The role of story in games

Ian Bogost made a point similar to the one I made in my recent post about why walking simulators shouldn’t be thought of as movies with buttons. (Or rather, my point was similar to his, since he published his a year ago.) But from similar observations we came to different conclusions.

First, the same question:

The whole way through, I found myself wondering why I couldn’t experience Edith Finch as a traditional time-based narrative. Real-time rendering tools are as good as pre-rendered computer graphics these days, and little would have been compromised visually had the game been an animated film. Or even a live-action film. After all, most films are shot with green screens, the details added in postproduction. The story is entirely linear, and interacting with the environment only gets in the way, such as when a particularly dark hallway makes it unclear that the next scene is right around the corner.

Then, his observation:

The gag of a game with no gameplay might seem political at first, but it quickly devolves into conceptualism. What Remains of Edith Finch picks up the baton and designs a different race for it. At stake is not whether a game can tell a good story or even a better story than books or films or television. Rather, what it looks like when a game uses the materials of games to make those materials visible, operable, and beautiful.


What are games good for, then? Players and creators have been mistaken in merely hoping that they might someday share the stage with books, films, and television, let alone to unseat them. To use games to tell stories is a fine goal, I suppose, but it’s also an unambitious one. Games are not a new, interactive medium for stories. Instead, games are the aesthetic form of everyday objects. Of ordinary life. Take a ball and a field: you get soccer. Take property-based wealth and the Depression: you get Monopoly. Take patterns of four contiguous squares and gravity: you get Tetris. Take ray tracing and reverse it to track projectiles: you get Doom. Games show players the unseen uses of ordinary materials.

To this point we largely agree. But then our conclusions diverge. He thinks that games should “abandon the dream of becoming narrative media and pursue the one they are already so good at: taking the tidy, ordinary world apart and putting it back together again in surprising, ghastly new ways.” But this ignores the fact that a story can be the basis of a game without being the only, or even the most important, thing about it. Put another way, story can be a useful and enjoyable pretext without being the point.

To see this is the case, look to film. Story isn’t the point of many films: It’s the skeleton they hang on, giving them their shape, serving as an organizing principle. Most people find it hard to watch a movie without a story, but what those same people carry with them when they walk out of the theater are the impressions of individual shots, a single phrase spoken by a beautiful person, snippets of music—the essence of cinema, made digestible by virtue of the framework a story provides. They might also carry with them a feeling of catharsis, but ask them about the twists and turns of the plot that led to it, and you’ll likely get some embarrassed mumblings as people realize they have trouble remembering the supposed point of the past two hours.

Novels provide another example. True, the point of a Dan Brown book is indeed the story, and you race through it as quickly as you can to get to the payoff. But in literary fiction, the story is once again the pretext—it’s not unimportant, but if there is a “point,” it is found at the level of the sentence, or the phrase.

Games can be, and are, as a much a narrative medium as films and novels—which is to say, only partially, but that part is important.


Sentence spaces

Robin Sloan, novelist, media inventor, olive oil entrepreneur:

Imagine a sentence. “I went looking for adventure.”

Imagine another one. “I never returned.”

Now imagine a sentence gradient between them—not a story, but a smooth interpolation of meaning. This is a weird thing to ask for! I’d never even bothered to imagine an interpolation between sentences before encountering the idea in a recent academic paper. But as soon as I did, I found it captivating, both for the thing itself—a sentence… gradient?—and for the larger artifact it suggested: a dense cloud of sentences, all related; a space you might navigate and explore.


My project called sentencespace, now public on GitHub, serves up an API that provides two things.

  1. Sentence gradients: smooth interpolations between two input sentences.
  2. Sentence neighborhoods: clouds of alternative sentences closely related to an input sentence.

Sentence neighborhoods are simpler than gradients. Given an input sentence, what if we imagine ourselves standing at its location in sentence space, peering around, jotting down some of the other sentences we see nearby?

Here’s the rest, including widgets that let you play around with what he did without installing anything. File under writing with machines.

What’s the point of walking simulators?

The conceit of a “walking simulator” game is that you can interact with the world around you, but not to the extent that it affects the plot. In Gone Home, you can listen to cassette tapes and flip lights on and off, but you can’t go outside and reconnect the phone line to call your parents and bring the game to an early end. In Kentucky Route Zero, you decide the name of your dog, but no matter his name he silently sticks by your side. In Firewatch, you talk over the radio with Delilah, and what you say affects subsequent conversations, but no matter how those conversations go you’re fated to discover and solve the same mystery, and your relationship is destined to end in the same way. The Stanley Parable calls out this odd balance of power, making a lot of the fact that you can turn left when the narrator says you should go right, but then mocking you when you quickly reach the limits of your freedom.

Hardcore gamers think this is boring, which is where the term “walking simulator” came from: You’re just walking around! These gamers consider the point of playing to be finishing with the highest score or fastest time—or perhaps more precisely the enjoyment of exercising the skills necessary to reach that score or time. They bear a family resemblance to readers who consider the reveal of the plot’s conclusion, or the tension savored on the way to that conclusion, to be the point of fiction.

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself as you employ the hand-eye coordination or puzzle-solving ability necessary to play a game, or with enjoying narrative tension, but thinking of that as the main or only point of reading or playing closes you off to the pleasures of books in which “nothing happens” or games in which the broad arc of what happens is out of your control.

What pleasures? Why play if not to exercise a set of skills or attain a high score? Why have any interaction in a walking simulator at all? Why not just make it into a movie that you can lean back and watch? Continue reading “What’s the point of walking simulators?”

