Storytelling and games have a strange relationship. On the one hand, interminable cut-scenes can distract from gameplay and rigid storylines can constrain it. On the other hand, without some kind of narrative context, most games would be abstract and meaningless, and in the best of games characters and storylines add an immense amount to the experience.
This is one of the issues that will be explored at StagConf, a one-day conference on storytelling and games held on September 27th in Vienna. We interviewed some of the speakers to ask their opinion on the relationship between storytelling, games and technology.
Q: Do you feel that in the games industry, or in your work, there's more emphasis on the artistic side of storytelling vs. the technology side of things? What do you think about that balance? How do you deal with it?
Hal Barwood: I believe that storytelling is still grafted onto engineering in most developers' minds. The craft still seems pretty catch-as-catch-can to me. Someday, when the difficulties of game development are handed off to technology specialists (engine makers, etc.), that may change, but for now the problem of simply getting a game out the door magnifies the technological challenge to such immensity that figuring out a good story seems trivial — and is thus neglected.
Stephane Bura: Indeed. The reason is that the technology side is much harder to come to grips with. We now know how to script amazingly complex levels that put you right at the heart of a finely tuned story, full of nicely designed dramatic beats. It's just a matter of writing it, producing the assets for it and then fine tuning it.
“Interactive storytelling isn't as neat; there are no accepted practices.”
Interactive storytelling, and by that I mean a space in which you can truly affect the outcome of a story by your choices, is not as neat. There are no accepted practices or techniques. And why would there be? No game as ever proven that it's worth it and scripted AAA titles sell well enough.
The issue is that the people who know enough about storytelling and AI to create a storytelling engine often have very little knowledge of how to craft a game experience, and vice-versa. How to deal with it? It's tough because academics and game developers have real problems working together, given their conflicting goals and timelines. I guess it'll take a big financial success in IS to generate the incentive for research within the industry.
Margaret Robertson: I'm happiest when one feeds the other - it never needs to be a fight. At Hide&Seek, we had a really interesting experiencing using chatbot technology for our Sherlock Holmes game, 221b (which frustratingly isn't available online anymore). We felt interrogation was a key part of the Holmes experience, and really didn't want to limit players to three-choice dialogue tree that's so common. So we really wanted totally free chat, but free chat that was period, in character, never broke, and could output key game triggers to control player progress. Not exactly an easy ask.
We worked with Existor (who you might know for Cleverbot, but who have a bunch of other interesting chat approaches) to refine a system, and soon realised that the best way to bulletproof the experience was through the story, not the technology. So we deliberately wrote characters who had natural reasons to be limited conversationalists - a drunk old duchess who never leaves the house, an easily offended Mother Superior, a 6-year-old who's unharmed but in shock after a botched abduction. We coupled that with a gameplay system, specifically a combo score that rewarded you for asking 'good' questions, to create an environment which meant most players had a seamless conversational experience — that holy grail of actually being able to talk directly to NPCs. No question that the technology informed the story in driving us to create some of the most memorable characters for the game, and then gave us the means to let players talk to them direct. I think it's always best to approach technological limitations in that frame of mind, rather than thinking that story and technology — or indeed gameplay and technology — are in tension with each other.
Q: What do you think are the biggest opportunities for the use of existing or non-existing technology in storytelling in games?
Hal Barwood: Voice recognition and production. Even with the simple-minded voice robots we now have, like the ones that help you with your airline reservations these days, we could revolutionize the experience of game players.
Stephane Bura: I've written about this before: let the player really play a part by giving him tools that easily allow him to state his character's intentions. Right now, players can only roleplay their characters when the game create artificial choices for them — apart from telling themselves their own stories, like the guy who is afraid of prostitutes in GTA. If games let players communicate these stories/intentions and reacted to them, players would really feel like they're the ones making choices, not just the guy that plays out the scripted story.
So far, we've only touched upon this in a very indirect way, for instance by letting players alter the stats of their character in a CRPG. We can do much more!
If you're interested in this topic, check out the StagConf website. There will be 5 more top international speakers talking about the present and the future of storytelling in games. Enter the code aigamedev_stag11 to get a 20% discount on standard or VIP tickets.