Being There

I've been thinking a bit about the strengths of video games as a medium, as well as why I'm drawn to making them. One colors my perception of the other I suppose. But in my estimation every medium has its primary strength.

Literature excels at exploring the internal (psychological, subjective) aspects of a character's personal experiences and memories.

Film excels at conveying narrative via a precisely authored sequence of meaningful moments in time.

And video games excel at fostering the experience of being in a particular place via direct inhabitation of an autonomous agent.

Video games are able to render a place and put the player into it. The meaning of the experience arises from what's contained within the bounds of the gameworld, and the range of possible interactions the player may perform there-- the nouns and the verbs. Just like in real life, where we are and what we can do dictates our present, and our possible futures. Video games provide an alternative to both the where and the what of existence, resulting in simulated alternate life experiences.

It's a powerful thing, to be able to visit another place, to drive the drama onscreen yourself-- not to receive a personal account of someone else's experiences, or observe events as a detached spectator. A modern video game level is a navigable construction of three-dimensional geometry, populated with art and interactivity to convincingly lend it an identity as a believable, inhabitable, living place. At their best, video games transmit to the player the experience of actually being there.

Video games are not a traditional storytelling medium per se. The player is an agent of chaos, making the medium ill-equipped to convey a pre-authored narrative with anywhere near the effectiveness of books or film. Rather, a video game is a box of possibilities, and the best stories told are those that arise from the player expressing his own agency within a functional, believable gameworld. These are player stories, not author stories, and hence they belong to the player himself. Unlike a great film or piece of literature, they don't give the audience an admiration for the genius in someone else's work; they instead supply the potential for genuine personal experience, acts attempted and accomplished by the player as an individual, unique memories that are the player's to own and to pass on. This property is demonstrated when comparing play notes, book club style, with friends-- "what did you do?" versus "here's what I did." While discussing a film or piece of literature runs towards individual interpretation of an identical media artifact, the core experience of playing a video game is itself unique to each player-- an act of realtime media interpretation-- and the most powerful stories told are the ones the player is responsible for. To the player, video games are the most personally meaningful entertainment medium of them all. It is not about the other-- the author, the director. It is about you.

So, the game designer's role is to provide the player with an intriguing place to be, and then give them tools to perform interactions they'd logically be able to as a person in that place-- to fully express their agency within the gameworld that's been provided. In pursuit of these values, the game designer's highest ideal should be verisimilitude of potential experience. The "potential" here is key. Game design is a hands-off kind of shared authorship, and one that requires a lack of ego and a trust in your audience. It's an incredible opportunity we're given: to provide people with new places in which to have new experiences, to give our audience the kind of agency and autonomy they might not have in their daily lives; to create worlds and invite people to play in them.

Kojima has said that game development is a kind of "service industry," and I think I know what he means. It's the same service provided by Philip K. Dick's Rekal, Incorporated: to be transported to places you'd never otherwise visit, to be able to do things you'd never otherwise do. As Ebert says, "video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control." I'll not be the first to point out that this is an astute observation, and one that highlights their greatest strength: video games at their best abdicate authorial control to the player, and with it shift the locus of the experience from the raw potential onscreen to the hands and mind of the individual. At the end of the day, the play of the game belongs to you. The greatest aspiration of a game designer is merely to set the stage.

[This post was referenced in Jonathan Blow's talk "Games Need You" at this year's Games:EDU South conference in Brighton, England.]


Ben Abraham said...

I whole-heartedly agree! I wrote a similar piece about why I thought that Oblivion, even with all its failings, is still one of the best examples of 'setting up the stage' and letting the player go nuts in the world.

Suffice to say some people disagreed by degree, but essentially the idea is pretty integral to videogames as a medium.

I don't know if you've read it but Ian Bogost in his book 'Persuasive Games' talks about games possessing a unique 'procedural rhetoric' which I suspect is closely tied with this issue.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

I thought this article was very well thought-out.

I found it really interesting to hear the sense of "collaboration" that the player feels with the designer in a game described from the opposite point of view.

I was struck by the fact that you use you use like "agency" and "autonomy" to talk about the agreement established between the player and designer.

I had one question. what do you think of games like Bioshock and Portal that have cast the designer as a sort of manipulator? I think when people discussed those games they reached for the same terms, autonomy and agency. I think one thing those games try to say is that gamers are not critical enough. I was curious to hear what you make of this sort of thing.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

What role, if any, do you feel narrative, and specifically characters, have to play in such games?

Should they simply be there to add colour and versimultidude to the environment. Providing information and context for you actions? An example would be System Shock 2 where because there is no direct interaction between you and the other characters their diaries serving as clues and background information. In such a game the players moment-to-moment story is unique and ever changing but their overall arc is the same.

