Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Game Behind a Good Story

Previous articles revealed tricks to snag reader interest- but what keeps that spark alive?

When a promising concept with sparkling characters goes soggy midway through the story, when readers leave in disgust, what exactly is happening?  How can wildly fantastical movies with spaceships, dragons, and magic be considered perfectly plausible, only to be condemned as 'unrealistic' over the most mundane of details?

For the answer we're putting down Finnigan's Wake and picking up Super Metroid.  Because there's something necessarily inherent to games that reveals the secret of a satisfying story.

There are plenty of things that might ruin a game- but violate this one sacred principle, and you can make the experience universally detested by players.

Games require rules.

Now, a quick aside:  In various circles that's a hotly contested assertion.  Some are quick to declare that 'game' means anything anyone wants, and definitions somehow suppress creative expression.

I'm not itching to get into philosophical battles here, but I personally find it helpful when words have meaning.  Non-subjective definitions allow clear communication of ideas, something that I don't see as inherently oppressive.

So, for the purposes of this article, a game has rules.

Internally consistent laws that define what can and cannot happen.

...Fine, except for Calvinball.

But really- put this to the test.  What is 'tag' without rules?

Tag- you're it!  Or not?

You could call such a thing playing, to be sure- running around, engaging in activity, slapping at one another.  But without rules there is no context to lend relevance to any actions.

The entire experience of a game is predicated on consistent rules.  And when it's not, people get pissed.

It's not difficulty in a game that causes frustration.  Gamers will accept an insanely hard game, will accept losing over and over again as long as the game is true to its own rules.  Because if they lose, they attribute that setback to their own lack of skill.  And they work to get better- because they can.

Contrast that to a game that capriciously kills players, without warning, at random.  If introduced early, players might try to work around this obstacle- but if it truly is arbitrary, if skill and effort have no impact on their experience, that game will soon be dropped.  For a simple reason:

That's a recipe for dissatisfaction.

Players will accept the context a game establishes, and struggle within it- but yank that context out from under them, and they will conclude they're being unfairly treated.   And leave.

Only one thing in a game can be arbitrary- the initial rules.  Within that framework, a player wants freedom.  If the rules themselves shift for no reason and impede player agency, then suddenly skill, strategy, and effort- i.e. playing- is rendered pointless.

That's how to ruin a game- have it break its own rules.  And guess what?

It's also exactly how to ruin a story.

But wait, I hear some saying.

A story and a game are different.  After all, I was being a stickler about definitions above.  Of course checkers needs rules.  But a story?  A story is about that most unpredictable of subjects, human nature.  It charts quicksilver interactions between mercurial personalities and situations.  Rules?  BAH!  Authors scoff at such things.

And surprise surprise, a lot of stories suck.

It's true stories and games are different.  But there is overlap- and it pays to comprehend the core, common ingredient, the one thing fundamentally necessary to both stories and games:


An objective to accomplish, in the face of obstacles or competition- a problem to solve.    

I once read that story structure is really nothing more than problem structure, and that rings true.

A narrative is the introduction of a problem, how that problem is dealt with, and the results of dealing with the problem.

But here's the thing about solving a problem- whether in a game, in a story, or even in mathematics:  The reality around that problem has to stay consistent for the solution to be applicable.

Some authors may be tempted to frown on such a simple characterization of story- it is far deeper than just 'fix the problem.'

Fiction does hold marvelous potential for complexity to unfold- but that makes a stable simulation even more critical to maintain.

It's like having a computer performing a careful calculation, and then pouring water on the circuits.  You wanted to process information and solve for an answer- but by interrupting the calculation, the answer is lost.

Look at chess.

The strategies that can emerge from chess approach baffling levels of complexity, pushing the human cognitive capacity near its limits.

But if you suddenly change the configuration of the chessboard mid-game, erase three rows and declare that checkmate is no longer the win state - well, that game just got ruined.

The mental investment on the part of the players, their tactical considerations, moves and countermoves, everything they poured into that game is capriciously nullified.  Meaningless.

