Sunday, July 23, 2006

Ze Story Snobs

There exists a powerful group within the gaming world that actively seeks to stamp out innovation unless it falls along the prescribed lines of their rigid and conservative doctrine. Who are these people? They are every developer, gamer and publisher who promotes the ideal that a good game must have a story.

Raised on fine stories from the golden years of novel writing and movie production, story snobs see games as just another opportunity to tell great tales.

Poor David Jaffe fell victim to the bitter wrath of the snobs recently when he talked about how developing story based games isn’t all that exciting. It was an honest comment that makes a lot of sense if you’ve ever experienced the joy of tweaking a surprisingly interesting interactive system versus the slog of polishing a series of plot points.

It is really very simple. Not all games need stories. Treat story as one of many available marvelous ingredients that can improve your game, not as a necessity.

The logic of the Story Snobs
  1. I like games with stories!
  2. There aren’t as many great games with stories as there are books and movies with great stories.
  3. It is therefore the fault of [the developer, publisher, etc] because they are not filling my needs.
  4. As an advocate, I must passionately protect and promote any game with a story as the ideal.
  5. Anyone who suggests games without stories are reasonable should be crushed. After all, it is a zero sum game here. Any resources spent on promoting non-game stories are resources that could have been spent on 10 more dialog trees.
The root of this unfortunate attitude is a classic tale of old media infiltrating and co-opting a new media. There are three players:
  • The fanboys
  • The movie and book industry wannabes
  • The publishers

The Fanboys
There exist millions of fan boys who had great experiences with old adventure titles and Japanese-style RPGs such as Final Fantasy. These story rich titles were some of the first cross over genres that encouraged people not typically interested in games to pick them up and try them out. If you are a conservative media consumer used to movies, Final Fantasy is an easy dish to consume. You have to watch a few cut scenes, play a little bit of game and watch a few more cut scenes.

However, many of these new game players never moved onto new genres. Just like a good number of Brain Training new customers never try racing games, there are millions who started playing games with the adventure game genre and stopped when that market faltered. There are millions that to this day still play mostly Japanese-style RPGs.

For this demographic, the artificially sweetened formula of “Lots of plot with a dash of interactive bits” defines their total vision of gaming. As conservative media consumers, when game falls outside their nearly religious preferences they don’t merely accept and forgive. Instead, they are inclined to drag it behind their truck through the proverbial forums of Texas. “A game without a story? Impossible.”

Despite the copious evidence to the contrary.

The movie and book industry wannabes
I had a great conversation with an animator at GDC. He’s an industry veteran and works primarily on cut scenes. He confided to me that his true dream was to work on CG for movies. He read all the movie trade magazines and avidly sucked up their tips and techniques. He was in the game business because it was kind of similar and he could get a job there.

I’ve had roughly this same conversation with a remarkable number of developers. The game industry is filled with writers who want to author the next great novel, designers who want to direct the next great movie and artists who would be perfectly happy doing character design for a Saturday morning cartoon. Even if they aren’t actively trying to use the game industry as a stepping stone, many of their core values are informed by older, existing media such as movies or novels.

These cultural transfers from big established media industries have a huge impact on the type of games that are made. First, their general grasp of how interactive systems are built is quite weak. They couldn’t design a set of valid game mechanics if they tried. More importantly the passion for interactivity amongst many of the developers in the game industry is unexpectedly low. When you talk about making a sexy Blizzard-style rendered intro, eyes light up with respect and admiration. This is their dream. When you talk about emergent gameplay in a title like GTA, you’ll get blank stares. It just isn’t their passion.

If you have the skills to make movies, everything looks like a movie. There are a thousand decisions made during game development that are the creative choices of the developers involved. If your labor force is trained to build and steeped in the culture, and aesthetic of linear media, guess what most games will end up looking like? That’s right. Linear media with chunk of half assed or cloned interactivity thrown in for good measure.

I got a chance to read a game design document for a now published title. It read like a movie script. Except they had little production notes like “And now the character fights a red monster”. Interactivity in games should be more than just a production note.

But it never will be when large portions of our industry’s workforce worships the values of linear media over the unique charms of interactive gaming.

I can’t blame the business folks too much. They have their creative people telling them that stories are critical. They got violently passionate customers telling them that stories are the most important thing ever. So they do what sheeple do and green light mostly story-based projects.

The vast majority of the budgets in modern games goes towards art, video, dialog and other plot related expenses. The development teams are further stocked with Hollywood refuse, which only increases their story-centric biases. Game mechanics work is generally given less development time, resources or room for experimentation.

