Posts Tagged ‘Elder Scrolls

16
Dec
09

Free, Affirmed, Expressive, Consequential

Awhile back “Doctor Professor” of the blog Pixel Poppers wrote some interesting stuff about interactive storytelling in video games. In the first half, he discusses how video games have failed at storytelling, by imitating other media (film, mostly) instead of playing to their own medium’s strengths: interactivity and dynamism. In the second half, he takes a look at what successful and innovative videogame storytelling might look like.

Doctor Professor’s points resonate with me. I’ve come to love the newest generations of VG technology (Playstation-onwards) for their ability to convey a story through cinematic presentation, and I’ve favored the kinds of games that present fully-realized characters with emotions and personalities (Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy) over games that provide blank protagonists to imprint your own emotions and thoughts onto (Deus Ex, Elder Scrolls). I’ve found that the latter tend to fall short of actually feeling like a story, while the former at least provide story in a meaningful way, even if it’s spoon-fed to you and beyond your ability to impact.

But Dr. Prof is right; these stories are wasting the medium’s artistic potential. They’re showing movies with intermissions for gymnastics and target practice. They’re often pretty movies,  sometimes with characters and themes that speak to me. And the gameplaying segments that alternate with cinematics can often be rewarding and fun in their own right. These are not failures as games.

But as an art form, they can be more. Some games are pioneering this change, such as Metal Gear Solid (known for its interminable cutscenes but also for making gameplay decisions matter in new ways) and Mass Effect (which will allow pivotal choices made in the first game to load into the next one). Pioneering new ground doesn’t run smoothly, of course. Both the above gamers have severe limitations on the player’s ability to affect the story. But hopefully as this trend continues we’ll see a radical shift as, like Doctor Professor says, the video game medium comes into its own.

The Professor names four strengths of video games that are vital for exploring their storytelling potential. 1) choices must be free, 2) choices must be affirmed, 3) choices must be expressive, and 4) choices must be consequential. When a player’s input is not channeled or forced into a predetermined path, AND receives feedback that validates the choice (characters thank you,  get mad, etc), AND allows for emotional expression and thematic statement, AND has a meaningful effect on the world and its inhabitants, THEN the player can truly be said to shape the outcome of the story. The user is a collaborator rather than a consumer.

Which is one of the strengths of face-to-face roleplaying, presumably–with human imaginations on tap for content, rather than computer algorithms, the potential for free, affirmed, expressive and consequential choice, for all participants, is vast. Collaborative story should pulse through a roleplaying session. And yet I’ve had many roleplaying experiences that have shut down each one of those attributes of choices, often several at once. Just as video games, in emulating movies, aren’t realizing their unique artistic potential, so “pen and paper” games fall short of their calling when they merely emulate the pre-written novel or the pre-programmed video game.

My friend Christian of Berengad Games also recently explored ways of achieving dynamic and interactive story in video games. He had a specific theoretical implementation in mind and I contributed my own. But whatever the specific implementation–and there’s room for multitudes–I think the key lies in Dr. Professor’s 4 elements: free, affirmed, expressive and consequential.

And if computer programmers are breaking new ground here, can interactive group storytelling in the real world do any less? For myself, I can’t go back. Those four criteria are my minimum bar for participation. At the very least, if any of those elements aren’t on the table, DON’T LEAD ME ON–tell me up front, so that I can make the mental shift and NOT approach the game as group storytelling. But when I’m seizing story, I’ll stay in the company of the innovators and explorers, and keep my eye on the horizon.

Peace,

-Joel




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