One of the most interesting of the talks I attended at this year’s GDC was Margeret Robertson’ talk Stop Wasting My Time and Your Money: Why Your Game Doesn’t Need a Story to be a Hit. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any notes while listening to it, so my summary at the time was exceedingly sparse. But it keeps on coming into my head at odd moments, so I figure I’ll give another shot at providing notes, almost three months later.

Fortunately, she’s posted the slides for her talk. So go open them up it another window, and I’ll see if I, by using them as a jog to my memory, can add some modest value to them.

She begins by talking about why traditional big stories in games are problematic. For one thing, they’re extremely expensive. For another thing, the notion that people follow the story through is false: most people playing through games don’t make it to the end. For example, Half-Life 2: Episode 2 is a short game (averaging less than seven hours to complete), yet less than half of its players made it through to the end. (At least I think so – why do so many of the graphs on that page have the 0 mark floating above the bottom?) Given this, perhaps there are ways to get more bang for your development buck than traditional big stories?

Which isn’t to say that she doesn’t like stories. In fact, she lists some benefits that stories provide: Motivation, Entertainment, Communication, Metaphor. Though, she says, games don’t need to get their emotion from stories. I wish I could remember more of what was going on with that slide and the five that follow it; I suspect that the Paul Klee painting that follows is part of that sequence, showing something that gives rise to emotions without any story to be found. I could be wrong, though.

Anyways, back to the good side of stories: fortunately, stories can deliver those benefits while being tiny, instead of horribly expensive! She gives some examples from outside the genre: an art installation that consists only of a crack (and whose story lingers, is indeed perhaps strengthened, after it is filled in); and the Hemingway six-word short story “For sale: baby shoes, never worn”.

And then she goes into game examples of small stories. Which is where she totally won me over, by bringing up Majora’s Mask: the main story in that game is all well and good, but what still haunts me in that game is the same story that haunts Margaret Robertson, namely the love story of Kafei and Anju. (About which, two side notes: 1) Margaret Robertson returned to the game in an Offworld column. 2) The next VGC game will be a Zelda; discussion will start Friday-ish, so if you want company while giving Majora’s Mask another look, or even a first look, come and convince other people to vote for it!)

She then talks about where you can tell a story: aside from plain old exposition, you can do so in the set-up, externally, subtextually, in the environment, and in gameplay. And you can tell it through the HUD, art, animation, sound, text, voice-over, and/or video. (Giving examples of each, many of which are much more subtle than her Majora’s Mask example.) That last list is, I think, supposed to be ordered from least obviously story-related to most; she also has a slide with an arrow going the other direction, and I wish I could remember what that was about; maybe they’re most effective in the opposite order, or something?

Then, a gameplay challenge: try to, as economically as possible:

  • Communicate that time has passed since you were last in this world.
  • Communicate that you are now famous.
  • Communicate that you are the good guys.
  • Communicate that your army is low on resources.
  • Communicate that your army is dogged and determined.
  • Communicate gameplay hints.

Her answer: you can do it with one letter (or one texture), namely the orange lambda symbols from Half-Life 2. Which is a big win over elaborate, expensive cut scenes.

And finally, a reminder that we’re talking about games, not films. What people care about in games, in descending order:

  • Where I am.
  • What I can do.
  • What I look like.
  • Who I am.

Leaving us with the recommendation: “Can you imagine it in a film? Dump it. Easier on [game developers], better for the player.”

So: that’s her talk. Which was awesome, but that alone isn’t enough for me to want to write up notes on it after so much time has passed. The reason why I’m doing so is that I’ve finished two games since GDC: Chrono Trigger and Flower. The former has a big, traditional video game story; I didn’t care about that story at all. What I did care about was a child in one of the houses saying that she hated her father; I was in pain when I read that, I was hugely relieved when that finally got resolved hours later, and it’s a perfect example of one of her small-scale stories. And the latter game doesn’t have any sort of traditional story at all: far from being a problem, the game got me thinking as much as any other game has in recent memory, among other things trying to figure out what sort of story I should read into it. And that’s just the games I’ve finished—the game I’ve played most this year is Rock Band 2, which has a very bare-bones story indeed. (But, I will add, a very effective one: in particular, for a certain type of player, it provides an extremely important form of motivation and structuring for your play.)

Which isn’t to say that I’m against stories, either: for example, I quite enjoyed Mass Effect, and am very much looking forward to its sequel. Though even that example gives me pause: I remember enjoying its story at the time, but its story hasn’t particularly stuck with me in retrospect.

In all seriousness, it’s possible that this talk will be a turning point in what I see in games. I simply don’t know if I would have seen Chrono Trigger and Flower in the same way had I not attended this talk; I also don’t know what other storylets I’ve failed to appreciate in other games I’ve played over the years. (Which doesn’t mean that the stories didn’t have an effect, just that I wasn’t conscious of the construction of their effect.) Maybe those two games are exceptional (actually, I’m quite sure both are, though not only for this reason), but maybe there’s a wealth of stories waiting for me if I just open my eyes a bit.

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