Or should characters be treated as part of the stage itself, as props, to be interacted with directly and upon whom you can express your agency? The interactions of the player with the characters and those characters with each other potentially causing changes to both the moment-to-moment story and the overall story arc, as some characters die some live, some support you, some betray you all because on your actions; your choices.

Or is there another way?

Nels Anderson said...

You've probably seen it, but if you haven't, Patrick Redding (narrative designer on Far Cry 2) had some interesting things to say about how they're trying to implement those tools needed for logical interactions. It seems to me that tools like these are vital for creating worlds with enough verisimilitude to make the player to care about their agency.

The problem I have with a lot of games that try to provide heavy player agency is the interactions with the world tend to come up short. Given the choice, I'd rather spend time with an interesting narrative that I can't change than a world I can affect but is too shallow or unbelievable to make me care about the my decisions.

I agree that the strength of games is their ability to create a deeply personal experience, but we need worlds we want to affect. It will be interesting to see what games just over the horizon have for us in this regard.

Steve gaynor said...


I think that Portal and BioShock's comments on player agency highlight its centrality to the nature of game-playing; both acknowledge about halfway through that the player in fact had no agency in how they might progress up to that point... then continue to give the player no real high-level agency. At least Portal had the decency to dress up the rest of its linear objectives with the fiction that the player was 'breaking out of the simulation,' even though there was still only one way to progress out of any given area.

But these are both just limitations of the traditional FPS structure these games employ, and even within them there's an enormous amount of player micro-agency: which plasmids the player used to clear difficult sections in Rapture ("I used enrage and hacking to make everybody fight each other" versus "I used targeting dummy and the flamethrower") or how the player dealt with the Companion Cube dilemma ("I ran around for 10 minutes looking for some way to save it" versus "I chucked it and kept moving.")

In any case, I think those games can support a 'designer surrogate' character because their structure makes the designer's hand so evident. In BioShock, the designer surrogate for the majority of the game (Atlas) isn't even the most interesting character though; Ryan is, and his primary role is to serve as the face of Rapture.. to give the place an identity, and make the player feel like they're really being there.

Michael Abbott said...

"a video game is a box of possibilities, and the best stories told are those that arise from the player expressing his own agency within a functional, believable gameworld."

Oh, I will most certainly steal this one, Mr. Gaynor. Most assuredly I will. ;-)

You present your ideas eloquently, and I don't disagree with any of them. But I do wonder if you understate the possibilities for designers to manipulate this experience in meaningful and imaginative ways. Iroquois and Nelsormensch get at this issue in their comments as well.

It seems to me one of the attractions of a narrative experience is encountering a well-crafted and rich story that resonates within its own construction. I'm not suggesting a single prescription for all games, but I think there is plenty of room for narrative games that are driven more forcefully by the designer/storyteller with the player discovering/experiencing the story more and helping construct it less.

I know I'm sort of arguing for game design that doesn't fully realize the potential you describe, but when I'm in the hands of a truly great storyteller, I'm perfectly happy to let her drive the bus I'm on. *Very* few games have offered such an experience, so with a relatively thin or lackluster story, the gameplay elements and player autonomy elements become vital to make the game interesting.

In an ideal world, we'll get both the deep, rich story and the interactive experience you describe. Ultimately that's the mountain peak we're all pointing at. But at this point, I'd love to play a game that fully engages me intellectually and emotionally via narrative, and as far as I can tell, video game writers haven't figured out how to do that yet.

Steve gaynor said...


I think characters are one of the toughest challenges in games now. The options you present are valid, but some more difficult than others to pull off. We've gotten good at making environments believable and reactive to the player's input (high-res art, physics simulation, fire propagation, destructibility, etc.) but people are just that much more complex. It's why the vast majority of humans in games are either single-minded enemies or sequestered behind a shopkeeper's counter or radio codec screen: we largely lack the tools to make the player feel like they're really there in a room with another functioning human being. Even with all the work Valve has put into Alyx, I don't feel one bit like I'm in the presence of another person when she's shambling around.

The presence of human characters can help support the feeling of being there, or they can hurt it. If there were no civilians walking around a simulated city you wouldn't much feel like you were there (look at Vampire: Bloodlines, The Darkness, or MGS4's third act) but likewise if people are present but don't fully react to the player's inputs their roboticism actually degrades the experience. Pick your battles.

Steve gaynor said...


I think that story can be an incredibly useful tool for reinforcing the feeling of being there. Certainly when I've gone traveling overseas (little as I've been able) what stick with me have been the stories of meeting people, interacting with them, exploring places.. but these have been micro-stories, not huge dramatic arcs. The pressure of casting the player as the protagonist in an orchestrated high drama tends to highlight games' weaknesses over their strengths: the need to conform to a script, to do particular things in a particular order, to fulfill the requirements of someone else's master plan.

