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Once Upon A Game 83

Technopulp writes "In William Vitka's column on CBSNews.com, Henry Jenkins of MIT, author Warren Ellis and GDC Director Jamil Moledina wax philosophical about storytelling in video games and discuss whether or not gaming will ever have its own kind of great literature. 'Could a game be as good a work as War and Peace?'"
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Once Upon A Game

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  • by Doom bucket ( 888726 ) on Monday March 27, 2006 @03:35PM (#15005485)
    You don't remember Super Mario Brothers because of story do you? "Oh my god, the princess is in ANOTHER castle? What a plot twist!"

    No. You remember it because of the gameplay. I'm not saying that a game with story is impossible, I'm definitely not. Half Life, System Shock, Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy... All games with great stories... but they are mostly remembered for their gameplay, right?

    A game is great becuase it plays well and is fun. Story is just the icing on the cake, and does not alone make a great game make. :)
    • by Red Flayer ( 890720 ) on Monday March 27, 2006 @03:58PM (#15005733) Journal
      "A game is great becuase it plays well and is fun. Story is just the icing on the cake, and does not alone make a great game"

      Absolutely true. But story isn't really what great literature is about -- the plot is a device to carry a theme, or multiple themes. The trappings are what make great literature great -- imagery, etc. And there's the inherent problem with videogames -- images are laid out for the player/viewer. Timing (which is cornerstone of Hitchcock's famous knack for suspense) is in the hands of the player, not the director/designer.

      This is a major problem with video games as art -- the viewed product is never exactly as the developer intended. Whereas a great artwork is typically a 'finished' product by the artist, often with many revisions before achieving the piece intended, video games are never a single version. What we see in most artful videogames is, instead, the creation of a mood or atmosphere. Without complete control over the user experience, it's hard to have the same kind of art as the 'traditional' masterpieces of literature or film. And if the designer did have complete control of the user experience, well, then it's an animated movie.

      As the industry (and its audience!)continues to mature, I think we'll see more games based on story. I can't imagine myself playing a twitch game when I'm 70 (even if I had the reflexes then, I'm not sure I'd want to risk the heart attack), but a good story might really appeal.

      • Whereas a great artwork is typically a 'finished' product by the artist, often with many revisions before achieving the piece intended, video games are never a single version.

        Insert George Lucas reference here.

      • But story isn't really what great literature is about


        Disagree. Story is ALL that matters in books. It is the essence of the book. Of course, I probably think that 90+% of what you'd consider great literature is less entertaining than the B rate sci-fi m ovie I saw last night.
        • Well, that explains why 90% of the 'great works' don't appeal to you.

          FWIW, your point of view is just as valid, but the consensus among the people who tell us what the 'classics' are happen to disagree.

          Look at Hitchcock's "The Birds." The story is crap, but the suspense is masterful. The film really evokes the fear of the characters, and it's Hitchcock's use of timing and camera angles/effects that really make it work. So is it a great work, or is it crap?
          • but the consensus among the people who tell us what the 'classics' are happen to disagree.

            Right, but those people's taste is just terrible. The last thing they want in a book is entertainment value! Nothing practical can be art, therefore a written work that entertains cannot be "a classic of literature". To Hell with every piece of crap I was forced to read in high school - my library contains 1000 books each more entertaining than any of them.
          • Now take Hitchcock's timing and apply it to a book. See the problem? There is no time in a book. Each medium has its abilities and limits, while a book can describe the thoughts and inner workings of a character and can brush aside time with a single sentence a movie can use timing and visuals to its advantage.
        • Story is all the matters eh? Nothing about dialog, grammar, structure, and description? Story does matter, but it isn't the whole book.

          Would "Snow Crash" be as entertaining without Stephenson's machine gun prose? Would "A Song of Ice and Fire" be as involving without Martin's richly detailed and realistic characters? Would LOTR be as popular without Tolkien's insane amount of detail? Would "One Hundred Years of Solitude" be as engrossing without Marquez's incomparable use of magical realism?

