Stuff Video Gamers Say

Monday , 31, October 2016 30 Comments

When the question of “what are your hopes and dreams” came up for a school assignment, my son’s response was, “I want to a make a million dollars designing video games and then I want to retire and play the video games I designed.” I was not pleased.

“Son,” I demanded. “You do know what Lewis Pulsipher says about that, right?”

“Um… play your prototype ten times, making changes after each play…?”

I sigh heavily. “Yes, he does say that. But what else does he say?”

“Get off my lawn.”

“No, that’s my line! Look, he says you’re going to make more money picking cans off the side of the road than you will designing games.” Then he got a stern lecture on the real reason to design games. This was followed by Kesuke Miyagi style drills on bash and text editor commands. “You don’t realize this now,” I told him, “but you have just asked me to instruct you in they way of grep.”

I tell you though, I have never seen my son more thrilled than in the moment when he realized that he really could design a video game and get it running.  My drill sergeant routine did nothing to squelch it and in fact only seemed to make it worse. My son’s raw excitement beats out both his Federation Commander and Pokémon phases put together! Seeing your code make something happen on the screen for the first time… it really is magic.

But what is it with video gamers…? I mean… why does it always have to be about the money? And why is it always a million dollars…? Where does this stuff come from?

Lewis Pulsipher has complained about the students in his game design courses saying stuff like that. I always thought it was nuts, but it really is for real. And it’s not just college kids that say the darndest things. Industry professionals do, too. I pulled up an in-depth tutorial video to get things rolling and the first thing these guys say is that people get into video game design because they want to tell a story. And they act like this is a perfectly reasonable idea.

It’s crazy talk.

Look, if you want to tell a story then go tell a story. It’s called FICTION, people. Anyone can write it. Even little kids can pull it off with very little coaching. You can do anything you can possibly imagine. There are no production costs. No specialized skills are required. And compared to debugging broken code, editing a short story is outright trivial. Why would you spend months of your freetime designing, developing, and testing your own video game design if all you really wanted to do was tell a story…?

No really, what is going on with this…? Do aspiring video game designers not know that there’s a market for short fiction…? Are they really aspiring directors that are looking to cut corners on acting and special effects…? What are they thinking?!

I mean think about the story of the typical computer role-playing game. It’s going to be be something along the lines of “I went to the forest to find a key to unlock the dungeon, then I found the magic sword and went through the secret passage, faced the evil sorceress, killed her, and took her stuff. The end.” Now I know that from a gaming standpoint, that is pure gold right there. People spend countless hours at the tabletop and in front of the computer screen playing out just that sort of scenario. It never gets old!

From a story standpoint, though, you have to admit… that is just plain moronic. Elementary school kids turn in better stories than that for their school assignments. If that is what has inspired you to get into video game design, then there is either something wrong with you or else you really have no idea what the medium even is.

Do you like stories? Great! Go write for Cirsova! But if game design really is your game, then please…. Stop saying stuff like that. It really doesn’t make any sense!

(And I know…. It could be worse…!)

30 Comments
  • Alex says:

    I think part of the “Million dollars” bit comes from the handful of game devs who get this strange rockstar treatment. Kojima is one of the first to come to mind, as would Romero back in the 90s. Hell, a guy like Mark Kern has tons of fan adoration, and kids see that and want a piece of it.

    As for story, one of the issues is that today, games are largely praised or criticized for their stories. A big part of this is the tendency for reviews to a)focus on social justice and b)talk about narratives rather than technical aspects except in cases where extreme day one issues plague releases. Games are so fancy-pants these days a lot of folks forget that there’s a game underneath there, where, once upon a time, you ONLY had the game, the story would be a couple lines in a pamphlet, and might grow more complex iterationally. Everyone talks about the profound depths of Metal Gear’s story, but they should not forget the “I am sleepy. I am asleep.” humble origins of this sprawling series.

