The Power of Personal Narrative

The Power of Personal Narrative

Shivering Isles, an expansion to Bethesda's open-ended RPG Oblivion, released yesterday. Later this year, we're going to see Bioware's Mass Effect in stores and (of course), a little game called Grand Theft Auto IV. All three of these games share one powerful element in common, a key piece of the "Game 3.0" vision Sony's Phil Harrison mentioned in his GDC keynote: a personal narrative.

While all three titles have a story in which you can participate, the actual telling of that tale is more or less up to you. Mass Effect's tale of the return of the Geth is your primary motivation, but you'll be free to be as bad or good as you want to be within that limitation. You can explore as many planets as you want or blow through the main quest, assaulting it head-on. Likewise, the sandbox nature of the Grand Theft Auto series has long been its selling point; your only limitation is the police force.

This essential freedom central to many upcoming games is widely praised by players. In reality, though, is this freedom really all that great for gaming? Now that it has begun to take its place in popular culture, and attention is finally beginning to be paid to stories in games, will personal narratives help or harm gaming's path to media acceptance? Is a personal narrative within a game ultimately "better" than a canned story created by the designers? Those are big questions and can be broken down into a number of elements: validity, meaning, emotion and community.

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The primary element to consider, if we're looking at this from an outsider's perspective, is one of story validity. Is the tale you tell with your character in Grand Theft Auto a "real story" or just "your character doing a bunch of crap"? When compared to the staid prose and carefully-crafted CG of a Japanese RPG or the linear track of a first-person shooter, "I blew up a couple of cars and then had sex with a hooker" seems a bit infantile. If you get right down to it, is open-ended gaming just lazy design? "Here's a world; go run around and do some stuff" is easier to produce than a carefully crafted experience from beginning to end. Given the cost of modern game development, there's a lot to be said for cutting corners by leaving what ultimately happens up to the player.

That argument is flawed, though, because both Oblivion and Mass Effect would almost certainly have been easier (and cheaper) to produce if Bethesda and Bioware had focused on the core quest. The sheer number of options available to a player of these open-world RPGs requires significant resources to support. By trimming games down to a core story, developers can offer more for less. By focusing on the AI interactions in Half-Life 2: Episode One, for example, Valve gave the player a great deal of value despite the couple-hour long story. Quantity, as has often been said, is not necessarily superior to quality.

As related in a Kotaku post, Shadow of the Colossus was incorporated into the film Reign Over Me specifically because of its powerful story and imagery. So, certainly from a mass-market point of view, personal narratives are not as valid as pre-structured stories. While the overall experience of playing GTA is a powerful one, moment-to-moment activities will seem to be random or meaningless to the onlooker.

Therein lays the second element: the meaning of the story to the individual player. On this point, I'm going to take the opposing side: Personal narratives hold far more meaning for players than crafted tales. When I compare the story I've created by playing Oblivion to the tale of Marcus Feenix in Gears of War, or even the more fully-formed exploits of Sam Fischer, my own narrative wins hands-down. I care far more about my own exploits than the death of Sam's daughter or Marcus' shady past. I can't help it; I find my imaginary self more interesting than a fictional character.

Ownership is another component to this, and I think it's better to view this as a desire for ownership than selfishness. As much as you might come to like Marcus or Sam, you didn't create them. Your RPG character, and to some degree your GTA character, are very much who you want them to be. Grand Theft Auto is more of a stretch, of course; in San Andreas we all played as Carl Johnson. But, while every Marcus Feenix shoots Locust, perhaps your Carl Johnson had a hate-on for particular gang members. Or, perhaps your Carl may have only stolen motorcycles and made a point to shoot old ladies whenever he saw them. As invested as many gamers are in their alter egos, it's only natural that a personally-created avatar will hold the most meaning.

Certainly, this is most evident in massive games. I know some folks able to recite their online exploits with a deep and abiding passion, and that's very much drawn from a sense of being there. No space marine or super-spy could ever conjure feelings on that level. Isn't, at the end of the day, the gaming experience really all about what the player draws from the game?

Precisely what is drawn from games is emotion. Whether it's fear elicited by Resident Evil's zombies or laughter prompted by Sam and Max, emotion is what validates a tale and binds us to our characters. That emotion, cited so heavily by Peter Molyneux in his GDC 2007 demo, is the third element we should consider. The qualitative nature of emotion almost demands fence-sitting when it comes to a connection to personal narrative. What's a tear-jerking experience for one person may be seen as cynical manipulation by a jaded individual. But every good game elicits something out of everyone. They give us something to share with the people around us.

