There is a fantastic conversation going on right now over at James regarding story-telling in video games. For the uninitiated, James is a blog by one Tom Francis, aka Pentadact. Tom has penned perhaps the greatest game review in existence, and is high on my list of people I would murder and devour if it meant I could gain one one-hundredth of their writing ability.I heartily suggest anyone interested in writing or gaming go check it out.
The short version is, people would really like the stories in their games to start living up to the graphics. It’s just that no one knows how to do it.
It’s a conversation that’s plenty relevant to advertising. The conventional wisdom is that while no one reads anymore, story-telling is more important than ever. And particularly in the online space, it’s pretty undefined.
I think the problem is that games (and most sites) are a visual medium. Stick with me here.
In our society today, we essentially have two broad methods of story-telling: literary and visual. Books are just words on paper. While I’m thrilled with that format, I recognize I’m in the minority.
Then there’s the visual method. Video. TV. Movies. They relate a tale with color and sound. Generally, they’re held to be more immersive, more emotional for the viewer.
One thing that both methods have in common is that they’re a linear way to relate a story. There’s a beginning, middle, and end. Even if you Tarantino it, the story is told from start to finish in one way only, and the viewer/listener is along for the ride.
But in games, that’s not true. The user has a measure of control over the events, and that comes at the expense of narrative. The simplest example I can think of is Street Fighter. The game had a simple story: I play a fighter, I beat up other fighters. At the end, I beat the final boss and win. Hooray.
If it were a movie, every ounce of that story would be told with drama and perfection. Each time I beat the boss, it would be with a massive uppercut delivered in slow motion. And in fact, in Street Fighter, your final hit is automatically slowed down to add emphasis. Perfect interactive story-telling?
Not always. I remember playing through a whole game, getting to the boss, and beating him with a vicious sweep. A sweep. I kicked the guy in the shin, in slow motion, and that’s how I won the day. It felt weak. A movie would never finish that way.
So let’s try something else. How about, when I do enough damage, the fight ends and I watch a cutscene where my fighter delivers that cinema-perfect slow uppercut we were talking about? Looks great, but now I’m annoyed as a gamer because I didn’t do that. The game did. The final moment, and I feel like I was robbed of my victory. Like I wasn’t good enough to do it myself.
This is an intentionally simple example, but hopefully you begin to see the issues involved. Players control the game, but don’t control the story. Which means the story can’t be perfect, since the people writing it don’t know exactly how it will play out- even something as simple as a kick can ruin a scene.
Because games are a visual medium, we expect them to deliver a story like one we get at the movies. After all, they look sort of like movies.They’re even written in that same, linear fashion. But I think that’s where we’re going wrong.
There is a third method of story-telling. One that isn’t used much at all anymore. But I think it’s where we’ll find the answer. Oral.
I love to hear myself talk, so I do it a lot. And one thing I’l say about it is this- I do it consciously. The act of verbally relating a story involves audience participation. You want to make sure they give a damn about what you’re saying. If they laugh at one part, you add more detail to enhance the hilarity. If they express disbelief, you go out of your way to make it even more unbelievable (even while you swear the whole thing is true). It’s telling a story with audience participation, changing small details so that your listener appreciates the bigger picture even more. You give up some measure of narrative control but do so in order to enhance the overall tale being told.
I think figuring out that balance online and in-game will be the key. I’ve got another very specific reason why I think I’m right, and another 800 words to write on the topic. But I’ll save that for next post, along with a shocking admission that at least several people who read this blog don’t know about.
My father is not a stupid man. He’s an anesthesiologist, for one thing (that’s fancy for ‘doctor’). He’s also pretty good with code, having written a program that coordinates several departments’ worth of anesthesia schedules. He spends a lot of time on his iPhone. He gets technology, is what I’m saying.
I just thought you should know that before reading the following conversation:
Dad: This guy sent me an email with a line about someone being “so thirteen-thirty-seven”. I’ve never heard it before and he couldn’t find any references to it.
Me: Thirteen Thirty-Seven? I have no idea what- oh! It’s not thirteen thirty-seven. It’s “leet”. Commonly spelled L33T-
Dad: immediately gets it and starts laughing Got it.
Me: -or 1337. It’s short for elite. It’s hacker and gamer-speak. Originally, anyway.
Mom: Wait- what? How do 3’s spell out leet?
Like I said, Dad gets it. Mom, this should clear things up:
Oh mainstream media, you get everything exactly right.
