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Monday, February 25, 2008

Storytelling and Internal Narratives

A few days ago I entertained myself by posing the following question:

Can a game's story only exist in the spaces where the player does not have control?

At first it seems like a simple no would suffice, the easy refutation being any Bioware game with branching storylines. But it isn't that simple. Even in a game with hundreds of different dialog trees and multiple endings, even in an open world like Oblivion where the player can choose what order she wishes to play the story elements in, even in massively multiplayer games the story is still decided by the game developer. The player only gets to choose which of the predetermined stories will be played out. Even if in Oblivion I choose to play through the Thieves guild quests and only then attempt the main story, I do not get to decide the order of the guild quests, nor do I get to make up new ones.

Which opens up the question: What constitutes "story" in games? The assumption put forward above is that the story is only the backbone elements of the game, the skeletal structure that the gamer fleshes out with her actions. Joining the Thieves guild and stealing the Elder Scroll is "story", but is the rest of it merely to be discarded? "Rhys joined the Thieves guild and progressed through ranks, ultimately stealing the Elder Scroll and becoming the Gray Fox" is not a satisfying narrative. "The Imperial Guard's footfalls echoed past Rhys's hiding place as he came to examine the overturned pitcher. She held her breath against the stone room's dry silence as he tipped his head one way and then the other, sniffing the air slightly. When he turned to leave, he would almost assuredly see her, but she doubted that she could kill him fast enough to avoid alerting the others. He snorted, eyes squinting against the darkness, and bent to pick up the pitcher. Rhys tightened her grip on her long thin blade." Is more like what can be called story.

But such an experience is not translatable, and is not recorded anywhere. The action takes place entirely in the player's own internal narrative. There is something in the nature of this internal dialog that bars retelling; we have all had the experience of trying to relate a specific fight or escape to someone else and only finding frustration when they are not as amused as we are. It cannot be understood in the same way that the player sees it, even if the other person is familiar with the game and the mechanics.

Though the question is an interesting thought experiment, it is also, in a way, one of the fundamental questions within the gaming world. Gamers understand this dialog between game story and internal narrative, between player actions and a developer's frame. Whether explicit or subconscious, we experience this every time we enter into a game world. It's the reason we take actions that are completely extraneous to the advancement of the game's narrative, like when we plug an extra few rounds into the corpse of an especially difficult enemy, or when we /dance with an innkeeper in WoW. This is why we game. And yet the very thing that we understand is specific only to gaming, the thing that sets gaming apart from all other forms of storytelling, cannot be understood by those that do not play. And so, when an outsider examines a game story they see only the skeletal outline that the developers set down. We can hardly fault the general opinion that game stories are derivative and cliche (of course there are exceptions to the rule, but it's a fair judgment to make of the majority of games).

So the answer to the original question is indeed a simple no, but in the examination we are faced with a number of other problems: What constitutes story? What is it about a player's internal narrative that makes it so difficult to retell effectively? How can we, as gamers, advance understanding of this dialog between game and player (a truly amazing occurrence, if you think about it)?

In answering these questions we can redefine how we think about games and how we play games. As we come to understand that intermediary space, where that complex dialog plays out between our story and the game's story, we can change the way we build games, the way stories are told in games. That is the most exciting element of game development right now: in games we have a storytelling medium that is unlike anything we have seen before, that involves a more direct audience participation then has ever been possible. The importance of audience participation, the primacy and necessity of it, is potentially the first new category of representation since Aristotle's Poetics. All the elements of storytelling used in every other medium were laid out in his scientific prose almost 2400 years ago. It's true, things have been done with those elements that Aristotle never would have dreamt of, works that have fundamentally changed the human condition, but none of them have brought a new aspect into the mix. Until gaming. This is not to say that gaming trumps all preceding modes of storytelling, such a claim would be ridiculous. It remains to be seen whether any good can actually come of this new development. It remains to be seen if we can figure out how this new element even works. It is exciting enough that these questions can even be asked.

The internal narrative that is written as each of us plays a game is the breaking open of a new space, a new way of thinking about storytelling. We shall see as gaming advances what fruit that new space can bear, and how it will affect the act of representation on a wider scale. I must say it's an exciting experience to enter into such uncharted territory.

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