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Subject: Video games are better without stories rss

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While I certainly know some people who agree with this (or would say they agree while telling stories of what they did in a game) I believe this article is bunk.

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/video...

It doesn't mention Bioware type games. Mass Effect. KOTOR. Jade Empire. You're looking at a game that tells the same story different ways depending on what you decide the main character is like. Can a book do that? Can a movie do that? No... you're stuck with the main character that some writer created for you. Same thing with the interactive fiction game Life is Strange, where you get to make the decisions for the character and the story told uses the consequences from YOUR choices. And while it's generally the same story, the specifics change.

The article says that storytelling in games has failed without even mentioning ANY of those games, which just leads me to believe that this person isn't very knowledgable w/r/t games, and we're not even mentioning Elder Scrolls or Fallout yet, which are two more games with even more differentiation between playthroughs, as characters who are vital can die, and pretty much anything can happen.

I mean, I'm absolutely certain I could find 100 books to talk about to show that novels are a failed medium for storytelling. 100 movies to show that movies are terrible at storytelling. Etc.

So... yeah, not a big fan of this article, but I wondered what other gamers thought about it. Has storytelling through video games really failed? Is it really worse than books, movies...?
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You are correct; the article is bunk.

I love books. I love movies. And I love games. The gut punch I got from Heavy Rain and Persona 3 when the final plot twists fired was every bit as good as most of my favorite novels. (In some ways it was better because it happened to 'me' as the player character.)

I mostly skimmed after the initial paragraphs tossed this in the mental trash can, but I had to laugh at his conclusion: "To dream of the Holodeck is just to dream a complicated dream of the novel. If there is a future of games, let alone a future in which they discover their potential as a defining medium of an era, it will be one in which games abandon the dream of becoming narrative media and pursue the one they are already so good at: taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways."

Taking the world apart and putting it back together again in surprising new ways is exactly what stories do.
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Story addict geekbadge.
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I very much do NOT agree with the article. yuk It is total bunk!

The article seems to be written by someone who doesn't like how linear two very specific games are... and Jay, you make a good point, story games with branching, nonlinear stories are not mentioned. It doesn't bring up any interactive fiction. It doesn't bring up tabletop RPGs, which are closer to the medium of story games than Monopoly (which IS mentioned in the article.)

It's a frustrating read, and clearly, a Holodeck is closer to playing a LARP than reading a book... which goes to show how uninformed the writer of the article is.
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Choices in video games are limited to whatever the game's author has thought of, however.

Most stories are dependent upon people doing exactly the thing they do, whether for good or for bad, and don't even have to account for any alternative action. Star Trek's holodeck was actually better for putting yourself into a novel and following it, unless it was a mystery book and you were searching for clues - then it's just a solid adventure game.

An MMO with player-based stories would be the closest thing to a fully interactive story at this point, but that's only because you have authors writing on the fly, and that means things can go very badly... just like any RPG. Good DMs shape the game along certain lines to tell the story they're telling, but can react.

It reminds me of the 'ractors' in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age and how they could react to what was going on instead of just sticking to the script, and the best ones were extremely good at improvisation.
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I didn't enjoy the article much, but the title is a phrase I've used myself a number of times over the years.

To my way of thinking, a game--a true game like chess or bridge--is inherently distinct from a story.

A story (be it a novel, a movie, a role-playing adventure, or what have you) is fixed and permanent once it has been written; it has a beginning, middle, and end that will not and cannot ever change. You might like the story enough to reread (or re-view or replay) it again and again, and you might get something new from it each time. You might even rewrite parts of the story in your mind. But as a creative work, the story is fixed--permanent.

In sharp contrast, a game is a contest, and a contest must--by definition--provide choices to the players and at least two alternative endings (you win or you lose). You don't follow along with a game (unless you're just a spectator); you make it happen. Your choices, and the other players' choices, determine how the game proceeds and how it eventually ends. In the best games, no two playthroughs are ever exactly the same.