Since the production risk of story-based games is lower, publisher tend to green light them more often. The developers don’t know how to replicate the complex playground games that do become hits. The market ends up being flooded with dozens of story-based games and only a few games that focus on interactivity as the primary driver of value. So we train more players to expect story-based games and we train or import more developers that know how to only make story-based games.

The industry becomes more and more weighted towards producing games with stories. You end up with a feedback cycle that reinforces the required presence of story elements in most games. If everyone wants story, how can it be wrong?

As various folks have commented, Tetris would never be published today. The current requirement that most games must have stories is a filter that prevents the creation and publishing of what are potentially the crown jewels of the gaming industry.

There are lots of great games that don’t require a story. Focusing our effort on only creating games with story substantially limits our creative exploration of the media and limits the types of games that we, as game developers, are encouraged to create.

Stories are not required to make great games.
Before you think I’m a story hater, let me disabuse you of the notion. I like stories. I’m playing a darling little RPG right now called Aveyond that is quite plot heavy. Delightful stuff that simply would not work without the inclusion of a story.

Even as a story lover, however, the existence of the story fiends infiltrating every level of gaming irks me. They assume that stories are always a good thing. People are not thinking critically about whether or not their game needs story elements.

It is perfectly possible to have a great game whose plot elements fit on a postcard. Populous, Mario 64, Quake, Lumines, Bomberman, Guitar Hero, Counterstrike and hundreds of other titles succeed wildly as great gaming titles and yet all of them lack story beyond a rough setting. They don’t feed the player periodic plot points that extend a narrative. They don’t have characters with extensive histories that evolve and grow emotionally through a series of descriptive cut scenes. They don’t have fixed events that are described by a godly author as a way of informing the player about actions beyond the capabilities of the gaming system to simulate. And they rock none the less.

In fact, the one thing that prevents the game industry from turning into Hollywood with occasional button pushing to advance the plot is the fact that a lot of people purchase certain hits that shockingly have little evidence of tradition plot. Sports game and racing games consistently make a profit. Nintendogs and Brain Training came out of the blue and rocked Japan. Tetris made the Gameboy a success. All these smash hits have no plot and lots of interactivity.

So there is obviously a more complex tale to be told here. There exists a wide swath of games that can be successful without having a story. Just as there also exists a wide number of games that can benefit from having a story.

When players and developers simply assume that their games need stories because they have been blinded by their subconscious cultural biases, they fail to dig into the guts of why stories matter to games. When you say “Wouldn’t it be nice to have another cut scene because I like cut scenes,” you typically aren’t asking the hard question “What does this cut scene actually bring to the gaming experience as a whole?”

Story is a game design ingredient, not an end in and of itself.
Story has a purpose in game development. It is a ingredient. It has little inherent value by itself. Its primary value is how it contributes to the entire player experience. You are selling a game, not a movie or a novel. You need to design the whole game as a complete experience.

To use a bizarre analogy, making games is a lot like cooking. You may really like bleu cheese. I do. I once found a fabulous recipe for bleu cheese lasagna. The recipe called for a few crumbles of bleu cheese, but the store only sold large hunks. I thought to myself “I like bleu cheese a lot. Why waste all this cheese…I’ll just throw it all in!”


All the bleu cheese went in along with some expensive spices and other goodies. The result was a giant slab of goo that tasted intensely of bleu cheese. You couldn’t taste the spices, the sauce or the noodle. I ate it for two weeks straight and never ate bleu cheese again for months. I would have been better off just nibbling on the chunk of bleu cheese.

I added something in that I liked by itself, but I didn’t have a clue about how it would interact with or benefit the other elements in my dish. The same goes for gaming elements like story. What do they add to the game? If you end up with a game that is barely different from a movie, why not just make the movie in the first place?

What is a story to a game?
Let’s take a look at the role story plays in game development.

First off, it is worth defining story. Story is a series of linear narrative elements in the fashion of novels and movies from ages past. This is a very traditional definition that I’m confident does a disservice to many of the wacky interactive fiction attempts being concocted by mad geniuses around the world. It also happens to be the one that is most descriptive of the use of story in modern video games.

In most games story elements are used as rewards for player actions. The player does something and they get a little dose of plot. Typically plot points fall into one of three categories.
  • Enabling reward: These rewards help the player advance through the game further. Examples include the conversations in Half Life 4 that let you know that the main generator is down and needs a fadangle to fix it.

