Posts tagged Narrative
One of the “heavy lifting” chores of creating an adventure is the population of the story. It’s not so much an issue if the adventure is strictly a dungeon crawl; there might be a few personalities that the players can interact with, but mainly it’s just cannon-fodder. For anything greater, the DM needs to come up with personalities through which he or she can engage the players.
I don’t know how other DMs do this, but I am one of those OCD kinds of designers who believes that if there are going to be words coming out of the NPCs mouth, then that NPC needs a full character sheet. Who knows if the players are going to gang-press the poor mannequin into accompanying them into danger. Or maybe eventually, circumstances require that the NPC use skills or perform saving throws. Most of those unknowns come from stuff that the players do that require a DM response, and although there’s the old Deus Ex Machina in the DM Voice, responding through the In Game Voice is much preferred, and more engrossing.
Creating a stable of on-hand NPCs, or even random encounters for those times when your players are feeling especially safe and comfortable, is a chore. If you’ve ever been forced to turn a minor, throwaway character into a major plot point, then I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. So for DMs out there, my question is this: Is there an online repository where DMs can post characters/NPCs? If not, is this something that people could see as worthwhile?
Being able to enter keywords to find an NPC that matches criteria could be helpful. Say I need a shopkeeper. Simple enough: BAM! There’s a shopkeeper. But what if I need to flesh out the story a bit? Maybe that shopkeeper is a high ranking official in the thieves guild? Now I might need a whole character sheet for him. There’s a lot of creative people out there, and a lot of them like to showcase their talents. Why not have a place for folks to contribute material for one another’s campaigns?
What do people think?
I came across a thoughtful post on narrative differences between Skyrim and Dark Souls in which the author put forth that the Dark Souls method of piecemeal narrative was superior to the “in your face” method used by Skyrim. Although I have not played Dark Souls, I have played Skyrim, and so I had enough mental ammo to disagree with the author’s overall assertion that Bethesda essentially “dropped the ball”. Which got me realizing exactly how I prefer my narrative presentation in games these days. Naturally, I had to bring in Star Wars: The Old Republic, partly because it soft-launches tomorrow, and partly because I know it’ll help this post show up in Google searches.
The Educated Nord
Skyrim is a “country in a box”, as one person described it. It’s a sandbox, in fact, allowing players to go where they like, when they like, for whatever reason they like. I’d venture to guess that more ground was covered “just because” than it was due to someone just being sent somewhere specific by an NPC. Often times a player could easily enter a dungeon or ruin and just ransack the place in true barbarian fashion, but that would occur in the absence of any narrative at all. Instead, Skyrim’s quests are sourced almost entirely from NPC conversation.
That’s a damn shame, because there are dozens of books in the game which serve almost no purpose. Some give you skill points, but the rest are “fluff”. In a way, if you want to immerse yourself in the lore of The Elder Scrolls you can read these histories and fictions-within-fiction, but in the context of the world of Skyrim, so much more could have been done. For example, books could allude to different events or different locations which might otherwise be unassuming if the player happens upon them in the act of exploration, but which unlock new areas or situations in those areas once the player has skimmed the knowledge necessary to unlock them. I’m not talking about adding a quest to your log, either. I’m talking about putting two and two together beyond the fourth wall and having the player discover what the book is telling him.
This is part of the author’s argument for the narrative in Dark Souls: that the player is given pieces to do with as he pleases. If he ignores them, then he runs the risk that an event or NPC may pass him by, never to be seen again. But if he puts real world brainpower behind the pieces of lore, he could discover content that may not have been happened upon through script, or by chance. It may only be lore, or it may be actual content (I don’t know).
But the author excuses Bethesda’s corner-cutting by suggesting that the world was so big that it couldn’t possibly accommodate such nuances, which is not something I agree with. Skyrim is a game of exploration. Moreover, it’s a game of choice: where to go, who to align with, which conversations to take, what arms to wield. That seems more the point of the game then to confine the player between the covers of a storybook, and Bethesda chose to focus more on the opportunities for off-the-cuff exploration then they did on nuance. Could they have done more? I suspect so, but although I don’t have the sales figures, I have a suspicion that Skyrim’s freedom has outsold Dark Soul’s clever narrative devices by a wide margin. I don’t believe that the lack of advanced narrative has mitigated the impression that Skyrim has left on gamers.
The Camera Eye
While thinking about this, I had to agree that narrative presentation in Skyrim, while good and fitting for the design, didn’t grab me the way the story presentation in SWTOR does. I placed both on a continuum, adding in the presentation of narrative used by MMOs. Why MMOs? In certain circles, a lot has been done comparing MMOs to Skyrim. Since SWTOR sits somewhere between traditional MMOs and the single player feel of Skyrim, it’s appropriate. Also, I’ve been playing MMOs for so long now it’s the majority of what I know.
MMOs narrative modus operandi generally takes the form of a “wall of text” which the player is expected to read in order to obtain the background “story” for the quest. So the wisdom goes, few people read these walls, preferring to quickly read the objectives and to worry about the details once they’re ready to tackle it. When combined with modern MMO’s quest tracker and map highlighting, there’s very little incentive to actually pay attention to what the NPC is saying, when the NPC is saying it. If MMOs are about the loot, then narrative is the bottom of the barrel in what the majority of the players care about, to the point where it probably wouldn’t be missed if it were simply not there (that’s extreme, I know, and actually untrue).
