Braid Dev: Story-Based Games Are Bogus

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Braid Dev: Story-Based Games Are Bogus

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Jonathan Blow, the outspoken developer of last year's Braid, doesn't like story-based games. That's not because the stories aren't any good, but because he thinks they're completely missing the point.

"Stories in games are typically not good, right?" Blow asked in an interview with Gamasutra. Not many people are going to argue that - the reason we're seeing more and more high-profile authors writing games is because nobody thinks game stories are any good. For Blow, however, "even if we had really, really good writers doing this stuff - it's still really hard to do a good story in a game, because of the game part."

Blow sees games as essentially challenge-based, a notion that certainly rang true for Braid, which was essentially a sequence of increasingly challenging time-manipulation puzzles. The problem, then, with story-based games is that stories conflict with those challenges. "So the challenge part is trying to hold the player back and keep him from getting to the next segment," Blow explained. "But the story part wants you to get to the next part in order to keep going. This structure doesn't actually work, because these two fight each other."

The common solution, as Blow explains it, is for a designer to create the sensation of challenge instead of "real challenge" so that it doesn't get too much in the way of the thrust of the story. Citing examples like God of War and Fable II, Blow believes that the softening of challenge just makes the gameplay flaccid and meaningless. "Fable II's combat is not actual challenge," he said. "It's just there to feel like combat. But I don't feel like there's a reason to do it, because I know that I just hit these guys with the sword a few times and they'll just die."

Ultimately, the point isn't to tell good stories, because that's not what games are built to do and that's not what makes them superior to other mediums. "In terms of what games have to offer us, we're not giving people the greatest stories ever told," Blow said. "What we can give them is experiences that challenge them to invite them to do something that they haven't done or whatever...If we eventually become no interaction and all story, then we're just a bad movie, right?"

I'm inclined to agree with Blow in that story and challenge often don't mix, and both are left worse for it when a game tries to put them together clumsily. But while I love (and sometimes prefer) a game that's pure challenge, I do think there is genuine narrative power in games, and that maybe we haven't started looking at how to tell stories in games the right way. What do you guys think?

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I disagree with Mr. Blow... but that shouldn't suprise anyone, I'm a story nut.

In terms of story in games, it isn't about pure narrative, it's about experience. With a novel you get a straight narrative, same as with a movie. With a game the story should be an experience, one that you interact with and gain a greater understanding of through play.

I disagree with Blow and Costikyan; I have found games with narratives just as involving as pure challenge games.

More detailed refutation when I can spend more time typing than hacking my lungs clear.

-- Steve

I'm starting to wonder if this guy is getting a big head over the success of Braid. I think there are some games out there that are good on story and gameplay. Personally, Fatal Frame, Bioshock, several FF games and Mass Effect comes to mind. I believe some games just aren't designed for stories and some are. PacMan isn't going into why he eats ghosts and Final Fantasy 12 isn't going to have a FPS segment where you need to get headshots.

Anton P. Nym:
I disagree with Blow and Costikyan; I have found games with narratives just as involving as pure challenge games.

More detailed refutation when I can spend more time typing than hacking my lungs clear.

-- Steve

I agree.

Oh, and you're sick too?

It's the whole narratology vs. ludology argument again. And it's still a bunch of crap. They're both right.

An interactive story is an experience different than film or movies, even if the interaction is limited. It's more engaging. It gives you more opportunities to see things from different angles. It lets you combine techniques from different mediums.

Being purely about gameplay is just as good. Like Braid. Or Gravity Hook. Or Super Mario Brothers. Or simulations, racing games, and most competitive multiplayer.

Or, like Dungeons & Dragons (and its many digital brethren) it can be a combination of both that makes things work. And yes, different players appreciate these games in different ways - one person may love the story and find the game mechanics to be filler, while others will focus on the mechanics and won't pay attention to the story at all. And it's OK to be different things to different people.

Games can be about the story, or the gameplay, or both. Everybody wins.

I have to disagree entirely, I love story-based games, that why I liked GTA IV

Anton P. Nym:
I disagree with Blow and Costikyan; I have found games with narratives just as involving as pure challenge games.

This, and...

PedroSteckecilo:
In terms of story in games, it isn't about pure narrative, it's about experience. With a novel you get a straight narrative, same as with a movie. With a game the story should be an experience, one that you interact with and gain a greater understanding of through play.

