如何才能够形成优秀的故事呢？在告诉我们如何制作可以直接应用到游戏中的有用故事时，游戏设计师通常会特别提到三部作品。如果你感到好奇的话，我可以告诉你，这三部作品是：亚里士多德编写的《诗学》；Joseph Campbell编写的《The Hero with a Thousand Faces》；Robert McKee编写的《Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting》。
1、Bob Bates编写的《Into the Woods: a Practical Guide to the Hero’s Journey》。这篇文章概述了Joseph Campbell的作品，因为后者与游戏设计相关。
2、John Sutherland编写的《What Every Game Developer Needs to Know about Story》。这篇文章概述了Robert McKee编撰的书籍《故事》（游戏邦注：这部书籍本身就是亚里士多德的《诗学》的实用指导书籍），为游戏设计师总结出故事讲述的三位一体法。
3、《Understanding Comics》第2章和第3章。在你阅读这部分的内容时，要特别注意如何将这些内容运用到游戏中。Scott McCloud并不会直接告诉你，所以你需要自己找出主要的内容。
性格和特征在游戏中分别指代什么呢？首先，线性化故事通过过场动画（游戏邦注：而不是游戏玩法）可以更好地展现出角色的性格。为主角做出道德选择会让玩家感到甚为艰难，因为选择通常并不会导致现实世界中的变故。因为这只是游戏，玩家很安全，因而他们不会失去现实世界中的任何东西。因而，玩家所做的决定并不会反映出他们自己的性格，因为他们的性格并没有收到考验。在现实世界中为好友挡子弹与在游戏世界中决定是否获取Light Side Points并非完全相同。在游戏中加入道德考验并非不可实现，但是那些选择的所产生的情感后果很难真正被玩家感受到。，因为做出这些决定的是玩家而不是主角。因而，在玩家无法控制故事时呈现强大的性格也会更加容易。
Joseph Campbell花了大量的时间来研究深化、传说和英雄故事，寻找它们之间的相同和不同之处。他发现多数神话普遍采用某种结构，他将其称为“Monomyth”或“Hero’s Journey”（英雄之旅）。这是种具体的故事类型，因而所阐述的内容比McKee得故事描述更为具体。由于许多游戏将玩家视为英雄，所以了解以下内容也是很有用处的。
1、想想许多电子游戏中的主角，包括Master Chief、Samus Aran、Gordon Freeman和Chell等。通常情况下，你不会看到自己所控制角色的过多信息，你也听不到他们的许多话语。这种情况的出现并非偶然。这是故意设置的，使玩家可以将他们自己的个性融入到角色之上。角色成为了玩家的延伸，你觉得自己与角色存在情感维系，因为二者已经融为一体。
2、此外，你也会看到某些定义分明的强势角色，如Duke Nukem和Lara Croft。在这种情形中，我们迅速地识别出主角并非我们自身。为补偿这种感觉，角色们必须展现出强大的个性。
我想要让你注意的最后一个要点是McCloud的“blood in the gutter”概念（游戏邦注：书中66页到69页）。在书中描述了两个场景，其一是谋杀者将斧子挥向受害者，其二只是展示了个尖叫声。受害者的死亡时间是何时呢？在这两个场景之间，正是你这个读者靠着自己的想象力杀死了他，而这个画面并没有真正呈现出来。
游戏设计师Ernest Adams在GDC 2006上做了个鼓舞人的演讲，题为“互动故事新愿景”。首先，他简单地总结了上文中描写的某些内容，然后进一步挑战我们所有的基本想法，随后他尝试取得进一步的发展。以下是我的记录以及部分个人见解：
正如我们从Doug Church的《Formal Abstract Design Tools》中所看到的那样，玩家意向和叙事间存在某种平衡。但是，我们可以通过玩家和设计师间达成的“角色扮演”社交合约来扩展。
Level 9: Stories and Games
Up until this point, we have talked about games from a purely ludological viewpoint. That is, we have looked at games as a system of rules, with the implicit assumption that the rules are the game, and that a narrative of any kind is just window dressing. (Any word with the root lud- or ludo- is referring to games; the root is Latin for play. We use words like ludology and ludography and ludic because everything sounds more distinguished if you say it in Latin.)
