A Game of “Find the Story”

As I discussed in my previous post, games can be played with attention to appeals offered by immersion in story and appeals offered by a sense of mastery, but we tend to see more attention to the latter when in the way games are designed to be played and replayed. Once you’ve mastered the skills required to excel in a game, it can sometimes feel too boring or easy, and so we crank up the Difficulty when we want to replay it. Making enemies stronger and protagonists weaker solves the issue of maintaining the appeal of mastery, but it does nothing to address the appeal of story. The sense of your own agency in producing the story is replaced by a sense of struggling to avoid repetition, whether boring (if it’s too easy) or frustrating (if it’s too hard).

Why not make up our own difficulty adjustments and imagine our own stories, then? Why not play “hardcore” or “permadeath” style, deciding that when our protagonist dies, it stays dead? Why not reject using the best weapons and skills available to our hero? Or, if a certain degree of variation is actually built into the game—such as the ability to play in a way that disagrees with our initial inclinations, perhaps as a villain rather than a hero—why not replay that way?

In fact, many gamers do just these things—and sometimes, I’m one of them. I had originally planned just one more post in this series on blending story and mastery appeals in games, but I’m going to have to spread it out over a couple more. In this post, I’ll discuss some ways I’ve tried to spice up replays by limiting my actions according to things that might make sense in the context of a story. I’ll discuss another recently blogged experiment in the post that follows this one, focusing on the narrative potential of irreversible actions. (And I’ll probably write another post after that, too, as I actually wrote this post on the next one months ago, and have new thoughts on these matters developed since then.)

Though I’ve tried replaying more than one game with an eye to enriching storytelling (back when I had time to finish games at all!), I’ll focus here on a couple experiments I tried with Fallout 3. In summary, I find that some experiments can indeed inject something new and interesting into a game, but more often than not, games that offer story-oriented appeals tend to let me down when I try to make up my own story, and sometimes even when I accept one of the story paths they actually offer.

I do face a hurdle right off the bat with such experiments. Playing a game that offers a story-oriented appeal means putting myself in a character’s shoes, and so taking on arbitrary limitations on my behavior often feels like going against the natural inclinations of a rational character. Why do anything but the most efficient thing to defeat everyone in the room? Wouldn’t you try to be as powerful as possible if you were trying to save the galaxy/the planet/the Wasteland/an underwater city full of innocent little girls? Why compromise?

The answer to that “why” may be found in the protagonist him or herself. The “permadeath” experiment is one way of attempt to graft another level of narrative into a game, but it requires an extradiegetic (or out-of-game) explanation for the alteration we’re imposing. I figured I’d try a few experimental gaming styles that actually kept my limitations coherent within the narrative, and the easiest way to do this may be to view arbitrary limitations as quirks of the protagonist. After all, games like Bioshock and Shadow of the Colossus have raised powerful questions in-game about whether the player should be questioning the morality of following orders and killing others without hesitation. They encourage us to ask whether efficiency and forward momentum are the only forces driving us. People aren’t actually wholly rational in their decision-making, but face moral and personal complexities.

Along these lines, then, one experiment I’ve tried is seeing if I can complete Fallout 3 with a pacifistic merchant. I made a character who stinks at combat, focusing on all the skills and perks that power gamers reject as pointless, like Barter, Fortune Finder, and Master Trader. I was determined to reach the (original) level cap and the end of the main quest without actually killing any fellow human beings. The game keeps track of how many people you’ve killed (on your Pip Boy), so it’s easy to be wary of this.

I found that this was indeed an interesting way of adding a new sense of challenge to the game after I’d already figured out how to decimate all my foes, and it offered some encouragement to try out some of the interesting perks that are functionally useless if you’re focusing on being a killing machine. (I don’t actually need to have Lady Killer and Child at Heart when my Speech skill is so high already, but what the hey, I’m playing a smooth-talking master trader with a fortune at his disposal. Why not stay “in character”?)

