Whose story is it anyway?

While yesterday’s post, in light of today’s reading of it, does seem to suggest that I see a battle between designer and player during a session (“Intention and Interpretation“), I want to make it clear that I really did mean the and in the title. Both things, to use a pun, are at play in the creation of a session.


“‘Without the designer, there is no game. Without the player, there is no game'”

“The player should be seen as a collaborator, a co-author, a partner, not an opponent. The designer gives the player the building blocks of play, and the player stacks them as desired during the course of the game, and within the rules of the game. If designed properly, not only will the structure maintain some form of meaningful cohesion, but the structure will look slightly different for every player, and after every play-through.

Despite the writer part of me really disliking this idea, I do feel the same way. In fact, I have, upon reflection of my writing in just this month, said nearly the same thing a number of times.

Oct 1: “This is what makes games special and unique among mediums. The very act of a second playthrough or even replay of a single section creates a virtual world that is different from the last… The very presence of a player means that an ongoing narration is taking place, if only within the player’s mind, to explain the choices made by the player and reactions of the game’s engine in return, communication using the game as a language. This means, of course, that stories arise out of games.” (Games aren’t stories)

Oct 7: “While a developer may set the pieces out or make them easier to fit together in a certain way, it is the player who completes the puzzle to reveal the picture of the game. The duty of the developer is not to tell a story but to make it as easy as possible for the player to tell the story to someone else, even themselves. The moment to moment play will be justified in the mind of the player, the reasoning behind certain choices over others. The better a game is at both allowing a variety of interpretations and even incorporating them, the greater a player can immerse themselves in the world of the game.” (The importance of the player: Why game stories are mostly bad)

Oct 8: “Just as the mechanical process of reading is the “record[ing] passively” before the narrative construction and the interpretation of a space is merged with its physicality, the third self is the kinetic representation as derived from the understanding and ongoing interaction with a game. The player reads the scene as shown, constructs a narrative and then acts. The first self is the biological input from a device into the organic processor. The mind considers the states of the game as it relates to the narrative so far built by the player. The the third self, that which is tied to being a role, takes action.” (The Third Self)

This collaboration between player and the designed elements toward the creation a unique story every time is what I want! Unfortunately, I keep seeming to pick games that limit this co-authorship of the experience. Particular of note were Prince of Persia (2008) and Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands. The former was extremely egregious in its story-telling by having me, as the titular Prince, save his brother despite me actively not wanting that outcome and even hoping I could avoid it. Even The Witcher, a game that was promoted to me by one of my friends as one of the best role-playing games around, put me in a situation I did not want to be in: having to make the decision between no romances in the game or adopting misogyny as a credo! (See The Collection Paradox)

So, now that I see that Ari and I are fundamentally on the same page about how stories can be created during the play experience, we are right back, in a way, where we started: whose story is it?

“[T]he most powerful tragedy I’ve found is when the character, the player, or both, justify their actions by saying “I have no choice”, or “this is the only way”. When the player is given some measure of freedom, and by following the character’s tragic flaw they throw that freedom away, then the fall becomes the player’s as well. At that point, they are truly a collaborator in the tragedy.”

As I understand it, someone must seem to lose control in order for tragedy to happen. There must be in the situation to utter or consider that phrasing: “‘I have no choice’, or ‘this is the only way'” At the highest point of dramatic tension, either the character, the player or even both must chose the tragic path as they understand it and as the designer placed enough context to understand.

I also think that it might be worth trying to put together some examples of tragic situations in video games as a way of discussing this issue moving forward — assuming, of course, that several thousand words on the subject so far, in just my own writing, is no where near enough. (Which it probably isn’t. I, personally, haven’t really moved much, as far as I can tell, other than consider the aspect of knowledge — What happens next: Asymmetrical knowledge in tragedies.)

How about a case study?

I started playing Dragon Age: Origins yesterday and already, within the first two hours, I found myself with a situation that ended, I felt, in a tragic way.

I picked a Female-Human-Mage which put me in the Tower of the Magi. After the events of the The Harrowing (basically, a tutorial of the battle system, dialogue system and how the culture works) my character awoke on a cot with another character talking to them.

Since this character assumed some familiarity with my character — story is obviously starting in media res — I was left with an initial state of asymmetrical knowledge of the situation, politics and social implications of the situations I was suddenly a part of. This person, Jowan, talking with me, I suddenly realized, knew more about everything than I did with my tabula rasa state prior to the game’s start.

After answering his question (which I will not detail here), I was placed in control of the character and left to wander around the Tower in order to gleam more information about the world. I explored and talked to some people and finally, skipping ahead some, was asked for a favor by Jowan. He and Lily want me to help them escape — it’s against both of their orders, Chantry and Magi, for them to be together — by getting the blood sample that could be used to track Jowan down if he leaves. It’s a Romeo and Juliet situation, basically.

My options were to help them right there (did not), refuse to help them (did) or ask questions. From there, you either help them immediately or go to your leader who will, if you talk to him about the previous encounter, force you into helping them to expose their plot. Regardless of what you really want, you will end up helping them get the blood, destroy it and then get out of the basement area where it was stored.

The conclusion to the encounter was where my asymmetrical knowledge, my choices so far and the designer’s intent all came to an intersection. The local leaders come to confront the couple about their crime. Jowan, in an attempt to stop them taking Lily away, uses blood magic — which, by their reaction to it, is a very bad thing — to overpower the guards and flee. Lily, for her part of helping a ‘blood mage’, is sentenced to prison. The reward for either helping them or being forced to help them is that the player-character must leave The Tower (the intention all along) to start the rest of the game.

From the conversation on tragedy so far, I was able to determine how successful the encounter was in how much knowledge I had (relatively little) compared to the other characters, how justified I thought I was in my actions (very) and how the designer’s intent was for me to achieve the goal (linear path) all along. However, it should be noted that the linearity was not perceived until afterwards. I remained hopeful that I could excuse or otherwise get myself out of the situation even up the very end when I realized I could not and was, informally, banished from The Tower. The catharsis was, of course, in the relief that situation was over while, simultaneously, realizing that the rest of the game was going to be similar in structure.