This post is an excerpt from the Foreword to “Side Stories: Short Fiction by Game Developers”.
What’s the story of Tetris?
Success disappears, and failure piles up.
Game developers are unique creatures, just as games are a unique art form.
And games definitely are an art form.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way…
Game developers tend to be voracious consumers of media, especially entertainment media. Most game developers I know are also rabid readers, cinephiles, comic book nuts, music lovers, and news junkies. They are cultural sponges, soaking up everything that modern media has to offer, and letting it all simmer in a dynamic mix of references, influences, information, trivia, memes, styles, and themes.
Game developers are often prolific and varied producers as well. Whether by moonlight, or as a hobby, game developers are often something else on the side; writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, filmmakers. Not to mention, blacksmiths, robot builders, athletes, and occasionally even rocket scientists.
Games are fundamentally about rules, mechanics, and agency. Players interact with the game’s system, and sometimes other players, with as much freedom as the game’s rule set allows. It is this interactivity that makes games a unique art form.
Other art forms are passively observed or experienced. The individual’s imagination is engaged in terms of interpretation, inference, or extrapolation, “filling in the blanks” of the world, character motivations, consequences of action, etc., and the most successful storytelling includes lots of hooks for the audience to “hang their imaginations on,” as it were, increasing involvement, engagement, and investment. But no matter how much “engagement” there is between art and audience, no amount will change the art piece in any way. The pictures, words, and stories in other art forms remain immutable. Paintings, books, movies, and music are impervious to audience input or reaction. A possible exception is performance, but of course it is the performer who responds to audience, not the work itself.
Games, on the other hand, are all about interactivity. Whether a computer game, a board game, or a card game, games are fundamentally responsive to player action and reaction. In fact, input-output is the foundation of the game loop. Games accept and often expect audience input, receiving it through a keyboard and mouse, controller, touch screen, or Kinect sensor. The game system integrates player(s) input, running it through the rule set or simulation, and generates output, which is presented to the player(s) as a moving image, sound, or configuration.
In computer games, this is ideally done at least thirty times a second.
Many games feature a traditional “plot and character” driven linear narrative, especially single player games. Stories are often presented using techniques borrowed from other storytelling forms, like cinema or text. However, even games without direct storytelling tend to depict fictional contexts, in terms of world, characters, setting, or tone. These “light story, heavy context” games provide tons of hooks for the players to hang their imaginations on.
Those hooks are the scaffolding that supports the story the player “makes up” as they play the game. The imagined connective tissue between action, result, and reaction, that creates a contiguous chronological history of individual interactions with the game system. The most important and memorable story a player experiences is not a traditional narrative, even when a game relates one. The story a player remembers and tells others after playing a game is not “Mario saved the Princess,” or “Chell destroyed GladOS,” or “Link defeated Ganendorf.” It’s a story that goes something like, “We were down to one health potion, and no town portal scrolls, when we walked right into the dragon’s chamber. It wiped out the entire party before I used my last bit of mana and killed it with a lightning spell.”
Game stories, then, are the sum of the player’s experience interacting with the game system.
Game developers should keep this in mind, especially those guilty of filling their interactive experiences with passive cinematics or text that many players just button mash through, to get back to that experiential interaction. Hideo Kojima, I’m looking in your direction!
That said, game developers often do want to simply tell a story. When that’s the case, they are wiser to work in a medium more suited to storytelling.
“Side Stories: Short Fiction by Game Developers”, an anthology of short stories written by game developers, is available now from most major online eBook retailers, or directly from sidestoriesanthology.com.
Bren Lynne teaches Unity and Cinematics at VFS Game Design, and is also one of a few Game Design staff members that are contributors to this anthology.