Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Interactive Storytelling is Impossible

An open letter then, to everybody with an opinion on videogame stories.

I've heard a lot of people complain about the ending to Mass Effect 3 (I should stress I haven't played Mass Effect, and that this is based off my own personal opinion.), and about how their actions didn't affect the story, and how they wanted the story to end in a certain way because of what they did.

Nonesense I say to that.

Stories do not work that way. A story is a linear structure, a piece of art created by an author, generally, the beginning and end is written first, and the middle is incidental stuff.

What Interactive Storytelling actually is, is just cleverly disguised simulations. A simulation, by it's nature, tries to replicate reality, a stimulation is cause and effect, something an interactive story also attempts. If an event is driven by the event before it, then the final event will not be an ending, it will just be a final event. And reality does not have an ending, nor does it have a beginning and middle, because life is not a narrative, life is just driven by cause and effect, it's never building up to anything. 

In a story, the beginning and the end is what's written first, because you want a story to mean something, a writer then writes the events in the middle because in a story based on what happens afterwards, effect precedes cause. But in a game, cause precedes effect like in real life, and like I said, real life can't be predetermined. It's essentially the difference between Science and Art. In Science, one thing causes another thing and it can only happen one way, in Art, the emotion that the effect creates defines the cause.

If a game has a story, then the game must steer you onto the path of the story, if a game does not steer you onto a path, it can't have a story.

Two good examples of what precisely I mean off the top of my head, Portal and Minecraft.

The story of Portal is thus, a person has being stored in some sort of facility, you travel through the facility by doing tests, and the game ends with you (seemingly) killing the villain. That's a story right there. You start off, and the story goes that you solve all of these tests and eventually find the villain, and the reason the story progresses this way is because that's what every player will do, and every player will do that because, acting as the character, they'll want to complete the tests like the main character, they'll want to escape from the tests because to not escape would mean death, and they'll want to fight the baddy at the end because if you chose to not fight, you will be slowly poisoned.

Portal, has a narrative. And it has gameplay moments part of that narrative, for example, halfway through the game, you are ordered to destroy a cube that the villain mockingly stated was your only friend, at the end of the game, you then kill her in the same way, because it's ironic. 

See what I mean? They wrote that ending first, and then later wrote that middle point to add a narrative reason for it, because that's exactly how a story is written, the narrative being in the form of gameplay. The gameplay itself is flexible though, as you aren't forced to do anything, you just want to see how the story progresses.

Now onto my point about Minecraft.

The setting of Minecraft, is that you are the only human on Earth (Or you and some friends if you're on a server.), and that's about it. Every single person would react differently to this scenario, some people might explore the world, some people might build a shelter to protect themselves from monsters and make food to keep themselves alive, some might create artwork with their now infinite resources, some people might set fire to a forest for a laugh because there are no consequences beyond not being able to acquire wood. And you can do all those things, but it doesn't amount to anything beyond the direct consequences of those thing.

There's no ending to Minecraft, because Minecraft simulates a man alone in the world, rather than explaining a man alone in the world. The game ends when you get bored, or circumstances beyond your control, like death or a broken computer, stop it.

What I'm basically saying is, either you railroad the player into a story. or you don't railroad them and don't get a story. If you try to compromise, you'll get Mass Effect 3, and Mass Effect 3 had a lot of complaining fans.

What I think people want is to do certain things and for them to have certain consequences, which is neither of the two archetypes I mentioned. They want to do what they want, like an open ended game, but they want a specific consequence, like a story.

And what that sounds like is a whole third archetype of game, the only solution I could think of would be some kind of mechanic that lets the player write the story and then enact it, but that wouldn't have the narrative of a story, nor would it have the open endedness of a sandbox, what that actually is is just a fantasy. Just something that would satisfy you personally, and I don't think any mechanically produced game would be capable of that unless it involves ridiculously advances AI or is just plain manned by humans. In which case it wouldn't even be a video game, it'd just be a service, like laser tag.


There are four types of game.

1. A game, you do things to complete the game, that will have the result of the game being completed and you being challenged.
2. A story game, you do things in order to see the progression of the story, that'll have the result of experiencing a story and hopefully being challenged.
3. A sandbox game, you do things just for fun or to see what happens, that'll have the result of being amused or interested, but you won't be challenged unless your challenge comes from outside the game.
4. Some kind of Theoretical "Fantasy Game." in which you do things because you want specific consequences, that'll have the result of possibly being challenged, you'll have fun, and you'll feel satisfied by the way events panned out.

The only possible way I can see option four existing, is if you designed a game personally, then wiped your memory of the game you'd made, then played the game, anticipating every decision you're likely to make during the design phase.


There may never be true Interactive Gaming, there can only be approximations like Mass Effect 3, it's not because Mass Effect have bad writers, they might have good writers, they just not physically capable of writing an ending that everybody'll like.