Twice-told Tales in Gaming

Successful storytelling is difficult to pull off in videogames because — unlike movies, TV, and books — most games actually have two separate stories: the story being told to the player by the game’s writers and the story the player is creating through gameplay.

Sometimes, gameplay trumps plot. Sometimes, plot trumps gameplay. Sometimes, both stories are excellent, but largely separate. And, once in a while, a developer gets it right and realizes that maybe there shouldn’t be two stories at all.

Gameplay Story Quality > Game Writers’ Story Quality

From what I can remember about the PS2 Strategy-RPG Gladius, the game’s plot is about a young barbarian girl and an aristocratic soldier teaming up to fight an evil that threatens the world. It’s been a few years since I played, and I’m fuzzy on the details of the characters and the great evil. The plot, as written, just didn’t stick with me.

When I think about the game, I think of a different story — one I remember clearly. There was one battle in which I was down to the last hit points of my last character, a weak, javelin-throwing guy named Daryn. Through some unorthodox strategy and a heap of luck, Daryn single-handedly defeated a horde of faster, stronger attackers. When I won that battle, I shouted, fist-pumped, and high-fived Kathy (all of which we also did instead of exchanging vows at our wedding).

Daryn’s story wasn’t written by the designers of Gladius. It was all a result of gameplay. Yet this battle had a greater impact on me than anything scripted for the game. The plot, as it often is in games, was just connective tissue between battles, there to give a feeling of narrative progression.

Gameplay Story Quality < Game Writers’ Story Quality

By contrast, there are games like those in the Xenosaga series, which are loaded with story. The gameplay, however, often seems like little more than a device for killing time between the cutscenes. I loved the Xenosaga games, but I hardly felt like an essential participant in what was happening. In fact, I was as happy watching Kathy play as I was playing it myself.

Gameplay Story Quality = Game Writers’ Story Quality

And then there are games like those in the Uncharted and the Final Fantasy series, which have plenty of story to tell and oodles of gameplay, though the two don’t always mesh. I enjoyed the political intrigue in Final Fantasy XII’s cutscenes, but the politics were often a distant abstraction for the characters I was playing — and had nothing to to do with most of the game’s countless battles with random monsters. Uncharted’s cutscenes were hilarious, and its gunfights were exciting. But the humor rarely bled into the gameplay, and the action wasn’t as stirring during the movie sequences, because I wasn’t controlling it.

The Gameplay Story Is the Story

I love all the above games: those with great gameplay and little story, those with lots of story and average gameplay, and those that are strong in both categories.

But the best console game I’ve played has only one story. In Shadow of the Colossus, the story is the gameplay — except for bit of narrative framing at the beginning and end (and one mean trick the game plays on you before the final battle). The story is about a character who travels around and fights giant creatures in an otherwise empty land, and that’s what you, as the player, do.

When talking about Shadow of the Colossus, I don’t say things like, “And then Cloud fought Sephiroth.” I say something like, “And then I jumped onto the colossus…”

This sense of it being me starring in SotC is exemplified by the mechanics of riding the game’s horse, Agro. I’ve heard many players complain that Agro was a bitch to control. And it’s true. He doesn’t always move exactly how you want, when you want.

He’s not supposed to.

In most games, when a character rides a horse or steers a vehicle, the player controls the vehicle directly. At this point, you are no longer playing as the game’s main character. You are (temporarily) playing as the vehicle, itself.

In Shadow of the Colossus, you are always playing the main character, even when riding your horse. The reason Agro is slow and erratic in his responses is because you are not controlling the horse. You are controlling a character who is trying to control his horse. You can spur him on and tug the reins left or right, but Agro’s responses are — like a real horse’s — not always immediate or completely predictable.

In the 1980s, Electronic Arts ran an ad asking, “Can a computer make you cry?” My old boss at EA, Neil Young, has spent most of his career trying to create games that do just that. And even Steven Spielberg is trying to prove himself up to the challenge.

