Embrace

“Basically, and I’m speaking to the Blizzard guys in the back: we need to stop writing a fucking book in our game, because nobody wants to read it.” [...] We need to deliver our story in a way that is uniquely video game.

– Jeff Kaplan (Former Director of World of Warcraft) Speaking at the 2009 Game Developers Conference

Shortly after I started my first play session of BattleForge last week, I discovered that a majority of the real-time strategy game’s back-story and narrative was delivered to the player in an unfortunately common way:

The in-game book, in that screen shot, is displaying a mere two pages of that selected chapter’s storyline. There are five more chapters in that “Plot” book, and then even more like it in the “World” and “Legend” books. This is a game released to the world’s foremost interactive medium and it is relaying its significant narrative through a tiny, digital book. Mass Effect, too, chose to have an in-game encyclopedia/compendium feature in its game menu which served as a means for players to read an enormous amount of back-story and flavor text about the world in which the game took place. The Elder Scrolls games have an abundance short stories that could be found in logical spots within the game worlds and then read by players at their leisure.

Why? Why do we, game designers and developers, feel the need to expound on our games to the point where we task players, as optional a task as that may be, to sit and stare at their monitors reading digital books? When a player is given a large body of text in a video game, the general assumption is that this text is of some import to the game being played. The result is that we allow, and even promote, our players reading these bodies of text that very rarely have any gameplay relevance whatsoever. And, even worse, these works of writing are generally of poor quality and bland style the likes of which would never end up within the covers of any proper published book. The net result of throwing page after page of in-game text at players is that we abort any semblance of game pace while simultaneously conditioning players to consider any text within the game world as irrelevant or mundane. This doesn’t enhance the believability or character of the game world, it makes players stop playing the game and, instead, has them reading the writing of either game developers who have a thin grasp on the basic concepts of creative writing or the work of a contracted novelist who has a thin grasp on video games.

We are the experts on our medium, yet for some reason we still take countless cues from movies and books for our influences and presentation. If a game is a fantasy game, then its developers seem to take it upon themselves to attempt to create Lord of the Rings inside their game with The Silmarillion occupying in-game books and menus. If it’s a science-fantasy game, then Star Wars and every Star Wars book ever written must ship within the game.

There’s a widely-understood phenomenon regarding the book-to-movie translation: it doesn’t work. Books have the written power to convey thoughts, images, emotion to their readers while also providing an author with the flexibility to include as much information as he or she feels is necessary to make the book a complete work. Exceptionally books can be hard for readers to slog through, but the medium is not meant for consumption within the confines of a single sitting. Books are typically where readers will find most of our cultural and historical epics, incredibly detailed biographies, recounts of events and so on.

Film is a medium where concision, however, is paramount. The primary success of a film depends entirely on the success of the film’s director and screenwriters to convey every single one of their goals and intentions within a one-and-a-half to three hour period. In order to do this properly, the scriptwriters must make every word count while also depending on the movie’s actors’ ability to not only deliver the line but also to bodily express more than what is in explicitly in the script. The result, ideally, is a cinematic experience that has been very carefully directed and edited to produce the most succinct and powerful delivery possible.

The idea that the video game industry can just mash the breadth of detail and information of a book and the visuals and presentation of a movie with the inherent dynamism and unpredictability of an interactive medium is pretty absurd. That the game industry has gotten by this long by attempting to take so many cues from such well-established creative media is a testament to the craftsmanship and creativity of the game developers throughout the ages, but the days of text-heavy role-playing games are gone. Even gamer tolerance of cinematic-heavy games like Metal Gear Solid seems to have started to dwindle. At this point in the life of the video game, anything that takes the player out of the game actively works against the interest and integrity of the game design. And games that take the player out of the flow of gameplay in an effort to expound on the game world or universe through awkwardly-presented narrative is strange dichotomy to think beneficial to any game.

Embrace the benefits of video games. The medium has a unique ability to empower a player’s actions with meaning and the medium is getting to a time where technology and the collected knowledge of game design allows us to “know better” than to just throw a cut scene or a novel at players. If a back-story about this one character who did this one thing a millennium ago doesn’t directly impact the player’s gameplay experience, don’t toss it in with the other unrelated works of text — toss it out. Allow the player to interact with that character in a meaningful way and, maybe, convey that same information in a more concise and dynamic way. When a player shares in another character’s experience in a fashion that is unique to a given type of gameplay, that empowers that interaction and the information that the player receives more than just reading some arbitrary back-story in a book.

