Everybody is a storyteller
I was lucky enough to be at the Develop Evolve panel ‘New Stories for New Platforms’. I’d gone along expecting to leave at the end filled with seething rage. See I’m one of those people who doesn’t like stories in games. Not the kind that the designer tells the player. I’ve never found myself wishing a story had more game in it, so why would I want more story in my game?
The story the designers bake into a game is never as powerful, memorable or relevant as the story that players tell themselves. I can’t remember the story in Halo (I think it may have been set in space?) but I can regale you with a seemingly endless selection of anecdotes about that bit where I was killed by that guy or that thing with the buildings and that one time when I accidentally killed all of my own men with a single, inappropriate grenade.
This isn’t surprising. As they sip red wine and smoke cigarettes in an imaginary French bistro, clever people can often be heard suggesting in their serifed voices that our brains look at the world in terms of metaphors and stories anyway, whether we like it or not. The little person inside, narrating our lives is a real thing. If players are going to tell themselves stories anyway, it’s the designer’s job to make sure that those stories are great and many.
Much to my pleasure, the panel spent quite some time discussing this exact idea. Instead of setting out a linear narrative, Alexis Kennedy of Fail Better Games likened this approach to ‘fires in the desert’ an idea explained in this blog post. The designer should point the player off in the direction of the next major plot point - you’re secretly a woman, you’re your own brother, your arms are made of jam - but between these points, the player should be encouraged to be their own storyteller. Because they’ll be doing it regardless. They talked about a bunch of other stuff too, but I’d stopped listening by that point.
|Fires in the dessert|
Deal or No Deal: Vendetta
If players tell themselves stories, we can make games that inspire the player to tell particular kinds of stories and we can make games that allow the player to tell themselves as many stories as possible. But games are about story enabling, not story telling. If you want your players to enjoy your game, remember your game and tell other people about your game, you should aim to get their inner voice to tell them the funniest, scariest or most exhilarating stories possible.
Game shows already understand this principle very well. Consider Deal or No Deal. The mechanics are simple to the point of barely being there at all, but the show is still embarrassingly easy to watch. That’s because the game gets out of the way and encourages the players to tell their own stories. The whole achingly dumb, yet effortlessly engaging rigmarole of luck being transformed by sheer will into tales of love, honour, betrayal, desperation, misery and exhilaration is the result of the designers thinking about how to make a bunch of great stories, very cheaply.
I’m so meta, I shit myself
The recursive madness contained within all of this is that if we make our own games up, we must logically make up our own stories about our own games. Not only do we avoid stepping on cracks for high score, we internally narrate our progress through our attempts at crack avoidance. We pass on to ourselves tales of our triumph over the forces of washing up, we exalt in our now certain progress to the national finals thanks to that arcing long range sock dunk.
Children will turn anything into a toy, any toy into a game and any game into a story. Adults do just the same thing, they just don’t do the noises. At least not when anyone’s looking.
|L-R Wonder Woman, Superman, Batman, Invisible Man|