But Spielberg will have fight the moviemaker’s urge to tell his story to the audience/players. There’s a strong temptation to make the emotional gaming moments things that are acted upon the characters — or things that the characters do in cutscenes, without player interaction. In Shadow of the Colossus, the emotional hooks come from the actions the players take.

For the most effective storytelling in games, the player shouldn’t be told the story. The player needs to be the story. It’s a simple concept, but too few games trust their game design (and their audience) enough to attempt it.

Postscript: Here’s an easy test to see if any game you’re playing (or making) tells one story or two. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What is this game about?
  • What do I do in the game?

If the answers aren’t the same, then the game has two stories.

For a brief, in-browser example of an emotionally effective game whose story matches its gameplay, try ImmorTall.

2009 Game of the Year: Strategery

I suspect the Ktarians invented Strategery.

Until this fall, the only PS3 games I’d played and really loved in 2009 were Valkyria Chronicles (a 2008 release that I started last Christmas and replayed in August) and Flower (a brief, downloadable game). I replayed Final Fantasy XII (again) and Shadow of the Colossus (again). And there were spans of several weeks where I don’t remember turning the system on at all.

But my console got plenty of use over the last three months of the year. I recently played through several high-profile, well-received games: Uncharted 2, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Assassin’s Creed II, and Dragon Age: Origins. I thought all of them were great. They were all ambitious, and each of them was successful. I can’t complain about any one of them being awarded GOTY by various other gaming sites.

However, my game of the year is Strategery: a $2 game for the iPhone with no music, no story, simple gameplay, and bare bones graphics.

Strategery is a stripped-down clone of the board game Risk, with a few major alterations: map layouts and initial army placements are randomly generated, and each game lasts between 30 seconds and ten minutes. The highest difficulty setting really is tough (your four computer-controlled opponents will often conspire to attack you, even if it makes no strategic sense for them, individually), which keeps it challenging — sometimes impossible — even for seasoned vets. And the short duration of each game always compels me to play just one more round.

I’ve played Strategery almost every day for the past nine months. If I’ve averaged a mere fifteen minutes per day (a modest estimate), that’s almost 70 hours of gameplay. And Kathy’s played it at least as much as I have.

We’ve played twice as much Strategery as we have any other game this past year. And it’s the one game I’ve played that I wouldn’t give up for any other. That makes it my game of the year for 2009 — and I’m still playing plenty of it so far in 2010.

Game of the Year: Strategery (iPhone/iPod Touch)

Favorite Console Game (2009 Release): Uncharted 2 (PS3)

Favorite Console Game (2008 Release): Valkyria Chronicles (PS3)

Pleasant Surprise: Flower (PS3)

Biggest Disappointments: Puzzle Quest: Galactrix (PS3) and Noby Noby Boy (PS3)

Favorite Non-Videogame Game: Premier League Fantasy Football/Soccer

Elf Reads Books: Fall, 2009

Quick reviews of books I’ve enjoyed (or, sometimes, not) over the past few months:

The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
In The Magicians, Quentin Coldwater arrives at magic college a gifted cipher and emerges as a witless, drunken dick.

Author Lev Grossman’s writing style is engaging, and I was impressed by The Magicians’ locations, its well-constructed system of magic, and (especially) its intricate plotting.

Unfortunately, the book is undone by its characters. We learn just enough about them to know that they are nearly all horrible people — especially the protagonist. The dialogue is sarcastic and ironic, yet almost totally humorless. And the main romantic relationship makes no sense, start to finish.

I get the feeling that Grossman was trying to write a fantasized version of The Great Gatsby, but The Magicians is more like a Bret Easton Ellis edition of the Dungeon Masters Guide.

I’m glad I read The Magicians, but I can’t say it was good.

