21st Century Folktales:

Games, Worlds and Stories

Kim Plowright, SCP New Product Development, BBC iD&E

NOTE: This presentation was produced for an internal BBC WritersRoom event. It represents my views, and not the views of my employer. That's why it's on my personal site.

Battlestar Galactica Game, 1981
Battlestar Galactica Game, 2006

My Life as a Geek

Today's ten year-olds have never known a world without the Playstation.

I've been playing computer games for 25 years - I've grown up with the medium, but still have distance from games.

Kids learn through play and through being told stories; what are we teaching our kids about?

Just to introduce myself... I'm Senior Content Producer for New Product Development in iD&E. I've been working in New Media since 2000 - just after the crash.

Why am I talking to you? Because they needed someone to talk from a players perspective during this event; to give you an idea of what makes these worlds compelling.

Other than work we do in the department with ARGs like Jamie Kane, and Flash Games, plus an interest in gaming, I'm not really qualified; I'm not a game developer or a writer, or an academic studying games. But 25 years experience using them? You decide.

What am I going to cover? Well, stories in games. And how contemporary games are both stuffed full of juicy narrative, but can also represent 'the death of the author' - in that the writer needs to give up control to the players.

Trogdor the Burninator

Must Story in Games = Go There, Kill That, Rescue Princess?

Even the simplest games have 'story': Chess is a story about warring monarchies

It's mostly backstory; it gives a player motivation and a context to solve in-game puzzles. The stories tend to be formulaic and genre based. Why?

It's easier to create a convincing fantasy world than a convincing Watford

Perhaps the challenges games offer appeal to the kind of people who like genre fiction?

The other reason, of course, is that the kind of people who really really loved playing games when they were little went on to make them. So, the people who were fiddling with code on old ZX Spectrums are the guys who now make content for the games industry,

Um... now, I know coders. And... there's a culture, shall we say. Not bad, not good - but a culture that grew out of the Dungeons and Dragons / SciFi / Sitting in your bedroom kind of scene. Hell, I'm one of those people, so I can't say it's all bad. But it's limiting.

The games industry is just waking up to the fact that it can do so much better...

Final Fantasy VII - Aeris Dies
Metal Gear Solid - Psycho Mantis

But... Why Bother with a Story?

When you're absorbed in a game, you're concentrating on the challenges, not the story

But when you hit a really good narrative moment, it's incredibly emotionally powerful

The player has to get deeply involved in the story because they're 'acting' in it: they identify with the characters much more than in conventional narrative.

It lets the player learn about emotion by experiencing it vicariously.

OK - the images above are from two Japanese games. They're two moments that are often cited as points where games transcended the possibilities of the medium.

The top one is Final Fantasy VII. You control a bunch of about 8 characters throughout the game. Your 'girlfriend' character who you've been playing for - ooh, probably 40 hours at that stage - gets killed by the big bad boss. This has been known to reduce people to tears; you've watched the romance start, played both sides of the couple, fought through thick and thin together, then *wham*.

The second is from Metal Gear Solid - where an apparently psychic character controls your ally/girlfriend, who starts shooting at you. He then starts reading your mind. The game reads your console memory, and Psycho Mantis - the guy in the gimp suit - makes sarky comments about other games you play. He then controls your character - only by unplugging your controller and putting it into the other port can you defeat him. So you get up, in the real world, off the sofa, and break the fourth wall.

Actually, it's worth saying that the fourth wall in games doesn't get broken by pushing stuff out of the story world into the audience - it breaks when you pull the audience into the story world, by the story 'leaking' into the real world. It's Brechtian.

Double Lives - Advert for Playstation

So What's The Appeal of these Game Stories?

Video - Double Life (Quick Time Movie, 2.7 Mb)

This is an advert that was the first time gaming really got sold for what it is; a way of extending your experience in ways you could never do in your normal life. Good, isn't it?

The games industry is waking up to good writing... but are good writers waking up to games?

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Rich Worlds Mean Better Stories

Some of the best games are derived from rich, pre-existing worlds...

"... a moment in KOTOR when you, as an evil character, have the opportunity to call in your Wookie life debt to make your Wookie follower murder his own best friend. He did that, then sat back from the computer and said, 'Oh, my god, what have I done?' When he realized that a game could make him feel like that, he knew he had to work at Bioware."

Video - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
Pay attention to the use of sound, here...

Your gameplay must deliver on the promises of your story to be satisfying - It's all about the balance between leaning backward and leaning forward.

StarWars Knights of the Old Republic is a good example of a clever use of the backstory to overcome the limitations of game narrative.

You cant have an infinately branching narrative - ie, anticipate everything that your player might do; even for nine choices, you'd be writing millions of endings. Nor do you want a story on rails - what's the point of playing if you can't change anything?

This hits a good middle ground - you get an overall choice of your moral stance - good or bad. Lightside or Darkside. You make choices in your response to characters. Their attitude to you changes according to how you treat them.