But this is not entirely true. As mentioned when we talked about kinds of decisions, some player choices may have absolutely no meaning within the game system and yet they are still meaningful because they are emotionally charged.
Those of you who play tabletop Role-Playing Games are probably more keenly aware of this. Think of the most interesting play session you’ve ever had. You’re probably not thinking of a die roll, or an interesting strategic decision that a player made in combat. You’re remembering something dramatic, emotional. You remember the story, not the die-rolling.
What makes for good stories? Game designers often reference three works in particular that tell us how to make useful stories that apply directly to games. If you’re curious, these works are: Poetics, by Aristotle; The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell; Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee.
Today we will look at these works and their effect on game design. We will build up a set of guidelines for how to tell a good story within a game. And then, at the end, we will tear it all down again.
As I’ve been out of town and offline since early Friday morning, I have not had time to validate new user accounts for the forums, read email, moderate comments on this blog, etc.
I will catch up on these things later today, or tomorrow morning at the latest, after I have fully recovered from a nearly-sleepless (in a good way) weekend. I’ll say this: playtesting your games with skilled game designers is very different from playtesting with typical gamers.
Here are some new kinds of fun that were proposed from last time:
“Servant”: opposite of a griefer, someone who gets pleasure out of making sure other people have a good time. (I would actually call this something else, like “Party Host”… and yes, it makes sense that this would be valuable to a hunter-gatherer. You are showing value to your tribe. I understand that Disney has identified this as a customer archetype, usually associated with the mom in the family.)
“Maker”: someone who gets joy out of constructing and building things. (The example given was user-generated content for video games, but you sometimes see this in standalone board games as well, like Settlers of Catan. Certainly, building and construction are useful to survival, even if all you’re making is a tool or a crude hut.)
Read the following:
Into the Woods: a Practical Guide to the Hero’s Journey by Bob Bates. This article summarizes Joseph Campbell’s work, as it is relevant to game design.
What Every Game Developer Needs to Know about Story, by John Sutherland. This article summarizes the book Story by Robert McKee (which itself is essentially a practical guide to Aristotle’s Poetics), rounding out the Holy Trinity of storytelling for game designers.
Understanding Comics, Chapters 2 and 3, if you have a copy of that book. As you read, pay particular attention to how any of this might apply to games. Scott McCloud isn’t going to come out and say it, so you will have to connect the dots yourself.
A lot of words were different in Aristotle’s time than how we use them today. Poetics is not about poetry, but about how to write tragedy. Tragedy, as Aristotle used the term, did not mean “a story with a sad ending” but rather a story that is serious and lifelike – a story devoid of the supernatural or fantastical (which he referred to as comedy).
However, one thing that hasn’t changed in all this time is that there is still a lot of really bad writing.
Aristotle may not have been the first to notice, but he was certainly one of the first to actually do something about it. He wrote about how to write a decent story. If a lot of his advice sounds familiar, it is because it is often repeated in writing classes, even at the elementary school level – although Aristotle may or may not be credited for the idea in any given class.
For example, have you ever heard that stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an end? That was from Poetics. It is a reminder that there are different parts to a story, and that the writer should be aware of how it all fits together.
Poetics also defined what is known as the three-Act structure for stories, basically a division of a story into three parts. In the first part, something happens to set the events of the story in motion. In the second part (which tends to be the longest), the protagonist tries to deal with the events as they happen. In the final part, a resolution is reached. (I’ve heard it described thus: in the first act, get the hero up a tree; in the second act, throw rocks at him; in the third act, get him down.)
One important thing that Aristotle really hammered on is that each scene should follow the previous ones with a logical cause-and-effect relationship. Weak writing goes like this: “X happens, then Y happens, then Z happens.” Stronger writing is more like this: “X happens, and because of that Y happens, and because of that Z happens.”
