Thursday, November 13, 2008

Da Art of Storytellin' (pt. 1)

***Coletta Factor: Tangential plot spoilers for Fallout 3 below***

Modern role-playing games face storytelling challenges different from those of other genres. It's hard enough to craft a one story well in a video game; we have precious few examples of games which make effective use of the narrative tools unique to the medium, telling a story in such a way that the player's actions play a central role in its unfolding. The most successful game narratives have focused on a single relationship established through collaborative gameplay mechanics. This template won't hack it when it comes to creating a role-playing game, because we expect that every town will have its own story, its own cast of characters.

Virtually every traditional RPG has conveyed its narrative through either cutscenes, dialogue trees, or both. When you enter a new town, the player knows that her job is to wander about querying every dude in sight, wading through their menu of responses until they hit upon the significant bit of information they are supposed to discover. This approach can pay off: Planescape Torment, for example, had a dialogue-tree system wordy and dense that your interactions gradually coalesced into a thick description of the world, one that pleasingly verged in interactive fiction. Nearly every character had a different narrative register and a different perspective on your character and the events around you. But this strategy hasn't been successfully replicated, because the limits on graphical power and voice acting favored Planescape's brand of text-centric storytelling. And beyond this, there's no getting past the fact that your interaction in the dialogue-tree model still inevitably boils down to clicking boxes, and the artificiality of this mode of interaction is fundamental to the dialogue-tree model.

Fallout 3 has staked out the rudiments of a new solution for storytelling in role-playing games. While the game still uses the old dialogue-tree model for conversations (replete with the wooden animation, fixed camera angles, and pre-scripted dialogue choices, conventions that Mass Effect should have rendered archaic), its innovations lie in the potential of its to environmental storytelling.

I wouldn't have anticipated the seeming inspirations for this technique: two first-person shooters. Valve's Half-Life series pioneered the participant-observer model of video game storytelling. All the events of the plot unfold in front of the player's eyes; all you know of Gordon Freeman is what you see mirrored in other characters' reactions. Without any player-initiated dialogue and without any cutscenes, you learned about the world and other people through active observation. The animation and voice acting were so well-executed that you would pick up on elements of the story by paying attention at the nuances of body language and delivery. (Because the game was in first person, you would even follow a conversation by turning your head from person to person, the way you would real life.)

Bioshock took this idea further by making greater use of the environment to suggest a story. While the game's audio logs are its most powerful storytelling device (Fallout smartly borrowed this idea as well), Bioshock also managed to convey a with its spaces. You would walk into a room, and just by looking at the tableau you could tell what had happened: a mass suicide, an aborted new-year's-eve bash, a lethal domestic dispute. The mere placement of objects in a room would lead you to draw the desired inference. This style of storytelling puts the onus the player-- you have to actively look around, observe and interpret in order to apprehend the narrrative. Observation has a dynamism and feeling of discovery to it that mere text, for all its expressive capacities, can't produce.

The most memorable moments in Fallout 3 come from these episodes of environmental storytelling. While I mentioned some examples in a recent post, (christ almighty, this is turning into the all-Fallout blog. Apologies all around.) I'll give another here: while I was wandering the wasteland I stumbled onto Vault 108. In the Fallout series, every vault has a story, and the story of Vault 108 was told without any dialogue. There was bloodstained walls, the corpses of some unlucky wasteland interlopers, a cloning lab, and a pack of identical, jumpsuited men named Gary. You could hear Gary 43 call to Gary 32 in the halls before they both set upon me with knives: “Gary. Gary? GARY!” I missed the holotape with a recording of the backstory until my final round of the premises, but even without this explanation I knew the deal: I had stumbled upon the revolt of the Garys.

We complain a lot about the dominance of shooters on the consoles, but I think the narrative design lessons from the first-person-shooter golden age are beginning to cross-pollinate. The first-person perspective has its own unique storytelling capacities, its own way of involving the player in the unfolding of a narrative, and Fallout 3 is a step towards its fruition in the RPG genre.


Sean Beanland said...

Finding these little stories was my favorite part of exploring the wasteland. The actual main quest disappointed me so much that it somewhat tarnished my overall opinion of the game. However, picking through ruins and figuring out exactly what happened here or there never got old.

CrashTranslation said...

In some ways the environmental narrative techniques used in Fallout 3 could have been predicated. Lead Designer Emil Pagliarulo is formerly of Looking Glass Studios who, through games like Thief: The Dark Project and System Shock 2 helped develop and refine these narrative techniques.

Embedding elements of the narrative in the world means that players are free to find them at their own pace or miss them entirely. Such optional elements serve to make each players story more personal as one persons experience can potentially differ greatly from another’s.

Far Cry 2 Creative Director Clint Hocking has spoken about this subject several times at GDC, the slides of which can be found on his website.

writerscabal said...

I have an article up on Gamasutra discussing storytelling techniques using cinematography, art, and sound. Some more viewpoints are here:

However, I feel that the tape recordings, while they worked in a FPS, is not that big of an innovation. It's quite the same as coming across a book in an old RPG and reading the lore of the land.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@crashtranslation: hey, thanks for the link and info. I've been keeping tabs on Hocking's site for a while but I haven't seen that presentation. "immersion" is exactly the right term for the way the narrative unfolds without breaking the continuity of the player's experience; you feel like the story is going around you and you're submerging yourself into it.

@writerscabal: good stuff on the links, I'd read some of that stuff before but there's lots of other good material collected there.

As for the audio-log thing. Well, the strewn-bits-of-lore thing is not novel but the technique of using audio (rather than printed words) to communicate this lore is more effective, in my opinion. It allows you to continue walking around and interacting with the world while you absorb the contents of the tapes.

Wordsmythe said...

Julian Murdoch has been talking about this at Gamers With Jobs for the past couple weeks, mainly in the podcast ("Conference Calls") and here:

Grey said...

Story logs etc. have become popular nowadays. Metroid, I believe, had them way back, and System Shock did too.

The problem I see is that we should have evolved from that point. The argument is that a player who doesn't care about the story need not search them out, but how much does the designer care about their story if they don't even make it compulsary to experience in full?

Exploration is a brilliant interactive tool. Again, I think it needs to be compulsary, and it's why Half-Life 2's Highway section works so well. It's my favourite part of the game where both the story and game are aligned, whereas at other points and in other games the story is at odds with "kill the combine."

Speaking of that game, don't be fooled by marketing speak. HL2 has cutscenes, plenty of them. Only, they're a bit worse than cutscenes since you can throw computers at the doctor's head while he speaks only to see him not respond. It's horrible implementation - Valve should stick to environmental story-telling or something akin to Ep2's final cutscene. Anything's better.