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What the Red Sox and the WWE can teach us about game design

November 9, 2007

I’ve been having a discussion with some fellow game developers about stories in games and our ability (or lack thereof) to get involved in them like we used to. During the 2007 Summer of Reliving My Youth, I spent a lot of time playing games I’d had in boxes since the late 1990’s. Two of these were Full Throttle and Legend of Kyrandia. I recalled both of these games very fondly, remembering how much I’d enjoyed them when I played them before.

Full Throttle was still mostly fun and a good story the second time through, but it didn’t grip me like it did the first time. I suppose that experience is also true of movies and books I’ve experienced again. Legend of Kyrandia felt forced and ultimately, I decided replaying it was a waste of my time. That’s radically different from how I felt the first time I played it. This time, I felt like my job was to assist the designer by turning a page every now and then. If that was my purpose here, man, you can have your game back.

As I get older (and I’m not that old) and more into game design, I like to play games that have an emphasis on strategy and skill vs. pure luck or, in video games, scripted designer sequences. Monopoly completely bores me although many casual board game players will cite that as their favorite game. If they played it purely by the rules, I suspect it would make them cry. On the flip side, I am having a great time playing 10 or so games of Scrabulous on Facebook, so strategy and skill (of which I appear to have little) isn’t entirely dead.

I used to love stories. Hell, I even made some. I’ve changed as a gamer.

If I’m not the one influencing the outcome of play as a direct result of my actions, the game doesn’t immerse me like it used to, be it a video game, PC game, card game or board game. I find the cutscenes actually intrude on the game I’m trying to play. Imagine if Risk stopped to show me a pre-scripted cutscene of how I got to exactly where the designer knew I would be. I feel like I’m being railroaded – driven down a single set of rails until I reach the pre-determined conclusion that I can only marginally change no matter what I do. Mind you, I don’t feel this way about movies or books. I show up, sit and expect to be pulled through the screen or book into the world that the author creates for me. However, those forms of entertainment are passive. Games aren’t.

Consider:

  • I read a book today
  • I watched a movie
  • I listened to music
  • I conquered North and South America and my husband is going to lose Europe very, very soon.

The first three of those statements is passive participation in an experience – but not a game. We actually *do* things in games, and that’s how the stories are created, at least for me. I don’t want to sit there and watch your story happen. I want to make the story, just like I did most everything else in a game.

So, it’s not that I have a problem with story, it’s that I have a problem with what comes first – the story or the game. If the story arises out of the game, I’m there, even if I have nothing to do with the game in question, as long as I am emotionally invested in its outcome. However, if I have no ability (or a very limited ability) to influence the story or the outcome of the game (in the case of low-strategy games like Monopoly), I’d rather not spend my time with it.

This brings me, finally, to the title of this post.

When the Red Sox won the World Series back in 2004, I lived in Massachusetts. The whole state was alive with Red Sox fever. Seriously. You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing a “Go Sox!” sign, most memorable to me, a plain, photo-copied piece of paper taped all over the women’s restroom in an office building where I worked. Practically every game went past midnight, and the length of the game had an effect on attendance and work in the state, so much so that it made the news regularly. You would walk out your door at midnight, and all the lights in the neighborhood were on. Every single one. This was the Sox and the Series, and it might just happen. They could win.

For me, this is the greatest sports game story ever, and I am so glad I was actually in Mass to be a part of it. I couldn’t influence it, but it was impossible to live there and not get caught up in the whole thing.

Contrast this with something like the WWE. While the action in the WWE unfolds before the viewers’ eyes, you know that it’s really already done. The players know the conclusion before they even step in the ring. So why bother to watch? I suppose you could watch because you enjoy the unfolding story, much like I like watching LOST. That’s passive, though. It’s also fine, but it’s passive, and that’s not what I want in a game. So, I lose interest.

Comparing the Red Sox 2004 World Series win to the WWE is, perhaps, unfair. However, other sports events hold up similarly. I enjoy watching live games that are not pre-determined, not what some WWE designer thought the game should be.

Most likely, this is a function of me being both a game designer and getting older, but what comes first – the story or the rules – matters to me, and I suspect it matters to others, too.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. ai864 permalink
    November 12, 2007 3:11 pm

    I think what it shows is that you’re turning into a ludologist 🙂

    It’s clear that people have preferences. I have some students who couldn’t care less about the combat mechanics in Final Fantasy X or the Xenosaga trilogy, they just want the story. Yes, the story is passive, but it can also serve to break up the action, to give the player some release (which I think is why cutscenes are more commonly seen after intense boss fights). When Final Fantasy XIII doesn’t sell a bajillion copies, then you can tell me that mechanics must come before story 😉

    I also think it’s a mistake to compare to the WWE, for a couple reasons…

    * You say the WWE is prescripted, but that’s only true to an extent; in each match, the beginning, end and a few high points in the middle are predetermined but the rest is all adlib (the players have a whole palette of interesting techniques to communicate next moves to each other, actually). So the players may know what will happen, but no one knows exactly HOW it will happen… and honestly, no one in the audience knows what will happen, so is the outcome really “predetermined” if you don’t know what it will be?

