You’re all just jerks.
Gaming as a medium is unique in its capacity to involve the user. Whereas movies, books, painting, and music leave user involvement in their product firmly in the user’s world, games incorporate the user’s actions. The artist must always share their vision with the thousands of punks who played it. Inevitably, the artistic vision is diluted. In this article, I’ll show how player involvement makes telling stories difficult.
A great deal goes into the narrative beyond the dialogue and written story components. One of the most effective ways of telling a story is via the atmosphere it creates. Ruined walls and desiccated corpses say more about an ancient dungeon than an NPC saying “this dungeon is old” ever could. They work together to build a mood that adds greater context to everything the player experiences. At least, until the actual game starts. The challenge of a game never seems to calibrate with the story the game is telling. When the game is too easy, the spooky dungeon that claimed a thousand adventurers feels hollow. When the game is too hard, the player feels weak and decidedly unheroic. Making the balancing act more difficult is the wide variance in skill between players. Even if we assume skill on a simplified scale of newbie to master, the extremes and all points in between represent the target the developer must hit to convey their narrative. Adding the complexity back in, player skill also varies based on the type of challenge and the character they’ve created. Hitting the sweet spot where the player’s challenge reflects the narrative is impossible.
Beyond the capacity to overcome a particular challenge, the player also approaches each level in a way that often breaks the narrative. In order to overcome challenges, add convenience, or just because they feel like it, the player often acts in narrative breaking ways to achieve their personal goals. One of the most common examples is exploring mountains in a BethesdaSoft game. Just about every player jumps up against the mountains hoping to find a pixel that they can use to launch themselves higher. A normal human in the context of that narrative would probably just walk around. The narrative of bravely exploring an untamed wilderness is turned into a pixel hunt for the lazy. Players also repeatedly disobey instructions, hunt around for collectibles, and do asinine things like jump on NPC’s heads just to see if they can. Trying to preserve a story in the face of an uncooperative player is practically impossible.
Player’s aren’t just screwing up other people’s stories; they’re also telling their own. Players create stories in their heads about their characters and the worlds they inhabit that may conflict with the developer’s vision. From small tweaks to major changes, players are constantly revising, reinterpreting, and totally ignoring the plans laid out by the developer. Consumers of media have always done this to a certain degree, but the freedom of video games allows them act out the stories they’re imagining in the context of an existing story. Games with a focused narrative experience will inevitably have trouble matching their story with the player’s unless they are able to convince the player to join in on the developer’s vision. Consider the nature of dialogue options. Any number of games allow the player to choose their dialogue, but the player often doesn’t see the dialogue they want. This speaks to one of the most difficult aspects of storytelling in games: the developer is effectively writing a story with thousands of people whom they will never meet.
Telling stories in games is hard, but that’s also why it can be so rewarding. When the developer succeeds in getting the player to commit to a story and world, the player has the chance to live in that space. The games enthralls the player for its capacity to deliver on a vision the player wants. If only the player would cooperate.