  • PCBushi says:

    I think there are many parts to this. I never got into coding and graphic design and all that, but did dabble in RPG Maker years ago before I realized the massive amount of time I’d need to build a game from the ground up.

    First, who doesn’t want to be rich? And if you’ve created a great product and gotten lucky, it can happen. That’s the dream, anyway. Look at the guy who made Stardew Valley. Sure, the guy spent like 5 years working nonstop and eating ramen. But he made a hit.

    Second, sure, a lot of games have crap stories. That’s because different games aim for different experiences. Some of my favorite RPGs – Final Fantasy IV and VI, Chrono Trigger, Earthbound – they had decent stories but nothing earth-shattering. However, these games can be more than the sum of their parts for the right audience. The endearing graphics, the music, the writing, sometimes the illusion of choice…it all came together in the right way for me and a lot of other people.

    Not everyone is interested in writing novels or short fiction, and that’s not always where their strengths lie. And good luck making a film by yourself with no budget.

    There *is* something very alluring about the fact that a single person with enough time and willpower can put together the writing, graphics, music, coding, and wind up with a game they build themselves. It may not be a masterpiece, but hey, maybe it will be!

    Reading a story is a different experience from watching a film, and a different experience from playing a video game. I say this as a fan of literature, cinema, and games. We can argue about whether or not games can be art and whether one medium is superior to another, but they’re not all interchangeable.

    Just my two cents, but I don’t see the problem. You can tell a story in a song, in a novel, a poem, a ballet, a film, or yes, in a video game. Bravo to your son. =)

    • Alex says:

      Funny thing, the three most well known and successful single dev/creator properties I can think of off the top of my head (Minecraft, Dwarf Fortress, & Touhou) aren’t exactly story-focused. There’s no story in Minecraft, narrative elements are purely emergent in Dwarf Fortress, and the stories in Touhou games simply serve as (often incomprehensible*) excuses for little girls to shoot billions of fireballs at each other for 7 or 8 levels.

      *Even I’m somewhat perplexed that a minor level boss from a decade-old G-rate Shmup has become an alt-right icon.

      • PCBushi says:

        Interesting point. I wasn’t familiar with Touhou. The cool thing about Minecraft (and Stardew Valley) is that the story is minimal to nonexistent. Players create their own stories. Again, not all games aim for the same experience. Some want to tell a story; some let the player craft their own story. I think this is the way of a growing number of indie games these days. It’s one thing I really liked about earlier iterations of Starbound, before they created a kind of campaign. My friend and I used to run around planets as a rogue robot outlaw and rebel space ape, exploring for precious resources and building up our base. Was quite fun.

  • Anthony says:

    One of my all-time favorite stories comes from a video game – “To the Moon” by Kan Gao. Terrific sci-fi concept? Check. Lovable, sympathetic characters? Check. Intelligent philosophy thrown in? Check. Incredibly moving climax and ending? Check. Beautiful music? Check.

    In other words – it’s an interactive novel, not really a game.

    Telltale makes their bread and butter off of stories.

    And in the Portal series the excellent writing is half the fun.

    So I’m not so sure I totally agree with you.

    • Alex says:

      Yeah, but imagine Portal if there weren’t physics puzzles.

      There was a 2D flash-based physics platformed based on Portal; all puzzles, no story, but still hella fun.

      Visual/interactive novel is an interesting grey area, because so much can be done with it, whether it’s done in a traditional text-node interface or stapled onto some other system, ranging from CRPG to FPS. CRPG and FPS hybrids are more popular in the mainstream than other forms of Visual Novels because they use more readily acceptable gameplay elements to carry the story.

      • Anthony says:

        Sure, Portal is a composite thing. And I enjoy the non-story PTI chambers.

        But it’s undeniable that the story is a HUGE part of the charm. It’s what turned the game from a clever puzzle game into a phenomenon; it might not have been the first puzzle game with a real story, but it was the first to make it big. The ending to the original Portal and the Portal to the moon in the sequel are two of my all-time favorite gaming moments.

