Whatever your definition of a game, there’s one constant between them — the rules. Some games have very constrained rules, they limit the movement of players and determine the realm of play. One such is chess.
Others, like Buzkashi the Central Asian sport that’s a cross between rugby and polo but instead of a ball uses a goat carcass, have fewer rules. Though the Afghan Olympic Committee has defined them more of late.
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In each case, rules set out the possibilities of what can be accomplished within a single match. Not just who can play and how they play, but when and where they play. Players who internalize those rules tend to be more agile and adaptive in their playing strategies. Or in the case of video games can at least become shout-casters. All because they can comprehend the complexity and minutiae of play.
The thing is, the same is true for writing and storytelling. Which are two very different things. And yes, this right now is my justification for hiring a writer or narrative designer.
We all learn a language. Each language has its own rules, and as a native speaker we internalize those rules just as we do when playing a game or sport. We learn what order nouns, adjectives, verbs and verbs go in. How the subject and object change conjugation. Not to mention tenses, idioms, suffixes and prefixes, and a slew of other stuff. Every one of us learns our native language to a different degree. But we know it and we can use it. That doesn’t mean we can tell stories in it.
More correctly, that doesn’t mean we can tell stories well. Like language, or playing a sport or a game, or having a trade, telling stories takes practice. I don’t say this to be discouraging. But the truth of the matter is whether it’s written or spoken a good story takes thought and insight. It takes understanding the rules of what makes a good story.
To do that we have to actually think about stories. And stories, similar to art, are not something most people think about. We all know what a good piece is because we’ve been exposed to artwork from various mediums throughout our lives.From day one our families have been telling us stories. We’ve explored the world and learned its possibilities through the stories we’ve been told. Whether it’s the birds & and the bees, or why the sky’s blue much of our investigation of our existence has been through stories.
It’s also how we relate to people. When we’ve come home from school and our parents asked us how our day’s been. We tell them a story. Sometimes it’s as simple as, “ok.” Other times we elaborate, stretch or outright lie. But all of it’s a story. And in telling it we may use different techniques, if we retell it, aspects of the story may change.
Every time we tell a story, even if they’re vastly different in tone, length, topic we get better. We learn what works for our audience, not just in our tenor and cadence, but word choices and what we emphasize. This very series is an exercise in storytelling, and one I hope is engaging because in creating it I’m utilizing skills I think I’ve developed to a significant degree.
But storytelling like any skill, be it a language, programming or playing a sport is about more than just practice. It’s about concerted effort — focusing on particular aspects of a skill. For writing that can be dialogue, character development, and language or voice. Storytelling involves all that and more. Structure, pace, tropes, genre conventions, character arcs, emotional arcs, plot arcs, themes, narrative devices, etc.
This series will talk about all of that, and plenty of other stuff too. Though in no particular order. If there is a topic you want me to focus on please let me know in the comments or on Twitter @OneGameDad.
Storytelling does have rules, just like language. It may be something you hate to hear and feel you’re beyond and all of that may be true. But it’s worth knowing and understanding the rules before committing to your own work. It’s the reason artists study art history and don’t just draw and paint. It gives them perspective on what’s been done before and an understanding of the effects both emotional and physical of different techniques.The reality is the rules are more like guidelines. Not to quote Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s easy to find plenty examples of writers who have not just outright flaunted the rules but gone on to write whole new ones. The truly great writers, like artists and athletes, internalize the rules, so that they know when to bend them or break them. Or when to emphasize a particular rule over another.
If this series has a central thesis it’s this: know the rules, then break them.
The same holds true for programming and game design. Each game, engine, programming language, and platform has their own rules. That’s to say nothing of the people involved in the games. Computer programs and video games are nothing if not a series of rules that are fed to a computer. With games requiring far more input once they’re running than many of their aforementioned counterparts.
Video games, as a creation, have more rules than probably any other medium, given how prescribed most aspects of them are. The method of consumption, inputs, outputs, distribution, language, etc. And before we can even play we may have to agree to an End User License Agreement for a product we conceptually own. So the ways we can even engage with a game are ruled. But the games themselves are what’s important for this discussion, both as something we play and something we create. For each action has its own rules.
Before we can play a game we have to create it. As mentioned just moments ago, the rules we have for that process based on platform, programming language, engine, budget, etc are all going to inform the potential rules we implement for the playing of the game.