Also, it has a great twist. You turn out to be the baddy you're chasing. So in my game, it was a story about redemption, because I played it goodytwoshoes light side. But if you played it Dark Side, it would be a story about the inevitability of corruption.

This Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic Fansite includes 'Fanfic' based on the game.

The Matrix - Path of Neo

You MUST Deliver on Your Promises

... but rich, pre-existing worlds have also generated some of most disappointing game stories
... I'm putting my imagination in the hands of stranger. That takes an element of trust. My problem with the Matrix IP is that I feel betrayed... they started being inconsistent. There were plot holes and unexplained contradictions that were unforgivable. [...] What bothers me about this ending is the way they throw cold water on my sense of immersion. It's almost like they're pointing and laughing at me for playing along with them.

Video: the final cut scenes from Matrix: Path of Neo.
Part one | Part Two | Part Three

I wish I could comment more on the Matrix games. But they Sucked. I played the first one for about 20 mins and haven't picked it up since - and I'm a fan of the Matrix. It didn't live up to the amazing experience of watching the first film.

The problem with the first is the 'Jedi effect' - just as if you play a Star Wars game, you'll be wanting to ponce around with a Lightsabre, in a Matrix game you want to play Neo. They did that in the second game, but then changed the ambiguous sacrificial end of the film to a conventional 'boss fight' - a big big monster. Watch the clip to see how they handled it - they kind of thumbed their noses at their players. Can you imagine dedicating a hundred hours to get there, then having someone go 'only Joking!'?

Like the film trilogy, the end was a letdown.

Games Give Rise to Vernacular Stories

Playing in a world = Writing a story

Make believe, fantasy worlds, Roleplay, Novelwriting, folktales, mythmaking - they're all aspects of the same drive.

If you engage with a virtual world, you end up having an autobiography within that world, of sorts.

This 'writing within a story world' isn't confined to games - you get 'Fan Fic' too, which is active engagement with TV properties. It's fans remaking the stories in the way they want them to play out.

Games are on a spectrum of user engagement - with improvised acting at one end, and passive reading at the other.

Second Life

Persistent Worlds

Second Life

...there is a sense of community history developing. So the best stories tend to be like the old "oral histories" of far flung tribes. The modern way of telling stories is through weblogs and wikis [...] really fascinating chronicle of the birth pains of what is being described as a virtual country. A resident of Second Life wrote [...] an account of a dimly remembered fictional Second Life world before the current one, which was wiped out of existence. It's a beautiful story full of nostalgia, regret and yearning.

Video - Tech TV: Second Life Animation Party

Second Life is a virtual world, where players buy a plot of land and then 'create' evertyhing in the world using simple tools. All the objects in game can be sold for real money in the real world.

So that's funny computer shit... being sold for real cash money.

Really accomplished players learn the scripting language, and create games, interactive objects, dances... Other players document the world - making machinima.

It's the direct descendent of those Oldskool MUDs and MUSHes - text communities that thrived back when the internet really was a bunch of white letters on a black screen. The important thing is that this is OPEN ENDED - no goals, no story. It's just a place to play in.

The Movies

Limiting your Player can be Good

The Movies

A 'sim' movie studio management game

Your studio produces real films you can share with people

The better you play the management game, the better stories you can make

Gets round the fun [does not equal] work problem of the dedication required to make your own machinima or create from scratch in a virtual world

Video: 'French Democracy'
The story of the French race riots told in The Movies.

Sometimes, being given a blank canvas is really intimidating. You need a framework to enjoy yourself and be creative. The movies gets round the problem of getting the inspiration to engage with truly freeform open ended play by giving you a reason; a game which produces the free, creative stuff as a byproduct. Learn the rules, get better stuff out.

I often think I'd be the best project manager in the world if someone would make 'SimProjectManager', and give me an artificial system to play with. Simulation environments similar to games do get used in financial markets, and by the military...

World of Warcraft


World of WarCraft

Ten years worth of back-story through preceding games, novelisations, etc

Emergent, user created stories

Big back-story is fragmented across 'quests'

Quests are uncovered by exploring the virtual space

Narrative engagement is optional; players can pay attention to the story, or not.

Video: Rather cheesy official trailer
Video: Leeeeeeroy Jenkiiins!
Pay attention to the player sitting down.
Video: Dancing Night Elves. Cheap Gay Jokes. Snigger.
Video: The Internet is for Porn. Hurrah, more cheap jokes! Also, safe for work, but maybe use headphones.

Warcraft is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game - MMORPG, or sometimes MOG, with over 5 million players worldwide. It's also hugely addictive, visually stunning, and probably the best game I've ever played.

It's SO good, I've played it for 13 days, 21 hours, 52 minutes and 1 second. (333 hours - 666 Episodes of EastEnders... about 4 years worth. I don't watch Telly much any more.

A lot of the enjoyment comes from interacting with other players too. The folktale forming is rife, and this video is one of the most famous player tales. Even now you get people shouting 'Leeeeeeeeeroy' when someone fucks up.

