When Story Gets in the Way

When Story Gets in the Way

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While reading through the June issue of Edge, I ran into the write up on LucasArts' new title, Fracture. They're approaching gameplay and story, hoping to closely integrate the two into the game's technology, which stands apart from the standard mega-hyper-teraflop fare by allowing players to modify the world's terrain. One particular gun creates a huge mound in the dirt, and while another collapses/tunnels into the earth. The result is going to be a puzzle/shooter mix that sounds pretty fun, assuming you believe a preview as far as you can throw it.

The story behind the game reads like LucasArts really put some thought into it. Here's the gist:

Set on Earth in 2161, Fracture portrays the outbreak of war in the U.S. between the east and west coasts, and their respective allies, over the use of technology. The Atlantic Alliance of eastern America and Europe outlaws the genetic engineering beloved of the west coast and Asia, and conflict flares between their respectively cybernetically and genetically-enhanced troops.

"Cool," I think to myself. "I can't wait to play as a -"

The game's hero, Mason Briggs, is a demolition expert on the Atlantic Alliance side, whose adventure begins at the war's flashpoint: San Francisco.

Oh.

As fun as the game sounds, I'm going to have a really hard time taking on the role of an anti-genetics reactionary allied with Old World thinking. In my view, the exploration of science and technology is more than just a business pursuit. It's part of what makes humanity worth keeping around; banning the development of a technology because of some hide-bound techno-fear strikes against pretty much everything I believe in.

As games move into ever weightier subjects, I worry this is going to be a problem more often. I don't imagine many atheists played the Christian fiction-inspired Left Behind: Eternal Forces.

Area 51: BlackSite is a large metaphor for the war in Iraq. Staunch supporters of the current Executive Branch may work their way through the game, only to find the story more and more disagreeable as time goes on.

I think it's extremely laudable that developers are willing to take on issues like religion, politics and science. Where I take issue, though, is central to the medium: choice. In a movie or a book, we need to rely on the content to provide us with multiple viewpoints. If a film wants to ram a single interpretation down our throats, our only real alternative is leaving the room.

Games, on the other hand, are all about choice. As game makers tread on sacred cows, it's even more important to offer choice to the player. BlackSite hasn't released yet, but wouldn't it be a nice change of pace to decide the "good" path is for pansies? You eventually begin working against the government in some capacity; wouldn't that choice be much more meaningful if you had the option to continue pulling down your U.S. military paycheck?

Which brings us back to Fracture and the gene modders of the West Coast. If I'm going to play in a far-future wracked by war, I'd like the chance to decide which philosophical outlook I'm supporting. By offering players only one side of an issue to support, players can't really explore or enjoy what it is they believe. Giving players a chance to look at issues from multiple viewpoints only accentuates what games can be, and why they deserve respect in the mainstream. But until more games do offer choices beyond dialogue options, we'll still be a hobby of open doors and closed minds.

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Michael Zenke:
As fun as the game sounds, I'm going to have a really hard time taking on the role of an anti-genetics reactionary allied with Old World thinking. In my view, the exploration of science and technology is more than just a business pursuit. It's part of what makes humanity worth keeping around; banning the development of a technology because of some hide-bound techno-fear strikes against pretty much everything I believe in.

I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the East Coast as reactionaries--in the link you provided, it seems the West Coast (wait, is this really from Lucas Arts? East coast vs. West coast? Shouldn't this be a Rockstar game?) bio-engineered themselves into infertility.

Also, I wouldn't be so quick to call the East Coast anti-technology--it doesn't seem like the set up is pro- vs. anti- technology & science forces: it's more cybernetics vs. genetics. I wouldn't call it 'hide-bound' to fear "Genetically Engineered Humans (GEHs)...littered with a bunch of nasty problems: cancers, disabilities, and deformities" and decide that cybernetics is the answer instead. I just don't think being forced to root for cybernetics as the future of humanity is comparable to rooting for Christianity as the One True Faith. This sounds more like a game based on _Dune_ where you play the Ixians and have to fight the Bene Tleilax.

HOWEVER: I agree 100% with you that as the 'ideology' of the universe of a game world becomes more and more relevant, game designers should look less and less to shove on us who is the hero and who are the villains.

I'm having a bit of a hard time with this one. Why are games "all about choice," moreso than books or movies? Games may offer a level of interactivity that other media can't match, but in many cases - I'd venture to say most cases, really - it's still a matter of telling a story. The story of Gordon Freeman, the story of Max Payne, the story of Garrett, the story of the Nerevarine: you may have some say in how things go down, but ultimately you as the gamer are playing the role of a character in a script. A few notable exceptions do give you a slight degree of control over how things wind up (thinking Deus Ex or STALKER here), but by and large I think games are still very much a storytelling medium.

Tough call on this one.

I agree that having the choice to play on either side is good (regardless which one is supposed to be good or bad), but I also agree that if the game creators want to tell a story about a particular character or group within a setting, they should be allowed to.

To be honest, I'd prefer that developers made sure they got one storyline right than spent time making two storylines, so that you can choose which side you want to be on. Especially in an FPS where the story is often just a means to get to the shooting. RPG's are a different story.

Then you have the RTS model to consider, where playing all sides is generally a given and many developers will tell one singular cohesive story, but let you play as everyone at various points. There is certainly a lot of merit in doing things this way, even in other genres than RTS.