          Let me give you
        • I can tell you right now why you think 90+% is less entertaining that B-list movies: you're looking at it wrong.

          I hate to go all English major on you (I'm not an English major, I promise), but a look at the classics can show you quite simply that the story takes a back seat. One of the biggest things that makes great/classic literature last is that it teaches the reader something about herself and/or society. Take a look at Brave New World, for example. The story was not the important part, it was mere

          • I can tell you right now why you think 90+% is less entertaining that B-list movies: you're looking at it wrong.

            No, I'm looking at it right. You're looking at it wrong :)

            but a look at the classics can show you quite simply that the story takes a back seat. One of the biggest things that makes great/classic literature last is that it teaches the reader something about herself and/or society. Take a look at Brave New World, for example. The story was not the important part, it was merely the vessel for pres

          • Last I checked most great works were also highly entertaining works at the time of their creation. A true master can wrap a message into an entertaining work without compromising either part.
            • And I agree. However, most people today have a different idea of entertainment so they don't see the entertainment value of the classics, which is truly a pity.
              • That's not the only factor. We've seen a lot more works than the people from back then and most of our works were created with knowledge of works that weren't written back then. What was a new idea back then may have become boring in the meantime (e.g. Romeo and Juliet, the basic idea as well as many scenes have been used as a base for modern works so much the original seems downright mundane). What may have been a witty or daring joke back then is an old clichee by now (Soviet Russia jokes were funny once
                • Certainly it takes more work to get the full value of many (though not all) of the classics, but I think many can agree that it is often worth it (not that you said it wasn't or anything like that). The story of Romeo and Juliet may be old news to everybody today, but that play is many times better than many of today's attempts to put a new spin or twist on it.
      • This is a major problem with video games as art -- the viewed product is never exactly as the developer intended. Whereas a great artwork is typically a 'finished' product by the artist

        Are you sure about that distinction? Just because a great artwork is 'finished', it doesn't mean that it is viewed exactly as the artist intended. Books don't have to be read cover to cover. Paintings can be glanced at in poorly illuminated rooms. Films can be interrupted by unplanned comfort breaks.

        The subjectivity of the

        • I think that you're right, but I think it's *harder* to create that experience without having at least temporal control over the finished work. But if you want to compare videogames to films, I think it's important to realize that the media are quite different with respect to how the work is viewed -- and not just on the basis of participation.
      • Yes, Cris Crawford is right (at least mostly right - see GDC Rant): Games need to become interactive storytelling. Why? Because if you can control your character in shooting, swinging a sword, or buying something, then WHY can't you decide what to say to them (and have them react accordingly). Now, I don't think that this needs to happen to all games but it probably needs to happen (at least to a degree) with all games that include major bits of story (eg. cutscenes, etc.).

        A previous poster in a previous th
        • A previous poster in a previous thread mentioned that having AI able to generate text in real time (an emotion/information driven AI), coupled with text-to-voice synthesizers would drive interactive storytelling. That combined with voice recognition software (voice to text) would be the holy grail of storytelling. Big time developers and publishers really should be investing in these technologies right now!!!

          Unfortunately, that's an AI-hard problem. Nobody can do text generation. Nobody even knows how to
        • "Now I know you are going to say, "But I like the linear Final Fantasy story because it is so well crafted, etc. and you can't do that with branching dialogue." "

          Actually, I like sandbox games. Though Bethesda has done grea work with TES series, which allow both sandbox play and plot-driven play -- allows for a change of pace, and allows themes to be brought out in the plots.
    • > A game is great becuase it plays well and is fun. Story is just the icing on the cake

      Only for certain genres. What do people remember about the Myst series - the fantastic point-and-click gameplay? The slideshow-style graphics? No; they remember the incredibly immersive storyline.

