One of the primary story problems that many computer games have is that their stories are written by people who wish they were writing in a more linear medium. Sometimes moonlighting screenwriters or novelists are hired to work on game projects. These writers often feel disappointed to have to work in games and see their game work as something they do strictly for the money, while simultaneously viewing themselves as above gaming as an art form. As a result of their training in linear writing and distaste for interactive writing in general, these writers use all of the linear writing techniques they have honed over the years and try to apply them to games, where they fail miserably.
Sometimes the game developers themselves secretly or not-so- secretly wish they were working in another medium and make their story writing choices accordingly . After all, for as long as games have existed, film has been a more respected, popular, and financially rewarding medium to work in, with mammoth cults of personality surrounding actors, directors, and sometimes even writers. Game designers can be sucked in by this allure and become envious of filmmakers. These designers often start emphasizing the cinematic nature of their games, sometimes attempting to deny that they are games at all by calling them interactive movies. The games cinematic cut-scenes become longer and longer, with the predetermined story line dominating the gameplay completely.
And in a way, the mistakes game developers make putting story into their games are forgivable due to the youth of the medium. For example, when the technology that enabled filmmaking was introduced, many of the first films that were made were documents of stage plays. A camera was placed in a fixed position on a tripod and the actors considered its frame to be their stage, just as if they were working with a live audience. There were no cuts, pans, or camera movement of any kind, because the language of film had yet to be invented. As time went on, however, filmmakers learned that their films could be more than straight transcriptions of stage plays, and they could instead take advantage of the strengths of their new medium. In some ways, games still suffer from the same problem, where established mediums, film in particular, are taken and just thrown into games without considering how a story might best be told in a language suited to interactivity.
What results from these frustrated linear writers are projects that try to be both games and movies, usually with the end result that they do neither very well. Taking a plot and adapting it to work in a game is a lot like taking a plot that works in a novel and adapting it to work in a film. A novel s strength is in allowing the readers to truly get inside the heads of its protagonists, to read what they are thinking. In a movie, a lot of the audience s understanding of a character comes from being able to read the subtleties of expression on the actor s face. When a screenwriter adapts a novel , he has to re-imagine how it could work in a film, replacing what worked well in the book but won t translate well to the screen. Compared to either novels or films, games need to be significantly more active, with the character the player is controlling having plenty to do in the story. This is especially true given the current status of game development, where making dialog with other characters fun is all but impossible . Until technology advances to the point where games are able to simulate conversations significantly better than they do currently, game stories need to center around actions that games do well. This is one of the many reasons why writing stories for games is significantly different than for non-interactive media. In addition, writing a story that is suited to an interactive experience is extremely hard because we have so little experience with it, certainly when compared with the centuries of human experience that have been invested in linear storytelling. But telling a story that is suited to a playable space will reflect on the quality of your final game. There are a number of symptoms that arise when inappropriate stories are used, and recognizing these problems as they come up is crucial to preventing them from ruining your game.
The first problem is forcing players to experience the story in only one predetermined path . The linear writer often feels that there is only one way for the drama to unfold, and if players try to pursue anything else they, or at least their character, should be killed . The linear writer does not want to allow players to discover different ways of navigating through the story space when there is only one path that makes for the most powerful narrative. What the linear writer fails to realize is that games are about letting players find their own path through the game-world, even if the story suffers a little as a result. What the path may lose in drama it makes up for in players feelings of ownership. It is the player s story instead of the designer s story.
Linear writers also often try to force the player s character to have a strong personality. There is a popular trend in game design that says gamers want to have main characters with strong personalities for them to control, particularly in adventure and action games. But if one looks at the most popular entries in these genres, one will quickly notice that the player character s personality is often kept to a minimum. Look at Mario in Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Sunshine . Though Mario has a fairly distinctive look, what really is his personality? He does not actually have one, leaving him undefined enough for the players to imprint their own personality on him. What about Lara Croft in Tomb Raider ? Again, a very distinct appearance but a very undefined personality. And if one looks at the Space Marine in Doom or Gordon Freeman in Half-Life, one will find no personality whatsoever.
The reason for this is simple: when players want to play games, often they want to play themselves. If the character they are controlling has a very strong personality, there is a distancing effect, reminding players that the game is largely predetermined and making them feel like they are not truly in control of what happens in the game. Particularly frustrating are adventure games that feature strongly characterized player characters who keep speaking irritating lines of dialog. I remember one adventure game in particular where players had to control a spoiled brat who constantly said annoying, idiotic things to himself and to the characters he met. Who would want to control such a character? The dialog for the character was actually amusing and quite well written, but not to the players who were forced to go through the game using that obnoxious character as their game-world surrogate. It would appear that the game s writer got carried away with this interesting characterization without realizing the detrimental effect it would have on players gaming experience.