This cause-and-effect rule is even more restrictive when it comes to the protagonist. When bad things happen to the main character, it should not be random; it should be caused by that character’s understandable human action, and it should follow as a plausible and inevitable effect of that action. This makes the audience pity and empathize with the hero, because we can see the human weakness, we can understand why the character did what he did, and yet we also see that it causes his undoing. This explains why Aristotle really hated what was called deus ex machina (that is, an ending where everything is suddenly made better through no fault of the main character – for example, “…and just as the main character was about to die, he woke up, and realized it was all just a bad dream, The End”). In a deus ex machina, the hero is not the cause of the ending. The main character is not in control of the story.
Applying this to games, it becomes clear why it is sometimes so frustrating when, for example, a character in a video game dies during a cut scene. The one time the player doesn’t have any choice – the one time when the main character is not in control – is the one time when the plot advances.
Lastly, it is worth mentioning that Aristotle defined a stage play as being comprised of six elements. We have similar elements in games with a strong story component:
Plot. The narrative that describes what actually happens.
Theme. What does it all mean? Why does it happen?
Character. As in, a single role within the story.
Diction. The dialogue, and also the actor’s delivery of that dialogue.
Rhythm. This does include “rhythm” in the sense of music, but also the natural rhythm of human speech.
Spectacle. This is what Aristotle called the “eye candy” or special effects of his day. He often complained that too many plays contained all spectacle and nothing else – sound familiar?
I’m not sure if Robert McKee ever actually wrote a screenplay that was made into a movie. Mostly, he teaches screenwriting. If you’ve ever come out of a movie saying “wow, that was a really great story,” the screenplay was probably written by one of McKee’s students. (I would love to be considered the “McKee of games” some day. Note to my former students: go out there and make me look good!)
Story is essentially a re-telling of Poetics, but made specific to screenwriting for movies. I found Story to also be a lot more accessible to read; it is written in a conversational style (not to mention that it is written in contemporary English and not ancient Greek). To paraphrase a few of the many lessons from McKee’s book:
Story is not about formulas, it is about forms. You do not create a story by following a template. However, by understanding the common links between different stories, you can make one that is unique. (I would add that the same is true for everything in this course.)
All stories have this form:
The protagonist has a goal, which is created by an inciting incident.
The protagonist tries to reach the goal, but a gap (that is, some kind of obstacle, not necessarily a literal gap) opens up and prevents the immediate achievement of the goal.
The protagonist attempts to cross the gap. Either the gap widens and they are unable to cross, or they do cross the gap but a new gap appears.
This cycle of gap-crossing continues until the protagonist either finally completes the goal, or is prevented from completing the goal in an irreversible manner.
In a typical three-Act structure, there are two reversals (new gaps) that happen between the Acts.
Stories are, at their heart, about change. Every scene should change something, or have something unexpected happen. If a scene has the characters in the same state at the end as it was in the beginning, that’s a sign that you should remove that scene. Think of it this way – if you were to convert your life into a two-hour movie, would you waste any screen time on your day-to-day maintenance tasks? Or would you only show the times when something big changes in your life, and allow the audience to assume that things are carrying on normally in between?
Notice how nicely this dovetails with games. Games are about decision-making, which causes a change to the game state. Games rely on having an uncertain outcome, and it is only at the very end that a goal is attained or lost in an irreversible manner. It is not surprising, then, that some games have very strong emergent stories that arise from a particular play experience.
Another interesting thing McKee talks about is the difference between what he calls character and characterization. The things we normally think of when we define a “character” are superficial data: favorite food, blood type, hair color, and so on. McKee calls these characterization. Character is what defines the person – used in the sense of “this activity builds character” or “she has a strong moral character.” What McKee says is that character can only be revealed by putting a person in opposition. For example, we may say that someone is “selfless”… but until they’re in a burning building and have to make the choice between trying to save a total stranger or saving themselves, it’s all just talk.
What is the implication of character and characterization in games? First, that linear stories have the best opportunity to show character through cut scenes, not gameplay. Having the player make moral choices for the main character is hard, because the choices often don’t involve real consequences. Because this is play (“only a game,” the “Magic Circle”), the player is safe, and therefore has nothing in their own real world to lose. The player is therefore not making choices that reflect their own character, because their character is not being tested by extreme opposition. Taking a bullet for a friend in the real world is not quite the same as deciding in a menu whether or not to gain Light Side Points. It is certainly not impossible to embed moral dilemmas in a game, but it is a lot harder to make the emotional consequences of those choices felt by the player, because the player is making those decisions and not the protagonist. It is therefore much easier to show strong character when the player is not in control of the story.
