twins and getting caught up in the LA vampire politics… at its best the game is very character-focused.

  • sean Barrett says:

    Emily Short’s “Galatea” clearly involves literally exploring the character, but it so eschews any sense of story that it’s hard for me to mentally fit it into a slot at all resembling that of the films you use as examples.

  • Emily Short says:

    In IF, I’d recommend Stephen Bond’s Rameses, which is almost entirely about discovering the nature of the protagonist and realizing what his limits are; the gameplay is about trying and failing to change him.

    The other games on the interactive fiction database tagged “contemplative” are also mostly about the player discovering the player character’s quirks and secrets, or about the player character coming to terms with him/herself. Not all of them are really successful as games, I’d say, but the list might still make interesting browsing:

  • Matthew K says:

    And to think, the only such game I could come up with was Nintendogs. :) Although that game is pretty much the ultimate voyeuristic subject-makes-object relationship on display, and I can’t stand to think what EyePet will make of it… not necessarily related to narrative generated by the character itself.

    I’m wondering what the exigency for such a game would be outside of the want of additional creativity. Why the “lament” part? What aspect of traditionally designed games has gone awry in your estimation that we must generate a concept in which the game’s character plays you, not vice-versa? Isn’t character, after all, one more element of traditional narrative design that is employed by a game in service to generating enjoyment or interest in the game mechanics?

    Perhaps the recent indie title The Path comes close to what you’re describing, but as another blog post has indicated, that game is still terribly subjective (or more pertinently, “objectifying”) with regard to the exploration of its characters.

  • Borut says:

    That’s the thing, I have hard time classifying both games like the Sims or Nintendogs, and the Path as characterization driven.

    The Path doesn’t seem to have much characterization at all. The storytelling is done through exploration and is ambiguous, and in that way is similar, but there is little narrative aside from your interpretation of the imagery – which is what makes it brilliant, but somehow difficult to group in the same category as some of these films. The girls themselves lack much character, turning instead into icons that are a tool in player’s interpretative quest.

    Sims/Nintendogs I have a harder time defining the difference – they kind of are, in that they have either designer (even procedurally) created characters, and user-created characters, and part of the play is exploring those interactions of personalities. But they completely lack a narrative context that ties the interactions together aside what you provide (like setting up stories in the Sims). There is very little atmosphere provided by the interactions – whatever atmosphere is there is provided by the art & sound (humor of the Sims animations & language, the cutseyness of the puppies). This is perhaps more true of Sims than Nintendogs. Still sort of vague, I’ll definitely have to narrow down that distinction a bit more.