The Audience and the Story

There are all sorts of forms of storytelling, and all sorts of relationships between “author” and “audience.” When we talk about transmedia, we often talk about the role of the audience (as well we should), and giving control of the story over to the audience. We also talk a lot about “story” versus “world.” But what is the ideal relationship? I don’t think there’s only one, and I think it’s important we remember that. I read an article this weekend on GameSpy about Skyrim and the future of gaming. The article suggests that Skyrim’s open world and ability to generate meaningful, rather than random, quests in some ways customized to the individual player, is where storytelling in gaming is headed. Skyrim can create situations that have meaning to a player based on past experiences, and thus the storytelling comes not from an authored storyline the player is following, but from one created by the player through the very act of playing.

The actual storytelling comes afterwards, when veteran players retire their hearths and relate unforgettable, unbelievable tales of adventure to one another.

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So while the idea of a linear story written by an author and delivered through dialogue and cutscenes in the style of Batman: Arkham City or Assassin's Creed: Revelations is probably going to stick around a while longer, this developing approach to more dynamic stories will certainly have an impact on the narrative experience of future games. The Radiant systems create opportunities, rather than guarantees, but if things come together correctly, the experiences can be exhilarating. These kinds of systems will only continue to develop, and eventually may learn to spontaneously create more subtle and complex dramas in the future.

As Chuck Wendig puts it, “The game does what I like games to do in terms of storytelling: it lets me assemble the story of my own telling. I don’t mind a game that has its own story to tell, but the games to which I really respond are the ones that give me all the pieces and let me put them together according to my own style of play. It cedes some narrative authority to me.”

This raises some interesting questions for me. After all, I’ve always preferred games with amazing stories written into them than not. Games like Final Fantasy VI, Baldur’s Gate, and Ogre Battle 64 are all most awesome for me because of the stories behind them, combined with the gameplay itself. Ogre Battle is a tactical wargame, and I play it to design and control my army, but I love the characters and the story behind it, the reasons for the war and the shifting machinations. Baldur’s Gate (made by the same guys as Dragon Age -- I just haven’t played many more-recent games) allows me to fully create and roleplay my own character, and explore the world fairly freely, but still has a driving story that I’m following and uncovering, featuring my character. And Final Fantasy VI is extremely linear in most ways, with characters I have very little customization over, but which are fully realized characters with arcs and backstories set in a fabulous plotline, and is still a game I consider to be one of the best I’ve ever played.

So is the player-experienced storytelling of Skyrim the pinnacle of storytelling? Clearly there’s a place for it, and quite possibly a significant place, but I don’t think it will ever completely replace more narrative games. Or at least, I hope it won’t.

Let’s look at it from another angle: that of an author. If I’m creating a story, sometimes I’m happy to try to craft a world that people will want to just play in and create their own stories. But often (and in my case at least, more often) I have a story that I want to tell. After all, there’s a reason I’m telling the story in the first place.

This is true of when I run a game of Dungeons and Dragons, too -- some DMs will give full control over the story to the players, and build the narrative around them; while my players clearly control what they do and how they react to the situations around them, they trust me to create a compelling story that they can follow and be a part of, and I enjoy creating a story that puts them at the centre but which I ultimately weave the fabric of. Different strokes for different folks.

And I think when we talk about putting control of a story in the hands of the audience -- and here finally we get to why I’m writing about this on a transmedia blog -- we sometimes put too much emphasis on that, as if no matter what, the story the audience wants to tell is more important than anything else. I think we sometimes underestimate the importance of an author’s story.

John Green’s NYT-bestselling new novel The Fault in Our Stars could not have been told by his massive and dedicated audience. Giving them that world and situation would certainly not have resulted in the same work of genius that he wrote, and while it might have been a cool experience for those audience members, it wouldn’t have been the same experience. And there’s a lot to be said for the experience he did create.

I love the ability to create my own character in a world and explore and tell my own story there, but I also want to be told a good story -- especially if I can be made to feel like the hero of the story. When that happens, I’m ok with ceding control, with going along for the ride.

So is there a balance? I think there is. I think there’s a way to tell a story, a relatively-linear narrative, while simultaneously giving the audience a place in that story.

One way I think is in the discovered story -- something I think ARGs do a lot. Your role as an audience member is partially to figure out, to uncover, what the story is, and what’s going on, even if the hero and all the other characters are controlled by an “author”. I think there’s a way to have such a story while also generating your own narrative in the way that you experience that story.

I think a benefit of a larger transmedia world can be the ability to have both -- to tell the audience a story or let them discover it, while simultaneously giving them an opportunity to be the hero in their own story.

But clearly not everyone agrees with me. I'd love to hear your thoughts. What makes a good story as an audience member? Do you want to be told? Do the telling? Some combination? Is it possible to find an ideal, or will we always need to understand that different people want different things from their stories, and we can't satisfy them all?