Co-operative Storytelling with Video Games
Video Game Storytelling
In a way, all stories are co-operative: they require input and participation from at least two participants: the storyteller and the listener (or the consumer, as it were). In effect, after all, stories are made to elicit a response from the one who hears the story. The storyteller aims to craft a story, what ever the format, that makes the listener feel something. The goal of the story might be to scare the listener, to make them mad or even feel love. A talented storyteller might even make the listener, reader or watcher feel many of these feelings in one story, to get them to feel conflicted about the characters of the story and their stories. But if there is one form of storytelling that is the greatest form of co-operative storytelling, it is the video game.
What’s more, the video game story is more often than not told by a group or a team than an individual storyteller. Modern video games require a large variety of different disciples, talents, and personalities to come to life. Perhaps the first few video games, the likes of Pong and Tetris, could be made by one singular personality behind them, handling all the disparate and highly varied arts required to produce a quality game (and make no mistake, all the different parts required to make a videogame are all different art forms).
Behind all the bells and whistles of any video game, however, stands one thing that holds the whole enterprise together: the narrative, otherwise called the story. While it may appear that some games don’t have much of a story behind them, there is at least a sprinkling of a narrative them. Because what is a narrative at its most basic? Conflict.
The main unit of any narrative is not the chapter, the paragraph or even the sentence. Any story is fundamentally formed of conflict. It may not be a violent or even necessarily a particularly dramatic, but every decision in any story is based on conflict. The protagonist wants something, but there are obstacles. Frodo wants to destroy the One Ring, but you can’t just walk into Mordor!
These conflicts aren’t just larger plot points like the above (the whole plot of quite large trilogy of formative fantasy novels). In short, every scene should contain some form of conflict, no matter how small. Bob didn’t sleep last night and wants to wake up properly, but there isn’t any coffee. Without the want and but, there isn’t any conflict and the overall story will surely suffer. If the story lacks conflict, strife and something for the characters to strive toward, it’s a very boring story. Try to imagine a story where the protagonists just get what they want. Why would read a story without any stakes, without anything for the heroes to lose.
That’s why video games are excellent story telling tool! You can find points of conflict in almost every second of actual gameplay. Does your character move left or right? Do you jump now or a fraction of a second later? Even in games that don’t have such a clear narrative to them, such as The Sims, have conflicts in them (if not every second, you are going to resolve conflict at least once a minute). In The Sims, you might want to have your sim to work-out or make art, but they have bodily functions that require looking after. Do you keep them practicing and have them urinate right where they work?
So, conflict drives narrative, and points of conflict can be found nearly everywhere in any video game. But because the narrative runs so deeply through any given video game, it’s challenging to properly deliver the narrative, and more importantly the feel and emotions that you were aiming for, to the player. All the different pieces of the video game puzzle need to go together to form any semblance of a good story. And there are a lot of these pieces: level design, character design, audio, gameplay, visuals, the score, the user interface, AI and so on.
Because of all these different components need to come together in harmony, there is a high chance of creating something called ludonarrative dissonance (a word so new that Word doesn’t recognize it as a word). Ludonarrative dissonance happens when the games gameplay and narrative clash. For example, imagine a game where the main game play loop (the mechanic that the game mostly utilizes, not just a questline or an area of the game) is to shoot at your enemies, like many first-person shooters. If other parts of the game (like cut scenes, the character design or audio design) establish the player character to be a pacifist who has never picked up a gun in his life, only for the character to pick up a gun and mow down thousands of enemies, you’d be to say the least. There the story that the other parts of the game want to tell clashes with the story that the game play wants to tell. Of course, some times you want to create ludonarrative dissonance to confuse and disorient the player, to make them feel the chaos around their player character (especially in horror games), but usually the player will subconsciously feel like something is off.
And there-in lies the danger and beauty of co-operative storytelling. All the parts of the puzzle need to come together in harmony. The average AAA video game (i.e. most video games released commercially by large publishers, think Call of Duty, instead of Limbo) takes anywhere from 18 to 36 months to make, with the longest development times taking up to five years. Because of the extensive development times and nature of video game development that means that the narrative, plot and story elements can each change quite drastically during the process, the presence of a narrative designer or writer can make or break a game. But even more important is the ability of the whole design team to co-ordinate what ever they do during the design.