The Myth of Game Design

Games lag behind other media in terms of storytelling.

I was inspired to write this piece based on an excellent post Joel Burgess did on his own blog, talking about Open World Level Design. Go ahead and read it if you haven’t yet. But the thing I want to address is this line here:

We may lag behind film, for example, in story-telling, but I believe we can catch up one day, and that’s a noble pursuit we need to focus on. – Joel Burgess

Now, this is ironic given that Joel works for (or worked for, although I have no reason to assume he doesn’t still) Bethesda, who have created a game equally on par, storytelling wise, to any movie out there (and quite a bit better than rather a lot of films). But it’s probably not the one you expect.

Allow me a momentary tangent while we discuss what makes good storytelling. Teachers, authors, critics, and armchair pundits will all have you believe that one of the key elements to good story writing is the “show, don’t tell” maxim. That is, to allow your important details to come out organically in the flow of the fiction itself, rather than pausing to deliver chunky blocks of unwieldy exposition.

For example. Say I’m writing a Scifi book and I want the reader to understand that there are Laser Guns in my universe, and that one of the bigger manufacturers of said Laser Guns is LazBlaster Co. I could go about this in  a couple of ways. I could have another character, someone who Knows Things, tell my main character, and thus by default my reader, the history of weapon advancement in the last hundred years or so, leading up to the creation of industry titan LazBlaster Co in the early ’40s. The problem with this is twofold. One, it’s Tell writing. I’m Telling the readers a block of information in an exposition format. Closely tied to this, and what makes this approach so damnable is that it’s unrealistic.

Why would someone in the world where these things are common knowledge do this? Think about it. It would be as if, in the real world, someone stopped you in the middle of your day in order to deliver unto you a half hour lecture about the evolution of modern weapons from the spear to the bow to the crossbow to the firearm, and then launched into a (potentially interesting but ultimately pointless) history on the rise to prominence of the Beretta corporation. Why would someone do this in real life and more importantly, why would you sit still for it? You wouldn’t. You have a busy day. Meetings to go to, reports to get done, and that lunch buffet place closes in half an hour. Never mind that in most fiction, Our Hero is probably off to save the world or at least a sizable subset of it (nation, city, town, neighborhood, his marriage, her goldfish).

So the other alternative is to simply include a line something like this in your story:

Hearing the sound of footsteps behind me, I silently drew my LazBlaster Co 993 Personal Laser Protection Device from my underarm holster and flipped the switch. The faint hum as the weapon powered up was reassuring, but barely audible over the sound of my pounding heart.

There. Now I’ve introduced the name of the company and the fact that there are laser weapons into my story in a way that doesn’t have critical thinkers wondering why the heck the character, who LIVES in this world, would need a lecture on the subject.

Of course I understand that not all exposition takes the form of Wise Person – to – protagonist. Some of it takes the form of protagonist – to – reader, but in either case it still comes off as lecture-y and is ultimately unnecessary.

Another component of good writing is what they call pacing. Not just of the actual events of the story, but of the revelations of whatever-it-is secret that the protagonist is learning that will alter his or her (and the reader’s) view of the events and the world that the story is taking place in. In a mystery novel, for example, you do not begin the novel with “At 6:18 on Wednesday, Mr. Brown’s butler murdered him and then framed Bill Redherring for it.” Well, not unless you’re Christopher Nolan. A good horror book doesn’t show the monster until at least halfway through the book, letting the reader’s imagination do most of the heavy lifting. In the horror gaming genre, this is known as Dread (as opposed to Terror or Gore, the two other main ways of generating a ‘horror’ feel). It is the very slow, very gradual discovery that Things Are Not As They Appear. You have seen it in any (good) book or movie in the horror, suspense, mystery, or spy genres and probably been aware of it, but it happens in almost any type of story to some extent or other.

Often it simply takes the form of the Quest. The protagonist doesn’t begin the quest knowing exactly where he’s going to end up. Luke Skywalker didn’t leave the farm that fateful morning thinking “Ok, what do I need to do today? Rescue R2-D2, have my family killed, get into a bar fight, discover a destroyed planet, join the Rebellion, destroy Imperial superweapon, become powerful wizard, and eventually overthrow the Empire itself while redeeming both a handsome scoundrel I meet on the way and, ultimately, my own father who is going to reveal himself to be the Emperor’s Right Hand Thug somewhere around the 65% mark of my journey.” No, that would have been silly, and rather boring for the rest of us. He started off just thinking of rescuing R2-D2. The other things built slowly upon that foundation, each new step of the journey caused by some revelation he discovered in the previous step.

So how does all this relate to Joel’s blog? What game was I talking about?