Game designers (of both board games and video games) have been trying for decades to mash those two things together. And many gamers have eagerly welcomed the efforts. But IMO stories and games are inherently exclusive of one another. If you've got a story with a beginning, middle, and end, it's not a game. If you've got a game with practically infinite variation and alternative outcomes, it's not a story.

The only way I believe the two can be combined effectively is by giving up the notion of telling a story and replacing it with the concept of writing a story. The creative process of writing does entail the variability (the wealth of possibilities) we find in a game; so story writing and game playing can be in sync up to that point.

But then we run into the problem of the ending. A story writer is free to create any ending at all, but a game player--in order to fulfill the conditions of a contest--must aim for and attempt to achieve a specific ending. A contest cannot end until the victory conditions are met. So, the best that can happen is a story-based game with alternate endings. That's still just a hybrid, though--neither a great game nor a great story, most likely.

Me, I'm perpetually torn. I was an English major, and I love a good story. But I'm also a gamer, and I admire a solid game like chess. I've yet to see any video game that tells as good a story as the best novelists have written. Nor have I seen one that's as interesting, streamlined, and challenging a game as chess. There are plenty of video games that have been good enough for me, mind you, on both counts. But if we're considering video games as an art form, I have to say that IMO they always come up short.

And the main reason I believe they always come up short is that they attempt to combine two incompatible things--the story and the contest.

But that's just my viewpoint, of course. I've never liked opera or musicals either, and my reason for that is similar: drama and music don't blend smoothly, so the result is an inconsistent mixture--drama with lumps of music thrown in.

That's just how I see video games--as stories with lumps of game thrown in, or as games with lumps of story floating about. No matter how much I might like a given game, that "lumpiness" always annoys me.


(Edit: And wow--while I was typing this, Jay just said about what I said, only more concisely.)
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The need to see stories as something that is one and done, set in stone once written, is an artifact of our modern age of copyright and has nothing to do with what stories are or how they should be told. Storytelling is originally an oral medium, and stories told can shift and change from telling to retelling, and that is naturally how stories exist. Saying that Heavy Rain isn't a story because it has multiple narrative paths makes no sense. Saying it isn't a game because its mechanics are story based also makes no sense. The need to define things out of existence is not a need I understand.
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Jythier wrote:
It reminds me of the 'ractors' in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age and how they could react to what was going on instead of just sticking to the script, and the best ones were extremely good at improvisation.


Thumbed for citing the best Neal Stephenson novel.
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amyotheramy wrote:
The need to define things out of existence is not a need I understand.

I don't understand that either, unless the thing in question actually doesn't exist but is only imagined to exist. But let's not go off on that tangent.

The need to abandon clear definition in a vain attempt to justify an amorphous something that one likes is not a need I understand.

A story is a story, a game is a game. The dictionary definitions are good enough for me for purposes of this discussion.

And yes, there's such a thing as extemporaneous storytelling. But if we're talking about creating a specific work--e.g., a video game--we'll get nowhere by comparing it to a cultural activity that is not a specific work. That's comparing apples to oranges.
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A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.
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I'm of the opinion that most video games have average to terrible writing, and over the years I've come to accept it. I've also abandoned well-written games because I didn't liked how they played, as I didn't want to spent multiple hours doing something tedious just to advance through the story (Enslaved, for instance). And, still, good writing is a great quality for a game to sport. Portal, Planescape, Gabriel Knight, Fallout, Monkey Island... All are better because of their writing. Saying that good storytelling isn't something a game should strive for makes zero sense.
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Patrick Carroll wrote:
That's comparing apples to oranges.


Meh. I agree to disagree.

Kodeir wrote:
I'm of the opinion that most video games have average to terrible writing, and over the years I've come to accept it. I've also abandoned well-written games because I didn't liked how they played, as I didn't want to spent multiple hours doing something tedious just to advance through the story (Enslaved, for instance).