This.

Like Pedro admitted, I, too, am a story nut. I NEED a good story in order for a game to be really good.

And to say that challenge and story don't mix is a load of crap.
When I was facing down Jon Irenicus in Baldur's Gate 2 with the character I used to beat Baldur's Gate 1, I found myself sweating with anticipation, moved by the final battle cries of my companions (Some who lost those close to them to this villain), and breathless at the final sword fall.

And this is a game you can pause any time.

If it seems like challenge and story don't mix, that's the developers fault, not the fault of the medium. I've seen it happen, I've experienced it, I'm spoiled for it, and I know it isn't impossible.

Pure challenge games are involving for the challenge. I'm involved in Gravity Hook (Curse you, Escapist!) because it's a fun challenge to beat my high score (2443, by the way). But that is not even close to the same type, or level, of involvement I have with games like Baldur's Gate or Mass Effect (Can you tell I like Bioware?).

I'll be the first to say that bad game stories are everywhere. But like I said: Blame the developer, not the medium.

"Stories in games are typically not good, right?" Blow asled in an interview with Gamasutra.

I am assuming that "asled" was actually meant to be "asked", with the k and l keys being right beside each other. Hope you don't mind me trying to help by proof reading.

What do you guys think?

I think Jonathan Blow is correct to a degree, especially on this point:

"So the challenge part is trying to hold the player back and keep him from getting to the next segment," Blow explained. "But the story part wants you to get to the next part in order to keep going. This structure doesn't actually work, because these two fight each other."

What he seems to fail to notice, possibly deliberately, is the notion of player driven stories when over coming challenges. This can be most easily highlighted by the comparison made it games where we call one "sand box" and the other "linear". He is right about games that dictate the narrative to you but in a few games, you are actually deciding your own narrative and thus if the developer allows, the game play challenges and the story work together because they are not presumptuous enough to presume what the player will find to be a good story. Any story that tends be player driven can be exciting and enticing for the player because interest in the game having a purpose is maintained. Even purely challenge based games can fall flat when they lack purpose, so it would be wrong to discount story telling through games altogether.

Smith: "It is purpose that created us. Purpose that connects us. Purpose that pulls us. That guide us. That drive us. It is purpose that defines. Purpose that binds us."

I played the Braid demo. Ironically, even though I enjoyed the levels offered, I'm more tempted to buy the full game to see more of the story.

I'm inclined to agree with Mr. Blow. I'm always looking for a good story and feel consistently let down. When I look at the games that I really love, it's all about the game-play.

Arrg! This is just another chocolate vs vanilla debate. We have to love chocolate, or demand vanilla, or it's not okay.

Me, I'm more of a Neopolitan kind of gamer. I can enjoy my vanilla (Silent Hill 2) and my chocolate (Devil May Cry 3) just the same... and I still have a taste for strawberry. (Boom Blox, let's say. Or Rayman Raving Rabbids 2)

To drop the metaphor, it isn't necessarily story-driven games or challenge-driven games I prefer... what I like most is being able to choose between the two to satisfy my current craving.

If anything the stories that do work well is when you have a passive story that does not want you to succeed along with gameplay that does not want you to succeed.

Virgil:
It's the whole narratology vs. ludology argument again. And it's still a bunch of crap. They're both right.

An interactive story is an experience different than film or movies, even if the interaction is limited. It's more engaging. It gives you more opportunities to see things from different angles. It lets you combine techniques from different mediums.

Being purely about gameplay is just as good. Like Braid. Or Gravity Hook. Or Super Mario Brothers. Or simulations, racing games, and most competitive multiplayer.

Or, like Dungeons & Dragons (and its many digital brethren) it can be a combination of both that makes things work. And yes, different players appreciate these games in different ways - one person may love the story and find the game mechanics to be filler, while others will focus on the mechanics and won't pay attention to the story at all. And it's OK to be different things to different people.

Games can be about the story, or the gameplay, or both. Everybody wins.

The D&D analogy ends this discussion, as far as I am concerned. Some playgroups spend every session crunching numbers and min-maxing their characters, while others can go a whole evening without rolling a die.

Back when I played MECCG, I knew folks who built streamlined tournament decks whose only goal was victory, while I used cards to tell the tale of a group of dwarves rallying Gondor or Radagast transforming Mordor into a big garden. Was I 'playing the game' any less?