  • Red herring reward: These are rewards that the player instinctually pays attention to as potentially important, but in reality they are just tossed in there to help build a fantasy world. The player, not being able to distinguish between what clues are pertinent to the game world, laps the red herrings up and experiences the same sort of pleasure they would gain from an Enabling reward. Examples include descriptions of a Dark Past Foozle that once caused a huge cataclysm. It never affects the actual game, but players latch onto it and try to make sense of it none the less.

  • Visceral reward: These rewards trick our sensory system into thinking something interesting is happening. Example include big bloody fight scenes, spooky scenes that cause us to think we are in immediate danger even though we are actually sitting in a comfy chair in a posh apartment on the west side.

The model we are using here assumes that gamers are constantly trying to grok the gaming world in order to interact with it in a more meaningful manner. The primary bursts of pleasure come from activation of learning systems in the brain. There are secondary burst of sensation that come from false sensory input that activates various fight or flight mechanisms. It is a simple model, but it generally works and is a far better starting place than designing by feel alone.

When should story be used in a game?
So a story element is just a reward. It isn’t the only type of reward. It is one of many types of rewards. You could put in a cut scene when a big boss creature is destroyed, or you could let the player discover a new sword token that enables them to chop down the vines that have been blocking progress through the earlier jungle levels. Both might cost the same amount of development time and both are valid rewards that make the player feel great.

Instead of asking “how should I implement story in this game?” instead ask the question “What type of rewards best fit the game experience?”

Story-based rewards have several very distinctive characteristics that can influence your decision.
  • Triggers for specific types of emotions: The biggest benefit of story-based rewards is that you can use them to trigger social emotions such as sadness, humor or sympathy. These are typically difficult to trigger using algorithmic rewards, but are relatively easy to create using common narrative techniques and patterns.

  • Low initial production cost: With a line of text, you can hint at complex system that you never need to build. For example: “The tattered scroll describes the ancient history of Yendor where giant lavender airwhales ruled the skies” hints at a tantalizing other world that the game developer will never need to build. The cost? A few minutes of writing in a commonly available word processor. In general, a simple plot point can be created and polished at a much lower cost than what it takes to create an interactive reward.

  • Rapidly escalating costs as realism increases: As you attempt to increase visceral aspect of your story, production costs increase dramatically. Realism costs money in the form of expensive tools, talent and time.

  • Low execution risk: The risk of a story-based reward failing to be completed is very low. The production techniques for text, images, sounds and video are well understood and highly reproducible. If new technology is kept to a minimum, the use of story-based rewards is highly unlikely to delay the shipment of your game.

  • High burn out: Most story rewards have very low variability. When you see them once, you’ve sucked out 99% of their value. When you see them again, players get much less buzz. Repeated often enough and they become downright irritating. Imagine if you were forced to watch the main intro animation when you start up a game. It rapidly loses its appeal.

  • Limited economies of scale: With high burn out come very limited economies of scale. Every time you want a new reward, you need to custom craft a new one. The cost of generating new reward increases linearly with the number of rewards. More algorithmic systems, on the other hand, tend to have a higher initial cost but can be reused over and over again. Imagine having to come up with a unique and enticing story element every time the player killed a monster. It is much cheaper in the long run to simply give the player a few points or a health pack. Also note that the cost of a small increase in realism is multiplied across all the story rewards in your game. This gets expensive quicly.

  • Changes are expensive: Exploring variations on story elements is expensive. Often the plot points need to be rebuilt from scratch. If you are dealing with text, this isn’t so bad. If you are dealing with $50,000 cutscenes, it can be quite painful. Contrast this to more algorithmic system were changing drop percentages on rare items may be as simple as tweaking a single number and seeing what happens.

There are some folks out there who claim that stories work poorly with games. This has some root of truth. If you focus only on the quality of the story, you’ll find that your gameplay elements will appear to constantly interrupt and slow down the flow of the story compared to say your favorite movie. It can be difficult to built dramatic tension in a typical manner when the player is constantly jumping about, pressing buttons and performing other mechanical actions.

However, story can still be used as a vital element to the game. It can add an emotional richness to the reward system that is difficult and expensive to achieve using algorithmic techniques. Story must always serve the greater good of the game.

To return to our cooking metaphor, I find story to be much like a fine wine. When you pour a glass of gloriously rich merlot, you’ll discover all sorts of delicate nuances that are simply impossible to find anywhere else. Yet, that same glass of wine can also be used to cook some wonderful dishes. A nice lobster bisque wouldn’t be complete without a dash of wine to accent the flavor. Stories in games are really the equivalent of cooking wine, an essential and useful ingredient for many popular genres.

