In writing, there’s a general distinction between a plot driven story and a character driven story – the events in the former are driven by external causes, while the events in the latter come about because of characters’ internal motivations. Many times, the plot driven story is looked down upon by writers because it doesn’t provide any additional character depth. A character driven story can have the same dramatic highs and lows of a finely structured plot driven story, but it also fleshes out characters’ inner lives to resonate more deeply. It’s just harder to apply both constraints.
In games we certainly suffer from the lack of character driven writing, but have our own unique form of failure in writing – the spatially driven story. In this, the characters exist soley to provide rationale to place gameplay in interesting locales (either visually interesting, mechanically interesting, or both).
Assassin’s Creed 2 suffers more from this than any other game I’ve played as of late – Ezio clothes are far richer than his personality. What do we know about Ezio? He has some family, he’s a bit of a playboy, and he’s out for vengeance. All of these are used, to varying degrees, to give the player reason to move through the space as the fiction behind mission objectives. (Jorge Albor covers these flaws well at Experience Points). But what else do we know about Ezio? Not much. Granted, I’m only halfway through at this point, but I’m not going to hold my breath for them to animate cardboard cutout Ezio with some life.
Avatar manages to take these elements of video game writing (to be fair, they do have their roots in action blockbuster writing), and singlehandedly disproves the notion that games are not fit to tell stories. It shows even in film, when you start with context sprung from a teenage boy’s mind to take place in fantastic locales and look awesome, you end up with the same exact result, regardless of the medium. It is essentially a video game storyline, albeit a finely overwrought one. Even Ebert turns hyprocrite, often criticisng movie plots for being game-like, loving it. You like space marines, Rog? Really? We can hook you up.
In its details, it is almost textbook in the application of Hollywood formulae. Payoffs abound, from the moment of realization Sully has waking in his human body after sleeping with Neytiri, to the final fight where Sully in Na’vi form defeats Colonel Quaritch in his mech. However, while the Na’vi are immediately likeable as the underdog, it takes Sully three months and the better portion (in size) of the film to finally change his mind at the last possible moment, when he finally realizes that the Na’vi and their home are worth saving. There’s is no worthwhile character justification given for such wild shifts in behavior. Sully is either dumb as fuck or temporarily psychopathic. The decision and its timing only serve to create visual drama.
Uncharted 2 attempts to apply the exact same formulae. Yet while the levels also take place in one amazing location after another, their flow comes from and represents Drake’s internal conflict between hedonism (money and sex) and virtue (information or truth, and love). He alternates evenly between desiring treasure, wanting to find the historical truth, saving Chloe (lust) or saving Elena (love). Even trying to save Chloe (since you do it so many times) oscillates between motivations of purity (to actually keep her from dying) and impurity (when’s she’s double-crossed you and you need her to get back to the treasure).
In this way, Naughty Dog externalizes the conflict that makes Drake a likeable reluctant hero. The purpose the other characters serve isn’t to bring you to a specific location, it’s to change Drake’s motivation for going somewhere. Story elements that at first glance seem like they are there to superficially highlight exotic locales serve a deeper purpose to communicate internal character motivation (as cliche as it may be).
These works obviously have more positive and negative aspects, these are only criticisms of their overall storylines. Games can also achieve so much more with emergent story structure, but in writing story elements for The Unconcerned, with it’s more traditional storytelling methods, these are unavoidable problems. I want to incorporate key locations like Baharestan Square, Tehran University, or the Grand Bazaar because they afford opportunities to include the subtext I want and provide visual interest. You do spend more time looking at game environments than you do parsing story context; it’s not inappropriate to make sure level locations meet these kinds of requirements. What should be be discouraged is assuming that is enough. Storytelling in games will never avoid the morass of juvenile discussion the topic naturally encourages if we only settle for the highest priority requirement – we gotta do it all.
You may have noticed the severe lack of updates on the blog lately. Blame my 6+ day work week involving multiple projects, I suppose. While my Kickstarter project may have tanked, I am quite happy to keep working on the game under my own devices – I especially appreciate the support from everyone who backed the project. I may not get your pledges, but knowing people are interested in this kind of game is actually more motivating than money in the bank.