Skyrim puts you into the story in real time, a mechanic introduced by Half Life (I believe) which removes the need for cut-scenes, leaves the player in-character, and supposedly enhances the feeling of immersion. To a degree, this works because of the aforementioned points, but when I had switched from Skyrim to SWTOR, I preferred SWTOR’s method of “cinematic cut-scenes” to Skyrim’s in-character presentation.
The key, I believe, is in the “cinematic”. When playing Skyrim, the first person view allows you to look in any direction (when eavesdropping), or forces you to awkwardly face your single conversation partner as they stiffly said their peace. While normal “polite” conversations are intended to behave this way, it can break the immersion of a video game which is purposefully straddling the divide between interactivity and narrative presentation. It feels wooden and artificial.
Contrast this to SWTOR, which takes the camera out of the head of the player and gives it to the dolly crew. We see both the NPC and the player – and this system has allowances for multiple participants. It’s borderline cut-scene with limited interactivity, but it fits the game very well as Star Wars is first and foremost a cinematic franchise which fans have wanted to inhabit for decades. It’s because the style fits, and not necessarily because of the style or execution is superior to any other, that I find myself more in-tune with SWTOR’s narrative presentation then I am with Skyrim’s, which means I remember more about the missions from the former then I do from the later.
Pete’s got a great post over at Dragonchasers about disruption of interest. Judging from the comments over on G+, it seems that there’s many people who suffer from the same affliction. It was during this discussion that I managed to talk-out a realization of my own: I don’t care for stories in my games.
Well, technically, I do. Stories are the glue that holds a lot of otherwise mindless, repetitive action sequences together. Platformers or SHMUPS don’t really need a story to explain why you’re jumping or shooting because chances are you’re doing it for the endurance of plowing through levels, or for the high-score and bragging rights. But with RPGs and MMOs, the story is “the thing” because you’re presented as a character who is caught up in the events of the fictional land you’re asked to believe you inhabit. So I guess rather then saying that I don’t care for stories in my games, I should say that I don’t believe that games present the stories very well, and may not be capable of actually presenting a story in a way that appeals to me.
When reading a book, you get the point of view of a single or a handful of characters. Each chapter is about something that is happening to that character, and everything that happens to that character in each chapter happens in service to the eventual climax of the story. The polar opposite of this is Seinfeld, the “show about nothing” which is labeled as such because nothing the characters do in a single episode carries over into other episodes; there’s no growth or progression, so each episode can be about the most random or asinine topics imaginable without consequence. Video game stories, for me, fall somewhere between these two extremes.
Take Dragon Age II, a game which I started out all excited about, but which I have lost all interest in, thanks to a forced absence thanks to a freak snowstorm that left us without power for a week. As with most RPGs or MMOs, you collect story elements in the form of quests. The formula should be familiar to those who prefer RPGs:
- You chat up the quest NPC, who either provides you with interaction through voice overs and menus, or through a panel of text that you’re expected to read in order to “get into the story”.
- You head out and complete the task assigned to you
- You return to the original NPC or another NPC, who either completes the quest with VO, menus and a wall of text, or you’re handed off to another NPC.
- Goto 1
What you have here are two different vehicles. The first – the NPC interaction – is the vehicle of “the story”. It’s the reason why you’re doing what you’re doing. The second is the action you’re asked to undertake. During this action, you may get bits and pieces of ongoing story, either from NPC blurbs or through intermission outtakes of NPC interaction, but you’re generally left without story progression, technically without context (you could be doing this action for ANY reason, and you will, over and over again), and you are actually asked to leave the story behind so you can focus on the mechanics of managing your party, or “not standing in the fire”. To me, this is the equivalent of reading a paragraph of text in a book, then washing the floor, then reading another paragraph, then doing the laundry, then reading another paragraph, then heading to the market…and so on.
Then there’s the issue of different threads at the same time. You’re never on a singular story. Often times, you’re not on a set of stories that have anything to do with one another. On one hand, you have to rescue the son of a noble. On another hand, you are running smuggling operations for a small time crook in the city. Often times, you’ve got both going on at the same time. Neither story has anything to do with another, but each one attempts to be engaging in it’s own right, with twists and surprises and revelations. For me, at least, having to juggle several of these at once is pointless. When I take a leave of absence and consider picking up these threads where I left off, it’s neigh impossible.
So I came to the conclusion that I can’t get invested in a story where 50% or more of the time in the game is spent outside the service of the story where I am asked to manage the “game” aspects, the numbers and the mechanics, nor can I return to a game where the story has more threads in progress then the clothing I’m current wearing. This is a sad realization on my part, because with single player games, this is really all there is to keep me, or to bring me back to the table! When combat becomes repetitious, and I wish it over and done with so I can get back to the disparate threads of the story, any reason that forces me to become unglued from the mindset I put myself in in order to endure the narrative interruptus inevitably leads to me not even wanting to make the effort to get back into the story. Previously, I understood this issue subconsciously. Now, I’m just putting a face to the name.
The really problematic part is that this is currently the best games can do. Even games like L.A. Noire or Heavy Rain have sentences of mute puzzle solving punctuated by a brief bit of story, but if we remove the mechanics and the numbers and the interaction, we have a movie. Interaction is what makes games games, and not movies, and that will never change, because it can’t. Therefor, my up-hill battle is to find a way to bring myself back to these games after a leave of absence, even though the idea of picking up the pieces where I find them doesn’t sit well with me. I figure that if I can find a way to do that, then I can actually finish games more often, and might stop buying games that I know I’ll never finish (which is an enabler of this whole problem in it’s own right).