Okay, okay, okay. That’s a lot of rules. We have rules, on rules, on rules. Whatever we’re doing whether it’s creating a game, telling a story, or playing a sport it’s within a set of defined rules. But this series is meant to focus on how the rules of storytelling can fit with the rules of gameplay.
Every game is unique, just as every story is unique. They may have shared aspects, that’d be the rules showing themselves, but each can still stand as its own creation. To develop games we ask for the best possible people. That’s programmers, artists, musicians, actors, and designers. All because we trust that they know what they’re doing and can do better than us. I’m going to leave internet trolls to one side, because for all their claims of being able to do better the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.
We trust all of those people to make games or other media, because they’ve put the time in to develop the skills of their particular field. But we don’t have the same respect for writers. Because we all think we can tell stories, because the bar to telling stories is so low. It just takes language. And we all have language of one sort or another.
Yet if we want better stories in games, and I for one do and not just because I want to write those stories, then we need to hire writers and other people who understand the rules of narrative and how they can apply to games.
As Marc Bernarndin says,
“The rules, especially when you’re working in genre are, not to say they’re verboten and sacrosanct and that you can’t break them, but you need to know what they are. And genre is great that way. Especially if you’re dealing in horror, especially if you’re dealing in science fiction. There’s certain parameters you have to establish to help an audience buy reality. And then you can decide to break one of them. You get one buy-in from an audience. ‘What’s our buy in this? Our buy is that the Hulk is the Hulk and gamma radiation which [does] exist doesn’t kill a guy. And instead turns him into a giant green monster.’ That is my buy. Everything else needs to come from that or be played entirely straight. Otherwise it just doesn’t really work.”
- Chew On This: A Nerds United Podcast, ep. #119
Right there with the establishment of the Hulk and how he came to be we have some rules established for us. But not all of them. Namely we have genre — science fiction. So will there be magic? Not at least in this first game, because we’re just being introduced to the Hulk and what he’s capable of.
Story-wise we have a couple of possibilities. We’re either going to tell the story of the Bruce Banner aka the Hulk as he attempts to either rid himself of his monstrous side. Alternatively, we could tell the story of how the world, or some entity, say SHIELD, in the world deals with the Hulk.
Both stories have a lot of potential. Both can be told at the same time. But you may not want to due to the time and budget constraints of your game. What’s going to help you decide this matter is the genre of game you’re going to make. So we’re already making a science-fiction game. That by no means excludes any genre of game. But for the Hulk let’s have two possibilities based upon the story potentials.
If we’re telling the personal story of Bruce Banner/the Hulk then we’re likely to want to play in either first or third person. As such you’re looking at making an action adventure game in the vein of Tomb Raider, Splinter Cell, Sunset Overdrive, etc. The first and third person perspectives allow a closer examination of Bruce Banner’s world and his effects on it. Whether it’s how his transformation into the Hulk impacts those he cares for. Or what it’s like to punch through concrete pillars.
On the other hand, the story of trying to contain the Hulk as SHIELD lends itself to the strategy genre. The Hulk is a force that can’t necessarily be stopped, but that can be guided. There’s a level of remove in strategy games. It doesn’t matter if they’re isometric or top-down, the world is abstracted to a greater degree and so the story being told is never going to be a personal one. All because the player is sitting at a distance from the action, and doesn’t have a direct avatar in the game.
But you can present some interesting choices, such as how to minimize collateral damage and protect civilians while trying to draw the Hulk’s attention to fight some invading force. You can examine what’s acceptable in warfare as a commander. Regardless of the choice of game genre, it’s going to affect the rules of the world. Which in turn is going to affect the story told.
This affectation is going to go back and forth, or should do so because it’s not going to merely provide justification for particular game mechanics, it’s going to help players understand the limits of the world they’re playing in. If we’re making the action adventure game about the Hulk then the story may resolve itself around how Bruce Banner comes to terms with his new found powers, but at the cost of his personal life.
The strategy game may end up focusing on how we create monsters, so while the game begins with us directing the Hulk to fight others it may end with us having to fight him directly as we can no longer control him. Either way we’re laying down a set of rules for both the game and the story as we make decisions like these about the genres, mechanics and more.
That’s why this series is examining those rules, and the ways you can break them. But more on that in future episodes.