The flexibility of engagement in this game is really interesting. You can go from RP servers - where everyone inhabits their characters - right through to a solo kind of gameplay called farming - endlessly repeating the same task to get gold. Psychology gives different play styles - all are catered for.

I play with my boyfriend, so there are stories created around us as a pair in game; we're light relief. As is the second video.

There's something else worth mentioning about the game world, too; as your character progresses, you're given quests, which will move you from one area of the (huge!) game-world to the next. The quests also deliver you tiny fragments of the story of the world. So, rather than being organised as a narrative that you play through, the narrative is organised as a world that you play in. Interesting things happen when you substitute time for space in a narrative.

Nokia Virus game Pac Manhattan

Possible Futures

Augmented Reality

What happens when the space you're exploring to unlock a narrative is the real world?

Do mobile devices like the Playstation Portable give us a new way of finding a way through a story?

Video: Pacmanhattan
Video: Nintendo Floor Screen: notice how the projection reacts to people's presence.
Video: Boy playing with a 'real world' interface

So - what happens when you apply that idea of episodes of a story being unlocked by moving through a space into the real world? There aren't many examples yet - but as mobile devices get smarter and quicker, the idea of a story becoming a game in real space gets closer. A group of people in the East End played 'Damp Assasins' - a waterfight coordinated by camera phones, and the company area/code is doing really interesting work in the US.

Some ARGs - Alternate reality games - already play with this. My department's Jamie Kane lets you ring up people's answerphones. PerplexCity has events that are realspace games - there's one happening in London in a couple of weeks.

Interfaces are changing too - Playstation's EyeToy watches a player, and translates their gestures into on screen action. There's been a demo of a driving game controlled by an entire crowd leaning one way or the other to steer. Games are becoming tangible.

CGI face

Tech is getting better and better

Indistinguishable Virtuality

What happens when you can't distinguish between a game and a movie? Or a game and real life?

Video: Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation3. It's NOT pre-rendered - the system is generating it 'on the fly'. Watch the system being demoed.

I don't know, to be honest - appart from the fact that it'll probably drive a few people round the twist. And also, that you better be damn sure your writing is good enough to carry off the illusion.

That's not a real man by the way - it's a CGI face. The processing power to make games look that convincing is only a couple of years away.


Programming is Getting Smarter

Artificial Improv

The problem of responding to unpredictable human input is getting solved by smart programming.

It's still limited to recombinations of set responses, though, and relies on clever writing and a limited scenario

Façade is a game (well, game is pushing it - it's an interactive experience) where you are the friend of a couple who have a blazing row. They respond to your typed input, and the story changes each time you play through.

It's limited, but the best example of interactive narrative yet.

Interestingly, some of the earliest AI's were about the play of psychology; the formalised language you use in a therapist-patient scenario is easy to replicate well enough to fool a person into thinking they're talking to a real person, it turns out. Try ELIZA, who was made in the 1960s. Fun fact: if you asked one of the chat bots in 'cloudmakers', the AI film game, if she knew who Eliza was, she replied that ELIZA was one of her ancestors. Sweet.


The Big Question

Can Games be Art?


I really don't have an answer to this. Right now, only a very few approach what I'd think of as the state of artfulness, and tackle the game-as-a-medium-in-its-own-right. (Play Rez, sometime. That's 'play', not 'Look at' quite deliberately, there.)

But comics were kind of in the same place 50 years ago, and then that Jimmy Corrigan won all those prizes. And Cinema wasn't an art when it started, and then there were those Penny Dreadfuls that Dickens wrote for...

Ultimately, it's an immature medium. And the thing about immature media is that getting in early on gives you the chance to shape the medium as you see fit, and set standards and tropes for all who follow. Pretty cool, IMHO.

So... get out there and trailblaze. Dare you.


ONE: Create A Game World

Base it on a story you already know

  • two locations (or more - you could draw a map)
  • two main characters (or more)
  • some objects in the world


  • two types of 'points' to score
  • how to get those points
  • why your characters want to score those points


  • Don't give away your source material!

TWO: Playing in Existing Worlds

Construct a rough-and-ready story based on the sheet you've been given

Don't try to reconstruct the original story; have fun with it

Make a note of:-

  • Places you get stuck
  • Inconsistencies you discover

THREE: Share :-)

This is just an excercise to get writers thinking about writing in an open way, for others worlds. The idea is to look at things like economies, point scoring, winning conditions etc. and try to fit them logically into their context, rather than adding them on as artificial systems. The second half is meant to give them an idea of the way that players can then take that storyworld and make something new and unexpected from it.

There were extra points for anyone that came up with a game based on Jane Austen.

More Info


http://www.mildlydiverting.com/interactivewriting/ - related documents

Want to give me feedback on this presentation? You can leave comments on my blog.

Contact Me

kim.plowright [at] bbc.co.uk


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