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. ]

4 thoughts on “Richard Morgan on storytelling in computer games”

  1. Speaking as someone who has made cutscenes, added cutscenes and even added unskipable cutscenes (you do as you are told).

    I’d advise mostly skipping them for much the same reason that I skipped the songs when I read lord of the rings. Wrong medium.

    Why would it be wrong to skip past the non interactive parts in your interactive medium experience?

  2. Man, football’s just the same! Why do they bother with all that silly run-around-and-kick-a-ball crap and totally ignore plot and story! Cheryl Cole is a million times more interesting than the offside rule, and I have the sales data of OK magazine to prove it!

    More seriously, I agree with Kriss. From my experience, your agency as a player tends to be removed in the plotty bits. At best, you’re given a really binary choice then flip to the digital equivalent of paragraph 94 to find out if the goblin kills you or not. Even in games where this has been as the gee whiz USP (Deus Exm eg – look at all them endings!) it comes across as very linear.

    Developing this approach is problematic – the more branches in your plot, the content has to be generated what may or may not be used. How are players supposed to feel about this? Is it necessary to play the game multiple times to really come to grips with it?

    The other barrier is NPC AI – until you can interact with characters in the game in a meaningful way, then the main player challenges have to be environmental – jumping, shooting, figuring out traps.

    But then, what’s plot for? Morgan suggests the development of theme (“There’s loads of stuff in there that takes a more considered approach to understand.”) but I think instead that it’s the main tool for generating catharsis (Fuck yeah! or Oh no! or The horror!) I think that computer games have a different appeal – more along the lines of puzzle solving, acheiving small goals &etc.

    Plot is only necessary, I think, to provide an antagonist that you can feel happy defeating, but more often than not, that’s not a “person” as such. In Half-Life, eg, the antagonist isn’t the briefcase guy it’s the environment of the underground base you escape from, while in Fallout it was the well-developed post-apoc world (these references will demonstrate how long it is since I was a dedicated computer gamer, btw). Both these games had you re-visit locations, showing the change in them over time that came from your action. It was nothng to do briefcase guy or … er, whoever the Big Bad was in Fallout.

    I guess I’m saying that computer games are a medium of setting rather than plot and character. Characters remain bland partly due to technical restrictions but also becuas eof the necessity of giving the player an opportunity to place themselves in the world rather than experience through a narrator or close point of view (as in film or fiction).

    Phew! Better get on with my day job…

  3. Wow. I’m shocked that everybody so far is anti-plot (so to speak). I re-iterate: look at Mass Effect. The game had it’s flaws, but it had great story elements and was the better for them.

    I totally agree that video games are largely a form of modern literature. If I play a game that has great gameplay aspects, but is kind of light on story, I honestly feel a little gypped. Don’t get me wrong. I’ll play Halo all day and like it. I’m a big fan of turret defense games too (largely a plot-free genre). Those games have their place. Just like Pac-Man and Tetris. They don’t need plot.

    But compare Halo to Unreal 2. U2 had an intriguing story and engaging characters wrapped in a solid FPS with great gameplay elements. Halo, not so much. You run around and shoot stuff. There’s a plot, but it’s pretty ignorable. And forgettable. The player character doesn’t even have a name. Even BJ Blascowicz had a name (no plot there either, but god was wolf3d awesome).

    I feel like all-action, no-plot (or bad plot) games have their place. There are two totally separate markets (Blizzard owns both of them). There’s the gamer who wants a fun game that he doesn’t have to care about (Halo, Guitar Hero, Pac-Man), and there’s the gamer who wants an interactive fiction experience (Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Unreal 2, Oblivion).

    Having said that, I was almost offended when Bioshock was put into the “complicated story” classification. Maybe I just didn’t play it long enough, but to me it seemed like a pretty straight-forward FPS with not enough bullets.

    What makes it clear that you haven’t played a new game in ten years isn’t your references to old games. It’s your opinion that AI characters can’t have meaningful interactions. A video game can be as well-scripted as a movie. Play Oblivion, Fallout 3, or even Fable if you want to see meaningful interaction between players and NPCs that doesn’t feel formulaic and plot-neutral.

    The first town you (should) encounter in Fallout 3 can prosper or be destroyed based on the player’s interactions with NPCs. At no point in that game did I find myself saying “can’t I just shoot him?” The reason for that was: you can just shoot him. If you don’t like the way a conversation is going, point your gun at them. They all react differently. Some of them shoot first. Some of them think you’re playing. Some of them run and hide.

    My point is this: the only real obstacle to games with great stories and characters is the short-sightedness of developers.

    I mean no insult, but Please do get back to your day job. It’s not cool to muck up a good debate without knowledge of the subject matter. I respect your opinion, but it is based on old data. Go play some newer games and see if you don’t change your mind.

Comments are closed.