Storytelling in Games – How to Do It Right

[Originally posted on Google+.]

Today I had the pleasure of attending a talk by +Kent Hudson, a game designer at LucasArts, who spoke about design-driven storytelling in games (note: slides can be found at http://www.onethree.org/talks).

My philosophy on storytelling in general is that it is a crucial, hardwired part of the human experience. Human beings have a fundamental need to tell stories, hear stories, and, perhaps most importantly, create stories. The ability to construct a narrative out of the chaos of the world is part of what keeps our enormous, buzzing brains sane and stable, and is also part of what challenges us to keep putting one foot in front of the other and becoming more than we were before.

Video games are descended from a long line of pursuits that tap into this amazingly universal element of humanity. In the best cases, as I and I think Kent would argue, the video game storytelling experience is crafted so that players feel somehow that the story is about them, even if it takes place in a thoroughly foreign environment and includes situations that your average gamer would never find him or herself in. The most powerful storytelling in games is not the kind that leads you on a pre-set Disneyland cart ride through a cinematic tale (i.e. FFXIII), but the kind where you as a player see your own personality and decisions coming to life within an engaging world.

Kent brought up a bunch of really interesting examples from singleplayer games, including a tiny 8bit game called Passage as well as triple-A games like Red Dead Redemption, Bioshock 2, and others. One that I found fascinating was a brief look into the quest system of World of Warcraft – in the more typical kind of quest, your character walks up to a computer-controlled character (NPC) with an exclamation point over his head, and he gives you a little spiel about how he really, really needs the tusk of this particularly nasty boar for some kind of exotic but urgent purpose, and you’ll get a small reward if you go out and kill enough boars to obtain a good tusk specimen. Then there’s another kind of quest which you “discover” by finding a note in the pocket of some baddie you kill, purely by happenstance (well, you were purposefully killing him/it, but weren’t expecting the note), and the note happens to contain some kind of request that also advances the quest storyline. The latter, Kent argued, was a much more meaningful and engaging application of the quest mechanic to storytelling in WoW, because it suddenly feels like the story is about you. Your independent actions in the course of participating in a normal gameplay mechanic triggered a change in the story, which merges story and gameplay together without the artifice of a guy with an exclamation point over his head. You had real agency in your own game experience. That’s so powerful.

I was also fascinated by Kent’s description of Portal 2’s environment-based storytelling, and how this method exemplifies the idea that you don’t have to have amazing cut scenes with tons of animation and modeling in order to get people into a story, even in a top-quality game. In much of Portal 2, the voiceovers of the main antagonist and other key figures are disembodied – robots talking to you from speakers in the walls or recorded messages triggered by your actions in the game which play outside of cut scenes. It’s not like Valve didn’t have the resources to create amazing cinematic animations to go along with these voiceovers – it was a specific style choice of the game that really worked well for the game’s atmosphere and puzzle-oriented gameplay. You can do much more than you think with less than you think you need.

After the presentation, I was able to find Kent outside the auditorium and talk to him about one of my favorite subjects – StarCraft 2 competitive gaming and commentary. StarCraft 2 is an excellent example of a game that was very specifically designed to lend itself to creating engaging stories driven by players, as evidenced by the huge professional scene around it and the professional commentators (+Wolf Schröder +Dan Stemkoski +Nick Plott) who are needed to explain the story arcs of each game. I told Kent about a wonderful talk I attended at GDC this past year by SC2 lead designer Dustin Browder (+Rob Simpson in lieu of DB) where he explained the different ways his team developed game mechanics that would produce gameplay that would make for an excellent spectator experience – in other words, that would produce great stories. StarCraft 2 was designed in part to maximize the potential for the close win, the victory derived from a tiny advantage eked out through skill and speed (and a little luck), which translates into something really exciting that commentators and spectators go completely crazy over.

Compare this subtlety to the “rubber banding” of MarioKart, a racing game where players who are leading the pack have an obviously higher chance of getting crappy items to help them in the race compared to those in last place, who get awesome items that let them take potshots at those in the lead. As a result, races are closer than they might be without this mechanic, so it does get the job done, but in a very artificial way. MarioKart, Kent observed, will never be a competitive game (or a story-producing game) on the level of StarCraft 2. People most want to see and experience stories that people have agency in, not ones that are unduly influenced by mechanics obviously meant to level the playing field.

This talk really got me thinking about what storytelling means to good games and how gameplay can produce, enhance, and encourage players to create their own stories. Maybe it’s something I can bring to my own work, even if I am not directly involved in game design most of the time. At any rate, look up +Kent Hudson if you’re interested in this topic and don’t miss any talks by him going on in your area. He tells really great stories, which always makes for a good time.
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