Digital storytelling 101
This post is for anybody creating interactive content, and struggling with how to share the story with the audience. This isn't just for writers & narrative designers. Standup comedians, Broadway actors, content strategists, software developers -- you guys know all too well that you are dealing with audiences that have minds of their own. This one's for you.
When I first started working in interactive entertainment/video games, I poured my heart and soul into the work. So did everybody else on the team. We were so excited to have the opportunity to tell stories - and get paid for it! What! It was like winning the lottery. We thought it was going to be amazing, telling stories to millions of players who would fall in love with our characters and our plot twists and our general foolishness.
(You can see where this story is going.)
We told most of our stories through cutscenes, because a) the technology was limited, we couldn't do much in-game storytelling, and b) cutscenes were a way for us to focus the player's attention on the story. We hoped that if we did a good enough job, our players would get as swept up in the story as they did in the gameplay.
Does that sound right to you? Do you live for the cutscenes?
Or do you do this, instead?
If your answer is "Of COURSE I skip them, what are you kidding? I hate cutscenes!" you are not alone. Most people skip right over them - and we watched them do it, in user-testing sessions, from behind a one-way mirror. In the dark. Glumly. While drinking heavily.
(Dressed just like that.)
We had to figure out what we were doing wrong. (Our jobs were on the line.) Was it us? Did we just suck? Sometimes, the answer was YES, we did suck. So we worked hard and delivered better material. But our numbers didn't improve much.
After a while, it seemed like it wouldn't matter if Shakespeare himself showed up and took a writing job at the studio - there was no storyline compelling enough to keep the audience engaged when they had the power to skip ahead at any moment. What was the problem? And, more importantly, what was the answer?
At first we thought the cutscenes were the problem. We thought we needed to tell the story DURING gameplay, instead. And that did help - to a point. But it wasn't enough.
The problem lay deeper.
It turned out that we knew the solution all along. We had learned about it in high school. We just needed to get back to basics and take it from there.
Back in high school, our English teachers told us that the main character in a story is the protagonist. And that character is defined by his or her desire. In other words, there is something s/he wants - very badly - and s/he is going to have to overcome all kinds of obstacles to get it.
Movies usually feature strong protagonists. Look at Saving Private Ryan. Tom Hanks' character knows what he wants, and he's willing to fight the Nazis to get it. Not Illinois Nazis, either; real Nazis. That's dedication.
So who is the protagonist in a game?
Well...it has to be the player, right?
The player is at the center of the action; that's true. And the player does have a desire line, a strong one, in fact.
But that desire line has nothing to do with the story. It's about the game.
Players want to play the game.
If the story helps them progress through the game, they'll buy in. And if the story gets in the way of the experience, they will skip those moments faster than you (as the storyteller) can say, "But wait, I think you'll like this."
Here is an example. Imagine that you are playing a game. In the beginning, you are given the assignment to save the princess -- who you are told is your avatar's one true love. So you head out into the kingdom to do battle with dragons and whatnot.
Halfway through the game, you receive some surprising news. The princess is a traitor! Your job is not to save her; your job is to assassinate her.
But she is your one true love! You can't kill her...can you?
Yes. Of course, you can. Because guess what? You know it's all make-believe. Your AVATAR might love her, but you the player have never even met her! And you're not going to give up on the game just because some guy gave you a little bit of bad news.
Of course, some players will play along and take their role in the game seriously...but you can't count on that. I pitched this scenario in my college class last spring, and the students were all over the map. Some said they'd follow orders; some said they didn't care, and some were convinced it was all a conspiracy. :)
Players know it's all pretend. There is no princess, there is no alien invasion, there is no spoon.
It's true, of course, and no amount of balderdash is going to trick the player into believing it's real. And remember, the player is usually emotionally invested in the GAME, not the story. Shakespeare himself could write the most heartwrenching scene about how much the princess loves the hero...and 8 out of 10 players will hit X and skip the scene, because they want to get back to the game.
So the world is a virtual construct, and nothing means anything! Does that mean there's no point even trying to tell a story?
Nope! Just means rethinking the experience. Let's look at The Matrix to see what's possible.
At the beginning of the movie, Neo isn't Neo. He's Mr. Anderson, and he thinks he is a programmer trapped in a job he hates. Remember this scene at the beginning of the movie? Remember how scared he was to climb outside the building? He was afraid he'd fall to his death.
You could have told him, at that moment, "Hey you'll be fine, none of this is real," but he wouldn't have believed you.
Here's the key point of this entire post:
All the non-player characters in a game are like Mr. Anderson. THEY DON'T KNOW IT'S A GAME.
Their world begins and ends inside that virtual world. For them, the story IS a matter of life and death.
If Morpheus hadn't come along and helped Neo wake up, he would have remained Mr. Anderson forever, trapped inside the Matrix.
And because the characters inside Mr. Anderson's world don't KNOW it's a simulation, they literally play along, doing what the world asks of them - working, paying the bills, helping the elderly neighbor bring in her groceries.
In other words, the characters inside the world follow direction. They take their roles seriously. They follow the script.
And this was the moment that changed the way I think about my work -- the moment I realized that - for writers, at least - the non-player characters were as important, if not more so, than the player himself.
Here's the thing: games are all about agency. The player is going to do whatever he wants to do. Maybe he'll buy into the story; maybe he'll completely ignore it. There's no controlling him. But as writers, we had complete control over the OTHER characters. If we focused on bringing them to life, making them compelling people with hopes and dreams and fears of their own, then the story would suddenly come to life, too. The player could enter this world, and it would feel real - because, for everyone there, it is.
So how does this insight relate to anything outside of games?
Well, it all comes down to empathy -- taking the time to understand what's driving the other person, and making choices accordingly.
Everybody on this planet is walking around with their own desire line. By looking at the story - or whatever experience you're trying to create - from the point of view of different characters, maybe you'll find new ways to balance out the competing needs of the audience and the author.
For example, comedians have to figure out, Why is this guy heckling me? Does he genuinely hate my act? Or is he just trying to impress his date? Should I placate him, or destroy him? And is the rest of the room with me, or not? Comedians have to make these kinds of difficult decisions from the stage all the time, and when they read the room correctly, it's an art form all its own. (Steve Hofstetter, I salute you.)
Playwrights working on theater projects like Sleep No More have to ask themselves, What does the audience want? What kind of experience are they open to having? How can we break through their shyness and reserve, and convince them to play along?
Empathy is a big topic, especially when it comes to interactive storytelling. There is plenty to say (and write) about it. But this post is long enough as it is, so I'll save that material for a future post.
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