I so, so agree with this. I feel like a victorious treasure hunter any time I find a well told story that also has good mechanics. It's my gaming grail.
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The story is almost mandatory! In fact, a great story can make an otherwise garbage game bearable.
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Patrick Carroll wrote:
A story (be it a novel, a movie, a role-playing adventure, or what have you) is fixed and permanent once it has been written; it has a beginning, middle, and end that will not and cannot ever change. You might like the story enough to reread (or re-view or replay) it again and again, and you might get something new from it each time. You might even rewrite parts of the story in your mind. But as a creative work, the story is fixed--permanent.


Clue has three different official endings. So by your definition it isn't a story? Rewrites to a story aren't just something that one might do "in their mind". It's a whole thriving category of fanfiction. Here are seven different fanfic endings just for Harry Potter. Even the original author might later go back and change things around, as George Lucas demonstrated with the remastered versions of the original Star Wars trilogy. And if you watched the Addams Family musical on Broadway and then later caught it on the tour then you would have seen a quite different show even though it's nominally the same musical. So I challenge the idea that a story is "fixed and permanent". Actually, they change all the time.
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Lhowser wrote:
Whattaya expect from The Atlantic?



I understand the sentiment, but the discussion with all of you is the reason for the post, not necessarily the article itself - it simply served as a basis for it. And sometimes, bad articles (or stories) can lead to good discussions.
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Great Clue reference, that really brings things into new perspective, but I think we can all agree that it was an experiment and not typical of movies, and also that it made the same completionists who want to get all the endings go multiple times trying to see them all.
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Peristarkawan wrote:
Jythier wrote:
It reminds me of the 'ractors' in Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age and how they could react to what was going on instead of just sticking to the script, and the best ones were extremely good at improvisation.


Thumbed for citing the best Neal Stephenson novel.


Agreed. I got a lot of enjoyment out of Snow Crash and the Baroque Cycle as far as I got in it, but The Diamond Age was just phenomenal. Cryptonomicon was also pretty great. He has become one of my favorite authors, but I often will cite things from The Diamond Age, but not the others.
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Patrick, I appreciate you and your different viewpoint on stories and games.

I feel like you often mention opportunity cost. Whether it's how you spend your time or what action you take in a game, you seem to care a lot about what you're giving up to do so. IE, you would play a game with a story BUT FOR the novel you could read in the same time, which would satisfy you more. You play a wargame and you worry about what you could have been doing with that time instead. It's not a bad trait at all, by the way, I believe it's a very good trait that leads you to being at the least aware of your choices and at best able to make better choices.

I think you're correct about a lot of video games falling short. Then I read your stories you write about your MOO games telling what got you from the beginning to the end. Yes, it might be about writing a story rather than telling one, but that's still a story, and in most cases you're tied to the story that the author wanted to tell, with little variations. I feel like those variations have to be enough to feel like you matter to the story for it to be a game, or maybe it's linear and there's a story on top of game mechanics. This serves as a sort of reward, like, say a FPS game or an RPG. I find myself wanting to complete the next gameplay section to see the next part of the story.
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As I said, I love a good story, and I love a good game. If the game I'm playing seems to comprise a story, or if it makes me tell myself a story in my mind, or if it turns into a story when I've finished it and start writing up my experience, that's great. I'm sure many gamers do the same or similar things.

But as I was reading the Atlantic article, I understood the writer to be talking about video games as objets d'art and comparing them, as such, with novels, movies, and the like. It seems to me that's clear and fair to do.

What strikes me as unclear and unfair is rebutting the article by insisting that the whole broad experience of video gaming goes way beyond objets d'art. Or (as one of us did above) dredging up oddities (like Dickens's two endings to Great Expectations) and using them as a lever to force all of us to think outside the box.

It's necessary to compare apples to apples. And a discussion like this often benefits from clear definition and general agreement to keep our thinking more or less inside the box. Sure, we've all got our opinions and individual experiences and the freedom to air them. But if we're supposed to be evaluating the article, we ought to stick to just what the article addresses, not our emotional reactions to it.

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Kodeir wrote:
Saying that good storytelling isn't something a game should strive for makes zero sense.

