One fateful day some game designer asked the question, “Why would someone keep playing through all of these impossible levels I just dreamt up? They’d have to be crazy to keep playing simply to inscribe three initials on the top of a list?” From this question was born narrative games. Loose narratives became a way to frame progress through a game and gave players a reason to keep moving pieces around a board. Games intertwined their fate with story. This opened video games up to a new sense of emotional engagement and raised in many the hope for new forms of interactive storytelling.
However, mixing story and play engendered several problems. Tying a game to a story cripples the open-ended experience of play. Games are about the player’s choices. Stories are about the teller’s choices. To try and reclaim the feeling of an open-ended experience, designers developed a brand of open-ended storytelling based on geographic exploration. Many envision these games as storytelling frameworks, rather than strict linear stories. The player crafts the story for the character, producing a different tale each time they play. Sid Meier helped pioneer this form in 1987 with his game, Pirates!. The player sails freely about the Caribbean looting or trading as she sees fit.
The original Pirates! received praise for combining role-playing, action, and open-ended gameplay. Firaxis, Meier’s development house, recently updated the game for PCs and the Xbox. The major change comes in the bright, new 3D graphics that background the world. Play consists of a series of simple minigames that represent different parts of the story, including a sailing mode, a sword dueling game consisting of roughly four moves, and a rhythm action game that requires pressing buttons in order. The new port for the Xbox also includes some additional multiplayer features.
But in updating the title, the developers brought to the forefront problems with the structure of the game. By focusing on graphics instead of the script, Pirates! was crippled. The resulting game provides both a striking example of the ambition to provide new ways of storytelling and the short-comings of stories in games.
The core of the game revolves around the protagonist’s quest for revenge upon the “evil” Marquis de la Montalban. Firaxis bills Pirates! as an open-ended experience. The player can explore the world, peacefully sailing from port to port exchanging goods or she can attack every ship that crosses her path. In this way the Pirates! game engine provides a framework for the player to create a story that fits her mood and desires. Hungry for power and fame? Knock off a couple of treasure ships. Enjoy playing Colonial powers against each other? Deliver declarations of war and peace treaties. Ideally, the player projects onto the game space and produces a unique story.
The developers ram home the idea that Pirates! provides a storytelling engine by concluding the game with a summary of the player’s adventure. The player sits back and watches the key events she just played in a montage of cut scenes, some not seen during gameplay.
Throughout Paul Provenza’s entertaining documentary, The Aristocrats, a series of different comedians tell the same joke again and again for two hours. The joke is simple. It goes, something like this, “A man goes into a talent agency and says, ‘I’ve got this act.’” The punch line has the talent agent asking the name of the act to which the man replies, “The Aristocrats!” Each performer must fill the space between the opening and closing lines, which he or she usually does with various descriptions of incest, bestiality, and excrement eating. It doesn’t sound funny, but it can be if told correctly—even after two straight hours. For the documentary illustrates that the heart of storytelling lies not in the framework, but in the details that each performer provides. The joke can be long or short, dirty or clean—this has nothing to do with whether the audience laughs. Ultimately, the success of the joke rests with the comedian picking one spot on detail to give life to the world of the joke. That one right detail makes this man and this talent agent and their ridiculous situation seem real and sad and funny. The comedians who flop never find that unique moment and instead rely on rote scatological descriptions.
Meier and team filled Pirates! with rote moments, producing the kind of story a boring uncle might tell, not an experienced story teller. Instead of memorable and provocative characters the game treats the player to a litany of simple events and stock characters.
Pirates belong to our common folkloric tradition. Thanks to works like Lord Byron’s seminal 1814 poem, “Corsair”, we have little concern with the ugly reality of pirating. Rather we link pirates with a romanticized notion of swashbucklers. Through countless novels, movies, and even theme park rides pirates shed any real definition in the public imagination, leaving only an archetype. Storytellers use this archetype expecting the audience to fill in much of the story themselves. This is clearly Meier’s intention, as he provides few details. The entry in the Captain’s Log after marrying reads matter-of-factly, “Married the Governor of San Juan’s attractive daughter.” The idea seems to be for the player to project her own image of a beautiful Spanish woman into the story. And provide her with a name.
However, in the service of providing a framework flat enough for anyone to project onto, Meier removed any interesting sense of the world. This prevents the story from ever taking life. In the section describing cannon battles at sea, the manual says, “As crewman are knocked out, the surviving crew takes longer to reload the ship’s cannon.” Cannonballs knock people out? No, cannonballs kill people—a thought which spurs the imagination much more powerfully.
Pirates! contains enough content for several hours of play, but not nearly the 20-plus hours it takes to complete the game. To ask the player to perform separate quests to arrest three characters by the name of Mr. Q. Chatterley, Mr. O. Chatterley, and Mr. L. Chatterley seems plain lazy. This repetition would be unacceptable in a high school English class. How does it possibly pass for a narrative in a game that eats up so much time?
A few well written sentences about one of the Chatterley’s would give the player a context and motivation for seeking him out. With no context the player seeks him out simply to score points. A framework has no life without details, just as The Aristocrats joke elicits no laughter without a deft touch. And since video games inherently limit the details the player can access to build a story, any details they do provide must be compelling. With a wealth of details to choose from, the player could begin to construct an interesting story. Without details to choose from she can do no better than create a list.
More time and effort seem to have been spent on implementing 3D graphics than the story. These new visuals stand at odds with the abstraction of the story. An abstract framework asks the player to project story based on broad outlines. But 3D graphics are too detailed for projection. They are already projections.
Economics play a large part in the problems Pirates! exhibits. Gamers expect play to stretch over 20 hours. However, this is simply too long for the sort of simple stories typically found in games. And I personally think requiring 20 hours of dedication prevents games from reaching a broader audience. Most games could be made shorter with no detriment to their playability. Pirates! would make an excellent six hour game. With its simple to master gameplay, the game could easily appeal to a more casual gaming audience, an audience that does not expect or even want 20 hours of play. Shorten the length of time it takes to play the game and many of the problems with the narrative would be less visible. The game is fun and addictive until the story begins to repeat itself. Then the player must ask, “Why would I complete all of these levels just to see the end of this awful story?”
In her classic book The Way of the Storyteller, Ruth Sawyer writes of the nature of storytelling: “It is compounded of certain invariables and these can be stated. Experiences—that faring forth to try one’s mettle. The building of background—that conscious reaching out to illuminate one’s art. Creative imagination; the power to evoke an emotion; a sense of spiritual conviction. Finally, a gift for selection. This last comes out of experience, the innumerable times of trying out story and summing up the consequences.” The same “invariables” could certainly be applied to playing games. Players must explore, acquire knowledge, try and fail, and deploy imagination in service of completing a story. We just need a framework that provides a rich enough background to truly allow for creative selections.