      That's one extreme, in which the game IS the story, and the mouse/keyboard are just there to help you experience it. Then there are other games like the Final Fantasy series, which wouldn't be nearly as fun if they di

      • And also great story can't overcome a bad game interface. I don't think any game could overcome a flaw like: "The auto-aiming on the dual-gun system was so bad, it was as if I was watching a homicidal semaphore session."

        Unless, I guess, there was a way you could have a great story in a game named Homicidal Semaphore.

        And then what would be next, a FPS with an aldis lamp? Oh right, they already did that and called it Doom 3.
    • I'm not saying that a game with story is impossible, I'm definitely not.

      You have obviously never played games like Betrayal at Krondor [wikipedia.org]. Definitely great storywork there, and was intermingled with gameplay. The description of even common things like items and "flavor" characters were very rich and detailed.

      I'll stop with the pump up, but imagine a political game with descriptions and narrative from Jon Stewart, or maybe an economics/finance game with narrative from other popstars (Jim Cramer, etc).

      The fact

    • I remember Grim Fandango [wikipedia.org] for the story. And what a moving, original, and interesting story it was! This game was also Lucasarts' first foray into 3d adventure games and so the playing of the game itself wasn't nearly as fun as watching it be played by someone who had finished it already.

      Yes, my wife and I did this. I played Grim Fandago (having played it once years before) while she watched it on tv (mirror screen).
    • Yeah, you don't remember Zork for the story line do.. oh wait.
      You do.
  • by vertinox ( 846076 ) on Monday March 27, 2006 @03:40PM (#15005541)
    I got more enjoyment out of FFVII than War and Peace. Actually, I can remember the plot line and recognize characters from FFVII, but I am hard pressed to remember what War and Peace was about other than it was written by a Russian guy.

    How strange... I just the oddest senation of thousands of World Lit 101 teachers spinning in their graves.
  • Why shoot so low? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AuMatar ( 183847 ) on Monday March 27, 2006 @03:42PM (#15005556)
    War and Peace isn't really that interesting. In fact, of all the "great literature" that english majors like to rave about, I find that less than 10% of it even makes the level of decent, much less good.

    Thats the problem with people who talk about art and wether games are art- art doesn't exist. People tag some items as "art" and others as "not art" as pure snob appeal- a way to say this is what I like and others who like this are better than other people. Its nothing intrinsic in the item. There's no magical quality of an object that catapults it to the level or art or fine art. Its wether it appeals to a small group of snobs.

    Hell, the set of what's included as art doesn't even stay the same. Remberandt and Van Gogh were starving artists. Shakespear was considered lewd and crude in his day and lambasted for appealing to the masses.

    Forget about striving to become art or creating something for the ages. Make a game thats fun. In the end, thats all that matters.
    • WTF is "art for the ages" anyway? Are kids today really being influenced by War and Peace, or even Shakesphere for that matter?

      Does anyone give a shit about "the art world" other than academics and the filthy rich?
      • Methinks maumedia doth protest too much.
        • Meaning what, precisely?

          I have over a thousand books in my collection, it's not an aversion to reading.

          If you find a 15 yr-old on Xbox Live that has read "War and Peace" and found it relevant (or even understood what the hell was being said) then I'll eat crow.

          Games may not be "art" on the level discussed here, but in the end, it's one of the only "arts" getting to the demographic.

          If Shakesphere were alive today, he would choose the medium that allowed him to reach the most people and make the most money. H
    • War and Peace isn't really that interesting. In fact, of all the "great literature" that english majors like to rave about, I find that less than 10% of it even makes the level of decent, much less good.

      I'm a geek who's a graduate student in English Literature, so perhaps I can provide some special insight into the matter. Ready? Here we go:

      YOU'RE WRONG!!!!11!!

