Some claim there’s no place for story in games. I’m going to make a bold claim and argue that all games tell a story, it’s just that some games don’t have a plot.
“What comes first when you set out to tell a Story? The kind of plot you want to tell or the lead character you have in mind? This question is the equivalent of that old debate about whether something is plot driven or character driven. The distinction is meaningless, really, as a character’s actions are what determine the plot and the plot is the sum total of a character’s actions.” from “The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know” by Shawn Coyne
But wait Greg aren’t you contradicting yourself, by saying that a character’s actions determine the plot?
Not at all, because not all games have characters. They simply have a player-sized hole.
Think of some of the most well known or systemic games to date — Tetris, PUBG, League of Legends, etc. Each game will be completed and tell its story regardless of the player. Someone can in effect sit there are do nothing. Granted that is a choice, but not one that creates a plot. And only tells a very limited story.
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Whereas games with plots are those that won’t tell a story without the player. Witcher 3, Mass Effect and Firewatch all come to mind. So why does one have a plot and another not? It goes beyond choice; it’s cause and effect. It’s choices.
The player makes a choice and has to experience the change that decision enacted. They must deal with the consequences. And adapt to them or seek to set them right. Whatever right may be. Choosing to do nothing in PUBG does not count as a plot, not just because the game goes on without you, but because you never experience the effects of your one and only decision.
In a lot of ways systems-heavy games, especially those focused on multiplayer, are the equivalent of procedurals on TV. The setup is always the same, the outcome rarely different, and week in week out we know the world will reset. This consistency is why we see so many police, legal or medical procedurals. They’re situations that enable the main characters to encounter new situations and individuals every week. But fundamentally they aren’t required to change.
Why? Because that’s not the story. The story is of someone doing their job. The plot… Well if there is one, happens over the season or seasons. CSI, Numb3rs, The Mentalist all did it this way. They had the main characters coming up against an antagonist who wasn’t in every episode. Who would tease our the chase over a season or more. Why? Well because each show needed a hook that made them different from the others because their structures were so formulaic. So much so that more often than not the killer was the third character introduced that episode.
Law and Order is particularly bad at this. And it’s not the writers’ fault. They’re working within the constraints of their medium — namely time and budget. So having more characters in the mix gets very difficult if the crime is to be solved that episode. But watch a season and count how often the third new character is the killer. Of course this isn’t true for shows like Criminal Minds where the culprit is shown from the beginning.
By and large it holds true for any procedural. Legal and medical have their own structures as they generally aren’t concerned with finding murders but again their structures are such that the story resets at the end of every episode. I could argue this is realistic because people don’t change that much. They get on with their jobs and try to do their bests and continue their lives avoiding change. That’s true to a degree, but as far as art goes in the case of procedurals, as it is with many games, the creators want people to return.
And how do you get a person to return — by keeping things the same. Your audience can pick up season seven of Law and Order to find it no different than season one, even if they haven’t seen the intervening episodes. The same is true for games, much to the bane of any creator who’s tried to create a sequel only to have their audience cry out in dismay at how the original was better. But getting people to return time and again to a game is about more than addictive inclusions like loot boxes. It’s about creating the same feeling.
So now may be the best time to talk, not loot boxes, but RPG mechanics. And yes for some games those can be one and the same. Yet there’s a reason we’re seeing more and more such mechanics and progression systems included in types of games that didn’t previously have them. RPG mechanics are the equivalent of season-long antagonists in procedurals. They’re there to tell the audience something may change the next time around, they’re a hook to keep people coming back for more. But that change is never guaranteed, and what does change is minimal.
Progression isn’t a plot, but it is telling a story. The story of the player. Within that story is a limited choice, one that may seem significant to the player, but in no way affects the game state. So players can return time and again and find the game, much like the procedural, is what they experienced previously. This is not me hating on RPG mechanics. I’ve put far too many hours into games like Halo, Titanfall, and Destiny for me to say otherwise. I’m happy to have those very elements in my games. I simply recognize them for that they are — hooks.
After all, every time I play Halo multiplayer one set of Spartans have not overcome another. Nor has the IMC crushed the Militia in Titanfall. And in Destiny and its sequel I have not in fact become legend or really changed the world, well solar system. That progression is so well worked out and tweaked to keep enticing players to remain engaged, or if loot boxes are available to purchase them, that it’s hard to say there’s much choice within that progression. Obviously there is depending on the build you’re going for.
Yet we hear time and again players, commentators, journalists, basically anyone engaged in the game’s community discussing the meta. The existence of meta may be great for strategizing the best tactics for competitive play. When it comes to plot though, it’s a death blow. All because choice is severely limited. But more on choice in a future episode.
There are systems-heavy games, or systems-driven I use both terms interchangeably, that try to tell a story with something that resembles a plot. Rimworld and how it remembers and connects disparate actions is a great example. Your crew may create items be they sculptures or utensils which are dedicated to the memory of early events in the game.
