Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Games = Fun?

Yesterday I spent an evening at the Games&Storytelling lecture listening to Chris Crawford's provocative lecture of games and storytelling. Mr. Crawford repeated that a) game is about fun, spectacle and exitement. And in spite of market studies, b) games are (still) played only by boys and young men. c) Games are not innovative (sw products). They just repeate same patterns, same structures... invented already in 1980s. Due to these 'facts' games have and never will become mainstream.

I agree with Chris that there are certain elements which define games. I myself am more into experimental games at the moment so I would not define games JUST as fun-excitement-spectacle. But I agree with him that majority of games are still soooo '80s. And that is one reason why the majority of gamers are male. In the beginning of 1990s one challenge was to get girls to play with computers. Now -- thanks to the Internet (and mobile phones) -- geeky computers are suddently a cool thing. But still: the game producers are not totally sure of these 'NEW' target groups. Why to take a risk if you can sell Doom over and over again to current gamers?

In Finland (according to a survey we (VTT) did in January 2006 N=1489, participants were randomly picked Taloustutkimus Internet panelists) 20% of 13 - 18 year old girls played games daily or almost daily. But at the same time: 15% of 65-75 year olds played games daily or almost daily. Explain that! My explanation is that seniors are lonely and they kill time playing Minesweeper, Tetris or Solitaire. Girls on the other hand... well, some are really into LAN games, many girls play WoW, Habbo, The Sims, free online games... so there are broader variety of gamer types and also many girls define games differently compared to (teenage) boys.

Mr. Crawford's alternative to neutral/dull/uninnovative digital games is interactive storytelling. Those who have read Mr. Crawford's papers/books since The Art of Computer Game Design might not find this notion that surprising. One concrete outcome of his ponderings is StoryTron (ex-Erazmatazz) which has been under development for some time already. There are not that much stuff at the Storyton website but perhaps you can get more out of the idea by listening to Christy Dena's cool podcast interview with Mr. Crawford. I am not totally sure about interactive storytelling but I am totally sure that in able to make digital games a mainstream hobby one has to find another 'format' of.. well, interactive storytelling or games :). Serious games will most definitely NOT be the solution as those who are not into games are not into serious games either.

Besides interactive storytelling there are lost of experiments going on where game (graphics, structure, interaction) has been intergrated into other content. Once again media art has many fascinating examples of interactive storytelling (Note: not same as stories) and creativity. Also games such as Kick Ass Kung-Fu rebuild and challenge the definition of digital games.

Some ideas how the future of games/interactive storytelling/interactive software/computer installations/serious games/what-ever would look like, check out Wired Next Fest's list of exhibitors.

Another source of inspiration could be newest The Escapist mag. where Mr. Warren Spector discusses: Should Games be Fun?

Those into storytelling: check out Christy Dena's own blog 'CrossMediaEntertainment'.


Reko said...

Crawford has done some awesome stuff in his past. But i'm not really a fan of whatever he's been working on nowadays.

The problem with interactive storytelling is the fact that stories rely on structure. Interactivity, on the other hand, relies on non-structure. If you look at any story and what drives it is that the motivations and actions of the characters in it are clear from the start. In games, one of the main characters is the player character and the motivations remain shrouded in mystery and are completely unreliable.

Structure provides the story with pace, giving beats, fleshing out the characters. Everything that makes the story tick. In interactive 'stories', the structure goes to hell as it's drifting, rambling and the pace is way off. There is no story without structure.

So in my eyes, the concept of story and interactive story are mutually exclusive. Of course, you can go the way of Fahrenheit and have these branches and cutscenes that form little bubbles of structure, but the whole concept of interactive story is a paradox. Most games are systems where you pick tactics, mechanics, rules and whatever and those are hidden as being 'a story'.

If I steal a car in Saints Row or GTA or whatever to do a mission, it's not a story. It's just a game mechanics and a tactic on my part to do so. Then again, if I later tell about it to someone, then that's a story and that has a structure. I dramatize it, I colour it, I pace it however I like. It's a matter of how you deliver the punchlines, the finishing touches. It's about how you structure it.

SonjaK said...

Thanks for the comment -- you made very good points. Even though I somewhat agree with you, I would love to see an inspiring / innovative example of interactive storytelling. I think the time is not yet ready for interactive storytelling -- but you'll never know ;)

Reko said...

I'd love to see it too :) I just have no idea how it would be possible. Even though I'm critical against the storytelling aspect of games, there are still games out there that have been hugely effective on me in terms of telling 'something'. Planescape Torment had a really nice backstory to it which got deeper when you played through it more than once. And not just fluff, basically stuff that made you care more about all the characters which is very rare for me.

System Shock (and the upcoming bioshock) took out one of the weaker aspects of current story games. The dialogue. Instead of going through pre-written sentences that you had to click through until you had used up all the possible points of conversation, in *shock, the player is the only active/living thing in the world who is reading past glories and deciphering small clues from the audio logs and recordings available. It was enough to give a nice backstory and your imagination filled in the rest. A lot more effective than having an NPC saying "I'm scared! What can we do!?" and then having the player character saying some pre-written line of dialogue.

If the speech synthesizers would be developed a bit more, we might have a system where developer only needs to input the actual script and with simple modifiers you could have the speech synth read those lines out with correct emphasis. So instead of having pre-recorded lines of dialogue, you could have an actual script with emphasis and beat points added. It would be cheap as hell to develop since all you need is someone to write the script.

But that's still far from solving the actual interaction / storytelling paradox, but at least it would make the conversations a bit more alive and variable :)