Art Tickles – Players and Their Stories

Originally written for Haywire Magazine.

For Taylor Hidalgo, it’s about the journey, not just the destination.

The old adage “Every road leads to Rome.” tends to very accurately apply to games. Although the individual choices by the player tend to make games change in subtle or grandiose ways, ultimately all roads will deliver the player to their personalized Rome. The result is often a little static, and it takes little more than a keystroke or two on Youtube to acquire the full sense of a different ending.

As The Story Mechanic pointed out, the mechanics are an often unexplored medium from which a story can be crafted. Players are frequently just an audience to goings-on, rather than participants. Within the confines of gameplay, players have control, but outside of general mechanics as interactivity, they have little input.

To a point, this is because the paths on which games are built toward their endings are often just straight roads: Simple confines the player can quickly grasp and operate within to advance toward a preferred destination. The roads themselves are very spartan, just vehicles to push a player toward the ending, rather than being an integral part of the experience.

However, mechanics can be applied as narrative devices. The best decisions in games occur organically, without the player being notified that they’re making an important choice. Decisions made moment-to-moment are often the most powerful, and it is that underemployed mechanic that strikes the strongest chords. Bioware games in particular are good at this, in small doses. Many of the moral choices are clearly defined, often tied to a bar or progression mechanic, but will still have occasional moments of very natural emotion. In hindsight, these are often the best parts of the games, but don’t come as frequently or as comfortably as they could.

Iji3Daniel Remar’s Iji achieves the effect very simply. Without much in the way of prompts or visual indicators, a lot of story and gameplay decisions happen behind the scenes, molding the story dependent on how the player plays, rather than a more on-rails experience. Even in retrospect, a lot of the fine details are hard to see. Although it introduces the need for a guide to find every little nook and hidden secret, this also makes a lot of character development and plot progression depend on the player input, rather than something strictly coded.

The NPC’s aren’t artificially intelligent, nor can the story go too many directions given the somewhat limiting setting, but the game has a lot of variety within its framework. The story premise is simple and familiar: A lone hero must conquer an overwhelming force. While straightforward seeming, a lot of the narrative in terms of dialog and progression changes depending on gameplay choices the player makes. Familiar ones like which stats to upgrade and what weapons to employ, but also whether or not certain objects are found, whether or not the player engages certain enemies, or even how the player chooses to employ auxiliary items while playing.

Realistically, only options the programmer intended end up in the game, but the fact that there is very little indication that the player can assume these perfectly viable alternate routes helps tell a story the player picks, rather than a singular story that must begin and end with similar points in between. Given the limitations of pre-programmed outcomes, this particular method ends up feeling very organic, and introduces narratives that can and often do change from player to player.

Without the player and the mechanics both, the story would never come to light, nor would the events of one story make much sense when seeing some of the occurrences of the other. That level of player input is part of what makes the story feel much more personal, when the player makes something so, not the game.

By contrast, a title like Spec Ops: The Line attempts to incorporate the player’s emotions and thoughts the same way a film or theater production might, by empathizing the audience with its protagonist or narrator, and then telling a story about the watcher via the characters. There’s also an additional layer of disassociation removed because it’s the player’s personal input that’s causing the events, not a more distant character. Like Iji, it’s the player’s input that’s meant to tie them to the story, not the game’s events themselves.

Iji2However, unlike Iji, Spec Ops’ events cannot unfold any other way. No matter how they play, or what decisions they make can make, the game will always ultimately land the player’s character in the same place, having “made the same choices” as its protagonist. While the game itself does a good job of emphasizing the stress and immediacy of the situations, the game refuses to allow the player the agency to make good choices as well as bad ones. Without the ability of the players to operate outside of the strictly defined walls, the idea that every player is a “bad” one undermines the message.

Iji, conversely, let’s the players make decisions with some urgency, but no strict adherence to fallibility. Given enough attempts, forethought or patience, the player can ultimately go throughout the game doing everything “right.” It allows the players to make a story more tailored to how they played, rather than for their playing. That level of player agency is the hinge on which player controlled narratives are built. Iji and Spec Ops both have similar militaristic themes, comparable overwhelming forces to overcome, but only the former will allow the player to naturally make choices, be those good or bad. Often times, the possibility for an alternative seems remote or implausible, which makes the player feel they’ve come to the most natural answer, rather than being pigeon-holed there.

Ultimately, that decision-making capability is what helps make up a player’s story, rather than a story told to a player. Although Iji isn’t a perfect example, it’s still a potential future for storytelling as a part of the game. Spec Ops: The Line, for all of its flaws, is another example of ways the player can be a participant rather than a more passive observer. All roads may continue to lead to Rome, but it will be interesting to hear “How was your journey?” in addition to “What ending did you get?”