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.

The Alternative

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!


Further Reading

22 thoughts on “Wrong McGrath: Why Linear Storytelling in Games Matters

  1. Joseph Cassano

    I am also of the mind that interactivity and linear storytelling are not diametrically opposed.

    One thing I often find from those championing purely emergent story is that they tend to ignore that the most emergent game is still essentially “linear”. Namely, you can only do what the designer has allowed you to do. Want to build a rocketship in Minecraft? Excellent. But you’re still playing with the blocks Notch built in the ruleset he constructed. You can’t do anything he hasn’t allowed you to do (glitches/bugs aside). All “linear” game stories are doing is embracing this fact. Both methods are valid, but pretending that “open” games allow for some kind of “infinite narrative freedom” is false. The box may be larger, but it is still a box.

  2. Brian Chung

    I also like dynamic, emergent events in games too – one of my favourite scenes was in Saints Row 2, while waiting for an assassination target to show up in an area, I saw a cop pull a civilian over, whereas a firefight ensued. After the cop won, a random driver got fed up with the traffic jam and swerved around the stopped cars – running said cop over. Meanwhile I’m standing off on the side observing all this going down and laughing. But one realizes that it’s merely a couple smaller behavioural aspects chaining off each other, and when you notice that, procedural stuff loses it’s appeal.

    I mean, a lot of missions in RPGs tend to be in the FedEx category. I mean, you can break Lord of the Rings down into a generic FedEx quest (Bring Ring to Volcano). So we can ignore it and all the character growth the hobbits experienced, the friendships forged between traditional enemies (Gimli and Legolas), or all the sacrifices and destinies realized.

    As with many story-based games, it’s less about the ending and more about the journey itself and what happens – or doesn’t happen – to each player, that makes it memorable. Even if it’s within the constrains of what the writer(s) have laid out giving you an A or B choice – you still have a choice.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      Sure – your Saints Row experience was probably awesome. My point is only that it’s not an example of an “emergent story”, because there’s no such thing. That experience didn’t become a story until you told it to me, here in the comments section. And now that you’ve told it, it’s linear. And i enjoyed it. And we’re interacting.

  3. Kyle Nau

    Ryan, the community depends on you to be the dissenting trouble maker at these conferences. In the future, please refrain from well-written counterpoints in situations where making dismissive wanking gestures and shouting “Cool story, bro!” at the presenter would suffice.

    It’s always good to remember when we get too precious about things that most games are CRAP, and the crap games are usually the ones chosen to prove or disprove broad generalized statements about the industry. It’s also a good line to stamp out conversations quickly:

    “I feel story linearity is diametrically opposed to procedural interactive emergent…”
    “Yeah, most games are crap.” /walks away

  4. donkey lover

    I think linear storylines in games are inferior, nothing in this post convinced me otherwise. With only one storyline you usually already know the ending, and replayability is MUCH lower. Half-Life is a good example. It was a great game to play once or twice, but that’s it. How much cooler would it have been with a few branches and 4-8 possible endings? Feasibility is the main problem.

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      i understand why you don’t prefer linear stories in games, but thank you for not calling them pointless or idiotic.

      Me, i’m okay with non-replayable games. There are so many games out there that i don’t have time to play them through once. (Anyone else have a gigantic greyed-out unplayed list on Steam? i know i’m not alone here.)

      i know how many movies end, but i rewatch them regardless.

  5. dirigible

    If the player’s actions had no impact on the visual feedback from a game, you would call that a failure on the part of the designers. If the player’s actions had no audio feedback, you say the game had BAD audio design.

    When the player’s actions have no impact on the narrative, why shouldn’t we say that the game has bad narrative structure?

    A story that I’m taking part in isn’t really a story – it’s a personal experience. Like you said, I can then tell someone about my personal experience, in story-form. But that’s the key difference – experiences are something you take part in, stories are something you observe. Gameplay gives you experiences, cutscenes give you story. With those words in mind, which do you think videogames as a medium are more suited to giving the player? An experience, or a story?

    1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

      It’s not an either/or proposition. Consider film: The Expendables gives the viewer lots of action. Dear Zachary provides a deep emotional impact. The 40 Year Old Virgin provides a lot of laughs. With those words in mind, which do you think film as a medium is more suited to giving the viewer: action, emotional impact, or laughs?

