Next-Generation Storytelling

“The stories we tell reflect and determine how we think about ourselves and one another. A new medium of expression allows us to tell stories we could not tell before, to retell the age-old stories in new ways, to imagine ourselves as creatures of a parameterized world of multiple possibilities, to understand ourselves as authors of rules systems which drive behavior and shape our possibilities.”

– Janet Murray, “From Game-Story to Cyberdrama,” First Person

The quote above really speaks to me – and to the importance of game narrative. Murray’s comments speak to the personal and cultural uses of stories, to the new stories afforded us by a new medium, to the ways in which narrative structures remind us that we live in a world of infinite possibility, even to the ways in which each of us is the master of his or her fate. I can’t read that quote without feeling like I’d be wasting my time if I didn’t at least try to bridge the gap between game and story.

I draw further inspiration from yet another Janet Murray quote, this one from “From Game-Story to Cyberdrama“:

“[W]hy are we particularly drawn to discussion of digital games in terms of story?…[I]t is a medium that includes still images, moving images, text, audio, three-dimensional, navigable space – more of the building blocks of storytelling than any single medium has ever offered us.”

How could anyone not look at the state of the art and wish for more?

So, how do games tell stories, and what does the future hold for us? And is next-gen technology really the answer?

In this four-part series, I’ve discussed the elements of storytelling, how they are (and can be) used to tell stories in games, the importance of characterization and character interaction, and the concept of a virtual dungeon master or storyteller. In this, Part Four of the series, I’ll be discussing how next-gen hardware can help and hinder the cause of making great games, and what we can do to ensure that the next-generation of games isn’t actually a step backward in terms of design.

Next-gen Hardware and Story Games
Sure, more powerful hardware offers new possibilities. We will certainly be able to create more believable actors. We’re already seeing next-gen visuals get better. And there’s at least the possibility that some of our horsepower will go toward more robust NPC behavior. This could allow us to tell better interactive stories.

And more horsepower could mean better simulations and more interesting worlds. If you believe, as I do, that one of the best ways to empower players is to allow them to craft their own experience, their own narratives through simulation, more horsepower will be a godsend.

Simulations – of environments, of objects or character behavior – offer players the opportunity to reason with our worlds, identify problems and solve them the way they want. Simulation enhances our ability to offer significant player choices, unique outcomes, perceivable consequences. And more powerful hardware clearly makes deeper simulation possible.

But, fundamentally, next-gen hardware isn’t the solution to our story problems. The 360 and PS3 and Wii seem (to this basically non-technical guy) to be about equivalent to high-end PCs, in terms of their capabilities – falling short in some ways, surpassing them in others, but basically equivalent. And it’s not like story and character interaction problems have been solved in the world of PC gaming. In fact, it may be that next-gen hardware will make it harder for us to accomplish our story goals.

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Not long ago, I had a conversation with Doug Church, secret master of gaming, where he said something like this: A story is constructed of sentences, strung together in a coherent, dramatically significant order. Game “sentences” are the actions available to and selected by a player. The more sentences we allow players to construct (in other words, the deeper the pool of options we offer), the cooler and more numerous the story possibilities will be. To that extent, a robust world and character simulation – both made possible by next-gen hardware – will allow us to tell a better story. But there’s a hitch: all the graphics power of the new platforms.

We’ve made – and, thanks to the new hardware, will continue to make – great strides in the fidelity with which we can portray a world. Our characters will look even better. Our worlds will look and feel much more convincing than they ever have. And audiences will come to expect a certain level of believability in the worlds they explore. They will expect the world to look and behave the way the real world does. (“It looks real; it’ll act real.”)

All of that means AI – cornerstone of creating great characters and, therefore critical to great story games – becomes even more challenging. And here I’m just talking about the fundamentals of navigation and base level interaction. We’ve made great strides in AI over the last few years, but you’d hardly know it – the advances have come in the service of “just keeping up” with graphical and simulation enhancement.

Back in the day (that is 20, 10, maybe even five years ago), NPC’s just had to navigate through a 2-D world or a simple 3-D one. Now, even in a relatively simple game, they have to deal with highly complex 3-D spaces.

Again, Doug made the point the other day: “We didn’t used to have to worry,” he said, “about a glass full of water getting knocked over, wetting the pants of a character seated at the table and then having to deal with the NPC’s response, other characters’ responses or the player’s potential responses.” Now, or soon, players will expect the AI to react believably to all of that.

