Posted by: seanmalstrom | June 1, 2011

Email: Stories are games

Re: stories being games with rules, and the characters being players.

The first thing I thought of was superheros because the rules are really easy to recognize in the form of the character’s powers and black-and-white motivations. I’m not familiar enough to go into a long discussion, but I know that X-men has more rules than practically any superhero comic. There is a rock-paper-scissors system between the various characters, for example Wolverine being nearly invincible against most of the bad guys, but being helpless against Magneto. Characters who would otherwise be way too powerful have checks put on them by other means, for example Jean Grey could be an instant win for the good guys in any confrontation, but there is a cost associated in that she might go crazy and start destroying the universe.

Batman also has a lot of rules. The Dark Knight really did a good job having the characters adhere to the rules. Think of Harvey Dent flipping the coin all the time, and then continuing to flip the coin as Two-Face. That coin is the touchstone in showing how the character went from pure good to pure evil without breaking his personal rule.

In contrast, in Superman, they continually added powers to Superman, to the point that they totally destroyed any semblance of rules. Since Superman gained the ability to alter time itself, it has become pretty hard to tell a good Superman story.

Interesting. I know one thing about comics is that every superhero requires a good villain. Without a good villain, where is the story? Where is the game? In most stories, have you noticed how the villain treats everything like a game? Maybe because it is.

I’m trying to combat the notion that creativity means ‘removal of rules’ or ‘removal of walls’ so the ‘artist’ can do whatever he or she wants. And what we get is garbage. Game developers know that gameplay must be as well tuned as a clock. However, they approach the content as a ‘I’ll do whatever I want’ role. While there is much discussion on the gameplay of Minecraft, there is little about its content. And one thing Notch wisely did was self-impose a rule of ‘no future technology’ in Minecraft. There are no guns. No lasers. It is very stone age basic. His fans were begging for things like ‘planes’, but he said no. This self-imposed rule made the game have a much stronger identity and gave much coherence to the game world.

Think about some best selling authors. What did John Grisham do before he wrote books? He was a lawyer. His experience being a lawyer provided a framework so he could make his law thrillers.

Tom Clancy, in the seventies, read a story about a Soviet submarine who tried to defect to the US but was stopped. He wondered ‘what if’ they succeeded? And what if there was a race of both the US and Soviets to get to the submarine first? Great stories tend to revolve around ‘what if’. What Clancy did was immerse himself in the military, interviewing people, and he picked up the jargon they used while he did this. So when he wrote The Hunt for the Red October, it performed very well (which is an understatement) due to all those self-imposed rules he placed on making it ‘realistic’ in a military point of view. And that was his very first novel.

A big difference between the professional novelist and the amateur is that the amateur believes stories are ‘doing whatever he/she wants’. The professional believes it is the opposite.

Game developers understand this when it comes to gameplay. Gameplay is not ‘creative’. It is well tuned. It is precise. But on the content side, game developers apparently take the opposite approach. While it may be true that the gameplay of old games are ‘not as good’ as the new games, it is not that big of deal. But the bigger issue is that the content of the old games completely outshines the content of the new games. Compare classic Final Fantasy with modern Final Fantasy. Compare Starcraft 1’s story with Starcraft II’s story.


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