Thursday, 24 July 2008

Far Crying and Far Wanking

I just wanted to link to an excellent, if pretentiously titled, interview with Patrick Redding about Far Cry 2. Actually, it's pretty much impossible to not sound pretentious when talking about Interactive Storytelling, so I'll forgive all involved.

My buddies and me have been talking about this kind of thing for ages, all the way back to the Ludology vs. Narratology wars of early '04. For us, it's really encouraging to see a decent stab at it in the mainstream. We've seen the re-occurring patterns of this more granular approach to narrative in all sorts of games: Civ, Total War, X-Com - games where every verb and noun are crafted with the intent of creating a possibility space which could also be described as a story cloud (see? I told you this stuff gets pretentious).

Basically, if you build an arbitrary set of mechanics you end up with an arbitrary possibility space. That's fine - I'm not knocking that approach.

If you craft your mechanics with the intend of them being atomic elements in a bigger story, all of them helping to resonate some central theme, you end up with a possibility space which more readily generates story-like strings of events. When every element in a story is infused with a theme, then a linked path of each element is intrinsically infused with that theme - a linked path of elements being a basic (if emergent) form of a "story". There's lots of arguments about the difference between a "story" and a "string of events", but let's, *ahem*, ignore that for now.

The crafting of verbs and nouns is really where the author's control occurs in the sort of Interactive Storytelling that I'd personally like to see more of in games. A well defined sandbox where each verb is crafted, but their use is completely open to the player, giving them the freedom to explore and understand the "theme" or message behind the game. The story isn't forcing the player to listen to it. Instead, the player, simply through interacting and learning the limits of the world, grows to understand the underlying message.

I keep thinking of The Wire (watch it if you haven't) as a great example of this, even though it's not a game. Everyone's story in it is just one emergent thread from the world they're living in. Each thread weaves together a complete tapestry to explain the encompassing system of Baltimore. Each character HAS their own freedom, but their desires and free will are so thoroughly wrapped up in "the game" that their story arcs seem fated to express Baltimore-as-a-system.

In the same way, playing any game over and over, creates individual threads when build up this picture of what the designer was trying to get across. Not every game has this philosophy in mind, obviously: read Mario 3 through this lens, and the message you end up with may be something like "Jumping is pretty important in life, and touching things makes you shrink, or sometimes grow". Doesn't stop Mario 3 being a wonderful work of art in terms of its kinaesthetics, though (see, there's more than one kind of game "art", and they can all live happily side by side).

Where Far Cry 2 is concerned, I'm looking forward to it, but I'm still slightly worried that the focus on the higher level aspects (driving the emergent narrative) will take away the developers focus on core gameplay, affecting it negatively. Will we see a stunning lack of usability or rushed central controls? In other words, in chasing this (sorta) new approach to narrative, will it sacrifice the things that make games like Mario 3 great?

Or is there an argument to be made that for this approach to interactive storytelling to work, it's absolutely adamant that the core gameplay (the way in which the player actively expresses him/herself and creates the story) is easy and enjoyable to manipulate? After all, the core mechanics are, in fact, the central way in which the narrative is driven... gameplay is not just filler for long, cutsceney bookends - gameplay is the story. Focus on this narrative approach, and you intrinsically focus on the player's moment to moment ability to weave narrative, and therefore, you must make those tools enjoyable to use in the first place, or the act of weaving the story just won't be... well... fun!

God, I just love this stuff... the game IS the story! There IS no Narratology vs. Ludology debate! It was all a fallacy to begin with! I fuckin' knew it!

1 comment:

Ed Borden said...

Gameplay = story : extremely rare. If any game could pull it off, I'd love it to be Far Cry 2. I'm not looking for another STALKER.