Once we can create beautiful, photorealistic spaces, players will expect us to do so, and then we’ll have to teach our NPCs how to navigate through and interact with ever-more complex worlds appropriately. Rapid advancements in graphical fidelity and depth of simulation have always left AI and design playing catch-up. That problem seems likely to get worse, not better, in the next few years.

Most terrifyingly, we may, in fact, have missed our opportunity to play with story-friendly AI and procedural story generation. That moment may have come and gone back in the day of lower-fidelity world sims. Now that we’re in a world of high-fidelity worlds, all of our energy is likely to be sucked up just maintaining the levels of AI we already have! The cause of non-navigational/non-combat AI will take a backseat again.

In the short term, at least, next-gen hardware will allow us to make prettier games (at great cost) but not better games, and there’s nothing inherent in the hardware that makes better stories more or less likely.

What Do We Do About It?
Those of you who know me – or know my games – know I can’t have just one endgame. That’s too limiting for players.

Similarly, I can’t have just one conclusion to this article. Buckle up, read on and pick the conclusion that best fits your prejudices and beliefs.

Conclusion 1
Stories have been around forever. The success of story games tells me current players are vitally interested in them and will reward us for taking story games to greater heights.

But we want to look beyond current gamers to the vastly larger potential audience of (current) non-gamers – an audience we have no chance of attracting if all we have to offer are prettier, louder versions of what we’ve done before.

To grow our audience to match our ballooning next-gen development and marketing costs, we have to broaden the range and increase the quality of stories we tell. We need to lure people in with things that are familiar and comforting, and we must take interaction out of the realm of the abstract and into an area they already understand – emotionally satisfying stories about recognizable people, stories that illuminate and enrich their lives.

Conclusion 2
Obviously, I think the road to more compelling stories involves learning to share authorship with players.

If I could have one thing, one wish granted, for our business, the thing I’d most like to see is more developers making games that offer players freedom to explore story spaces within constraints imposed by a dramatist. We’d let players off the rails a bit more. We wouldn’t settle for offering tactical choices, challenging puzzles and movie-inspired cut scenes.

Instead, or in addition, we’d offer players opportunities to explore more freely and to delve deeper into the inner lives of their characters in ways that don’t involve killing them. In other words, we’d offer players real choices, with real story and character consequences.

Great story games are only partly dependent on technology. They’re hugely dependent on will and creativity – on the need to engage in dialogue with culture, problems and players. Games can be about something more than killing, fighting and puzzle solving.

This doesn’t require new technology – it just requires new thinking.

Conclusion 3
The industry can’t do this alone. It’ll take the efforts of people inside and outside the mainstream game business.

To be clear, I think industry’s doing a pretty decent job. Any medium that can boast of having produced games like Thief: Deadly Shadows, Indigo Prophecy, Psychonauts and so on has a lot going for it. We are making progress.

Cool as those industry efforts are, even the most daring of pre-existing games is just a baby step toward the goal of a truly compelling, interactive story. Face it: The home team’s coming to the plate and swinging for singles.

I don’t fault any of the developers represented here for that: Swinging for the fences story-wise would probably be commercial suicide, in the short-term, requiring an R&D effort far beyond anything I’ve ever seen or heard about in the game business, with no guarantee of success.

Publishers – our only realistic source of funding – have to be profitable. To do that, they have to ship games. On a regular basis. To stay in business, developers have to give publishers what they want. And the audience seems to like games, and game stories, the way they are. It seems unlikely publishers are going to invest in multiyear, blue-sky research efforts to change the way we tell stories – efforts that may or may not succeed. And who’s going to fund a three- or five-year research effort into natural language processing or more compelling NPCs when the marketplace isn’t demanding it?

I truly believe this leads to one, inevitable conclusion: We need outsiders, indie developers, academics, two guys in a garage somewhere, to point us in new directions, to show us a new way to involve players in stories and take this medium to a new level. And there are academics, researchers and even some expatriate game developers like Chris Crawford working on some cool stuff. Frankly, a lot of industry types, even the most creative industry types, look askance at the work of the outsiders, but I’m finding myself more and more drawn to the schemes some of these guys are coming up with.