And please, please find a new pool of inspiration outside of fantasy and science-fantasy.

8 thoughts on “Embrace”

  1. I dunno, man. You know what really drew me into games like Starcraft? The fucking book – in this case the game's manual.

    Obviously, a book (whether in-game or not) should never become a substitute for discovery or interactivity. On the other hand, I think the notion that the video game is this completely different media that should eschew literature and cinema in order to be a pure gaming experience is.. snobbish? No, movies do not often pause and present a paragraph of text for the viewer to read, but I do not think we should restrict our definitions of media. Should a painting never display a line of poetry?

    I know I am straw-manning your point a bit. I'll accept that – I just want to suggest that the biggest problem with movies/books in games is not that they are in games but that they suck. You know, the writing and movie-directing in Blizzard's games was compelling enough that I sometimes cheated through missions just to hear the dialogue and watch the cinematics. Yeah, I'm playing a game, but I still like movies and I enjoy reading. The main difference between storytelling in MGS4 and Starcraft is that MSG4 had horrible writing and poor cinematography.

    In short, while games like Portal and Bioshock are great in their storytelling, I would not want every game to be that way. Sometimes, the best reward for pulling off a great feat of gameplay is not more gameplay but a stunning and engaging cinematic. Emphasis on the adjectives.

  2. Generally, I would agree with your points. I love reading, but if part of a game's backstory needs to be in the form of a book, find another way to get the necessities to the player in the game and put the rest in an actual, well-written book, as with Halo's “Fall of Reach”. I play games to play games, and I read to read. I don't think there is anything wrong with books related to games, or games related to books. It's when you try to combine them, or translate one to the other that problems arise.

    I do wonder what other inspiration you can think of though. As far as genre's go, there's non-fiction, plain fiction, fantasy, science fantasy, and futurism, which is often confused with science fantasy(Fallout is science fantasy, Mirror's Edge is more futurist. Both are sci-fi, but I digress). If it doesn't exist in real life, it automatically goes to SF or fantasy.

    So it seems you must want more regular type fiction in games. I guess that would include historical fiction, which is seldom approached outside of WWII FPS and the various historical RTS games. Do we need more regular fiction, like dramas(Michael Mateas's Facade?), romance(there's a genre that would destroy me), or mysteries? I guess there's less of that sort of thing in games.

    This isn't a particularly well organized comment/ramble. I hope it doesn't come off as critical. I'm just curious.

    I'm a CS:Game Design major at UCSC, so I'm always interested in hearing game design philosophy.

  3. You make a fair point and had I put more time and thought into constructing this piece I would have properly addressed that like I intended to at a few moments during its writing.

    Short cut scenes do a remarkable job of both infusing a player's actions with meaning while also serving as reward bookends for gameplay segments. I'm inherently against cut scenes since I think they serve to remove the player from the gameplay, but as the reward portion of effort/reward, they work quite well.

  4. Maybe ten to fifteen years ago, video games had a very “certain” demographic where Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings were probably some of the most appealing settings when making a game that would actually sell. I'm not a huge fan of any of those settings, but in my experience the stereotypical gamer of yore and a lot of game developers tend to be interested in a lot of the same media types.

    Now, though, I think games have found a lot more mainstream cultural appeal and the continued catering to power fantasies and the Star Wars/Trek and LOTR nonsense is getting a bit out of control. Look at games like Max Payne, Bioshock, Portal, Far Cry 2, and such. They're all superb games, but their handling of environments, setting, and “genre” make their experiences so unique that they end up being better games for it.

    Hell, look at The Sims (and the rest of the Sim games and Spore); Maxis makes incredibly fun games out of regular, daily life. It's possible to put any genre or setting into a game, but sometimes it takes a unique game design to make it work.

  5. There is also a difference between cut-scenes the move the action (every cut-scene in RE5) and cut-scenes that provide context or tell a story (cinematics in Starcraft). One, I think, has no purpose other than to remove the player and present some showcase special effects sequence. The other's purpose is to flesh out a world.

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