And this community element is the final piece of the puzzle. In my estimation, it's what pushes the power of personal narrative over the top. Players have much more to talk about in open-ended games. In a traditional FPS, players can commiserate over the challenge of defeating a difficult boss or offer pointers for multiplayer strategies. In an open-ended game, the very warp and weave of the game is open to discussion. The clever ways you used your character to defeat the challenge posed by the game world constitute stories of their own; certainly, a player with a magic-focused character in Oblivion will have a very different tale to tell than a player with a stealth-focused character.

This enhanced and extended feeling of community is the key to the power of personal narrative. Drawing together the emotion and meaning of your exploits within the game and then sharing that experience with the people around you is what makes games such a unique medium, whatever side of the narrative debate you're on. Ultimately, your narrative becomes part of the game, which is why gaming is the only true interactive experience.

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I disagree.

…well, not really. That's one way of seeing things, but I don't think that's how everybody will see it. At the very least, that's not me.

I don't think the technology is there yet, not for meaningful personal narratives. For the games where you create the characters yourself, it never feels like your character is important in the game world. For the games where the games gives you a character, well the character isn't you. It's not personal anymore.

Often when I play these open-ended games, I often get hit by an overwhelming sense of, well, boredom. I know in my mind that there's hundreds of different things I could do, but due to the lack of in-game goals when you're not doing something, everything seems meaningless. The games rarely interact with me unless I do something directly. I think that's a problem.

There are exceptions. I love Harvest Moon, for example. Things are always happening, even if you're not doing anything. You're given a goal, right from the start, and nearly everything you do builds toward that goal. Furthermore, the game constantly pushes you to do stuff.

In most of the open-ended games, the main character rarely feels too important. That is, any point when it does happen is usually just during a scripted sequence. Especially so in GTA, as you can't observe social impacts of your actions, and the impact of your failures are minimized. Nobody talks to your character about any of your achievements that's not story-based. Without any sort of feedback, the lack of any sort of narrative, personal or otherwise, seems absent. Only the scripted story matters.

I think Animal Crossing solves many of these issues. You're given a concrete main goal right from the beginning of the game(Nook's debt), as well as a bunch of others goals that you can complete as well(collecting fish, furniture, bugs, et cetera). Your neighbours responds to your actions, both in the short term and in the long term. Send a letter to them, they'll talk about about it. Don't visit in a while? They're take notice. In addition, each day becomes important because if you miss doing something one day, you can't go back(excepting time-travel).

Many of these elements come together to create an open-ended game while still giving direction for those who become lost in most games of the type. They also make your character seem more relevant and important. I hope that more developers could put more elements such as these in their open-ended games, but seeing the success of many of the recent ones, it's a little doubtful that they'll try to add them. It's rather unfortunate, as I do want to enjoy these games more.

In any case, it looks like this post just goes everywhere. Starting with the tech isn't here to saying that it's already been done. Still haven't addressed the topic yet either. I think that's it for now though.

If there's one thing I know about storytelling, it's what plot is. An emotionally compelling storyline might also be called a plot. A plot is not the same as narrative. A narrative is a sequence of connected events. A plot is more than this. A plot has deliberate structure (however well-hidden or deconstructivist), it has something resonant (you might call this component "art"), it's frequently enhanced by literary techniques, and in general it's complete and satisfying unto itself (given familiarity with the setting).

Free-form games are amazing at producing narratives of outstanding variety. In the absence of a computer that knows how to both A) write a story and B) tell a story, any plot must come either from the developers (which will either demand a ludicrous amount of content, or sacrifice open-endedness) or from the player (which requires creativity, initiative, and various other mindsets that people usually don't bring with them into video games).

Let's assemble an expert system that can position a camera like Alfred Hitchcock. Let's make an AI that can construct sentences contextually from a phrase bank and speak them with appropriate inflection. Let's program a weather system that predicts the character's mood and accentuates his actions with rain and snow and sunshine and dramatic thunderclaps. We've been attempting at things like this for ten years, but always within the framework of a game that is both A) linear and B) so excellent in other ways that these little innovations go unnoticed.

Bongo, I'm a little confused. Are you suggesting that the article was writen based on misinformation regarding the term "narrative", or simply adding some extra info? Definately some interesting points, I just wasn't sure why you were making them.

