What’s the point? Part I

April 29, 2013

I open with a question. It’s a question about writing stories, either in performance, print, or game form.

I had the privilege of hearing Sir Terry Pratchett interviewed during the 2009 North American Discworld Convention. He explained where he stood in the oft-described duality of “plan it all ahead” versus “learn what the story is by writing it,” and he had good words to say about his own “emergent” experiences with the latter. But then he said this:

“And it took some time for [the most recent book] to tell me what it was. Which is not the same as the plot. It is the same as the point. What is the point of the book?”

So I ask: what’s the point of your writing?

This varies by type of writing. Business and technical writing’s “point” is often to effect a change, a fact I learned from the worst diagram I’ve ever seen in a college textbook. Half a page of empty space: in the left was a box for “The way things are now (Present State)”; an arrow stretched across the middle, representing your writing or communication; the arrow then pointed to the right, with a box for “The way you want things to be (Goal State)”; and the plain caption read “Your writing goal is to bring about change.” More realistic steps ensued on the next page, but the point could not have been made worse (or better) than by this one diagram.

Story writing’s “point” is often a moral: a message, a feeling, whatever the reader takes away in the end. Much to the chagrin of Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes, who, in commanding his father to edit his bedtime story, concluded:

“It doesn’t have a moral, does it? I hate being told how to live my life. Skip the moral, too, ok?”

Such a command is futile for most stories, whether we’re talking about a book, a movie, or a play. Imagine a tale where a nasty person betrays all of his or her friends, starts a big fight sequence (that one’s for you, Calvin!), and then dies. The moral of the story? Don’t betray all of your friends, or else you’ll be a nasty person and you might die (fight sequence optional). Understanding the story is synonymous with understanding the point.

Now what about the story in a videogame? What’s the point of game writing?

That may be tricky to ask, certainly if one approaches it from the standpoint that games aren’t “real storytelling.” Of course the versatility of games means they can be anything, from educational presentations to adrenaline fests to solid written books of nothing but story. In a massively-multiplayer online RPG, one may hear the maxim that “you should never be more than two minutes from combat” (held at Blizzard Entertainment and elsewhere) and conclude the writing’s “point” is to transition between fights. This is sometimes true. However, when you look within those big fight sequences, you still might find nasty people who betrayed all their friends.

Videogame writing, if done for a story, shares the same “point”: a moral. Storytelling is storytelling regardless of format. In my next post, I will delve into examples.

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