“If you're intensely watching a ball game, and a gorilla walks onto the court, you'd notice him ... right? Believe it or not, there's actually a 50 percent chance you'd miss him entirely.
“In their book The Invisible Gorilla, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons explain how our brains trick us into thinking we see and know far more than we actually do.
“The phrase, "the invisible gorilla," comes from an experiment created 10 years ago to test selective attention. In it, study participants are asked to watch a video in which two teams, one in black shirts and one in white shirts, are passing a ball. The participants are told to count how many times the players in white shirts pass the ball.
“Midway through the video, a gorilla walks through the game, stands in the middle, pounds his chest, then exits.
“Then, study participants are asked, "But did you see the gorilla?" More than half the time, subjects miss the gorilla entirely. More than that, even after the participants are told about the gorilla, they're certain they couldn't have missed it."
Want to see it for yourself?
As they say in the story:
"Our intuition is that we will notice something that's that visible, that's that distinctive," explains Simons, "and that intuition is consistently wrong."
This experiment reveals two things: that we are missing a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no idea that we are missing so much.
And when it comes to video games, the story is often the invisible gorilla in the room.
As game writers, we may think the story is right there, front and center - you can’t miss it! The guy is talking, right there! - but as we now know, players have an incredible talent for tuning things out. They’re too busy playing the game to listen to anything. (And of course, they skip the cutscenes.)
But…but players say, over and over again, that they don’t want just gameplay. They want a story, too. In a survey from the Entertainment Software Association, players said that when it came time to pick a new game to play, “story” was a deciding factor most of the time.
And yet half the time, they’re missing the story - without realizing it.
That gorilla is a problem
Game studios KNOW about this problem. They’ve watched plenty of playtest sessions; they know players miss a lot. And game devs are lifelong gamers. THEY know that sometimes they tune out the dialog, too.
So we know this situation isn’t ideal - and yet we keep doing it!
What's going on here?
Maybe it’s inertia. “This is how we’ve always done things (shrug).” But maybe it’s more than that.
The truth is that words are cheap. (Cinematics aren’t cheap, but you can always add in a few lines of in-game dialog here and there.) Every game writer knows what it’s like to have to come in late in development to write a bunch of words to justify a last-minute design change. “Oh, can the player fly now? Huh! Well, we gotta explain that to the player somehow…get the writer in here.” If you’ve ever played a game where an NPC is giving you a tortured rationale for something in the game, you can be sure you’re looking at a design change in action.
Most of the time, game devs are laser-focused on the player experience. They’re not always thinking about the narrative. The story is often treated as an asset, rather than a system. (That’s a big topic - I’ll be talking about that a lot more at this year’s GDC.)
And how exactly DO we develop story and gameplay together, at the same time? Do we even know how, exactly? We just don’t have a shared, industry-wide understanding of how to bring story and gameplay together. (We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet.)
One solution: a new job description for game writers
But we can start moving towards a better way of getting things done. Here is a strategy that could be implemented now, today, without turning the whole studio pipeline upside down.
One approach would be to rethink the writer’s job description. What if a game writer’s job was to tell a story in the game - using every storytelling tool EXCEPT words? What if words were used only as a last resort?
Players have a real talent for ignoring (or muting) spoken dialog. But they are laser-focused on other elements of the game. So one solution is to meet the player where they’re at - and embed the narrative in the elements of the game that have their full attention.
How to make it so
Here is an incomplete list of game elements that can deliver story elements, too.
- Environmental art (graffiti on walls)
- Character design (Kratos’ white skin)
- Level design (the flooded vaults inTomb Raider)
- Music (the soundtrack to Florence)
The truth is that studios are ALREADY using these elements to tell their story, but usually in a catch-as-catch-can kind of way. Too many game writers are asked to rely on words - whether in cinematics or in-game dialog - to reach the player.
If, instead, game writers and narrative designers worked with every other department to deliver their narrative - and used dialog sparingly, if at all - maybe more gamers would be talking about the incredible stories they just played.
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.