However, I have to disagree that people don't bring creativity into games. I think MMO gaming is built on the idea that players will bring their personal creativity into the arena. At the very least, RP servers for MMO games are shooting for that. I think that what often kills a player's desire to be creative is the software's inability to recognize it. The medium is interactive, and so when we play games we expect a reaction. Without the reaction it is hard to justify doing something in a game. I don't see it as a problem with players being creative, but rather the medium doesn't "work" with creativity in a way that satisfies someone that plays games.

I was just ranting.

Oh, well, good stuff.

I remember Warren Spector talking about this (in terms of how to give Player 1 freedom in a narrative game) in a recent issue of Game Developer magazine. He talked about the compromises games have to make if you want to make a game that both conveys a story and gives the player freedom/choice. The more freedom you give players, the more content you have to produce in order to accommodate those freedoms, and the less solid your game's main story becomes. His compromise (and when he mentioned it, it struck me how many games use this) is instead of structuring a narrative game like a vast sandbox or a large branching tree of separate paths/choices, is to instead present the player with small sandboxes and small choices while keeping the overarching story in place and on track. This is obvious in Warren's games like Deus Ex 2, which is as he described (IIRC) a chain of small sandboxes like pearls on a necklace (or something like that).

Similarly you can look at Oblivion and see it structured as a bunch of small sandboxes (or independent chains of sandboxes) scattered throughout the game world. This chained mini-sandbox structure keeps the game (and story and production) from branching out ridiculously. I don't know if I'd even want to play a game that branches out too far, because you'd have to save at every critical choice and try out every path if you want to play the "entire" game -- much like how I wrote down critical page numbers when I wanted to read a whole Choose Your Own Adventure book back in the day.

I agree that the "ultimate" freeform choose-your-own-adventure gaming experience can only take place on something like a hardcore roleplaying server. I mean by the time you've made "an AI that can construct sentences contextually from a phrase bank and speak them with appropriate inflection", you've probably made a vague simulation of one, or at best a lame one.

As much fun as I've had on RP servers and the like, I think there's still some strength in being told a story. Not your own wacky sandbox story where you "blew up a couple of cars and then had sex with a hooker", but a genuine story that comes from the game designers/writers/artists themselves. Spector's affinity for the mini-sandbox method stems from his desire to retain his ability to communicate his story to the player, while still allowing the player to contribute to it to some degree. I don't really see that as being inferior to a more vast, sandboxy game. As everyone has said, when it becomes too open-ended, the "story" of Player One tends to becomes too trivial and inane.

I think the player, in some games, (and I realize this is a controversial idea) should lose all control of saving. I envision something like how saving works in MMOs and persistent worlds. It doesn't matter what’s going on, you don't have to save.

Why do I suggest something so crazy? Well, I'd like it if my decisions had some finality to them. If I can just reload a save then what's the point? I don't have any weight to make a proper decision. I like my decisions to matter within a game, and I think the ability to undo "mistakes" ruins that.

Blaxton: there was a nice Escapist article that said exactly that -- http://www.escapistmagazine.com/issue/84/8

Yeah, I remember reading that. What I had more in mind was a system where characters do die and the player can't do anything about it. I'm not saying "rethink saving" I'm saying remove it all together. I think that RPGs need to be more about decisions and less about combat. If I get my comrade killed he should be dead. Their role, as far as moving the party along is concerned, is gone.

The technology is, perhaps, not up to the challenge of making a story that is fluid enough to make those characters engaging and to make the "any-time" death scenes memorable and contextual. That probably has more to do with pushing for better graphics instead of devoting CPU bandwidth to AI elements.

Also developers seem to think that story is an after-thought facet for a game. I was reading an interview with someone from Epic, and he said, straight out, that gamers don't much care about the story. He claimed that gamers just want good gameplay mechanics. I think his thoughts are a byproduct of a media that is yet to contain good standard elements. The way that we interact with our medium is so quick to change. We require a new mastery of a control scheme every generation. This can be seen most notably in the Wii, but also less obviously in the "skill stick" (http://www.escapistmagazine.com/issue/78/18). The user has to keep up with new interfacing methods. With this reality, the user requires better play mechanics because play mechanics can be so different from one game to another. A good game and a bad game can be sighted easily buy how 'intuitive' the control scheme is. A bad control scheme just won't be any fun. So, it follows that if games play in a similar way, users will be less concerned with the game-play and more concerned with the story. When that situation is apparent, stories will take the seat they deserve.

When that happens, I believe we will see more innovations in game saves and death sequences. Personal narratives will matter, and they will matter in linear RPGs as well as Sandbox games.

 

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