  • Andy says:

    When I used to read game reviews, it would drive me nuts when the reviewer would spend the first 8 or 9 paragraphs of the review summarizing the story, then spend maybe one or two paragraphs describing how the game actually plays. There are some games that have passable stories but it really always comes down to how it plays.

    For me, stories don’t attract me to games, but the broader scenario can. I couldn’t begin to tell you what the actual story in Rastan is, but what initially drew me to the game was its beautiful presentation of a lone swordsman against hordes of weird monsters, which speaks to my enjoyment of sword and sorcery.

  • True_poser says:

    A video game is definitely not a medium to tell a story.
    It’s a medium for the gameplay.

    A story is there (if it is there) to supplement it, to help you tell you why you are doing this, what is generally reasonable to expect and what isn’t.
    A story is an application of the setting to the player abilities.

    Should I expect magic in my FPS, aside from usual gameplay-related handwavium (medkits, hull regeneration, etc)?

    Wolfenstein 3D says no, it’s a story about killing dual minigun wielding Hitler.
    Doom says yes, but only from enemies and terrain, as it is a story about hell on Phobos, Deimos and Earth.
    Heretic says yes, as it is a story about some kind of a warlock.
    Quake 2 says no, as it is a story about a botched assault on borgish Stroggs.
    Freespace 1 and 2 say no, as they are stories about tactical victories amidst a strategic defeat.
    System Shock 2 says yes, and wraps it into a psyonic technobabble to fit it into a sci-fi setting.
    Mass Effect does the same thing.
    Serious Sam… you got the idea.

    “Story” is used here in a very loose meaning, as some of the game mentioned have the whole story shorter than this comment.
    After the core mechanics are prototyped and tested (this step may be forfeited if they are common enough) a game designer needs a story to understand what will the player do, why, and why it’ll be fun.
    And it kinda snowballs down from here, accumulating snow, dirt, twigs, broken glass, old bicycles, design documents, painstakingly detailed animations lists, unit tests and sometimes even people who know how to write.

    And if it’s all done competently and with a healthy dose of luck, a relatable antagonist rises out of a GD’s desire to have a player have a shootout on fireballs with monkeys on a spaceship.
    But it’s rarely essential, as if hurling fireballs at monkeys sucks, no amount of writing will save the game.
    Write a d__n novel instead.

    • PCBushi says:

      Well that’s a strong assertion. Just because some games are light on story or only have one as a vessel for fun gameplay doesn’t mean all games are the same. Just as not all books or written media tell stories.

      • True_poser says:

        Either we have completely different definitions what can be called a video game, either you’re completely missing the point.

        A game, any game is about the player and player’s interactions with the in-game entities.
        Bastion with its in-game narration illustrates this finely.

        A game’s foundation is never a story in a literary sense, because they function in completely different ways.
        Even walking simulators allow the player to assess the story in player’s own pace, as they need to work as a game, first and foremost.

        That’s because a game’s foundation is about very mundane things, like where can the player go, what can the player do, etc.
        A hero in a novel however can crouch, fire from the cover, hijack spaceships and travel in time by default, i.e., by our interpretation of a fixed version of the author’s fantasy.
        Things that comprise the core gameplay are not interesting to read about. On the other hand, you can’t play a story.

        Actually, kinetic visual novels are stories in a literary sense.
        However if they are video games, then a VHS cassette or a comic book can be called video games in the same right too.

        Something’s got to give, you know.

        • Anthony says:

          I think the key question has to be “Does the fact that I am influencing events as the player change how the narrative is experienced?”

          Again, we can go back to the Telltale games. They are all about story. A truly bad story can ruin a Telltale game. Does experiencing the story the way the games present it significantly affect how you perceive it? I’d say the answer is yes, which is why I consider them games more than novels.