Of course there are a number of popular games that have succeeded while having extremely well-defined main characters. Duke Nukem 3D , the Monkey Island games with Guybrush Threepwood, No One Lives Forever with Cate Archer, any game featuring James Bond, the Oddworld games, Max Payne , and any of the later Final Fantasy games all contained extremely well-defined player characters who had piles of dialog in cut-scenes and during gameplay. When gamers play these games they are definitely acting as the guide to another character instead of becoming that protagonist themselves. Thus these games focus less on immersion and more on entertaining players at a simpler narrative level and do that quite well. In these games, players feel more like they are playing the game to unlock a predetermined story, that the adventures of these strong characters are already known, and that they are just uncovering them by playing the game. The most recent game in the Prince of Persia series, The Sands of Time , defined the main character more than any of the previous games in the series, and took the player discovering a story concept one step further. In the game, the main character acts as the game s narrator, and each time the player fails to accomplish an objective the player character is heard saying, No no, that s not what happened . In terms of story these games really are more interactive movie than game. They emphasize the designer s story as the definitive story and do little to foster the player s story. These games prove to be successful because they contain such well-written designer s stories and feature extremely good gameplay mixed in with it.
It is interesting to note, though, two games that deliberately went out of their way to have main characters who stayed mute and were thereby more iconic: Grand Theft Auto III and Jak & Daxter . What s most interesting is that for the sequels to both of these games, both of their respective developers decided to make their main characters talk, thereby diminishing the potential for player immersion. Grand Theft Auto III of course was a massively popular hit and featured a character who never said a word throughout the game. The game was still filled with well-written and interesting characters that the player met as he moved through a seamy underworld milieu, but the main character was specifically designed to have an everyman quality to him and never spoke. Through his actions he exuded a street tough and cool attitude, but his lack of dialog made it easier for players to project themselves into him. In the next game in the series, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City , the game was improved in nearly every way with tighter game mechanics, better graphics, resonant licensed music, and a more colorful and well-written cast of supporting characters. In this game, however, the main character talks quite a bit, both during cut-scenes and occasionally during gameplay. Though I would say the cut-scene dialog works much better than the in-game dialog, neither did anything to improve the popularity of the game with fans or critics , and overall the game did about as well as its predecessor. (This may be unfair since the first was so popular that it would be very difficult to be more popular.) A game that was somewhat less of a hit though still quite popular was Jak & Daxter , which also contained a mute main character. Commenting on the first game, Naughty Dog co-founder Jason Rubin stated, [Jak] doesn t speak much either, so you don t feel like you re playing Gex, and you don t want to play that character ” you don t feel turned off by it. When the first game failed to sell up to expectations, many elements were changed for the sequel, including adding a voice to Jak. Interestingly, the game proved to be a bit less popular than the first, both with fans and the critics. Of course there are a myriad of reasons for this and one can hardly attribute it solely to the decision to make Jak talk, but making that change was not something that was seen as a substantial improvement to the game.
In The Suffering , immersion was one of our primary design goals, and having the main character, Torque, not talk was a big part of that. In particular, the game hinged on the player determining what kind of person Torque was and whether or not he was guilty of the heinous crime that landed him on death row at the start of the game. It seemed odd to have a game where you were determining the main character s moral nature where you did not actually get to become that character. During development there was discussion about making Torque s personality stronger by having him talk, but in the end we decided that supporting the players ability to become Torque was extremely important in terms of players caring about the game s story. If Torque had been more strongly defined as a character, players would have been left feeling that everything about him was already predetermined and that they could not control his fate at all, or that whatever they could control was strictly canned.
The quest to have a character that players can project themselves into is something that is far more important in games, where the player is supposed to be in control of what happens, than in any other media. In Scott McCloud s great book Understanding Comics , he spends a chapter discussing the iconic representation of characters in cartoons and how this allows readers to project themselves into the characters much more than in photo-realistic works. Throughout the book McCloud draws himself as the narrator and host and uses a very abstract and cartoony style. Explaining this choice, he states: That s why I decided to draw myself in such a simple style... I m just a little voice inside your head. You give me life by reading this book and by ˜filling up this very iconic (cartoony) form. Who I am is irrelevant. I m just a little piece of you. The more abstract the notion of the character, the more the audience will be able to fill in the blanks with themselves. McCloud states that this is why cartoony imagery is so pervasive in our culture; people can become much more involved with iconic imagery than they can with more detailed and thereby specific representations of reality. Similarly, this is why abstract characters are so prevalent in computer games.
Whether or not to have a specifically defined central character in your game is a personal decision and depends on what you are trying to accomplish. You can tell a richer conventional story if you have the player control a very distinct character, but you can suck the player into the game much more if you keep the main character iconic and allow players to feel like they are in charge of determining that character s personality and fate. Personally, I believe that the advantages of having players feel that they are the hero outweigh the advantages of having a strong character. Keep in mind, your game can still have terrific characters in it, and indeed, without strong characters your game will fail to have much of a story at all. Instead of trying to imbue the main character with a lot of personality, make the NPCs players encounter in the game memorable and interesting. If players find these characters annoying, that is acceptable; it means that they have enough personality for players to feel strongly about them. But the players character should be sufficiently amorphous and unformed that players can think of that character in whatever way they see fit. And fear not, after spending forty or more hours with that character, players will come up with their own ideas of what motivates and drives their game-world surrogate. The character they create in their mind will be one whom they like and with whom they will want to continue to play.