      1. dirigible

        I don’t follow your response. Yes, different movies can tell different stories, which provoke different emotional reactions.

        But my point was that gameplay is a medium for conveying experiences, while cut-scenes (and lines of dialogue too for that matter) are a medium for conveying stories. Given the fact that a game is built out of gameplay, with cut scenes and dialogue purely optional, it seems obvious to me that games are better suited as mediums for delivering experiences, rather than stories.

        While a game CAN convey a story, it cannot do so with the elegance with which it can convey an experience.

        Using an interactive medium to convey a non-interactive product (a story) is a waste in much the same way that using a visual medium to tell a verbal story would be. Imagine watching to a movie to read text. That’s what playing a game to watch a movie is like.

        1. Ryan Henson Creighton Post author

          i guess i’m just not with you in your assertion that cutscenes are the only way to tell a story in a game? You could build a whole graphic adventure game – very story-based, very linear – without a single cutscene.

          1. dirigible

            I never said cut scenes are the only way to tell a story in a game. There’s also background dialogue (like in much of system shock), exposition (like in bastion), and even just art cues, like in many early games that relied on visual storytelling.

            But all of those are fluff. My challenge to you is to find a way to tell a story not using visual art, or text, or audio – just gameplay. Because that’s what the soul of a game is: gameplay.

        2. Jake

          The Artist won the Oscar for Best Picture just last year. I’d say leaning heavily on written text in a movie is quite valid.

          I love works that take advantage of their medium by doing things that couldn’t be done in any other form, but such devotion is not required for my enjoyment. I adore motion-controlled Wii games, but I sure am glad that some Wii games stick to buttons. I like video games that make good use of audio cues, but when I’m riding the bus, I’m glad I can turn down the volume on my DS.

          Artists have a lot of tools and a lot of options, and while it’s great to see people challenge themselves to fall strictly within a set of limitations, such as only making use of the unique qualities of a specific medium, it would be silly to ask everyone to follow the same arbitrary rules.

          In game design school, we had entire classes where we’d do nothing but participate in dozens of pointless, interminable debates about the definition of a game. Is Solitaire a “game?” Is SimCity a “game?” Who cares? Exact terminology should be a secondary consideration at best. Does it have some value? Do I like it? Then that’s good enough for me. Screaming about whether Minecraft is as much a game as Heavy Rain is missing the point entirely. Do they successfully do what they, individually, set out to achieve? Are they fun or engaging or thought-provoking? These are better questions for evaluating quality than, “Do they uniquely and definitively demonstrate the exclusive features of their medium?”

    2. Jake

      What you’re talking about is “ludo-narrative dissonance.” The story you’re being told doesn’t match the experience you’re creating, like when you gleefully blow up thirty cars with a tank and then immediately follow it by watching a cutscene where Niko Bellic kvetches about not wanting to hurt anyone. And then you fire a bazooka at a helicopter flying above a busy downtown intersection.

      This is bad, inconsistent storytelling, but it’s silly to say that games should never have canned story elements just because so many games suffer from sloppy execution.

      You mention that player actions should be accompanied by animations and sound effects, but are these not canned, as well? If I accelerate a car in a game, I expect to hear engine sounds and see spinning wheels. This is reasonable feedback. It would be confusing to hear footsteps and see footprints left in the mud behind the car. Unless Fred Flintstone is driving, in which case it would be perfectly appropriate.

      I think the reason you see so many people eagerly deride linear storytelling in games is not because games and pre-written narratives don’t work together, but because they are frequently mismatched. In fact, and I hope I’m overstating this, ludo-narrative dissonance is the norm in story-driven games.

      Pairing interactivity with defined narrative can work, but it often falls apart when the story is about the player character’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, and actions, because, guess what, the player’s own decisions might not match what some writer had in mind. But rather than looking at the elaborate, movie-like scenes of today that I suspect you find unsatisfying, let’s peek back at some of the earliest cutscenes in games. After all, it was the early examples that must have convinced later game developers to keep moving in this direction.

