Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Game Design Needs Better Storytelling Pt2[E]


So now we see how Bear at the Door is applied in games, but this is normally what only shapes the beginning -or on a smaller scale, the conflicts- within games. But a even more prominently used shape in gaming is the Blue Moon, the Blue Moon is the act of presenting the reader with an impossible or unheard of situation, the kind of thing that either doesn't exist or would happen only once in a blue moon, as the saying goes. 

Now this is something the industry has been using since the very beginning of gaming, and yet we still have titles that completely fail to deliver. In high fantasy you can put a player into a world and perspective that they'ed never get to experience otherwise, and within that premise writers can say something about the world and our inner selves. The fall is in the creator's imagination and even in reality; you can imagine fantastic worlds of dragons, forest spirits, aliens, zombies, and werewolves but there are so many works of fiction that already have. The viewer thinks, oh yeah it's one of those, and has been pulled from the experience. A cliche is a cliche, despite the context. The reason classical fantasy types are still viable genres for creation is the human phenomena of suspension of disbelief, when you start a story and first present the world the viewer is willing to accept it existence with the context of the story. And then depending on the execution of exposition, how you reveal story and characters to the viewer, the player will become more and more engrossed within the world. 
A rule of thumb in writing is to have one main thing the viewers have to accept; fairy-tale creatures are real, a pharmaceutical company has started the zombie apocalypse, we can relive your assassin ancestor's life with science, a plumber is transported to a strange world, or probably most notable example..

And after that is established the reader will accept anything that's within the possibilities of that first Blue Moon. As information is presented as long as it flows with a logical escalation, it feels believable. You're a wizard, so wizards and witches are real, so magic is real, so magical creatures are real, so there is another secretive side to our world, so it's maintained that muggles are hidden from this magical world, so magical gifted individuals must go to school to learn control of their gifts, so there is an entire ministry to keep order and maintain the wizarding world from muggles, the list could continue going but you get the idea. This is possibly the most basic rule when delivering exposition, and one of those ones that early writers seem to neglect more then anything. 

Another commonly used tool in Blue Moon shape stories is to distance the narrator from the story in the beginning; 'my old man heard it from his dad's friend from in the war.' The narration explains they understand the story seems far-fetched so they're asking us as viewers to simply take it at its worth as a story, and so we do. We are willing to suspend disbelief that much farther because narrator has established that they are not responsible for the story, and so there is not much we as viewers can do but take the story for its worth. Look at the 1987 film The Princess Bride, without the grandfather/grandson storytelling aspect it's a really strange awkward little film. Think of the film without that side story, it's just kind of goofy and pretty well loses it's real strength as a story. An example of this technique used for exposition in games is the Witcher 2. Don't get me wrong, the storytelling has plenty of problems, but it does some things with this mechanic that we should look at to consider how this could be better adapted for storytelling in games. But, we'll talk about that another time.

(Geralt wants you to tune in again later)

 .So we've taken a look at how a properly delivered exposition and the suspension of disbelief can help the player get immersed in fictitious worlds, lets take a quick look at the most common ancient story shape and pacing.


 Last but certainly not least is the Journey, expected to be the oldest shape of storytelling the journey story has become one of the closest and most dear to us. That's because it is about overcoming adversity and growing as an individual, rites of passage into adulthood and achievement of self-affirmation, things that we can all understand and empathize with. In some degree nearly every story is about a journey of sorts, in the exception of a few really confusing art-house films. 
In a good Journey it instantly makes the reader see from the perspective of the protagonist and engages them in the conflict. As the oldest type of story the journey shape naturally has already worked out the best flow for its story to be structured on.  

(The picture above is the Three Act Structure of  the 2010 film The King's Speech.)

The three act structure is the most used story structure in narrative mediums; the difference in games being that, as a interactive medium, designers work a way to either skip the first act and fill it in later or get through it as quickly as possible. That style is known as In medias Res, (look at the Bear at the Door story shape in part 1) and essentially explains why things like Amnesia and flashbacks are used so often with the main character in games. This makes it easier to convey the first act, the background and life before the dramatic question without having to slow the pacing of the game for exposition. (The Extra Credits fokes did an amazing job explaining what I just went over with the story structure and such, but in much better detail with examples, if you don't get it yet watch their vid.)

Okay now the Three Act Structure is typically characterized by three distinct stages separated by two main plot points that signify the turning points in the protagonists story.  Think of this structure applied to your favorite dramatic film and decide where you think the two main plot points are to divide the three main acts.  When well done the plot points punctuate the shift in the stories tension and can really drive the protagonists story, by the end of the film you really empathize with the character's plight.

Bad stories are the production of bad writing, plain and simple. Bad storytelling can be a little more difficult to pin down. I feel with all the complaints about bad storytelling the main root of the issue is when the story cannot decide where the different acts start and end or how to deliver the transition plot points. The times where you have gotten to some supposedly big important part of a game and just not cared. Look at Mafia2, the gameplay is mostly competent, but it falls flat at ever dramatic scene. (we'll give that title a breakdown later, it deserves it)

The industry is starting to figure it out but in respect to the bulk of triple-A titles, with little exception, the tricks to delivering a well structured narration within a interactive medium are still a hit and miss deal. To some it's only getting worse because of the producers-only-greenlighting-projects-that-look-like-something-that's-already-out-leading-to-stagnation-and-the-limitation-of-creativity-in-the-medium problem. But in my opinion it's simply a part of our growth, you have to fail to learn.

If you're paying attention you can already see the producers and tripple-A tycoons starting to figure out that well crafted stories can make good experiences, and people pay  for those. That and just maybe writers have found more crafty ways to sneak in good stories :)

We'll talk more later. Until next time, thanks for tuning in everyone and have a great night.

Next time we'll talk about exposition and why sometimes so many of us just don't care.

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