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Interactive Storytelling for Video GamesA Player-Centered Approach to Creating Memorable Characters and Stories
By Josiah Lebowitz Chris Klug
Focal PressCopyright © 2006 Elsevier Inc.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGame Stories, Interactivity, and What Players Want
The Importance of Stories
Since the dawn of time, people have been telling stories. What started out as retellings of hunts and tales of their ancestors soon expanded, bringing forth myths and legends. Some stories sought to teach, others to warn. Some attempted to solve the great mysteries of the world; others strove purely to entertain. All across the world, all throughout time, no matter how they lived or what language they spoke, every race, every culture, and every tribe has created and passed on a wealth of stories. And while some stories have slowly faded away, others have been told and retold for centuries, shaping our thoughts, religions, philosophies, and the very world itself.
Looking back at our history, few things have had as much influence on human development and civilization as stories. They've driven us to explore, to fight, to hope, and to dream. They've been the inspiration for art, music, technology, and, of course, more stories. Today, thanks to powerful printing presses, TVs, and the Internet, we have access to a nearly endless supply of stories covering every subject and genre imaginable. No matter what your interests are, there's a story out there for you – probably hundreds or even thousands.
Unsurprisingly, having so many different stories at our disposal has made many of us rather picky. If a story isn't well written or if it features characters or situations that we don't like, why should we spend time reading, watching, or playing it? After all, there are lots of other stories out there waiting for us. Because of this overabundance of stories, modern writers often work hard to attract an audience. Many carefully study what people already like and tailor their settings, plot, and characters to match. Others work hard to perfect their writing and master the many nuances of language, pacing, and character development. Some simply write what they enjoy and hope that it will find a suitable audience. And then there are the brave few who strive to create new and different types of stories and storytelling methods. They push forward with new media and new ideas, many of which challenge the very foundations of storytelling itself. Only time will tell which, if any, of these approaches is the best. Perhaps there is no best method. As long as the author enjoys creating the stories he or she writes and his or her audience (however large or small it may be) enjoys them as well, does anything else really matter?
My name is Josiah and, like most others, I was introduced to stories at a young age. Fairy tales, fables, history ... when I was a child, they filled my imagination and inspired me to create stories of my own. Because my family lived far out in the country, I often wasn't able to spend a lot of time with other kids, so I threw myself into my favorite stories. I read them, acted them out, and dreamed up new ones. Over the years, I created hundreds of stories, many of which stretched into epic sagas of exploration and adventure. Perhaps that in and of itself isn't so unusual, but – unlike most kids, who grow up wanting to become an astronaut or a fireman – I wanted to be an author.
Over the years, that desire waxed and waned as I grew and learned about other people, places, and things. But throughout all that time, I never lost my interest in stories and I always returned to writing. There were two things in particular that drew me back and brought me to where I am now. The first was a book I read long ago. Looking back, I no longer find the story all that different or exciting. I don't even own a copy of it anymore. But I'll always remember that book and be grateful to it for introducing me to one of the most important elements of writing: the plot twist. Today, that simple twist would likely elicit no more reaction from me than a nod or an "I thought so," but back then it was enough to make me put the book down and pause in wonder, thinking back over the rest of the story and how that one shocking revelation had changed everything. Since then, I've come across countless other plot twists, created some of my own, and become rather good at predicting them long before they take place, but that first simple revelation was where it all began.
After that, looking for more stories with shocking plot twists and big reveals, I gravitated toward mystery and fantasy novels while simultaneously trying to work those elements that so intrigued me into my own writing. Due to a series of unrelated incidents, I also became interested in video games, primarily due to the sheer fun and creativity of Nintendo's early Super Mario Bros. games. Though much different from the stories I loved, games also attracted me, and I began to dream up and draw out plans for my own colorful platforming games. It wasn't until much later that those two separate interests – games and storytelling – collided, all thanks to a game like nothing I had ever played before: a game called FINAL FANTASY VII.
Stories in Video Games
Unlike books and film, which can be considered mature forms of media, video games are relatively new, with the first arcade machines appearing in the early 1970s, and are still growing and evolving in nearly every way. Every few years, new game consoles are released promising more realistic graphics, higher-quality sound, and a bevy of new features. On the PC side, changes happen even faster, with newer and better hardware being released every few months.