What I don't want to see happen is more of the transformers DS model where the autobots and decepticons are put into completely seperate titles, each with there own RRP.

Malygris:
I'm having a bit of a hard time with this one. Why are games "all about choice," moreso than books or movies?
...
you may have some say in how things go down, but ultimately you as the gamer are playing the role of a character in a script.

I feel differently--when I'm playing a game, I don't feel like I'm playing a character, I feel I'm myself. I don't really role-play as Max Payne while playing _Max Payne_. Instead I think of him as a main character, and of the action scenes as a game, not an improvisational dramatic performance. I've never acted, but I'm sure I don't 'inhabit' the persona of the character anywhere near as much as an actor does when playing the part of a character. I'm still playing a game--the fact that I play as a particular character is still closer to the experience of controlling a white line in _Pong_ than it is to being up on a stage. Or maybe: it feels more like when I play Col. Mustard in _Clue_ than I imagine it would if I played a character in a LARP.

Goofonian:
Tough call on this one.

I agree that having the choice to play on either side is good (regardless which one is supposed to be good or bad), but I also agree that if the game creators want to tell a story about a particular character or group within a setting, they should be allowed to.

I don't think it's so much about 'game creators shouldn't be able to tell the story they want'. I think it's more about 'game creators should realize they might not wind up telling the story they set out to tell because that story involves value choices, and they haven't taken into consideration the ideological differences in their audience'.

Kinda like when I went to see _Starship Troopers_ and the humans turned out to be so annoying and lacking in any redeeming qualities, I started rooting for the bugs, you know?

I see your point, but I ain't going for it. It seems to me that we're coming up against fairly fundamental differences of opinion in what the medium does, or should, provide. I want a storyo; you want a Make Your Own Adventure. I don't "inhabit" the person of a character the way an actor would, either - to go back to the example of Max Payne, I don't play the game feeling that * I'M MAX PAYNE *, but rather that I'm experiencing Max's story through his eyes, a significant part of which are his value choices. I don't want to make his choices, I want to experience the choices he makes. I also tend to believe that structured storytelling within a game is absolutely necessary to maximize the dramatic impact of pivotal moments: a key supporting character's death, for example, or a sudden betrayal. If the story doesn't lead you to that point on a fairly precise path, it's not going to be nearly as effective.

Which of course leads to what I think is the real problem here: the lack of quality writing in so many games. Let's face it, most game scripting is pretty half-assed. Aside from a painfully-few shining examples, the vast majority of in-game stories range from woefully inadequate to paper-thin excuses to blow shit up, with occasional breaks for willful stupidity. If the writing in games were to improve substantially, I think you, Michael, and a lot of others would find far greater satisfaction in following someone else's story.

Malygris:
I want a storyo; you want a Make Your Own Adventure.

No--I'd say I want a game with a good story.

I don't "inhabit" the person of a character the way an actor would, either - to go back to the example of Max Payne, I don't play the game feeling that * I'M MAX PAYNE *, but rather that I'm experiencing Max's story through his eyes, a significant part of which are his value choices. I don't want to make his choices, I want to experience the choices he makes.

Sure, but some people don't want to experience certain value choices in a game where they play a hero, because to them, those are value choices only a villain would make.

That doesn't mean people don't want to play a villain, or in the case of _Max Payne_, a Han Solo-type anti-hero. It's just that they don't want to play what they think is a villain and encounter a 'heroic' story. It is not one of my value choices to sacrifice people to the Greek Gods with fire. However, when I play Kratos, he's an Ancient Greek and a pretty bad dude, so, that part of the storyline was *awesome*: _God of War_'s story line never asked me to think of Kratos as some kind of white knight character--in fact, during that part there was a text-over designed *precisely* to make me realize what a bad dude Kratos was, and how different the ethical universe of the game world is from my real-life ethical universe.

Which of course leads to what I think is the real problem here: the lack of quality writing in so many games. Let's face it, most game scripting is pretty half-assed. Aside from a painfully-few shining examples, the vast majority of in-game stories range from woefully inadequate to paper-thin excuses to blow shit up, with occasional breaks for willful stupidity. If the writing in games were to improve substantially, I think you, Michael, and a lot of others would find far greater satisfaction in following someone else's story.

I think you've misunderstood at least me: it's not that I don't find satisfaction in following a story. It's that telling me someone is supposed to be a hero and then they make a value choice that I don't think any hero would ever make is *bad* storytelling. I enjoy storytelling when it's *good*. And if the storyline tells me a certain character is a good guy, and then he makes a value choice that I think only a bad guy would make, well, that's bad storytelling.

I don't think Michael Zenke's point--and certainly not my point--was to put down storytelling. In fact, it was the exact opposite: it was to criticize *bad* storytelling. It was to point out that writing a story where one plays a hero means the value choices that character makes must be 'heroic' to the audience. It's the point that it's 'half-assed scripting' to write a story that takes a particular viewpoint on an embattled ideological issue in one's culture and not at least acknowledge the fact that there is a controversy.

I'm perfectly capable of enjoying a game where I have to engage in a bit of cultural relativism. However, if I have to do so, then it's the author's job to make sure I don't feel like the character is supposed to represent *me* or some kind of objectively correct viewpoint.

