A word in the background – Part I

October 14, 2015

I love storytelling. I feel that other people should care about storytelling, too, because it is so very important to us: it is a fundamental substrate of human existence. A lesson I learned from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman is that a story is a metaphor for life and life is a metaphor for a story. All our forms of entertainment, including the modern invention of videogames, are culture, and “culture” is just shorthand for (among other things) “who we are, what we do, and what we enjoy.” Stepping sideways into music, there are always the words of Amanda Palmer in her Ukulele Anthem:

You may think my approach is simple-minded and naïve
Like if you want to change the world then why not quit and feed the hungry
But people for millennia have needed music to survive
And that is why I promised John [Lennon] that I will not feel guilty

This sort of reasoning contributes to my general enjoyment of all sorts of games regardless of format. (Though I am aware that each medium has its own qualities that may be employed to good result in the artistic creation. But such brings its own discussion.) For years, when broaching this topic with people I would refer them to my videogame collection: most everything I owned was there because of the storytelling. This included an oddity or two . . . which will come in two paragraphs as the main reason I am posting today.

But before I get there, first let me note the timeframe of this collection. Around the turn of the century/millenium, videogame technology had advanced to the point where real storytelling was possible. I took particular note of Looking Glass Studios’ Thief (fan site here). Years prior, in seeing early first-person games and all their straightforward violence (see Wolfenstein 3D and Doom), I’d imagined the development of a game where enemies had personality, a real life. Your actions might be violent in the end, such as assassination, but this hypothetical game would have computer-controlled characters do such things as sleep, talk, and get angry. They’d HAVE background, instead of BEING background. Then Thief came along and did exactly so (minus much assassination).

The feeling that the world is not “just background,” but that it is alive and filled with living, breathing people, is what many gamers such as renowned author Sir Terry Pratchett enjoyed in the Thief series. I agreed. Thus it was that I bought Unreal Tournament for the story.

It sounds impossible. This is the first-person shooter that made “frag” into a (gaming-) household word. And to this day I have never met another human being who realized that Unreal Tournament HAS a story at all. But I did. Why? And how? Simple: I was the only human being I knew who bothered to read the character backgrounds presented before each match. Thus I saw that the world of Unreal Tournament is one filled with living, breathing people; one where the enemies have personality, a real life. There is even a little mystery about who and what the final enemy of the game is supposed to be. I liked this, and I felt that the background enriched my experience as I played through the high-quality first-person frag fest.

Ken Levine, during the development of the game Bioshock (which is very violent but also has extensive story), discussed how the goal was to ensure the game worked on three levels. On one, the story could be ignored beyond “okay, so, that’s the boss” and it would be a good action game for people who wanted it. On another, the story would be integrated well enough that gamers could observe “oh, I see what motivates these people” intermixed with the gameplay. Then on yet another, of course, the story would be there for people to devour in its entirety, pouring over each log and line to understand the world.

The fact that a batch of “mindless enemies” can be so interesting leads me to now, where I’ve decided to run with this and develop a story world (the same thing as a game world) based around fighter background information. Part brainstorming, part game design, and part just having fun as always. And I will do it in my next post.

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