The challenge of story-telling in games

WARNING: This post contains massive Red Dead Redemption spoilers!

There are days when I’m really glad I’m not a game designer, and today is one of them, because today I’m thinking about story-telling. Consider a novel or a movie, and more specifically, consider pacing. Most writers take you on a journey full of ups and downs, full of contrasts. The best way to convey an emotion is to preface it with some contrasting emotion. So when everything seems grim and suddenly something wonderful happens, you really feel that sense of joy. And vice versa.

Not in every case, of course. Some stories are just relentlessly joyful, or relentlessly grim. But usually we get variety.

But in games, that’s so hard! Gamers expect an intense experience from start to finish. At best they’ll forgive some slowness in the beginning of a game before things really get rolling, but once the plot is in motion we expect more, More, MORE, MORE!!!! Everything has to ramp up until some ultimate battle at the end.

Red Dead Redemption tries to tell a richer story. [Here come the spoilers.] When you finish the plot and kill the dude you’ve been hunting throughout the game, you’ll expect the credits to roll. Hell, there’s even a great “end of the game” song that plays as you ride off to your homestead to re-unite with your wife and kid. It feels great!

Then you get there…and the game doesn’t end. Now you’ve got more missions doing mundane things like herding cattle or teaching your son to hunt. This goes on for a while and compared to earlier in the game, the pace is sedate. I might even go so far as to call it boring.

And then, the last loose end gets tied up. The US Army comes gunning for John Marston. It’s a scene very very reminiscent of the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He’s stalled his attackers long enough for wife and son to get away, and now he’s holed up in the barn. He realizes there’s only one way this is going to end. Only one way for his wife and child to be free. He has to die. He bursts out of the barn and there’s.. I dunno, 50 enemies, and he’s gunned down.

For me it was a real “oh….shit” kind of moment. I kept wondering how he was going to make it through. (After all, I has side quests to finish!) But he doesn’t. Instead, we fast forward a few years and step into the boots of Jack, his son, now turned gunslinger and going after the man who killed his father.

Anyway, so that’s the plot of Red Dead Redemption. Marston’s death wouldn’t have the same impact if you hadn’t just spent 30 minutes doing these mundane quests where you’re just taking care of your family and your farm. Marston is content at last, and just wants to be left alone. We get that. But the government agent who’d been pulling his strings all this time just can’t have Marston hanging around, knowing what he knows.

The problem is, gamers don’t like those mundane quests! We’re rushing to finish the game; we’ve got 4 more on our “to play” pile that we want to get to. We’re pumped up on adrenaline from taking out the last boss…and now you want us to herd cattle?! Are you crazy?

So how does a game designer give the player that breathing space he needs to settle down, so that the next plot point has the impact the designer is going for, without making the game play boring? And wow, how much testing did they do in RDR so that the maximum number of people get lulled into that sense of complacency before the last battle. Put too many mundane quests in and people will just quit. Put too few in and the sudden switch back to death and combat won’t have the same impact.

I have a friend at work who thought RDR had the ‘dumbest, worst ending’ of any game he’d played. I also know he was really rushing to finish the game, and I think that had some impact?

To me, Red Dead Redemption’s story was amazing. I was thinking about it for weeks after finishing. Generally I finish a game and move on, but RDR has stuck with me the same way a good movie or book would. I’d love to see more games with this kind of storytelling, but I can see how hard it is to make a game like this, and how good the rest of the game has to be in order for gamers to stick with you through the slow bits.

Much easier to design a game based around killing stronger and stronger enemies until finally you kill the strongest enemy, then cut to the credits.

Red Dead Redemption shows us that games can be so much more than a shooting gallery, if we’re only willing to let them be.

Disturbed sleep. Thanks, RDR

I didn’t sleep well last night. I had disturbing, unhappy dreams. I suspected I would, so maybe I sub-consciously caused them to happen.

But I’m still blaming Red Dead Redemption. Something happened in the game last night that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand out. There were only a few second of fore-shadowing that something was Wrong. Not enough for me to prepare myself. And then, there it was.

And I was totally creeped out. After I quit playing the imagery and the event stuck with me; I couldn’t shake it.

This relates a bit to my last role-play post. I think 95% of people will bounce right over this event without a second thought, but I was so “in the world” that I bought into it hook, line and sinker.

I am role-play

If you know me at all, you probably don’t even remotely think of me as a role-player. I never sat around a table playing D&D, and in MMOs I’m pretty quiet as a general rule. I tend to keep to my own company, in games and in ‘real life’ as well.

But the truth is, I’m a pretty hardcore role-player. I just never externalize it.

What spurred (ha! watch this) this self-revelation was playing Red Dead Redemption last night. I’d been riding a horse that was divinely gifted to me (aka I saved my game while horseless and suddenly an equine companion appeared). These magic horses are better than walking it, but they’re not too fast. So I decided to get myself a better horse.

I rode up north of Armadillo where I knew there was a herd of wild horses. I choose one that seemed pretty fast. Really I can’t tell how fast they are, but in my mind’s eye, this beautiful mare seemed faster than the rest. I went after her. I was still fumbling with the lasso controls so it took me a long time to rope her. [The (now obvious to me) trick is to keep the left trigger held down… as soon as you let it up you ‘release’ the lasso and your quarry gets free.] I chased her all over the area. She almost got away a few times but eventually I got a rope around her neck and managed to break her. She settled down nicely, I gave her a reassuring pat on the neck.

