A couple of weeks ago, I attended GDC Online in Austin. I was covering the event, but I was also there as a speaker, giving a microtalk as part of a six-critic panel on great game storytelling. Joining me were N’Gai Croal (Hit Detection), Leigh Alexander (Gamasutra), John Davidson (CBS Interactive/Gamespot), and Ben Fritz (the L.A. Times). The talk was organised and led by Chris Dahlen, who is editor-in-chief at Kill Screen Magazine.
We decided early on that we’d each give a small talk dedicated to one thing that we look for in a great video game story (or one thing that we’d love to never see again). The format was the wild card–Chris suggested we try something similar to the Pecha Kucha 20×20 talk, in which each presenter shows 20 slides which play for 20 seconds each. For my talk, I focused on character motivation, so of course I wound up talking about… chickens.
We did a modified version of Pecha Kucha, doing 20 slides apiece and setting them to play for 16 seconds each. Let me tell you: it was a challenge! I’ve given talks before, but I’ve always had control over when the slides advance. For this talk, I had to rehearse the hell out of it in order to make things line up the way I wanted them to. It wound up being a great exercise, and I think the approach helped me keep things focused.
I was thrilled to get to give a talk alongside such wonderful critics and writers, and I really each talk. John took a loose, conversational look at the various storytelling tricks he values in games. N’Gai took a more technical approach, breaking down the main sorts of game storytelling and explaining them. Leigh’s talk was a deep look at building better online characters and quest givers, her slides (predictably) covered in text. Ben talked about how most of the games that win awards for writing are the games that feature the most writing, which was something I’d never considered before. Chris closed us out with my favourite of all the talks, in which he discussed mystery, and how only in games can players take an active part in unravelling the story.
At some point, video of the session will be available at the GDC Vault, but in the meantime I wrote to the folks at GDC Online and asked if it would be OK for me to run my microtalk here, and they said yes. So, in this slide show, you’ll find my 20 slides. For the full experience, set a timer to ding every sixteen seconds and read the slides out loud to yourself. (Or, you know, just read it normally.)
Thanks to Chris Dahlen for including me, and to Jennifer Steele and everyone at GDC Online for having us! I can’t wait to go back next year.
Hi everybody. I want to talk about character motivation, and I’d like to start with a question: Why did the chicken cross the road? I’m guessing that you all know the answer: she crossed to get to the other side. It’s a nice, direct answer, humorous in its ironic simplicity.
But is that really a good enough answer? What if a car had come along? What if she had lost her way and never made it back to her family? Why would this chicken risk so much, what was she going towards, what was she trying to escape? What are we really asking here?
It’s not so much “Why did the chicken cross the road,” as it is simply: “Why?” Why do we do the things we do? Why do we love, why do we lie; why do we take risks or hurt one another? Why did the chicken cross the road?
…What does this have to do with video game writing?
Well, maybe it doesn’t have to be a chicken.
For me as a game critic, the question of “why” is of the utmost importance. Of course, that question is of the utmost importance for… pretty much every aspect of everything. But for today, when I talk about “Why,” I’m talking about character motivation. Why do a game’s characters do what they do?
Oftentimes the phrase “character motivation” becomes synonymous with “backstory.” In Mass Effect, players are given the opportunity to choose their protagonist’s backstory from a short list, and it kinda works! Choose a backstory, and voila! Instant character depth.
But backstory can be so much more than a quick and dirty means to providing character development. In Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts, players enter the subconscious minds of the other characters, exploring their pasts, their secrets, their proud moments and their shame. It was a brilliant synthesis of character development and design.
The challenge is that too much backstory, improperly applied, can also backfire. I was frustrated with Brendan McNamera’s LA Noire for the muddled ways that he and his writers attempted to show me Cole Phelps’ motivations. I never did feel like I understood him, or why he did the things he did.
Great writing and performances can help inform of a character’s “why” intuitively, and most of my favourite characters often feel motivated by the same unknowable impulses as rest of us. But then, that’s television… or film, or literature. That’s not video games.
Because here’s the thing: when it comes to games, everything I’ve described is only half the story. Why did Frogger REALLY cross the road? He did it because you pushed the joystick forward. He didn’t need another reason for his actions. This frog really DID cross the road just to get to the other side.
One of the most famous responses to the question “why” came from George Mallory before climbing Mount Everest. “Why do you want to climb the mountain?” he was asked.
“Because it’s there.”
“Because it’s there” is a good enough response for many video game characters. Most, even.
Mallory was probably more concerned with how he was going to climb the mountain. And often, game designers seem similarly focused on the how over the why. How does this level work? How are our combat elements balanced? How do we get this vehicle segment functional?
But as a critic, I’m never as interested in how the chicken crossed the road as I am in why. By foot, by air; by boat, by train–it doesn’t really matter. In a game, as soon as I’ve done something, I know how I did it. It’s nicely unambiguous, but also narratively uninteresting.
Games may not need great characters to work, but well-developed, three-dimensional characters make me enjoy a game so much more. Why did he rescue his missing wife? Why did she defeat that dragon? Why did he build that farm? In so many games the answers to those questions are thin or even non-existent.
I guess it will always be both a risk and a challenge to ask video game characters “why.” That’s partly because it’ll probably always be easier to ignore the question entirely. It’s also because of Frogger and the joystick: the conflict between player control and authorial intent.
But that conflict is precisely what makes video game characters so fascinating to me! Shadow of the Colossus‘s Wander, tricked along with the player into committing heinous acts. Planescape Torment‘s Nameless One, his past catching up with him even as through him, the player creates a new future.
And then there’s multiplayer, in which the connection between player and character becomes even more complex. Many multiplayer games have found an easy answer to the question “why.” Why do we play multiplayer games? “To level up! To win!” But must that really be our sole motivation?
Whether by design or not, our personal motivations are already coming to bear in online spaces. What if I watered Suzy’s crops not because I want to get more FarmVille bucks, but because I have a crush on her in real life? What if I screwed over a coworker in EVE Online because of a perceived workplace slight?
The motivations of the characters we play in digital worlds overlap with our own lives in ways that writers and designers have only begun to explore. Through our connections to the game, the story, and to other players, our in-game actions become an entirely different sort of real, and so too do our motivations.
But too many games, single and multiplayer, don’t just fail to answer the question “why,” they fail to ask it at all. It’s enough that they work, it’s enough that the design is fun and the feedback loops are compulsive. It’s enough that they’ll sell a ton of units.
I don’t ask writers to put aside notions of design-oriented, functional writing, I only ask that they aspire beyond them, beyond the “how” and into the “why?” You’ve built the chicken, you’ve designed the road. She’s standing alongside it, waiting. Now tell me, show me: why would she want to cross it in the first place?