If the "dramatic impact of pivotal moments" in "structured storytelling within a game" lead me to root *against* the characters the author wanted me to root *for* well, isn't that *bad* storytelling?

Like I said: if you write a story where I'm supposed to root for the humans and I wind up liking the bugs more, that's a bad story. I'm fine playing a Nazi, but, it better not feel like something out of the _Call of Duty_ series, you know?

When I read what Michael Zenke wrote, I see a person excited *specifically* about the story line of the game _Fracture_. Until the point where it turns into a badly-written story line. I don't think it means a person doesn't get satisfaction out of a story in a game if they don't like *bad* storylines, right?

My guess is that he meant 'choice' is a tool by which a game author can engage controversial issues where you play as a hero character, and still write a storyline that doesn't depend on you sharing the same ideological beliefs as the author for its quality. So you don't feel that 'In LucasArts world, game plays YOU!'

Found these links on 4 Color Rebellion...

http://www.alteraction.com/

http://alteraction.com/discussion/

I suppose that much like great films, it will be up to the player to interpretate the messages.
Having a solid story, but without taking the player by the hand, and offering alternative viewpoints regarding his actions, would make for a smarter experience, and ultimately, one that could be accepted by most.
You can play the bad, but as long as doing so raises questions, or as long as you understand the drama that fuels the fate that unfolds, I think (back)stories can get even more engaged than now.
I think that a more mature medium would actually aim at more intelligent ambiguity.
Of course, it is possible that the author would restrain the ambiguity within certain boundaries which may not strike a cord to everybody. But at least, like films, you would be clearfully offered the possibility to come with your own interpretation of the events.

As long as the story is good, really, and doesn't pretend to school you, that is.

Remain open minded. What do we know about the real story of Fracture? Maybe you're playing one side, just to actually better understand the opposite dogma, and actually think both ways, and pass on your own judgement.

Well, of course, what are the chances, nowadays, that Fracture's story could offer this form of reflexion?

Arbre:
I suppose that much like great films, it will be up to the player to interpretate the messages.

Not all great films leave it up to the viewer to interpret the message. I wouldn't call a film--how ever great it may be regarded--like _Alexander Nevsky_ or even _The Birth of a Nation_ open to interpretation. That's not to say that there aren't a lot of great films where there's plenty of moral viewpoint ambiguity, but, even great films sometimes leave little to no room for the viewer to come up with their own interpretation.

You'll always find oddballs to defy rules, that's a given, like TBoaN being a great product for its techniques, not its message, much like if you'd find a ground breaking next-gen engine supporting an anti-jews game, but globally it should be accurate enough.

Arbre:
You'll always find oddballs to defy rules, that's a given, like TBoaN being a great product for its techniques, not its message, much like if you'd find a ground breaking next-gen engine supporting an anti-jews game, but globally it should be accurate enough.

But aren't most games a lot more like _Alexander Nevsky_ or _The Birth of a Nation_ than they are like the kind of movies where you are free to make up your own mind about value choices? I mean, video games get compared to film a lot, but, really: wouldn't 99% of video games with a story be action movies if that story were turned into a film?

And in the action genre, how many of those films give the viewer value choice? Even though themes of motherhood and the Vietnam War are explored in _Aliens_ still, the aliens are the bad guys and the humans are the good guys, even if some of the humans are evil or incompetent or cowardly. I mean, when Ripley says "You know Burke, I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them f*cking each other over for a goddamn percentage!" we're not supposed to take that seriously--it's rhetorical.

I'd say it's the opposite--I'd say it's the action movie that gives the viewer a value choice that's the odd-ball. And I'd say that most great story games fall in the action genre, so, that's what they should be compared with.

Or even if you don't buy my argument that most great story games are part of the action genre, if you were to compare it to as well-made and complex a movie as _Pan's Labyrinth_ still--the girl is the hero, and the Socialists are the good guys and the Fascists are the bad guys. I wouldn't call that movie an 'oddball' as I'd say that's the kind of movies other movies want to be when they grow up. And in that movie, there's no way to say that we are "clearfully offered the possibility to come with your own interpretation of the events" when it comes to the value choices the characters make, right?

But aren't most games a lot more like _Alexander Nevsky_ or _The Birth of a Nation_ than they are like the kind of movies where you are free to make up your own mind about value choices? I mean, video games get compared to film a lot, but, really: wouldn't 99% of video games with a story be action movies if that story were turned into a film?

Exactly. Hence my use of future tense.

And we're not even guaranteed that they'll make good action films either! :P

The rest of your post is correct, but as I said, I was talking about future games, not what we have right now. That is particularily why I'm not convinced that Fracture could offer anything refreshing in this domain. But who knows? It's a LA game, there may always be something underneath the rock.

I won't comment on Pan's Labyrinth, I haven't seen it. Where you think there could be only one way to see the film, someone else might have a slightly different interpretation.

Michael Zenke:
Games, on the other hand, are all about choice. As game makers tread on sacred cows, it's even more important to offer choice to the player.

Interesting ideal. But I have a question about that: in an environment where the game's designers set up the physics, politics, economics and even the spiritual and metaphysical rules, is it possible to escape their biasses?

It's one thing to allow the player of a wargame to choose diplomacy over slaughter, but does the game then have to allow diplomacy to work when it is chosen? I assume it must, or the "choice" doesn't amount to much.