This is not an experiment the game was really designed to support, however, and it shows. Yes, you can go pretty far without actually being credited for taking someone else’s life, but no, you can’t make an omelette without someone in the kitchen breaking some eggs. There are a few scenes where may face serious problems unless someone around is willing to kill for you, which means you’d better have a hired gun to do your dirty work for you. For a little while, I even had two followers (through a certain exploit), which meant I never had to lift a finger when attacked.

Before this point, however, I faced some serious problems. Only my second or third foray into the Wasteland required some creative reinterpretation of my own pacifistic rules, as I got accosted by a group of armored mercenaries with a contract out on my life. I fired some “warning shots” into a car, and then ran away, “inadvertently” luring the AI-controlled enemies toward the burning vehicle just in time for it to explode and kill most of them instantly. I didn’t get credit for the kills on my Pip Boy—it’s not like I forced them to chase me past an exploding vehicle. The last of them chased after me on a crippled leg, however, so I just kept shooting guns out of his hand. He limped away in fear for just long enough to find another gun and repeat the whole exercise. Eventually I ran away from him and found someplace else to go for awhile.

The funny thing about this experiment is that the game is almost designed to let you do this, but not quite. Yes, you can focus your skill building in such a way that you are pretty useless in a fight, but no, you can’t really avoid fights forever. Perhaps that’s an appropriate message for a tough world like post-apocalyptic DC, a commentary about the brutality of the world and inevitability of kill-or-be-killed situations. Nevertheless, it ends up being taken to an unrealistic extreme that ruins any sense of narrative immersion. If Fallout 3 had really been designed to support the kind of story I was trying to explore with my character, warning shots might have had some effect on hopelessly outgunned opponents. It strains credibility that all hired guns would be so willing to die in the face of impossible odds.

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve tried playing Fallout 3 as very evil. I know this isn’t an experiment for some—it’s actually built into the options offered by the game. And I really went all-out on this one, using it as an excuse to impose a number of limitations on myself and come up with far-out explanations for different abilities. My evil character would be also be a violent drug addict, only picking up stimpacks and looting corpses so he trade the goods for more Psycho, Jet, and Med-X. The “Mysterious Stranger” perk—in which a man in a trench coat occasionally appears to finish a fight for you—can be an immersion-breaker in some circumstances, but it makes perfect sense for a character who is likely to hallucinate. At first, he only healed himself with water and stolen food, but later, his taste for flesh grew insatiable, so he limited himself to blood packs (which healed extra thanks to the Hematophage perk), human corpses (eaten thanks to the Cannibal perk), and “Strange Meat” (acquired through fellow cannibals). He completed quests that required enslaving innocent people and killing everyone in not just one, but two entire towns, each in a spectacularly violent fashion.

This is one of those “experiments” that is actively supported by the game design itself, but I still found it unsatisfying (not to mention disturbing) because having a coherent narrative isn’t the same as having a meaningful one. Quite simply, the protagonist’s behavior—and not just the stuff I came up with—is reprehensible. The game even declared “You bastard” at one point, after choosing to kill a patient on an operating table—one of three results openly offered in a multiple-choice scenario. There’s no real reason to do such things other than the humor value of how wrong it is, the sense of experimentation in trying to see what you can get away with, or the sense of completeness in seeing content you’d otherwise miss. But there’s no real meaning behind it, no theme, no message, just action and reaction. If you’re looking for story-oriented appeals, there isn’t much to find.

Every other storytelling medium that provides a despicable protagonist does so for a reason. In movies about mobsters, for instance, even the most heinous actions can offer a sense of psychological complexity, thematic depth, or even old-fashioned, didactic moralizing. Granted, there is some disincentive to do horrible things in Fallout 3 in the form of interpersonal interaction. Assuming you have a heart at all in real life, for instance, you’ll probably feel like a jerk for selling a cute little kid into slavery (who proclaims, “I’m going on an adventure!”). Even so, that’s not really the same as making evil deeds purposeful or thematically meaningful in their own right, in terms of the story and world as a whole.