I actually don't agree that story-based games are bogus, but what I do think is that a good deal game developers should look into integrating the story more tightly into the game. The whole keeping the story and the gameplay in separate containers really has to go. Tell your story through the game, not long unskippable cutscenes. Taking control from the player and into infodump mode is just a lazy way of doing things.

The situation we have now with games is really similar to early television: they were basically just radio shows that really didn't take advantage of the medium they were using.

So long as game designers don't depend on story to save their game, I'm okay. Games should be games first.

"This game sucks."

"But the story is awesome!"

"...yeah. This game sucks."

As with several previous members, I respectfully disagree with Mr. Braid and tell him where he can stick it.

Here's a question: what stories have you seen that needed to be in games in order to tell them?

The games that are usually held to have the best stories tell them in linear affairs in my experience. You may choose how to solve the puzzles the game throws at you, but having a meaningful effect on the storyline as it plays out it something that happens in very few games; and those games rarely have complex storylines. The longest story-based games tend to treat their story as what a movie director might do if he had 80 hours to fill, creating a variety of subplots to keep the movie going. Or maybe a better translation might be a novel author trying to incorporate video and audio into his work. My point is that the storytelling possibilities of games still remains unexplored to a large degree: We're still presuming the limitations of other forms of media.

In most games, the story is dispensed in little pellets as a gradual reward to playing the game. If the developers desperately want to tell a story, they might neuter the difficulty (see Bioshock, Dreamfall, and maybe Portal) so that perhaps nongamers might experience it. On the opposite side of the spectrum, I'm sure that you can think of many games that tacked on a story just to loosely justify the gameplay. In one way or another, games are (usually) seen as hybrids of story and gameplay (though in most multiplayer games, casual games, and sometimes some more abstract games story is ignored.) In some (perhaps even most) games, this dual valuation holds back being able to purely appreciate either of the two aspects.

Keane Ng:

The common solution, as Blow explains it, is for a designer to create the sensation of challenge instead of "real challenge" so that it doesn't get too much in the way of the thrust of the story. Citing examples like God of War

The hell is he talking about? Theres a major difference between offering an easy difficulty and being easy.

Break:
I played the Braid demo. Ironically, even though I enjoyed the levels offered, I'm more tempted to buy the full game to see more of the story.

You know how he talks about how games that have heavy stories end up shorthanded on gameplay? Braid is the opposite - the gameplay is prime, the story is garbage, except instead of making that obvious, he makes the narrative ambiguous and unclear so you don't notice there's not much storytelling going on and just think it's deep.

At the same time that works on a meta level because figuring out the plot becomes a game in itself, another "challenge." Maybe that was intentional, I dunno - Blow is a tricky dude.

Keane Ng:

Blow sees games as essentially challenge-based,

One of these here Escapist writers should do a story about that, about games as challenge and the connection to gender roles. In some ways, it's a very male perspective. When you look at the games girls play like double dutch and cat's cradle, they're designed not to challenge, but to keep the play going.

Did I just compare Gears of War 2 to Cat's Cradle? I think I did, and now I've got an image of Dom and Marcus playing together with a piece of string...

Kilo24:
Here's a question: what stories have you seen that needed to be in games in order to tell them?

The simplest answer? A choose your own adventure book. Despite the paper format, it is a game.

That's the magic of games as opposed to every other storytelling medium - the story can change based on the actions of the player. Nothing else replicates that.

Story-based games can be great (see the good adventure games in history). Having a story is what enhances the experience to actually evoke something from you. Even if the story is subtle and fragmented like the Team Ico games, or if the story is in-depth and involving like in a Bioware RPG, the story draws you into the experience. Without story immersion is hard to attain. But that isn't to say that I haven't enjoyed games with no story (see my love of Castle Crashers).

I totally diagree with the Mr.Blow guy. Story is what drives any game, even the crappy ones. There are many games that integrate story and action perfectly. MGSm Fallout, Fable, any Bioware RPG, the list goes on.

I agree with Blow, game play is what makes gaming superior to other forms of entertainment. Stories should augment game play and not the other way arround. Often I get the feeling designers want to be recognised on par with movie directors. However in doing so they are turning gaming into a movie where you have to mash the buttons to advance the plot. The greatest game story should be the one the player makes up themselves. Like that time I was crouching behind these boxes in de_dust when 1/2 the enemy team runs by without giving my bolt hole a seccond glance...

