The Souls Story Formula

The Souls series and its imitators have a pretty consistent formula for their stories and lore that generates a cool “story-sense” for games about exploration without straightforward cutscenes, but the formula has a particular weakness too.

The first setup is that there’s a great kingdom, or town, or space station, or so on that has a rich history, and many geographically distinct areas. This kingdom was usually great because it relied on something dangerous, like souls, the first flame, or the blood of the great ones. Continue reading

Storytelling with Software

What aspects of video games make video games a potentially more effective medium of storytelling than “traditional” mediums?

I wouldn’t use the word “Video Games” for this, because, as I’ve mentioned in previous writing, digital entertainment software is a wider medium than just games, and this medium has unique strengths with regards to storytelling that other mediums don’t.

The most obvious thing is that software can easily deliver different bits of narrative content with regards to context. It can have branching narrative content, which is essentially an excess of narrative that is selected between. So rather than telling just one story, in software it’s easy to tell a lot of different possible stories that the writers prepare in advance, as well as replacing or modifying individual elements of these stories.

With software, you can create associations for performing certain actions, then recontextualize those actions in a thematically relevant way. Probably the most significant example of this is Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

Software can do advanced calculations on the fly for a lot of things that are hard to implement similar functionality for in traditional media, and it can keep those calculations hidden. For example, you can determine which content to present based on prior user input sampled over a long period, and you can keep the factors that control this presentation a secret, or even that there was a calculation to determine this in the first place.

Another advantage is that in software, you can explore multiple narrative threads and leave the other ones hanging to be resolved later. Also, much like a real life haunted house or theme park, you can create a virtual environment that can be walked around and engaged with and examined at your discretion, so narrative elements can be embedded in the presentation of this environment, a technique commonly referred to as, “Environmental Storytelling.”

And of course, you could include a game within a piece of software, this is the most common use of digital entertainment software.

Software excels at creating places to explore and presenting a multiplicity of stories, along with the convenience to examine the story at your leisure and tie together disparate narrative information in a non-preset order, which is uncommon in other media. It’s like having an fictitious encyclopedia rather than a storybook, where things are laid out across entries that bind together to form a coherent whole, rather than a specific telling of specific events.

Software can say something like “He quickly dashed inside and (hid his [keys] in the [dresser]) OR (grabbed his [gun] from the [coffee table]).” where you can swap out which bit of narrative content actually happens, and change some of the objects of interest within the narrative content. Choose your own adventure books can have the OR, but they can’t swap the objects, and they can’t remember a choice from a prior page and bring it down into a later branch, unless you want to make a fuckton more redundant branches for each of these permutations.

Software can’t let you make “your own” story, but it can tell you many stories instead of one, and it can let you pick between which ones you want to hear.

In terms of maybe not narrative potential, but general artistic potential, software can create links between people, such as Nier Automata’s Ending E, in which players need to go through a difficult sequence, but can be offered help from other players in the form of a powerup that makes the sequence easier. The catch is that this powerup comes at the cost of all that person’s save game data, and you’re offered the same choice to offer that powerup to other players who cannot beat the ending when you reach the end at the cost of all your save data. The powerup is marked with a message from that person and their name, so by getting hit in the ending sequence after accepting the powerup, effectively their last will and testament within the game is being deleted after they’ve already given up their save data.

And I heard of another experimental game where there was a shared stock of lives between all players of the game, and in playing the game well you could earn more lives, but also lose them of course, and if you did really poorly, you might earn more lives for other people to play the game, but once all the lives were gone the game was dead.

To encompass this category of digital entertainment software I’ve come up with the word, “Videoware” recently, and I’d like if it that were to become a thing. The idea is that all digital entertainment software is now under the umbrella “videoware” and “video games” are a sub-category of videoware, with other applications falling into the general category instead, with subcategories for interactive fiction or maybe digital pets or software toys. Under this grouping, we can look at Steam as say a videoware distributor rather than strictly a games distributor. The term might sound a little silly, but I think it would be better for describing our current ecosystem than our current terminology, and it would acknowledge the link between digital entertainment software in general, and games software specifically.

Here’s some examples of stories told through software:

Does a video game need to be a good game to be a good video game? why?

Y’know, I’d take it as a given, but not everyone does, so I think I’m not really going to elaborate on this one.

