Tag Archives: storytelling

Richard Morgan on storytelling in computer games

Richard Morgan has something of a reputation for being unafraid to slaughter sacred cows, be it within science fiction or without. In light of his announcement as lead writer for the forthcoming Crysis 2 computer game, Morgan’s giving interviews all over the place… and here he is upsetting the easily upset by pointing out that Halo (fun to play as it may have been) was a bit rubbish from the storytelling side of things, thanks to its archetypal characterisation [via The Wertz, which came via Niall Harrison]:

So how do you go about solving that problem?

Well, the first thing you do is you make it more complicated, you ensure that your characters have agendas which don’t line up with the player’s. So they’re not necessarily deliberately antagonistic to you, they’re not necessarily on your side, they’re just there, and they have their goals and sometimes those goals will line up with yours, sometimes they won’t. It’s a really basic technique, but it’s one that seems to be sorely lacking in games for the most part. I don’t think there’s any problem with enforcing fictional values into a game. It doesn’t really matter if the principal function of that game is to shoot shit. In the same way that there’s, you know, good and bad AI, so there’s good and bad fiction and no one would argue that, well, look, we’re only shooting shit so we won’t bother with complex AI. Well, no, because complex AI makes the game more kick-ass, so similarly, why should we bother with interesting characterisation?

So you don’t think there’s any conflict between gameplay and story as a hard and fast rule?

There’s only a conflict if you come at it from that slightly autistic, you know ‘there is nothing here but shooting’ kind of an angle. In a nutshell, I mean I understand that there are player who are like that, but if that’s really all you want, crank up the PS1 and play Doom or whatever.

To pick you up on something you said before about videogame characters generally falling into the category of instantly recognisable archetypes, do you think that deviating from that approach – giving gamers what they don’t expect – might lead to confusion? There are surely pros and cons to each approach?

Two part answer; firstly I think you don’t have to step a long way from those archetypes. You can still have a big tough guy, but what you will do is you will search for additional hooks that will make them think ‘this character feels real to me’. And I’ve put a couple of companion characters into the game where they’re not too dissimilar to archetypes in other games, but what I’ve done is try to give them all little signatures which just fit. I mean, play Gears Of War; those characters, you can’t imagine them doing anything besides running around shooting monsters. So you look for these little motifs that give you some kind of creative realism. That’s all it takes to move far enough away from the archetype. Like you say there are people who won’t get it, but there are people out there who, all they want to do is race through the game in the shortest possible time, skipping all of the cut-scenes. But if that’s you, then I say again, just go play Doom.

Does it surprise you, though, that a lot of players don’t give two hoots about the story?

I can’t believe that there are players out there who rush through Dead Space, or BioShock, without taking any time to just look around or to take in any of the story strands. Why would you pay fifty bucks for a game, then ignore fifty per cent of its content? It’s like, ‘hey I’m reading this book, but it’s a bit long, so I’m going to rip the last half out’. It’s like my books; my novels are written with a whole bunch of stuff in them … if you choose to read them on fast-forward, you’re the poorer for it. There’s loads of stuff in there that takes a more considered approach to understand. If you don’t want it, I can’t force you to take it. But, at the same time, it’s there for people who do.

Interesting to see Morgan coming at the same set of issues that Jonathan has been addressing with Blasphemous Geometries in recent months, albeit from the consumer/critic perspective rather than that of creator. What about the gamers among you, though – do you want more story in your games, or more bang-boom-kill?

[ In the interests of full disclosure, Richard Morgan is a client of mine, but I was a fan of his fiction before that happened. ]

New business models in transmedia storytelling

The TechDirt gang have pointed out an interesting experiment in monetizing storytelling across multiple media platforms from movie house Zen Films:

It’s not a requirement for the audience to consume all media – only that they enjoy whichever one they have right now. Now, given all the attention we’re giving to the fact that there are three media and that they represent three perspectives on the same story, if someone enjoys the novella I think it’s likely they’ll watch the webisodes and vice verse.