I know this won't happen but if they were to get rid of the story and make it all about challenge, I would probably have to go into gaming and write the best story ever, or just stop buying new games. i like games with long cinematics to be honest.

I hated Fable 2 for it's lack of a good story. The gameplay was fine but the story blew. By the way Fable 2 has no challenge, just by using 4 buttons you can beat the game, x,y,a,left analog.

Virgil:

Kilo24:
Here's a question: what stories have you seen that needed to be in games in order to tell them?

The simplest answer? A choose your own adventure book. Despite the paper format, it is a game.

That's the magic of games as opposed to every other storytelling medium - the story can change based on the actions of the player. Nothing else replicates that.

No games yet have replicated that either - Heavy Rain seems to be the first thats even trying it.

Indigo_Dingo:

Virgil:

Kilo24:
Here's a question: what stories have you seen that needed to be in games in order to tell them?

The simplest answer? A choose your own adventure book. Despite the paper format, it is a game.

That's the magic of games as opposed to every other storytelling medium - the story can change based on the actions of the player. Nothing else replicates that.

No games yet have replicated that either - Heavy Rain seems to be the first thats even trying it.

Heavy Rain really intrigues me.

It almost seems to BE a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, only with prettier graphics.

I'm not sure how they'll keep the whole "no dying thing.".

I don't quite get it. Is he stating there are no wrong choices in the game(Which eliminates challenge), or that the game will eventually do the challenge for you(Prince of Persia)?

*Sigh* Another gem from Jonathan Blow.

I can't quite decide whether he's completely genuine, or if he's just cynically trying to keep himself in the limelight. Let's face it, before Braid, Blow was hardly a household name, and as loathe as I am to use a such a trite sentiment, 'out of sight, out of mind' seems oddly appropriate.

What the fucking shit.

I'm sorely tempted to make a joke about the name Blow.

Aries_Split:

Indigo_Dingo:

Virgil:

Kilo24:
Here's a question: what stories have you seen that needed to be in games in order to tell them?

The simplest answer? A choose your own adventure book. Despite the paper format, it is a game.

That's the magic of games as opposed to every other storytelling medium - the story can change based on the actions of the player. Nothing else replicates that.

No games yet have replicated that either - Heavy Rain seems to be the first thats even trying it.

Heavy Rain really intrigues me.

It almost seems to BE a Choose Your Own Adventure Book, only with prettier graphics.

I'm not sure how they'll keep the whole "no dying thing.".

I don't quite get it. Is he stating there are no wrong choices in the game(Which eliminates challenge), or that the game will eventually do the challenge for you(Prince of Persia)?

Its that there are no wrong answers, just the way you want things to turn out. After all, the second time around I would think you'd want to see something other than the "everybody dies" ending. The ame seems to be more aiming at multiple playthroughs. At least thats what I think.

Its the mark of quality of a game these days that you can't explain it to a person.

nimrandir:
The D&D analogy ends this discussion, as far as I am concerned. Some playgroups spend every session crunching numbers and min-maxing their characters, while others can go a whole evening without rolling a die.

Back when I played MECCG, I knew folks who built streamlined tournament decks whose only goal was victory, while I used cards to tell the tale of a group of dwarves rallying Gondor or Radagast transforming Mordor into a big garden. Was I 'playing the game' any less?

And some can do both. In my current Star Wars Saga Edition tabletop game, we're fairly dice-heavy for combat, with very few checks and a lot of roleplaying for non-combat. One of my friends plays a droid, and min-maxes every chance he gets, ignoring a lot of roleplay for combat; my other friend plays a Jedi and is generally not so fussed about stats so much as recurring villains and saving the princess. A third friend really gets into combat AND roleplay, and is still the first person to ask "how much XP do I get?" at the end of every combat encounter. As for me, I'm just there for the experience. And every single viewpoint here exists within the same, physical tabletop game - why can't the same be said for digital games?

I'll concede that in tabletop, things are definitely more flexible. But we all still play by the same rules - regardless of whether the DM hands out results arbitrarily or does everything by dice, as long as the min-maxer feels like his stats mean something, my friends have a constant flow of story and enemies to dispatch and struggle against, and I have a constant flow of action - be it combat or narrative - we're all happy.