      Okay seriously, the thing is that what makes "literature" lasting doesn't so much have to do with its engagingness as a story as to its level of ph
      • Re:Why shoot so low? (Score:3, Interesting)

        by AuMatar ( 183847 )

        I'm a geek who's a graduate student in English Literature, so perhaps I can provide some special insight into the matter. Ready? Here we go:

        YOU'RE WRONG!!!!11!!

        Okay seriously, the thing is that what makes "literature" lasting doesn't so much have to do with its engagingness as a story as to its level of philosophical insight into the human condition. Ideally it should work as *both* insight and a good story.

        As I said in another part of the thread- appeal to authority is a logical fallacy.

        And no, the thing

        • The point was this- don't worry about mainstream acceptance by non-gamers. Don't worry whether some movie critic or english prof thinks you're "art" or not. Make something people like to play. Thats what matters, not getting the blessing of the snobs who define "art".

          I've enjoyed reading this thread, because I can appreciate the well reasoned arguments of both sides. I have to call exception to the above though. What really matters, is making something that you like to play, not what you think o

        • As I said in another part of the thread- appeal to authority is a logical fallacy.

          Well that's getting us off to a great start. (groan) I said maybe I could provide some insight, and I provided the justification I used for why I thought it was worth providing. I was trying to help, not posit my words as the be-and-end-all of truth. Of course I think I'm right, otherwise I wouldn't think it. Of course also, you're free to take it, leave it, or (to slip into english student mode) engage with it and work t
          • Re:Why shoot so low? (Score:3, Interesting)

            by AuMatar ( 183847 )

            Well that brings up an interesting question: are readers the only measure of book quality that matters?

            Whether you enjoyed reading it is the measure of quality. Other than that, no measure is possible.

            We've already established that the people living at the time of a book's initial publication are not the best judges as to whether it'll become remembered through the ages or not.

            Well, that is kind of self fullfilling- in 100 years, if we still remember it, its remembered through the ages :)

            There is a school

            • > There is a school of thought that, even if the writer didn't consciously mean it, he still meant it subconsciously.

              Utter bullshit. It translates to "I think this interpretation is cool, so I'm going to pretend its right wether it is or not". If you used logic like that in the sciences, you'd be laughed out of academia.


              I find it amusing that you, who are so quick to accuse other people of logical fallacies, are yourself so fond of strawmen. Please, before you decide arbitrarily to attack an entire body
            • Whether you enjoyed reading it is the measure of quality. Other than that, no measure is possible.

              I think I would agree... but to remind that after increasingly long periods of time, the things that are remembered and continue to be read are often quite different from what is popular at the time, and that people do enjoy reading literature. Maybe not you, but Shakespeare is read profitably, and enjoyably, by many even now.

              Well, that is kind of self fullfilling- in 100 years, if we still remember it, its re
    • War and Peace isn't really that interesting. In fact, of all the "great literature" that english majors like to rave about, I find that less than 10% of it even makes the level of decent, much less good.

      War and Peace is a bad example. The story itself isn't that long, it's just padded out really badly, the author rambles on and on repeating himself over and over again, saying things he's already said a hundred times before.

      There are books of similar length which aren't nearly as turgid or heavy, such as the
  • Disgaea for starters. Isn't War and Peace more memorable for its length than its quality (sounds like a porn star in that respect)?

    I do get fed up with the "games as storytellers" topic. I don't quite understand where it comes from. Just because games are played on TV, doesn't mean they *have* to be compared with movies. Football (soccer) is played on grass, but has nothing to do with tending one's lawn. In fact, quite the opposite!
    Some games have stories, great. Not all games do. Games generate their own stories. Consider the storyline of the last game of chess you played or the last basketball match you watched. *If* a game sets out to tell a story (eg RPG), then fine, compare it with stories. If it doesn't, then stop bothering.

    From the article: "Creating powerful narratives is the next step ... We need real emotional and intellectual experiences." Really? Maybe if the game is trying to tell a story. But not all games try. Not all games need to. Should families stop playing charades at Christmas until Grandad comes up with a better plot as justification for playing? What a load of rubbish. We should enjoy games for what they are. I still want a game that is fun for 30 minutes. If I want to read a book, then guess what ... I'll actually read one.