But then developers have an additional motivation to limit choice. If I write a wargame where bombing civilian targets is a viable choice, I wouldn't be comfortable portraying that as a "winning" choice and glorifing it in order to keep the violent racist subsection of my playerbase happy.

I'd much rather write a game incorporating an overt bias (often, but not necessarily my own) and let the audience decide what they think of that.

Cheeze_Pavilion:

Malygris:

Which of course leads to what I think is the real problem here: the lack of quality writing in so many games. Let's face it, most game scripting is pretty half-assed. Aside from a painfully-few shining examples, the vast majority of in-game stories range from woefully inadequate to paper-thin excuses to blow shit up, with occasional breaks for willful stupidity. If the writing in games were to improve substantially, I think you, Michael, and a lot of others would find far greater satisfaction in following someone else's story.

I think you've misunderstood at least me: it's not that I don't find satisfaction in following a story. It's that telling me someone is supposed to be a hero and then they make a value choice that I don't think any hero would ever make is *bad* storytelling. I enjoy storytelling when it's *good*. And if the storyline tells me a certain character is a good guy, and then he makes a value choice that I think only a bad guy would make, well, that's bad storytelling.

Cheeze_Pavilion:

When I read what Michael Zenke wrote, I see a person excited *specifically* about the story line of the game _Fracture_. Until the point where it turns into a badly-written story line. I don't think it means a person doesn't get satisfaction out of a story in a game if they don't like *bad* storylines, right?

I'm not sure where that's coming from either, since as I read it his information was coming from a magazine write-up, not the game itself, which I'd say makes judging the quality of the story a bit of a dicey proposition. Further, the way he specifies "choice" in the example of BlackSite as offering the player the chance to work against the government while remaining a part of the U.S. military seems to mean he's talking about actual variations in gameplay options, not just engaging controversial issues without upsetting the player.

But I still suspect we're coming from pretty much the same place: quality writing = quality story = quality game, with the opposite being equally true. I want to experience the story as the author wants to tell it, through the eyes of the characters he creates: my own personal value judgements within the context of the game are more or less irrelevant. But that means it needs to be a damn good story to really work, and that, unfortunately, it still a rarity.

Cheeze_Pavilion:
And in the action genre, how many of those films give the viewer value choice? Even though themes of motherhood and the Vietnam War are explored in _Aliens_ still, the aliens are the bad guys and the humans are the good guys, even if some of the humans are evil or incompetent or cowardly. I mean, when Ripley says "You know Burke, I don't know which species is worse. You don't see them f*cking each other over for a goddamn percentage!" we're not supposed to take that seriously--it's rhetorical.

It's rhetorical but I think we are supposed to take it seriously. The Alien movies are all about corporate commercialism. Here's another example: Starship Troopers. Sure, we're not expected to empathise with the aliens (although it's clear to any thinking person that their territory is being invaded), but we aren't supposed to root for the humans either. In Starship Troopers we have no main human character who is untainted by the fascist worldview - they're all good little nazis, but in Alien Ripley represents ourselves thrust into the capitalist dystopia that the writer and director presents.

As for choice in games, I agree that it's important. But while I think games which don't propagandize the enemy make for a good story and a deeper play experience, I don't really think choosing sides has to be based on vagaries about which side is right and which is wrong - in other words I don't think the player always wants to be taking sides based on his personal ideology. After all, KotOR gave us the choice to play good or evil and many players chose evil. Sometimes it's good to play against one's own ideology. Similarly, in a game based on the Alien movies it would be nice to have the choice to play as an alien - after all, who wouldn't want acid for blood?

But when it comes to choice it's an easy decision when the game doesn't relate to ongoing world problems. For example it's much easier to find games that allow the player to play for the evil Star Wars Empire than it is to find a game a game based on the Iraq war that allows the player to play as a member of Al Qaida. To me it's a shame that we don't get the option to explore the worldview of the folks our military is fighting, but I'm probably in a very small minority on that issue. Most folks are heavily propagandized to the point where they can't see that you have to understand your enemy in order to more effectively fight him.

Arbre:
The rest of your post is correct, but as I said, I was talking about future games, not what we have right now.

And...how exactly will we make good story games that aren't action games in the future? My guess is that the percentage will still remain high. For something to be a 'game' we have to be doing something. I'd never thought of it to this degree before this thread, but, really: won't most good story games wind up being action, or at least puzzle games because they have to be on some level a *game*? I mean, how many good games aren't about action or at least puzzle solving? From chess to poker to _Clue_, games are inherently about taking action. The more action, the better the game. So why isn't that going to turn out to be true of video games as well?

Arbre:
I won't comment on Pan's Labyrinth, I haven't seen it. Where you think there could be only one way to see the film, someone else might have a slightly different interpretation.

Ahh, no, trust me: good and evil are the Socialists and the Fascists, and there's no room for interpretation, much like in fairy tales.

I guess I'm asking you for a great film where there is value choice that would make a good game, you know? I can't think of many--even with as much action as it has, something like _Apocalypse Now_ wouldn't make a great game.

Malygris:
I'm not sure where that's coming from either, since as I read it his information was coming from a magazine write-up, not the game itself, which I'd say makes judging the quality of the story a bit of a dicey proposition.