          Conversely, while “To the Moon” has mini-games IN it, the basic story could have been made into an animated movie just as easily and been just as entertaining. So it’s more of a visual novel.

  • Anthony says:

    I guess that while I get the point you’re making there really are games that are pretty much only good because of the story – Telltale Games being the prime example. I mean the gameplay element outside of walking around and deciding what to say to people is quick time events. Quick time events! You know, the bane of all games everywhere…but the games are still a ton of fun because they immerse you in a complex, detailed world and story.

    And stories can add a TON to games. Half the fun of the Portal games is in the writing. “BioShock” is more famous for its mid-game twist than its gameplay. Without the great stories, both would be pretty good games – but not as good.

    So I think it’s fair to discuss story in a video game review.

    • True_poser says:

      Telltale managed to find a way how to make proper QTEs, at least in The Wolf Among Us, tight enough, but not annoying.
      That alone is an outstanding achievement, actually.

      I personally hardly remember any plot twists in all Bioshocks. I remember very nice for the time graphics, watered down, but prettied up System Shock 2 gameplay, and that’s it.
      On a roughly comparable scale, I do remember major plot twists in Dead Spaces.

      A story is an icing on the cake, really.
      It does make cake better, it’s a complex thing to do and if you’re inaccurate, you can end up with famous “Happy Birthday, Clint” failures.

      • Anthony says:

        I personally hardly remember any plot twists in all Bioshocks. I remember very nice for the time graphics, watered down, but prettied up System Shock 2 gameplay, and that’s it.

        That’s certainly fine, and I greatly enjoyed the gameplay, but the fact is you’re in the minority; just Google BioShock reviews (more recent ones). The game is almost to a tee remembered entirely for the mid-game twist and criticized for its watered down gameplay.

        I had a blast with the gameplay, but frankly that’s because I’m pretty bad at video games. Even for me, by the end of the game I was basically a god. I can see how genuinely strong players could quickly get bored with it.

        • Alex says:

          The main point of Bioshock that stuck with me was the unsaid fact that you’d become more of a monster (even if you were playing it as a ‘good-guy’) than the things you were fighting. This may have been unintentional, since it was largely due to balance issues, but at some point when you’re just running around kludging people with your wrench and killing them effortlessly, you kind of have a moment of “I’m a superpowered freak, skulking through the shadows and murdering crazy people with the greatest of ease for no real good reason. The real monster… IS ME!!!”

          The story in Bioshock: Infinite was garbage. I only hope that someone actually takes the advances in AI companion behavior it showcased and put it in a game that’s fun and not nihilistic trash. What they did with Elizabeth was incredible and would be great if implemented in an actual pulp SF adventure game.

          • Anthony says:

            The story in “Infinite” had its moments. The ending was just terrible.

          • True_poser says:

            Guess that’s why I missed it.
            It’s just inadequate.

            It can be done as an ending plot twist, though I can’t recall right now a more recent reference than Silmarils’ Metal Mutant, where you fight tyrant AROD 7 to become a tyrant AROD 8.
            It can be done blatantly and cranking it up to eleven, like in Spec Ops: The Line.
            It can be done as an easter egg, like in Far Cry 4.
            It can be done if a player has non-lethal options like in majority of stealth or stealth-ish games, ranging from Thief to Deus Ex.

            But clutching pearls if a player has the audacity to continue play the standard FPS mechanics is just cheap.

          • Anthony says:

            For what it’s worth…That’s not what I got out of it.

            The twist worked on a number of different levels. One was as as meta-comment on linear narratives in video games (which is one reason the linear second half of the game is criticized, though I still found it very fun), but even if you put that to the side, it’s just an exceptionally clever moment.

            That moment of dawning realization as you walk up to Andrew Ryan, “Would you kindly” scrawled on the walls in blood, is one of my favorite memories from playing video games.