Admittedly, I have yet to finish the game with either of these experiments due to time constraints, so perhaps I just haven’t gotten far enough to really experience the ultimate payoff. So far, though, some aspects of these story-oriented replaying experiments worked better for me than others, such as coming up with diegetic (in-story) reasons to restrict the use of healing supplies. It does make the game more interesting and challenging when you don’t have hundreds of extra stimpacks around, and it can feel perfectly sensible to sell them if you’re putting that money toward something else. “Alternate readings” are relatively easy to apply when they don’t run against the core gameplay of combat, then, but they tend to fall apart when you’re not interested in killing people, or when you want such violence to have some narrative purpose in its own right.

In (what will probably be) my last post in this series, I’ll talk about another kind of experiment practiced by others: an attempt to infuse the death of the protagonist and its own allies with meaning.

4 thoughts on “A Game of “Find the Story”

  1. Wouldn’t it make sense, though, that the imposition of a story by designers limits the sandbox quality of a game? C.f. Machinima (the ultimate user-driven stories) which tends to use systems that are more open-ended, or at least have an open-ended option. E.g., Halo.

    It sounds like you’re looking for more/better story arcs ‘built into’ the game, whereas emergent gameplay tends to come from more open-ended environments.

    Aside: One of my favorite stories was when the guys from Red vs. Blue were invited up to Bungie to test the Halo 3 engine. The employees there regularly jump into server matches to gametest/take a break. One guy jumped into the server the RvB guys were using to discuss the machinima option. Spying a group of Spartans suicidally huddled together, he immediately went into attack mode. The RvBers just turned and just *starred* at the intruder. He stopped, obviously a little unnerved by this unexpected response, and signed off.

    Stray thought: If you described what you were doing in F3 without the backstories, I’d have assumed you were doing a speedrun, which in Marathon (yeah I know, but it’s the only game I’ve played really extensively) was as often about degree of difficulty as it was about actual speed. People would complete levels, e.g., without killing anyone.

  2. Wouldn’t it make sense, though, that the imposition of a story by designers limits the sandbox quality of a game? […] It sounds like you’re looking for more/better story arcs ‘built into’ the game, whereas emergent gameplay tends to come from more open-ended environments.

    Well, yes and no. Yes, I am looking for more/better story arcs built into games. But no, while this does sometimes come at the expense of more open-ended, player-driven narrative (an expense I am willing to pay for a better story in some games), it does not necessarily have to be so in all cases.

    My point in this post, I suppose, is that we can come up with our own narratives for games, but it can only take us so far. By the end, I am indeed describing things we can do to encourage a sort of “interactive authorial narrative” potentially at the expense of “sandbox/emergent narrative.”

    Don’t get me wrong: I like emergent gameplay just fine. I am happy for this to be the primary narrative experience for some games. But I take umbrage with the idea that this is THE only narrative mechanism, or even the best narrative mechanism, for games in general. I think that some really excellently executed games with more author-driven narratives stand as a testament to the fact that player-driven narrative is not the be-all, end-all to telling stories in games.

    That said, if NPCs in Fallout 3 were not so single-mindedly obsessed with throwing away their own lives to attack you, for instance, this would enhance the sandbox element, if anything. We could then reasonably go ahead and play pacifist merchants to our heart’s content.

    I have no problem with the relative aimlessness of open-ended, sandbox play, but Fallout 3 also has a central storyline with a discrete plot and themes. I just note that the game might be more affecting if there were some point to playing through the game not just as a good guy, but as whatever guy (or gal) you choose to create. I don’t think that addressing my character’s cannibalism in the plot stories would necessarily take away from the experience of playing a psycho elsewhere in the wastes—do you?

  3. As a belated postscript: IGN reports that Metal Gear Solid Rising will allow you to kill enemies, but not reward you for it. You will be able to destroy their weapons, causing them to run away in fear.

    It’s kind of interesting that a game should come out that only frames this as part of a tradition of allowing a special no-kill run, as I tried above with Fallout 3. I think they (or other developers who try this route) could also pitch it as “making AI that isn’t suicidally incompetent.”

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