I think you've missed my, and I think the author's point. It's not dicey to judge the quality of a story if I know already that I'm not going to identify with the hero and I'm supposed to. I mean, all I need to know about the story of a game like _Ethnic Cleansing_ is that I'm supposed to take it seriously to know that it's going to be a bad story, right?

Malygris:
Further, the way he specifies "choice" in the example of BlackSite as offering the player the chance to work against the government while remaining a part of the U.S. military seems to mean he's talking about actual variations in gameplay options, not just engaging controversial issues without upsetting the player.

I think the point is that choice is a way of engaging controversial issues without upsetting the player.

Beery:
It's rhetorical but I think we are supposed to take it seriously. The Alien movies are all about corporate commercialism. Here's another example: Starship Troopers. Sure, we're not expected to empathise with the aliens...

That was my point: even though "some of the humans are evil or incompetent or cowardly" we're still not supposed to take it seriously as a reason to root against the humans. Sure we're supposed to take is seriously as a critique of human society, but, I don't think it was intended that the answer to human problems is to become more like the Aliens. And in the movie version of ST I actually *DID* start to emphasize with the aliens because the humans were not only fascists, but annoying. See comment 5 :-D

Beery:
After all, KotOR gave us the choice to play good or evil and many players chose evil. Sometimes it's good to play against one's own ideology.

See, though, the ideology in the Star Wars universe can't be compared to what looks to be the ideologies in the _Fracture_ universe, or especially the _Left Behind_ universe. I haven't played the game, but based on watching the Star Wars movies, I'm guessing the value choices are much less controversial than say the game taking a stand on the value of genetic engineering, or what is the one true faith. The more concrete the ideology, the more the value choices are a feature of our current lives, the less wiggle room the author has--that seems to be how it is.

I never said people don't want to play the villain; I said: people don't want to play what they think is the villain and find out it's the hero. I'm guessing in KotOR that if you go over to the dark side, the tone of the game changes? That the music is different, and they start talking less about being heroic and more about acquiring unlimited power?

@Cheeze Pavilion: As much as I agree with you about your interpretation of Pan's Labyrinth, I think that you're not leaving enough wiggle room for other people to have different opinions. The Fascists were just trying to bring order to the unruly members of the village! They even provided food, and medicine! Its not their fault the Socialist rebels were trying to kill them, and it all ended so badly. They just wanted everyone to get along...

See, as insane as that sounds, I find that there's probably someone out there who felt that way about it. Validly enough, its obvious to anyone who the director intended the heroes and villains to be, but give people credit for their ability to believe otherwise.

Also, fairy tales have plenty of room to interpret, it just depends on your POV.

Geoffrey42:
See, as insane as that sounds, I find that there's probably someone out there who felt that way about it.

I in no way mean for my statements about people to encompass the experiences of people who are either insane or have ideas which can be characterized as such. Nor do I think authors need take such people or opinions into consideration when crafting a story.

One could also look at the Star Wars universe and root for the Empire because one thinks the Rebels are 'scum' but, well, I think it's safe to say there wasn't much wiggle room to conclude that the destruction of the Death Star was an example of gentrification ;-D

Geoffrey42:
Also, fairy tales have plenty of room to interpret, it just depends on your POV.

Plenty of room to interpret: yes, of course: fairy tales are amazingly deep wells for meaning. To interpret the value choice of who is the villain and who is the hero? I...can't think of any off the top of my head, and I can think of a whole mess where it's pretty clear who turn out to be the bad guys in the end and who are the good guys in the end, especially if we're talking about the two main characters. Is your ratio any different than mine?

Cheeze_Pavilion:
I think you've missed my, and I think the author's point. It's not dicey to judge the quality of a story if I know already that I'm not going to identify with the hero and I'm supposed to. I mean, all I need to know about the story of a game like _Ethnic Cleansing_ is that I'm supposed to take it seriously to know that it's going to be a bad story, right?

But isn't that a rather presumptuous position to take, that you know all you need to know based on a thin pre-release plot synopsis? "Judging a book by its cover," and all that?

"Choice" is a nice word with pleasant connotations that has little to do with quality storytelling. Besides, do you really think that if Fracture let Michael choose which side of the conflict he wanted to fight for, he wouldn't play through both anyway?

@Cheeze _Pavilion:
"As insane as that sounds" does not immediately mean "As insane as that is". Just because you characterize how someone else feels as insane, does not necessarily make it so. I was implying that a POV as I described might SEEM insane to us, while it is, in fact, perfectly sane to the person who has it.

I appear to have caught you in defensive mode, as you're really missing my point. I'm not talking about what the author intends us to perceive; I'm talking about what the audience actually perceives. Let's assume, for a moment, that "fairy tales" are written from the perspective of the victors. They vilify the so-called "villains" to make their own questionable acts seem better. I've read some pretty compelling re-imaginings of a variety of fairy tales which paint the picture in the opposite light, without contradicting any major plot points. Same story, different perspective, question of who is the hero becomes fuzzier. Just because the story is written one way, and biased towards one side, does not mean that everyone (or even a majority) who experiences/reads it will receive it the way the author intended it. I would imagine that most of us can read Mein Kampf, and not sympathize with the author's point of view. I don't see why it's so hard to imagine a fictional story being equally multi-faceted, regardless of the author's bias.