So, there are no particular calls-to-action within each media except the plot points and the twists and turns of a great story which I think will motivate people to get a different perspective on events – who’s telling the truth?

The story is being written by the award-winning crime thriller writer Simon Wood and I’ve left him alone now to continue writing while I’ve turned my attention to the money.

Step 4b – Getting Paid

All the media will be free to read and watch online. It will be released episodically – possibly two episodes a week (Tues and Thurs) maybe weekly… But from the first episode we’ll be selling the whole story so you don’t have to wait.

I believe that reading a book (or Kindle) or watching a DVD on the TV is still very popular and often more convenient than doing the same online. I’m hoping that audiences are going to pay for that.

As with all such things, only time will tell… but people are trying to break the mould, and that means something will give eventually. I’ve noticed quite a few serialisation projects in the genre fiction world of late – Shadow Unit, for instance, or the latest donation-supported Marla Mason material from Futurismic alumnus Tim Pratt, to name but a couple – but what new levels of interest might a cross-media experiment produce?

What if Shadow Unit started doing some video episodes and extras alongside the written fiction, and posting them to a branded channel on YouTube, for instance? And before you mention the problems of budgeting for video, bear in mind that extremely low production values can actually be exploited as a unique selling point in their own right… if you’re not afraid of people calling you out on shameless altermodernity, that is.

Augmented reality fiction

augmented reality headset conceptHere’s another option to add to the list of new avenues for fiction writers worried about the possible demise of the novel – augmented reality fiction, as (quite literally) dreamed by Web2.0 maven Tim O’Reilly [via @globalculture; image by The Lightworks]:

Last night I dreamed that one of my authors (no name or face that I can recall – one of the phantasms created by the half-waking imagination) had sold me rights to a novel he’d written, and was eager for me to publish it as an ebook. It turned out that the “ebook” we were developing was actually a movie that took place in an augmented reality overlay projected directly onto the mind’s eye, mixing what the author had imagined with what the viewer was actually seeing and experiencing at the time. Every version of the movie was different, because the story had to be overlaid on what the viewer was encountering in the real world. At one point in the dream, Eric Schmidt of Google was particularly excited because a sailing scene in the story warned him about a hidden reef that his boat had to avoid.

I don’t often share dreams on this blog (at least not sleeping dreams), but this one seemed worth putting out there, because I do think that augmented reality could be an important component of a new kind of storytelling, making today’s 3D entertainments as dated as silent films.

[I guess you have to move in pretty rarefied circles to have Google’s CEO appear in your dreams…either that, or have the sort of extreme tech fetish that warrants medical attention.]

I very much doubt that O’Reilly’s the first to think of AR fiction, but having someone that influential kicking the idea around in public can only be a good thing; the dead-tree book may have a finite lifespan ahead of it, but storytelling will probably last as long as humanity itself, in one form or another.

O’Reilly continues with an anecdote about an intriguing format for theatre he once experienced, which (more so than the AR fiction idea alone) threw all sorts of interesting switches in my head:

Many years ago, I saw a play in LA called Tamara, a story set in the mansion where WWI hero and author Gabrielle D’Annunzio was held under house arrest by Mussolini. A fascinating experiment in theater, Tamara took place in many different rooms of the house. As an audience member, whenever a scene ended, you had an opportunity to follow the character of your choice to another room. No audience member could see the entire play. My wife and I went with her parents (who were back for the third or fourth time, seeing parts of the play they’d missed on previous visits), and afterwards, we all compared notes for hours about what we’d seen, and what we’d missed.