I’m sorry for the person I stopped in front of while trying to figure out which end of my map was up. Your need to walk around me added an extra .34 seconds to your commute, and I’m sorry. Your advice to “move your fucking ass” was quite helpful, and I will act on it in the future.
To the short-order cook working at the corner deli: I’m sorry for looking at you. I did not mean to imply that I could do your job better. Also, thank you for inquiring if anything was “wrong with me”. I hope it put your mind to rest to learn that I was not, in fact, retarded.
I apologize to the gentleman whom I asked for directions. I should not have gotten confused. You were perfectly within your right not to tell me the street I was looking for was a single block to the right. Were the situation reversed, and you asked me for directions, I have no doubt that I would have kept you in the metaphorical dark. The same goes for the other three people I asked.
I’m sorry New York City, that I will be returning to you rather soon. I promise to do my best to be a better person once I move there. To those I wronged, I sincerely hope you did not all contract a case of the runs, despite my fervent wish at the time that you would.
(But seriously, I love New York. Nothing but stories down every block.)
End of week always gets busy blah blah blah…never manage to post blah blah…youtube is basically the point of the interblah (besides twitter)….come blah every Friday to blah a new blah blah.
Cause nobody cares what I write anyway, every Friday I’ll post some video that entertained me. If you’re lucky I won’t even comment on it.
PS- I know it’s not Friday. Friday’s starting early this week. If those damn farmers can mess with daylight, I can mess with weekdays. Will normally post on blahdays.
While talking to an artist/friend of mine on aim, this happened:
Him: so just ninjas chopping midjets heads off?
Me: like tiny planes?
Me: i demand we work on a comic with midjets
Me: it revolves around a crack team of vertically challenged ww2 aces
And within the next 20 minutes, we had worked out the entire plot.
During the depths of World War II, Churchill reasoned that smaller planes could turn tighter circles, giving them the upper hand against the superior fighting machines the Axis deployed. And so a secret squadron was formed. In a time of racism, they were a symbol of acceptance. In a time of fear, they were our greatest hope. And though they barely reached four feet, they stood tall. They were: The Sparrows.
This will be anachronistic. It will be unrealistic. It will be idiotic. I also think it will be fantastic. And now that everyone knows who you are Isaac, you have to draw it.
My flight to Kentucky a few weeks ago was a two-parter: Miami to Atlanta, Atlanta to Louisville. It was at the end of the first leg that the following occurred.
I was sitting in the middle of the row. The woman to my right had an air of carefully cultivated indifference. The girl to my left had the subtle yet unmistakable air of one who is heading to a very important interview, and is utterly failing to think of something else in order to take their mind off it.
She asked about the book I was reading (I, Robot.) and whether it was better or worse than the movie. I told her it was far superior, though in fact this may have been in a lie. Aside from the title, I can find almost no similarities between the two whatsoever. So answering this question is sort of like deciding whether one prefers a Japanese-made car to the original Shakespearean production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In other words, it was that old ‘Apples to Oranges’ chestnut.
However, we both agreed I, Robot the book was far superior to her own reading, which was school-invoked. I didn’t ask if she was flying to an interview, since her very being radiated a sense of trying not to think about it.
It turned out that she too, had a connection, and one that allowed significantly less time between flights than my own. As our plane was touching down, the Stewardess came over the speaker and announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have three passengers at the back of the plane who will have very little time to reach their connecting flights. When we reach the gate, please stay seated a moment so those passengers with a connecting flight can disembark first.”
You have perhaps heard of the miracle performed at the Red Sea? Where Moses lifted up his staff, and the waters stood apart? This was pretty much the opposite.
As soon as the plane touched down, the aisles filled. The girl with the institution-mandated reading material made it about three rows before becoming mired in a single-file sea of humanity. Her fear was palpable. The look on her face could best be described as ’stricken’.
And so I did the only thing that made any sense. I stood up on her now vacant aisle seat, cupped my hands around my mouth, and shouted “Excuse me! Some people have a connection they need to reach, could you all just sit down a second so they don’t miss their flight? Thank you.”
The response was as immediate as it was non-existent. It was nothing. No one moved.
From further down the plane, one person who wasn’t clogging the aisle caught my eye and offered up “It was a nice try.”