At that point, I spotted some herbs, so I climbed down and picked them. When I looked up, it dawned on me that I now had two horses. My old faithful companion who wasn’t too fast, and this new speedy wild mare. I whistled and old faithful came running up. This horse had been with me a long time. He was loyal enough that he followed me around like a puppy. What was I to do with him?

I needed the faster horse, though. I climbed up on the mare and looked at my old companion, standing at the ready. Loyal as always, waiting to serve his master. Maybe get an apple as a reward.

I thought maybe I could lead him back to town. I took out my lasso and tossed it at him and missed. The lasso spooked him and he tore off across the prairie. I watched him go, a little bit relieved that he was no longer a problem, but a little bit worried about what would happen to him.

Then I chuckled at myself for being so silly… what would happened to him is that he’d de-spawn as soon as I left the area, of course. I headed back to town on my new horse..but still couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d betrayed a loyal companion. I found myself wishing Rockstar had given us a way to stable horses, or even to give them to a good home. I’m sure Miss MacFarlane would have room in her stables for a loyal, trustworthy steed!

So that’s my style of role-playing. Sometimes I wish I could turn it off, but I just can’t, even when I want to. It’s why I can’t often bring myself to play ‘evil’ in games; that feeling of malice clings to me long after I stop playing if I’m at all immersed in a game. If the game has anything to hang a role-play hook on, I stick to following my moral compass as much as possible.

Another reason I solo MMOs

Yes! It’s yet another solo players and MMOs post! I’m gonna talk about something a little different this morning though.

So I’m playing Red Dead Redemption lately. Liking it a lot, but there are a few systems that are a bit wonky. Horses, for instance. Horses have various speeds as well as a loyalty stat. As you bond with a horse it becomes more loyal and gains stamina. That’s all well and good but… it’s really hard to tell horses apart. There’s no way to examine a horse to see if he’s yours, or how fast (or loyal) he is, and if your horse gets killed the next time you load (or save) a game you’ll magically have a horse again. The same horse? No, I don’t think so. But what horse is this? There’s no way to tell.

I’d love to see Rockstar re-write the ‘horse system’ to make it a bit more robust. Letting us name our horse would be a start, and letting us examine one to estimate how fast it is would be great too. Heck they could even make that some kind of skill you can learn. How many times has someone in a Western said of another character “That man knows his horses”?

If Red Dead Redemption were an MMO, I’d suggest these changes in the game’s forums or even via in-game tools, and I think a lot of other players would too. We’d have a reasonable chance of having the horse system get a revamp at some point over the years that the game’s “Live Team” worked on it.

It’s remotely possible that Rockstar will re-do the horse system in DLC for RDR, but such a sweeping change isn’t really likely. With the game having a shelf-life of a year or so, it just wouldn’t be worth them devoting the resources to a new horse system (and while I’m using horses as an example, there’re other systems that could really shine with an overhaul).

And that’s another reason I play MMOs even though I’m very much a soloer. MMOs evolve over time, generally improving (though for every change, there’s someone that sees it as a bad thing) or expanding. There’s always new content coming. And at least hope for improvements that you’d like to see.

As someone who has been playing MMOs for years and years, playing RDR is riddled with little pockets of disappointment as I go through a cycle of thinking to myself: “Oh, this feature is a little weak…maybe they’ll improve it in a patch.” followed by, for the umpteenth time, the recollection that I’m not playing an MMO and there’s not a great likelihood of big changes coming to the game. What I’m playing is what I’ll always be playing, and that makes me a little sad.

[Please don’t infer from this post that RDR is a bad game…I like it a LOT. If you’re considering it, I encourage you to give it a try. No game is perfect and I, as a player and armchair developer, am always thinking of ways every game I play can be improved.]

Holy Grail Redemption

Back in the day I played quite a bit of GTA IV, in spite of the fact that I don’t generally like playing bad guys. I tried to keep Niko on the straight and narrow but there were some scripted actions that were very unsavory to me. But I played because of the format.

This past week I’ve been playing Red Dead Redemption. I’m loving it. Being a gunslinger in the Old West isn’t nearly as unpalatable to me as being a hit man in a realistic modern setting. And I’ve got a certain amount of nostalgia for Westerns anyway. Rockstar was brilliant in picking the setting… the tail end of the untamed west period, where we see influences of the much more modern eastern states. Some early cars and so forth.

Anyway, what keeps me playing RDR is, again, the format. I play it like an MMO (but then I play everything like an MMO if I can manage to). Sometimes I quest, sometimes I chase challenges (gather 5 coyote hides, shoot 5 birds), sometimes I just ride the range to see what me and my trusty steed come upon.

In a lot of ways, Red Dead Redemption is the best RPG I’ve played in a long time, in the most literal sense of the acronym. No, there aren’t levels or character stats (though there is gear, to some extent) but I just sink into the role of John Marsten and lose myself.

But as much as I like Westerns, I’m a fantasy guy at heart. I know everyone else is sick to death of fantasy, but I’m not.

And that’s why I want Rockstar’s next game to use this open world format for an Arthurian Grail Quest game. Imagine you play a knight. You might be a white knight or a black knight. You’re ultimately searching for the Grail, but along the way you could have all kinds of adventures. You could help out peasants who’re being mistreated by a cruel lord… or side with the lord to help him keep those pesky peasants in line. Hunting and fishing, of course.. a knight has to live off the land at times. Magical beasts, just to keep things fun. Random encounters with wizards, damsels, other knights, creatures… and this is Rockstar, so there’ll be some very dark things happening, too.

I could just get lost in a world like that… but I’m sure that’s much to geeky for Rockstar to take on. I hope someone ‘borrows’ this open world format and runs with it, though.