Interactive Storytelling for Video Games (Josiah Lebowitz/Chris Klug)

Screen Shot 2017-06-14 at 9.36.06 AM.pngLast seen on this blog because Chris Crawford panned itInteractive Storytelling for Video Games: A Player-Centered Approach for Creating Memorable Character and Stories.The main body text is written by Josiah Lebowitz, but with interleaved commentary and examples written by Chris Klug.

This book is aimed at relative beginners, starting with a chapter on video game history and then three more chapters on basics of story in general (a point it has in common with a few other how-to-write-games books I’ve surveyed in the past). Each chapter ends, in textbook fashion, with a short list of questions for the student to ponder for later.

And, inevitably, there is a detailed breakdown of the hero’s journey, the references to Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, the examples from Star Wars. However, despite Crawford’s shade, they’re pretty up front about recognizing when they’re talking about standard tropes and clichés, and discussing them as such with the reader, as well as recognizing how those elements are most commonly applied in games. Klug makes a pitch for why the Refusal of the Call phase of the monomyth is important — something I would agree with (though grudgingly, since I wish people were in general less hung up on mapping every game to this formula). (See also Skolnick’s remarks on the Refusal of the Call.)

In some places, though, Interactive Storytelling for Video Games does get pretty dogmatic about things that I would like to hope are flexible. For instance:

…video games tend to focus on fighting and strategy, exploration, puzzle solving, or some combination of the three. These types of external conflicts are far easier to portray in a game-like fashion than the more internal emotional conflicts that are often the focus of things like romance and sitcoms. Therefore, a “proper” game story needs to support a large amount of external conflict. (44)

Though the book does go on to acknowledge the existence of dating sims, flow games like Flower, and other low-conflict types, the book categorizes these as non-ideal story types and emphasizes that “though dating sims are very popular in Japan, they’re rarely, if ever, released overseas.”

Elsewhere, they get similarly dogmatic about procedural generation:

I do not believe “random” content creation is capable of anything deep and interesting. (120)

…though possibly the issue here is the lack of nuance referring to “random” creation: a good PCG system is often expressive because of how it presents the consequences of the designed or authored rules of generation, which is arguably no longer simply random.

In addition to these strong statements, the book tends to give generalized advice (“it’s okay to use some clichés as long as you change them up,” “your characters should be believable,” “it’s good to care about your characters,” etc.), without going as far into specific techniques as I might have preferred.

Or take this line, which condenses a fairly advanced art into a shrug: “Writing lines for NPCs or in-game books usually isn’t too hard — just start with the subject and work from there.” (136) Admittedly I wouldn’t go quite as far as Evan Skolnick’s claim that only professionals should be allowed to write dialogue, but this goes way too far in the other direction.

The main gain for me, especially in the early sections, came in the form of the case studies of games I hadn’t had a chance to play myself: the DS-only The World Ends With You, a dual-protagonist fighting game with fashion-based power-ups which sounds frankly fantastic; ARG-like elements in the Earth and Beyond MMO; a number of Japanese visual novels and RPGs that I haven’t had a chance to play.

A good percentage of the book is focused on what the authors call “player-driven storytelling,” which they define as

a player-driven story is one in which, through their interactions, players can alter the story in significant ways… in some, the player’s impact on the story may be fairly minimal or limited to a single important decision; in others, the player may be given an enormous amount of control over the story’s progression and outcome. (119)

In other words, it refers to what Stacey Mason calls diegetic agency. When they come to analyzing the structures that support this kind of experience, though, the discussion is relatively simplistic, with suggestions like “you may also need to think about how the player can interact with the world and characters.” Well, indeed.

Or the suggestion that having multiple endings to a game may make it impossible to have any particular theme to your story, concluding, “Perhaps it may be true that the interactive medium may not be the place to deliver a powerful theme. I don’t think we’ve come to any solid conclusion either way.” (160) There’s more sophisticated discussion in the IF community and elsewhere about the rhetorical force of narrative structures, and so this hand-wave doesn’t (in my opinion) really prepare the reader very well to choose how to approach these topics.

Quite a few of Chris Klug’s notes throughout the book amount to “I’m not sure we can actually do anything interesting with this yet” or “the jury is still out on whether this is any good” — and while I have no objection to people raising reasonable cautionary notes, I think there’s more evidence to answer some of these questions than the book takes into account.

Another example: “branching path stories tend to require players to complete most — if not all — of their different branches before they can fully understand the story.” (201). This is true for certain genres of project, especially the type of visual novel that has a “true ending” unlocked only when you’ve seen all the others. The case studies here suggest that the authors are working heavily from a subset of the possible types of branching story games.

The authors also don’t go into structures for delivering dynamic story with a lot of diegetic agency other than pure simulations like The Sims or open-world RPGs like Fallout 3. They also tend to assume that a very open story means a very undefined protagonist, whereas it’s possible to choose more focused stat ranges for a particular protagonist.

The final chapters of the book concern a debate over the value of player-driven storytelling, followed by a survey by the authors, about which games players found most pleasing from a story perspective. They conclude: “…interactive traditional storytelling [i.e. without diegetic agency] is the most popular game storytelling style among players, reflected by both their stated preferences and their favorite game stories. Second, in general, the more player-driven the storytelling style, the less popular it is among players.” (277)

So, overall: there are some decent observations here and there about topics such as why it’s not very compelling to let the player play each of three or four game endings in a row — though from my perspective this is not new information. And the case studies provide additional example material for thinking about these problems; in particular, they skew enough towards Japanese storytelling games and visual novels that they may provide a useful starting point for readers who aren’t as familiar with the non-western traditions here. And the writers are clearly really interested in the problems of freedom, agency, and story (choose two, as Andrew Stern wrote years ago).

At the same time, the book doesn’t really get that deep into either the range of narrative models that can support high-agency stories, or the expressive power of doing so: what can this or that structure communicate thematically? How does the variation range you make available for your protagonist become part of the message of your story?

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