But of course, that also makes it less interactive and thus less like a game. And this is one reason why storytelling in games is hard.
Joseph Campbell spent a lot of his time studying myths, legends, and hero stories, and finding the similarities and differences between them. He found that most myths follow a common structure, which he called the Monomyth or the Hero’s Journey. It is a specific kind of story and therefore more specific than McKee’s story description. Because many games put the player in the role of a hero, this is obviously useful to know.
The Hero’s Journey goes something like this:
The hero starts off a commoner in a common world, and this “normal” world is established.
The hero receives a call to adventure.
The hero may decide to follow the call, or to ignore it. In the latter case, new events then force the hero to follow the call anyway.
The hero starts their journey and encounters the first barrier. There is often a guardian that must be overcome to proceed.
The hero then moves through the barrier into a new, darker world. They follow a trail of trials, each more difficult than the last. Along the way, the hero grows – not just in the “experience points” and “levels” sense, but in the “coming of age” sense. The hero becomes a better person. They become, well, a real hero.
Eventually, the hero encounters the final evil, and is able to overcome it.
The hero claims the prize.
The hero starts returning to their world. Along the way they encounter the final barrier.
Finally, the hero returns to their common world. The world may be the same, but the hero has changed.
You may recognize this structure in many hero stories, and Campbell’s book goes into detail about why each of these things happens, what it symbolizes, and what it says about our values as a society. In short, hero stories are about what a particular culture sees as the ideal set of ethics and values, and the hero character embodies and demonstrates these things.
Now, you might be tempted to use this as a formula. Get a list of archetypes with a checkbox next to each, and presto, you now have a suitable story! Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. As McKee says, stories (and hero stories are included in this) are not about formulas, but forms. The purpose here is not to follow the Monomyth blindly.
What use is it, then, if we cannot use this to make a story? I think the most important thing to take from this is to be aware of what the common story forms are, so that you call follow each step or not as appropriate to your own story. But, it is important to do so deliberately and not just “because Campbell said so.” Note that not all games follow this structure – especially games where you play an anti-hero.
Bob Bates comments on the structure in his article:
When writing, start with a core premise or vision first. Choose a hero and villain that embody your premise.
Show the hero’s common world, then disrupt that world through an inciting incident. This is typically what happens at the beginning of a game.
Enter the “woods” – the game itself.
“Encountering the evil” is essentially a description of a boss fight – suggesting why we see so many boss fights in games!
“Claiming the prize” can be thought of as the hero realizing the Premise of your story. It does not have to be finding a literal “prize” like a bag of gold or a princess or an ancient magical artifact.
During the game, the hero character should grow. Again, it is easy for us as designers to fall into the trap of only having the main character “grow” in terms of power level (and it is convenient that the player is growing in their skill at the game as they play). Still, it can often make a better story if the hero’s character grows during the story as well. They don’t have to start out as a god. It can be more interesting if they start out as a peasant and become a god. Remember, it’s the hero that must grow, not just the player.
Understanding Comics doesn’t say a lot about telling stories in Chapters 2 and 3, but it does give some useful advice on creating strong characters and dramatic moments.
On pages 44-45, McCloud notes that art styles can vary between iconic (like a smiley face) and photo-realistic, with many potential steps in between. He points out that the more iconic something is, the more we project ourselves onto it; the more detailed and realistic, the more we see it as something other than ourselves. (Taking it back to Koster, we can say that this is because our brains are wonderful pattern-recognition machines, and we will fill in the blanks with what we already know from the vast library of patterns we’ve built up.)
What are the implications of this in games?
Consider the main characters in many video games – Master Chief, Samus Aran, Gordon Freeman, Chell. You do not typically see your own character much at all, nor do you hear them speak much. This is not an accident. It is done deliberately to allow the player to project their own personality onto the character. The character becomes an extension of you as the player, and you feel an emotional connection to the character specifically because they are not very well defined.
