Inventing the Future of Games 2013: Interactive Storytelling Symposium, Report by Chris Goetz

20 May, 2013

Inventing the Future of Games 2013: Interactive Storytelling Symposium, Report by Chris Goetz

Inventing the Future of Games 2013: Interactive Storytelling Symposium
May 10, 13, Computer History Museum, Mountain View, CA
Event Summary by Chris Goetz, Ph.D. Film & Media, DE New Media

On May 10, 2013, the Inventing the Future of Games (IFOG) 2013 Symposium brought together academics and practitioners (as well as academic practitioners) for a stimulating conversation about storytelling in videogames. Right off the bat, with computer science professor Michael Mateas’ speech, the event voiced an increasingly common refrain: that we need to move beyond the abstract narratology/ludology debates. And from that point forward, the topic of the day was all story—if anybody took a moment to address the very existence of games without stories, this aside was meant to remind everybody that such games were beyond the scope of the IFOG conversation. Mateas closed with a defense of experiments in procedural storytelling, such as his own game, Façade: “Is it a game? Maybe not. Who Cares? Is it a rich interactive object? Yes, it is.”

Obviously, most in attendance would have considered Façade a game. Mateas’ closing lines were mostly a rhetorical move to show that this work is interesting regardless of the game-label, and that arguing over the assignment of this label is counterproductive. Indeed, IFOG’s greatest strength may have been its largely not caring about story/not-story distinctions. None of the speakers were ever hamstrung by this largely unresolvable conflict, and were able to spend all their time talking in detail about innovations in storytelling techniques, design strategies, and tools. The event was hugely valuable as a barometer for the industry, what those on the vanguard of narrative gaming foresee as the future of the art.

Warren Spector’s keynote talk was particularly helpful for mapping the field (current and potential) of narrative in games. He identified six current story structures in videogames, and called for improvements to narration within those existing structures rather than for any new radical re-imaginings. Spector highlighted the general need for better actors, for other ways of interacting than killing, for plots about something “deeper” than the “superficial” action of events, and for building “worlds” for players to explore rather than “sets” for staged performances. Spector was keen to differentiate games from other narrative media like film and comic books (emphasizing always the importance of not reducing the sense players have of being in control). But, in keeping with the spirit of the event, he did not dwell much on how games might be something other than narrative.

There was a point in Spector’s talk when I began to crave an explanation of how, in these formulations, a story interacts with elements of the game that are not narrative. I wondered this not to be a naysayer, but to help imagine how story might move forward by answering this question more clearly. At this moment in the talk, Spector was calling for a need to move beyond reliance on the content and simulation techniques of tabletop RPGs, such as the rolling of dice, character statistics, classes and levels, and the general medieval setting. He argued that we have better means of simulating interactions now (“we can,” to paraphrase Spector, “actually show a sword cutting into flesh”). We no longer need these archaic holdovers of numerical representation and simulation. It is clear to me that complicated character sheets statistics, level-ups, and probability charts determining the outcome of combat would all encumber a cinematic mode of storytelling, that is, a mode of narration which is relatively free and mobile in its depiction of events in time and space. But I would argue that these character stats and levels are crucial to the genre’s “fantasy of accretions,” making immediately tangible those slight increases in power that result from accruing new equipment or growing stronger from experience. In short, I believe there are important elements of a game, central to the pleasures games offer, other than the story a game is telling. And wiping away those elements in the name of streamlining narration would mean cutting out more than just the dumb inertia of games that don’t know better than to remediate older media forms.

And this question of how narrative shares the stage, so to speak, with other elements of a game, is fairly broad, and could have touched on a number of different problems addressed at IFOG on Friday. For instance, from a narrative point of view, it seems obvious that the gaming community needs stories about something other than just shooting and killing. Several of the speakers expressed both a lament for the difficulty of getting projects without shooting funded, and a near-total resignation to this reality. Clint Hocking’s talk struck me as especially cogent on this point—to summarize, Hocking argued that in order to advance the art of narrative game-making we need to cast narrative in the same “language” or “grammar” as gameplay; both need to share the same “verb” set. But as of now, the only “verbs” we can get funded tend to involve combat: shooting, fighting and killing.

Hocking expressed a wish for a sizeable budget to explore new grammars for gameplay that weren’t so directly violent, but until this happened, the funding tended to be tied to gameplay verbs like shooting or fighting, and this reality limited the extent to which game stories could be both integral parts of gameplay as well as non-violent, or “deep” thematically. This line of reasoning was fruitful precisely because it stepped, for a moment, outside of the world of narrative (by distinguishing the low-level “verbs” of gameplay from the high-level arcs of story), it was thus able to comment upon some of the medium-specific limitations facing narratives in games.

This perspective, were it more widely shared at IFOG and beyond, would be very helpful for advancing the discussion about the stakes of narrative in gaming. The narratology-Ludology debates now represent a huge amount of literature, and there is a serious temptation to not want to become bogged down in this particular polemic. But this symposium has helped solidify for me the view that narrative, to progress in the world of videogames, would benefit from being slightly more analytical, slightly more willing to acknowledge its boundaries and limitations.

All photos are courtesy of Alenda Chang, Ph.D. Rhetoric, DE New Media.