A common trait of copywriters is the ability to spit venom. The projectiles are purely verbal, but it’s poisonous qualities cannot be denied. “Oh certainly,” I spat “I just thought I’d appeal to some human decency, but I guess I was wrong.” From further up the plane, one of the bricks in the wall of stupidity had the gall to respond:
“I don’t think it’s an issue of human decency, as much as one of physics.”
I directed my stream at him “No, I don’t think physics is the issue. See, that seat right next to you is empty. If you could step to the right, you’d be in it. And if everyone else did that, there’d be no problem. And if you all do it for 30 seconds, you can all crowd the aisle again and no one will miss their flight.”
Deciding that physics was not his forte after all, the gentleman turned back around. Shockingly, another of the herd of humanity ventured an opinion: “I think a lot of these people have connecting flights.” It should be noted that even though this man was standing in the aisle, he did not include himself in that statement.
“They do not.” I snarled back “She clearly said there were three of them.”
However, what I would have liked to say was this: “Oh indeed, my apologies sir. I had no idea the selfish jackass convention was being held already. Of course since everyone planning to attend seems to be standing up right here on our plane, I’m sure they’ll hold the opening ceremonies until you all get there. With that in mind, why don’t you sit your ass down in that seat right next to you and let this poor girl pass. After which time you and all the rest of these self-absorbed fucktards can erect permanent dwellings complete with white picket fences in the aisle for all I care.”
I didn’t say that. I also didn’t attempt to physically force my way through the crowd like I was contemplating. I have no idea if the girl ever made her flight. I made mine. But I’d like to believe that a rhinoceros who was being transported via air freight and broke free of it’s handlers had just enough time to trample every last one of those impatient jackoffs before security regained control of it and led it off to a life of luxury at the Atlanta Zoo. Because that would please me.
I wasn’t even going to post about this, because greater men than I have already done so. But while walking the dog this evening I thought of a reason to. Actually, I thought of five of them.
The first time I saw this ad, I naturally assumed Gillette had simply run out of money for celebrity sponsors, and was using bad 3D models to cut costs. It was only later that I discovered it was part of a full campaign that Gillette launched targeting gamers.
Epic Fail, n00bs.
I’m your demo, Gillette: a post-pubescent male gamer. I also happen to be in advertising. So let me present 5 gamer-targeting ideas that occurred to me while staring at my dog’s butt for three blocks:
1. A USB-powered electric shaver. Ideal for LAN parties.
2. A site about “game faces”, where gamers can upload photos. (ie-a guy who shaved bald and painted his face pink to match Kirby, or someone who shaved their beard to match their WoW dwarf.)
3. “Close Shaves” A daily or weekly series highlighting submitted in-game videos of close calls. Can range from clips of players sinking a 3-pointer at the buzzer to head-shotting an enemy right before they reached your flag.
4. A below-line campaign talking about how much smoother your tea-bag action is when you shave.
5. Use your same multi-million dollar sponsors, but having them discuss the importance of a close shave before having their heads scanned by 500 lasers in preparation for being rendered in all their games.
6. This isn’t an idea, and I didn’t bother to check, but I assume you ran ads in actual games. Please tell me you did. I won’t look, we’ll just all agree that you did actually run ads targeting gamers in the games they stare at for hours on end.
I’m not saying these are great. I came up with them in 15 minutes, when I wasn’t picking up poop or convincing my domesticated quadruped not to eat stray cats. If you want the good stuff, you can pay me overtime. But I feel secure in saying they’re all closer to the mark than what you’re running now.
Now if you’ll pardon me, I’ve got some pwnage to deliver.
UPDATE- Thought of two more when I woke up this morning:
7. Sponsored achievements for Steam and Xbox Live. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this one before.
8. In-game “Gillette” items. These can range from actual razors (it would be funny if it replaced your knife in Resident Evil), to game-relevant stuff that just has some of your bombastic product names on it (I’d fly a Turbo Mach3 jet).
The following are my observations following a trip to Kentucky for a pitch.
-Total Travel Time: 12 hours flying. 8 hours in Kentucky. 30 minutes pitching.
-They like horses there. A lot.
-People in Kentucky are quite friendly and polite.
-People in planes traveling to Kentucky are not.
-If you can only spend 8 hours in Kentucky, spending 7 of them at The Pub on Fourth St is not a bad idea.
-Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale is the best beer ever made. It validates the entire state.
-It is only available in Kentucky.
-Despite this fact, it is not served in either of the bars at the Kentucky airport.