The Caterpillar Jihad
What is a game?

Story... Narrative... Game... Toy

I've just got back from a three day weekend in Paris, and I'm therefore hopelessly behind on just about everything, but I want to spare some time to respond to this Man Bytes Blog entry which addresses my recent posts.

When I say "stories are stories" this is shorthand for "all that is referred to as a story can be used as points of reference for the linguistic family resemblance category that constitutes the word 'story'. " I find this the most inclusive and defensible position, and I do not intend it to be a trivial tortology.

An awful lot of arguments result from a schism in the way words are used. The problem (as several people have observed) is that words are used both as logical categories, and family resemblence categories.

Corvus says:

So, to my mind, reducing the concept of story to the definition of the word ’story’ is the same sort of “the map it the territory” error that Chris references in his post yesterday. For a story to be Story, it must give us a reason to follow the central character’s actions, and the primary method of getting us to empathize with a character is to give them a conflict to overcome.

I note Corvus' addition of the capital 'S'. This seems to me an attempt to define a logical category that is more clearly in focus than the widest formulation of 'story'. Presumably Corvus does so to pursue his agenda of improving game stories (which is a goal we share). So my family resemblance category runs into Corvus' logical category... it's an infinite argument if we want to pursue it, but we'd do better to focus elsewhere.

As I said before, my concern is that not all writers (especially new writers) are going to appreciate the point Corvus makes about internal conflict... that they will take "story is conflict" and produce another tale of revenge (have we not had enough of these yet?), or a meaningless war as a framework to drive forward their game. Or they will dream up more one-dimensional adolescent power fantasy characters like the Master Chef (sic), who is basically a phallus with a gun - characters who embody (bland and trivial) conflict as their highest ideal.

My agenda, therefore, is to identify wider issues to focus upon.

I'm going to use 'narrative' where Corvus applies 'Story', to keep distinct from the way I am most comfortable using the term 'story'. The key elements of narrative as I see it are character, plot and theme. We get very different narratives depending upon which of this "holy trinity" is most emphasised.

Most game stories at the moment focus primarily upon plot. As our research suggests, this may be because the people who make games are psychologically biased to prefer plot over character (when they are seen collectively, at a statistical level).

As Corvus and I agree, what is most interesting about the medium of table-top role-playing games is more often character than plot - because the plot tends to be the sole preserve of the GM, whereas the character interactions emerge from the play of the group. Like Corvus, I eventually found my favourite approach to GMing was to move away from a pre-defined sequential plot, and into a space where characters drive the story. Near the end of my time in tabletop RPGs, I had reached a point whereby all I had to do as GM was maintain the scenary and props, because the players had taken charge of the story themselves.

In the narrative design of video games, we aren't going to get the same richness as in tabletop games any time soon, but it would still be a positive step if we could get better characters - both static characters (those whose story is defined) and dynamic characters (those for whom we allow the player some latitude in developing). This is going to be non-trivial.

The challenge with static characters is keeping the player in synch with the character. Conventional storytelling skills can help, but if the narrative gets more complicated than a string of fights, there is always going to be the risk of drift between the pre-defined narrative and the player's experience. I'd like to see us expend some effort identifying problems and solutions in this area.

Similarly, the challenge with dynamic characters is developing tools that allow us to support freedom of choice and expression in a game without racking up insurmountable development costs. This requires thinking about narrative in completely different terms to the way we have approached it in the past. We could use to expend some effort examining this area too.

There is also the issue of what constitutes a game:

Games, and this is my main point here, are still goal oriented attempts to present a linear plot. And when someone presents a strictly experiential space, it ceases to be a game.

We're back to problems of definition again. In our forthcoming book, we define a 'toy' as a tool for entertainment, and a 'game' as a toy with some degree of performance associated with it. This creates a continuum from toy to game, and in our terms, from toyplay to gameplay. Have we spent sufficient time looking at the narrative issues of toys? Animal Crossing is largely what we consider to be a toyplay game, but each player has (trivial - but absorbing) narrative experiences within it. These experiences are largely devoid of conflict - but they can still be incredibly engaging. There's something going on here that warrants closer attention.

I'm delighted to call Corvus (as he says) a "banter buddy", and look forward to future discussions. I'd also like to assure him that I am not at all interested in "going all bitchcakes" on anyone for any reason at all!

Sadly, I don't have time to complete my thoughts today, so I will have to leave this particular post in an entirely ambiguous place for the time being.

Comments

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I agree that there is a danger in inexperienced stroytellers interpreting "conflict" in dull and uniteresting ways. After all, they manage to interprate "character," "plot," and "non-linear" in decidedly muddle headed ways as well.

As I stated (hopefully clearly) in my post this morning, I see the solution as speaking more loudly and more often about the types of conflict available to the storyteller and why good conflict is important.

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