Added on 14 July 2017
I get tired of the games vs. story argument. Not to mention the entertainment vs. practical utility argument. In many cases these discussions come from assumptions that are wrong, and the problem is that if you get caught up in them, they can limit your options to making great experiences. Even some very smart experts have contributed to the confusion. “Video Games Are Better Without Stories” says Ian Blogost in a recent article in the Atlantic. While Robert Marks tells us that “Video Games Aren’t Just Better With Stories, They Are Stories” in another recent article at CG Magazine. I would say yes, video games are sometimes better without stories, and yes, some video games are stories. Neither statement is always true or false. I think the discussion gets muddled from two erroneous assumptions: first, that games are a medium, and two, that storytelling is the primary goal of a medium.
Let me elaborate. Games are not a medium, just the same way stories are not a medium; they are both the product of our need to understand and assimilate our experience of reality. Neither of them is a medium, but you can make both stories and games using almost any medium. The written word is a medium, painting is a medium, film is a medium. I’d like to avoid getting into philosophical definitions of what is a medium here but think of writing: the written word is a medium, a means to communicate stuff. As any other medium it can be used in different ways: to tell stories, to create games, or to solve other practical problems that have little to do with either of them. You can use the written word to make games like you do in cross-puzzles, tell stories like you do in a novel, or solve a practical problem like we do when we write a list to remember what to buy at the supermarket. You can do the same with other media: you can use still pictures to create hidden object games like in “I Spy” books, tell stories like in a movie poster, or solve a practical problem like when you get a photo ID to prove your identity.
So what are games and stories exactly? Why have they been an important part of every culture around the world? If you think about it they are both tools that help us get better at living and dealing with the reality around us. In real life we like to accomplish things, and games let us practice coming up with good strategies to accomplish goals. In real life we also need to make sense of what happens to us, and stories help us do that. Both games and stories help us get better at living and understanding our lives.
Games are formal systems with clearly defined goals and rules. In a way they are a simplification of reality. In real life we have goals that we want to achieve, and to do that we need figure out what are the best strategies to achieve them. Figuring out the right strategies includes finding out what are the best paths to achieve our goals, what resources do we need, how to get those resources, and how to best manage them. In most cases, there are also general rules we can follow to increase our chance of reaching our objectives: if you complete your assignments you have a higher chance to pass your class, if you have experience working at a game company you have a higher chance to get hired at another game company. Games are similar to life but simpler. While in games all the goals and rules are very clear, reality is a lot fuzzier: goals vary from situation to situation, and rules are in most cases only guidelines that don’t assure anything and tend to change over time. In a way, games let us take a stab at aspects of life in simpler and safer settings. They let us experience aspects of reality, and they give us the opportunity to explore and figure out the best ways to reach goals. Games are great because they give us agency and let us practice how to better use it to accomplish specific things.
Stories are also simplifications, but they focus in structuring our experience of reality to provide meaning. They don’t focus on letting us try different ways of achieving a goal, but rather on helping us understand our experiences and make them meaningful. When we tell a story we organize our actions and the events around us in ways that make it all more intelligible, in ways that make sense. In a traditional story there is always some sort of conflict that gets resolved somehow at the end: There is a beginning, where a protagonist wants something but finds one or more antagonists or obstacles that don’t let him get it; there is a middle, where the protagonist tries different ways to overcome the obstacles and reach his/her goals; and there is an end or resolution where he/she succeeds or fails in achieving his /her goals. Stories help us understand life experiences better in terms of conflict and resolution. Stories are compelling not because they let us take a stab at dealing with reality, but because they let us make sense of it. The core value of a story is in creating meaning out of otherwise chaotic random events.
If we wanted to talk about games as a medium I would say that rather than videogames being a medium, computer applications are the medium, and you can use computer applications to make games, tell stories, or solve problems. Or a combination of all three. Most modern videogames contain both game systems, and elements of storytelling. Other applications like CodeSpark Academy -a game for mobile devices with a lot of storytelling elements that aims at teaching kids the principles of computer science in a fun way- even include elements of all three: games, storytelling, and solving a real need.
I think it is much more useful to think of applications for different media in terms of experiences, not games or stories.
Think of real life experiences. Some experiences are great because of agency, because we did it. Do you remember the first time you rode your bike without training wheels, or the first time you climbed a very tall mountain? What makes these experiences great is that we did them ourselves. Many people had done the same thing before, but they are still great because this time we were the ones who did them.
