It has been too long since I have posted here, but after my last post, I was unsure of what to write about next. I have decided that in my next few posts I will talk about the different elements that make a story, including premise, character, and conflict.
There is a common misconception in Gaming that “Story” equals “Backstory.” Backstory is just a bunch of meaningless facts about characters, organizations, or worlds. Story is something much more real, dynamic, and interesting.
What Makes a Story
There are several elements that are required to make a good story. I am going to talk about the most basic elements, because I do not want to start listing every little thing that I think is important for a story; for example, “Stories need a good guy, a bad guy, a epic battle between the two, character development, blah, blah, blah.” There are really only three things a good story needs, and everything else will either be a subset of these three things, or an element which is not integral to the story.
The three elements which I will talk about are premise, character, and conflict.
Premise is the purpose of the story; what the author of the story wants to prove through the story. I have talked about premises before, so I will try not to repeat what I have already said. A premise is required for a story, otherwise the other elements, character and conflict, will have no meaning. The three elements of story I am talking about are each unimportant without the previous element; characters are unimportant without a clear-cut premise, and conflict is unimportant without well-orchestrated, three-dimensional characters.
All stories have characters. Characters don’t necessarily have to be people or even alive, but to be honest, the most interesting characters are people. A good story also needs strong characters, otherwise there will be no conflict.
Conflict stems from characters who are designed to prove a premise, and they prove this premise through conflict. I will talk about conflict in more detail in a later post, so I won’t go into too much detail here.
When a Story Starts
A story never starts at the beginning. Why? Because that would be boring. A story should start when a decision is made, when a character comes to a turning point in their life, or when something vital is at stake. If a story starts without any conflict, and instead begins by introducing the characters and telling everything about them, it will be boring. The audience wants to immediately see conflict, or the foreshadowing of conflict.
This point at which the story begins is called the “point of attack.” This starts the conflict immediately. If a story were to not start at the point of attack, then the audience could lose interest in the story, and possibly not care to see how it ends. This is obviously not a good thing.
I hope I am not boring anyone, but I think that this is very important to understand if good interactive storytelling–or any type of storytelling–is the goal. If you bear with me for these next several posts, you won’t really need to read The Art of Dramatic Writing By Lajos Egri, although I still highly recommend it. I am also reading his book, The Art of Creative Writing, which is also very good, but is not as important as the first.
To put it simply, start in the middle, not at the beginning.
When a Story Ends
Since a story is an attempt by the storyteller to prove a premise, the story naturally is over when the premise is proven. Many of these ideas are leading up to an interactive storytelling process, so a process must be created that decides when a premise is proven. In a future post I want to talk about what should actually be expected from an interactive storytelling engine, and what should be expected of the storyteller, or the person creating the interactive story. My point is, deciding when the premise is proven could be the job of the storyteller, or the job of the computer. Currently, I believe it would be much easier to force the storyteller to input certain criteria that must be met for the story to end. Once all the criteria are met, the story is over. It will be up to the storyteller to decide whether the criteria allow the premise to be proven at the end of the interactive story or not.
If I was confusing in that last paragraph, I apologize, but I want to talk about it in more depth in a later post, so I will leave it for now. Continue to bear with me.
Stories in Games
As I mentioned before, most stories in games are backstories. Not all, but most. For example, one game I think of is Quake II, in which there is a text file you can read that explains all of the events leading up to the beginning of the game, and then story is replaced with glorious violence until a cinematic ends the game. Wow. The characters were so great in that game, I don’t even remember any of their names. Of course, I shouldn’t pick on Id games, you say? Well, I could always pick on Mass Effect. Or Fallout 3. Or Heavy Rain.
I have already talked about Mass Effect in several previous posts, so why would I bore you once again with musings on the story of Commander Shepard? I won’t. You already know my opinion on the story of the Mass Effect games.
I will instead talk about the popular Role-Playing Game, Fallout 3. I played that. Fun game. Lots of talking. But was there a real story? There were many backstories, many things that looked like people, and many quests that seemed like conflicts, but were there any characters? Was there any real conflict? Was there even a premise?
Considering the game can end one of three ways, not including the hundreds of slight variations, I saw no premise in Fallout 3. You could end the game as a charismatic character, who helped those in need and did not give in to the temptations of the wasteland. Or you could as easily end the game as a villainous character, who killed those who trusted him and let his greed take over. You may ask, “well, can’t a game prove multiple premises since it gives the player a choice?” No. If all characters and conflict are created before the story even begins so that they can prove a premise, how could you then prove a premise on the fly with characters who are not able to prove that premise?
Again, you may wonder, “But if the characters are changeable, why couldn’t they prove several premises?” Even though the player character is changeable, the other characters would not be able to change enough to prove a new premise without causing either static or jumping conflict, which I will talk about later.
I will end this little argument with myself by saying that if a game could prove any premise, then what point would there be to making one? If you, as the creator, have no say in what the audience learns or experiences through your story, then why would you even care to make one? I, personally, see no point in this.
Since Fallout 3 had no premise, the characters and conflict have no purpose. They are simply entertaining, and their depth stops there. To create an interactive story, the characters must be more than entertaining. The conflict must be more than glorious violence. There must be a premise, and I will not yield on this point.
Well, I hope you are still bearing with me. Very soon I will be writing posts about character, conflict, and finally some design issues involved in creating an interactive storytelling engine. As always, if you have anything to say, leave a comment. Feel free to start a discussion. However, I have made a pact with myself to not argue on the internet. That is a waste of time. I will try to answer any questions, of course, and I hope you return for my future posts.