Understanding Video Games text-book
Stories from the Sandbox

Date posted: May 14, 2006
Updated: Oct 29, 2007

By Jonas Heide Smith (smith@game-research.com)

Stories are the key to understanding the world. We love stories and we understand things by placing them in the framework of stories. Thus, to be enjoyable, games must tell stories and it is the responsibility of designers to think in terms of stories. Right? Wrong!

MMORPGs suck, I wrote some time ago putting it slightly more mildly, because their worlds are static. The choices players have are inconsequential and basically players can’t do anything important.

After giving it a little thought everybody agreed with me and the world became a better place.
Well, that�s not quite what happened. In fact, quite a few people felt that I was sadly mistaken, some of them voicing their disagreement in our forum. There were at least three main arguments.

* The designer overload argument: Doing away with re-doable quests and designing individual quests for every player would be practically impossible.
My answer to this: Yes, of course. I’m advocating forgetting central quest construction altogether.

* The you-have-no-idea argument: Constructing a dynamic world in which players could actually affect objects would be outrageously difficult.
My answer: Really? Would it be more difficult, say, than thinking up so many silly quests for each character class?

* The players-are-not-designers argument: Players want to have fun, they don’t want to work at creating worlds.
My answer: Well, first of all I’m not talking about giving them small Dungeon Master Editor Kits. I’m talking about letting them create their own stories by creative interaction with the game universe. Secondly, I’m just not so sure - it seems to me that people DO want to create all sorts of things. At least that is the case in many old-school MUDs (for some players, at least).

Now, why am I bringing all this up once again? Basically, because I think The Other Side - that is, those who do not see why I’m so obviously right � have just taken the trouble to publish an actual manifesto. Or rather, Chris Klug, over at Gamasutra has written an article on that most respectable site explaining why game designers should focus on stories. It’s a fine article but the very fact that it’s thoughtful makes it so much more fun to take issue with.
Let’s have a look at the arguments.

Klug starts by playing the stories-are-everywhere card. There is some truth to this claim (yes, we do make sense of the world by using various narrative templates) but it’s also rather problematic. Mostly because it seems to take the analytic edge out of the very concept by reducing (?) everything to stories.

Anyway, there is absolutely no link between the fact that people think in stories and the normative claim that game designers should tell stories. Klug, however, claims that “Game developers need to also be expert story tellers, because we are telling stories even when we think we aren’t.” Come again?

Building upon this non sequitur, Klug says some clever things which I shall pass over in silence (read the article, yourself) and goes on to label people who think like me (anyone?) “sandbox theorists”. Ha! Not a bad metaphor, I shall wear the label proudly, even if it does come from a Daytime Soap designer.

Anyway, I think Klug then tries to jump on board a ship that has already sunk. He goes on to claim that designers should deliver the content since players want to be entertained if they are to show up. Now, how’s that for counterfactuality. If the history of computer networks tells us anything, it’s that centrally produces content is entirely overrated as a means of attracting visitors.

On the World Wide Web, content heavy sites have been a stepping stone not to commercial success but to scary bottom lines. Many websites which only provide frameworks for human interaction (webmail, discussion sites, online groupware etc.) have been far more successful. Sure, having an army of designer/storytellers provide interesting narrative entertainment would be great. But it remains �- I believe - a perfect-world argument. It’s just not feasible in the real world of economical constraints.

No, I remain convinced that game designers considering themselves story-tellers in anything approaching the normal sense is a sure recipe for disaster. Gamers do not want sit-coms (or if they do, why not just watch the real thing?) � they want open-ended worlds in which they can participate in the spontaneous drama of narratively interesting variables. Worlds in which their choices make a difference.

In my humble opinion.

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