James Wallis levels with you

Wrong and Wright

…hell with it, I will write a reposte.

The problem we have, the huge great mote in Will Wright’s eye and also in the eyes of most of the people who have called him on his appalling SXSW keynote (see previous entry if you’re bewildered and lost), is that frankly the state of the art in CG storytelling sucks. It sucks to a colossal degree. So does what Will Wright considers to be ‘story’ in his games. But just because they’re the state of the art doesn’t mean they’re the zenith of what’s possible in the form. Once upon a time the Bayeux Tapestry was state-of-the-art art. We’ve come a long way since then.

(Why has nobody done a side-scrolling Bayeux Tapestry game?)

On the one hand we have the traditional industry-friendly state of the art: programmed story, ‘programmed’ meaning pre-programmed, inviolable and essentially passive. The only way not to experience the story as the designers envisaged it is not to finish the game. While side-quests, dialogue trees and occasional pieces of cleverness like Bioware’s use of the light side and dark side of the Force in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) mean that not every player’s experience of the game is identical, the core elements of the story will be experienced in the same way and in the same order. And this is mostly because they will be explained in cut-scenes, which break the first rule of creating fiction: show, don’t tell.

In traditional media “show, don’t tell” means don’t explain stuff to the audience, let them understand it by seeing it in action—it’s the reason that voice-over is regarded as the last resort of the incompetent, because it’s inherently ‘tell’ and in 99% of cases it’s sloppy, lazy storytelling at its worst. Interactive medias add another level to “show, don’t tell”: play, as in: “don’t tell, don’t show, play”. In other words, don’t do your game’s storytelling in passive media, let the player experience it for themselves by actively participating in it—which incidentally doesn’t mean letting the player see if Gordon Freeman can jump onto a console while three NPCs explain the plot behind his back.

Unfortunately this kind of active participation in the game’s story as well as its action set-pieces will require a whole new set of storytelling paradigms, and as Wright correctly observed the state of the art in commercial games at least is still farting around with cut-scenes, which are inherently “show” with a fair degree of “tell”. Which is not what games are about.

On the other we have Wright saying that (1) stories in games suck because they’re pre-scripted, they’re told to you instead of told by you, stories are about empathy but games are about agency, (2) that games don’t really need story anyway, but if they do then (3) there’s a better way, his brand new paradigm, which he claims is based on the way that Spore will tell stories but which is an extension of the way The Sims told stories, and the way Sim Life told stories, and the way Sim City told stories. That is: by convenient accident.

There is no storytelling engine within any of Will Wright’s games. There is a built-in metastory in each one, a sense of irresistible progress which is more explicit in Spore than in any of his previous games since Sim Earth, which was an ambitious failure, but though I genuinely love the creativity that’s gone into the Spore demos I’ve seen, the vast majority of its gameplay—once your creature develops intelligence and enters the Tribal Phase—doesn’t seem to be much beyond Civilization. You’ll encounter other races and either make peace or make war with them, at various different technology levels.

And yeah, it’ll be different every game, in a kind of different-but-the-same way: the races will change but the progression through evolution and societal development will be essentially the same and unchangeable.

And while this is great and I’m sure will be several kilos of fun (more certainly than the not-dissimilar Sim Earth, which was a dog), it’s not a story. Wright has no interest in that. The metastory in Sim City is the growth of a conurbation, and while there are interesting stories to be told on that theme, profound emotional responses that can be taken away from a well-crafted narrative on that theme—see the works of Peter Ackroyd, Michael Moorcock’s Mother London, and Alan Moore’s Voice of the Fire—Sim City doesn’t try to go anywhere near there. If the game inspires any emotions in its player they are only curiousity, excitement, frustration and satisfaction, and those are the same responses that people have been taking away from every video game since Pong.

I mean, has anyone ever taken a bigger emotional response away from The Sims, other than a sense of loss when a favourite Sim dies? (And while that’s a valid emotion, does it happen for any reason apart from the time and commitment that you’ve invested in that character? Nintendo could just as easily have made children all over the world howl inconsolably by putting a lifespan on the puppies in Nintendogs. Making people cry by taking away something they like isn’t evidence of artistry, it’s a cheap trick.) Do people tell the stories of what their Sims did, their lives and exploits—stories beyond the “And her hair was on fire but all she could think about was how much she needed to pee!” anecdotes that used to clutter up the web? The Sims is no more a story-generator than a hamster colony is. And on the evidence so far Spore is more of the same, with bigger teeth, additional legs, weaponry and evolution.

Yes, there is a level on which the player can project emotions, values and personality onto their characters in The Sims, and doubtless they’ll be able to do the same in Spore. This is a lot of what my own work has been about: arranging elements so that players can build their own stories in their imagination or with a group of friends, and this is what qualifies me to say that Wright’s approach to it is a flawed patchwork.