      • Anthony says:

        I mean, the final boss fight is just terrible.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    I think you missed something here:

    “But what is it with video gamers…? I mean… why does it always have to be about the money? And why is it always a million dollars…? Where does this stuff come from?”

    You son does not want a million dollars. That is just a means to comfortable retirement so he can do what he really wants. He wants this:

    “then I want to retire and play the video games I designed.”

    An important aspect of this that is hidden perhaps even deeper then just playing video games without responsibility. Your son wants a fixed set of games that have infinite playability AND are so vast and so emergent/random that their very creator will not grow bored playing them….

    He ain’t talkin about a short story made into telltale digital novel here.

    • Alex says:

      It took me years to touch most of the content in my favorite Vance-inspired crate opening simulator. Even now, I have the completely irrational desire to pick up Morrowind once in awhile, because there is almost certainly one cave or ruin out there I haven’t rifled through for spell scrolls, ancient relics underpowered compared to my current swag, and other assorted vendor trash. I mean, I never did manage to stuff that goddess into Azura’s star… (come to think of it, Almalexia is a pulp a fuck villainess).

      • anonme says:

        Morrowind was so great.

        I even love Daggerfall, even though it’s a buggy mess, and more of a showcase for procedural generation than anything.

        I got a big kick out of being able to play a burglar, I’d scale up the side of buildings to enter the house from the second floor, clean the house out and sell all the the stuff.

        Completely pointless, but it was a ton of fun.

        Morrowind hit a perfect sweetspot between Big sprawling levels and tight hand crafted design.

  • anonme says:

    >Do you like stories? Great! Go write for Cirsova!

    I wish. Submissions are closed.

    Anyways, back to the topic.

    I simply do not understand why in the long running battle between narrative and ludology, narrative is winning at the moment. How many people need to complain about QTEs, or how they always skip the cut scenes or complain when they skip the cut scenes?

    The primary purpose of games has been, and in my opinion should continue to be interactivity. It’s not really about the story the dev is trying to tell, it’s the story the player creates along the way. Jay Barnson (Now a Cirsova author) has wrote some amazing arguments in favor of gameplay over story on his blog. One example he uses is how when he get Spirit killed in Wing Commander the death had for more of an effect on him, than when she died in a scripted sequence in Wing Commander 2. The reason why? Because the death has more impact when it’s the player’s fault.

    Often the very things that make a good story make for bad gameplay, and vice versa. You make it through a level of a FPS without taking damage, killing all of the bad guys, making no mistakes, it’s a huge accomplishment that makes you feel like a badass. If you wrote a character like that, You’d be accused of writing a mary sue, and one could argue the story lacks tension since the character didn’t struggle, made no mistakes, and suffered no set backs.

    I do think there is a role for Story to play in games (Particularly world building, something I feel is too neglected in games. Alpha Centari is a fantastic example of great world building in games. Elder Scrolls is a good example of having rich lore to a setting.)

    It’s just matter of realizing that the story that the game developer wants to tell, shouldn’t trump the story that can be created by the player.

    And yeah, I realize I’ve pretty much just rehashed what others have said.

  • Contrabardus says:

    What games are you playing? It doesn’t sound like you play very many games judging from this. If not, what makes you qualified to comment on it?

    If so, then you really need to find better games to play. There are some amazing stories out there in games, and not just a handful either.

    You really come off as someone who knows nothing about this at all.

    Games provide a storytelling platform that does things books and movies can’t do.

    Sure, there are games out there with terrible writing and structure, but there are also really great games that tell amazing stories.

    I completely admit that a lot of games aren’t about story, but rather are about the world they take place in. The Elder Scrolls series is a good example of this. The story is usually bare bones, but you’re there to role play in the world the developers have created and make your own stories. They tend to give you a goal, drop you into the world, slap you on the ass, and tell you to be on your way and do whatever.

