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“Stories in games are typically not good, right?” – Braid designer on Themes vs Gameplay

By on January 27, 2009
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In an interview with Gamesutra, Jonathan Blow – Braid designer and general soapbox hero – spends a lot of time discussing the communication of artistic themes through gameplay, and the narrative / gameplay dichotomy. It’s a great read, pages three and four in particular.

Despite my reactionary headline (bums on seats, people), I’m a (generally) staunch Jonathon Blow fan. He seems to share that purist, indie (and arguably naive) view that interactive entertainment can be bold and artistic in a way AAA titles are not (hnng… too many brackets). He does so, though, in the context of Braid’s impressive critical and financial success, making his a voice to be respected. He also excellently dismissed Bioshock’s would-be artistic tones in much the same way I did at the time – though he seemed to get away cleaner.

Gameplay as artistic meaning?

His first point is on the use of gameplay to reflect artistic meaning, and the problem of a constant desire for innovation.

“I think that we don’t even have a very good picture of what all the ways are that things can be done, just because, if you look at how many people have seriously been trying anything remotely like that in games, it’s been a couple years or something, right?”

Certainly it’s not been all that long since games were just that – entertainment, rather than potentially something more. I sometimes wonder if we’ve boxed ourselves in a little when it comes to game design. We spend so much of the time seeking to innovate as little as possible in order to capture a large existing demographic, that perhaps when it does come to something new we’re too used to thinking in terms of levels, and cut scenes and dialogue trees that it becomes a bit of a brick wall – one through which titles like Braid, The Graveyard and Everyday Shooter seek to break.

Next he deconstructs the narrative meaning in the big Christmas blockbusters. Nicholas and I were actually having the exact same conversation last week. Think about even some of the best video game narratives – PlaneScape, Thief, Fallout. Epic and eye opening though they may be, they still tend to operate on just one level in a way that would dull the imagination of even a Buffy The Vampire Slayer viewer. Subtext doesn’t exist in video game narratives. A story about an elf saving the world is most likely, at its deepest level, a story about an elf saving the world.

World of Goo trailer

Things like World of Goo and Braid (and, I hope, some of the projects I’ve worked on) go some way towards defying that rule. Though dealing at surface level with cutesy goo balls and inane jokes, WoG is more centrally concerned with industrialisation and the conveyor belt-like way in which indie developers are employed by the bigger publishers. Braid, though in my opinion self-important and incomprehensible, indubitably has more going on than meets the eye.

Can artistic comment and gameplay co-exist?

Blow, though, identifies a far more worrying problem – that what artistic comment there is in games is often entirely separate to the gameplay itself.

“And in Fallout 3, there’s one section of the game that… feels kind of personal and emotional. It’s not the stuff with your dad at the beginning, or trying to find him. That all feels generic. It’s when you find this abandoned camp that’s now got monsters in it, but there are these stories of this nurse trying to hold it together right after the bombing. And you think, ‘That was really a touching story that I just found out there.’ And it wasn’t actually the game. [laughs] It was just this little pre-authored story. The gameplay in Fallout 3 is shooting a guy in the head and watching his blood fly everywhere, right?”

Now that’s something that worried me already. At a recent Develop roundtable I had the same argument I always have about cut scenes. The unique thing about games is their interactivity – anything that doesn’t employ that is a step in the wrong direction. Blow would seem to agree: “If we eventually become no interaction and all story, then we’re just a bad movie, right?”

So the question is how do you tie a meaningful message into a game, without resorting to linear story telling? It’s clearly a challenge, and it’s something that only titles like Left 4 Dead, The Passage and, perhaps to a lesser degree, Braid, seem to be cracking. Blow also tackles the topic of challenge versus experience – how do you balance providing a worthwhile experience against the fact that most game design revolves around putting obstacles in the player’s path?

All told, it’s an intelligent and slightly unsettling commentary that’s worth reading in its entirety. In fact, the only point I’d take issue with is his dismissal of games writers (strangely enough, given my background).

“I think part of [why stories are typically not good] is because we don’t try very hard, or we don’t really have people that competent doing it.”

Games writers are only as good as they’re allowed to be

While I would certainly agree most game stories are awful, and that there are plenty of people responsible for that, the larger problem is simply that there are some very talented writers in the industry whose artistic intentions are thwarted by uninterested or ill-informed developers. As Rhianna Pratchett put it at that roundtable, “You’re only as good as you’re allowed to be.”

On a final note, Blow also observes that, “If you do an interview or give a lecture, people will take the one sentence that they like the least and make it the headline, and everybody will flame you for being stupid and saying something that you didn’t actually really say.”

I’ve certainly fallen foul of that one in the past, so I hope he’d appreciate the irony here.

About Tom Jubert

Tom Jubert is a freelance games writer / narrative designer, best known for his work on the Penumbra series, for which he was nominated for a Writers' Guild Award. His upcoming releases include Lost Horizon and Driver: San Francisco. He was previously the Managing Editor at GameShadow.com, and has also spent time in production.
  • Tom jubert

    Yeah, saw that at the time, v interesting experiment.

    I think they’re working on a more ambitious version called The Dinner Party at the moment… or something along those lines.

  • Tom – I’m not sure if you’ve ever checked out Façade (http://www.interactivestory.net/) but it’s a fascinating, albeit rough, example of one route that non-linear narrative can go. To get the most out of it, play it twice, once trying to split the couple up, and once trying to get them to stay together…

  • Before anyone says it: ‘Wow, essay.”

    I tried to publicise a few of the smaller, artier games in this post that may not be in the common vocabulary – things like The Graveyard and The Passage. Do let me know what you think should you check them out, or if there are any other games you’d recommend in a similar vein.