Story I think works best in games when localized, compartmentalized. If games at their best are more like real life than other entertainment mediums, so is game story. Our lives are collections of little scattered stories adding up to a whole.

Anonymous said...

"Our lives are collections of little scattered stories adding up to a whole." - Steve

I like to think of life as a series of choices that weave together the tapestry of our character. It's the choices we make that define who we are and thus creates a story, a "his-story" that needs to be told.

I think all our ideas are valid, there isn't one right way to make a game. You can make a totally sandbox game like GTA without the missions or The Sims and let players come up with their own stories and that's valid but in my opinion actually doesn't live up to the potential of our medium. We don't reach the potential of videogames simply by letting players create or live out their own fantasies.

I see the potential of our medium as inviting players to have an experience they may or may not have and that experience (playing the game) teaches them something new about the world they live in or about themselves as a person.

We live in increasingly complex and volatile world and I think videogames can help us understand it a little bit better when we are given a context and then the freedom to make our own choices. The kinds of games I think serve the potential of the medium don't have a win or lose condition, but simply reflect back our own choices and help us to grow as people in some way.

Kirk Battle said...

Sometimes I find game designers worry too damn much about all of this. As you say in your post, your primary job is to create a vehicle for the player to make a story. People, by nature, create stories around them. They see a human face in the moon. They see an emotional moment when their NPC pal dies. The cultural willingness to be receptive to caring about the events in a game is the biggest barrier to be overcome today.

Honestly, I tend to interpret game design like I do tarot cards. I picked that hobby up a long time ago to meet women but lately I see the exact same methods appearing in video games. A completely random series of symbols that have a defined relationship with one another are presented to the subject. The entire time I'm presenting these, narrating their meaning, the player is creating their own interpretation. This the-

Wait, scratch that, I'm turning this into a column...

JP said...

This post got a quote in a recent talk Jon Blow gave:


(towards the end)

Michael Samyn said...

This is exactly what we are trying to do with our games at Tale of Tales. But in our opinion, the rules and goals of traditional gameplay always destroy any kind of narrative experience. Gameplay as we know it adds an abstract meta-layer on top of the game that disconnects the player from "being in the world".

What we need to do, in my opinion, is to develop new forms of interaction that support and enhance the agency and the feeling of being there. Instead of destroying it. Bioshock is a great game until it turns into a shooter. Portal is fabulous until it turns into a puzzle. The list goes on and on. All I see is an incredible waste of opportunity.

Steve gaynor said...

I'm not sure what Portal is "until it turns into a puzzle." You just loved standing inside a 4x4 plexiglass box?

Michael Samyn said...

Maybe I should have said it was fabulous until I _realized that it was (just) a puzzle. Such a sad waste.

Anonymous said...

Considering that you call video games a medium, I take issue with these views.

If video games offer that kind of player agency, they aren't in any way comparable to film or literature. They're comparable to a camera, or pen and paper. (Only, more restricted - remember those 'fill in the blanks/gaps' stories? Like that.) Designers of these are creating personalised and restricted toolsets.

Now, video games aren't a medium. That's possibly the most important thing to know in this discussion. It's the interactive medium, and games fit under that umbrella.

Furthermore, Ebert does not make an astute observation. It's plagued with the same lack of understanding others have about this medium. The strength of the interactive medium is...interactivity. Interactivity != choice.
We are already brought "closer" to preconstructions in the same way that seeing life on screen has the potential to be more powerful than having it described to you or reading about it. This is when we can draw a comparison.

Choice, well, choice isn't new or unique to this medium at all. Choose your own adventure books have done it for years; games offer more complex presentation, but the same old methods. Consider how we value novels over choose your own adventure books.

Furthermore, narrative and characters are imaginary constructs. They're not real and we shouldn't treat them as such.

"If games at their best are more like real life than other entertainment mediums, so is game story."
They could not possibly be more like real life than other media the way you're describing them. Life isn't a fantasy to fulfill, and that's what choice based narratives amount to. There's the argument that life is freedom and choices, and this is true. It makes for a good simulation when put into a game, but it's not something we put critical value into.

It's a very, very low bar to set, if we're saying that it's the "best" we can do as a *medium*. It's the best games can do, I think. This isn't a question of whether there's room for more than one approach. (Though I agree with Abbott on this one.) I only intend to clarify a few things.

"People, by nature, create stories around them."
No? Try figuring out why *some* people do this. The second example you give of an NPC dying is emotional response. It might be caused by manipulation, but it isn't a story in itself created by the player.

And Portal is just plain fabulous.