I continue my conversation with Rhianna Pratchett:
Alex: We were talking about what stories games do that you can't do as well in other media. One thought that occurred to me was what games can do is make the player complicit in something.
I’m thinking of Far Cry 3 where this naïve tourist kid gets harder and harder until he has a flamethrower and starts blasting everything. He's like, whoa, this is awesome. I love it. And as a player you’re thinking, I’m turning into a little bit of a monster, aren’t I? We've made you complicit because you did that, you didn’t just watch it happen. And the white phosphorus mission in Spec Ops: The Line. And to a lesser extent, The Last of Us, the final decision that Joel makes, we make you complicit in these things. (Though not as complicit as if the game let you make that choice.) Whereas if you're just in a movie, you're just watching.
Rhianna: I think detective games work really well. The actors solving and searching and rummaging up clues yourself.
Alex: That's a great example, because with detective stories and movies, you know that if you just sit back, it'll get solved. When I read an Agatha Christie novel, for example, I don't have a note pad, I’m not writing down, “Sally was in the study from 2 to 5.”
Whereas in a detective game or a detective mission in a game, you really have to look at all the clues and think, Oh my God, what's this all mean?
It really forces you to have that experience. If you're in LA Noire or a game where you really do have to at least put together some of the clues yourself. It puts you more in the frame of mind of the puzzle solver.
Rhianna: It's interesting what you were saying about complicity as well because I think the Far Cry games are very good in that.
With Far Cry 4, I really enjoyed 4, but I could never finish it because I was being forced to be complicit with one or other monster, and then I was just like, no, no, my decision is to not choose. I found it a bit annoying that game was forcing me to do that. So I just opted out of doing it.
Alex: And same thing with The Last of Us 2. I mean, I'm killing all these people who really don’t have it coming. I can't kill all these people.
Rhianna: I haven't played The Last of Us 2. It came out during the middle of the pandemic. I knew there was dog killing. I didn't want to do that. I just felt like the world was dark enough.
Alex: That is the hilarious thing about gamers, right? Gamers will kill 100 guards who have mothers and wives and children, but if you have to kill a dog, I'm putting the controller down. I'm done.
Rhianna: There’s a whole website devoted to people that can't cope with that in a movie, the Does the Dog Die? website. It's not just about animal killing now. It's all these things that might be uncomfortable watching for people.
Rhianna: The Bioshocks were very interesting in there, the harvesting and not harvesting of Little Sisters. Although it was a very obviously good or obviously evil choice and I could not. I think some players found it somewhat offensive that the game was trying to get you to kill a child. And I never harvested a Little Sister, not even to see what it was like. I just couldn't.
Alex: That’s the positive side of complicity. If the game can offer you a choice, you can feel good about it. We gave you the chance to do it and you turned your back on it. So you can really feel like a hero because you weren't forced to do the right thing.
Rhianna: Bioshock 2 actually is built on a mantra: “By the time we understand our legacy, it's too late.” You're making choices and your daughter is learning from those choices. And then those choices inform how she treats her mother towards the end of the game. So you're complicit to whole different level because there's another character learning from you. It’s not a very subtle metaphor, your child may be learning from your mistakes.
Alex: The best metaphors are not subtle. The best hit you over the head! That’s sort of the purpose of science fiction and fantasy.
Mac and cheese games
Rhianna: The Bioshocks are also games that I like to replay. I have a lot of games, I call them cozy blanket games. I will often prefer to replay an old game that try a new game. There's a sweet spot in an old game.
Alex: When you make a mac and cheese, you know exactly what you're gonna get. It's not going to be surprising. But on the other hand, it's going to be creamy. So when you have a game where you know the game loop by heart, it’s still going to give you those dopamine hits.
Rhianna: And you’re feeling good at it, whereas when you play a new game you’re feeling shit and not knowing what you're doing and learning everything again. And sometimes you're just not in the mood to learn something.
Alex: There’s a certain mental toll.
Rhianna: I’m always very proud of myself when I try a new game, especially if I managed to finish it as well. Like the last game I remember picking up on the day it came out and starting it on the day it came out was Unavowed by Wadjet Eye Games. I really enjoyed that. I hadn't played a click and point adventure of that style for a long time and I thought they did a great job.
Unpacking as well was really nice. I could have done with it being a bit longer, but it was just a satisfying experience as a player.
Alex: That's really moving. That was a really moving game.
Pull vs. push narrative
Rhianna: That really increases the discussion about environmental narrative and how to use objects and space to tell a story and I think that's one thing that games can do really well is tell a story through nontraditional means. So.
