Thursday, 30 March 2017

Videogames - too much fun for their own good?

As a medium videogames have been kidnapped by their easily-achieved engagement. Simple gameplay is so much fun on its own that storytelling has never been needed in order to draw an audience. Compared to films, the element of storytelling is seldom elevated in videogames. Is it time for a walk down that lesser-known path, leading to better narratives in videogames?

When the first films appeared 120 years ago, they were shown under amusement-park-like conditions. By peeping into a Kinetoscope, the audience (one by one) were able to get a short experience of moving pictures. For instance, as in Fred Ott's Sneeze, by W. K. L. Dickson (1894), anyone willing to pay could watch an engineer sneezing.

As you can imagine, these clips felt pretty boring quite quickly, which led to an immense pressure to make moving pictures more interesting. The first step was to find something more fascinating to film than a sneezing engineer. In the late 19th century, a steam engine arriving at the train station fell into this category, as the Lumière brothers proved in L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (1895).

But there's a limit to how many moving objects people are interested in seeing on film, as well as in ways to top previous experiences. There was a need for something that caught the attention of the audience, something that would make them come back for more. Enter - narration!

The first attempts to tell the audience a story built upon simply filming theatre plays. At the same time, film developed into its own medium, and filmmakers started creating new tricks suitable for film, which increased the audience engagement in the story. This is when a lot of interesting things started happening. For instance, filmmakers realized that not every part of the plot had to be filmed. By simply implying actions and events, the audience would still keep up with the story. Film editing became a crucial part in tinkering with the narrative, and storytelling in film evolved greatly.

Let's compare this to how games work. This is what one of the very first video games (Pong, 1972) looked like:

Contrary to the first attempts at film, this game is still quite fun to play. In fact, there are still new games being made based on Pong's gameplay.

Flag N Frag, by EDEVOX

Obviously this version has a lot of new features and graphical decoration, but it still relies on the same concept as the original game. This differs widely from the evolution of films. No one would consider making a film based on the same concept as Fred Ott's Sneeze. There is just something inherently fun about interaction that makes an old game like Pong still worth playing. This is not just true of the very first games and films; if you compare works like Pac-Man (1980) and The Birth of a Nation (1915), the former stacks up far better.

Dealing with video games it was pretty clear from day one what the interesting thing was - playing is simply fun! The medium itself presented new ways of making gaming even more fun, which were being used in all possible ways. Compare this to a scenario where a similar evolution took place in film production. The film equivalent would be movies still being all about watching small clips [1] and most of the effort during the last 120 years would had been on extending this aspect. In the games industry, this is the progress that basically took place.

Before I continue this post I need to clear up a term. When I talk about "the fun of interaction" I mean a very specific case of gameplay where you have a core mechanic that you base the whole experience around. Examples of this are: shooting spaceships, jumping over chasms, avoiding incoming hazards, leveling your RPG character and so forth. This is the type of gameplay where the aim is to make it feel as "fun" as possible. Even if the graphics are just made up of simplistic shapes, this sort of gameplay remains very engaging. I will henceforth refer to this as "classical gameplay" in order to differentiate it from other forms of gameplay (e.g. exploration, anticipation of monsters, dialog, etc). I also need to make it very clear that I think the future of the videogame medium lies in interaction and play, and we should not strive to remove this - quite the contrary. With that said, let's continue.

From a pure classical gameplay perspective there is nothing wrong with focusing on the fun part of gaming. Most of what we currently see in the videogame world is there thanks to this focus. However, it has held back videogames as a storytelling medium. In movies, it's crucial to get the storytelling aspect right as you really don't have anything else to fall back on. Sure, there're always blockbuster movies that can make the audience overlook so-so storytelling by offering a visual spectacle. However, these are the rare cases. The vast majority of films relies foremost upon having good storytelling, and it's needed even in order to make spectacle work. The narrative, however corny, still has to be front and center. Not so for video games; as long as you get the core gameplay working, the audience will be happy.

Storytelling which is just added as a sort of extra spice has long been the standard in videogames. In fact, most attempts of storytelling often feel like they get in the way of the classical gameplay. Not only is storytelling something that isn't really needed; it can even worsen the experience by acting as an impediment to classical gameplay. From this perspective, it's no wonder storytelling has had a tough time to progress in videogames. For a long time, it hasn't really felt needed and has been seen more as a hindrance than an opportunity.