On the other hand, there are lots great dishes that you can cook without using any wine at all, just like there are some great games you can build that don’t use story. If game design is anything like cooking, there is an entire universe of game designs that work perfectly well without any story elements.

If you are yourself a story snob (I was for many years), you need to ask yourself “Am I in this business primarily to build a great game or am I in it to craft a great story?”

Pick your passion. If you really want to make movies, go for it. Move to LA, buy a video camera and get started! For those who choose to remain in the game industry, we’ve got a unique and wonderful medium that deserves to be explored and expanded as a powerful expressive force in its own right. Learn from old school linear media, but never be bound by its constraints. Use it as one ingredient in your dish only if you want a dash of story flavor.

Don’t be a story snob and assume blindly that your game needs a story. Players buy games for the total experience and you should choose the appropriate reward system that best fits the experience that you are attempting to craft.

Take care


How the story fiends filter great games
“I believe if Tetris were presented today, here is what the producer would be told: Go back give me more levels give me better graphics give me cinematics and you re probably going to need a movie license to sell that idea to the public. The producer would go away dejected. Today, Tetris might never be made.”
Satoru Iwata, GDC 2006 Keynote

Burn out: When you create story elements as rewards, you experience the same reward over and over again as you play test the title. This leads to burn out on those rewards.

“And the thing is, once you have the IDEA, your fun- as a designer- is really over. If you are working in the single player action-adventure genre, and are fortunate enough to be working with a team that can execute the crap out of what you think is an amazing idea, you don’t get much out of actually seeing your idea executed. You get a little, sure. You get the little tinglies and such. It’s a neat moment to see your idea brought to life. But you already saw the idea, already experienced the amazing moment...but it was in your head months ago. Now it’s just a slog to execute the damn thing so OTHERS- the PLAYERS- can enjoy what you’ve already finished enjoying.”

Lobster bisque with wine


  1. My approach is to use social engines to create a dramamtic playground where primary usre interaction involves socially reasoning about and interfacing with characters. Its more or less a whole new genre, and has emergent play potential that can be interpreted as a dramatic experience. Embedded narrative, which you seem to be talking about here, can be powerful is used to taper the simulation boundry, which is what I think your saying. If story can add something to game about sneaking and killing and getting past locked doors, imagine what it could do for a game primarily about character interaction.

  2. Kind of beat you to the punch here recently :)

  3. I really like the cooking metaphor for creating games. Raph Koster has the sloagan 'Stories are sidedishes', which has become my mantra as an aspiring game designer.

    I agree that the use of stories in games for the most part feel like the work of filmmaker wannabees. For the most part, there aren't very many games that have truely amazing stories (nor feature films for that matter).

    I think the crutch for game designers to use stories is that in games, you really only have the ability to increase and release tension. Since stories offer a full gamut of emotions, I think game designers feel the need to include them too add emotional variety to boring game design.

    I think the most important and least understood part of storytelling in games is that games have the potential to really break the rules of storytelling. Primarily, the Hero's Journey. Since the core of the game is how fun it is, you don't have to adhere to conventional storytelling - which I think is really important.

    In fact, games offer the ability to explore a character's emotions within a space - something that really only now, actors do. I think this opens up an incredible richness and variety that hasn't really been done in any medium before.

  4. No. *My* blog is more wordy and pretentious!

  5. I personnally like to blame the original Metal Gear Solid for all the story junk orbiting around our gaming planet. Or, more precisely, the simplified, almost binary interpretation many people had of the game, of which quite a few were industry veterans.

    MSG had figured out the mix just right. The cutscenes mostly presented the story a result of your actions (as opposed to an excuse to make you do stuff in most other games) and were rich with hints on how to beat the game's many bosses. All this tended to make you more attentive -and receptive - to the cutscenes' content.

    MSG's major contribution was to show that story and game can live together. They just need to be intertwined the correct way. Later, Half-Life 2 would travel the same route in its own way.

    Yet, most people who enjoyed the game came to a more universal conclusion: "Cutscenes are great!"

    I guess we could call this a manifestation of "featurism" where people's perception of features is limited to figuring out wether it's there or not without looking at the details or the way it interacts with other content. The same people tend to equate quality with the number of features in a product. Some of them are my superiors, one of them signs my paycheck.

  6. If you'd like to see the result of the years-long conditioning of story-over-substance, check out any number of reviews over at Gamefaq.

