A Copywriter’s Blog
Stop writing in 8-bit Ben Levy 29, March

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.