In the end, all of what I'm saying is essentially IN SUPPORT of the rest of your argument in this post. When the POV being espoused by the author/writer/heroes of the story is contradictory to your own morality, and they don't distinguish that the game is operating under a different morality than yours, it becomes disconcerting. As a wolf, I might find it offensive to play a Little Red Riding Hood game which glorified the wolf's death at the end. It comes down to knowing your audience well enough to define the morality where necessary, to provide choice when the issue will be divisive, and in general just be aware of how what you're writing will affect your target player.

@Malygris:
To the question of whether Michael would play both if given the choice, please allow me to offer my own personal experience to the anecdotal pile. Having played several games with Good.V.Evil choice systems, I have always stayed Neutral/Good. For me, playing the Evil is just not fun. If, in the hypothetical-Fracture-which-may-or-may-not-be-offensive, they were to set up the West Coast genetic engineering faction in such a way that I really, truly didn't agree, I might choose not to play both campaigns. Maybe its just me. But, I exist, as an exception to your perception that everyone plays it all anyway. My loss, sure, but that's fine by me.

Geoffrey42:
@Cheeze _Pavilion:
"As insane as that sounds" does not immediately mean "As insane as that is". Just because you characterize how someone else feels as insane, does not necessarily make it so. I was implying that a POV as I described might SEEM insane to us, while it is, in fact, perfectly sane to the person who has it.

Yeah, but if sanity is just a POV, then the word insanity has no meaning. There's a difference between two conflicting POVs each supported by valid reasons, and a POV that has no valid support. "The Fascists were just trying to bring order to the unruly members of the village! They even provided food, and medicine!" is a POV without a whole lot of valid support as an explanation of _Pan's Labrynth_, right?

It's not just that I'm characterizing a POV as being insane; it's that my characterization of it as insane is based on the fact that the person holding it can't support it.

I appear to have caught you in defensive mode, as you're really missing my point. I'm not talking about what the author intends us to perceive; I'm talking about what the audience actually perceives.

No no, I get your point--you've just caught me in pedantic mode, because I see people get this confused all the time, like the difference between cultural and moral relativism :-D

I'm saying that just because a member of the audience actually perceives something the author didn't intend, that doesn't mean the same thing in every case. Like I said before, you can't equate the difference between a POV that differs from another person with valid supports for her POV, and someone with no support for her POV at all.

I've read some pretty compelling re-imaginings of a variety of fairy tales which paint the picture in the opposite light, without contradicting any major plot points.

Yeah, but, they still probably added a lot of backstory or contradicted a lot of the implied moral universe of the original fairy tale, right? They didn't just flip the language of the original work to spin the other way?

Just because the story is written one way, and biased towards one side, does not mean that everyone (or even a majority) who experiences/reads it will receive it the way the author intended it.

I'm not just talking about bias towards one side; I'm talking about alternate value choices. There's a big difference between the two, don't you think?

I would imagine that most of us can read Mein Kampf, and not sympathize with the author's point of view. I don't see why it's so hard to imagine a fictional story being equally multi-faceted, regardless of the author's bias.

I'm not saying it's "hard to imagine a fictional story being equally multi-faceted." I'm saying it wouldn't make a very good game. _The Killer Inside Me_ or _In Cold Blood_ are great books, but, would they make great games if you played the murderers and heroic music played when you started cutting people up? Like I said before in comment 5: "I'm perfectly capable of enjoying a game where I have to engage in a bit of cultural relativism. However, if I have to do so, then it's the author's job to make sure I don't feel like the character is supposed to represent *me* or some kind of objectively correct viewpoint."

In the end, all of what I'm saying is essentially IN SUPPORT of the rest of your argument in this post. When the POV being espoused by the author/writer/heroes of the story is contradictory to your own morality, and they don't distinguish that the game is operating under a different morality than yours, it becomes disconcerting. As a wolf, I might find it offensive to play a Little Red Riding Hood game which glorified the wolf's death at the end. It comes down to knowing your audience well enough to define the morality where necessary, to provide choice when the issue will be divisive, and in general just be aware of how what you're writing will affect your target player.

Oh yeah, I agree with you about all that, and think we pretty much mean the same thing. Just...I think there's a big difference between an author who doesn't consider that wolves are in the audience, and an author who doesn't consider that non-fundamentalist evangelical Protestant Christians are in the audience, you know? You seem to be collapsing the distinction between two differing but valid POVs, and a POV that's just off the wall. And the difference between saying that someone's POV is 'insane' and that 'they can't possibly hold that POV and must be lying to me'.

You do realize that there's a big difference me characterizing someone's POV as 'wrong', 'insane', and 'dishonest', right?

Like you said, we only seem to have a minor quibble, but, you are the one who brought it up, so. :-D

And...how exactly will we make good story games that aren't action games in the future? My guess is that the percentage will still remain high. For something to be a 'game' we have to be doing something. I'd never thought of it to this degree before this thread, but, really: won't most good story games wind up being action, or at least puzzle games because they have to be on some level a *game*? I mean, how many good games aren't about action or at least puzzle solving? From chess to poker to _Clue_, games are inherently about taking action. The more action, the better the game. So why isn't that going to turn out to be true of video games as well?

Action doesn't preclude a multifaceted story, underlying messages, or whatever else.
It's just that for the moment, it's all about action, and the plot, the universe, the meaning of this or that remains rather superficial.