    The majority of its community partakes in a rather irritating practice: They'll take, for instance, an old NES game (like, say, Dr. Mario or even a generic baseball title) and actually grade the "story." You know--with a 0/10 followed by a rant about how lazy the developers were.

    What is that? Why even mention such a category for a game that is decidely unfit? That's the problem--judging all games by preset criteria, which punishes "blasphemous" developers with cries of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

  7. I beat both Tadg and Danc to the punch!, but both of you made much better points than me. I think I'll write a follow up post building on some of this.

  8. I agree with Robert Padbury's comment.

    Games can offer a far less limited environment than linear narratives. Room for exploration out of interest or desire simply to play the "other side" when it's as simple as that.

    When games can open up the possibilities in the way that actors themselves can reinterpret and indeed essentially invent characters of their own, we'll have a medium the better of cinema in the extent of what you can really get out of it. Fascinating stuff!

    How bored are people with re-tellings of the same essential hero story that dominates not only Hollywood but so much of our culture? I know I'm not alone in wanting to dive in the deep end and find places impossible by that time honoured standard. Where so many of our arts have changed their modes so comprehensively in the last few hundred years, storytelling narrative remains basically unchanged. What would happen if we woke up and really explored it? And what if that was a great game?

  9. "Poor David Jaffe fell victim to the bitter wrath of the snobs recently when he talked about how developing story based games isn’t all that exciting. It was an honest comment that makes a lot of sense if you’ve ever experienced the joy of tweaking a surprisingly interesting interactive system versus the slog of polishing a series of plot points."

    I think you miss the most important reason why people like stories in games. Purpose. In god of war, it was very simply explained what kratos needed and why he needed to climb on top of a titan to get it. Without expending any words he hops onto the titan and you continue on a long stage on the titans back. The setting was impressive but the story gave it greater meaning.

    Games can survive without stories, and there are a place for those games., but to imply that stories are just a mere element and not important at all is a little more snobbish than humble.

  10. It has been far too long since this issue has been raised, and it's far too rarely discussed. You've written an excellent perspective here, Dan - yet again showing great insight into this industry. As I often tell people, you say what many of us think but with clarity and eloquence.

  11. To anonymous, on the titan's back.

    The story gave the experience greater meaning. But how does that then become something greater than "a mere element"? The story is not unimportant, but like the choice of setting and the graphics, it was an element of the experience in turn. What this debate is about is the balance of different elements, and a perception that story is often put first without convincing reason.

    I agree with Danc on this as a whole. Unlike him, I've never been a story snob or even much of a fan, my formative years were spent in Civilization and the like, trying to craft my own tales from a toolkit and engine about me. I recognise that to many, the palpable existential freedom of GTA is something of a revelation. But to be honest, my tastes lean more towards the Burgundy of a good alternate history!

    Anyway, it's good that were talking about this because I think Danc is (as usual) on to something. More games are calling out to be developed with less in terms of narrative story. And, if the literary wanabees can be encouraged, perhaps a few ideas for the ultimate game narrative could be written directly for the book market, where the fullness of scope could really transform them. Here's to wishing at any rate.

  12. Another good article on an important topic. This is quickly becoming one of my favorite sites for bringing a critical eye to game development.

    However, please be careful with your hyperbole. The phrase, "drag it behind their truck through the proverbial forums of Texas" is cute, but offensive. The people who vocally love story-based games above all other types are really not in the same class as people who terrorize, maim and kill because they hate the skin color of their victims. It's really not the same.

    Andy A.
    Game Designer

  13. Hi Andy,

    Thanks for stopping by! Often with my choice of hyperbole, the intention is to cause a bit of sting, not incur actual bleeding.

    As you note, that phrase is perhaps over the top. You should have read the first draft. :-) Hopefully it didn't distract too much from the meat of the essay.

    take care

  14. I'm not sure where to ask this so i guess i'll ask it here (since you mentioned Jaffe). What do you think of the way the industry treats the non-superstar designers? This blog i read had an interesting discussion about it and i haven't been able to find an answer:

    I mean, if the dude is working on a Game-of-the-Year contender, then it's pretty safe he's reached the "as good as it's gonna get" territory. So what do you do if "as good as it's gonna get" still sucks?

  15. Hey Danc,

    No, the meat of the essay is great! I agree that we need to make sure that 'story' doesn't become too important in our repertoire of game design tools. I tend to think that people use it the same way they use violence; that is, as a way of creating conflict. Conflict is good and makes games interesting, but there are lots of ways to get there.