This sort of thinking still permeates game development. "Make sure your core [classical] gameplay gets done first" is one of the most basic pieces of advice given to any aspiring game developer. And once you get that basic classical gameplay working, only then should you try and make your story fit into it - if you need a story at all, that is. It's important to note that classical gameplay-wise this makes a lot of sense and is a fundamentally good thing. If you're aiming to make your games as much fun as possible to play, getting your gameplay loop working first is a wise move. It also makes sense from a commercial perspective, since classical gameplay is the easiest way to get the audience's attention. Narrative-wise though, this is far from an optimal strategy.

Historically there have been two game genres of note that have resisted this trend: adventure games and horror games.

Adventure games share the same issue as movies: the core gameplay isn't that much fun. The players basically (through text or using a mouse-based interface) give commands that a character might carry out for them. And unless there's some sort of greater context involved, this gets boring quite quickly. One way of fixing this is to put more effort into the storytelling. When the character you are indirectly controlling is part of an engaging narrative, it becomes a lot more fun to control them.

Despite this, storytelling-wise, adventure games stopped evolving quite quickly [2]. There are a bunch of reasons for this, some of which I outlined here. Another especially important reason is that almost all adventure games revolve around puzzle solving. They haven't really given up on their game legacy. The player can always go into "I am just doing this for the puzzles"-mode, and thereby avoid much of the game's attempts to tell a good story. So we're back to the initial problem - classical gameplay standing in the way of progress in narrative.

Horror games take on this issue from a different angle. This is one of the few (possibly only) bigger genres where classical gameplay turns into a nuisance. The most basic example of this is: if monsters are too much fun to encounter, they stop being scary. So horror games have been forced to tone down on one of the core engagements that has been a cornerstone of many other types of videogame. By giving up on the most fun part of the medium, the genre had to turn to something else in order to keep up the engagement level - storytelling. Many horror games - Silent Hill is a great example - feature clunky combat, and much of the time it is more stressful than fun to encounter enemies. But by offering a story that ties into the player's actions, you can take something that is not so much fun on it's own and turn it into an very engaging experience.

To convey horror by purely system-based means is hard, and therefore a narrative is crucial in order to provide the right experience. However, crafting these sorts of experiences is also hard, especially if the storytelling is supposed to carry the heaviest burden. As a way of making up for this, instead of putting more focus on the narrative aspects, horror games have always added all sorts of other systems to provide a basic engagement loop. In the end, this is what made the golden age of the PS2-era horror games come to an end. When the genre started to stagnate, Resident Evil 4 came about, putting all focus on gameplay and becoming a huge success.

Resident Evil 4 is an amazing game on its own, but it really did a disservice to the horror genre as a whole. Just like we have seen in the past with classical gameplay being the cornerstone to fall back on, the horror genre ended up doing the same. And with it much of its narrative-based ambitions never got a chance to properly evolve.

What this all leads me to is the following: When it comes to storytelling, games are inherently just too much fun for their own good. I think the problem comes down to being stuck at a local maximum.

What I mean with this is that as you are developing a game, you will come across a bunch of ideas that you can choose to follow. There will always be a lot of tension between getting the game's gameplay and storytelling to work. Scouting the territory of the possible design choices, the ones where the gameplay wins are the ones that will almost always come out victorious. Following the path of narrative-focus will almost always decrease the perceived engagement. Think of these gameplay-focused solutions as going upwards towards a peak, and the story-focused ones as going downhill into a valley.

But that doesn't mean that focusing on gameplay is optimal in the long run. It just means that given the solutions at hand, most of the time, the best one will seem to be the ones with gameplay-focus. There could be another, much higher, peak further away, but the only way to reach it is through tough terrain and deep valleys. By this I mean that a method will not show its value until you let it evolve to a certain amount. But in video games the classic gameplay is so interesting on its own, that it's is unlikely anyone would want to make this journey.

I think that a lot of features of modern film have been sitting on a distant peak, but because the simple joy of the medium wore out so quickly, people have been forced to take this treacherous path. Video games have never been forced to do this, and this is likely why we, narrative-wise, haven't been able to evolve to the extent I think this medium is capable of.

Traveling down this path is not easy, and just walking it blindly will not generate anything useful. You will just end up lost but not found.

Heavy Rain (2010)
One way of approaching this problem is to take another medium as a springboard and to use all of its core engagement as a foundation to build upon. The best example of this is in interactive movies, which use film as their base and then build a game on top of that. This works fine at first, but you will run into similar problems as with normal games; you get stuck with a local maximum. These games rely on the language of films to provide the core engagement, and this is bound to break once you step too far away from those foundational aspects. And just as in games, every nearby path in solution space will give you a worse result.