    And, most of all, STOP LUMPING ALL GAMES INTO THE SAME POT.
    • I agree.

      The relationship between interactivity and storytelling is a tricky one. Anyone should be able to recognize that you don't need a "plot" in order to enjoy a video game. However, like you pointed out, a gamer generates their own story. The more freedom the gamer has within the game, the more interesting a story can be generated. Ironically, games which progress "on rails" through a fairly strict storyline are those that give the gamer the least freedom to generate a story.

      I wrote the following paper
  • X-Com I think falls in that category of a great or classic. The funny thing (and it looks like other posters have said it as well) is that there really wasn't a story in the conventional sense. But it did have mood and setting and conflict.

    I think this might be more of a case of apples and oranges. Think about TV and movies... a great TV show doesn't always make for a good movie and vice versa. Similar to that a TV show can be regarded as a great work and not necessarily have the best written story
  • war and peace (Score:3, Interesting)

    by vivIsel ( 450550 ) on Monday March 27, 2006 @04:18PM (#15005963)
    This article deeply misinterprets Tolstoy's novel. From TFA:

    "Jenkins elaborates, "The last hundred pages [of "War and Peace"] is this essay that Tolstoy wrote, saying 'if the Russians had done this differently, then this would have been the result and if the French had done this differently then this would have been the result.' "It's not hard to look at 'War and Peace' and say that this wanted to be a video game."

    Absurd. The last hundred pages of War and Peace describe the way in which events necessarily turned out as they did, and that those in power were so constrained by their roles that they had no more choice than the cannons that fired at Borodino. The true power, Tolstoy claims, lies with the people--but not in any concrete choices they make. In their mass action they constitute the integral of history, that which drives and shapes it. Tolstoy would never, ever, ever have said "if X had done Y differently, Z would have happened." He viciously attacked those who said precisely that--they were looking only at the manifestations of history, not its causes.

    And for all of you who appreciate [insert videogame here] more than Tolstoy: it's your perogative, and there's no accounting for taste. But I've played a lot of videogames, and I've read a lot of Tolstoy (Anna Karenina, Resurrection, War and Peace, The Devil, The Forged Coupon, The Death of Ivan Illyich, Family Happiness, Sevastopol in May, Sevastopol in December, The Kreutzer Sonata, and countless other short stories). And as someone who met and appreciated video games (and I can think of several games I would classify as 'brilliant') before I encountered Tolstoy, I'll say this: I have never played a game that posessed anything like the fierce invention, modal clarity and deep insight of Tolstoy's works. It may be fashionable to bash literature on Slashdot--there was a discussion on Shakespeare vs. Video Games the other day on which I barely restrained myself from commenting--but the insight of War and Peace will never grow old or die.



    • It will if no one reads it, or the language becomes stale enough that no one finds it relevant.
      • This almost strikes me as trollish in its simplicity, but allow me to point out the obvious:

        It is already difficult to play many Win95, DOS and older games. I am fairly confident that the staying power of a literary work that has been translated into every significant living language on earth as well as adapted to stage and film multiple timees over is greater than that of any one-shot, one-platform (emulators aside) digital work.