The likes of Metal Gear Solid 3, Deux Ex, Nomad Soul, Indigo Prophecy, all have good ideas which could make the player think more about the content, the story, the situation and condition of the antagonists and protagonists.
Yet, as a whole, they don't inspire me much...

Ahh, no, trust me: good and evil are the Socialists and the Fascists, and there's no room for interpretation, much like in fairy tales.

I guess I'm asking you for a great film where there is value choice that would make a good game, you know? I can't think of many--even with as much action as it has, something like _Apocalypse Now_ wouldn't make a great game.

For all its good aspects and flaws, why need to stare far away, when you have Star Wars to look at? Far more highbrow, you have Lynch's films.
I also love Cyberpunk themed movies since they often spin your mind 360 degrees, and make you think a lot.

Now, if a film ends providing a rather straight forward message, I often end observing the situations from all sides, as much as I can, and this is stimulating. Evil vs. Good, forced vs. chosen, education vs. lack of, unit vs. group, interest vs. duty, etc.
Those post-reflexions, concerns and else, rarely occur after playing games. I'm not stimulated.
People praise Metal Gear Solid 3's swamp walk, with the ghosts and all that, but I think many gamers glorify this. Yet, it's a dynamic situation, directly tied to the way you behaved during the former part of the game. But again, dodging bot ghosts does not mean much to me.

So why games don't stimulate reflexions?
Probably because unlike films, games aren't credible enough to me. The reality of game mechanics, the cuts from FMVs to in game action, and the fact that you're pressing buttons or keys, really draw me away from a full immersion.

The most immersive kind of environment I experienced with games, is the one which creates tension and fear, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the story.

Besides, in certain cases, when a film makes you wonder what you'd have done if you were in a given situation, a games may offer you the chance to experience the story from the other side of the fence, thus cutting almost all possible reflexion. On the contrary, since you're given the choice, it seems to end treating the question extremely superficially... and you're dragged down that bland treatment, through more "primitive" gunfights or else. The worst part is that in the end, you may find yourself very satisfied.

Even Deus Ex, for all the pure bliss it was, didn't leave me pondering about existential questions, despite the intelligent content of the game - at least, all relative regarding what's been done thus far.
Because, well, it just feels like a game. I'm an adult who looks at games from a sort of knowledgeable position, and as such, I do not get involved enough to take things to the necessary serious level.

So there are two factors which could turn into obstacles:

1. The role a game gives you. If you don't like the situation, your background, or what you're supposed to do, then either you're interested in seeing the situation from the other end of the spectrum, or it's toasted and you forget the game.

2. The level of realism. In a way, we've seen the first effects with the rating controversies, and even more with the ESRB's reaction to certain Wiimote enacted crimes.

It's very likely that the most realistic situation will make you think far far more than a story in certain cases, since we'll be talking about immediate reactions, feelings, to given stimuli.

Reason will kick in later on, and as such, the story may actually turn out to be the saviour of a game, often detailing a background, a context, crafting a nest of potential excuses and presenting challenging situations from several angles, to judge them all with all possible cards in hand. This, as a whole, would form a defense against pointlessly negative slashing about the nature, theme, message and content of a game.
Not saying it would always work, mind you.

Arbre:

Ahh, no, trust me: good and evil are the Socialists and the Fascists, and there's no room for interpretation, much like in fairy tales.

I guess I'm asking you for a great film where there is value choice that would make a good game, you know? I can't think of many--even with as much action as it has, something like _Apocalypse Now_ wouldn't make a great game.

For all its good aspects and flaws, why need to stare far away, when you have Star Wars to look at? Far more highbrow, you have Lynch's films.
I also love Cyberpunk themed movies since they often spin your mind 360 degrees, and make you think a lot.

I don't exactly know where you're going, but I get the feeling we have our signals crossed. I can't think of anything with *less* value choice than the Star Wars universe--they tell you right up front that one side of the force is the 'dark' side. Heck, those films have been criticized as offering *less* value choice with the whole 'Greedo shoots first' edit.

Now, you can choose to turn to the dark side or not, but, at no point does the author want us to start thinking 'hey, the dark side isn't all *that* bad if you really think about it...' So I think you've misunderstood what I'm trying to say here at some point along the way.

I don't really care. As much as I think genetic engineering is great, when I play shooters the plot is just an excuse to shoot people in the face. I roleplay a character whose motivation is to go along with what the environment is telling him to do because it brings him to more things to blow up.

ChickenOfDoom:
...when I play shooters the plot is just an excuse to shoot people in the face...

Blimey, if that was my motivation I'd be bored after 5 minutes. In my view shooting guns over and over again is about the most tedious way game developers could possibly choose to get players through a game's storyline. I wish they would come up with something - anything - else. I mean why must computer/video games ALWAYS involve killing things? Can't they think of ANYTHING else?

Cheeze_Pavilion:
at no point does the author want us to start thinking 'hey, the dark side isn't all *that* bad if you really think about it...

Well, if I recall correctly Lucas is on the record as stating that the jedi are elitist and hidebound. It could be argued that the Jedi helped to bring about the fall of the Republic due to their arrogance. Then there's the whole elitist accusations that have been brought against the Rebellion and the fact that advancement in the Empire seems clearly to be based on merit.

