Storytelling and Agency

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This article was originally written as a guest article for Jay Barnson’s blog. This version is slightly edited, but supports the same core concept.

Traditional storytelling has no place in games.

Tall order? Okay, here goes. Why are a lot of “story games” these days just Simon Says with cut-scenes? Why is a good DM more engaging than fully animated AAA graphics? Why do we keep getting so many stupid stories in otherwise well executed games? The answer lies in the nature of storytelling and games.

Stories are all about interesting characters in engaging situations; Games are all about the player, in an interactive environment. Stories are all about arc, symbolism, and witty dialog; Games are all about mechanics, interface, and brilliant interactions. A story is about what the storyteller wants you to hear; A game is about what the player can do. Stories are static; Games are dynamic. Stories are dead, games are alive.

“But stories speak to us across the ages!” you cry, “They breathe and inspire and have a life of their own.” Yes, I love stories as well, but the Lord of the Rings is the same story whether I read it or you read it. Our reaction is different, but the story is the same. The same thing happens, and that is what we are concerned with.

The story is what happens. The game is also what happens. But the writer decides action in the story, and the player decides action in the game. Most games allow these to overlap. This is difficult because the story must  encompass all possible player actions and motivations. This is important!

The story must encompass all possible player actions and motivations!

The player and the story must always be in complete harmony. The problem occurs when the game developer writes a story in conflict with the player. If they conflict then either the story wins or the player wins. If the story wins the player is no longer playing. It’s not a game anymore, just a movie, or even a book. If the player wins, then the story makes no sense. It’s not a story anymore, just a stupid sequence of disconnected actions. When they disagree the player either derails the story, or the story derails the play.

Many good games get around this by simplifying gameplay or story. If player action is restricted (FPS style) to simple actions like shooting, then the story can be complex (and even fairly linear). If player action is broad (Sandbox style) then the story must be elementary (and extremely bifurcated). This struggle between narrative and player agency is why many older games feel so much more immersive. The story and mechanics are so absolutely simple that the game has no chance to conflict with the story. “But we want games to be more meaningful!” you protest. Indeed, I do as well, but to impart meaning we must make games great at being games. Games will never be meaningful games if we try to make them better books or movies.

“But what about RPGs?  There, the player can tell their own story!” Quite so, I’m glad you brought it up. In a good pen and paper RPG, the DM tells a story to the players, and the players tell a story to the DM. The DM engineers an arc, inserts symbolism, and comes up with witty dialog. The players use the game mechanics, interface (voice activated usually; Advanced!), and creativity to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals. A bad DM will “railroad” the players to tell the story he wants. Bad players will act out of character and ruin the story. But even at its worst a real life pen and paper RPG is more interactive and narratively cohesive than all but the best computer games. At its best, no computer games come close.

This is because the DM is creative, and can adapt the actions of the world to the actions of the player. A DM can tell a story around the players actions, not in spite of them. In order to achieve excellent story and excellent gameplay, we must teach the computer how to be creative. We must allow the player to tell the story. A static story will always restrict player actions. Limited mechanics will always frustrate players. Until we have procedural storytelling, games will always have simple stories or limited player agency, if not both.

But most people are bad storytellers! Curses! They don’t know how to relate a sequence of events, emphasizing the crucial or the comical. They might ruin the game if they are able to really control the story! Perhaps the “role playing game” in the true sense is, indeed, the way forward for storytelling in computer games, but most people are not any good at playing a role. This gives the game designer a poor choice. Either allow the player to form their own (probably terrible) story, or give up the illusion of agency and force the player to act within the framework of the authored story. The choice is between these two. “Choice” means the possibility of making bad choices. If the player has agency over the story, they will be able to fail. If the story has authority, the player will be unable to choose.

This is why many “story games” are rife with inflexible game play (or slightly better, state funnels) and cut-scenes. The game designer didn’t want to make a game at all. The game designer wanted to direct a movie, or write a novel. The game designer forgot to design a game! “But, my beautiful perfect vision!” you may cry out, “The players might ruin it!” Well, either they can ruin it, or you can ruin the “playing a game” part of “game play”. I’m sorry, but those are your only options.

Either way, games can not be excellent games by telling static stories. Traditional storytelling in an interactive game is simply out of place. The sooner we all get on board this big idea, the sooner we can (finally begin to) chart a course for good stories in games

Enditnote: See here a longer exploration of these ideas (by Keith Burgun) In this article. While I agree with most of his points, I still think Minecraft is a “game” even by his definition.

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