Story Apathy

Do you feel like saying that games should be X or that games shouldn’t be Y could potentially reduce innovation and experimentation? If everything should follow the same ideal criteria, you risk missing out on different experiences that could be just as good in their own right. like VNs and adventure games and stuff like The Order: 1866 aren’t “good games” by your definition, but they could still be interesting for some reason like the story or aesthetic. Shouldn’t they be allowed to exist and wouldn’t it be valid to consider them good, but not necessarily in the same way that Melee or SF are?

I don’t think anything I’ve said is going to reduce innovation and experimentation. One thing I’ve tried to highlight with my various ideas for game mechanics and reviews of existing game’s mechanics is that there’s a huge huge space which we haven’t explored yet, because it lies outside the realm of thought, outside the framework people currently have for envisioning game mechanics. We’re trapped in many very small iterations on existing game mechanics because developers aren’t looking at them from the correct perspective. They don’t think, “okay, what if you had an attack that worked based on area coverage of the enemy’s movement patterns over time?” “What if you had an ability that moves these synchronous elements out of sync by speeding one up or slowing one down?” “How can an enemy threaten you, close, middle, and far?” “How can we design an ability that has advantages and drawbacks that vary in intensity situationally?”

As for the rest, lets lay things out here: There’s a lot that you can accomplish artistically in digital media that cannot be accomplished in analog media. I have gone to art exhibits in manhattan that have tried a variety of different things. I’ve seen a lot of weird websites on the internet. I’ve seen a few interesting creations with Twine and with Flash. I like the stories of the No Naku Koro Ni VNs and Steins;Gate. I do not inherently disapprove of these things’ existence.

I do however, for this blog and my writing in general, have a scope. I am here to review and analyze games. I have occasionally gone off and done commentary on movies and anime, but whatever, it’s fun sometimes, but still not the primary focus of my and blog. Note how I also shy away from puzzle commentary most of the time. I don’t think most puzzles are totally within the scope of games commentary. I’m not railing against puzzles in the process. I really enjoy puzzles and puzzle games. Stories and Aesthetics are outside my scope here.

Meanwhile, there is an actual example of a game that I’d call bad which is still interesting for it’s story and that is Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver. I’ve brought it up several times. Of course, I also watched the entire story on Youtube.

These aren’t trying to be good games. They’re not playing to their own strengths by seeking to be games in the first place. And they’re not exactly massively financially successful or well regarded as works of art either most of the time.

I’m not going to say they shouldn’t exist, but I will say that they should have tried to be better games if that is what they chose to pursue. I will say that I’d prefer we made less of these and more, better, games.

Were you always apathetic towards stories in games, and the more technical aspects, or was there a specific time, when you started to feel that way? Was there any one game that solidified your view on the matter?

I’ve been through a number of different opinions on stories in games. I used to like Extra Credits after all. For a time, even after the release of dark souls, my operating thought was that games were this new art form that existed to tell stories in unique ways that previous art forms couldn’t. It was the view I’ve now come to criticize. I was influenced by tabletop role-playing games too, which are very clearly a form of collaborative storytelling, and less like games much of the time. Here’s a post talking about that sort of thing:
It even calls God of War an RPG to an extent, because the nature of the game gets into the player’s head and to a degree makes them play in the role, or so this guy claims. (I now believe RPG is flat-out a misnomer for video games).

It was easy to get subsumed in that sort of middle-of-the-road way of looking at games. You play most games for the gameplay, play RPGs for the story, good graphics don’t matter, but a good art style is essential, games are obviously art, look at how many art things they have in them. Those are some really non-controversial beliefs. By arriving on them, more by absorbing what seemed to be consensus than by independent thought, I thought I was coming to an understanding of games.

What solidified by opinion more than anything else was probably being on LTC (Learn to Counter), a forum with a bunch of people who were more into the idea of games as a holistic hybrid media, where I have always viewed things more atomistically. The primary point of argument was me saying graphics don’t matter, and that kind of got radicalized into me saying nothing matters but the gameplay. I don’t know exactly where I changed my opinions. I think I began to dislike Extra Credits before joining LTC, but I don’t really know and records don’t go back that far.

Anyway, they all valued graphics a lot. And I was like, good graphics don’t make a good game. The quality of the graphics/art style is unrelated to how good a game is. They didn’t value stories or “cinematic” games at all, or very little, so it was mostly a non-topic there. It’s weird to come away from those forums and suddenly everyone accepts that graphics aren’t a big deal, but everyone insists stories are. It’s the same arguments I had back there, but about a different thing.