So there are arguments to be made on both sides. But yes, when Lucas made Star Wars I think he meant it to be cut and dried, one side good and the other bad.

Join the Imperial Navy and Save the Galaxy!

Pirates raid interstellar traders. Terrorists threaten the galaxy. Through their treachery on Yavin, the alliance of rebels and other criminals has threatened the very foundation of the Empire. As an Imperial Navy starfighter pilot, you will safeguard imperiled lives throughout the galaxy. Only the Emperor can save us from total chaos and destruction. Join his cause in eliminating this rebel uprising as the Empire strikes back!

Sounds pretty good to me.

Beery:

Cheeze_Pavilion:
at no point does the author want us to start thinking 'hey, the dark side isn't all *that* bad if you really think about it...

Well, if I recall correctly Lucas is on the record as stating that the jedi are elitist and hidebound. It could be argued that the Jedi helped to bring about the fall of the Republic due to their arrogance. Then there's the whole elitist accusations that have been brought against the Rebellion and the fact that advancement in the Empire seems clearly to be based on merit.

So there are arguments to be made on both sides. But yes, when Lucas made Star Wars I think he meant it to be cut and dried, one side good and the other bad.

I think there's a big difference between an author calling the good guys imperfect, even fatally flawed, and saying there's not much difference between them and the bad guys though, right? I don't think elitism and being hide-bound compares with sending in one's apprentice to slaughter the Younglings or blowing up a whole planet as collective punishment, do you?

And not sure about the whole merit thing--the Empire is pretty xenophobic. Think about it: how many non-humans do you see in Imperial uniforms? While on the other hand, in among the rebels you find individuals that evolved from animals with everything from fur to scales. I didn't notice this myself until I played the _Star Wars Rebellion_ game from a couple years ago and one of the player aids/posters that came with it pointed that out. Basically, the Imperial Navy is human. And white. And male. And apparently OxBridge British.

In contrast, the Wookies don't even have to wear pants among the Rebels. :-D

So, I wouldn't say there's much of an argument to be made, unless that argument is 'the Jedi were good but imperfect, while in the Empire, advancement was based on merit but only if you belonged to the right species.' I...wouldn't exactly say that deciding between 'hide-bound equal opportunity employers' and 'genocidal racists' involves a lot of value choice, do you?

Disclaimer: I have *no* explanation for why the medal ceremony at the end of _A New Hope_ takes its stylistic cues from _Triumph of the Will_ or why the Wookie doesn't get a medal, but, overall, I think the author's intent is pretty clear and there's not much an argument to be made that the Jedi are anything but the good guys and the Empire are the bad guys.

A game is an art form. Art is the expression of some part of the artist's worldview. A game that does not espouse one side as good or evil requires either a worldview that does not include the concepts of good or evil (which is very rare, even if the terms "good" and "evil" aren't used), or an artist who understands the merit of the opposing position (which is rarer still). The use of storytelling in conjunction with that art is like a minefield of opportunities for cop-outs that don't bring the discussion (biased or not) to a satisfying conclusion.

The use of choice does not necessarily elevate games to the status of allowing all sides of an issue to be explored by experience; many games' narratives have made excellent (and a few, not-so-excellent) use of the motif of having no choice. Sometimes it's obviously strictly technical (Half-Life 2) whereas with others it's deliberately artistic (Shadow of the Colossus).

The reason the ceremony in A New Hope is like Triumph of the Will is because the Nazis had extremely impressive ceremonies. Still, the vibe I get from the Jedi in the prequel trilogies is that they are, collectively, a tragic hero.

Malygris:

Cheeze_Pavilion:
I think you've missed my, and I think the author's point. It's not dicey to judge the quality of a story if I know already that I'm not going to identify with the hero and I'm supposed to. I mean, all I need to know about the story of a game like _Ethnic Cleansing_ is that I'm supposed to take it seriously to know that it's going to be a bad story, right?

But isn't that a rather presumptuous position to take, that you know all you need to know based on a thin pre-release plot synopsis? "Judging a book by its cover," and all that?

"Choice" is a nice word with pleasant connotations that has little to do with quality storytelling. Besides, do you really think that if Fracture let Michael choose which side of the conflict he wanted to fight for, he wouldn't play through both anyway?

Ooops! Sorry I missed this until now!

I think you misunderstand the point of the 'don't judge a book by its cover' maxim. That only applies to *final* judgments, where you stop accumulating information. If a thicker pre-release plot synopsis comes out, sure I'll revise my judgment. I don't think Michael Zenke or I ever said anything to give anyone the impression that we were putting the game down like putting a library book back on the shelf, never to be given another chance.

And I think choice is a *great* tool when it comes to quality storytelling when the source material is controversial. To quote the "Interception: Gaming on the Gridiron" article from this issue:

Football is the guy's soap opera. Listening to an enthusiast talk about his engagement with a modern football simulator makes this abundantly clear. He's engaging in the exploration of possibility in variations through time, starting with a core interest point through which they have an emotional connection - usually a hometown.

Choice is an *essential* part of that storytelling. Imagine a sports game where you couldn't pick your home team, and had to pick a rival!

As to playing through from the other side, well, I don't see how that's relevant. Chances are a person will play thought with their favorite side, and only if they like the game that much, or they want more of the storyline they'll play with the other side, right?

 

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