Then you must think Battle Chess is far superior to regular chess and would be even better if the theme were fleshed out into a full-blown story.

I agree that good storytelling is obviously something a story-based game should strive for. But I don't think the article (or this thread based on the article) is limited to discussing story-based games. The term "video games" includes the likes of The Many Faces of Go, SpaceChem, Tetris, and Bejeweled. And I'm not sure good storytelling would help any of those games much, if at all.

To me, that's what the Atlantic article is saying: storytelling in games is optional, and the quality of the stories in games will probably never rise to the quality of great literature (because the game mechanics interfere with storytelling), so why not drop the story and aim for designing a great game instead?

So far, the consensus retort in this thread is, "But we like stories!" That's a valid emotional response. Chess and go can seem bland, and a good story can make the game challenge palatable.

On an emotional level, I tend to agree. I traded in chess for wargames decades ago, and I got into RPGs as soon as I had a computer that would run Pool of Radiance.

But I've never seen a video-game story that comes up to the classic literature I read in school. And I have seen truly great games (e.g., chess and go) with no story at all.

Personally, I prefer less-than-stellar games most of the time. I want something fun, interesting, and reasonably forgiving. Story elements do a lot to make a game fun for me, so I usually choose games that have a theme or that tell a story. But that's just me. I wouldn't insist that the games I like best are truly excellent games, or that the stories I enjoy most are the best stories in the world.

And in my experience, FWIW, mixing games and stories does tend to weaken both the game and the story. I don't care that it does that, but according to my casual observations, it is the case.
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The video game medium has serious difficulties with telling a story.

One big one being pacing. The storyteller is not in control of how the audience experiences the narrative. I have played a lot of JRPG's and the way I play (lots of grinding) means by the time I get to the next wall of text or cutscene I have lost any subtle details or nuance to the story. The only things I retain are the broad outlines.

And branching plotlines are in my opinion a liability rather than an asset to telling a story. No one is going to award a Choose Your Own Adventure novel with a Pulitzer.
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Well, be fair. How long were people writing stuff down before the 'classics' came to be? Why do you think it'll be shorter for video games?
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Patrick Carroll wrote:
Game designers (of both board games and video games) have been trying for decades to mash those two things together. And many gamers have eagerly welcomed the efforts. But IMO stories and games are inherently exclusive of one another. If you've got a story with a beginning, middle, and end, it's not a game. If you've got a game with practically infinite variation and alternative outcomes, it's not a story.

As a game designer who is primarily known for my storygame designs, I just can't agree. Stories and games are not inherently exclusive, and I vehemently disagree that they cannot or shouldn't be mixed.
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frumpish wrote:
The video game medium has serious difficulties with telling a story.

One big one being pacing. The storyteller is not in control of how the audience experiences the narrative. I have played a lot of JRPG's and the way I play (lots of grinding) means by the time I get to the next wall of text or cutscene I have lost any subtle details or nuance to the story. The only things I retain are the broad outlines.


Games can certainly control pacing. You just picked a poor example. True, many RPGs the player can simply ignore the plot for long periods of time. Then there are games like Shin Megami Tensei: Persona, where time is heavily regulated and managing that time is important because things will happen whether you are ready for them or not.

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And branching plotlines are in my opinion a liability rather than an asset to telling a story. No one is going to award a Choose Your Own Adventure novel with a Pulitzer.


Course, no one is going to award a video game with a Pulitzer, because it doesn't fit the criteria for the award. Course, you are holding a standard for one medium and applying it to another. It is like comparing books to film. They both have their strengths and weaknesses. What makes a good book doesn't make a good movie and vice versa.

I think video games are still trying to figure this out. Many games are story elements between gameplay that may or may not support the story. (See the video in completed games on Bioshock Infinite for an example of one that does not.) For one that does, I like to bring out Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, where the gameplay is an integral part of the story.

Then there is this, but I'm saving it for after I play the game, so I don't know how good the analysis is. Probably has to do with the multiple ending structure.

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