Of course there was also that one image floating around, ludologist versus narratologist, which Campster picked on in his Debate that Never Happened video. Maybe that’s what actually polarized me prior to LTC?

Of course, the old view from back then was that games stories have always kind of sucked, and we were on the cusp of seeing better ones, but since then that never really came to pass, despite a lot more effort being put in.

Can you explain to me the your stance on why story shouldn’t matter in video games so much? Basically, can you explain why games should focus on being games rather than focus on storytelling?

I’m doomed to get this question forever, aren’t I?

I’ll try (but fail) to keep this really simple. (and probably append this answer to the article above)

Games are awesome. Gameplay is critically ignored. Stable iteration on gameplay is stunted. Stories don’t contribute much/anything to gameplay, but can eat up large amounts of development resources to implement them, and create user experience problems.

Storytelling is not something this format is really suited to. You can’t really govern authored storytelling across emergent possibility space.

Storytelling is basically saying, “This happened.”

The more you say, “This happened” and the more you try to say it about things related to the player, or events that have occurred while the game is running, the more you either run into contradictions, or the actions the player is allowed to take need to be constricted. You can try to get around that by coming up with a group of “This happened” explanations for different things the player does, but rarely can you predict everything unless the possibility space is extremely constricted.

So some games get really antsy about making sure that what happens fits the stories they imagine, and you don’t end up getting to do a lot, which is lame. I mean, wide possibility spaces are necessary to ultimately create depth.

Like, why shouldn’t games focus on the unique groundbreaking thing they’re good at (gameplay) instead of being shoehorned into doing something (stories) we’ve done across at least 3 other mediums that games’ nature as a medium makes difficult to pull off successfully? Why are we so interested in doing the same thing again instead of exploring this new territory that’s open to us? Games don’t have new undiscovered means of telling stories that previous mediums don’t and we hurt stories and games by trying to make them work together most of the time. You gotta be restrictive on one or the other to get a good hybrid.

“>Also the Numbers-that-can-be-Higher-or-Lower, are not directly tied to the story. They just determine what parts of the story you’re allowed to see.”
What would make them tied then?

They can’t really be tied to the story, because they’re not set by the story, they’re arbitrary and instead stories are selected based upon them. Numbers are numbers. You can say they’re strength, intelligence, charisma, or guile, or you could say they’re your red stat, blue stat, and chartreuse stat. From a systems perspective, the labels don’t really matter, it’s just a number and the function of the number is characterized by its relationship with the label-less numbers around it.

I mean, some of these story decisions are blocked off by your luck stat in FO:NV and Oblivion. Luck might as well for fiction purposes be a stat named “number of cakes stocked in fridge at home” or “Number of cats pet last week”.

The thing that’s going on is really just that different paths of the story are being locked off by different arbitrary numbers being higher than an arbitrary value.

We attach labels to the numbers to attempt to make them look like they’re defining characteristics of the character, but there’s no systemic concept of an RPG character in the story, just a ton of different stories written differently that they only allow you to access depending on the state of these numbers that they affirm are connected to attributes like strength, so they can convince you that you’re engaging with systems as a character that exhibits these traits in the absence of yourself exhibiting these traits, and absence of you engaging with these systems.

They’re not a result of the story, they’re not influencers of the story. The stories are set, the numbers are dynamic. Stories are designed, variables are happenstance.

Imagine if you went through a scripted sequence that set your strength score to 10, then later you have an event that occurs if your strength score is 10, and nothing inbetween can alter that strength score. You have a fixed series of events here essentially, that’s a story. If you can change the value of strength inbetween, then the strength value is no longer a fixed narrative, it’s a dynamic event that happens now, rather than being decided upon in advance. Whether you have 10 strength by the second event happening is no longer a designed story, and now is one of a range of possibilities.

The problem here is a fundamental type mismatch that people want to pretend doesn’t exist or they aren’t really cognizant enough to recognize. This isn’t to say that having different story paths tied to stats is necessarily a bad thing, it’s just not this amazing integrated roleplaying thing we want to pretend it is. Rather, it’s just locking off different content based on the way numbers have turned out so playthroughs are different from one another, which is totally alright, just not roleplaying.

2 thoughts on “Story Apathy

  1. What's you my man? January 30, 2017 / 8:12 am

    ‘“okay, what if you had an attack that worked based on area coverage of the enemy’s movement patterns over time?” “What if you had an ability that moves these synchronous elements out of sync by speeding one up or slowing one down?”’ Which ideas/concepts are you referring to with these quotes?


    • Chris Wagar January 30, 2017 / 8:20 am

      Made them up on the spot. Not referring to any specific mechanic, but rather my general process for targeting what needs to be targeted when designing mechanics.


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