Dear Esther (2012)

I think a much more fruitful approach is to break down games into their basic elements, and then start building from there - now with the core goal of achieving better storytelling. Games like Dear Esther have been great pioneers in this regard, and have shown how building engaging experiences without a lot of features, thought to be crucial, is possible. Sure, these sort of experiences are far from perfect and not everybody's cup of tea. But to dismiss them would be very foolish indeed. We are now starting to gather knowledge about what makes games tick in a way never seen before. Now it's time to figure out where to go next.

It is my belief that in order to make more progress, we need to start analyzing what makes games special and, instead of just applying these findings in classical ways, figure out new ways by which they can increase our sense of interactive storytelling. The path ahead will be harsh, unfamiliar, and filled with challenges, but at the end we shall reach a peak greater than what we have ever seen before.

[1]: I guess one could argue that we are back to the good old days of Fred Ott's Sneeze with Youtube and gifs, but I don't think that is true. When people watched Fred Ott's Sneeze, they watched it for the "cinematic" experience that it provided, for seeing things recreated on a screen. But when we watch a clip of something silly happening, we are watching it for the sake of the event itself. People played the original Pong because it was fun to interact, and the same reason is still valid.

[2]: I am sure that people will disagree with me on this, but to me adventure games reached a peak, storytelling-wise, with games like Full Throttle and Broken Sword and it has not really improved much since.


  1. Darks souls and Bloodborne excel gameplay and narrative in interesting way. Narration is visual and suggestive. Apart of dialogue and inventory reading, it's left to player's interpretation. It's possible to neglect the whole story itself but environment and level design speak the plot sequence in their own visual way.

  2. Good one. There's a thing I'd argue about, which is not the point of your article, however, and it's curious to see us both get to it from similar approach - I'm doing a script to a video to explore what "horror games" are and should that be called a "genre" even, or more of a "theme". I think the second is more correct, but won't be surprised if I change my mind as I continue writing and researching (I started with classic Gothic literature and then, of course, movies, like you did here:)).
    Either way, to the case you actually explore here - good write up and I very much agree on many things. Games indeed have a lot of proven interactions that age very well and remain fun through years, however we are also seeing more complex interactions and mechanical concepts evolve and grow, that weren't possible (or were possible but were done in a very clunky way earlier and, as a result, didn't age well.
    And I also fully agree on the aspect that videogame media, as a whole, might need to rethink the approach to story-driven titles. As in - not kill the old flesh and all, but just see what ELSE can be done in a completely different way. Not "start with basic interaction and grow from here". But "start with basic way you can tell the story you wish to tell through the medium, and see if you can tell this story more effectively if you add more interactions". Pretty exciting time to live in for this kind of change and evolution in games :)

    1. Yeah it is really rare that games go the route of "What gameplay can I use to enhance the narrative?". It is not hard to see why though, because it is way easier to do it the other way around.

      That said though. I think a lot of game projects start of the type:
      - We want to do a game that has lots of dinosaurs in it and they are really dangerous, what sorta gameplay works with this?
      - Well it can be open world stealth?
      - Yeah that works!
      And then you start building a stealth game with the intention of having dinos. And you will make a lot of choices, gameplay-wise, that makes sure that you will actually have dangerous dinosaurs in the end.
      So it is unfair to say that "most games only care about the gameplay", when many do take the narrative into account. THe problem, as I see it, is that the gameplay still is the thing that carries the experience. And that once you have your core loop in, no narrative choice is allowed to mess with that.

    2. Yeah, true. I remember we talked with Dan Pinchbeck how in the Tale of tales' The Path when we found flowers it kinda became the game about collecting flowers instead of anything else. But even if you ignore flowers, it was easy to get into the "okay, I run around, find place, find Wolf, do bad stuff, get in the house, have first person moment, next character" mindset after the first 2 or even one and a half character playthroughs. Because the way of interaction, the gameplay, the loop of it, became very... readable and following that template was what I did, instead of following a weird abstract tale.
      Although, it is pretty easy to unserstand WHY gameplay loops exist, as they do make making games so much cheaper than implementing constantly new mechanics and animations and etc to go with whatever the story might be needing.
      But I do think this can be broken, even if it leads to more condensed smaller games (I'd actually usually prefer that too), if smart planning for storytelling mechanics is implemented. Hell, even your games tried to not stick to one specific structure starting with Amnesia, and that is an important change for story=driven games.

  3. And what do you think about a mechanical dread of stealth games where enemies are just hard or nearly impossible to fight (Thief, Alien: Isolation)? Isn't it the way — to create a system which will produce a reason to fear, not to recreate bare symptoms?

