One of the first rules that any good fiction writer should learn is “show, don’t tell.” An entire course could be taught around this principle, but essentially this means that action — any action, whether a car chase (please no), or a witty verbal confrontation between the hero and the villain, or a lightsaber duel between a computer-generated Muppet and a computer-generated actor — must occur in front of the audience and not behind the scenes; otherwise, it’s not action, it’s exposition. And exposition is not good storytelling, as illustrated by the following exchange:
Bill approached Betty by the water cooler. “Hey, Betts, did you hear about Bob?”
“You mean Bob, our former coworker, who recently quit his job in R&D in order to go gallivanting through the jungle in search of Ancient Mystical Artifacts which he will then willingly and happily present to the indigenous peoples of the country in which he performed said gallivanting?”
“The very same. Turns out he had quite an adventure last month.”
“I hadn’t heard! What happened, Bill?”
“His plane crashed, his guide abandoned him, he was attacked by a swarm of Dengue-infected mosquitoes, he was shot in the right butt-cheek, and was almost eaten by a crocodile.”
“That’s horrible! Is Bob okay?”
“I don’t know; no one’s heard from him in a few weeks. Wanna try that new Thai place for lunch?”
“That sounds good. Goodbye, Bill, and thanks for the update about our former coworker Bob!”
If the story is about Bob, the preceding exchange is exposition because it places the audience about eight thousand miles away from the action. If the story isn’t about Bob, it’s filler; who gives a shit about Bob if the story is about Bill and Betty? (Who wouldn’t rather read about Bob, though? Bill and Betty sound like a couple of boobs.)
To find a corollary concept in gaming, the show-don’t-tell maxim must be taken one step further; in an interactive medium, whenever the audience is forced out of an active role and into a passive one, the experience becomes similar to Bill and Betty jabbering about Bob at the water cooler when they should be at their desks filing their WENUS reports; in passive fiction like books and films, showing is better than telling, but in gaming, playing is better than watching. Whenever I’m no longer doing in a game, my attention span expiration countdown begins to speed up, and it doesn’t take long for it to time out completely.
So how are game developers supposed to tell stories, then? To answer that question, you’ve got to define the word “story” in the context of video games; when any storytelling medium necessarily and by definition employs an active participant in its realization — the player — it changes the types of stories that can and should be told. But because of the way that stories are presented in books and films, that is, from either the first- or third-person perspective, most developers have forged a lifelong association between the word “story” and the attendant idea that “story is something that happens to other people.” As a result, many games — if not the majority of them — attempt to tell stories by bolting them onto the interactive experience in a kind of piecemeal, give-my-creation-life mishmash of poorly integrated narrative. It takes an enormous amount of energy to get that big ugly bastard up and shambling around the lab (and later, into the countryside, where it can terrorize a small village by boring the gopher shit out of them with bad writing, bad acting, and substandard animation) — energy which is usually drawn from the player in the form of inactivity within a supposedly active medium.
All gaming is performed from a first-person perspective. Before you light up the switchboard with calls of complaint and derision, realize that I’m not talking about the visual perspective, which is an entirely different matter, but the mental perspective; whether I’m rolling the dice and moving the race car around the board in Monopoly, or piloting Lara Croft up a cliff wall in Tomb Raider, or blowing away a vortigaunt through the eyes of Gordon Freeman in Half-Life, by nature of my input, I am a first-person participant in the process, regardless of the medium. I am moving the race car; I am moving Lara Croft; I am Gordon Freeman.
In a video game it makes no difference where the camera is positioned while this is going on; it’s possible to play Fallout 3 in a third-person point-of-view without detracting from the first-person mental perspective, largely because in Fallout 3 nothing is considered more important than your interaction with the game; there are no scripted enemy intros, no cutscenes, no long segments in which you are forced to become a passive and disconnected witness to the developer’s frustrated film-making ambitions. So while Fallout 3 does tell an intrinsic story — the story that takes place solely within the game world — it does so unobtrusively, never dragging the player outside of the personal, extrinsic story, which is the sum of your unique experience with the whole of the game, from your gender choice, to your facial features, to your character class, to the skills that you use, and the manner in which you approach and solve mission objectives. Are you playing as a brawler or a smooth-talker? That’s part of your extrinsic story. Do you prefer to help the NPCs, ignore them, or even harm them? Also part of your story. Do you avoid a fight whenever possible, or do you charge in headlong, with little regard for your well-being and insurance deductible? That’s also part of your story, but let me add that if you’ve fully fleshed out the details of your character’s health insurance plan, you might be taking the concept of extrinsic fiction to the extreme. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
An extrinsic story is not necessarily an exclusive attribute of role-playing games, because any game can enable the creation of player-exclusive fiction as long as it does not regularly and intrusively prevent the player from, you know, actually playing. Role-playing elements are merely one way to accomplish this; Dark Forces is a game that contains no role-playing elements at all, but which entices players into successfully transferring their mental perspective into that of Kyle Katarn, the game’s protagonist, by means of keeping players inside the game at all times. Dark Forces never removes you from the action in order to show you pretty pictures or fanciful dialogues; all cinematics are presented at natural breaks in the action, such as level transitions, and they’re mercifully short. The result is a game that’s surprisingly effective at enabling the creation of extrinsic fiction by permitting players to play the game with no interruptions; in this case the extrinsic story is fashioned by the accumulation of all the actions taken in the game, whether that’s stealing the Death Star plans, taking out a Phase III dark trooper, or avoiding dianoga in the sewers of Anoat. (And yeah, the plural of dianoga is dianoga. Who knew?)
Of course I don’t object to anyone else liking games that employ forty-minute-long cinematics instead of integrating story details into the gameplay. I understand why this kind of passive storytelling appeals to people — after all, it’s been the accepted method of indicating the fate of every Betty, Bob, and Bill since the dawn of time — I simply don’t care for it in games, for the reasons outlined above. Having my progress (my interaction) in a game halted in order to be force-fed story elements that I could have been voluntarily munching on all along is the surest way to indicate that I’m really only a passive spectator on someone else’s journey. It’d be like receiving a copy of the script when you purchase a movie ticket, not to follow with the movie, but to fill in the places where the director couldn’t figure out how to use his chosen medium to its utmost potential.
My favorite developers don’t drag me out of a game in order to club me over the head with their storytelling; the best artistic experiences are those in which the essential elements are fully integrated within the defining context of each medium; great literature doesn’t need pictures, great pictures don’t need words, and great games don’t stop the player from playing them.