Can you say why you think it’s a given? like what do you say to people who say video games are their own thing sort of separate from games? they use that to justify the idea that games dont need good gameplay, and that gone home is a good video game even if its not good as a strict game

Currently my position is that entertainment software, which I’m thinking of calling “Videoware” (somewhere between video game and software), is a whole medium, and video games are a subset of that larger medium. Gone home (or Dear Esther really) might be a good “videoware”, but it’s not a video game, the same way Mario or Interactive Buddy aren’t Interactive Fiction, and the latter isn’t a game either.

I like this semantic because I don’t want to say video games are their own separate thing from games. I think the categories should be unified and we understand games, videoware or not, as being the same across mediums. I think we should unify tabletop games and sports and understand them in similar terms too.

I’d say that there are artistic forms that are possible in software that don’t exist elsewhere and perhaps deserve their own exploration, but I’d personally hold that a video game needs to be a good game

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.

Should Games Just Abandon Storytelling?

Since you believe that dissonance between story and gameplay is inevitable. Should games just abandon storytelling?

No, we just shouldn’t care so much about dissonance or the limitations that stories and settings place upon games. We should be free to come up with whatever gameplay mechanics we want to, whatever level structure we want to, without tying it back to consistency with a story, without worrying about it seeming “too videogamey”, without contrivance being disdained so much. We should stop complaining about all this “it doesn’t really work that way” bullshit when we know damn well that there’s a good reason for it and we wouldn’t have a game without it. Like all the complaints about the shrine of Winter. Like someone thinking, “oh, it’s dumb that samus loses her powerups every game, in Other M, lets have them be authorized at specific points in the story instead”

Game constructs are totally made up. They don’t have to relate to anything. We aren’t bound by physical laws when making them like we would be in conventional engineering. We might as well accept that and use it to our benefit.

But should we get rid of stories completely? I don’t think we should do that either. I certainly think we shouldn’t invest as major development resources into them, but they have practical benefits in the form of setting up mental relationships between different objects in the setting, being an inspiration for systems of play, and guiding the player goal-wise. That and like music and graphics, it’s a tangential benefit to the work as a whole.

We just need to stop viewing storytelling as the reason for the medium to exist, since that’s not going to happen.

An Arthouse History for Video Games

Your thoughts?

I’m not really interested in this article or anything it has to say except this:
“This game takes the ideas of “adventure,” “exploration,” and “mastery,” and flips them on their heads, turning the experience into a slog, a mean-spirited joke. This is why I love it—or rather, the idea of it. This game is aggressively not fun and almost completely luck-based, which is intentional.

This is arthouse mentality in a nutshell I think. Continue reading

Why don’t stories matter in games?

It seems like you believe stories don’t matter in games. If this is true then, do you think they matter in films and books? If so then why do they matter there and not in games?

Does your favorite song have a great story? It might, but probably not. Does most of the music you listen to have nice stories, or even stories at all? Does most of the static visual artwork you enjoy tell a complete story? Does it tell any story? Many people consider cooking an art. I personally would consider it one, I’ll leave that up to you. Do great chefs tell a story with their meal?

Some of these mediums can support stories. Some of them can be bundled with stories as a hybrid medium. Does that necessarily make these mediums suited for storytelling? Is storytelling necessarily the most important part of every medium? Is it necessarily an important part at all for a given medium? Is it something a medium should be judged on?

The core of my philosophy is, “Gameplay is the most important thing in a game.” A lot of the rest is all the necessary ideas to make that core philosophy work and make sense; iteration off that core idea.

We’ve had a ton of games without stories that are considered universal classics. We’ve never had a film that lacked story but was a universal classic. Narrative is almost irrevocably tied to certain mediums and there’s no indication that games are one of them.

Of course the mediums of interactive software or simulations of space can support stories, possibly even good ones, it’s just games that are at odds with stories. Entertainment software lacking good stories is a lack of good authors, not a fault in the medium.

I don’t think a game should be judged for its story any more than for the quality of the visual symbols representing the game constructs (aka. the graphics, which some people (icyclams) will tell you are more important than the story and just as important as gameplay). I don’t think it makes sense to judge a song based on the content of the lyrics (not proposing we ignore the vocals or rhyme scheme, just the meaning). I don’t think it makes sense to judge a painting by anything other than its visual composition, coloring, rendering, construction of forms, and so on.

Many people offer a token, “of course gameplay is what’s most important.” I want to offer you the genuine thing and take that to the absolute limit. It’s a perspective that needs to exist.