    1. Yeah I think that is a very interesting path! And that is just why horror games are so interesting from a narrative standpoint.

      But problem is that the progress usually stops at "so the player will dread at facing certain enemies", and then it is not expanded into a more complex narrative. You clearly see this in Alien Isolation where they got a really nice core loop of stealth going and then they use the narrative as a supportive structure around that. Now this core loop as a lot of valuable things narrative-wise, but imo that is just a beginning, and we see little attempts at taking it further.

      Again, the issue is that once you get a play-loop (something similar to the classical gameplay) going, games tend to cling on to that in favor of making the experience engaging in a holistic manner.

    2. Aside from stealth and combat, I think we must search more for mechanics that really tell a story. Not mechanics that just don't break it, or the story that will not interfere with the core game play.

      Currently the huge part of all the narrative in games just explains what happened before we, the player, get there. But the real thrill is when we actually press that button and all the things happen. And that's the field where walking simulators fail.

  4. Virtual Reality is a good analog to Fred Ott's Sneeze - people are entertained by thoroughly inane experiences due to the novelty of the technology. Or at least they were. Sometime last year.

    1. Excellent point!

      Will be interesting to see what this means for the medium.

      It feels like currently most stuff either fallback on classical gameplay or film.

  5. I love reading every new article on here. Core gameplay is definitely always the first focus, it's what I'm trying to learn right now as a beginner. I'm a huge fan of narrative in games though, and it's been a struggle to get focused on that core before trying to fit in a narrative to my project.

    Like other comments have stated, I think alternative methods of storytelling will be one of the keys to engaging gameplay and compelling narrative becoming more cohesive in video games.

  6. Did you even play games? There are a ton of great games outside of generic AAA spunkgurgleweewees and indie nostalgia pixelart puzzleplatformers with popculture references to mario.

    Dear esther have ZERO narrative, all it narrates is that you are a hovering pair of eyes which can't change height above ground or derivate from one single line which climbs the ubisoft tower and rides a seagul into the sunset. Games are not hot wheels track, not movies and not books nor audio books. All narration in games is done through the interaction, kinaesthetics and player agency. Tomb raider is a game about climbing rocks tomb raider 2013 is a game about slamming E and killing thousands of doods in the face.

  7. What I might suggest for building a narratively-focussed game is to start with the narrative, then look for interactions that work with and support that narrative. Not necessarily traditional interactions, note--indeed, the idea is to find mechanics fitted to the story, whether new or old.

    (That said, I don't mean to suggest that this is the only way--just a way that seems like a good idea to me.)

    I have two examples offhand: a Sherlock Holmes game and a "Lovecraftian" horror.

    Sherlock Holmes:

    A central part of Sherlock Holmes, it seems to me, is his perception--that trait by which he notices the smallest of details and connects them to form impressive deductions.

    To this end, we might have a game in which the player moves around in first-person, and as they look around various details in the environment are highlighted for them. These can be selected and linked with each other to generate deductions, which can eventually become evidence in the case. Conversation might be similar, with the player drawing phrases out of the conversation-text to link to previously-discovered points.


    A Lovecraft game might play with the Frictional classic of "not looking at the monster"--but perhaps >require< that the player do so in order to progress.

    Looking at eldritch things--monsters, tomes, symbols, etc.--might have increasing "sanity effects" (albeit hopefully nothing too immersion-breaking or silly) and perhaps, if done too much, result in a game over. It may also call the character to the attention of the eldritch horrors involved, resulting in more (and more powerful) creatures appearing.

    However, only by looking at these things can the player learn the information that will progress the plot. (And perhaps a certain drop in "sanity" is additionally required to open or reveal certain eldritch doorways?)

    Thus there's a tension: in order to go forward, the player must do something that "hurts" their character, and perhaps even makes gameplay a little more difficult.

    (I mention creatures, but I imagine that there would be no combat in such a game: survival might involve avoidance, appeasement, or occasional use of dark arts to ward off creatures.)

  8. "It is my belief that in order to make more progress, we need to start analyzing what makes games special and, instead of just applying these findings in classical ways, figure out new ways by which they can increase our sense of interactive storytelling."

    What makes games so engaging is that, while in other media the struggle exists simply as a 'spectacle', here it becomes something that you take part in, a 'challenge'. You don't just watch the conflict, you are actually struggling.

    In a horror movie, when the protagonist walks down a dark alley, you are waiting for the monster to appear. In a horror game, you are moving slowly trying to do as less noise as you can while you are ready to run if the monster suddenly appears.