When you find yourself reading whitepapers and interviews and such with these guys, and feeling more kinship with folks with the letters “P,” “H” and “D” after their names than you do when you hear what your peers have to say, there’s something weird going on. I’ve been arguing for years that industry and academia need to work more closely together and this – the need to develop tools for collaborative and truly interactive storytelling – seems like a great opportunity to do so.

I’m not going to pretend to understand how universities work, but I kind of get that academics have as profound a need to find funding as game developers. I believe there are, however, a couple of things they don’t have to worry about – commercial success and 12- to 36-month development windows. And that positions them pretty much perfectly to tackle hard problems that will take a long time to solve – longer than we industry-types can afford to devote.

We’re already seeing some of this in the work of folks like Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern, Chris Crawford, Ken Perlin and Katherine Isbister (and others I’m sure I’ve just offended by not mentioning them). These people are asking great questions, tackling many of the right problems and making some progress.

Even if you think these guys are nuts, or their belief in procedural storytelling is misguided, or their specific approach is a dead end, you have to respect the fact they’re tackling hard problems. You have to respect their audacity and their commitment. And I, at least, respect them for looking further downfield for their inspiration than developers typically can. Even our most “out there” story efforts are still mired in action-movie tropes – our rallying cry might as well be “Let’s make an interactive Star Wars! Yeah!

The Outsiders are looking to Moby Dick, to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, to Scenes from a Marriage. That takes chutzpah of a sort I find sorely lacking in even the most daring “insider” efforts to transform storytelling in games. These guys may strike out, but they’re swinging for the fences, and to a guy another of whose mottoes is “Fail gloriously!” that’s worth a lot.

Conclusion 4
“I think of the writer … as a moral agent … someone who thinks about moral problems: about what is just and unjust, what is better or worse, what is repulsive and admirable, what is lamentable and what inspires joy and approbation.”
– Susan Sontag, At the Same Time

Susan Sontag, in a posthumous collection of essays and lectures, At the Same Time, called on writers to “be serious” and to act as “moral agents.” She urged them to think about moral problems; about what is just and unjust, what is better and worse, what is repulsive and admirable.

Change “writer” to the more generic “storyteller” or the more appropriate for us “game developer,” and how can any of us not step up to that kind of challenge?

How can any of us be satisfied with offering players nothing more than the opportunity to leap from cover point to cover point as they kill bad guys? Or give players tools to move blocks around on a screen until they reach some arbitrary end state? How can we allow them to manipulate puppets on a virtual football field in the service of nothing more than having one virtual team beat another virtual team in a virtual sporting event?

How can anyone who lives, eats, sleeps and breathes games, as we all do, not see that games alone among media can allow players to explore the “just and unjust” for themselves instead of simply being told about them?

We have tools at our disposal – experiences and rules and spaces and characters – that allow us to allow players tell stories with us. And that allows each player to become his or her own “moral agent,” to decide for himself what’s repulsive and what’s admirable. At the very least, we have an obligation to offer players stories that have a bit of subtext, stories that are about something. Hard though it may be, we have to do this. We just have to decide that interactive story is a problem worth tackling. We need the will to become the medium we can – we must – be. If we do this, the world of interactive stories will blossom.

Conclusion 5
As in all things, the reconciliation of story and player experience lies in balance. People who think games have no business telling stories are nuts; people who believe their creativity is more important than the player’s creativity are equally crazy.

The key to successful story games is to use narrative to enhance the play experience, to balance the players’ need for choice and power with the positive aspects of a well-told story.

What makes us unique is that story in games can be the result of player creativity, expressed through play itself. We can make authors of each and every person who takes keyboard or controller in hand. And that is really something new in human history.

Of course, if that were easy to facilitate, everyone would just do it. It’s not easy. It’s insanely hard. But that doesn’t make it any less essential.

We have the potential to create not just a new medium and not just a new community of authors but a new culture of creators, a participatory, individualized culture in which we all share in the definition of experience, of humanness. Instead of being talked to, we discuss; instead of being lectured, we debate. This new medium is the first democratic narrative force we’ve ever had. Let’s hope, someday, we use it for something more compelling than we have so far.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live”

– Joan Didion, The White Album

“Next-Gen Storytelling” is a four-part series. Parts One, Two and Three can be found at The Escapist Daily.

Warren Spector is the founder of Junction Point Studios. He worked previously with Origin Systems, Looking Glass Studios, TSR and Steve Jackson Games.

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