“Cinematic” Games

What does “cinematic” even mean in the context of video games? I here people use that term to describe cutscenes and how they’re more like movies, but I never quite understood what that actually meant and how one can be more “cinematic” than another, or that a game gives a “cinematic experience.”

First I think you have to ask what does cinematic mean in the context of films.
How do you define the word cinematic?
Here’s some articles from off google. Continue reading

Why are Walking Sims a Joke?


Okay, so first up, I agree with him that FPE, First Person Explorer, is a more appropriate term for the genre than Walking Simulator. His joke about how FPS might get misnamed in some alternate timeline reminds me of how I joked with a friend some time back that Bioshock is a “head-clicking simulator,” but his example is ultimately unconvincing, because there’s nothing to make fun of with FPS games, they’re not pretenders, they simply are.

(Spoiler: he’s a little shit for saying walking sims are games, immediately after saying some have enough platforming or puzzle aspects that there’s no doubt about them being games, which implicitly acknowledges that he knows damn well what a game is and isn’t)

One thing that irks me is all the things he lists off as advantages of the walking sim genre, they focus on story, they have this sense of mystery, they have nice looking environments, they can get in touch with your emotions on a sympathetic level, immerse you (HAH), or engage your patience. (???) None of these things are things a game can even deliver. These aren’t things games can communicate through their medium, they’re things restricted to other mediums than games. Now to someone not familiar with my rhetoric, this probably sounds rather closeminded, so allow me to make an analogy.

Imagine that through a quirk of technology, we developed movies before music, and music came afterwards as a component of movies first. In this analogy, movies are to represent games, music to represent the simulation of virtual space. Music is something totally distinct from the moving image that can be coupled and made a part of moving images. Imagine that then people go on to distribute reels of film containing a static picture, and an audio track, and use these reels of film to play what is essentially music by itself, much like how in modern day you get videos on youtube that are literally just music. Occasionally the picture may be slightly animated, like a gif, so you might get combinations of gif-like things and sound that resemble movies, but don’t quite fit.

In our current language, we have no simple word for simulations of virtual space, to serve as an equivalent to the word “film” here. The situation we have with walking simulators is much like these music listeners insisting that the things they enjoy are movies, and movie watchers scoffing at how you can call something a movie that doesn’t even move, perhaps even mock the music listeners by calling these music reels, “stills”. The music listeners might opine about how these “movies” bring out some of the greatest things movies can offer, like symphonies, note composition, tone and timbre, or other fine qualities of music, and they’re completely right that the works they appreciate have these qualities, but they fail to recognize that those qualities aren’t of the movie medium, they’re of a secondary medium that was introduced to movies that has its entirely own properties.

The grand vistas, subtle storytelling, sympathetic emotional connection, and so on of walking simulators aren’t a quality that is a product of the game medium. These qualities don’t exist in chess, poker, hopscotch, cricket, or dice rolling. They’re something that was added in in the transition to digital simulated spaces. These things aren’t developing the medium of games, they’re qualities found in say, the live action production of Sleep No More.

Walking simulators deserve to be made fun of because their advocates are pretenders. They’re intellectually dishonest. They know they’re wrong, but want to push that tired meme of, “pushing games forward as a story-telling medium”, which is like ranting about how you want to “push music forwards as a visual-communication medium.”

What’s Dear Esther then? It’s an environmental designer’s portfolio and a rather nice looking one. I can appreciate it, and other walking simulators as just that. I took a lot of screenshots of it after all.

Walking simulators will earn the name FPE when they stop being a joke, which is what videos like this make them out to be. It keeps being funny as long as they keep trying to lie to themselves and others that these are games. Games are defined by what you do. If these are games, they are games about walking.

Interactive Fiction Realized

This might interest you, even if you aren’t interested in interactive fictions… because they are trying to make a system in which they can become proper games! it’s a total of seven posts detailing the problem, starting from this one.

This seems like a complete retread of a lot of things I’ve said before. Glad someone else is thinking the same thing I am. The short thing I think we can boil down the issue with interactive fiction to is, fiction is about neat things that aren’t happening to you. Games are about doing neat things. Interactive fiction allows you to control what interesting events happen in the plot. Games have you play through interesting events. I think games and fiction are largely separate or even diametrically opposed concepts. The goal shouldn’t be to build a better IF, it should be to build new types of games that model new types of experiences to test new sets of skills. Continue reading