    In response to Maj, I've not (yet) reached the superstar designer, and I have to say that I'm treated pretty darn well. The Holy Grail is, of course, to be able to make whatever game you want to make. But in an era of endless sequels, spin-offs and licenses, it's pretty rare, even for the superstars,

    I have high hopes.

    Andy A

  16. You obviously do not work in the industry.

    Further, you let your rabisity cloud your reason.

    To disabuse you of a few misconceptions:

    1. Coders and Producers make a damn sight more than designers and artists. Artists are last on the totem pole of payment. Your assertion that the money goes into 'plot related devices' such as cinematics and assets is naive to the extreme.

    2. At least half of your rough story examples contain the necessary plot points to put your action in context. Many games are near identical to the ones you mention but lack the story or are thin glossovers of the ones you so rabidly posit as storyless, and have you heard of them? Me neither.

    3. You point to GTA as a game rivaling WoW in gameplay but without story. As a player of both franchises, I feel the need to point out that the GTA franchise has a more cohesive plot and storyline than any character created in the 'thin veneer of story' world that is WoW. You got your examples ass backwards, homie.

    4: Games such as the Sims, Populous, and Nintendogs DO ultimately have a story, it is defined by the user through their interactions with the game world. You still are only dissing cinematics, so stop playing Squaresoft games and look at the rest of the industry.

    5: this is just a laugh at your expense, but "Tetris has lots (sic) of interactivity" <- lol @ you Tetris lets you SLIDE (2 axes, that's plural of axis)& ROTATE. So, say again? Lots of interactivity == 2 degrees of manipulation? Damn, you're sure easy to placate.

    6: Face it, you don't like japanese RPG's, probably aren't too hip on bishoujo dating sims either. Maybe you don't like to read.

    Let your rage die and think about this with a more objective mind. You will see that the context that the characters interact within is one of the most compelling parts of the games you play, whether you are immediately aware of it or not.

  17. Hi Continuity Police!

    Welcome to the blog.

    You raise some interesting points about the essay that are worth clarifying.

    I'm writing about a pretty limited definition of story. To quote the essay "Story is a series of linear narrative elements in the fashion of novels and movies from ages past." The player's ability to create their own stories within a gaming world is something that fascinates me, but it doesn't fit the definition of story that I'm discussing.

    As for producers making more money than individual artists, I wouldn't disagree. However, if you look at the percentage of the budget for a game that goes towards gameplay programers, you'll find a large percentage typically goes toward items that serve the plot.
    - Scripted sequences
    - Dialog
    - Character lip syncing system
    - Cutscenes
    - Level creation that serves the plot ("We really need a Las Vegas level with a mansion because that is where the story says the boss lives")

    Strip out the plot from many games (such as Half Life for example) and you cut your budget substancially. Again, that isn't the right choice for every game, but it is one that developers should realize is one of the options available.

    Mind you, I'm not preaching a radical position here. I'm say "Understand what stories bring to your game and do what is best for your specific title."

    take care

  18. Danc,

    As a guy that's been doing this for 12 years, I'd just like to say that I'd *kill* to work on a game where the majority of the engineering time was spent on:

    - Scripted sequences
    - Dialog
    - Cutscenes
    - Level creation that serves plot

    It would beat the snot right out of the time wasted reinventing the wheel every few weeks as the engineers jump on some new bandwagon function they found in a forum somewhere or continuing to refine that new AI system they swear is going to revolutionize gaming sometime in the next... two weeks?

    Not that I really want to work on a project where dialog takes 1st chair to gameplay, but I'll be damned if I've ever even heard of search of project and I've been around the block more than a few times. the bulk of the engineering time on every project I've worked on, from dos games up through every console since the PS1 and PC MMOs have gone into core functionality and rendering engine work. You might decry, "Ah ha! See! Cinematics!" but I'd have to demurely point out that most of the time is spent optimizing realtime gameplay framerates. Cinematics have *always* taken backseat to that - in fact, on most projects, so has innovative new gameplay, but hey it's not like I'm implying that people are close-minded and fear change or anything, right?

    Damn. I have to quit doing that.

    Anyway, good read: Story != game. Game != story. That's fair. Game > Story? I dunno, maybe... depends on the game, I think. I doubt I'd have played San Andreas without it's story, despite it's very cool open world gameplay - after all, I'd seen it all in GTA III and Vice City, hadn't I? It was the story that made it fresh and keeps that franchise alive.

