Player versus Developer Narratives

Player versus Developer Narratives

David Jaffe, designer of the Twisted Metal series of games, made a splash recently at a DICE summit presentation.  The Ars article linked has a good breakdown of it, and if you want the full talk, go here (he’s a bit obnoxious and vulgar, FYI).  Here’s a pertinent snippet:

My talk is actually a warning, about why we shouldn’t tell stories with our video games. I think it’s a bad idea, I think it’s a waste of resources and time and money, and more importantly I think it actually stunts, and has stunted over the last 10 years or so, the medium of video games. Sort of at our own peril. And to be clear, I’m not talking about player-authored stories, and if you don’t know what that means, it’s kind of a buzzword these days amongst designers, but basically, a player-authored story is something… I mean, the best example these days is… Skyrim and Arkham City are wonderful, but you can also go down the chain of scope to a game like Angry Birds. A player-authored story is basically where the mechanics and the interactive is so compelling and so engaging that the player, by the very act of playing the game, creates a narrative in his mind.

Now, there’s a good bit here to agree with.  I love Skyrim, and if you read the site, you know I’ve actually written an adventure or two I’ve had in it up as a story – a literal player-authored story.  I’m not the only one either.  Other games – MULE jumps to mind – are ripe for this as well, since it’s different every time you play, and can really engage your creativity if you role play it.  But Jaffe’s logic breaks down for me when I think of some of my all-time favorite games, Dragon Age: Origins and Starcraft.  Looking at Starcraft, there was a developer-made story, progressed in a linear fashion, but it HOOKED ME.  I finished that game – I cheated to finish it the first time! – because I HAD to know what happened.  I didn’t create that story, and maybe Jaffe would tell me it would’ve been better as a book or a movie, but I don’t agree.  I felt like *I* did all those things, I was betrayed by Mengsk, I fought the Queen of Blades, it was ME.  Maybe that’s still a player-narrative in his mind, but it doesn’t happen without Blizzard’s story.  Without the story, Starcraft is just a series of skill challenges, which can be plenty of fun, but it’s not the game I love.

I think Dragon Age: Origins is a great example of why a developer driven narrative is still needed.  While I’ve built up quite a player-narrative in my head for the game, often referring to ‘My Warden’ as a unique individual starring in a story of my imagining.  But again, it’s BECAUSE of what we went through.  We killed an Archdemon!  I let out a “Hell YEAH” when she killed that asshole Arl Howe.  How much of that could you strip away, and still inspire me to think of my Warden like that?  To make in-game decisions actually in-character?

It’s worth noting that there are plenty of games I love that work exactly like Jaffe describes, but I don’t know why there can’t be variety.  Just because one set of games works this way, doesn’t mean they all need to or should.