    * And anyway, the WWE is television. It’s passive. It’s not much different from watching a movie — the same thing may happen at the end, but that doesn’t automatically mean the story isn’t compelling. I never saw the movie “Titanic” because I knew how it would end: the boat sinks, everyone dies. Is this valid logic?

    * It’s not fair to compare pro wrestling (“sports entertainment”) to actual sports, specifically because of the scripted nature. It’s actually a lot closer to a soap opera. Try watching an episode; about half of the air time is wrestling in the ring, the rest of the time is the wrestlers with their intermingled storylines and alliances and relationships outside of the ring. It really is a soap opera… but a soap opera that is socially acceptable for males to watch 🙂

    * Lastly, many of the video games based on the WWE franchise are quite good (and in those, you actually don’t know the outcome of the match).

  2. Brian permalink
    November 20, 2007 1:45 pm

    My thoughts on this, which i’ve been meaning to write up since you first posted this:

    The closest thing to what you’re describing with the Red Sox story as far as game narrative goes, is implicit narrative (or some call it emergent narrative.)
    It’s a strange example, as the bulk of your story concerns a phenomenon outside of the game itself, but it’s still effectively emergent and narrative-like, and gets across the idea of a narrative being imagined by participants out of a sequence of events.

    Now, as much as the writer in me might hate to admit this, it can concede with the game designer in me that implicit stories are, most of the time, the most powerful stories in games.
    For all the time a writer may craft emotionally resonating elements in, say, a character, there can be far more emotional resonance in an implicit narrative. In an implicit one, it was literally us (instead of merely a character we’re supposed to empathize with) who was the protagonist that did something noteworthy. We did something noteworthy.
    Games, being interactive, are the only medium that can accomplish this (at least until a separate non-game interactive fiction takes off as its own medium), so I feel that implicit narrative is something very worth examining, then, precisely for that power.

    As an example, for further clarification: the Grand Theft Auto series have written stories to them, but whenever I talk to anyone about playing the games, I never mention the ones the developers put in there.
    I tell about some crazy thing I did, like the time I jumped a building and dived out of the car right before it exploded in mid-air, destroying a helicopter. The characters of GTA didn’t do that, as nobody wrote it into the game – I did it.
    More than just being perhaps more interesting than what happens in the ‘actual story’ it’s personal – I’m the only one who CAN tell that story.

    I personally think that for the most part, the dominance of implicit narrative just due to the awkwardness in which most game narrative is handled.
    Not that it should be ignored completely, as I said above it’s one thing that makes games unique. But if people want narrative to improve in games, implicit narratives can’t be relied upon.

    Nobody’s yet found a consistently elegant solution to make a better game story than an implicit one that isn’t clunky or takes away from the gameplay (or both).
    Games are still relatively new, and games by their very interactive nature must violate well over half the “rules” of narrative that other media enjoy. If you’re an established writer for Hollywood – to write for games means to throw out %80 of what you know about narrative and start learning to write again from scratch, as any linear writing will be out of place in a game: clunky and/or at the gameplay’s expense.

    This isn’t to say that people aren’t trying to find an elegant solution. Which brings me to say that if the IGDA game writer’s SIG is any indication, most game writers will agree with you that the gameplay comes first.

    Or perhaps more accurately, I think the real solution will be gameplay and narrative designed to compliment each other perfectly in synergy. That’s easier said than done, though, and potentially only theoretical at this point. Still, more and more, people are trying.

    That said, I think like many other (often much-needed) innovations within games, such solutions will have to come from indie sources who can afford to experiment wildly and produce some no-doubt colossal failures along the path. You gotta break some eggs…

    Actually, thinking about it, most game narratives fall apart in exactly the place where design and narrative meet: the game’s mechanics for expressing story elements.
    Example: cutscenes. Terrible design choice for introducing narrative. (Doesn’t do justice to either the gameplay OR the narrative)
    The problem of making a decent game narrative is one of design as much as it is one of writing.

  3. David permalink
    November 21, 2007 1:39 am

    This makes me think of how I play games based upon their story… I seem to revel much more in games that have very little story, I feel like I matter in it because my mind does not get a harsh definition of what can and cannot happen.

    When playing Half-Life for the first time, I was Gordon Freeman. This may sound like a great thing… but Gordon Freeman was ill defined – I had a name and a face, but not a personality to guide myself with, nor anonymity to let my mind tap into it being me in that scenario. When the Duke3d shareware was released, we downloaded it from a local BBS. It was buggy, as in, 95% chance of getting a segmentation fault every time we exited Hollywood Holocaust… But with Duke’s personality, and vague story, I got as much gameplay out of that single level as possible. At one point I recall even using the chasecam mode to pretend I was a reporter on the trail of Duke Nukem in the wake of the alien invasion, observing how he handled the whole incident… I let the game play me, by playing the game. Who says first person shooters can’t be role playing games?

    Maybe I am just an anomaly in this regard, but the fact that at no point in Duke Nukem did I feel like 3d Realms paused everything so they could talk about their story, really helped me love the game. Not just enjoy it for the time being, but love it. How many games can entertain an adolescent for weeks on end, with a single, physically small level?

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