Rhianna: Yeah, Virginia just uses gestures. Limbo uses artwork and level design. And obviously every medium uses environmental narrative to a degree. But in games, because the player can poke around in every corner of the world if they wish to, the real estate for environmental narrative is huge. You can use so much of the world to tell this story. I think the first Bioshock is a really good closed world example. Unpacking as well through its use of objects and being able to place those objects or not, you work out the characters through the things they own. It's just lovely. And I think that's something games can do very well.
Alex: Games do non-linear story well. With Unpacking, you're are putting the story together. The game doesn't tell you flat out, here’s what happened. But then when you open one of the boxes and you pull something out, you go, oh, I see what happened.
Rhianna: Again, there's probably a German word about this. When you work out the narrative of the story without the game bashing you over the head with it, I think that's very satisfying.
Alex: Because you pulled it out of the game instead of having it pushed at you.
Rhianna: Pull and push narrative, I think it's very important in games that to have that.
With the Bioshock games, players who like to poke around in the corners might find different audio diaries. They might find, you know, a little ghost scenario here. And they may learn more about the world and it feels more personal to them because they've discovered it in the corners. Actively pulling narrative towards you rather have it pushed out by the developers, is very satisfying. And again it ties into how important environmental narrative is, and how much writers need to be involved early. We know how to tell a story without words as well, despite the fact we do the word bits. We understand what goes on behind them.
Alex: I've seen a bunch of games presented as having emergent narrative. I'm not really sure what it is. Do you know?
Rhianna: Which games have you heard about talked about?
Alex: Oh, you know, Pendragon, for example, was touted as a game with emergent narrative. Wildermyth.
When we talk about emergent gameplay, the idea is we create all these systems and then the players discover new capabilities within that. So in Zelda you discover that if you do this and this and this now you're in a balloon floating over a mountain.
Or rocket jumping in shooters.
It seems to me like you could have emergent narrative. But what I'm seeing advertised as emergent narrative isn't particularly systemic. So I'm not clear what it is.
Rhianna: If it feels like it’s a way of expressing more personalized narratives. That the narrative is at a more granular level around what you do, what you say in the choices that you make so that. You can play the game two different ways.
But it's still narrative that someone has had to write. Someone has thought about all the different permutations that could happen based on the choices and the actions that you make and is sort of spinning that to create a story that feels more personal.
It feels like it would have to be more akin to interactive theatre. You're dealing with the audience moving through the actors’ space and you don't know how they're going to react to things. And the actors have to react. Emergent narrative is trying to replicate that.
Alex: It seems to me that you could make emergent narrative. But I think it would be extremely difficult. Say the player can hit different bits of narrative in different order. So if a guy has an argument with his wife, that’s one bit, and he cheats on his wife is another. If you say he cheats on his wife and then has an argument, that’s one story. If he has an argument and then cheats, that’s a different story. They mean different things because they happen in different order.
One is saying, Oh well, you know, he was mad at her about the argument. So he decided to hurt her by cheating. And then the other one is, they're arguing about the cheating.
But to create a whole bunch of storylets so that you could tell a multitude of stories by hitting them in a number of different orders, that seems to me very high order of difficulty.
Rhianna: And there's potentially a lot of wasted material as well.
Alex: The company I work for has a deep dread of any content that the player will not, for sure, guaranteed, hit.
Rhianna: I think the challenge is to make it feel like there may be other choices to be made and other things to explore that aren't necessarily there, but it generates that feeling.
Alex: The illusion of player agency.
Who finishes games?
Rhianna: So many players don't reach the end of games.
Alex: Which takes us back to games journalism. Games journalists will complete a game. And most players will not complete the game. So we are making a good deal of the later game for the game journalists, aren’t we.
Rhianna: I think that's why episodic games are interesting, because you can be pretty sure that both players and game journalists are going to reach the end of it. I think we’ll see more of these bite size chunks of narrative. That's how The Long Dark works. They've had four episodes and each one has sort of five or six hours of gameplay. They're always very finishable.
But I would not hand on heart say that every game journalist has finished every game that they have reviewed. You normally have a very tight deadline. And if you played through half the game, the game should have shown you like a lot of what it can do. You only have to play enough so you feel you can write an honest review.
It's funny. I don't tend to play the very long open world games apart from The Long Dark where I'm just living in a cave, eating a bear for ages and ages.