Life As We Knew It
, by Susan Beth Pfeffer

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
I’m lumping these two books together because I read them in succession, they’re both young adult novels with dystopian themes, and they were my two favorite books of this past summer.

In Life As We Knew It, an astronomical event causes a cascade of disasters on earth. Faced with rapidly diminishing resources, the characters must struggle not only to stay alive, but also to maintain their humanity. This book scared the hell out of me, because Pfeffer made it so easy to imagine being in such a situation. As with some dreams, when I was done with the book, I almost believed it did happen.

The Hunger Games takes place in an alternate North America, several decades into the future. Pairs of teenage residents from each of the continent’s twelve districts are pitted against kids from the other districts (and each other) in a televised competition that both entertains the ruling class and quells dissent from the underclass. It’s a little bit of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” mixed with a whole lot of Battle Royale, which makes it just my kind of story.

Both these books are fantastic. I don’t want to say too much about them, because I’d hate to spoil them. They’re quick reads and well worth seeking out.

Selkirk’s Island
, by Diana Souhami

From 1704 until 1709, stranded Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk reigned as the only human resident of a small island, 300 miles off the Chilean coast. Armed with little more than a knife and a Bible, he adapted and survived until he was rescued by a British privateer. Years later, Daniel Defoe wrote the Robinson Crusoe books, basing his main character at least partially on Selkirk.

Souhami’s book on Selkirk isn’t that well written, but it is well-researched. Considering how fascinating Selkirk’s story is, that’s enough to recommend it. Plus, it’s short and contains references to sex with goats, in case you’re into that kind of thing, which you are.

, by Ellen Kushner

Like Grossman’s The Magicians, Swordspoint is another book in which a few unrelatable assholes — who are neither as clever nor charming as they (or the author) may think they are — threaten to ruin the whole book. Fortunately, Swordspoint is able to overcome this flaw through witty writing, brisk action, and several characters who are likable, including (unlike in The Magicians) the protagonist. Swordspoint has a Dangerous Liaisons feel to it, which I liked a lot. It’s also that rare fantasy book that incorporates no magic.

Here are some other books I’ve read lately, a few with mini-reviews:


  • A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
    This book is essential — and entertaining. Read it, and you may learn more about science (and the history of science) than you ever picked up in all your previous schooling, combined. I know I did. If you don’t read it, at least listen to the audiobook abridgement. It’s only five discs long.
  • Deadline, by Chris Crutcher
    Crutcher’s previous book, The Sledding Hill, wasn’t so good. Happily, Deadline is Crutcher at his best: hilarious and sad, with broken characters trying desperately to prove that they matter. (He should probably stop trying to infuse his characters with his own musical tastes, however. In Whale Talk, athletes psyched themselves up to Bob Seger. In Deadline, the protagonist quotes Linda Ronstadt.)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson
    A bestseller that deserves to be one. I read the first 150 pages before buying an extra copy for my 94-year-old grandma, who still likes a good mystery, so long as there’s no objectionable material. After dropping the book off for her, I went home and continued reading my own copy. The very next chapter was little more than a brutal, extended rape scene, described in a dozen pages of detail. Sorry, Grandma!
  • Kiss Your Ass Goodbye, by Charles Willeford
  • This Perfect Day, by Ira Levin
  • Altered Carbon, by Richard Morgan
  • The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan

Entertaining and/or Informative:

