Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Response to the Offworld Article: Why are the stories in video games so bad?

I wanted to write a response to an(other) excellent article from Offworld about writing in games. The article discusses why video game writing is so bad. Obviously, not every game has bad writing, but we've all played a large number of games that feel lost in their own storytelling.

I love how the article points out how “writing” doesn't equate to “dialogue” or even some sort of written text. Writing, or authorship extends to the entirety of an artwork, from the box art, the opening screen, the costume design, the color scheme, all the way to the end credits. How each element of an artwork is presented to a viewer is a choice on the creators part and communicates a message to the viewer/player.

This might be a key factor that determines creators that write great games and those who don’t. Silent Hill Shattered Memories comes to mind as a perfect example. The box art is uninspired, but as soon as you turn the game on, you are a part of the story. TV “snow” prepares us for metaphorical polygon snowscapes. We see a grainy home video of a little girl expressing, “I love my Daddy.” This moment defines the game’s thesis, and connects brilliantly with the ending, and is presented to us before we even Press Start.  It's a really meaningful moment that grows in intensity based on the players advancement in the story.

(Shattered Memories overall is a great example of a well written game, one of the best I’ve played.)

The part of the article that struck me to dust off this old blog was when they mentioned theater. I make theater in Chicago and have been fascinated with the artistic connections between games and theater for years.

Video Games and theater share a key aspect that other art forms lack: gesture. The concept that every night a play will be unique. Each performance will be unique to the actor and each member of an audience will have a unique, but shared experience. This is exactly how games are designed. Each game will be played in a manner unique to the player and create a unique but shared experience with the gaming community at large. They are both art forms fixed in the present.

Good playwrights write audience experiences, they craft an event. The article points out: “Well-written games are a dialogue with the player, creating opportunities for behavior.”

I love that phrase, “creating opportunities for behavior.” This perfectly describes what great theater looks like. A good writer will craft opportunities for the actors on stage as well as opportunities for the audience. The idea of a binary division between actor and audience is simply a construct. The binary can be blurred as much as the playwright prefers.

Theater can learn from games. The game player is both actor and audience. The role of the player shifts throughout a game, and the degrees of that shift varies from game to game, and scene to scene. We watch Solid Snake confront Olga on a rainy oil tanker, soaked in the drama and pulp mysteries. But we have a say in how we see it, wiggling and zooming the camera, discovering unshaven underarms in the process. Then we directly control the fight against her, shooting (traq darts or bullets) at either her, or the shifting environment around her, crafting the battle as it happens. Winning earns us another cut scene, where we learn Snake was being recorded by a UAV. The story was watching us act out Snakes actions, while we were watching the story through our own actions. Audience and actor shift and flow into one another.

In Dragon Age Inquisition, the binary is shaved razor thin and we are both active actor and active audience during the majority of plot advancements. We not only control the fight, but the discussion before and after. We pick which lines we want to hear, not the actual line, but just the essence of one. The line itself is a surprise, and we are forced to hope our intentions are conveyed correctly. The promise of power, this hope to influence is a brilliant mechanic that replicates an actor’s objectives onstage. An actor will act in hopes to emotionally influence another actor as well as to emotionally influence the audience that is watching. The energy is sent in two directions, toward the story and toward reality. Both the story and the audience are connected, present, and necessary. Existing in the same time and place, they hold equal importance and power within the artistic event.

Games make us send our own energy into the game, and then the game sends it back at us. We are affecting ourselves, in real time, getting (hopefully) everything back that we put in. This feedback loop is rare in art, and must be respected for effective game or theater making.

The Offworld article quotes advice Will O'Neill gives in a cool piece titled Writing Compelling Game Narrative:

Read plays. They often focus on dialogue and monologues in a stylish-yet-realistic way that I think dovetails beautifully with the way that stories are typically well-told in games. To an extent, I even think theater can help you grapple with the limitations that you may face as an indie. For the sake of an audience in the distance, theater is broadly emotive in the way that your simple, non-facially-intensive character animations might also be. Sets and props are often static, simple or merely suggestive in the same way that yours probably are.

Awesome! He admits it’s a surface level examination, but I fully agree with his sentiment. I believe what he is trying to say is video game creators need to embrace an artistic style. He is recognizing that all art is metaphor, and that there is an artistic history and precedence to effectively use style in crafting event based art like video games.

When auteurs embrace style, their work shines. Theater is the perfect realm for video game developers to look for influence in developing and enhancing their own work and style. I would argue this influence already exists and is being used in some of the most acclaimed games. Silent Hill uses many elements as Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty, Kojima’s Metal Gear series consistently uses Bertolt Brecht’s alienation techniques, and Hidetaka Suehiro or SWERY games are in the same tradition as the Absurdist playwrights.

His examples of The Stanely Parable is also very Absurdist/Existentialist, Papers, Please borrows from an Expressionist aesthetic, and This War of Mine is like a tamer version of Sarah Kane’s Blasted.

All artists should have their own style, and there is never a one to one connection between one style or another. No artist should be stuck in the past and should always strive to break our current culture, but using artistic precedents can form a strong base and enhance the effectiveness of art. I believe that studying and seeing theater, above all other art forms, would help video game developers tremendously.