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Why should game stories make sense?

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Video games have a plot problem.

That’s not a new observation, but a month ago I heard some new research on the subject at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Microsoft’s Deborah Hendersen works in user research, and she shared some interviews that she conducted with a series of gamers who were asked how well they could remember the stories of their favorite games.

These culture consumers could recall stories from other media without any trouble. But when it came to games, they got lost somewhere after the beginning. They missed big events, and forgot key plot points. When she asked one of them to name his favorite character in Skyrim, he replied "the scary lady."

Hendersen had a series of proposals on how to improve comprehension and test narrative earlier in the process. But I was more interested in the premise: how well do people remember plots, and do plots in games even work? I mean, I don’t always remember the actual "this happened then that" of most games, either. Sitting here right now, I don’t recall: why Sephiroth killed Aerith, what’s so bad about the Templars, why Quote had to save the bunnies in Cave Story, any single reason for the stuff in Rayman Legends … basically, unless I’m playing a visual novel, I’ll probably forget almost everything.

Now, I’m not talking about all forms of storytelling. Gamers still need a sense of mission and an emotional attachment. Games can hook us with characters, as well as tone, atmosphere, a strong premise, and even a great loading screen. But of all the elements of storytelling that we can use, plot is one of the weakest. We sink time into it out of a sense of obligation, and it never pays off as well as we’d expect.

Let’s step back and think about how games work. As Civilization 4 project lead Soren Johnson argued in a talk at GDC 2010, games separate into mechanics and theme. The mechanics are the game play and the systems that make the whole thing run, while the theming is the surface content that engages you in the first place.

The mechanics are rational. They have to make sense, or the players will get confused, and angry. But the theming? That can be anything.

And that ties to a talk I saw at last year’s GDC, when Jake Elliott of Kentucky Route Zero, speaking in front of a backdrop of experimental videos and Tennessee Williams, talked about the difference between a puzzle and a mystery. He argued that a puzzle has a solution, while a mystery may never be solved. A puzzle must make sense, but a mystery may well not.

In the context of a game, the mechanics are the puzzle, while the theme is the mystery. The game play must be predictable, or the player will never master it. But the theme can be evocative and open-ended. A theme evokes the horrors of war; the mechanics remind you to reload your gun.

And then there's plot...

The plot is stuck in the middle. It wants to make sense of a game, but the game play is already doing that. If we were watching a movie, the plot would provide the backbone, but games don’t work like movies, and the plot can get in the way. It can feel awkward and unwelcome, while a looser thematic layer can be the most memorable part of the game.

There’s a simple solution: If we could stop thinking of games as "cinematic," we could could stop relying on plot as the foundation of our stories. Games are much closer to music than to films – as David Kanaga argued at this year’s GDC, "games = music."  And in music, there are many ways to tell a story that have nothing to do with aping the Hero’s Journey. A game script can rarely pull off the well-architected machinery of a John le Carré novel, or ABC’s Scandal. But it can act like lyrics, or poetry, or an argument you overhear in a bar.

Spoiler warning for Mark of the Ninja in the following paragraphs

I’ll leave you with a case study. When I was working on the script for Mark of the Ninja, we had a straightforward plot that had a couple twists and turns: the Ninja gets a crucial mission from his Master; halfway through, he discovers that everything he thought he knew was a lie; and at the end, he gets to make a decision and pass judgment on what he’s learned.

I spent a lot of time ironing out the details to make sure the plot was sound: that Ninja’s master lies to him, but we understand why he did it; that Ninja’s predicament at the end leads believably to the two choices he’s given; and so forth. We wanted the story to work without any plot holes, hand-waving, or cheap excuses about "Oh, it’s only a ninja game," and since my whole job was to write the script, I had time to hammer that stuff out.

But in the actual game, the most powerful character moment is a scene that wasn’t in the script: in the last level, Ninja walks through a hallucinatory section of abstract images and flashbacks, while a song by Yamantaka // Sonic Titan plays in the background. As he’s forced to move at a slow walk through the section, the sound and visuals work together to create an emotional highpoint. This was theme, not plot, and it can't be written. It's something that happens when everything in the game works together to create an emotional reaction in the player.

This scene doesn’t help him make his final choice; it should actually leave you a little more confused. And that’s why I love it so much. It’s unsettling and surprising, and it’s weird. If you remember that moment and the way it felt, that's better than remembering the hows and whys that got you there.

Chris Dahlen has a lousy memory for names. He is formerly of Edge, The Onion AV Club, Paste and Kill Screen Magazine, where he was co-founder and editor. He was also the writer on Klei's Mark of the Ninja. Look for him on Twitter @savetherobot.

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