Who Needs Stories

Seventeen years. That’s how long I’ve been pondering this question, since 1990 when games still came on floppies that actually were floppy. Games were small and crude and there room for preludes and cut-sequences or movies. But still we dreamed. We imagined interactive technologies could supplant video and film and that a new medium of story-telling would emerge, a more powerful medium that would engage people of all ages. We liked to use the term interactive story-telling, but we had no idea what that meant so we made it up as we went along and failed more often than we succeeded. Games could tell a story, but not a very compelling one. The adventure games of the mid-90’s came pretty darn close though, and people like Tim Schaffer and the Miller brothers did a helluva job trying, but in the end even MYST and Grim Fandango are more game than story. The same is true of today’s casual games.

Games exist to divert us, to entertain our senses and provide us with release. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Casual games can do things that movies and books can’t do. They stimulate our brains and involve our senses in their own unique way. They may not be soul-wrenching or heart-tugging but that doesn’t diminish them as art. Those PopCap fellas are as culturally significant as Steven Spielberg. Well, maybe that’s a stretch, but I’ll say this, they’re the Spielbergs of casual games. They helped usher in a new era of gaming, sort of an interactive-lite – great taste, less filling. Maybe they don’t make you cry but for a few minutes each day they make you happy and isn’t that just as good? Isn’t it better?

Yet stories in games persist. We’re seeing more of them and they’re getting better. I’ve heard people argue about the merit of stories in games as if it was the great question of our age, but really, who cares? It’s just filler, right? Bookends to add a perception of depth and value. Well, yeah, in some cases that’s true. Not everyone can craft a decent story and it’s not easy to make one work in a game. So ninety percent of the time the ‘stories’ in casual games suck, and add no value to the game itself. But let’s not judge the intent by its failures. Just because most stories in games don’t work, are poorly written, poorly integrated and amount to nothing more than a comic panel on the back of a cereal box, let’s not damn the concept itself. Because in some cases stories do work and do add something significant to the overall game experience. A modest, well-written story, combined with film-inspired elements like opening movies and cinematic scores can provide flavor, tone and a sense of depth to a game. A story, combined with a strong game mechanic, adds to the feeling of immersion and provides the player with a sense that something is at stake. And characters give the player something other than a jewel, a coin or a rolling orb to identify with. Stories, characters, music, and sound can’t make a bad game good, but they can make a good game great.

iWin’s Jewel Quest Solitaire demonstrates this remarkably well. The opening cinematics set up a simple story that, though cliche, still manages to suck you in and provide an air of mystery and suspense. It’s not high art, but it is good art, and really, that’s all I’m asking for out of a download game. I’m not expecting Citizen Kane or Dr. Strangelove and it seems to me that the problem with story in games has a lot to do with what we expect and not the stories themselves. I do believe that it’s possible, and even likely, that games will one day become a powerful story-telling medium. But that’s going to require writers, programmers and game designers to work together very early on in the development process. Until that happens we should look Jewel Quest Solitaire or PlayFirst’s Mystery of Shark Island (which does a very nice job of creating an emotional landscape for the player) as examples of game-stories done right. Both of these games use music and audio to strengthen their stories. I’ve often said that the sound designer is the most over-looked and under-appreciated component in the development process. Yet it’s no coincidence that games that do succeed as story vehicles happen to have great sound design. The sound designer is the glue that holds the game together. Sound and music provide the atmosphere in which the story and characters breathe.

Characters represent people of course and stories are about people, specifically people doing things, people in action, or people that something has happened to. This is a basic principal of fiction, stage drama, film and even games. Rarely are we engaged by stories about people doing nothing and story-tellers spend a lot of time painting portraits of people so that we will see in them a reflection of ourselves. Empathy leads to caring and caring about a character, even just a little, is how we become invested in a story. Yet this is where many games falter and fail. They either don’t show us enough about a character, or what they do show is so shallow, so contrived and cliché, that we, as adept consumers of well-developed characters (Sopranos, Grey’s Anatomy, Lost, House etc.) immediately see through them. We see the man behind the curtain and we know instantly, and intuitively, that we are not in capable hands. A good story-teller, in any medium, must earn our trust and respect within a minute, and he or she must build on that trust to assure us that something interesting is going to happen that will be believable and logical within the boundaries the story-teller has set. Hollywood types call that the suspension of disbelief and very few games can sustain it.

But a game’s story doesn’t have to be deep or meaningful. It doesn’t have draw rich and realistic characters. It doesn’t have to plumb the depths of human emotion or tackle life’s big questions. It’s not fair to compare games to movies or books because games are not dialog-driven nor do they have the inherent capacity to convey the nuance of the human face. Next time you’re watching your favorite HBO drama pay attention to how much face-acting is going on. There’s more information conveyed in faces in a Deadwood episode than words. Novelists get around this by using the omniscient voice and going inside the characters’ heads so we can know what they’re thinking. But a game designer can’t do that, and no 3D modeler or mo-cap program can capture it either. Stories are about people and games have not yet risen to the level where they can convey people like other mediums. But that doesn’t diminish the value of story elements in a game.

Until game designers really study the art of story-telling, they’re as likely to create a great story as a screenwriter is to sit down and code a great game. So stories will remain decent, at best, for the time being, and I don’t mind that. I want to keep my worlds separate. I don’t want to love Diner Dash-Flo or the Cake Mania lady. I want to love Omar from The Wire and Holden Caufield and Jack Nicholson. So when it comes to casual games, do we really need story? They’re cool sometimes, but they never, ever, endure. They’re superficial and ridiculous. But I love them all the same. I’ll take a Saints and Sinners Bingo over a Gem Shop any day. We don’t need story in casual games, but we do need casual games that are immersive, interesting and unique. Stories sometimes provide those qualities, but they will never make up for mediocre play-mechanic.

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