      In Pac-Man, a circle with a mouth eats dots and avoids ghosts, except sometimes he eats the ghosts. After every few levels, control is mercilessly wrestled from the poor player’s hands, and an unskippable, non-interactive cutscene rears its ugly head. In the first, Blinky chases Pac-Man off the screen, only to chased himself by an enlarged Pac-Man. It’s cute, it’s quick, and while this event couldn’t play out exactly this way in-game (Pac-Man never gets bigger) it’s true to the nature of the characters and mechanics. An individual player may not actively try to eat the ghosts, but the scenario doesn’t deny the player’s experience – Pac-man isn’t crying because he just wants to stop eating dots. Moreover, this scene reinforces that the relationship between Pac-Man and the ghosts reverses when the ghosts turn dark blue. Now, please, please try to tell me that Pac-Man is wrong for including linear storytelling.

      One more example: Maniac Mansion. There’s a good explanation of why Maniac Mansion had cutscenes in an era before they’d hit the big-time in 1UP’s Maniac Mansion retrospective from earlier this year (http://www.1up.com/features/maniac-mansion-retrospective), so I’ll stick to what other games could still stand to learn from this game. The player gets to choose a set of three characters at the start, and while each has a broad personality, they’re all fairly blank. Rather than trying to tie together a story about whichever characters the player uses, and trying to keep that story in line with the player’s actions, most of Maniac Mansion’s cutscenes, in fact, CUT to other characters in other locations. These characters are seldom even aware that the player’s crew has entered the mansion. Their thoughts, motivations, and actions have nothing to do with the players, and they shouldn’t. The cutscenes aren’t about you, but they more than justify their existence by being entertaining and informative. And, yes, it helps that there are different outcomes depending on how you affect the mansion, but that’s not essential to the concept of cutting away from the player and focusing on outside characters.

      (I’ll stop now. If you want more, I wrote an essay on this subject once, specifically as it relates to Rockstar Vancouver’s Bully. It could have used a little editing, but here you go: https://sites.google.com/site/hotlavy/all-articles/bully-a-course-in-narrative-disconnect)

  6. Jake Svenson

    I’ve played the Legend of Zelda games multiple times despite them having some of the most linear storylines of all time, where none of your choices have any impact on the endings whatsoever. And I still enjoy them. Heck, I’ve played Ocarina of Time more times than I can count on my fingers. Do I know how it ends? Of course. Do I know every major plot point from opening scene to credits. Yup. Can I quote almost every piece of dialogue verbatim? You bet. Does that make it any less of an experience? Not at all.

    Maybe I’m just weird, because I’m one of those guys who read and reread books, and watch and rewatch movies. But I don’t think it’s that uncommon for people to play linear video games simply for the fun of watching a story unfold, and playing a part in it, even if your choices don’t really matter. A good story doesn’t have to be emergent, and a fun game doesn’t have to be a detail-oriented RPG where every single choice matters.

    To be honest, emergent storytelling doesn’t even sound like the greatest idea to me. I mean, you can let experienced professionals write brilliant stories that move you and shock you and leave you in awe… or you can let the player decide where the story goes, and possibly have them craft one of the most boring pieces of crap ever seen.

    On the other hand, the thrill of simply making your own choices and having them matter is a huge rush. It’s awesome to build your own story and choose your own path and, in the end, actually make your own ending, even if the story you played wasn’t exactly amazing. Let’s face it: some choices are better than others, and will make for a better story.

    It’s a balancing act, and claiming that one is better than the other is… arrogant and misguided, to be kind. Like just about everything else in life, moderation is key.

    1. dirigible

      I never said that putting a story in a game makes either the game or the story worse. But the story does not exist in the same sphere as the game. For a long time this was evident because the designers literally stopped the game in order to tell you the story (cut scene). They had to, because gameplay revolves around the player’s choices, while story revolves around the author’s choices. They cannot be happening in the same arena at the same time. Game designers have figured out lots of ways to hide this, or fake coexistence. In-game cutscenes, background cutscenes, background narration, etc. And while these can happen at the same time as gameplay, they are distinctly separate from gameplay.

      As a result, stories in games are inherently something that is tacked on. They can be good, for sure, but they are not something that gameplay intrinsically supports – UNLIKE player experiences.