Player as actor in Kentucky Route Zero

Kentucky Route Zero is a videogame by Cardboard Computer (Jake Elliott, Tamas Kemenczy, and Ben Babbitt). It’s the most interesting thing I have played (or read or watched) in a while. What I’m jotting down here has mostly to do with the question of player agency vs. authorial control, but that’s just one facet of a game where every corner has been carefully crafted. I’ve included a bunch of links at the bottom for those who want a rabbit hole to follow. Continue reading “Player as actor in Kentucky Route Zero”

Notes on The Pickle Index

The Pickle Index is a story app by Eli Horowitz and Russell Quinn with art by Ian Huebert:

In a glum nation ruled by a stylish dictator, all citizens are required by law to participate in the Pickle Index, a fermentation-based recipe exchange. From within this network, an incompetent circus attempts an unlikely uprising.

Thrills, chills, spills, & dills!

The writing combines George Saunders-style bureaucratic verbosity with some Tom Robbins absurd flair. You can get it in print, too, but you’d be missing some groundbreaking experiments in using software to tell a story. Continue reading “Notes on The Pickle Index”

The return of the scroll

Phallaina is “the first scrolling graphic novel,” and it is fun. Instead of turning pages, you just scroll from left to right. Breaking free of the confines of the codex means there is no need to divide the illustrations into panels. Take a look at this example, where one plane serves first as the floor but then also as a door perpendicular to that same floor:


There are dozens of thoughtful, playful moments like that, all enabled by the scroll.

This is the sort of thing that is both exciting and difficult to think about in relation to a future generation of ebooks. Sometimes, as you can in most ebook readers now, you want to give people the option to switch between pagination and scrolling. But sometimes, as evidenced by Phallaina, scrolling is essential to the experience. Other times text and illustrations will have been carefully crafted to sit together within the rectangle of a page, and in that case not only must you force pagination, you can’t allow the text to reflow for different screen sizes. How do you accommodate all those variables—scroll vs. page, optional vs. forced, formless vs. definite? One of the under-appreciated virtues of paper is the number of decisions that are made for you.

‘Walking simulator’ as technique, not genre

Games like Gone Home, Firewatch, and The Stanley Parable are sometimes called “walking simulators,” a term that started out as derogatory before it was appropriated, or at least accepted, by people who like these games that focus more on story and exploring a space than on puzzles, fighting, and whether you win or lose. But in reading an article about the making of the interactive short film Solace, I was surprised to see the term applied to something that isn’t a game at all:

The original concept could be boiled down to a cartoon you could play with. Like a more traditional film, I wanted the story to be front and center — the interaction should not overpower the narrative. The challenge was to balance playability with the joy of sitting and listening to a good story, well told.

From the start it became apparent that there was a conflict between listening to the narrator’s voice and playing with the interaction. If any of interaction was too complicated, or absorbing, users would miss key moments in the narrative. On the other hand, not being a traditional animation, if the interaction wasn’t strong enough, a user would get bored. This was an experience that couldn’t use traditional game mechanics, or puzzles in general. It had to be closer to a film that you are mindlessly toying with. Nothing to solve. Nothing to complete.

Through numerous iterations and user testing, the end result can be described (in the trendy parlance) as a ‘2D walking simulator’. The user plays with each of the 17 scenes, but their actions don’t drive the narrative. Each scene and the interaction within the scene is a metaphor for the story at that particular point. Sometimes it is as simple as what the narrator says is what the user sees. At other times, the interaction referred or alluded to greater themes of the story.

This offhanded comment by Evan Boehm does something brilliant: It redefines “walking simulator” as a storytelling technique rather than a game genre, a technique that strikes what I think is a very satisfying balance between player agency and authorial control.

Quietly personalized stories

Sam Barlow, the author of Her Story, is now at a company called Eko, thinking about interactive storytelling without the need for explicit choices from the viewer:

Barlow was uncertain how much of the “WarGames” tracking mechanics he should reveal to the viewer. “The two-million-dollar question is: Do we need to show this?” he said. He believed that interactive films will increasingly resemble online ads: unobtrusively personalized media. “When ads first started tracking you, for the first few months you’d be, like, ‘How did they know?’ A couple of months later, you’d be, like, ‘Of course they knew. I was Googling baby formula.’ And now it’s, like, ‘I’m still getting spammed for vacation properties around Lake Placid, and I’m, like, Dude, we went. You should already know!’ ”

The entire article, “Will interactive films be this century’s defining art form?,” is worth reading. 

Notes on Her Story

Her Story by Sam Barlow is an interesting, enjoyable experiment. Its website describes it as “non-linear” storytelling, but I think a more accurate description would be “random-access” storytelling.

You find yourself in front of a computer screen in which you type in keywords to search for video clips from a series of police interviews with…well, part of your job is figuring out who.

Like Gone Home, you control the plotting but not the story (the syuzhet but not the fabula, for you formalists out there). Like CLOUDS, the database at the heart is exposed and central. Like PRY, you are given an indication of how much of the material you have uncovered. The mechanic feels a little like what I described in my Kuleshov 2.0 thought experiment, except the story itself doesn’t change depending on the order in which you watch the clips; it’s the draft in your head that is changing, mutating with each new piece of information to better align itself with the story slowly being uncovered.

Part of its charm is that in scale and quirkiness it feels like the work of one person, and it largely was. I had fun reading about the tools Sam Barlow used to put it together: a couple VCRs to degrade the video footage, a $100 audio recorder supplemented with a free sound effect library, a MacBook Air that I picture slowly but surely chugging through its Final Cut and Unity renders.

Barlow must have had help recording the actual video interviews, and the success of the whole thing hinges on the performance of the actor, Viva Seifert. Other than that, the development of this game is as close to a writerly experience as I have ever heard of for a visual (non-text) game.