    It’s about playing as a character you’ve made in an open world to explore it and being able to be what you want, not telling a compelling narrative. Sure, there’s a story there, but it’s more functional than the point. This is when you get plots of the sort you describe usually.

    If anything, games like this are about making your own story, rather than playing through one the developers have made for you. Sure, there’s an overall plot structure, but the details of how you go about it and who your character is are up to you.

    Then there’s games where story is paramount. Ori and the Blind Forest, The Witcher franchise, Spec Ops: The Line, Knights of the Old Republic, Grand Theft Auto IV and V, Max Payne, Injustice Gods Among Us, Heavy Rain, Gone Home, the Batman Arkham series, Bioshock, Portal, Gone Home, Life is Strange, and hundreds of other games.

    Games can do things movies and books can’t do nearly as well. One of the biggest things is offering choice and giving the player ways to affect the outcome of a story. Whether you kill specific characters, how you solve problems, and how you interact with the characters can really matter to the outcome sometimes. Some games do this better than others.

    This can give storytellers a unique opportunity, a chance to write a branching narrative with several outcomes. How is their story different if character A survives chapter three than if they die? If they survived, did the main character punch them in the face, or talk it through with them?

    In a game, you can tell a different story based on all of these outcomes.

    Not every game that tells an interesting story does this either. Some games do have fixed narratives, and provide a unique and different experience than reading a book or watching a movie. They can still tell great stories if done properly, and there are developers that know how to do this.

    Some games are indeed more about the mechanics of playing, and basically being physics toys and shooting galleries. They’re less concerned with plot and narrative than using the engine and mechanics to do cool things.

    Stuff like Doom, Just Cause, Saint’s Row, and Half Life 2 are more about being toys than stories. I like games like that sometimes, but they aren’t all games are about. It’s a medium where both story driven games and mechanics based games can work, and aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

    Still, you’re doing a disservice to the games that do storytelling right, and they are more than a few.

    Truth be told, I’d rather play games developed by people who are in it to tell interesting stories. The best games are the ones that can manage to be fun and tell a great story at the same time.

    It makes perfect sense to want to use the medium of video games to tell interesting stories. It’s a unique media that offers possibilities for storytelling that books and film can’t do nearly as well.

    You’re being dismissive of something you don’t seem to understand and are vastly underestimating the medium and what it can be. We need more developers who are in it to tell great stories. Hearing someone say that’s why they’re getting into game development is a good thing.

  • Contrabardus says:

    Dude knows nothing about modern video games.

    Some stuff is designed to not have much of a story. That’s not the point of the game. They’re often meant to be funhouses, shooting galleries, or physics sandbox toys. Then there’s stuff that’s more about the world than the plot, such as Fallout, Elder Scrolls, or Zelda. The plot is minimal because it’s about exploration and interacting with individual characters, not really an overall story. Plot is there, but it’s more functional as a goal rather than intended to be the point.

    However, there’s also stuff like Ori and the Blind Forest, The Witcher franchise, Spec Ops: The Line, Knights of the Old Republic, Grand Theft Auto IV and V, Max Payne, Injustice Gods Among Us, Heavy Rain, Alan Wake, Gone Home, the Batman Arkham series, Bioshock, Portal, Beyond Good and Evil, Psychonauts, Life is Strange, and hundreds of other games.

    That’s not even getting into Adventure games, which are usually more about story than anything else. Telltale is the current king, but they’ve been around for decades and telling great stories in a way books and movies never could.

    Taking that a step further are Visual Novel games. The don’t even really have gameplay elements outside of making a dialogue choice on occasion, and some don’t even have that much.

    All I really see here is someone who doesn’t really understand the medium as it exists today very well. The ideas presented in regard to storytelling in games are pretty outdated and narrow.

    People getting into game development to tell stories is a good thing. We need more developers like that in the industry. The best games out there are the ones that have fun mechanics and a great story. They are not mutually exclusive and can be equally important.

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