Other experiences are great because of the story or meaning behind it, like when the first person in your family graduates from college. That can be a great experience because of what it means for you and your family, even if you were not the one who did it.
Other experiences are great because they solve a practical problem, like finding a good car mechanic that fixes your car at a reasonable price.
But agency, meaning, and practical utility are not mutually exclusive. The experience of climbing a tall mountain would be even more memorable if there is more meaning or a story behind it, like if you suffered from a physical ailment since you were a kid and were nonetheless able to overcome it and climb after years of preparation and struggle. Fixing your car (practical utility) would be more memorable if you are the one who did it (agency), and even more if the car was your grandfather’s car that is full or childhood memories (meaning).
The same goes with computer applications, from videogames to VR and AR applications. Being able to use your agency to overcome interesting challenges does not exclude the possibility of making those challenges more meaningful, or useful. Mixing game and story to add both meaning and agency can make the experience much more memorable. Just as adding practical utility could.
Games, stories, and practical utility are not exclusive. It is not easy to combine these three aspects in a compelling meaningful way -just as in real life experiences- but following the right process makes it much easier. When you set the right clear goals, use the right ingredients, and use an iterative process with the right prototypes, making rich powerful experiences becomes easier. You can see more information on how to do that in the articles from this same site that I just linked to in the previous paragraph.
I would love to hear your thoughts and comments about the intersection of game mechanics, storytelling, and utility.
Do you feel often overloaded? I do. I bet being able to get your attention is harder and harder because your plate is already full and the requests from everywhere to fill it up even more don’t stop. Well… chances are that the people you are trying to get to play your game feel exactly the same way. It has never been harder to get people’s attention, let alone keep it, so you need to use all the tools at your disposal and a very effective one is setting the right Theme at the beginning of the development your game. How do you do that? More about that below.
The Main Goal Is Helping You Connect and Stay Connected
These days it is hard to get people to even spend the time they need to figure out if they like your game or not. Getting players interested is not about convincing them of the value of your game but about connecting your game to something they already believe or care about.
And it is not enough to connect to player’s emotions only when you first contact them. Good marketing campaigns only go so far. Players don’t recommend or spend much time or money on games that seem cool but turn out to be snoozers. To be successful you need to keep that connection to players going throughout the experience at many levels: through your art, through your mechanics, your stories, and the social interactions triggered by your game. The more elements of your game you connect with, the stronger the connection will be and the better chance you will have to keep players around, turn them into fans that help you promote your game, etc.
We actually need to do both:
1) Finding something to put in our game that speaks and connects emotionally to our players, and
2) Supporting that something with all the different elements in our game throughout the experience.
The good news is that setting up the right Theme at the beginning of development can provide the solution to both. Unfortunately, there are some very common misunderstandings about what Themes are that make them less helpful. The most common one is confusing Theme with Topic.
Effective Themes Are More Than Topics
There is some confusion on defining what Theme is. Even Wikipedia’s definition of a theme lists “love,” “death,” and “betrayal” as examples. This is a common view: when you ask a developer about the theme of their game, most of the times they will tell you their topic: pirates, space, car racing. The problem is that Topics by themselves are not that helpful in finding ways to connect to players. They rarely trigger specific emotions. Pirates? What about pirates? Is it about thugs that pillaged your town and kidnapped your girlfriend? Is it about noble outlaws fighting a corrupt system? Freedom lovers in search of adventure outside the boring status quo? Greedy and ruthless treasure hunters? “Pirates” is an inconclusive word that could trigger many different emotions depending on the context. Deciding on a Topic won’t help you figure out your game mechanics -Should you start developing a ship battling system? Treasure collecting system? Sword fighting? All of the above? It won’t help you figure out your story either – Adventure? Comedy? Romance? – Neither your art style – More cartoony? More realistic? – Nor your social mechanics -Cooperative? Competitive? Unassertive topics like “Pirates” won’t help you tie all the game ingredients together beyond the superficial either. Yes, everything will look more or less from the same time period -no cars, no cowboys, and no dinosaurs- but chances are each ingredient -mechanics, story, art, social- will trigger disparate unrelated emotions, and you’ll end up with a game that lacks focus and gets no one excited. Defining Theme as Topic is not enough.
