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

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

Show Me the Money!

I have to admit, I’m a bit surprised by many PS3 game developers’ lack of business acumen.

For instance, I play Resistance 2 co-op.  A lot.  They are making no money on me for monthly fees, but they must be incurring significant server costs to host an ever-expanding (hopefully) player base.  So sure, they are making money off new sales (though not secondary sales), but they could be making more.

So why aren’t they selling the advanced weapons/upgrades in the Playstation Store?  You could still let others earn them through experience, but gamers w/ disposable income and limited time like myself aren’t that impressed with “earning” things.  I’m too old for that shit.  I like to buy things I want and have them now.  That’s why I went to law school

Dead Space took advantage of this by allowing you to purchase, for a nominal fee, some great suits of armor and upgraded weapons.  It was a win-win-win.  1st, purists could choose not to buy this stuff and earn similar weapons/armor through their superior gameplay (and their superiour time-commitment).    2nd, people like me could get their rocks off by paying for it and fast-tracking ourselves through gameplay, thus maximizing our gameplay efficiency while concurrently keeping our wives happy by minimizing playing time (a joyous paradox).

Little Big Planet has made an art form of these minor add-on costs with their ever-growing catalog of outfits.  And you know what?  People buy them.  In droves.

If I were an investor at Insomniac (Resistance 2), I’d actually be pretty pissed.  Why aren’t they offering (and charging for) additional co-op player uniforms/clothing (or allowing you to buy the numerous physical/clothing character upgrades that you can earn through competitive)?

Why aren’t they selling specialized weapons, even if the alteration is merely cosmetic (e.g. a cooler looking Wraith, Marksman)?   These are simple to program and offer.

I’m sure they are busy building new maps that will be for sale (I can’t wait), but still, why aren’t they making even MORE money in the meantime?

There will be a lot of gamers out there who will think I’m an a-hole for suggesting this, but the more these companies make on these games, the more money they have to make more updates/levels for a specific game and more games in general (at least that’s what I’d hope).  Not to mention, it’s just bad business to not be creatively thinking about ways to maximize profits.

Demo Daze

I’ve been loving these free PS3 demos if only because they tend more often to convince me NOT to spend $60 on a game that in concept seems perfect for me, but in execution, fails.

Resident Evil 5:

There is just too much going on in this game.  RE has slowly been evolving from a suspense-based series to an action-based series.  Unfortunately, it isn’t working for me.  The designers of RE5 have not changed the gameplay mechanics much, but they have thrown more enemies at you.  This makes the game more difficult and challenging, but not better.

The anachronistic controls can’t compensate for this type of gameplay.  To aim and shoot your gun, you must be stationary (ridiculous).  There is no shooting on the fly/strafing while firing.  Secondly, the targeting is clunky.  If you want to make RE5 competitive as a shooter (e.g. Metal Gear Solid 4, Resistance 2, CoD World at War) you have to update the mechanics.  Making characters in an action-based game stand on a stationary vertical axis to shoot in this day and age is not just unacceptable, it’s lazy game design.

Thanks Rez Evil 5 developers!  You saved me $60 but ruined my all-time favorite franchise by refusing to modernize!

Lord of the Rings: Conquest:

This game is awesome–if it was meant for the PS2.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t measure up to the PS3 platform.  Another great concept that fails in execution.  The fighting is clunky and confusing.  The pixelated characters can’t stand up against the great graphics of the great games on PS3 (MGS4, CoD World at War, Fallout, Heavenly Sword).

It’s too bad, as the character classes (warrior, mage, scout, archer, and unlockable “heroes”) would make for interesting gameplay, if the gameplay itself didn’t suck.

The Demo doesn’t allow for it, but you can play as good guys (elves, men, ents, dwarves) or the bad guys (Sauron, Ring-Wraiths, Orcs).  Again, good concept.  I think I’ll replay Heavenly Sword instead of buying this.

*Note to developers:  Stop Releasing Half-Baked Games.  Take the time to make a good, polished, finished product.

Supernatural: Flowers Under the Deliverance Stairs

The following is an exchange about the Supernatural (one of our favorite shows) episode 4.11, “Family Remains.”

—–Original Message—–

From: Gregor
Sent: Sat, 17 Jan 2009 5:56 pm
Subject: Re: Flowers Under the Deliverance Stairs

I thought it was really bad. Except for the very beginning and the end, it didn’t even matter that the main characters were Dean and Sam. They were so generically written that it could have been any crappy horror movie or TV show.

The plot was so predictable. Of course the uncle was going to die, and of course the father would have to kill one of the baddies to be a hero to his family. And some of the crap just made no sense. How do these grown-up animal kids know how to spell, and why would they know to search and empty the trunk of the car of all weapons (but not the flashlights)?

All in all, a very sloppily written episode. And I also think the retconning of Dean — “I didn’t just torture because I had to; I liked it!” — is a lame, lazy direction to take the character. It felt like an outside writer wrote this episode, so I hope it’s quickly forgotten and ignored by the rest of the writing staff.

I heard Smallville was actually pretty good. Guess it was opposite night on Thursday.

Tonight’s BSG night. Last night’s episode is at OnDemand for free, so we’ll be checking it out.

From: Eugene

To: Gregor

Subject: Re: Flowers Under the Deliverance Stairs

I found it to be tense, but stupid.  It was like a low budget slasher flick.  And how come those kids could move without making any noise (when the uncle was killed) through narrow crawlspaces–they didn’t have supernatural (pun intended) stalking powers, they were just human tunnel rats.
The trunk weapon theft pissed me off too.  First off, they had only a few minutes to steal everything, right?  That’s a lot of stuff to take.  And Sam and Dean’s stash is in a hidden compartment in the trunk…how’d feral tunnel rat(s) know that?!?!  Good catch on the spelling…what school did those freaks go to?

And the family seemed particularly blase at the end of the episode.  They were just hanging out at the house where their brother/uncle was MURDERED a few hours before.  Any other family would have been like, “Let’s get the F out of here now!”  It seemed the episode implied they were going to stay at that house…are you kidding me?!?!  And how were they going to explain the dead uncle to the authorities?

Throwaway episode.  I too hated Dean’s “I loved torturing” line.  What was that?  Totally out of character and unnecessary, especially considering he already opened up about Hell.  Are we going to have a new revelation every week?