        Granted, there may well be some point in the future where 'War & Peace' i
  • But who really reads the plot behind the yellow exclamation mark?
  • Need I say more? Well, maybe Duck Hunt....
  • "Mercy on us, what a violent attack!" replied the prince, as he came forward in his embroidered court uniform with silk stockings and buckled shoes.
    How is that any better than: "You have moved into a dark place. You are likely to be eaten by a grue."
  • literature typically excells in sharing in the human experience. what makes literature compelling is how the author relates the reader to the characters or the situation. the human abilities to empathize/sympathize allow for an experience that transcends the mere action of a plot. video games have never given me such an experience. i have enjoyed the storylines of videogames much like i would the writings of a pulp novelist: exciting and swift. however, they, of course, have never moved me quite like
  • I hope they don't make a game like War and Piece. It would be thirty times longer than necessary, have two hundred main characters all of whom are named Alexei or Anna, and have a barely discernable plot.
  • I'm not going to claim that Return To Castle Wolfenstein was the equal of War and Peace or Citizen Kane, but it certainly proved to me that an interesting, creepy, and rather fun plot could be sustained through an entire game. What kept it back was that the technology was not up to providing a smoother, freer, less disney-ride-on-a-track feel.

    So, can the game developers make it all the way to "great literature"? Well, let's let the tools mature a bit before we decide. AFAIK, "Oblivion" may have already sho

  • If I want a convoluted plot with deep storylines and lengthy descriptions, I'll play Xenogears again ;)

    Acutally, you will never find this. If we do get games with the above description, you'll be looking at a big waste of money. First off, most generes of games don't need this. Fighting no, racing, no, puzzle, no, H-games^H^H^H^H^H^H^H other games, no.

    Only ones that matter are adventure, RTS, RPG.

    RTS can benefit a little, but most of the reknown ones come down to skilled planning and quickness, which sou
  • The problem with the whole "videogames should be exploiting their storytelling potential!!!" thing is that narrative and interactivity are basically like oil and water.

    Either the game makers are telling a story (through an intro, cut-scene, pre-scripted in-game event, etc), or the gamer is making his own story (by interacting with his environment, seeing how items and entities and the environment interact). Either the gamer is sitting passively watching the plot unfold, or he is doing his own thing. The kin
  • I don't think this guy has ever looked at Planescape: Torment... It's about the best game writing I've seen. A lot of the old SSI gold box games were pretty well written a well. If the gameplay sucks though, no one is going to give a second thought to how well written the plot might be.
  • I really wish I were a game designer, making some game with some brilliant story, so I could say the following:
    "Fine. If I say I agree with you that video games can't be art, will you show up, go away, and let me finish making my story?"
  • Elaine: That is so true! Although one wonders if "War and Peace" would has been as highly acclaimed as it was if it was published under it's original name "War---What Is It Good For?" Lippman: What? Elaine: Yes. Mr. Lippman. It was his mistress who insisted he called it "War and Peace." "War--What Is It Good For."(sang) Absolutely nothin'! (spoken to Testikov)that's the song that they got from Tolstoy.
    • formatting :/

      Elaine: That is so true! Although one wonders if "War and Peace" would has been as highly acclaimed as it was if it was published under it's original name "War---What Is It Good For?"

      Lippman: What?

      Elaine: Yes. Mr. Lippman. It was his mistress who insisted he called it "War and Peace." "War--What Is It Good For."(sang) Absolutely nothin'! (spoken to Testikov)that's the song that they got from Tolstoy.
  • Games allow the player to tell their own story as they play. For instance, no two people will play an RPG the same way so every character has its own tale of success or failure. Or, two friends play Virtua Tennis every day for a year and the underdog, after losing 80% of games, has a huge upset victory in a championship. How about, in Vice City you assassinate the Hatian gang leaders at their comerade's funeral, his thugs give chase and blast your car until it's a careening fireball, so you steer it arou
  • "Can a game be as good as War and Peace?" is the wrong question. Here's the right question, "Can a game ever be as good as Dumbo or Fantasia?" (you can also put Nosferatu or Cabinet of Dr. Caligari if you like.)

    Games aren't a narrative art form they are a visual art form. Is narrative unimportant? Well, no, it's not entirely unimportant, much as it wasn't unimportant in Watchmen or Da Vinci's Last Supper. (There's actually a better Last Supper to reference by a less well known Rennaissance artist, b

Egotist: A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me. -- Ambrose Bierce

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