Ok, now that I’ve lost about 3/4 of my 5 readers, let me explain.  Morrowind, or more accurately: The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, was a first person roleplaying video game released by Bethesda Game Studios and their parent/publisher ZeniMax in 2002. It centered, as most Elder Scrolls games do, on a previously unknown character who starts off in prison or as a slave, gains his freedom, and goes on to save the world or at least a sizable chunk of it (nation, city, town, goldfish, etc). The problem is, a lot of people didn’t finish Morrowind. The most common complaint I’ve heard is that they “Didn’t know what to do after the first town.” Which, to me, means they didn’t figure out the in-game Quest Journal system, since it says right there in letters plain as day “Go talk to some dude in the next town over.”

In Morrowind, the game begins with the character being dropped off in a tiny shanty-town on the island of Vvardenfell in the Imperial province of Morrowind. The player, a slave, is released from his slavery by agents of the Empire and told to travel overland to a nearby city and talk to a man there. No other explanation for this largesse is given.

If the player follows the critical path, the man he meets turns out to be a member of the Imperial Blades,  an order of combination spies, secret police, and bodyguards for the Emperor. This Blade recruits the character into the Blades and has him establish a cover identity for himself which involves running around doing quests for various of the other factions in the game to build up his reputation with one or more of them until such time as he is in charge of either one of the imperial Houses, or a Guild. This takes up roughly 60% or so of the game, more if the player decides to try to gain supremacy in ALL of the available factions before returning to his or her handler. But eventually, he or she is deemed ready and told what this is really about.

SPOILER ALERT (Come on, the game came out in 2002 for crying out loud)

An ancient evil from the Times Long Ago named Dagoth Ur has awoke and is doing all sorts of bad things which will threaten the stability of the Empire and the fine citizens thereof. You have to go kill him. Why you? Because you are believed to be the reincarnation of an old enemy of Dagoth Ur’s, named Nerevar. So, with the blessing of the three Gods of Morrowind, off you go to learn all you can about Dagoth and what you need to defeat him. Specifically, some really old magical artifacts that you can only get if you convince the local people that you really ARE the reincarnation of Nerevar by jumping through some more hoops and building some more reputation. Then, after talking to one of the three Gods, you get the weapons and trudge up to the top of Red Mountain to slay the evil demigod, and then peace and happiness reign in the land of Morrowind.

So far this sound like a fairly generic RPG storyline, right? Decent, but not par with movies. And yes, if this is all there was to it, I would agree. But, of course, Things Are Not As They Seem.

It is possible, during the course of the game, to find out other information. From reading books, or talking to everyone you meet, you can start finding out the truth about what happened. About how the Three Gods, Nerevar, and Dagoth Ur were all friends once upon a time. How Nerevar was protecting the world from a horrible weapon of corruption, not unlike Sauron’s Ring only on a more global scale. And how, in the midst of all this, the Three turned on him and betrayed him, trying to kill him and keep the weapon for themselves. Only Dagoth Ur was loyal. He took the weapon and hid, knowing that he didn’t know enough to destroy it himself (only Nerevar knew all the details), but following his last promise to Nerevar to keep the thing safe until his return. Ur does this knowing that it will corrupt him. Ultimately, he sacrifices not only his life but his very sanity and soul to keep his promise to his friend. If the player had learned all of this going into that last battle, it is possible to talk to Dagoth Ur before the fight, and it is one of the most moving and poignant bits I’ve seen anywhere, and that includes movies.

But all of this is doled out to the player slowly. There is no exposition block. In fact, it is entirely possible to enter that last battle having no idea what’s really going on. But if you do follow the breadcrumbs, if you do track down every piece of information and puzzle out the truth, the slow gradual realization that, while Dagoth Ur is now utterly corrupted by the weapon he’s been holding onto it is a tragedy of epic proportions was one of the most harrowing and impressive periods of my video gaming career. Too bad they went the exact opposite route with Oblivion.

And Morrowind is only one example. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic did a subversion of a similar idea, also with the gradual drawing out of the information and the potential for a very moving end scene with the big bad. F.E.A.R.: First Encounter Assault Response also did a good job with the revelation of who and what Alma was. If you didn’t feel like you’d been kicked in the gut at the conclusion of Lord of the Rings Online’s Book 1 epic quest, then you’re a cold, unfeeling Terminator from the future here to kill us all and play a few video games along the way. And, of course, Bioware makes a career of games that have so much story you have to play them four or five times to get it all. I could go on, but I  think I’ve belabored the point enough and I’m past  2000 words already so it’s time to sum up.

While it’s not true universally across the board, I think that the ‘someday’ of video games rivaling films for storytelling skill is here, and has been here for a while. And this is a great thing, for gamers and writers alike.


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Filed under Games People Play - Games, Moving Pictures - Movies and TV, Words words words - Writing and books

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