replay post

the replay site is pretty cool. (but who chose bright green as the color to read against? a non-computer user?)

my response to the ‘democratizing storytelling’ thread got chopped off because, i suppose, their site has some kind of text posting length barrier. so here it is.

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in my mind, all this misses the idea that computer games are not about story-telling. that’s not what computers do well. that’s not why i play games. stories are generally linear, prescripted dramatic constructs. games are environments in which the player has a great deal of control.

control. for perhaps the first time, an art medium in which the user is the one driving the process and making the decisions.

i don’t personally want my character named for me (a la lara croft). i don’t want the game to reach any moral conclusions for me. i don’t want to find out what happens next–rather, i want to dictate what happens next.

games like system shock are incredibly powerful because the player’s imperative is something so fundamental that it is universal: fight to stay alive. my actions *are* the story–i am the center of the universe.

by contrast, the parts of games that are pre-scripted story bits are far less interesting to me. a good example is baldur’s gate. part of the game was powerful for me–i got to design my character to a very fine level of detail. then i set out across the landscape. periodically i would randomly encounter groups of monsters. i would deal with the obstacles in often interesting strategic combinations and settings, sometimes made interesting because of my actions through the game–allowing my character’s health and spells to run low, for instance. at other times made interesting because of the unpredicted actions of my human companions (in multiplayer mode). i loved all of that. that part of the game was great.

contrast it with the other parts of baldur’s gate–the blocks and blocks of character dialogue, the animated flicks, and the pre-told elements. (like “oh, no, my old mentor just died.” do you *really* think i care–i met him 2 minutes ago and he is a blob of pixels–despite the fact that the developer tried to establish that he “raised me from an infant.” whatever.) all of these parts of the game held virtually no interest for me. i ended up skipping most of them.

think about it: for those prescripted segments of the game, i was just sitting there in front of my computer. for the elements in the previous paragraph, *i was making decisions*. i was affecting the world. i was in control. i was free to act and to express myself.

to me, this is an important point. games can be divided into two groups, in my mind: those that rely on the strengths of older media and those that revel in the strengths of the new media. user control is the primary strength of computer games. i think someday we’ll be able to fully merge these two approaches–when the game can create compelling ‘storylines’ and characters on the fly in response to the player’s actions and decisions, “stories within games” will take on new meaning and finally the concept of telling a story within a game will not detract from the primary strength of the high end simulation games. this won’t happen until the technology is capable of creating games like the Giant’s Drink from the novel Ender’s Game or the little girl’s book from Diamond Age.

today, games like system shock and mario 64 allow the player to influence the world directly. they all have some measure of ‘premise’ but most importantly they focused on allowing me to move myself through an interesting world and make decisions.

last month i re-read faulkner’s The Unvanquished. a month before that i went to see Gods and Monsters. awesome experiences. both taught me something, but both were mostly reactive. last month i also played through system shock 2. another awesome experience. much more active–much more centered on giving me control and allowing me to express myself.

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btw, i am absolutely in love with certain parts of game fiction–a strong setting, great atmosphere, compelling characters. it’s prescripted plot, or embedded narrative, that i am less enthusiastic about.

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