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Storytelling in Computer Games 131

Posted by michael
from the kill-troll-with-rusty-knife dept.
Cosmicbandito writes: "The latest issue of XYZZY News features transcripts and audio downloads of a 2 hour panel discussion titled "Storytelling in Computer Games Past, Present and Future". Scott Adams, the celebrated designer of classics like "Adventureland" and "Pirate's Island", described his experiences in the early days of the home game market, offered his opinions on the current crop of games, and made predictions about games of the future. Scott is credited with writing and marketing the first commercial computer game. Of special interest to Slashdotters, he is also an avid Everquest player. And no, he doesn't draw "Dilbert"." Think "pre-Infocom".
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Storytelling in Computer Games

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  • by Snowfox (34467) <snowfox@NoSPaM.snowfox.net> on Wednesday September 05, 2001 @06:09PM (#2257614) Homepage
    Hi. I'm Brian. I make video games at Midway.

    I get frustrated when people talk about authoring tools replacing game development, or holding up storytelling as the holy grail of game design.

    If you're looking for the high level "flow of the game," you're better off looking at Jean Piaget's writings than you are any of the authors explaining storytelling-as-game. Take hits like Robotron, Quake or Tetris and try to tell me which of the 36 dramatic situations fit those games. Ask the hard core gamers whether they even know the storyline which was painted on after-the-fact.

    Piaget talks about sensorimotor (learning about the self/environment through motor reflex), preoperational (anticipatory cognition), concrete (action based on perceived and anticipated outcomes) and formal operation (master of a system).

    Good games drive a player from a stage where they basically learn to move (sensorimotor operations) to one of grossly influencing the environment (concrete or formal operations). The high level flow which I believe should be the real focus of study, is one of making the game teach or reward the player in the first stage, then rise to meet the player thereafter. A good game extends itself to match the player's capabilities as they unfold, guiding and challenging the player in the game's own terms. The degree to which the player has to focus to stay one step ahead of the unfolding system is the degree to which good "flow" is present.

    That hasn't got a thing to do with the story.

    If the player cannot establish a synergistic state with the game early on, the game has failed. A good game rewards the player to draw them in, making them think they've overcome the system, from the state where they're fumbling with the controls to the stage where the control has become transparent through practice - transparent enough that the player feels a more direct interface with the adopted environment and is struggling to participate in the environment itself.

    Adventure games are story/game hybrids. Take that as a starting point - there is an element of a game attached to some of these, but only those particular games are more story than game - they are in the minority. When academics grasp the story portion of a select few games and declare that in furthering the story element, they know how games need to work, you see in action the very thing that makes us keep the academics at arm's length: We're not interested in turning our games into books, and we have little patience for ivory tower authors who loudly proclaim that we're failing when we don't do just that.

    My opinions are not always those of my employer - they keep us on a long leash and give us amazing amounts of freedom to express ourselves at Midway, etc., etc., etc., and you should feel sorry for yourself if you don't work here.

  • by Rimbo (139781) <rimbosity@@@sbcglobal...net> on Wednesday September 05, 2001 @06:41PM (#2257727) Homepage Journal
    Yeah, but...

    I could probably end my post there, and you'd know what I'd have to say, wouldn't you?

    The "yeah" is that games are play, and play doesn't have any story to it. It's like building whole civilizations with Fischertechnik/Lego/Erector (see Warcraft), or playing house with dolls (see The Sims), or shooting your buddies and the family cat with water pistols (see Quake), or putting the pieces of a puzzle together (see Tetris).

    The "but" part is that I don't think adventure and role-playing games are play in the same sense. They're more like leisure. You're reading a book, but instead of becoming a character and vicariously living his/her adventure in your mind, you actually get to be the character on the screen, one step closer.

    So what's happening here is not the mutation of the game into something better but the mutation of the story into something better. Great RPGs, like Binary Systems' Starflight (there's a throwback to the past for ya), give you a universe, and you get to go out and find the story.

    I think that's what excites the ivory tower elite the most.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday September 06, 2001 @12:44AM (#2258607)
    No argument, Tetris is a great game. Addictive, maddening, and eternally replayable. For that matter, so are Galaga, Pac-Man and a host of other arcade twitch games... And yes, they have immediately forgettable storylines if any at all. In that way they are just games of skill; like pinball, target shooting, and any carnival games that predate electricity.

    But I have seen people brought to tears by the scripted death of a character in an RPG. I've talked to people who take the release week of Final Fantasy games off work so they can play uninterrupted. Why do people commit so wholeheartedly to these games? As human beings, we love stories. Interacting with one in this way can provoke emotion just like reading a good book or attending a Shakespearian play.

    I'm not a purist; I like games with no story just as much as ones with detailed plots. I got just as absorbed into Tony Hawk as I did Metal Gear Solid. There are also plenty of games with excellent stories but deplorable gameplay; Castlevania 64 had a pedigree of quality and it sucked like gravity.

    Story isn't vital to every game, but a good story can make a solid game engine into an unforgettable classic.

"In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current." -- Thomas Jefferson

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