Flow is everything. Jonathan Blow's argument is that story and gameplay are confrontational, but this assumes the two are separate - you're either in a gameplay section or a narrative section. I disagree, and state that a large number of games fall back on this in an attempt to fill time and content. Jonathan himself does it in Braid - story occurs at the start and end of each area, and the gameplay in-between is loosely linked to the narrative thematic. I'd argue it's still a good game, but that there would be even less point to the beautiful platforming WITHOUT the simple frame story and the bursts of plot between each level. Were the story linked to the gameplay better, events occurring mid-level, and the level objectives being tied to the plot better, the motivation would be even higher. It's for that very reason I ended up imagining a metaplot to explain the game events! I see it as the main character going back through his memories, time having broken them, and trying to piece together the events that have led to his current situation. Hence the jigsaw pieces, the stylised art, and the use of time as a game mechanic. Each piece is a memory. Perhaps this was not the artist's intent, but by having a frame story with gameplay inbetween, it greatly enhanced the experience for me. Had he directly stated this to be the case, rather than leaving it to my imagination, I suspect I'd have lost a little value, while those who did not imagine such (and just saw a time-manipulation item-collecting platformer) would've appreciated the flavourful story to colour it.

There's an excellent article about this at TVTropes.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/GameplayAndStorySegregation

It doesn't have to be this way forever! I Have A Dream(cast)! One day, we will be able to understand and master the Gameplay-to-Story ratio, and everyone will be happy! Or at least, I will. Sandbox games currently come fairly close to the perfect ratio (100% story to 1% story according to the player's wishes) as do games like Portal (100% gameplay supported by constant incoming story that can be assimilated or ignored at the player's wish). Not that they're the only genres capable of it, just that they're the current closest...

TLDR: Blow is wrong and I have some convincing arguments otherwise, including his own work.

I will agree to the point of games are gameplay focused when you have a story(or graphics) that are paid more attention to you have a situation of creating a game that's boring or simply unfun after the after glow wears off.

To me gaming is lackign in story and dialog(but no worse than hollywoods short sighted action flicks) there are alot of issues with dialog in games FO3 and ME just have crappy areas of dialog. Writing for the game industry needs to be better but is it more important than relearning gameplay(IE making games fun again) and begin creative with gameplay and control? Probably not....

Oh Jon Blow...why do you say such things, right?

i think hes right, and wrong. a good story can make or break a game. i use Homeworld II as an example, the game play itself was a mess at times a poor example of an RTS, but the story pulled you through, i also cite a game like Warhammer 40K i totaly LOVEED the first game when you had a story over top of the missions. without that story id have never finshed the game since the game itself was just another C&C clone and not a very great example of it at that.

now if you look at this from his point of view though, hes saying in essence that the story was the REASON that the games i talk about were at best average from a mechanics point of view. i would argue however that there are only a certian number of game mechanics that can be used and that its the STORY that makes just another 'clone' of something thats been done a thousand times allready stand out.

another example is StarWars KoTor both 1 and 2. horrible from a 'pure' RPG mechanics point of view, yet two of the best games ive played. with this, as with all things in life, its a matter of taste. some of the BEST games are a combination of game and movie. im quite often touched by a movie and remeber the experiance, its not often i recall a game despite the fact that i can play a given game far longer than i spend watching a given movie and when i DO its because of the story and not the mechanics.

perhaps its because im an older gamer, but i recall back in the day when a game was all about the mechanics, most of the old Atari games you only got a 'story' by reading the Box it came in. but the ones that stand out and we remember were the ones that became 'expanded' like Pac-Man or even later generations like Mario, without the story of mario the 'thrill' of hopping on boxes and figuring out timed jumps looses its attraction right quick and while i have fond Memories of Pac-Man and Mario i certianly dont want to go back to playing those games again as my main staple. ive been there and done that as the saying go's

ive long since mastered how to play most types of gaming, the only thing LEFT to make one seem different from another is the story and how its presented. my feeling is that being able to 'master' a jumping puzzle/combat combination/quick time event is alot like learning how too ride a bike. its fun the fist time but once you have mastered it you dont really want too spend any more time trying to figure out how to ride a slightly different bike. id rather spend my time learning how to drive a car next, or fly a plane, or simply move away from learning how to 'master' vehicle controlls totaly and ........ go watch a movie.

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