Why have narrative in games?
It has been somewhat in vogue recently among a certain class of indie game designer to assert that games are not a good storytelling medium. Now, I have never made a secret of my views on dialog and other narrative techniques in games. While interactivity is of course central to any gaming experience, that is no license to make games meaningless. Done right, narrative gives context and meaning to our actions in-game, and provides a valuable experience in its own right.
Rather than simply post a rant, however, I decided to put the question to a handful of other indie RPG developers:
Some designers have demonized narrative as an inherently limiting and unnecessary distraction from the emergent storytelling arising out of pure gameplay. Why have narrative in games?
As you might expect, I received a variety of interesting and thoughtful responses:
Jeff Vogel: Someone is demonizing narrative? Really? That seems odd.
Emergent gameplay is great, if you can get it. It is a very difficult thing to do. But storytelling, whatever the medium, is one of the oldest and most fundamental human activities. Human brains are naturally receptive to telling and being told stories. As long as that is true, people will use games to tell stories.
Thomas Riegsecker: Narrative is certainly not required for all games, and in some cases in can be unnecessary baggage for the player. When it comes to role-playing games, one world think that a strong narrative is an absolute requirement. However, countless variations of Rogue shows that you can have a marvelous role-playing experience with little more than a single sentence explaining the goal. Likewise, many successful mainstream RPGs rely on nothing more than the overused plot of “Kill the powerful bad guy”, and any narrative in between the start and end of the game is really unnecessary.
However, narrative can be exceptionally rewarding as well. It can turn a generic role-playing game into a unforgettable one if done correctly. Certainly, when someone fondly remembers an RPG that they enjoyed playing years ago, it is often the story they remember and not the hours of level grinding and monster killing. Likewise, narration can guide the player through a seemingly immense world, preventing that unwelcome feeling of “I don’t know what I should be doing now”. Overall, it really is a player preference. As a developer, I need to find that balance between not enough narrative and too much narrative that will give a rewarding role-playing experience to as many potential customers as possible.
Amanda Fitch: I don’t think narrative is limiting and unnecessary, but if it is presented in manner which takes the player out of the game, then yes, it isn’t any fun.
Jay Barnson: I think I may be one of those demonizers. Sorry ’bout that. Didn’t mean to give any more ammunition to the haters.
Simply put, the needs of good “traditional” storytelling as we know it runs counter to good interactive gameplay. The hero in a compelling story is going to make mistakes, is going to be subject to rising and falling action, and is going to get pain heaped upon him by the author, and not see victory until the moment things are at its bleakest. He is not going to choose the optimal path to victory because – frankly – that makes for a really boring story. But that’s exactly what the player will go for if given the choice, and gameplay is all about making choices. So either we smack the player down with non-interactive, forced narrative, or we allow them to create for themselves a story that is likely to be devoid of very much drama.
Nevertheless, I love a good story in games. It’s a big part of why I’m such a fan of RPGs – I love the stories. The human brain is hard-wired to tune into stories. And I think even a mediocre story is more fun when you get to live it through a game. So in spite interactivity and narrative being something of a shotgun marriage, it works. The big question is how to make it work better. The almost universal approach today is to reach some compromise between the two, and keep trying to find a happier medium that works best for each game. Another, much more challenging approach, would be to rig the game mechanics to encourage adherence to more dramatic narrative formulas. Score bonus points for making dramatically interesting mistakes or something. And interactively build the narrative around player actions. We see glimmers of that in the Left 4 Dead series, where the AI engine seems to spawn enemies more based on the rhythm of the game than on location.
It’s not an easy blend. Narrative and gameplay are always going to have contradictory goals and tend to inhibit each other. But I also feel that the blend of contradictory elements is often greater than a sum of its parts.
[EDIT: We have a late entry! Added below.]
Vince D. Weller: Narrative is a good feature. I doubt that there are many people who’d tell you that they don’t like a good story in their games, so the problem isn’t that narrative is some kinda outdated thing of the past that gets in the way of emergent gameplay (I’ve yet to see a game that actually delivers it, but that’s a different story), but that like any other feature it can suck for one reason or the other. A story can be bad. A story can be uninspiring. A story can fail to grab the player and make him care (Alpha Protocol). A story can suffocate the player (Witcher, many Bioware games). Much like anything else, good story-telling is a talent. Not everyone can tell a good story, especially in a video game format. If you can’t, then it’s better to skip the narrative and focus on features that can replace it, like the sandbox elements, for example. If you can, then it won’t take much effort to make the story flexible enough to support decision-making and it would enhance your game. Simple as that.
As for narrative being limiting when it comes to emergent gameplay, I disagree. There are many ways to craft a story that doesn’t force the player to move along a pre-determined and very narrow path, but lets the player make decisions and craft his or her own story within the story arc. I can tell you what these ways are, but it’s boring, so let me throw stones at Jay instead:
“Simply put, the needs of good “traditional” storytelling as we know it runs counter to good interactive gameplay. The hero in a compelling story is going to make mistakes, is going to be subject to rising and falling action, and is going to get pain heaped upon him by the author, and not see victory until the moment things are at its bleakest. He is not going to choose the optimal path to victory because – frankly – that makes for a really boring story. But that’s exactly what the player will go for if given the choice, and gameplay is all about making choices. So either we smack the player down with non-interactive, forced narrative, or we allow them to create for themselves a story that is likely to be devoid of very much drama.”
The amount of drama depends entirely on the story-teller and the paths he creates for the player. If there is a path that can be described as the optimal path to victory, then yes, it’s boring and uninspiring, but only because the story-teller has failed. That’s what consequences of your actions are for. By applying consequences to the hero’s actions you can infuse the story with as much drama as you need and make the “optimal path to victory” the “hero does in the end” path, should you so desire, or “the hero fucks everything up, so things now are way worse than before, so thanks a lot, you fucking douchebag” path, not to mention the much desired “you either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain” path where the seemingly optimal, no-brainer options lead to the hero slowly become the villain, without even realizing it. I assume that the moment when the player realizes what his hero has become would be quite precious.
So, the moral of this story is that choices without consequences don’t mean much and it’s the consequences that are the link between the traditional storytelling and emergent gameplay.