Storytelling in Video Games: The Art of Digital Narrative (Amy Green)

Starting in mid-2017, I’ve used the first Tuesday of the month for reviews of books about game writing, and occasional books about other writing in general.

As of now, I’ve gone through about two dozen — including everything from self-published Kindle ebooks about interactive fiction to acclaimed classics of screenwriting advice — and that doesn’t count the books I read, or started to read, and decided they were just too unhelpful to cover on the blog at all.

I feel like this project is drawing to a natural close.

While there are a handful of good writing books left unreviewed on my shelves or my ebook collection, I’ve talked about pretty much all the ones that had a strong bearing on interactive work; and I’m finding there are diminishing returns on reading more of the same. But it’s been useful for me, seeing what is out there, and I hope it’s been helpful for some of you as well.

So I’m shifting process a little. I’ve started instead to cover academic work that might interest IF authors and narrative designers — trying to make it a little more accessible and curate some of the stuff that might not be easily found. (My article on Max Kreminski’s work is part of that).

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Today’s book, meanwhile, is a piece that straddles the line. The title, Storytelling in Video Games: The Art of Digital Narrative, sounds like it could easily belong to authorial how-to piece. But this is a piece of scholarship in digital narrative, rather than a craft guide, a speculation on experimental narrative creation, or a how-to book about getting on in the industry. The subtitle “Studies in Gaming”, is an important clue here. After a general introduction on why her topic is important, Green goes on to look at concepts of agency, immersion, and worldbuilding; and then to dig into how different long- and short-form games deliver their narrative experiences. She ends with a chapter on games studies in the classroom.

Green is interested in talking about how game narratives work, but from the perspective of a critical reader. She covers Firewatch and Everybody’s Gone to the RaptureFar Cry Primal and Fallout 4 — and any number of others — via Baudrillard and Benedict Anderson. The rest of the time, much of the text consists of summaries of the various games and their features, and some the critical insight about them as games is pulled in the form of quotes from game critics.

Relatively little of her own critique struck me as new information, and — ironically — in some cases her desire to communicate the emotional impact of things like complicity and immersion produced descriptions that to me felt both hyperbolic and obscure. For instance, she writes about the climax of Last of Us:

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I puzzled a little over this — is she claiming that the player is more embodied or more present in the narrative here than at other, less tense moments previously? — but I think she means that at this point in the story the player, enacting the protagonist’s grim choices, cannot escape feeling both complicity and an intimate physical awareness of the acts.

I found myself pulling away from this book, and I think I’m just severely not the target audience. Going via Tzvetan Todorov to conclude that stories need an opening hook and that Last of Us has one — this feels like coming up with an itinerary that includes two hours on the Eurostar but the only destination is my corner shop.

For someone who comes from a humanities academic background but who knows relatively little about games, it might be a different story; though I’m afraid probably few people who meet that description are reading this blog with any regularity.

Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design (Scott Rogers)

levelupcover.jpgLevel Up! is a book about game design and mechanics for would-be practitioners rather than academics. It’s by no means the only such book out there, but it enjoys pretty excellent reviews and has been recommended to me by a couple of designers I respect.

This won’t be quite a standard review, though, because I’m coming to the book with a particular question in mind. Namely: most of the game writing and narrative design books I’ve reviewed on this website have been somewhat or (in some cases) completely lacking in any discussion of how game mechanics interact with story.

So I’m curious: do I find more about the mechanics aspect of narrative design if I start with a book that’s explicitly into the mechanics? And even if Level Up! doesn’t talk about story-related mechanics as such, can I find general principles of mechanics design that also apply in the story space? For my friends who ask about learning more about the story-mechanics interface, can I point them at this book?

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S. (J. J. Abrams, Doug Dorst)

sfeelies.jpgS is a puzzle-novel with feelies, imagined by J. J. Abrams and written by Doug Dorst. The premise is that there’s a novel, The Ship of Theseus, written by the mysterious VM Straka and edited by his devoted editor FX Caldeira. This novel is the object of considerable academic debate and political struggle.

There’s also an ambiguity about the true ending of the book: the Chapter 10 printed here is (fictionally) not the original written by the author, and the “true original” ending has been made available online.

The scholarly debate draws in two students, Eric and Jen, who start leaving one another notes in the margins of the book, and then get entangled in the struggle, and also entangled in one another’s lives. Jen and Eric’s story is organized semi-thematically rather than chronologically with the passing pages: they tend to come back to certain bits of the book to talk about certain subjects. Even the early pages of the book contain notes from late in their relationship. Conveniently, they change pen colors at a couple of key points, which at least tells you what era you’re looking at.

Between the pages, there are a number of other very lovingly made artifacts, including postcards, photographs, letters, and in one case a map hand-drawn on a café napkin. The book is also (for various reasons) full of ciphers and clues, some of which Eric and Jen solve themselves, and some of which have been discussed at great length by internet onlookers. The artifacts are amazing, and the whole book shows tremendous production values.

