To Deconstruct a Story

Last night, I went to watch a talk given by critically-acclaimed sandbox game designer Will Wright, who put forth the opinion that the best stories are those that can be easily deconstructed. Like Legos, you should be able to take parts of a story and put them together in alternate ways, or combine them with different stories. You should be able to answer questions as to whether Darth Vader would win in a fight against Lord Voldemort. In other words, the best stories are those that tend to result in fan fiction.

I found myself unable to disagree more. Whatever happened to “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”? If a story’s parts are easy to separate, then it means that characters must be clear-cut archetypes, often representative of one particular attribute. I don’t enjoy such stories, because I like my main characters to be complex and three-dimensional, like real people are. As many of you no doubt know, my view on concepts such as “good” and “evil” is that they’re relational rather than absolute. Archetypes always tend to act the same all the time, with consistent value judgements applied to such actions. This not only makes for boring storytelling, in my view; it can potentially be harmful as well. Look at some of our world leaders and their polarizing “you’re either with us or against us” rhetoric, for example.

Furthermore, most fan fiction is just plain bad. The Lego analogy actually works quite well here, because it brings to mind ugly little multicoloured buildings that my younger brother used to make at the age of five. Generally, if you make your tools so simple that they can be used by the lowest common denominator, they will most likely only be used by the lowest common denominator. I’m willing to believe there might be some gems in there somewhere, but I haven’t really found any yet, and therefore remain pessimistic for the most part.

I wanted to ask how Will Wright envisioned the role of professional storytellers in a world of user-generated content. Sadly, I was beaten to the punch by rabid student fanboys who wanted advice on how to get into the game industry, and thus didn’t have a chance. *sigh*

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12 Responses to To Deconstruct a Story

  1. ComradeNarf says:

    Wow. That’s a good point. Not often do I expect to see some excellent design counterpoints to Will Wright. I can’t agree with you more that there’s a very big problem of static, bland characters in games. And I’m also deeply annoyed when someone gives me a simple interface, then tries to make it more complex as the game goes on, where they ultimately require me to use the more complex stuff to complete the game. Building blocks are vital to getting a person into the game universe you’ve created, but for heaven’s sake, make the complex bits intuitive!

    Question, Deirdra:

    When are you going to give a full-blown game design talk?

  2. edmundito says:

    I hope Will Wright told those kids that they need to start in Q/A. Haha.

  3. Answer, ComradeNarf: When somebody asks me to.

    Edmundo: He actually told them to make lots of games, which is exactly what I would have said (and exactly what I did). A point of agreement, for once. Still, your suggestion’s probably more realistic.

  4. I think Mr. Wright’s position makes sense in the context of his current project (spore). I don’t know what he mentioned at the talk you were at, but he also is a big proponent of the “player story” vs. the “designer story”. So if it sounds like he enjoys fan fiction, you can see why; he seems to be in favor of universal, “every man” sort of experiences. Maybe he’s just tired of stories which tend to leave the majority of the population lost? Better mediocre than priggish? *shrugs*

  5. Max Battcher says:

    I don’t find deconstructionist toolkits like The Sims all that useful for emergent storytelling. Interesting tools for machinima artists certainly, but I certainly don’t think Spore will revolutionize storytelling. Sounds like Wright’s been spending too much time in his own sandboxes and too little time with great literature…

  6. Tom says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I can see why he’s come to the conclusion he has; it’s simply easier to make big interactive fiction if you can do so with standardised narrative building blocks. In the same way physics and graphics engine middle-ware make it easier for developers to furnish huge and detailed virtual worlds. But the trade off is the same, you’ll never get the best out of the hardware with off the shelf components and you’ll never get the best out of the human imagination with interchangeable story blocks.

    The Darth Vader vs Voldemort idea kind of highlights the problem, even though they’re both pretty generic characters taking them out of their context – the logicaly consistent fantasy universes they inhabit – makes no sense, both characters are a product of the history and environment of their different generic fantasy worlds. Removing them from that context just makes them ciphers.

    (c.f. putting Darth Vader in Soul Calibur: Ruins the consistency of the Soul Calibur world and aesthetic, not really a problem for a game like that where narrative is background but for a game seriously trying to tell a story it would be pure poison)

  7. SSH says:

    Squnks, you’re just showing off again that YOU don’t need “advice on how to get into the game industry” ;) :P

  8. Giligan says:

    I agree, but only because I’m heavily biased against any game that doesn’t have a linear story. Sandbox games tend to have little or no story, the exception being recent games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Oblivion, because the outcome of the story in both of those games was the same regardless of the player’s actions. Even when I was beta-testing Chivalry is Not Dead, I found that the multiple outcomes in each sitation destroyed the narrative for me, and that goes for any game that doesn’t progress in a 1-2-3 manner. Sanbox games are especially true of this, so it’s easy to see how a sandbox game designer would think that way. It’s the only way he can think, really, if he wants to keep his job.

  9. TwinMoon says:

    Easily deconstructed stories are not the best, they’re the easiest to write for a game designer.

    Using archetypes can be useful in the beginning since the audience immediately knows how that character behaves, but I’d be offended if there wouldn’t be some depth added later on.

    In my opinion the best games are those in which you always know what you’re supposed to do, but have multiple things to do.
    Like your own “Game that Takes Place on a Cruise Ship” (although the mission “Enjoy yourself on a cruise ship” isn’t a very strong assignment). Other examples are GTA and Monkey Island 1 & 2.

    And fanfiction… well. Fans generally write bad stories, since they’re too much in love with their subject.

  10. Mory Buckman says:

    Keep in mind, Will Wright is not a storyteller. He is a toolmaker. His field is simulation strategy games, big complex systems which he lets the player mess around with. He is not capable of making an adventure game or a movie. But at what he does he’s brilliant, and his positions on such things as stories only need to be applicable to that medium.

    From that perspective, his argument is a good one. He wants to inspire fan-fiction because he’s creating tools with which fan-fiction can be created. He doesn’t want to impose his own limited characters, because it’ll clash with how the player sees things.

  11. Lee says:

    I think Mory probably has the best take on it. Wil’s not a storyteller, and the limited means of cause and effect in his games are really tailored to exactly what he does and nothing more. I find it a fundamental failure of the medium, but as a tool or toy, it’s charming in its own way. That said, i stopped using Sims II quite a while ago. After you’ve built a handful of strange places, the limitations of the tools just get in the way, even with copious hacks.

    In the end, Wil makes games. Pure interactivity is a good goal in itself, and so long as there are people out there like Wil, we need never fear for that end of the pool. Frees me up to think about other things for the medium.

  12. Lee says:

    An addendum to this would be that Spore is a pretty fun game with something of an arc to it, but again, it’s very simplified and built entirely from interaction. It’s a fairly successful demonstration of Wil’s point. It still doesn’t make for particularly compelling narrative, but then, he obviously figures (and rightly so) that people will be happy enough writing their own stories.

    I don’t know if I equate it so much with fanfic, which uses known stories and builds off of them, so much as it reminds me of the kind of fiction we were told to write in grade school. It’s that level of narrative skill we’re talking about. Fun on an individual, experiential level, but not really all that great for a recap. It would be like sitting and watching the family vacation slide show: to enjoy it properly, you really had to be there.