  19. While I agree with pretty much everything Danc says, I would say that often story provides a framework for the whole game and may serve as a crutch when innovative game design is lacking.

    If, for example, a game is based upon a known story, much of the character design is pretty much done already. Furthermore story can drive level creation, and features too. Thus enriching the game experience.

    I'm not saying that it's necessarily a good thing...

    That said, I agree with Danc about all the problems with story in games, and the fact that it isn't necessary. Ultimately though, without some sort of story, the game itself may lack enough "meaning" to keep players playing to the end... then again who cares? Once someone has bought the game, who cares if the player goes through the whole thing?


    PS> Danc, I'm bummed I only noticed this thread today... mostly cuz I've been on vacation (in Utah!) for the past couple weeks. I loved the section you wrote about writers trying to write that great novel and using games as their vehicle to get attention... nice dig. :) As usual you're deliciously provocative. Love ya!

  20. *grin* Hi Ray. I wasn't digging at you with that comment. Though in hindsight...;-) When is that novel coming my way. You know you have mad skillz. Hope Utah was fun. :-)

    Anonymous: I'd agree that engineering usually is not spending the majority of their effort on story related system. But I'm seeing a very large chunk of modern budgets being spend on art, use and toss level design, highly detailed characters, voice acting, etc. This is especially true near the end of the production cycle as the art team grows quite rapidly.

    I'm probably using overly broad strokes here. :-) My main point is that it ends up being a very large cost. It may only reaches the 'majority of the budget' level in titles like God of War or FF. It would be an interesting thing to see exactly where money is spent on each product as part of a post mortem. Most of my recent experiance comes from about a year ago listening in on middleware sales calls with console developers so it may be warped slightly.

    take care

  21. I think a clever developer can use story as a tool to get a better game, and less clever use story as a crutch, often to fill-in content for a less than satisfying game design.

    That said, i thought it was noteable that the praise for the developer of the game "Aveyond", mentioned in a recent blog post, states "Aveyond has one of the best overall stories that I’ve seen in a game in years."

    I thought, "Well, yeah, but no one wastes their time on story in games anymore, so who cares?"

    I was initially attracted to game development because of what i perceived as a creative framework that would allow interractivity with my world of ideas. I first loved computers because of text adventures, and remember writing thousands of lines of basic code filled with if statements in order to create a little interractive story.

    I think just as libraries have become dusty thanks to the TEEVEE, it's only natural that gamers tend to prefer visual stimulation, and quick thrills, over deep coherent stories.


    PS. I'm almost midway through book 3. Trying like mad to get it done, though never have enough time. :( I'd let you see Book 2, but then... I'd have to... kill ya. Nah, just want to incorporate all the latest changes before I do that... :)

  22. great article.

    I'm of the opinion (rightly or wrongly) that games are stories. The reason we play games is to make experiences, and make stories, and games that give us the ability to do that to greater degree are able to dip out of the gamer 'ghetto' and reach wider markets: the Sims, GTA, Civs, etc. of the world.

    I chat about it here:

  23. I posted a bit of a response on my own blog. Yeah, yeah, I know: day late, dollar short in the fast-pace world of blogging. But, I thought it was an interesting topic to discuss. Figured people stumbling across this post later might like to read my thoughts as well.

    Take care,

  24. >>I think just as libraries have become dusty thanks to the TEEVEE, it's only natural that gamers tend to prefer visual stimulation, and quick thrills, over deep coherent stories.

    I disagree with that. Most gamers that I know are looking at the game as a world to live in. They want to feel like their actions in the game have meaning. Stories can acheive that...

    I don't know why nobody has gone into another aspect of story type games; the ability to have the story turn out different ways depending on what the player does. Chrono Trigger had like 12 different endings. Doukutsu Monogatari (I suggest everyone interested in indie gaming check it out) had three different endings, but they all influenced the player's feeling of the outcome to a huge degree. This wasn't because Pixel was a good game designer (He certainly was/is) so much as it was because he was a great storyteller.

    Now, most games like this just offer a few different endings, but what if it was possible to have the entire game experience change? As in, how the characters felt about things and reacted? It wouldn't be nearly as hard as you'd think.

  25. Snobs of any sort are a waste of time. Pro-storytelling snobs and anti-storytelling snobs alike.

    Storytelling is a tool for entertaining people. Use it when you want to entertain people with it. Don't use it when you don't want to. That's really all there is to it. No amount of argument on a forum board can determine what your product does or does not need. Only you, as the designer, can make that decision.

