Last week I wrote a post about story design in games and that relationship to transmedia. My argument was essentially that while there is certainly a place for the kinds of games that want you to completely construct your own story, like Skyrim (or perhaps more to the point, Minecraft), I think there will always also be a place for more structured or linear narratives like those found in games like Dragon Age.
I had some great comments there, and Simon Pulman wrote a full response on his blog. I also had an interesting conversation with Brian Clark about reader-response criticism, that all stories should be evaluated as essentially the audience’s regardless of authorial intent — which is fair enough, but there’s nonetheless a spectrum of how much control an “author” tried to put on a story, from deliberately making an open sandbox to, say, a novel.
I also suggested that transmedia may be a good way to have the best of both worlds — a way to have a story that is designed to be constructed by the experiencer, as well as a story with more structure and authorial intent. [My language here is imperfect, as even a novel should be designed with the experience of the audience in mind. Nonetheless, I hope you see the difference in what I'm saying.]
I then saw this article, which describes how game designer David Jaffe argues that games shouldn’t try to tell a linear, movie-like story, because that’s not what they’re good at.
But Jaffe did argue vociferously against “games that have been intentionally made from the ground up with the intent and purpose of telling a story or expressing a philosophy or giving a designer’s narrative.” Because no matter how hard we want to fight it, Jaffe said, games just aren’t meant for this kind of storytelling.
… [I]n chasing movies, games lose something that’s unique to the medium, Jaffe said. The biggest successes in video games—titles like Modern Warfare‘s multiplayer, Skyrim, Guitar Hero, and Angry Birds, make a huge impact without ever pushing a developer-driven story on the player. The game industry should respect the success we’ve had in entertaining the world, he argued, and stop trying to force more from what has historically been the worst medium for expressing complex narrative ideas.
… In other words, if you think you have something significant to say about philosophy or human nature, stick with the media that have proven they’re suited to imparting that message effectively.
I still disagree — I think a developer-driven story can mesh well with interesting gameplay and player freedom (I point towards the Final Fantasy series as what I think is a good example, or again something like Dragon Age (which I started playing this weekend) which has fairly linear overarching storyline that you can nonetheless explore in a pretty open way), just like any game of D&D.
(Furthermore, I think saying we shouldn’t try to include any kind of theme or philosophy or argument in a game is to fail as a creator.)
But it does raise a question for me, regarding transmedia — is transmedia only really good if it involves significant audience participation, if it allows the audience to drive the narrative and create the structure? Is a project that delivers a more linear story by nature inferior because it’s not living up to what the medium (transmedia) is best at?
I admit something of a personal concern in this — Azrael’s Stop for instance was never meant to be highly participatory, but I still consider it transmedia (though it has always been an “experiment” first and foremost, and whether or not it’s labelled as transmedia isn’t so important to me). But I also have a bias towards even video games and D&D games that have a driving storyline that I give myself over to. So I wonder again — is there room for both?
You tell me.