  • Daemon, by Daniel Suarez
    Suarez does a decent job of making the technologicially impossible seem semi-plausible in this thriller about an overly ambitious computer program. It’s a cookie-cutter thriller filled with stock characters, but sometimes that’s exactly what I feel like reading.
  • Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely
    Ariely’s book explores the shortcuts our brain takes when making decisions. It’s a good book, though you could just watch Ariely’s TED presentations and feel like you’ve gotten the gist of it.
  • Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow
    I wanted to love this, but I can only give it a lukewarm recommendation. It’s a great idea for a book, with solid commentary on our surveillance society and the War on Terror. But, as with Grossman’s The Magicians, the lead character is an arrogant, unlikable twit: a self-righteous, superhacking stand-in for the author.
  • Shutter Island, by Dennis Lehane
    Lehane wrote this as an homage to the mid-century pulp novels, and I’d say he was successful. The whole thing is as formulaic as a Twilight Zone episode. Predictable, but fun.
  • The Gunslinger, by Stephen King
    The Drawing of the Three, by Stephen King
    I used to read King all the time between junior high and college. When I read him now, I still like him a lot. He’s the world’s most comforting horror author. I’d never read The Dark Tower books before, so I’m starting now. The first two books are only okay, but momentum seems to be picking up.
  • The Tourist, by Olen Steinhauer
  • The Dosadi Experiment, by Frank Herbert
  • Nine Princes in Amber, by Roger Zelazny
  • The Red Wolf Conspiracy, by Robert V.S. Redick


  • Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
    I don’t know when I was last this disappointed by a book. Ishiguro ruins a decent story with an annoying narrative gimmick. This Amazon review describes the problem well. (Also, as a nitpick, the font is horrible: very pretty, yet hard to read.)
  • Liar, by Justine Larbalestier
    There’s one major caveat regarding my placement of this under the “Bad” heading. The book itself may actually be quite good. But the audiobook is awful, and it made me hate the book. It’s one of the worst readings I’ve ever attempted to endure; I gave up about halfway through.
  • The Gate House, by Nelson DeMille
    This sequel to The Gold Coast is easily DeMille’s worst book. The protagonist is funny, as Demille protagonists usually are. But he’s unbelievably stupid. The other characters keep calling him smart and tough, despite him evidencing neither trait. He kind of reminded me of Lana Lang’s character on Smallville in this regard.

Elf Reads Books: June, 2009

A few recent reads…

Patricia Briggs — Moon Called (Amazon Link)
As far as supernatural chick lit goes, Moon Called is better than everything else I’ve read: Twilight, Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, etc. Unfortunately, that’s a backhanded compliment. This is just the first supernatural chick lit book that isn’t horrible. Mercy Thompson isn’t a loathsome protagonist, and Briggs knows how to write dialogue and construct a satisfying mystery.

But, at its core, it’s just the same old crap done more competently. There’s something special about our size-2-but-tough-as-hell heroine that makes her irresistible to every straight male who meets her, and oh my god how will she ever choose from amongst her countless suitors? The only major difference between Moon Called and other books of its ilk is that werewolves play a bigger part than vampires.

Speaking of which, the book would be so much better if there were no vampires in it at all. Enough with the fucking vampires — especially ones that aren’t even scary! Once upon a time, they used to kill people. Now, they just want to fuck us.

Warren Hammond — Ex-KOP
(Amazon Link)
I enjoyed Hammond’s second KOP book every bit as much as the first one. The pace is fast, the plot tight, and the characters solid. But the real star of the books is Lagarto, the world where the novels take place. Lagarto’s an oppressively hot, corrupt shithole that relies on a constant cash influx from rich outsiders just to stay afloat. For some reason, it reminds me a bit of Miami, as written by Charles Willeford. And just like I’d rather read about Miami than ever go there again, I’m happy to visit Lagarto only in books.

Stephen Bown — Scurvy
(Amazon Link)
From a modern person’s perspective, it seems silly that scurvy was ever a problem. Why didn’t someone just tell sailors to eat an orange, drink some lemonade, or pop a vitamin every few days? Yet, for hundreds of years, scurvy was the scariest, most misunderstood disease (really a deficiency) this side of the plague. It must have seemed like some sort of supernatural, karmic punishment for the mariners who had to watch their old wounds reopen and feel their mended bones split apart once more.

Bown’s book is not only an interesting history of scurvy. It’s an examination of how difficult it is for experts and influential groups to accept simple truths that contradict the current conventional wisdom. In this sense, Scurvy has much in common with another favorite of mine, Moneyball.