But gaming hardware isn't the only thing that's changing. Games themselves are evolving as well, with new control schemes, gameplay elements, and genres appearing on a regular basis. Like all other aspects of video games, their stories are in a state of change as well. Game stories have evolved from the simple kidnapped-girl plot of Donkey Kong to the complex novel-length tales of modern RPGs. In addition, the ability of the player to interact with and affect the story has created many new and different types of stories that are difficult if not impossible to portray in other kinds of media. Although games are an excellent medium for many types of storytelling, their interactivity makes them far different from more traditional media such as books and film. Interactive stories themselves have many unique and challenging issues that aren't encountered when writing a more traditionally structured tale, which we'll be discussing all throughout the rest of this book. Game writers also need to think about many other factors, such as the synthesis between the story and gameplay and how to maintain a proper pace when the story's progression is, at least to a certain extent, controlled by the player (a subject we'll explore in depth in Chapter 4).
Make no mistake: whether you're a novice or an experienced writer, writing for games is a very difficult and challenging experience, though it can also be extremely rewarding. If you're new to game writing, this book will help you learn about proper story structure, the types of storytelling methods used, and the particular problems and challenges you'll encounter when creating your stories. Even if you're already an experienced game writer, the breakdown of different story structures may help you more clearly define the types of stories you're called to write and the later sections on the pros and cons of highly interactive stories and the types of stories that players like best should provide some interesting food for thought.
We'll be starting out in Chapter 2 by exploring the history of storytelling in games and how the different storytelling styles appeared, grew, and evolved over the years. We'll also be examining some of the games that helped define the storytelling styles of their generations and how they've affected current storytelling trends.
In Chapters 3, 4, and 5 we'll delve into the basics of any good story: the structure and character development. Important topics include common story themes, maintaining proper flow and pacing, and creating interesting and believable characters. Throughout all three of these chapters, we'll also be looking at a variety of different games to help get a better idea of how these elements work in practice and the different ways they're used in games. If you're new to story writing, pay close attention to the material in these chapters and you may be able to avoid many of the common mistakes made by beginning writers. If you're already an experienced writer (for games or any other medium), think of these chapters as a refresher and a look at how the story elements you're already familiar with are adapted for use in games.
Chapter 6 builds on the previous chapters by explaining what elements really make stories interactive and/or player-driven – things that even many experienced writers have trouble properly defining. It will also provide a brief overview of the different story types and structures used in games, giving you a hint of the things that will be covered later on.
Once you know the basics of story writing and have a grasp of the different types of interactive stories and their histories, it's time to move on and learn how to actually create those stories. Chapters 7 through 11 each take a particular interactive storytelling style and examine it in depth, explaining how that type of story should be planned and structured, its unique advantages and disadvantages, and any unusual challenges you may come across. Throughout these chapters, we'll also be studying a wide assortment of games that use these styles. Those games will show the many different approaches that game writers take with their stories as well as give you a sense of which elements do and don't work well and the things that may need to be improved upon in the future.
Though you'll probably be familiar with many of the games discussed, there will likely be a few that you've never played or possibly never even heard of. Keep in mind that to properly explain and discuss the stories of these games, I'll often have to summarize many different parts of the plot, including big twists, endings, and the like. Naturally, the best way to become familiar with a game's story is to play the game for yourself. Even though I'll be pointing out the occasional flaw or problem section in some of these games, they're all excellent titles and, if you have time, I highly recommend playing as many of them as you can. Although I may have to give away some parts of a game's plot for the sake of discussion, there will always be plenty of surprises left untold. So even if you've already read about a game here, don't be discouraged from picking it up and giving it a try for yourself, even if it's a type you don't usually play. You never know, you may find out that you enjoy that kind of game a lot more than you thought.
As I said before, game stories are an evolving art form and, like any art form, there are a variety of opinions on which styles and methods are the best and which should be discarded, which brings us to the last part of the book.
Excerpted from Interactive Storytelling for Video Games by Josiah Lebowitz Chris Klug Copyright © 2006 by Elsevier Inc. . Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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