Every game is authored. To say otherwise is absurd, because there is nothing natural in a game, beyond what the player brings to it.
“I like the fact that in ancient Chinese art the great painters always included a deliberate flaw in their work: human creation is never perfect.” — Madeleine L’Engel
What players bring is always an unknown and makes games as much a performance as any play or scripted and planned art.
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That can never be truly accounted for. However, some generalizations can be made due to market research about your target audience. Or if you don’t have that just some base assumptions — namely the age, gender, culture and interests of your players. They’re probably similar to you.
Writers and designers both get to play god, lowercase G. It’s part of the appeal of any creative pursuit. You’re putting something out into the world. But like God, capital G, you have little control over its ultimate outcome and acceptance. All of that is neither here nor there. Creation is fun, why else would we do it. I know some writers describe the process as bleeding on the page and it can be, nonetheless we do so because it fulfills something in us.
That’s why it can be hurtful to hear designers say games don’t need stories. They don’t need writing. They don’t need us.
It’s dismissive of who we are and what we do. It erases the viability of our vocation. But it’s not only designers who’ll say that. I’ve meet actors who say the same thing. What they don’t understand and may be the ultimate purpose of this series, is that everything is storytelling.
Every element in a game is deliberate and contributes to the story being told
Where procedurally or randomly generated content, or system-driven games and even sports have us telling stories, those tales are limited. They’re limited by the structures available, so the growth experienced by the game’s characters with in it are nominal at best. The same is true for sports. Take a single game out of a season or even a players career and it means nothing. It’s only in the context of the wider world that we ascribe a narrative to it. Sports with a lot of games like basketball or baseball make this doubly-so as a particular series may have more weight than a singular game.
But each and every time when we talk about our favorite teams we’re talking about them in a gestalt manner. Any rivalry we mention between teams or players is not necessarily manufactured but it’s emphasized by us the public as we talk about that sport. We take into the history not just of our particular team, but the players and coaches on it and their relationships with other teams. It’s why we can tell a story of two rivals playing against one another and how the outcome “will make history”.
Of course anyone who isn’t a fan of that sport or either of those teams will simply not care. That game, that showdown will just be another match played out by two professionals. That lack of interest is how the world approaches any game without a story. It’s not contributing to the wider sagas we share and get passed down through generations.
Hell even games with stories aren’t necessarily going to live on. The tale of some plumber rescuing a princess from some weird turtle creature isn’t exactly endearing nor does it offer much in the way of lessons, beyond get good directions before you set out on any quest. Video games as a medium haven’t entered any stories in the wider canon of world culture because of how little they and most of their creators value stories. And it’s a young medium comparatively. But it may also be one that never contributes in the same way given the nature of how it works.
Every medium needs storytellers
People who understand the structures of narrative and the expectations we have for them, the tropes, archetypes and stereotypes that get used, and how best to play on those expectations and emotions.
Games without storytellers involved are limited in just about every aspect. It’s similar to novice musicians creating a song. They can put three chords together to create a catchy jingle, but for it to have resonance and permanence requires a great level of depth. To create a great song requires balancing instruments, key changes, timing, lyricism, and purpose.
The same is true of game creation. Hence the need for storytellers when creating games. And I’ll make that case for all games, even those that are systems-driven or procedurally generated. The biggest problem I see with the argument that games don’t need stories, and that people can tell their own, is that most people aren’t very good storytellers. They aren’t connecting the dots on their own.
Some games seek to help in this regard. Rimworld is a great example, where the game generates stories based on past actions to connect two disparate actives and give them a narrative thread. Such games are few and far between. Hopefully they’re continue to increase in number. But as much as I want to see that particular mechanic become more established, it isn’t without its own flaws. Flaws that are really shared by anything procedurally or randomly generated.
They lack anything in terms of narrative structure
What these games are great at is little moments. Scenes of chaos and carnage, but never moments of respite or introspection. Not that those can’t be programmed, but the problem is they aren’t.
The creators of Left 4 Dead were aware of this fact. That’s why they developed the Director to vary the onslaught of zombies. Without it the game would be a never ending horde of undead that would swiftly become boring. The quiet, the anticipation, the unexpected creates a tension that the cacophony of combat doesn’t. But it also gives players a reprieve, a moment to feel something other than an adrenaline rush. It provides a counter note, bringing out additional flavors or feelings.
That’s a simple thing to program relative to creating an engaging plot and cohesive plot. Hell most Michael Bay movies don’t even bother with being cohesive anymore, but more from tentpole action scene to tentpole action scene. By tentpole scenes I mean those big action set-pieces which are memorable not for the sheer amount of information being thrown at the gamer, but because these scenes are deemed necessary by the story to maintain a three or five act structure. It’s the boss battles.