On the other hand, you can also have a strong character that is very defined – Duke Nukem or Lara Croft, for example. In this case, we immediately recognize the main character as not ourselves. To compensate, they must show a strong personality.
In general, then, I would say that you can go one of two ways with the main character. Make it iconic and do not define its personality (to allow the player to create one for themselves), or make it realistic and define its as a very strong character. Any other combination makes it harder for the player to connect emotionally with their avatar.
Also, consider the enemies and opposition within the game. Since realistic visuals impart a sense of otherness, enemies that are highly detailed will seem very alien, while enemies that are cartoony or iconic feel more familiar. The monsters in the video game DOOM are drawn in a realistic style, making them seem more alien and thus more dangerous. By contrast, the monsters in Pokemon are cartoonized, making them seem more friendly, which is fitting for a game where you can recruit enemies and turn them into allies. In board games, we would expect that games with iconic tokens (like colored pawns) that represent players make the pawn into an extension of the player (a sense of familiarity), and also that other players’ pawns have a sense of the familiar – it promotes togetherness. By contrast, games with highly detailed tokens (realistic miniatures, or detailed art or photographs of player characters with in-depth character descriptions) gives a sense of separation between player and character, and also would cause players to regard each other as opposition.
This also has applications when dealing with environments. If the environment (whether a 3d computer level or a 2d physical game board) is photorealistic, it is a reminder to the player that this is an other world. This is more suitable for games that wish to make the players feel like they are in an exotic or unsettling location. For example, suspense and horror games would do well to include highly photorealistic environments.
Another point that McCloud makes (on page 38) is that we are made to use tools, and we see those as an extension of ourselves. Our sense of self extends not just to our own bodies, but to everything under direct control. As he points out, when you are in a car accident, you are more likely to say “hey, they hit me” than “their car hit my car.” It becomes personal.
What does this have to do with games?
For video games, a console controller (or mouse/keyboard) becomes an extension of the human body. The player thinks of the controller as part of themselves. This explains why play control and a good user interface is so important for video games – if you have trouble figuring out how to use the controller, it is just as frustrating as if you tried to pick something up with your hands but your hands didn’t respond.
For both video games and tabletop games, the avatar (that is, the representation of the player within the game) acts as an extension of the player as well. As with an auto accident, if your opponent lands on your pawn and sends it back to start, you are likely to say “hey, they just sent me backwards.” As a designer, be aware of the player’s emotional attachment to their avatar within the game.
The last thing I’d like to draw your attention to is McCloud’s concept of the “blood in the gutter” (pages 66-69). In the book, there are two panels, one with a murderer swinging an axe at a victim and then the next that just shows a scream. When did the guy die? Between the panels… and it was you as the reader, with your imagination, that killed him. Nothing was actually shown.
This has implications in all other kinds of storytelling media. Alfred Hitchcock was a master of not showing anything. As an example, in the famous Psycho shower scene, you actually never see anything. There is one shot of a guy making a stabbing motion with a knife (but not showing any victim), juxtaposed with another shot of a woman screaming (but not showing her being stabbed), back and forth, and eventually a shot of fake blood running down a drain (without showing either the murderer or victim).
How do we apply this to telling stories in games?
Some storytellers have a strong desire to give every last technical detail of how everything works and every last bit of backstory in their fantasy world. But this is not necessary. Players will fill in the blanks on their own. You don’t actually have to tell them anything.
In fact, it is often more effective if you don’t! A player’s imagination is infinitely more vivid than the artwork in your game.
Think of the player as an active participant in your story. They will be thinking about it anyway; write a story that rewards them for using their imaginations.
This also has an economic advantage. We tend to pour a lot of money into detailed art and long, drawn-out cut scenes, but if we economize and show less, the net effect can actually be more powerful if we do it right.
In other words… less can be more. Finding the balance between “enough information to understand what is going on” and “not so much information that nothing is left to the imagination” is one of the trickiest jobs of a story writer, and is another reason why storytelling in games is hard.
Think of some examples of stories you’ve seen (from games or otherwise) where there was too little information, or too much, and the story suffered from it. Think of other examples where you were not told everything, but was fine, and the audience was able to still have an enjoyable experience.
