Wrong McGrath: Why Linear Storytelling in Games Matters
This year, Gamercamp invited cheery Mary DeMarle from Eidos Montreal (Deus Ex: Human Revolution) to speak about storytelling in video games and other interactive content. It was one of those talks that made me want to stand up and yell “YOU’RE WRONG YOU’RE WRONG YOU’RE WRONG” in the middle of it, but that would hardly be polite.
Another audience member, Shawn McGrath (DYAD) had just finished giving his own presentation, and apparently sat through Mary’s talk thinking “YOU’RE RIGHT YOU’RE RIGHT YOU’RE RIGHT.” Moments after the talk, Shawn was interviewed by Toronto game mag Dork Shelf, to whom he imparted these nuggets of half-baked “wisdom”:
I think linear story and interactive anything are completely diametrically opposed. They make no sense together at all, and any attempt to put storylines in games, in any traditional sense, is completely idiotic.
A live talk may not have been the time and place to shout “YOU’RE WRONG”, but Dork Shelf has a comments section where any asshat with an opinion and a keyboard can drop vitriolic truth bombs. And so i am, and so i did:
Ryan Henson Creighton says:
i did some soul-searching and thought-formulating during Gamercamp as well, and arrived at the conclusion that folks like Shawn who praise “emergent” storytelling are stuffed with crap. No, not “full” of crap – STUFFED with crap, so that you couldn’t cram a single glob of crap into their crap-packed selves if you tried cramming it in there with a cannon rammer. Blog post to follow.
This is that blog post.
Sympathy for the Devil
Through all of this, please understand that i love Shawn and i think he’s great … stuffed full of crap, and too cocky by half, but lovable regardless. This was the man who, two years prior at Gamercamp, was asked during Q&A how DYAD is actually played, and he responded “oh – you wouldn’t understand it.” Wow! That’s the kind of hubris that makes you very famous, or very punched in the face. Shawn is the former. … for now. :)
i’m going to see if i can restate or frame Shawn’s point of view, because i’ve heard it before: if you have an interactive thing, like a video game, and that thing is constrained by a linear story where the player has no agency whatsoever, and is only pulling levers and dials to advance through that linear story, then there’s no point in the thing being interactive to begin with. Go create a book or a movie – something suited to linear storytelling. Don’t make a video game. (Did i get that right, Shawn?)
i’ve heard a similar argument about animation. So the argument goes: if your movie could have been shot live action, and there’s no “excuse” to animate it, then don’t animate it. i heard this a lot when the uncanny valley poster child, The Polar Express, was released. “Wow! That 3D puppet looks SO DAMNED MUCH like Tom Hanks!” Great. Why not just use Tom Hanks in the first place?
You know, this would be a lot more straightforward if you’d let me wear the conductor’s hat instead of eight thousand tiny motion sensors on my friggin’ face.
There are, of course, exceptions here. Animation can evoke a certain mood – an other-wordliness – which, on its own, can be worth the extra effort. Then there are films like Persepolis and Fritz the Cat which are animated to match the graphic novels on which they’re based. It feels like a better approach than filming a live action conversion, as with Ghost World.
Of course, Scarlett Johansson makes a compelling case for live action.
So the argument, in sum: if your game is interactive, and your interactions don’t impact the outcome of the story (as was the complaint with the maligned Mass Effect 3 ending, then don’t structure your game around a linear story because there’s no point. Shawn even posits that it’s theoretically mathematically impossible to structure a game such that every choice you make impacts the story, because you get this exponentially branching tree. A developer could never create enough content to complete such a game.
So now, what all the cool kids are talking about as a solution to the linear storytelling “problem” (note: absolutely not a problem – see below) are six dollar words like “procedural” and “emergent” storytelling. Emergent storytelling, supposedly, results from building a big toy-like sandbox game (a la Grand Theft Auto or Minecraft) and letting your players run amok, creating their own fun and, consequently, their own stories.
And here’s where that all falls down: call it what you like, but what happens in a sandbox game is not a story. It’s an experience. It doesn’t become a story until you retell it, and in the retelling, it becomes linear, because stories, by their very nature, are linear. A YouTube video of Grand Theft Auto horse mod shenanigans is a linear retelling of an emergent experience. Put another way, it’s not a story until it’s told – until it’s codified as a story in your brain, and then optionally retold via YouTube or fan fiction or water cooler chat.
Let’s say you’re playing Minecraft and you build an awesome lava-filled house with no back door, and at night it’s besieged by a big throng of zombies. You have no weapons, and your house is flooded with lava. But you had built a platform above the house entrance, and you climb up the platform and drop a bunch of gravel on the zombies, killing the entire crowd. Pretty cool.
i’ll be logging out now. Tell me when it’s morning.
That’s a thing that happened to you while playing Minecraft. It was an experience, not a story. It doesn’t become a story until put story parameters around it – isolating that one 12-minute experience from the rest of your 5-hour Minecraft play session – and then you’re at the office water cooler the next day and you optionally recount your story-forumlated tale.
In that recounting, you’ve put a structure around the experience – a very familiar storytelling structure: the premise (house besieged by zombies), the conflict (zombies gonna killya), the crisis (nowhere to go cuz lava), the climax (triumphant zombie-gravelling) and the denouement (presumably picking up a whole lot of dead zombie loot outside the house). Every aspect of your experience that doesn’t fit the story structure (ie the 3 hours of gathering materials for your house) doesn’t make the cut. That’s because you’ve edited it out in your brain – decided it wasn’t story.
The story only exists in the telling – whether to yourself, or to others.
Sharing is Caring
This zombie victory story is the same story – one of only a handful that humans ever tell – that you’ve been told in books and movies and other video games. And the telling is likely successful because it’s relatable. In fact, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever recount an experience from Minecraft as anything other than a relatable story to your listeners’ ears, because if they don’t get it … if they can’t empathize … they’ll stop listening. And then you’ll become that guy at the water cooler.