So it’s a piece that feels like a form of analog interactive fiction, or a classic Dennis Wheatley mystery dossier. Or, also/alternatively, a call-out to literary mystery/romance stories like Possession. I didn’t really find it satisfying either as puzzle or as novel, though, because what it communicates is in fact fairly thin relative to the number of pages and amount of work involved.

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The Anatomy of Story (John Truby)

Screen Shot 2018-09-02 at 12.02.08 PM.pngThe Anatomy of Story is another book about writing for cinema, and it more or less begins by arguing against everything taught by Save the Cat. The three act structure is wrong. Thinking in terms of inciting incident and rising action will get you nowhere because these ideas are generic. Relying on genre is the way to produce a predictable and formulaic result. The truth comes from within.

Truby encourages the writer to start by identifying topics that matter to them. “Write a story that will change your life,” he says, and then suggests some ways you might identify what topics and themes are particularly important to you. In this respect, it feels like a less dogmatic and more personal approach to some of Egri’s advice.

Once the writer has identified what sort of story she finds most compelling, Truby suggests looking (among other things) for the main character’s “basic action,” the thing that character does most consistently or most importantly in the story — Michael Corleone’s act of revenge, Luke Skywalker’s hand-to-hand combat against evil — as well as a design principle that will help structure the story, and important end-of-story choices that will be finely balanced between two almost-equally-desirable (or undesirable) outcomes.

All of this thinking could equally well be the preparation to find a good mechanic for your narrative design. Elizabeth Smyth’s Bogeyman is a horror story about abuse in which every choice the player makes is about obeying or defying the abuser. Papers, Please is about whether to comply or quietly disobey orders, in a host of ambiguous circumstances.

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The Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox (ed. Tobias Heussner)

advancedgamenarrativeThe Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox is a brand-new followup to The Game Narrative Toolbox, which I covered previously. The “advanced” bit means that the book doesn’t re-cover all the same ground already found in game writing books. The authors suggest that if you are entirely new to game literacy and writing advice, you should go to the first book in the series, to Skolnick’s Video Game Storytelling, and/or to McKee’s Story.

Where the first book walked the reader through steps for building a basic portfolio of game design documents and related materials, The Advanced Game Narrative Toolbox is more topic-driven, each chapter written by a different author (with just a couple of repeats).

The topics cover a range of craft, commercial, and cultural considerations. Many (but not all) of the chapters end with a suggested exercise for the reader, as they did in the first book; but the feel here is less of a core syllabus and more of a set of electives you might pick to round out your understanding.

Many of the chapters approach their subject by defining process: what are the steps that you would take to go about a given task, what considerations should you apply, who else needs to be involved, what could go wrong, and how will you know when you’re done? So, for instance, a chapter is more likely to say (I paraphrase) “next, make a map that shows where each step of the quest will occur in the game world,” and less likely to dive into deep analysis of different possible map designs and how they will affect player experience. Typically, that process guidance is really useful, especially as it comes paired with lists of references if you need more technique training, but you should be aware which you’re getting.

The book is expensive. I bought it as soon as I heard of it, and I’m glad I did, but I flinched at checkout. Price is not typically something the authors can control, but it means I talk later in the review about how to tell whether you’re likely to get enough value from it to justify the price. That’s not meant to reflect on the book’s quality: it’s good, no question. If you get a chance to pick up a used copy for $15, just buy it.

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Story (Robert McKee) and the Expectation Gap in Interactive Story

McKeeStory is one of a handful of screenwriting books that turn up constantly in the bibliography of game writing books. McKee himself gives courses — I’ve never been, but I hear they’re very good shows, whether or not they’re good advice. It’s advised at least as often as Save the Cat, and possibly more so.

It is also, I think, more applicable to non-cinema writing than Save the Cat: McKee is interested in structure, and he has a lot of formulaic rules to suggest, but he cares about content as well. At one point he has a speech about the need for emotional truth, and how this can only come from within the author.

There are aspects of the book that aren’t entirely to my taste. In support of his points, McKee often spends quite a while reprinting classic screenplays — he’s particularly enamored of Chinatown — with his own commentary interspersed. I did not generally find his comments to be that much more instructive than the original dialogue, undisturbed. And even when he’s not giving verbatim chunks of screenplay, he spends an awful lot of time summarizing the events of various movies you’ve probably seen. He’s also a bit grandiose with his rhetoric about the great imaginative work of writing.

Then, too, quite a lot of his advice belongs to the “add an appropriate amount of salt” school of recipe writing — warning that too little or too much of something will be bad, but offering no heuristics.

All the same, there is a lot of basic vocabulary about how plots are assembled and how scenes are designed, which this book introduces as well as or better than many another. Personally, I’d be inclined to go for e.g. Wonderbook instead, if you want an introduction to basic structure vocabulary, and you’re not specifically writing screenplays. For most purposes, Wonderbook is more varied and goes deeper than Story.

There are, however, a couple of points — the ideas of expectation gap and of internal subconscious conflict — where I think it’s interesting how those concepts carry over to interactive work.

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