Game designer Ernest Adams gave an inspiring talk at GDC 2006 called “A New Vision for Interactive Stories.” First he briefly summarized much of what I have written above, and then he proceeded to challenge all of our basic assumptions, and then he tried to take things one step beyond. What follows are my notes and personal commentary from the session.
Aristotle’s Poetics is great, but never forget that it was written for stage plays and not games. Stories may have a beginning, middle and end… but in games, they can often have multiple beginnings, and middles, and ends. The three-Act structure works great for a two or three hour play (or movie), but is not necessarily appropriate for a 30-minute board game, a month-long RPG campaign, or a 100-hour console game.
Campbell’s Hero’s Journey is limited to hero stories. What if your story isn’t about a hero? Also, as Campbell admits, the Monomyth is not a template, so we cannot use it as a tool to build our stories.
McKee’s Story is focused on screenplays, so it may or may not be applicable to every game. Games are a different medium than movies. While there are some similarities, it is important to be aware of the differences, so any advice on screenwriting must be used with caution when applied to games.
So, if none of this stuff is useful, are we back to square one? (I don’t think so. We still have to start somewhere, and starting by studying what makes a great story in other media is still a useful starting point. We will get into the unique forms of interactive stories this Thursday.)
Adams then stated three assumptions that we often make when trying to tell stories in games:
The “holy grail” of interactive stories is a complete sandbox, a “Holodeck,” a perfect world simulation that responds believably to all player input.
Interactive stories aren’t games.
When a player is involved in an interactive narrative, they should be thinking about story and not game mechanics.
He then challenges these assumptions.
First, what could be wrong with having a perfect world simulation? There is always the practical reason that it would be infinitely expensive. And then there’s the argument from Koster that we already have one of those, it’s called the Real World, and it’s not always fun. But mostly, the problem here is that even in the most “open-world” games, players do not get their enjoyment from complete freedom… but rather, from having freedom within a constrained environment.
Ernest proposed a rule from another designer, which her referred to as “Ken Perlin’s Law”: the cost of an event in an interactive story must be directly proportional to its improbability. What does he mean by “cost”? He explains that every writer has a “credibility budget” – and if too many incredible things happen, you violate suspension of disbelief. The cumulative sum of all improbable things that happen during your story need to not exceed a certain amount, or the players will call foul. (Naturally, some games have a higher credibility budget than others, based on their setting – chickens appearing out of thin air may be mundane in a high-magic world, but would be considered out of place in a realistic modern-day setting.)
As a designer of an interactive story, you are essentially making a pact with the player: if you (the player) act believably, you will get a believable story. This is important – both the designer and the player share the credibility budget. The player must accept the premise of the story as part of stepping into the Magic Circle to play. If the player acts in a manner that is inconsistent with the world of the story, and gets an unbelievable story back, that is not the fault of the story writer; it is the fault of the player. As such, it is not the goal of the story writer to create a 100% believable story in all instances; it must merely respond believably to a player who acts in a believable manner.
As we saw from Doug Church’s Formal Abstract Design Tools, there is a balance between player intentionality and narrative. However, we can extend this through the social contract of “role-playing” (in the sense of actually playing a role, not crawling through dungeons) between the player and the designer.
Of course, in order for the player to accept this contract, they must be aware of the rules of the game, and they must agree to play by those rules. In this sense, the rules are an important component of the game, but the interactive story and game are also linked together in a way that makes the experience both game and story.
A way to merge games and stories. That is what many of us are looking for, is it not?
Aristotle, Campbell and McKee provide some of the most often-cited advice for storytellers in general, so it is natural that we apply their advice to games. For those of you who are primarily interested in this aspect of games, I would highly recommend reading their books on your own time (after this course is complete, of course). You can find them here: Aristotle, Campbell, McKee. I provide these links for convenience only; they are not required for this course.
In games, identification between the player and their characters, avatars, tokens and so on is a common way to get players to be emotionally engaged with the game. As you are designing a game, think about this and how else you can get emotional investment from players.
Remember that there is a difference between the embedded narrative that the story writer creates, and the emergent narrative that arises from gameplay. Think about which is more important in each game that you make, and how you can make it stronger. (Source: Game Design Concepts)