      What I support are games that use their tools to craft a narrative that revolves around player experiences – not an authored story. Let’s take the Civilization games as an example. These games use visual art, sound clips, and sometimes even cutscenes, NOT to tell a story, but to provide context for the player’s experience in the game. This context can give the player’s experiences greater personal meaning. Leading a poverty-stricken nation to economic, scientific, and military greatness in the early 20th century is a very different experience based on whether I am playing as Nazi Germany or Depression Era United States. Civilization is an example of a game that focuses it’s artistic efforts on enhancing the player’s experience, rather than trying to ‘upstage’ it with a pre-written story. And I believe that’s what all video games should try to do.

      You’re correct that authored stories are usually more interesting a random person’s experiences…except to the person who had those experiences. My time in Civ 5 will mean very little to you, but is much more meaningful to me than the plot of Mass Effect, which in turn will be much more interesting to you. But this hardly makes a player-driven experience INFERIOR to a story, as you imply. It simply means that the result is only personally gratifying, albeit moreso.

      I find it amusing that you would say “claiming that one is better than the other is…arrogant…” when a few lines before you talk about how much better author-driven stories are than player-driven experiences. I guess we’re all arrogant here.

      1. Jake

        I think I get what you’re saying, but I don’t agree. When the kids at Nintendo EAD makes a Mario game, they start with a bunch of untextured boxes that float around Untextured Box World. They adjust the movement speeds, momentum, collision, jump height, and behaviour until everything feels just right, and only then do they add the plumbers and the kidnapped princess. The playable core is distinguishable from the story, as it were. Those would-be Mario blocks could just as easily be remodeled into a banana that jumps onto cubic-zirconium anteater busts.

        This argument is both true and irrelevant. I can mute my TV and continue to play Guitar Hero, but why would I ever do that? The music isn’t essential to the “gameplay” (we’ll come back to that one), but it contributes a great deal to my enjoyment. And whether or not you enjoy pre-written game stories or not (I think at least 99% of them are intolerable, mind-numbing drivel, myself), whether or not you can put into words what makes a story in a game good or bad, there is ample evidence that people – millions, perhaps – are deriving some value from the presence of story in games.

        It’s an absurd reduction to story isn’t necessary to gameplay. Fine, you win, story isn’t necessary to GAMEPLAY, but where does it fit into a GAME? Because if we want to be reductionist, we can go on and on about how the gameplay for every video game in existence is just a bunch of pushing buttons or clicking things while numbers and flags change. Games are the sums of their parts, and often more. Context matters, and don’t tell me you can draw a clean line between context and story.

        You like systems-driven games. Good. You say all games should follow the model of games you like.


        I don’t see anyone saying linear games are better than open, system-based games. In fact, I see the opposite. I get the impression that Ryan prefers Day of the Tentacle to DYAD, and he doesn’t like the assumption that there’s mystical value in “emergent gameplay.” I really like sandbox-y simulation games, and I believe that cool stories can find their way into games without being specifically written. Doesn’t change the fact that ain’t nothin’ cool about being pretentious and taking a dump on games that swing the balance from player creativity toward authored direction.

    2. Jake

      I also like to play/read/watch/whatever predetermined things again and again, and I have theory about why I do it: The space of the story/whatever stays the same, but nothing else does. I am different the second time I read a book. I know the ending, I know the details, and I’ve continued living outside of the book in the intervening time, so my perspective has changed. The story is the same, but my experience (!) is notably different.

      I sometimes have trouble in games with broadly divergent options and outcomes because I get hung up on opportunity cost and all the other things I could be doing. I liked what I played of Deus Ex, but I found it too stressful to continue. I feel like the Zelda, for as linear as its progression through major points is, offers player freedom more organically. The goal is established, the outcome is established, and it’s up to the player to fill in the middle. Do you cautiously stand back, shield held high? Do you run forward, confident in your swordsmanship? Do you play around with Link’s many toys until you find some secret weakness? Do you screw around in the overworld until have enough heart pieces to bluster through any situation without fear? When I play Ocarina of Time now, all the major beats are the same as they were in 1998, but my experience (!!!) is always different.

      But I also like Roller Coaster Tycoon, and playing with clay, and making up songs. My entertainment doesn’t always need to be directed, but sometimes I want to make a story, and sometimes I want to hear one. How wonderful that video games give us both options!

  7. Pingback: My (Story) – Toy – Puzzle – Game « Travis Cherry: Learning Log

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