    This is why walking around in Slenderman feels tense: you have to move carefully and choose the right time to sprint, knowing that it is *your* actions that will decide if Slenderman will catch you or not. Challenge is the key explaining the engagement.

    Removing challenge from games will not improve their narratives, and if it does it will do it in expense of their most unique feature, that special feeling of being present inside the game's world.

    1. Worthwhile that I don't think we should strive to remove challenge or anything like that. In fact, challenges (or at least the aspects that surrounds that feature) and possibly one of the most important ones for the medium. Your examples are all good. Being the one with agency in a story is what I find so interesting about games.

      What I mean with this article, is that I think we should rethink how we view the foundations of how video games should work. Historically there has been a lot of focus on "finding a fun core gameplay loop" and I think that has, narrative-wise, been very limiting.

    2. Thomas, the story is important, but don't forget the horror, the interaction, the puzzles etc.

    3. "What I mean with this article, is that I think we should rethink how we view the foundations of how video games should work. Historically there has been a lot of focus on "finding a fun core gameplay loop" and I think that has, narrative-wise, been very limiting"

      Point is, the problem itself leads to the questioning of the classical gameplay (which revolves around overcoming obstacles) as the spine of narrative-focused games and if it should be replaced with some other gameplay form.

      The semifinal paragraph especially seems to favor this direction, praising Dear Esther's contribution to the pursuit of better storytelling means:

      "I think a much more fruitful approach is to break down games into their basic elements, and then start building from there - now with the core goal of achieving better storytelling. Games like Dear Esther have been great pioneers in this regard, and have shown how building engaging experiences without a lot of features, thought to be crucial, is possible(...)"

      Which was what I argued against, as non-challenge oriented gameplay is less engaging and also less interesting narrative-wise as it lacks the theme of struggle.

      (Note: One might think that the abandonment of 'classical gameplay' doesn't necessarily equals the removal of challenge but I would argue that trying to provide interesting challenges to the player is the classical gameplay design in a nutshell.)

      Now, my souggestion would be to keep the classical approach of core activities, but focus on developing narrative and gameplay as two interdependant entities.

      Let's try this angle: The writer's goal is to develop a narrative while the designer's to design interesting challenges. The point of contact is that both assignments are heavily concerned about what the 'main character' does, as the agent of the narrative and as the playable character.

      For narrative and gameplay to coexist it would require for the core activities to be meaningful narrative-wise, and for the narrative to settle up objectives that present some kind of challenge in order to be completed.

      A lot of quests in VTM Bloodlines work like that for example, like sneaking past the receptionist of the clinic to avoid waiting in line. Another good example is doing the secondary "tasks" in the original Silent Hill to change the game's ending.

      From my point of view, this is interactive storytelling in some of it's finest implementations and I would certainly like to see more games trying something similar.

  9. I certainly agree wit the general sentiment of the article. Video games have continually focused far too much on gameplay and left narrative in the dust. It's interesting to think about it on the basis of engagement and complexity.

    However, I don't see that video games have been as stagnant as you are claiming. It first has to be taken into account that, unlike film, video games have had to build their foundations from nothing. Film could pull from the ideas of live plays immediately, whereas video games had to first create visual and mechanical systems that are capable of expressing the same level of story as film or plays. In other words, film started with a toolbox and had to differentiate themselves whereas games have had to create their toolbox.

    It also seems that a large piece of the puzzle has been left out, that being the inherent interactivity of games. The adventure game succeeded at narrative storytelling because it also created linear stories. These petered out because why would you play a linear story when watching or reading it can be more engaging? So much of storytelling in film and literature has focused on details and intentionality. Video games have tried to follow this, but the inherent interactivity of games complicates the intentionality which is key to standard methods of storytelling. In other words, video games are treading strange waters storytelling wise. We not only have to add narrative to games, but figure out how to make that a "gaming experience" which feeds off of and relies on the medium itself.

    I hope that made sense. You're article was very enlightening and well written.

  10. To be honest. As much I enjoyed "Dear Esther" but why the hell people praise it for its great storytelling? It's just a walking simulator where a voice is talking to you like you listen an audiobook. This is very easy design with scripted dialog files. That's the way how this game tell its story. I know Dan Pinchbeck is one of the best story writers and game designers out there, but "Dear Esther" is not really a game of hard work.

    Games like Gothic, Silent Hill, Amnesia, SOMA, The Cat Lady & Downfall does a lot better job about intelligent storytelling.