Now that’s an interesting idea… not to mention a neat way of making history a more immersive and interesting experience. Someone needs to start pitching that structure to the museums-and-stately-homes sector… *reaches for rolodex*

Of course, the layered nature of augmented reality means that there’s all sorts of potential for weird and unforeseen overlaps and mash-ups – it’s easy to think of ways to add a game component to that immersive theatre idea, for example. But there’s nothing that says you have to get permission to mesh your game with another layer. Let’s say that someone makes an AR guide to Victorian-era London, for instance; it’d be pretty easy for someone to independently develop an extra layer that threaded in a Sherlock Holmes-esque game element to the proceedings. But just think of the IP headaches that sort of mash-up is going to produce – if you develop a game on top of a free-to-view ad-supported AR layer, should you have to pay the creators of that layer? Or should the extra traffic you’re sending to it be considered payment enough? That sound you hear is the hands of a thousand lawyers rubbing together in glee…

And let’s not forget that all games can and will be gamed – for instance, you’ve probably heard of FourSquare by now (if not signed up already), but that casual geolocational contest is easily fiddled, as demonstrated by one Jim “KrazyDad” Bumgardner [via @qwghlm]. Games that are played upon games, realities that are recursively layered upon realities… things are going to get a whole lot more meta in the not-to-distant future.

The future of fiction is games

computer game end-screenWe’ve already heard arguments to the effect that computer games could become the ‘new frontier’ for fiction writing and storytelling, but they’ve usually come from the games or fiction communities themselves. It seems the idea is starting to get some traction beyond the ghettos, though – here’s a reviewer at the Daily Telegraph responding to a new game based on Dante’s Inferno:

Dante’s Inferno may not herald a new era in literary gaming, but connoisseurs of story could do worse than watch the area for developments. A recent survey of American teenagers revealed that 97 per cent of the consumers of the future now play video games.

What’s more, certain independent games are entering a phase – familiar to historians of jazz, comics and indeed 20th-century literature – of vigorous experimentation with techniques of narrative. (An evening with the frightening and baffling The Path, rather like an Angela Carter story siphoned through The Sims, will show you what I mean.) And with book sales falling, it may not be long before prose writers jump ship for a medium that offers some of the most exciting possibilities of the new century.

It’s happened before. Veterans of home computing in the Eighties and Nineties may recall knotting their brows over the game of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, written by Douglas Adams himself. Adams also wrote Bureaucracy, a game in which the paper-shuffling protagonist’s most pressing task is to avoid succumbing to a brain haemorrhage from stress. And the veteran sci-fi novelist Harlan Ellison delivered I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, a game whose vision of eternal torture remains more shocking than most of its high-resolution descendants.

No surprise to see science fiction writers cropping up in the discussion – though whether that’s because they’re generally a more forward-thinking type of writer or because they’ve always had to struggle to find new markets is a moot point.

And, of course, computer gaming is still a medium in its infancy by comparison to the novel, song or poem – not to mention one that inherently has vast potential to absorb other media into itself. It doesn’t take a huge mental leap to imagine much of the consumer media we enjoy today being reparsed into more interactive forms; my only hope is that is doesn’t shake down to the levels of banality that tend to define television, the previous game-changing media technology. [image by blakespot; story via TomorrowMuseum]

Genre and storytelling in video games

This month in Blasphemous Geometries, Jonathan McCalmont takes a look at the roles of genre narratives and storytelling in the still-young media of computer and video games, questioning the received wisdom that that the form has matured noticeably from is simple puzzle-solving and goal-reaching roots.

Blasphemous Geometries by Jonathan McCalmont


We exist in a world of brands. These days you can watch a film, read a book or comic, play a game, drink a cup of coffee and even have sex without ever leaving the vice-like economic grip of your favourite brand. As the darling of the monstrous cultural artefacts that are summer blockbusters, science fiction is at the cutting edge of what Media Studies theorists call Remediation.

Remediation is the idea that, rather than existing along a fixed technological time-line with new forms emerging fully-formed from new technology, new forms of media are produced via a process of back-and-forth between new technology and older mediums. As video game designers draw more and more hungrily upon literary and cinematic works of science fiction, it is important to think about what the process of remediation does to these works and how the process might be improved. Continue reading Genre and storytelling in video games