Effective Themes Take a Stand
The definition that I find more helpful is one that I found best expressed by novelist, screenwriter, and game designer Chuck Wendig in his blog “terrible minds”: Themes are arguments; Themes are points of view about something (You can take look at Chuck Wendig’s awesome article about 25 things you should know about theme here. The article is targeted to writers, but it all applies to games). Saying my game is about “Death” or “Adventure” or “Pirates” is not defining the Theme. “Man can learn from death,” “Life without adventure is not worth living,” “A pirate’s life is a wonderful life” are Themes. They express specific opinions; they have a horse in the raise.
When you define Theme as argument it becomes much clearer what kinds of mechanics, art, stories, and social interactions will reinforce the argument. When you define your Theme not as “Pirates” but as “A Pirates’ life is a wonderful life, more fun, adventurous and free,” then you know that starting with a treasure collecting system is not the right way to go -maybe it would be if your Theme was “A Pirates’ life is wonderful because you get to be rich without working for it.” Here instead you know that your mechanics should reinforce the idea of freedom and adventure, so maybe starting with a ship system as a means to explore far away places and find adventures makes more sense. Under the same logic, you should probably avoid a rigid treadmill to level up that feels constrained instead of free, etc. Your stories should also reinforce the appeal of freedom and adventure, not enrichment, struggle, or revenge; and the same goes for your art and social interactions.
It is very common to see reluctance about stating opinions in a game for fear of alienating potential players. Expressing opinions can be scary because an opinion is always partial and causes disagreement. It is true that you will sometimes alienate some people, but on the other hand you will connect more strongly with the players that agree with you, and your game will have the appeal and personality that will help it stand out in the crowd. In fact, one of the main mistakes you can make as a developer is trying to please everybody and ending with a bland game that neither pleases nor connects strongly to anyone.
When I worked at Disney developing Toontown Online, the first Massively Multiplayer Game for kids, we decided to base the game around a common conflict most of us see in our lives, work versus play; and we took a clear point of view: play is more important than mindless work. Our point of view was the foundation to the main conflict and Theme that tied everything together. In the game, business robots called the Cogs were trying to invade Toontown, a colorful and zany place where the players -careless, playful toon characters- lived. The Cogs wanted to turn Toontown into an efficient business park and get rid of all play because they saw it as an inefficient waste of time. To defend themselves from the invasion, Toons played classical cartoon gags on the Cogs: they threw cream pies, dropped banana peels on the floor, and dropped pianos on their heads. Taking a definite stand in the conflict work vs. play was not always well received at a big corporation like Disney, filled itself with many Cog-like characters trying to increase profits at any cost, and always worried about mass appeal. There was also fear that talking about work would not resonate with kids, the main target for the game. But it turned out that having a clear point of view helped us connect with tons of players; we all have felt at some point that work is taking over our lives, leaving us with little time for fun-care-free-play. Fighting back with fun, resonates. Toontown ended up being a very successful game with a very broad appeal, liked by kids and adults, males and females. It also had much longer customer lifetimes compared to most other kid virtual worlds and MMOs. The game lasted over 10 years and remained profitable until the very end. Years after Disney pulled the plug on Toontown, me and other developers who worked on Toontown still get messages from former subscribers asking us to bring Toontown back.
Pictures Are Better Than Sermons
Taking a stand makes it easier to keep things consistent and connect to specific emotions, but remember that your game is not a sermon. You are trying to connect, not to convince. “A story is more than just a conveyance of your message” says Chuck Wendig in his article about Themes: “Overwrought themes become belligerent within the text, like a guy yelling in your ear, smacking you between the shoulder blades with his Bible. Theme is a drop of poison: subtle, unseen, but carried in the bloodstream to the heart and brain just the same.” The same is true about games. Games are not sermons and they are much better when they don’t try to be one.
One way that I find useful in keeping things in check is by defining the theme visually through creating a mood board. A mood board is a collection of a few images -should not be more than 5 in my opinion- that express the essence of the game. These images are not supposed to describe the mechanics, story or art style of the game; what they need to convey is the Theme and the emotions triggered by it. Since images can be interpreted in different ways, the visual mood board makes it hard to focus on lecturing and easier to focus on a consistent set of emotions tied to the Theme.
I think Themes are some of the most powerful tools to help you connect emotionally to players and glue together more consistent and stronger experiences. Have you been in a project where the right Theme saved the day, or the wrong one sunk the ship? Let me know in the comments.