I do like that games are getting more bite size. And I do like the episodic model a lot. I think games are turning toward TV for inspiration. We are in the Golden Age of TV, just diversity across the board in all spectrums. And I think games are starting to think about how they can do similar things. When I started out the indie scene was pretty nonexistent. There was obviously very little mobile gaming content and that's that's flourished. All those different avenues lend themselves to different types of stories and whether they're huge, lengthy Red Dead Redemption 2's or they’re smaller Animal Crossings, the platforms and the mediums have also changed the way we tell stories and the types of stories we tell for the good. I think there's much more diversity of stories on offer. But yeah, that still doesn't stop me going back to my cozy blanket games and replaying Dungeon Keeper 2 for the millionth billionth time. That doesn't really have much of a story, but it does have humor.
Alex: You make the story by playing it.
Rhianna: Cool. Yeah. Yeah. And I think a lot of that goes for The Long Dark as well. I'm pretty sure I'm telling myself a story there. It's usually very dull one as I'm going along and you know, there's Ghost Dad in my head doing his commentary as well.
I think I like being fairly expert at it now and being able to help people who get stuck because I know how hard it is. And I never thought this would happen, but I would never get expert in the game. Yeah, that's terrible coming for a games journalist.
But what games can you say that you are expert in?
In which we talk about Alex’s own game habits
Alex: I guess some of the Total War games. Three Kingdoms. Medieval 2: Total War. Into the Breach. Europa Universalis, which I've probably spent 1000 hours on, aggrandizing the Kingdom of Bohemia till it stretched from from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
Alex: And then Crusader Kings II. I'm not really allowed to play that anymore.
Rhianna: There's a lot of marrying off your children.
Alex: The classic Crusader Kings joke is, “My daughter wanted to be treated like a princess. So I married her to France for an alliance.”
Rhianna: You like your games fiddly and intricate.
Alex: One-more-turn games. CK2 is very fiddly. It’s about mastery of the systems. As you say, feeling like you're an expert in this.
But then, wow, the amount of time that I fall into them and then I realized that I've burned 200 hours and I’m thinking, what could I have written in 200 hours? I do play story games.
Rhianna: What's your favorite? What's the last favorite story game you played?
Alex: The last really satisfying story game, maybe Black Book? You’re a witch in Slavic folklore and your boyfriend has died. And you’re having none of that. So you are set on doing some unwise things to bring him back. It’s a deck builder.
Alex: And you’re fighting all sorts of Slavic demons, chorts and things.
Rhianna: I'm seeing more Slavic mythology and Eastern European mythology coming out in games recently. There was another survival game, but you play as a witch. [Goes on Steam] There’s something called Skin which looks terrifying.
Alex: Oh dear.
Rhianna: [Looking on Steam] It just keeps giving me the Blair Witch game.
Alex: Oh, Return of the Obra Dinn. It’s a puzzle game, sort of. You have to figure out how all sixty people on a ship died. And they each died in spectacular ways. So you have to figure out what the story was that happened.
Rhianna: Yeah, I I played a little bit of that. I really liked Papers, Please, which was their previous game.
Alex: Papers, Please was another great example of putting you in a complicit situation and letting you feel what it’s like. The situation will not allow you to be righteous. It really enlightens you. It's easy to judge people who are not righteous but we have the comfort to be righteous.
Rhianna: Yeah, I haven't thought about that game for awhile, but it really affected me.
Alex: And Disco Elysium.
Rhianna: Oh yeah, I played a little bit of that. I enjoyed the writing and characterization in that.
Alex: They went back and fully voiced everything. If you update your game then you will discover that all the things that were just text now have voices.
Rhianna: I'm trying to think if there's any other games I’m expert at. I mean, I was probably quite a decent level in World of Warcraft. At some point I was fairly decent in Age of Mythology. I was obsessed with Age of Mythology at one point, playing it online. I would play it, get obsessed, feel that I just needed to break free of it, and I would break the disk. And then six months later, the same thing would happen again.
I did that with Stronghold. I bought Stronghold three or four times.
Rhianna: Sometimes when I die in The Long Dark, it feels like there's a freedom to it. Because if you die, it's a game over. Your whole game is wiped. Freedom is when you stop playing the game, when you can just do something else, but it just.
I know I'm going to go in after this conversation, and I know there's a bear that's died up a tree randomly. I thought, well, I'll sort that bear out after I've spoken to Alex and now I'll have loads of plans for the game. After that I'm gonna eat the bear and that's gonna take me like 2 weeks to eat my way through the bear....
Alex: I better let you get on that. It was lovely talking to you.
Rhianna: And you.