Carrie Ryan — The Forest of Hands and Teeth
(Amazon Link)
Probably my favorite book title, ever, and the book itself isn’t too shabby. It’s a zombie novel, and though I’m just about zombied out these days, I read The Forest of Hands and Teeth in a single sitting.

The book is so bleak and unrelenting, it read like a coming-of-age version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — though I liked TFoHaT better. It’s a neat trick when bleak and unrelenting can still be fast-paced and entertaining. Author Carrie Ryan says her writing process consists of sitting down at the computer and asking herself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen?” It shows.

In a novel about adults, the melodramatic love story within TFoHaT may have seemed tacked on. But in a story about teens, it worked just fine. No matter how dire the circumstances, I believe a pair of attractive, melodramatic kids would find the time to become obsessed with one another. There’s a reason Romeo and Juliet weren’t in their mid-thirties. That said, I dare some modern-day Shakespeare to write a chick lit tragedy about two single parents who fall in love, only to kill themselves over incompatible eHarmony profiles.

Patrick O’Brien — Master and Commander
(Amazon Link)
I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this book. I loved the movie, and I’ve been on a maritime kick, of late. But it was hard to shake the prejudices I’d held against this series, ever since I used to work in a bookstore. I’d always thought of the O’Brien books as humorless, bloodless books written by one old guy for a bunch of other humorless, bloodless old guys.

I was so wrong. If I could go back and punch my 23-year-old self, I probably wouldn’t, but my time machine would make me a billionaire. Anyway, Master and Commander was both graphic and surprisingly funny. Like the movie (which is really based more upon one of the other books in the series), the book has plenty of action. But, at its heart, it’s really a buddy story about two very different, yet equally likable, protagonists. I’m excited that I’ve got about 20 more books to go, before finishing the series.

Frank Herbert — Whipping Star
(Amazon Link)
Most of this strange little novel comprises conversations between a human special agent and a powerful but imperiled alien, whose (likely) imminent death will cause a chain reaction that will kill off 99% of the sentient beings in the universe. Because one of the book’s main themes is how difficult it would be for us to converse with members of alien cultures, the book itself is a little difficult — at least for the first several chapters. But since the whole thing is under 200 pages, it’s still a pretty quick read.

Some of the sci-fi elements are weird, if not outright silly (e.g., chairs have been replaced by chair-shaped animals). But Herbert always mixed weirdness in with his big ideas. For me, it works. I still have a soft spot for Herbert’s God Emperor of Dune, which was about a psychic human-turned-giant-worm who ruled the universe for hundreds of years.

Note to Self: Do Not Befriend the Winchesters

So Supernatural (episode Death Takes a Holiday) just killed off another friend/cohort of Sam and Dean Winchester.  I’m sure Bobby will be dead by the end of the season.

You’d think the psychic would have wanted nothing to do with them after the angel Castiel blew her eyes out. (And why couldn’t Castiel have protected her as payback for blinding her?).

But no, like the good-hearted, anonymous Star Trek ensign, Winchester pals just can’t get enough.  Until they’re dead.


An expendable ensign on Supernatural.  Die ensign, die!:


iPod Touch: Best Games So Far (Galcon, Drop7, Distant Shore)

I’ve never embraced the mobile revolution. I have a piece of crap Virgin Mobile cell phone that I use mostly to store my friends’ and family’s phone numbers. I once had a Gameboy Color, made it a few hours into a Final Fantasy Legend game (I don’t even remember which one), and then never used the system again. I have no desire to get a DS, and I only want to borrow a PSP long enough to play the God of War and Final Fantasy games on it.

About a month ago, I got an iPod Touch, because I needed to redesign my work website to display properly in its browser. I figured I might use the Touch to check my email, and I knew I’d transfer some songs to it for a vacation Kathy and I were taking. But I didn’t think I’d be sinking any money or time into games from the iTunes App Store.