    Saying "storytelling sucks" or "storytelling rocks" makes about as much sense as saying "pliers suck" or "screwdrivers rock." Suck or rock for what purpose?

  26. Your article is very "Michael Bay". Sure people are interested by pretty pictures and kewl explosions, but what's the point of all that crap. It's interesting how the views of Americans differ from the views of Europeans and the Japanese.

  27. Okay, I know this is years after you posted this essay, but I have to comment.

    I stopped reading at "Tetris would never be published today." I've read many of your essays and I find them very good on average, but that has to be the most laughable thing I've ever heard.

    You think plot-based games are dominating? RPGs are a niche and always have been. We get all excited about how Final Fantasy VII sold nearly 10 million copies. Amazing! Except when you compare it to Mario games or Grand Theft Auto games or Pokemon games or The Sims or Bejeweled... you know, those poor little innocent non-plot games that are being beaten down by the big bad plot games...


    And as you're making fun of RPGs when we "play a little bit of game and watch a few more cut scenes" has it occured to you that maybe there is a middle ground between movies and games? Some of us enjoy the idea of a movie that we can be a part of and perhaps change the outcome. Whether or not certain games have accomplished this is beside the point, the point is that there is nothing wrong with that idea. It's a niche and it doesn't hurt the sales of your precious non-plot games that you seem to think need defending.

  28. Actually the quote about Tetris not being made was by Satoru Iwata, President of Nintendo in the GDC 2006 Keynote.

    I appreciate the post, but you may want to read the rest of the essay. I don't think it says what you think it says. :-)

    take care

  29. Actually, the rest of the post said basically exactly the type of things that I was expecting it to say.

    The quote may have been made by Satoru Iwata, but the full paragraph as you posted was as follows:

    "As various folks have commented, Tetris would never be published today. The current requirement that most games must have stories is a filter that prevents the creation and publishing of what are potentially the crown jewels of the gaming industry."

    I didn't take the quote out of context. Regardless of who originally said that, you agreed with it. In addition, the rest of the paragraph is exactly what I'm talking about. You are claiming that story-based games are somehow getting in the way of the development of non-story games. But that's simply untrue.

    As I pointed out before, non-story games are actually selling a lot more and are a lot more popular. What you seem to be looking at is the niche "hardcore gamer" market, for lack of a better term. You seem to be under the impression that because games like Bioshock and Mass Effect get a lot of press that they are somehow the big dogs that everyone has to conform to.

    But that simply isn't the case. Bioshock and Mass Effect are the little guys that only appear big because they have fancy graphics and lots of press. Bejeweled, The Sims, Pokemon, these are the big dogs. So you ask why we see constant news coverage of Bioshock but not Bejeweled?

    Because Bejeweled doesn't need news coverage. It sells by the million and doesn't need advertisement to get its numbers. Bioshock is the underdog that has to fight to make a profit. It is the niche game that has to sell which means it has to impress. It has to parade around advanced features, killer graphics and amazing stories because that's what makes the news.

    Finally, since you talked me into reading the whole thing, I'll point you to another offending paragraph:

    "Story has a purpose in game development. It has little inherent value by itself. Its primary value is how it contributes to the entire player experience. You are selling a game, not a movie or a novel. You need to design the whole game as a complete experience."

    I'm sorry, but it really sounds like you're the one being the "snob." You're dictating that all games should fall under your narrow definition of what games are "supposed" to be about. But here's a crazy thought. Maybe I want to make a movie using the technology of games. And maybe it's not just because I'm a hollywood reject. Maybe it's because there are certain traits of gaming technology that can enhance a story in ways that can't be found in conventional movie technology.

    The problem is you're being obsessed with the word "game" and your own opinions about what that word should mean. You think anything that is made on an Xbox (for example) should meet your description of game. You describe story as a tool, nothing more, for use in interactive experiences. But what if I argued that interactivity is a tool, nothing more, for use in telling stories? With the story as the end goal, rather than interactivity. Where interactivity is minimized to a level where it merely enhances the story, without getting in the way.

    Before you label me as just another snob, I want to point out that I don't think story-based games are any better or worse than non-story games. It's just that they fill different roles. I agree with much of your post. But I don't care for your rather insulting insinuations that everyone who likes games that focus on story are missing the point or somehow hampering your fun.

    You have The Sims, I have Final Fantasy. I'm not knocking The Sims or saying that it misses the point or is somehow restricting my favorite genre, so I'd appreciate it if you'd return the favor.