Friday, 14 September 2012

Stories in games

Games (board games, computer games, playground games) are usually about one or two things. One is the system, the rule set. Some games, such as nought and crosses, only have that element. The other thing a game can do is tell a story, and sometimes they can do that in powerful ways because they let you join in, direct the story, and contribute to the ending. That leads to involvement and immersion, something every novel tries to achieve.

(Oh, I've just thought of a third thing games do - unless it is a single-player game, they can lead to social interaction, which can also be incredibly satisfying and an end in itself. Recently I was lucky enough to spend a week playing a huge variety of boardgames with some friends, and the social interaction elements were lovely, from the excited frenzy as a player made the dice roll they needed to become King of Tokyo, to the tense looks during Summoner Wars, to the rapidly made and broken alliances during Cosmic Encounter; or even the war-wounds and howls of disappointment from playing Geistes Blitz! Games like Werewolf are so good because of the social elements, the arguments and attempts to persuade other players. If you like boardgames, I highly recommend Robert Florence's Cardboard Children column on Rock, Paper, Shotgun [RPS].)

Much as I'd love to talk about board games, and the epic stories they can create, that will have to wait until another time. In this post I'm going to just look at single-player computer games with story elements, otherwise my scope is too large.

I've always been interested in the story within a computer game. Back in the days of my Atari 2600, and later 8-bit days (Atari 600XL, beloved Commodore 64, various Spectrum computers) I had to make up stories sometimes - or rather, I had to fill in the gaps - since the games didn't have enough memory to tell a full story themselves. Games like Antiriad, The Great Escape or Fairlight occupied my imagination, achieving far more than their 64K (about 150th of a single megabyte!) would suggest.

Dreamy Ruins


Nowadays there are games that exist almost solely to tell a story, and in which the system is pretty much absent. Take Ruins as an example here. A game where the goal is just to explore memories, and from that piece together a story of what happened. A feeling of sadness and love inspired me as I played. The visuals (piano, dreamy landscapes) and sound (Chopin) matched the theme, and when form and theme come together you know you'll feel something satisfying, thoughtful and beautiful. The game forces you to relax, to savour the experience of controlling a dog who talks to rabbits; it doesn't take long to play but it leaves you thinking, and you can pick up different threads to the story if you play it again. I love animals, and loved the believable story told in this one. I recommend playing this free game.

Games that focus on mature stories are an antidote to more whizz-bang eye-popping shallow fare. If you go into a shop like Game and look on the shelves you'll be forgiven for thinking that all games are about gruff space marines fighting aliens, or one-man-army soldiers blowing other soldiers' heads off. That's why it is so good that people like Christine Love are also making games; games that make you feel something.

Digital conversations

The first game of hers I played was Digital: A Love Story. A game built around an imitation Commodore Amiga interface, set during the dawn of the Internet when phones were used to dial into bulletin boards, the first time when people might meet others in a digital medium and begin virtual relationships. Which is what happens in the game as you navigate the systems and technologies, and read messages, and learn to hack phone systems, then gradually unravel a sad story that seems to be going one way, then changes to another type of sadness partway through. In the RPS review Kieron Gillen said:
"Attention-getting top line: right now, I can’t think of a better love story in the western medium. [...] it's a game which I played a couple of weeks back, and has stuck with me ever since. I booted it up right now to take a few screenshots, and felt pangs."

It felt like my story

The second game of Christine's that I played was Don’t Take it Personally Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story (also free). A game set in the near future, where you're a school teacher who can spy on the personal messages of his students, revealing their petty squabbles and arguments, and being able to use this information to intervene if desired - or not. A game which really captures you with the feeling of playing a part in other lives. At one point I did start to feel guilty for the decisions I had made in the game, which is a high compliment to the immersion. This game is from the genre 'interactive novel' and it shows, with lots of text to read. There is some great coverage of it from RPS here and here - as Alec Meer said in the latter post, perfectly capturing the essence of the game:
"And, unlike RPGs that promise moral consequence, this wasn’t a matter of checking in later and finding out someone had had a bit of a rubbish time as a result of my actions, but of being there for the whole process, never leaving the claustrophobic confines of the situation I’d become embroiled in. Real-time, haunting consequence, the constant sense that a stiff breeze could permanently fracture this loose alliance of bickering students who were in the complicated, painful process of discovering who they really were. [...] Convinced I was being paternal, wise, necessary, but really I was steeped in ignorance, presumption and self-interest. Don’t Take It Personally? I can’t help but take it personally. With deft, dark cunning it made me feel absolutely awful."

A complaint about this sort of game though can be that the interaction is limited, or the story telling fails in some way. For example, see this discussion of a game called Dinner Date, based on the premise of listening in on a man's thoughts as he realises that he has been stood up. If you're worried about not getting to interact enough then it could be worth going old school, where nothing happens without your interaction. There is a genre of game that used to be called 'adventure' or 'text adventure' when I was growing up, and has been re-born as 'Interactive Fiction' (IF) nowadays, emphasising the way the story (usually text-based) alters based on the player's choices. It seems to be undergoing a revival as a genre: a top IF author raised over $10,000 in one day from those wanting to support his work (interview); there are competitions every year; and there's even a 2010 film about the genre, called Get Lamp. These games and forms similar to them aren't afraid of tackling reality. So story and system come together there.

It's a facade. They're not real.

IF isn't my favourite genre, but I do enjoy some games with elements of it. For example there is a game/piece of interactive fiction (described as a 'one-act interactive drama', which might be a more accurate description) called Facade which I played many years ago. It is an interesting experiment in a 'living play' where your limited involvement might provoke reactions from the artificial intelligence controlled characters. The best bit is that at the end of the game, which takes about 15 minutes to play: the entire text of what occurred (which can change each time) is outputted as a script that could be acted. Sometimes they come out quite Pinter-esque. Download it here for free.

Going back to Ruins, and Christine Love's work, the best that a game's story can do is create emotion in the player. And this is something that is becoming a focus of many independent games - I know that, having played my fair share of games that involve dealing with the loss of your family, or experiencing growing old and lonely. A game called To The Moon came out last year, and in his review John Walker said:
"I'm a wreck. [...] To The Moon is a truly wonderful game. It's the best game I've played this year. [...] after spending the day playing it I'm emotionally exhausted. I'm not sure whether to write a review, or curl up in the fetal position and hug a pillow. [...] I do have something of a reputation for crying at games. It's a reputation that's not really earned. I can think of two games that have ever made me cry, and have a nagging suspicion that there's a third I'm forgetting. In 30 years of playing games, it's not a common factor for me. But add another to the list. I sobbed twice during To The Moon. And then a third time when I told my wife why."
So the story in a game can create emotion in the same way that a novel can. Is there anything we can learn from those games, which can help us to write better novels? If you've ever pondered that question then please try some of these games and let me know what you think.

To The Moon


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The eagle-eyed will have spotted that a lot of the links in this post go to Rock, Paper, Shotgun, the best UK site for all PC game news and commentary. That's because I'm one of its fans and almost every day find something thought-provoking on their site (or in the comments). The quality of the writing is superb too, and is worth experiencing just to see the flights of fancy (and puns) that can stream forth from a keyboard. Thanks, RPS, you're an institution!

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm not a computer games fan, but you've made me change my mind, I must say. The sorts of games you describe sound like a whole different planet from the aggressive 'shoot everybody' sorts, which is what is often portrayed in the media as 'computer games'. I'm sure the best games do rely on good writing, and stories.

Karl Drinkwater said...

Ha, fantastic! Since many of these are free there's no barrier to trying them out. If you do play any and want to comment, it would be interesting to see what you thought.