To create a story—and, I would argue, to make the game-experience more than just fun—you need more than just characters and conflict: you need interesting characters and interesting conflict. Unless you’re prepared to trust to happenstance for your encounters to play out in a satisfactory order, you also need a degree of setup, structure and resolution. To create an enjoyable story with emotional resonance in an interactive medium you need even more than that: you need talent and opportunity. The fact that games can tell stories with the commercial and logistical constraints the storytellers have at the moment is great; that a few of them are emotionally involving, personally resonant and stay with the player long after the game is over is frankly a miracle.

The problem is that at the moment the industry doesn’t prioritise story because it doesn’t see how story sells units (and while games with compelling stories have been some of the biggest hits ever—Half Life, Deus Ex, the Final Fantasy series—they’ve also been some of the biggest failures—Shenmue, Beyond Good and Evil, Psychonauts), and therefore getting story into most games is a compromise. Let’s face it, the story content of the vast majority of games is built entirely around the set pieces, and it’s the set pieces that sell the product—in the trailers and the demos, anyway. It’s a lot like the story conference that Josh Friedman describes having with a major international action star:

INTERNATIONAL STAR: So…we have a bar scene first. Maybe…a bar fight? Six men against me…I’ll balance on a chair like this…take out all six…do my funny International Star thing…maybe drink their drinks…then we have some story bullshit…After that…I rescue this girl from…the whorehouse? Maybe bandits…I’ll do my funny International Star thing…like with this chair here…Then some story bullshit…and I find this other girl tied up…there’s a chair gag…then some story bullshit…

Will Wright’s games don’t have set pieces: they’re all about play. (Many of his games from Sim City onwards are described as ‘software toys’, meaning they don’t have an end-state or ultimate purpose—which unless you’re writing a soap opera is kind of an essential part of a story.) At any given point in a Wright game the player has their current position, and their awareness of the progress that led to that point, and a goal that may be short- or long-term, and a context for all their actions (“I am building a city/ant farm/nuclear family/civilisation”) and for Wright’s games and their players, that’s enough to make the experience enjoyable. They don’t need story. Other types of games do. Games as a form are still waiting for their Shakespeare but to dismiss the whole idea of story as an integral part of most games, as Wright did, is unhelpful at best and wilfully ignorant at worst.

The question is: is there a middle way? And could it lead to a better future?

And if you know me or any aspect of my career in games, or any of the games I’ve worked on, then you know my answer: I’m leaping up and down, tearing my hair out in bunches and screaming, “Yes! Yes! A thousand, thousand times yes!” Because that’s exactly what Once Upon a Time, and Baron Munchausen, and the forthcoming Youdunnit and the never-to-be-released Copshow (currently being cannibalised to create Frup) are all about: using archetypes and archetypal story structures to dynamically build the framework and skeleton of a story—a real one with a beginning, middle and satisfactory end, and characters and mutable plots—in such a way that the human imagination will fill in the blanks almost without the player thinking about it, and to integrate that within the format of any existing game-genre.

And while I’m not alone—Chris Crawford and his Storytron have been howling this same message in the wilderness for some years now—I am available.

Therefore and in summary, give me a job you bastards.

Categorised as: game design | narrative


  1. Pete Darby says:

    I used to make the point over on the Edge boards that really fun, cutting edge stuff around story in games is being done in tt RPG, board & card games… and the general reaction was “great, how many pixels do they have?” (or as time went on, vertices, FPS, etc etc).

    I keep thinking maybe, maybe someone like Nintendo, who seem to be the only major player fighting grognard capture of their development studios, will see that story can be the new social, the new accessible, the new pick up and GO, “gee, why is everyone apart from the grognards paying cold hard cash for this”, “it doesn’t have HDTV output or surround sound, so why is my girlfriend, my dad, my gran and my kids elbowing me off the TV to play this…. and get more fun than I do from my games?”

  2. Borut says:

    Yeah, in particular I though the needle and thread interface design challenge at this year’s GDC was screeeeaming for a tapestry-inspired storytelling game. But no. :)

  3. james says:

    “No” as in there hasn’t been a Bayeux Tapestry game, or “No” as in you can’t offer me a job?

  4. Borut says:

    Haha – I meant the tapestry, but it’s actually no on both counts at the present moment – but I’ll keep both in mind. :)

  5. Luke says:

    Excellent response, sir! I had similar misgivings on reading the transcript of Mr Wright’s thoughts. My initial reaction was, “Hey, Will Wright’s got some cool half-formed thoughts. He’s almost there. Maybe in a few years he’ll realize what true narrative and story are.”

    As Pete Darby points out, and I’m sure you know, table top rpgs are the current cutting edge of collaborative narrative games. Unfortunately, table top rpgs are also a marginalized hobby at the moment and the concepts involved in their innovation — player controlled and centered story input — is so foreign to the electronic market, that it might as well be a Heinlein story about a man from fucking Mars.

    Maybe someday you, me or Pete Darby will infiltrate the ranks of the establisment and destroy from within. (It’s beyond my means to destroy from without at the moment. Barrier to entry is too damn high!)

    Best of luck!

  6. Pete Darby says:

    I have a mole in SCEE London Studios:,124250/

    Many stories, which, of course, I cannot repeat…

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