The USS Quad Damage

Everyone is talking about Narrative

I wrote a post about narrative a few days ago, but my blog ate it. It was being migrated by site5, and the DB went down just as I pressed “send”.

Luckily, Google Reader saved a version of the article before I lost it. Here it is:

Thom Holweda wrote an article about gaming, and it struck a cord with me, primarily because I was going to write a very similar article about Bioshock. He does mention Bioshock in passing, and all that I found missing about it, but he’s missed a few of the insights that I got while playing Bioshock, so I’ll talk about them here. You’ll find my conclusions are different.

If you’ve played Bioshock, you’ll know it’s linear and fairly boring. To add insult, they’ve added these plasmids, which you think are going to mean killing dudes in innovative ways, but this just doesn’t happen. Firstly, your weapons are just more flexible than plasmids. If I have a pistol and I empty the clip, I could reload the pistol, or I could just change to the shotgun. Unlike the weapons, no matter which plasmid you choose, they all use a shared pool of mana (I forget the proper Bioshock term for this). “Reloading� your mana takes a while, and it doesn’t really last much longer than a clip, so you’re stuffed. End result: guns are better.

Secondly, the enemies aren’t that interesting. There are different enemy types, but they look almost identical, and they also fight in very similar ways. Maybe some enemies are “long range� and some are “melee�, but overall you don’t really feel like they’re different to each other. Your weapons (and plasmids) are also more effective against some enemies than others, but these values are merely “tweaks� as opposed to something which really makes a huge difference.

The bigger problem there is that because the enemies are generally fairly smart, and you usually fight a few different types at once, you can’t really take advantage of using the type of weapon which is only slightly more effective against them. This is exacerbated by the fact that often some enemies are more susceptible to a particular type of ammo, which takes a full reload to get into your clip. Your plasmid choices are also fairly limited.

I’m really just embellishing here. The key point is that plasmids were supposed to yield emergent gameplay and allow explorative behaviour, and that didn’t happen. The “one-two� punch was pretty much all there was. But why did this happen? If you believe Thom, it’s your fault for buying the wrong games, thus corrupting the pure heart of the Bioshock developers.

The real problem is more subtle, and it comes from two angles. The first is those despicable narratologists. These guys basically believe that games are essentially “narrative� (i.e. a story). The belief is not wrong in and of itself. The problem is really that these same dudes are often more into movies than they are into games, and they often want to control not where the player begins, but where the player ends up. This can sometimes turn out well. If you look at games like the Monkey Island series, it’s basically a comic book you walk through, with a couple of puzzles thrown in.

The problem comes in when people start to expect an ability to affect the outcomes. When you’re effectively in an Interactive movie, you start to wonder whether you’re the hero or playing just a bit part. Whether or not you’re important, the sell of a lot of these games, like Fallout 3, like Bioshock, is emergent gameplay. That you’ll see something happen as a result of what you’re doing. That’s patently a lie, because the guy making the “game� is really only interested in telling his (or her) story, not in letting you play out yours. Bioshock is Monkey Island without the humor and a much worse story. Also no puzzles.

So why no emergent behaviour? The answer is sort of subtle, and it’s tied to save-games: Imagine that you do something the developer does not expect, and you’ve just saved the game. The developer cannot know for sure that you’ll be able to finish the game. If you’re in Bioshock and you kill Atlas half-way through the game, what’s it going to do then? The game is in an un-finishable state. You’ve killed someone who’s integral to the story, so you always talk to Atlas through a radio, or behind an inpenetrable glass panel. The most dangerous thing in the game isn’t the splicers, it’s you!

When you play through Bioshock with that in mind, it becomes this creepy experience, like you’re being led through the game, not by Atlas with his “would you kindly�, not by the Russian chick, but by the game developers themselves. It’s at that time that all those glass walls come back, from Half life, from fucking Deus EX (a game that supposedly did everything right). Why is everyone talking to me through the glass instead of just directly. That’s when you feel like a rat in a cage.

Props to COD4, which went to some length to make it appear that you had free will. Half life 2 also had some element of not doing this, but it still immediately ended the game if you shot someone on your side. This isn’t some weird punishment, it’s so that you don’t kill them and then save the game, playing (perhaps for hours) without realising that there’s now no way of finishing the game. This used to happen, and game designers know that whatever people say today to berate their game, they’d downright burn the designers at the stake if they were allowed to save a game and then much later realise that they may have to start the game all over again.

So, remove the story, right? Without the story tying you down, the world really can take a whole shape around you, instead of being tied to the developer’s imagination. To some extent this is possible, but then there’s another problem: If there’s no story, there’s no ending (think Sim City). If you do something, like kill an integral character, or even die yourself, there’s nothing to say that the story is finished. There needs to be some broad end condition, like killing the main bad guy, like doing something.

The other thing is that narrative is actually interesting. Little bits of narrative tying your actions together, the right things happening at the right time can be really poignant. Developers will need to experiment with emergent stories, and tying things together to a whole, with (possibly emergent) open ended goals, which can always be achieved. It’s possible, but it will require a lot more thought and development than creating a shitload of content, which is highly parallelisable, and practically risk-free.

Removing the story can really work though. The deepest feelings I’ve had in a game have come not from the story, but my actions, or the solution to a problem. One of the bosses of Treasure’s Ikaruga is literally a “yin-yang� symbol which shoots at you, and it notably has the same ability as you: it can change colours to avoid damage from your bullets. As you do more damage, it changes colour quicker. When I figured out how to defeat it, I nearly cried. Use your super, then when it changes colour, change in sync, use it’s shot to do your super again. You don’t shoot at it, rather you use it’s bullets as ammo to repeatedly do your super. Note that if you lose sync, it’s shot will kill you instead of making you stronger, so timing is really important.

It felt spiritual, even though there was no real story, even though what I was doing didn’t make any real sense. I felt like I was… well… playing with the game, like it was teaching me about life. That’s what games are really supposed to be like. Hell, people actually liked Sim City.

Another solution is removing the ability to save games. If you are forced to start from scratch every time, there’s no problems with being in a bad state. The problem then becomes replayability: You cannot have the same story every time you start. Some things need to be different. Secondly, the story must be very short (i.e. playable in half an hour), not epic long like Bioshock or Fallout 3. There was a game which tried to do this. It failed.

So, basically these guys are under a lot of pressure to make a game which works. The risks which they’re dealing with isn’t making and releasing a game interesting, it’s making and releasing a game which isn’t broken. Doing that and keeping things fun is hard work, so people go with what they know, or take small steps in improving things.