Games vs Books and Films

February 10, 2008

I’ve either got to write shorter posts, or learn to write faster, as by the time I get round to posting nowadays my subject matter tends to be weeks old. In this case it’s an article Gamasutra wrote about from way back January 10th. Thankfully Gamasutra and Cameron Sorden at Random Battle have also recently posted on the whole story/narrative subject, so it feels a bit more relevant to talk about my take on this one.

So way back in January, Tom Carroll compared the stories of Halo 3 and Lord of the Rings, a bit unfair you might think, but an interesting approach all the same. Unsurprisingly, Lord of the Rings won the contest, because in Tom’s opinion Halo 3 failed to satisfactorily tie up its storyline. Having not yet played Halo 3 (I have so many games I need to play/complete at the moment it just isn’t an option), I have to take his word for it. But is that really the definition of a good story: that it has a satisfactory resolution?

Lets’ take a game about whoch ‘story’ and ‘narrative’ have come up a lot and one that I’m far more familiar with, Bioshock. Now, my personal feeling was that the end of the game wasn’t hugely satisfying for me as a player. The reason I’ve italicized the last point, is as Cameron points out on his blog, that the player’s perspective is different to that of a viewer. In a typical film or book, the main character is controlled by someone other than you, the reader. You may empathise with them, maybe you can’t stand them, but what they do is out of your control. The other feature common to films and books is that you see the story from the point of view of other characters, you get to see what they’re thinking or plotting, whether it is beneficial or otherwise for the main character. Bear this in mind, because I think this has a big impact on my opinions of Bioshock. Like most people who played Bioshock I chose to harvest the little sisters and although I knew it was technically the ‘wrong’ choice to make in terms of the moral choices you face in the game as a player I was still quite surprised at the end that showing me/Jack attacking and killing the little sisters. It’s not that I was hugely surprised by the ending itself, but rather by the lack of pointers I was given along the way.

Cameron makes some really good points in his piece about the nature of story in games/MMOs, particularly that stories in games are often experienced over a matter of days, unlike films that are usually experienced in a couple of hours, so players tend to forget or lose interest in the storyline. Even in films however, viewers are constantly reminded about the drive of the storyline. A few months back I read Kristin Thompson’s Storytelling and the New Hollywood, a brilliant and influential book the basic premise of which is that the classic three act structure.

Attributed to Hollywood is in fact in error, and Hollywood films are better thought of as four act structures. Apart from this, Kristin analyses in great depth the craft of a number of Hollywood films from the 70s, 80s and 90s, in particular how they guide the viewer both subtly and unsubtly so that the story and character actions within the story make sense. I’ll use Groundhog Day (read this for a bit of geek humour on this subject) as an example here, because it has one very clear main protagonist, Bill Murray’s character Phil, and because of the Groundhog Day ‘curse’ his character essentially has a ‘reload’ function, sort of like a computer game. Despite the elaborate time repetition feature of the film, the underlying principle of the story is that Phil has to learn to be decent to women, if he is to have a happy and fulfilling life. Via the responses of other characters the film ensures that the audience are always able to follow which of Phil’s actions are wrong and which are right. For example there are number of scenes where Phil in his attempts to seduce Rita gets to various stages of success only to make the wrong move or say the wrong thing, to which Rita responds by storming off or slapping him – very simple but effective actions that signal failure.


 My point is, why couldn’t the NPCs in Bioshock given me the same unsubtle hints about the direction that my behavior was taking me? To some degree the AI in Oblivion gets this right, NPCs react differently to your character if he or she has a weapon unsheathed or if he or she has a disease. Given the more closed nature of Bioshock, adding these kind of NPC responses should have been a lot easier. In a recent Gamasutra article Bioware CEO Ray Muzyka claims that “”In BioShock, the narrative is expressed in an observant way that you might miss it… but it’s a watercooler talk thing, you can discuss it.” But this is in the opinion of the mass market, not a good story. Every story contains subtleties, but as the outcome is dependent on the players in-game choices, the potential outcome of these choices should be more apparent.

I think it is these kinds of cues that can transform the quality of story in games. Pure sandboxes have limited if enthusiastic proponents (see Second Life) most people want to feel they’re part of something bigger and that they can have some affect on it – but they do need clues as to how they’re proceeding. And no, that’s not the way it works in real life, but games aren’t real life and they shouldn’t ever aspire to be so.

The greatest difficulty with the kind of moral story that Bioshock tells would be trying to put it in an MMO context. There is no pre-scripted end to an MMO, so it’s not easy to ‘judge’ a character’s/player’s actions, it’s expected that other players will do the judging rather than any pre-scripted response. I’ve read a few suggestions that tackle this issue in respect to WoW (although I can’t remember where). The idea that Alliance players could get reputation with Horde factions and vice versa was suggested, that would require opposing faction players to complete some very difficult tasks as emissaries for the enemy, I also assume that PvP would not be an option, maybe unless provoked. It would be interesting to implement this idea just to see how many players were willing to give it a go, or if loyalty to their faction outweighed the desire for some cool benefits and rewards.



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