Jon Blow’s MIGS Talk on Story and Game Design

by Darius Kazemi on November 21, 2008

in Uncategorized

At MIGS this week, Jon Blow gave a thought-provoking lecture on the conflict between story and game design. Not as mind-blowing as his lecture at MIGS last year, but it’s a few days later and I’m still thinking about it. He’s posted a ZIP file of the audio and the slides.

I actually make a cameo in the Q&A portion of the talk. Jon says that AI drama managers, such as the one seen in Facade, will never be able to craft a story as interesting as a live storyteller can. And that live storyteller in turn will never be able to match the non-realtime storytelling abilities of a novelist or playwright.  I agree with him up to this point, but he seemed to use these facts to draw the conclusion that narrative in games is never going to be particularly good. And okay, linear narrative probably won’t be all that good, but there is something to be said for exploring the story space of a drama manager through multiple playthroughs. And I am willing to bet that we could make a better Groundhog Day in our medium. (And in fact, Steve Meretzky sort of beat them to the punch in 1985 with A Mind Forever Voyaging.)
Anyway, I asked Jon what he through of exploring story spaces, and he more or less agreed that nonlinear narrative is a valid pursuit — he said that most drama managers are trying to create compelling stories from whole cloth on a single playthrough, but that going the nonlinear route is better than trying to beat novelists and screenwriters at their own game.

{ 1 comment }

Dan Menard November 22, 2008 at 4:42 am

So I agree and disagree with his lecture. I came into his lecture believing that games can rival books and movies in artistic meaning. (This is what I’m personally attempting with the game I’m working on).
I disagree with the idea that story must be in conflict with Dynamical Meaning and that – while many games do have problems in coupling the two – it is easier to fix than he made it sound. It is all in the approach to the game and I hope (I don’t have much experience with the game industry) that game designers could be retrained to think to consider Dynamical Meaning. Challenge and Progression, though opposite forces, can work together and do work together in telling a compelling story. Challenge can mean not just deserving the story but the challenge can be reflected in the progression of the story; in this way you feel you deserve it and it also feels natural in the progression of the story.
The most difficult for me is conflict 3. I do agree that delivery makes the story what it is and that interactivity/ giving the player control can prevent this delivery. There is also the problem that he does not mention: depending on the kind of delivery, usually done by a cut-scene, it takes away the interactive elements the player identifies with which then dissolves the players attachment to the game/story. One of the best examples is MGS IV, whose biggest complaint was that the cut-scenes overwhelm the game making it feel more like a movie. This becomes the problem of designing the story for a game: either the player destroys the story by interacting improperly or the maker destroys the game by taking away interactivity.
But then this made me think of other mediums: someone can definitely destroy a movie experience by talking throughout the movie, pointing out cliches and giving away important plot points before they happen. This takes some willing individual to do this, but what if you are the person doing this and you have never seen this movie before? This applies to games also, for instance cheat codes people use eliminates the difficulty of a game and changes the experience. It takes a willing individual to interactively destroy the experience of a game and therefor as a game designer it is more of a risk in taking away interactivity than changing the experience yourself. In fact, the thing that makes books and movies profound and meaningful is what the individual takes away from the story and their unique interpretations. Let the user decide within your story how they want to experience it because this way they take the most from it.

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