Games as platforms for storytelling

the story is round the next bend
Grumpy Dev Syndrome

As both a dev and a storyteller, I know that games can make an excellent platform for telling stories and it is something I dream about quite frequently. This dreaming leads to an unhealthy dose of Grumpy Dev Syndrome because, well, I can’t use games to tell stories and I really want to. Why not?

To answer this question we need to first understand the current state of games as a platform for storytelling.

The current state of games and storytelling

Daniel Floyd’s presentation on video games and storytelling is one of the best summaries of the current state of games as a platform for storytelling You should probably watch it.

So what?

If you watched all that and thought “so what”, you are not alone. Right now, the world is mostly divided into people who paly games and consume stories, people who tell stories (and work as authors or in TV and movies) and people who make games (devs) who might not be that good at story telling.

There are a few devs who consider themselves to be above average storytellers. I am one of them. That is because I am a writer first and a dev second.

For someone like me, trying to code a game results in terminal Grumpy Dev Syndrome and general rage quitting. I load up my C++ environment, do a bit of hello world and then realise that I have no idea what I am doing. Sure I can tell stories and write code but I have not the faintest idea about graphics and physics engines. That’s because my dev life has always been about manipulating data and putting the text out for web browsers. Also, I suck at design. Seriously, that is not a skill I have developed enough to be useful. Do not high me to do art.

What this dev needs for storytelling.

lady in the woods (story)What this dev needs, and what a lot of dev leaning writers need is an environment where we can write non-linear interactive stories. Those of us who grew up with Fighting Fantasy and Choose Your Own Adventure are already well grounded in branching storytelling. If we also happen to be nerds that love Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder (or whatever) then the chances are we know our stuff. We understand character classes and progression systems.

Myself, I am a huge probability nerd and I consider myself one of the few RPG mechanics experts that understands probability curves. honestly, the lack of understanding of tabletop gamers when it comes to this subject amazes me. This is one of those areas you would be well advised to pay a lot of money to hire me to consult for you. I know my stuff.

Knowing my stuff does not make me a game developer. I’ve started to make my peace with that. But I still want to make story driven games.

My hard drive has a huge folder bursting forth with notes on how to turn the characters and setting for “That Story with the Cat in it” into an interactive story. Just as soon as I can get my head around the object relationship chart for the engine concepts. As I said, I really am not a game dev.

Series like Red vs Blue have shown that games nerds can tell great stories. Red vs Blue took Halo and just used it as a puppet system which was cool. What we writers need though, is a system that we can use to frame stories. Mod creators have been doing this for some time with Minecraft.

Minecraft is not bad for creating stories but it takes a lot of work and is really poor for characterisation. Now Microsoft owns it, well, we will just have to wait and see.

For the record I love Minecraft.

What might the ideal Story framework look like?

Think of something like DnD or Pathfinder. Really anything that uses a bunch of dice and a character sheet. The setting and character system provide a framework for limitless storytelling.

To tell compelling stories, what is needed is not a better physics engine or a bigger world, but the right building blocks for story crafting. What are those blocks that a story is made from?

  1. Character
  2. Setting
  3. Plot (events)

The DnD model is a pretty good fit, at least conceptually. A framework for creating realistic characters who want something and act like in a way that fits their character is vital to good story telling. It need not even look that hot. We can do a lot with a retro looking side scroller if you give us the right tools.

The same can be said for the setting. Even if the houses all look pretty similar and we can all see that assets are being heavily reused if the story is good enough, that will not matter. Red vs Blue showed us that. Instead of giving us more ways to throw punches, give us more ways to show emotion. Really, anything would be a good start. We writers can spin worlds out of nothing more than an empty word processor document and some imagination. So think what we could do with a few tools to build with.

Finally, we need to be able to construct plot points. This can be triggers, boolean switches (does X have Y?), or something more versitile. Again, this does not need to be complex – if the character system can track variables properly and we have a decent enough way to write simple logic for those values, leave the rest to us.

The Plan

I know that a game needs to make money. Just writing a game system for authors to tell stories with is unlikely to big a big earner. So how do we get around it?

One way to get around the need to make money would be to develop a game system with twin goals in mind. On the one hand, you are looking to make a solid story telling framework complete with tools and scripting environments; on the other you are looking to make an epic RPG reminiscent of tabletop RPGs. Sure, you are not going to be making the next Skyrim but an indie level title with engaging content could use pretty much the same system. In fact, almost all the tools you make for the storytelling goal would be the tools you use to make the RPG.

Once the game is shipped you could launch the platform with a reasonable mix of basic assets and make some more money off the same effort. With a little planning early enough, you could have an asset store where you can sell any artwork you have laying around not doing anything. Indeed you could allow users to buy and sell assets (for a cut) and might end up recruiting the artists you need for that double-epic sequel you’ve been hoping to make.

The downside

I am not saying this is a perfect plan. The first generation storyteller is likely to have a fairly short shelf life and be pretty limited. If you do a good enough job, you may be guilty of helping a lot of third rate titles make it onto steam but the market will soon figure out the good from the not so good.

It has to be said that I am advocating for a direction that has been tried before. What went wrong, in my opinion, is that previous attempts tried to give people the power to make triple-A style, high end, ambitious projects and all I am asking for is something cute that I can use tot ell stories with.

The upside

Games that tell stories can change lives. Stories are how we as humans explain the world. So story and gameplay need to go together.

Imagine Normal and an NPC

What I am getting at, as writer, is that I have an itch that needs scratching. That itch is to find new ways for players and readers to interact with what I think are a cast of comedy gold characters.

Take Normal, the talking cat. This is a character that is so self-interested that you could spin all sorts of mechanics arround solving the pruzzle of how to get the character to help you. Quite aside from how iconic this character seems to be (and trust me, everyone remembers the cat), the setting is deliberately flexible. Part of the core conceit is that this is not the only version of this world. Every telling can and should be different in some way.

Ideal fodder for a game, I’d say.

Every character in “that story” would work well as NPCs for an RPG (or as character classes too) or as playable characters in a Lucas Arts style point and click. Jack is the ideal protagonist for a puzzle game or action platformer. Not only is Jack incredibly vanilla (and that is on purpose) but he could be dropped out entirely to allow the player to spin up their own character to take that role. Again, on purpose.

There has really been a critique session involving chapters of “that story” where the readers did not have their own ideas about how Jack should tackle the issues he encounters. It is very hard not to respond emotionally to the cast of characters, even if that emotion is to shudder at how creepy Dave is.

I can’t believe that I am the only geek or nerd that would relish the chance to make an interactive story if the right tools were available. The graphics don’t need to be amazing. In fact, with my skills, I’d rather they were retro. So long as I can help you to believe the characters, you will love the story.

Game devs, the authors of the world need you.

Make it so.

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