If your listeners are Minecraft players, so much the better. There are only so many stories that humans tell. We repackage them, remix them, and retell them, but they have the same core themes and structure. Other Minecraft players can relate, because they’ve all had similar (not identical, but similar) experiences: the narrow escape, the lucky shot with an arrow, the hours-of-building-only-to-be-undone-by-an-exploding-creeper. The storytelling is pleasurable or edifying because we’ve all had the same, or similar, experiences.
Observational humour is funny because we’ve all been there.
Water cooler retelling is also very pleasurable if we’ve had the exact same experience. Back when scheduled teevee viewing was more of a thing, everyone would go to work the next day and talk about who shot J.R., or did you catch that crazy movie The Duel about the guy facing off against an unseen murderous truck driver?
The Point of a Shared Experience
A game with a linear story affords us that pleasure. In the past few months, i’ve heard different people describing the LucasArts time-travelling classic Day of the Tentacle, and each person has used the same example to convey the game’s brilliance: “There’s something stuck up in a tree, so you go back in the past and cut down the tree so that the object is freed up in the future.” And then someone who has played the game chimes in “I remember that part!” And it feels good. Human beings have made a pleasurable connection through storytelling and the remembrance of a shared experience.
(and WHAT a shared experience!)
Co-operative linear games like Journey, Battletoads and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time enable players to be told the story together, much like circle time in kindergarten, except with more jumping and punching. (Okay … so maybe exactly like circle time in kindergarten?)
Where can i find the brass knuckles?
Games with a linear story are interactive like crossword puzzles are interactive: the game designer has set up this elaborate Rube Goldberg machine that the player has to connect together to get the whole thing working. In the end, multiple puzzle solutions notwithstanding, the whole contraption functions identically to my friend’s completed contraption, but we can meet up the next day and compare notes and talk about the completed contraption and how it came together, and how we solved each piece and in what order, and where we needed help, and where we got stuck … and we tell our stories to each other about how we made it through that game, or crossword puzzle.
And we don’t, generally, feel badly that we both finished the game with identical contraptions – in fact, that was the whole point of the exercise … and indeed, we have less in common and less to talk about and to delight in if we both finish the experience, and my crossword puzzle solution is completely different from his. That’s not as exciting to us humans, who like empathizing and retelling the same stories. We want the solutions to be the same. We want to have ended up in the same place.
Even in a series like Mass Effect, where despite which of the three paths we interactively chose leads us to essentially the same place, we tell a story to each other about how bogus that story was. And we revel and delight in agreeing with each other that Mass Effect’s ending was shite. (or not! And in THAT case, we delight in disagreeing with each other. But in either case, we delight in the fact that we’re connecting over a shared experience.)
Who’s ready to waste 120 hours of their lives?
Shawn and i shared the experience of hearing Mary DeMarle talk about linear storytelling in video games, and Shawn thought one thing and i thought another, and now we’re delighting in the disagreement and revelling in the connection we have over the fact that we’re both opinionated and sentient and we both think things, and through our blogs and Dork Shelf interviews and chats at parties and Shawn’s inevitable refutation, we’re telling each other the story of how we arrived at our disparate conclusions. Here’s mine:
A video game with a linear story does not defeat the purpose of interactivity, because the purpose of interactivity in that case is not for me to be a rare and precious snowflake and to discover my own unique path in life. It’s that the game developer is telling me a story, and i’m jumping through fun and interesting interactive or thought-provoking or muscle twitch-challenging hoops to reveal more and more of that story, until i’ve heard the whole thing (or as much as i’ve been able to hear based on my capability during the interactive bits). By then, i have shared the experience of that story with the game developer who told it to me, whereupon i can retell bits of the story to others and we can revel and delight in our shared experience of it.
Remember that part in Monkey Island 2 when you get the guy fired from his job? Never played it? It’s hilarious! Let me tell you about it…
Just because the solution to the crossword puzzle will be the same no matter how i go about solving it, it’s not to say that i should just seek out a completed crossword puzzle to read instead. The solving, the grinding, the platforming – these are the pleasurable interactive bits that justify our medium. The prefab story is pure reward, and it’s one that players like me value far more than points or leaderboard rankings.
Shawn admits that even his dirty hippie psychedelic game DYAD has a story. Whether he admits it or not, he as the game developer has structured that experience, the same as any other game with linear storytelling. You progress linearly through DYAD’s levels, as Shawn the storyteller doles out new moves and goals and new bits of interactive capability, which are all pleasurable activities that lead the player down the game’s foregone conclusion: completion. Shawn leaves more to the player in terms of interpretation – allowing the player more freedom to explain away what it all means, man. *toke* Some games afford players less room to interpret and creatively retell their story, but that fact does not deserve Shawn’s harsh, unnecessary and incorrect value call: that a more rigidly-told story is “idiotic” and has no place in an interactive medium.
Remember that part in DYAD where there’s this purple swirly thing, and the tunnel turns orange? Never played it? Let me tell you about it … AND BORE YOU TO FUCKING TEARS.
Sometimes i want the freedom to paint my own picture. Sometimes i want to follow a pattern, as with a paint-by-number or knitting a sweater or building a papercraft model from print-outs. The process in both cases is interactive and enjoyable. In the end, it’s not accurate or fair to say that the sweater i knitted from my imagination is more valid or worthy than the sweater i knitted while following a pattern, which was idiotic and pointless because it left no room for interpretation. That kind of attitude, my friends, is just pure snobbery, and HE’S WRONG HE’S WRONG HE’S WRONG!
- >fall in love with Annah by Ben 304
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