Jul 30, 2006

The Interactive Storytelling Sanitarium

So... apparently David Jaffe's (of God of War fame) misread and misinterprerted blog-post started the whole games and storytelling discourse, that rather swiftly evolved to the flame-war, general name-calling, eye-poking thingy we all love and have come to expect. Then, my dear xii games blog made a point or two. They were far too civilized, albeit perceptive, points. Promptly, I too decided to actually be a chap and join the whole interactive storytelling discussion, following just three gnomes-only, gnome-imposed, civilization-friendly rules:

a) no more posts regarding David Jaffe's post
b) find a case study to ... er ... study
c) stay civilized and fully clothed while blogging.


Interactive Storytelling it is then, or -to put it better- stories in games it is then. Let me begin, by stating the rather obvious: 99.9% percent of every single video game ever released has a story, no matter how simple or insignificant this might be. DOOM has a silly story, The Secret of the Monkey Island has a brilliant story, Arkanoid has an implied story, and even pure puzzle games like Lemmings or Professor Fizzwizzle (download a demo here and find out what the Professor is all about) have interesting stories. You see, the story, especially in our gloriously interactive medium, doesn't have to take center stage. As Tetris successfully exhibited it could even be totally absent. It is though something that gives -at times necessary- context to a player's actions.

Just press the buttons and abuse your joystick...

Imagine for example the simplest form of video game. A modest one-button game. If the player manages to press said button rapidly enough and sustain his/hers/its rhythm for a set amount of time he/she/it wins. Exhilarating? Not really. Still this was (well, almost was) the key gameplay mechanic of Daley Thomson's Olympic Challenge and of a variety of hugely successful arcade games.


The reason why Sonic isn't just a fast sprite, but has a name, friends, an arch-enemy and races around places neither called Level 1 nor 2, but Emerald and Marble Zone.

Which, in a rare twist of fate, leads me to another fairly obvious point: people love stories. That's the reason why they prefer it when their games (or toys) are tied to a narrative of some sorts. That's why they play dress-up (not THAT kind of dress-up... pah, perverts everywhere...), why they read books or go to the movies, why Roleplaying Games were such an unexpected success. Why, even the Holy Grail of abstract game's design, none other than Chess itself, isn't simply about moving pieces around. It's about moving armies and soldiers around. It's one of the many ways adults have to play war.


Interestingly even not-so-good games per se can survive on their story alone. Take Sanitarium (mobygames entry) for example. It was (and arguably still is) an adventure game. To be more precise it was an adventure game plagued with faults. The puzzles were tedious, derivative and some of the most uninspired I had ever laid my poor gnome's eyes upon, the interface was a Diablo inspired mess, a healthy amount of disc swapping was required and a lack of overall polish was obvious. Yet people loved it.

Care to know why? It's a rather simple and not so unexpected answer.

Sanitarium spoke of strange things, created empathy, raised questions, was well paced and highly intriguing in the most mysterious of ways. In short it was grounded on a well-told story. The only reason your average gamer put up with significant doses of lever-fiddling and a healthy amount of fetch-quests, was to actually find out what was happening. It simply dragged you on. Made you care about characters and setting.

Story was after all Sanitarium's key element. And it was a joy to play... Actually I should elaborate a bit, but I won't. Hope my point has been made. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a hang-over to overcome.

(beware, more game design related posts might follow)

Related @ Gnome's Lair: Let Ludology Begin, Text is King, the DOOM(ed) rant, Gory Games

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  1. Rock on my shorter, squatter, gnomish friend!

  2. Thank you Vince, I will quite try to...

    (gnomes polishes guitar and checks amplifier)

    Then again, you too, should keep on rocking ;)

  3. Your right!, your right! your right (lost exclamation) and just let anybody say you aren't.......

    ah just on a small point though... can we still mention jaffe cakes?

  4. Uhm... normally not, but you, oh dearest of friends, can. Freely.

  5. great (brings out cups of tea and a plate of jaffe cakes....)

    dig in.....