And having pointless events is a cardinal story sin.

Now if you're pretentious enough, you might think this makes great Art, with a capital 'A'.  But for us mortals trying to get by with limited resources, we need all the information we can get.  For us, art needs to help in that task.  Effective art communicates.  That's actually why it's entertaining- our brain rewards us with a shot of dopamine when it's learning something deemed valuable.

That's why human brains are optimized to consume story- it's a highly effective way of absorbing information without risk.  A way of simulating problems and challenges without facing harmful real-life consequences.

Which, when you think about it, is strikingly similar to the purpose games can serve.

So understand- in your first Act, you are laying down the rules, establishing the reality of your story, setting the tone, displaying what is plausible, showing what the characters are like.  Your story could be set on Mars, in a post-apocalyptic steampunk world, or in Nazi Germany where dinosaurs never went extinct.

The 'game board' for your story can be wildly unrealistic.  The audience will understand that the game board is fantasy.  But your story takes place on the surface of that game board- and for the events to remain coherent, that surface must hold together.

It's non-negotiable.  The simulation must follow its own rules.  Because if it doesn't, the audience will conclude that the story is arbitrary, the events meaningless, the characters contrived.

That's how you can tell when a story is breaking its own rules- when someone in the audience calls bullshit.

When they groan and say, "Come on, that wouldn't happen!" or "She would never say that!"

Perhaps the hero has just leapt gracefully over an exploding grenade without hitting a wisp of shrapnel.  If it's the game board of  'Last Action Hero,' we accept it- because that's not what the simulation is 'about.'   But if it's the gritty realistic world of Die-Hard, this would be a breach of contract for the viewer.  On that game board, grenades kill- and if they suddenly don't, the game is broken.

The rules aren't just about physical action.

Perhaps in a romantic comedy, the female lead decides to inexplicably drop her objections and marry the protagonist- for no other reason than it says so in the script.  If her choice runs contrary to what the story has established regarding her personality, then the audience will be left with that same vague feeling of betrayal.

In either case, the writers have cheated.  They couldn't figure out how to get the answer they wanted within the parameters of their simulation- so they warped reality to make things work out a certain way.

When a reader notices this, it drains satisfaction like air from a tire.  Because they are no longer being shown how a problem could 'really' be solved.  The truth is gone.

This becomes even more important when a story grapples with deep thematic issues.  What principles work in life?  Which morals are applicable, which are facile ideology?  What should we value, and why?

A story sets those principles into action, and shows us what would 'actually' happen.

That is why stories must tell the truth.  And they do it in precisely the same way a game establishes an enjoyable experience-

By logically simulating conflict within a framework where actions matter.

Are predictable stories boring?

Often, yes.

But I don't directly equate internal consistency with predictability.

Chess has predictable rules- but you can still launch a surprise attack on your opponent.

And if the problem being explored in a story is interesting enough there should be room for twists and surprises.  In fact, twists require a coherent foundation to be effectual.  If everything is arbitrary and makes no sense, there are no twists- just more stuff happening.

Hopefully all of the above also sheds light on climaxes, conclusions, and how to handle them.

At the end of a story, readers want to see how a problem can finally be solved- given what they know about the situation.

This is why the deus ex machina is such a depressing cop-out.

We want the protagonist to take what they've learned in the story- their experiences, their allies, their enemies, their principles- and apply them to effect a resolution to the problem.   If some random element is suddenly plonked onto the game-board that we've never seen before, something that just happens to magically solve the problem at hand-

Well then, the entire preceding simulation regarding that problem becomes rather irrelevant, doesn't it?

...I'm lookin' at you, Elder Wand.

There's a lot more to keeping a story entertaining than internal consistency- but that's the required foundation to prevent collapse.  Hopefully looking at it from the angle of gaming has managed to cast some light on why that holds true.

1 comment:

Minno said...

That's a good point about twists. You can't do something unexpected unless there's something expected you could have done.