It’s not only boss battles, but for the sake of story structure there has to be a showdown, a climax, a triumphant moment where the player character, sic protagonist, has defeated their enemy. Tentpole scenes don’t have to just be boss battles, but big events you remember for being unique. It’s those scenes they hint at in trailers.
Games can readily create such tentpole scenes. They throw together big bouts with lots of chaos and loads of NPCs to fight, destroy and hold on against. It’s easy to replicate things with a computer, so throwing out hundreds of minions isn’t a difficult task, especially these days given what computing power is. But again there’s little connecting those scenes. That’s not even my main point on this topic of Everything Is Authored. For those systems that generate all that chaos and throw wave upon wave of enemies at you, they are still doing so within the constraints of the designers.
Every game is a simulation of a sorts
Which means every designer has to decide what goes into that simulation because we’re currently incapable of perfectly rendering the world, or a world in such detail to simulate life. If we were that brings up a whole slew of philosophical questions. If you want to see those very issues then check out Rick and Morty or The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks.
Even the most powerful and open sandbox games such as Minecraft or the forthcoming Dreams, by Media Molecule, are authored experiences. There’s a very real limit to what can be accomplished within them. An astounding amount can be down with them given the time, energy and a particular system. But they lack a compelling story. The impetus is placed on the player to create one, to set some rules to constrain and drive their creativity, which is great for some. But as writers would it seem to put us out of a job. So let’s not overly concern ourselves with such games since they aren’t the majority.
Rather let’s look to the rogues-likes, the rogue-like-likes, sports , and other systems-driven or systems-heavy games. They offer a semblance of what Minecraft and Dreams do but never on the same scale.
Many if not all of these games are focused on very short loops — scenes as it were — wherein the player commits a swift action ending in the death of either themselves or their enemy. In the case of sports it’s generally about possession of the ball, so the change of possession is the equivalent to a character dying. It’s not what was intended but either through lack of skill, poor timing or bad luck in terms of the random number generator. Speaking of random, and this has been said before, but nothing is truly random. At least not in video games. Whether it’s loot, number of enemies, effects or environment, each of those aspects is being chosen from a selection provided by the designer.
It’s why it’s often better to refer to these games are procedurally generated. Spelunky is the perfect example. The levels have a very specific way they are created so you always enter at the top and exit through the bottom. There’s also the constraint of how big a particular level is. In turn particular enemies and items will only appear in certain environments. Derek Chu, the creator of Spelunky, goes into these details in his book.
The story told by Yu’s creation is inevitably the same — one of struggle to overcome the elements. Sometimes players get an easy seed, other times they don’t. The fun, of course, comes from learning the systems and trying to push against them as much as possible or using them to your advantage. But it’s always going to be the same to a larger degree. It’s only the layout that really changes. The story never does.
This lack of change is the essence of fandom. It’s what we essentially want from anything that we choose to have in our lives. We want it to remain the same as when we first fell in love with it. Every time we want a sequel we want it to generate that same feeling of awe and intrigue. But sheer repetition doesn’t provide that. But my comments on fandom and what is or isn’t canon are not for this series. So there won’t be a future episode on that very topic.
Ultimately we can never expect a game to be truly random because it’s not mixing and matching all possible mechanics, systems, effects, environments, etc. So in creating a game we have to be deliberate about what we choose to include to evoke the feeling we’re after, or to tell the story we want. Which makes it such a shame that so many games approach story as if it’s spackle. And just smear it on to cover up odd bits or joints. Story should be approached with just as much deliberation and time as any other aspect of a game.
We aim to create memories
In the end, it’s going to be the story people remember. Not graphics, not gameplay, not loot. It’s the story being told and the stories experienced people will talk about in the future. Those are the things all designers are truly creating. Everything else fades or becomes less important. Memory gives us rose-tinted glasses, it’s why I look fondly back on my time in EverQuest. And memories are the thing you’re hoping to give to players.
Hoping being the key word, because you can never account for what the player will bring to the table. And this is where I think “games without stories” really struggle. Not everyone is equipped to create elaborate backstories for their characters, nor do they see the arc they’ve experienced while playing online. That analysis, that storytelling on the part of the player is never a given. Not everyone is even interested in telling stories, or setting their own rules. It’s why some players will bounce off of games that offer lots of possibility like the aforementioned Minecraft and Dreams.
Funny thing is, we see systems-heavy games focusing more on story these days. A lot of sports games be it FIFA, NBA 2K, Madden, etc are introducing story elements. So take that for what you will. And point it out to anyone who says games don’t need stories.