Again though this doesn’t qualify as plot according to the aforementioned definition, namely choice. Yes the player can specify which of a dozen activities a character should do and can even specify that character’s preference to minimize micromanagement. But as the player our story is limited and plotless, even if we are telling a story. And it all comes back to this of interacting with art. With all previous mediums, mediums we find within video games, such as film, poetry, literature, music, art, etc. We have only had a binary choice. To read/watch/listen/observe or not. It’s very black and white.
Video games, story-focused video games, change that up. They can throw out the old dichotomy and instead welcome a spectrum of possibility but don’t always. The games of Fullbright are two great examples.
Gone Home while a narrative game and deridingly called a “walking simulator” by some, is very similar to the systems-heavy games. It ostensibly has a story and a very moving one. In all honesty it made me cry, and I’m glad it did, because that right there should be proof enough that video games are art. But I digress. Gone Home has a story, but there isn’t a plot. All because the story has already been told, we as players are not affecting it one way or another. Nor are we learning about the character we’re playing.
Instead we’re archaeologists uncovering the events of the past.
Gone Home like a novel only gives us a single choice — to engage or not engage. The story has already been written, it’s only a matter if we learn of it. Gone Home has us inhabiting the role of Katie Greenbriar who for all intents and purposes is a player-sized hole. Through that role we learn of “our” relationships with our family and how they’ve developed in our absence.
Conversely, Tacoma is a game with two stories, one of which has a plot that you the player determine to some degree. Like its predecessor though the story of Tacoma has already happened and as a player we are merely revealing it. The plot part is in regards to how much you engage in the story, because like many systems-driven games it’ll finish with you as the player providing minimal input.
That choice to play microgravity basketball and do nothing else is an interesting one. It can say a lot about the character you play, Amy Ferrier, but the wider implications for that are few and far between. The significant choices the player character makes are never ones the player is allowed to determine. Thus relinquishing a certain amount of player control for the sake of the creators’ message. But again Amy like her predecessor Kate is little more than a player-sized hole, because there’s little to who she is that affects how we play, what choices we’re presented with and how we develop as the story goes along.
Compare that to another walking simulator, Firewatch, by Campo Santo. Like the others I thoroughly enjoyed this game and find myself constantly thinking about it.
Firewatch is a game that’s all about story, or more correctly choice. The result is a game with a plot. Unlike the previously mentioned games, Gone Home and Tacoma, in Firewatch’s case the player is given a plethora of choices. Choices that affect how others react to the player character, what information is available to the player, and what we as the player know about the character we play. Some may find this hard to understand because the choices aren’t explicitly signposted, not in the way they were in a series like Mass Effect where you knew if you were taking a paragon or renegade action. That choice to signpost things or not is a matter for some discussion in a future episode, but for now it’s simply something worth noting because it’s a style and gameplay decision that affects how players interact and encounter a story.
Firewatch is as subtle as games can be, in that there are consequences to your actions they just aren’t all signposted. You’re not told you’ll gain +2 charisma or fancy new binoculars. Take for example, the choice you’re presented involving some teens and their radio — You can take it, turn it off, throw it on the ground, throw it in a bush, throw it in the lake… Basically trash the thing. Your choice says a lot about you as both a player and a character, but it also has implications for later in the story when your encounter with the teens has its inevitable consequence. Throughout the entire game, not just this sequence, the game never says “so-and-so will remember this” as is common to TellTale games.
It’s not to say that the results of your actions in Firewatch are solely in your mind’s eye. Rather, there are real world effects but the differences between one course or action and another are never explicitly explained. All of it though is in the service of developing the plot and thus the character of Henry.
Developing the character of Henry or any character for that matter isn’t a matter of the game being about roleplaying, but rather enabling choices which reflect upon the person and the situation they’re in. Games are always going to tell stories. Any designer who says they’re trying to evoke a feeling is seeking to tell a story but with the player at the center. How you do that isn’t always going to have a plot.
That doesn’t mean you can’t tell a story with a plot. To do that also takes the recognition of whether you’re telling a story with the player at the center of it or not. It’s all just a matter of perspective when it comes to game design. Regardless of whether you’re writing the story being told by your game or you’re planning out the plot the player character will experience be sure you ask yourself this one question — Is the character active or reactive?
This episode started with the purpose of discussing the difference between plot and story, yet very quickly degenerated into an exploration of choice in video games, because choice is plot. So it’s safe to say that choice will be explored further in future episodes as it relates to character and design. But as much choice as a game may give a player that doesn’t mean there’s a plot, there’s always a story to the game. A creator’s decision for how the story is told in relation to a player’s character and the verbs available is going to affect if there’s a plot.
It all comes down to whether there’s a player-sized hole to filled or if the player is inhabiting a character that can be explored or changed. And even then it’s a question of if that character is active or reactive. More on characters, choice and the rules of storytelling in future episodes.
Thanks for taking part in this episode of The Writing Game, I’m Gregory Pellechi. Everything I do can be found at OneGameDad.com and I can be reached there or on Twitter @OneGameDad if you want to talk writing, games, this show or even working together.
The Writing Game is hosted by Third Culture Kids which can be found at ThirdCultureKids.net. Please be sure to like & subscribe or rate and review this show on whatever platform you find it. I’ll see you on the next episode.