I was so, so wrong.

The iPod Touch has become my (and my wife’s) main gaming platform. We already own more games for it than we do for the PS3. It’s just so easy to get addicted to churning through iPhone games, both free and paid. And there really are some great apps out there.

Here are quick thoughts by Kathy and me on the best games we’ve tried, so far. Though, at the rate we’re downloading new ones, they might be replaced by next month.

Favorite Game (Greg): Galcon

This is, easily, my favorite app on the platform. I downloaded it within a week of getting the Touch, and it’s still my go-to game.

Galcon is like a high-speed version of Risk, only with planets instead of countries. In the basic game (included in the free Lite version), you and an enemy send fighter ships from your respective home planets to take over other planets on the game map. Once you’ve taken over a planet, it starts to manufacture fighter ships of its own, for you to take over more planets — or to defend your own. The game continues until one player has taken over all of the other’s planets.

Gameplay is simple, and the interface is perfectly designed for the iPhone. Touch one (or more) of your planets to select its ships, and then touch (or swipe toward) a neutral/enemy planet to send those ships to attack it.

Games are quick — usually just a couple of minutes. And, should you fail, you can always try a new map or switch to another of the game’s dozen or so difficulty levels. So, frustration is kept to a minimum.

The paid version of the app ($4.99) includes multiplayer support and several other game variations, all of which are great.

galcon_newgame1 galcon_gameplay

Favorite Game (Kathy): Drop7

I’m our home’s resident puzzle game fanatic, and Drop7 is the best the iPhone platform has to offer. It’s a mobile version of the online Flash game, Chain Factor (which developer Area/Code originally created as part of a promotional experience for the CBS show, Numbers).

The creators wisely eliminated some nonessential features from Chain Factor, resulting in a game that’s perfectly sized for the iPhone. Unlike some iPhone games that require pixel-perfect fingers, the spaces on the Drop7 grid are large enough that you’ll never catch yourself saying, “No, that’s not what I meant to hit!” Games can be as long or short as you want, depending on which gameplay method you select. A strong game concept makes even short games satisfying, and the comparatively large graphics make Drop 7 less frustrating than many other iPhone games.

You can learn the basics of Drop 7 in about a minute, but — well over a year after discovering Chain Factor — I still play it as much as any other game. There isn’t a Lite version of Drop7, but you can always try Chain Factor before buying the iPhone version ($4.99).

drop7_01 drop7_02

Honorary Mention (Greg and Kathy): Distant Shore

Distant Shore is hardly a game at all; it’s more of an anonymous messaging system. But it’s definitely fun.

By touching the screen, you guide your avatar (who appears only as a set of footprints) across a beach, picking up shells and glass bottles. When you pick up a bottle, it contains a short text message from someone else who is currently playing. Sometimes, people will just tell you how they’re feeling or what they’re doing. And other times, the message will be a question (e.g., one player recently asked if I liked Chipotle). Once you’ve received a message, you can respond, and a lengthy bottle-mail conversation will likely ensue.

For every five shells you find on the beach, you get an empty bottle of your own, so you can send new messages to random players.

The game is addictive. Whenever I think I’m about to quit, I comb the beach for just one more bottle, and then another, and so on. And when I’m not playing, I can’t wait to log in again to see if anyone’s responded to one of my own messages. I think I’ve become much better at writing to random people than I am at responding to emails from friends and family.

One thing I love about Distant Shore is how nice all the other players are. I’ve received (and sent) some goofy messages, but I have yet to see anything mean or stupid. All the players seem to be invested in the virtual world they’ve created. I suspect things might be different if it were a free app, but Distant Shore’s minimal price ($0.99) seems to be enough of a barrier to keep the riff-raff at bay.

Distant Shore will be great so long as there are plenty of people playing. And, for now, it seems to be going strong.

distant_beach distant_message