Tag Archives: archetypes

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. ]