Games have always needed stories, says celebrated game designer Margaret Robertson. For many, the first ever videogame was 1962’s Space War. It couldn’t have been simpler to look at: startlingly abstract wireframes only. Space War could hardly be a smaller story, but it allowed players to make sense of the abstract shapes, of the strange new interaction unfolding before them. And from that point on, games have consistently chased a richer relationship with stories. Technology has always made that hard, though. There were great stories in early games, but ones that you had to sip through the thinnest of straws. Everything we take for granted in other mediums of storytelling was brutally rationed in early gaming.
But now we’ve beaten those constraints. Modern games have scripts tens of thousands of pages long. They record tens of thousands of lines of dialogue and display perfectly lifelike facial expressions and body movement. Natural language conversations are becoming possible with artificial characters. Some game developers even consider that the artificial creations they make can be meaningfully said to be alive. So does that mean we’ve cracked story? Not quite. Story is hard. Story is fragile. Story is expensive. Players chew through it fast, and expect it to be endlessly responsive to their actions. Writing one good straight story is hard enough at the best of times. Producing one that’s expected to last twenty times as long as most feature films and have a hundred credible endings is next to impossible.
So how do we fix that problem? We fix it by letting games work their own particular magic. Games are engines for making stories. Their rule sets and objectives are mechanisms that engender the things that drive stories—courage, failure, shame, greed, sacrifice, surprise—and gives them context and structure. If you build a captivating world and give players interesting rules, then they’ll tell a thousand stories for you. And we fix it by letting games go free range. Whereas you needed to gather round a monolithic PDP-1 to play Space War, now most of us carry one computer in our pocket and another in our backpack. Games are leaking out on to our streets and our parks and our campuses and our beaches, and there is enormous potential to use those environments to tell new kinds of stories. This is what excites Robertson the most as a game designer: being able to give players a stage from which they can start to tell their own stories.
“…being able to give players a stage from which they can start to tell their own stories.”
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