Here’s my three part series on Gamasura’s Blogs about my process using Kickstarter:
- Part 1
- Part 2
- Part 3 (where I also interview indie game makers Daniel Benmergui, Deirdra Kiai, and Vince Twelve)
You can check me out this March at the Serious Games Summit at GDC talking more about the prototyping process for the game and my attempt to combine engaging gameplay with serious themes. I’ll also be helping out at the AI Summit, giving a rant and taking part in a panel on middleware use.
And now, for those of you looking for New’s Year’s resolution ideas, here are a few:
- The only time I will mention Citizen Kane is in critical analysis of the work of Orson Welles.
- I will not tell anyone what kind of games they should make, or what kind of games are the future. Because you will inevitably be wrong, so the only thing you really are saying is “I have an ego the size of the landfill they put all those Ataris in”.
- I will play an interesting, thoughtful indie game and tell as many people as I can about it.
- If you are a games journalist: I will not try to impress people with how smart I am. This includes inserting <laughs> when an interviewee laughs out of pity at your poor joke, attempting to use terminology from film or game development without actually knowing what it means, and doing pieces on how games could be meaningful instead of actually talking to developers that already do so.
- If you want to, or do, design games: I will not use chess as a primary game design example (because you’re kind of full of yourself if you think you can make chess, a product of a longer time period than you will be alive).
- If you are a game developer: I will attempt to put well written characters that are not buff white straight men in my games.
And for you game of the year list making types, I think my offical game of the year is Every Day the Same Dream. Maybe I’ll even write about it – probably not though. The blog will most likely be on hiatus till March given all the work I have.
So have a good holiday and see you on the other side of 2010. It will hopefully be a good year for games – let a thousand flowers bloom!
IndieCade was awesome, and I highly recommend it to anyone for next year. No conference I’ve been too has such an interesting spectrum of creative people all doing really neat stuff. Even if some of it’s not your thing, the thoughtfulness and artistry behind all of the games, their creators, and all the other participants, should be. Only downside for me was being too tired to go to the final party, which by all accounts summed up IndieCade’s awesomeness appropriately.
Also, I’ve been meaning to post this link (forwarded by a friend a little while ago – thanks Bijan!) for those developers who work for big companies that want to pursue developing their own games outside of working hours and using their own resources, and are in California: California Labor Code Section 2870-2872.
Here’s part of it, entailing the legality of clauses employers force employees to sign that give all their work away to the employer:
2870. (a) Any provision in an employment agreement which provides
that an employee shall assign, or offer to assign, any of his or her
rights in an invention to his or her employer shall not apply to an
invention that the employee developed entirely on his or her own time
without using the employer’s equipment, supplies, facilities, or
trade secret information except for those inventions that either:
(1) Relate at the time of conception or reduction to practice of
the invention to the employer’s business, or actual or demonstrably
anticipated research or development of the employer; or
(2) Result from any work performed by the employee for the
(b) To the extent a provision in an employment agreement purports
to require an employee to assign an invention otherwise excluded from
being required to be assigned under subdivision (a), the provision
is against the public policy of this state and is unenforceable.
A number of folks have been helpful enough to write about the game & it’s attempt to use Kickstarter as funding method.
Eric Caoili writes about it at GameSetWatch (and reminds me I must work extra hard to make “EA vet” not the simplest way to describe my background in a title).
Yancey Strickler, co-founder of Kickstarter, put up an interview with me me on the Kickstarter blog.
Thanks all! And thanks to everyone’s who’s pledged! I can’t possible express my appreciation enough.
Oh, and in other Kickstarter news, there’s a very cool game mag called Kill Screen looking for some funding to publish its first issue.
Watch as I marshal the power of teh internets to get word out about the Kickstarter project for my serious game:
I’ve started blogging on Gamasutra about the process, which I thought might be helpful to other indie devs considering using Kickstarter:
Hopefully in doing so I will have helpful insight to share with people, and not become an obnoxious shill. Fingers crossed.
However – $836 already pledged after less than a day! W00t!
Thanks all. :)