Giggling today at this piece over on Eurogamer asking wouldn’t it be great if we could have a videogame where every play through had a different plot twist.
What if a video game could do this? What if a video game had a Deck of Secrets and could shuffle the key moments of your adventure each time you play? What if next time you meet a different character early on who takes you on a different journey to a different outcome? What if the entire objective of the story changes next time you play?Eurogamer
I’m giggling because videogames often throws up thoughts like this* and like, it’s funny because we pretty much solved this a very long time ago.
It sounds flippant but the solution is called “playing or making a different videogame”.
Why exhaust thousands of hours on writing and binding together an absurd amount of permutations to tell a ridiculous amount of stories in one solitary game when you can do so much more, with less stress, by just making or playing a different game? It works! Stories, books, theatre, whatever have had this sussed for centuries. Tried, tested.
Different characters. Different outcomes. Different goals.
I’m genuinely not being facetious here. Bear with me, I’ll flesh this out in 3,2,1…
There’s little point comparing videogames to D&D as the article does. D&D is somewhere between storytelling, improv and a conversation. Whilst I don’t want to understate the effort that goes into building out rules and scenarios for people to play around with, things can change on the fly, differ from session to session and game to game because it’s a collaboration, a living exercise in building an adventure in the moment.
That’s not videogames. Every different character, every different conversation, every different room needs to be built. Every word needs writing by someone or multiple members of a team. Every character drawn or modelled then animated and so much more. Every eventuality or path through a story is more stuff needing to be made.
It’s an exceptional amount of work to create very little of a videogame. Creating a lot is ridiculous.
Can you imagine how much effort it took to write every block of text in Inkle’s 80 Days? There’s a game which doesn’t require unique sounds, art to realise everything new on screen and I’m shuddering at the thought.
You only have to look at the effort needed to make a quest based MMO, the time needed to flesh out a world. It’s a lot!
The videogame RPG settled into main story plus sidequests largely because anything else is a ‘mare.
It really does make more sense to just play a different game if you want wildly different stories and adventures each time. It’s not like there’s a game shortage at the mo either.
It makes vastly more sense, because we all only have so much time on this planet, to just write one game that does what it does than one game that’s tens of games.
“But Rob”, you might begin, “Rob! What if I want to be able to make choices that are more relevant to me? I’ve already watched Aliens, read Lord Of The Rings, wrestled with the old Lovecraftian gods! You know how videogames are and I crave something, well, more me!”
It’s a good point, to be fair. Just. This is why we need to make videogames a space where more people can tell their stories without being harassed or burnt out! Where people whose different lives, cultures, tales read, tales told are able to exist here, who aren’t the same two or three writers leaping between projects.
Where folk can get paid so they can
eat live comfortably with as few worries as we can manage. Where they can thrive here if they want to. Or, you know, keep one foot in as a side gig. Whatever. Whatever is needed to help us create the best environment for more varied stories to emerge.
It’s a more practical, smarter route to more, more varied, more representative stories in games.
“But Rob”, you might continue. “Rob, you don’t understand. I want a game where it’s possible for Sonic The Hedgehog to fuck the moon, for Gordon Freeman to be revealed as a swan or just one where Mario can finally settle down with Sherlock Holmes because we all know that’s what he wants to be happy”.
And yeah, I hear you! I want Sherlock and Mario to live happily ever after together too. You’ll be wanting a culture that’s more permissive of sharing there though! One where the public domain is prioritised over the mouse company hoarding as much of the 20th and 21st Century as they can within their vaults. A culture where fan fiction isn’t shamed and sidelined and where we rethink the concept of stories necessitating canon.
We don’t just need to let people be here, we need people to be able to tell wilder, more varied stories. We need a culture that gives them the breathing space to play around. To be more permissive.
Again, again, again, it’s more practical, more likely to result in better things being made.
I’m not saying we can’t have fun with procedural narrative or games with multiple story branches here. I’m currently enjoying the recently added ships logs in No Man’s Sky, I’m a long term player (and massive fan) of Fallen London which has an obscene amount of paths and stories within stories, the moment the world first opened up for me in 80 Days is something I’ll treasure from games for a long time to come.
Sure, there’s stuff that can be fun!
So much potential and so many possibilities for videogames that folks tend to hope multiple choice or procedural narrative games can bring is here and realised already.
Whilst games of a thousand choices have an allure, there’s easier ways we could tell those thousand stories without the technical headache and without the sheer nightmare levels of practical work that would be involved.
There’s a lot of stories you can get lost in right now over on Itch.io, in a bunch of IF archives, on Steam and more though.
It’s quicker and easier just to pay some writers today for a single game and then another and then another than to overcomplicate and over-engineer something that will still need those writers anyway.
It’s easier to support more developers outside AAA today, to play more games when we want more stories, writing about games outside of the same old helps others find new stories too.
You’ll be surprised by how much doing that stuff can solve and how much better videogames can be for it. Again, no over-engineering required.
Making the best of this takes a bit of collective work though, rather than putting the burden on individual teams.
Worth it though, right?
*when I was giggling about this earlier, someone pointed out to me that this is how we end up with Valve chasing “procedural narrative” for a potential Half Life installment and it not really getting anywhere of use.