Storytelling in Gaming and How Blockchain Can Improve It
Games aren’t great at telling stories. But that can change. The advent of blockchain technology offers game developers the opportunity to rethink what a game can be. This article will discuss why games tell flawed stories and how blockchain can turn that around. But first, let’s talk about innovation.
Incremental or Breakthrough?
Innovation is nearly always incremental. But every once in a while, in a flash of insight, someone combines concepts in such a way that it creates an entirely unique idea. Eureka, breakthrough innovation.
Unilever bought Dollar Shave Club for $1 billion because delivering razors to your doorstep on a monthly basis was a unique and profitable idea. Zipcar now has over a million members because renting a nearby car was a unique and profitable idea. And the iPhone? That did okay too, didn’t it?
And here’s the thing: these breakthrough innovations redefined what a particular good or service could be. After the iPhone, a phone was no longer a device to text and call, it became a device to browse the Internet and install apps too. A Zipcar meant you no longer needed to have a car to transport yourself. And Dollar Shave Club showed that a subscription model can be highly profitable for goods even as simple as razors.
Breakthrough innovation expands what it touches; it improves the whole offering. That’s why I believe that blockchain technology will expand what we think games can do. First of all, let’s agree that blockchain technology is breakthrough innovation: the combination of cryptography and the Internet made for a novel concept that’s being experimented with in all major industries.
Secondly, games still have serious deficiencies. While they have improved significantly in technical areas, such as graphics and NPC behavior, nearly all games suffer from poor storytelling. The next huge step forward for gaming is how games tell stories, and a breakthrough technology like blockchain might well give game developers the impetus to think about this.
Why Games Tell Poor Stories
The two usual vehicles for telling a story are books and movies. In a book, the author conveys the story through written language. It’s one-dimensional. In a movie, the director conveys a story through sound and sight. Two-dimensional. Telling a story through a game is unique because it adds a third dimension: interactivity.
In a game, you don’t passively take in the story. You are the story; it revolves around you. At least, that’s how it should be. But game developers often forget about the third dimension of interactivity, and present the story to you as if it were a book or a movie.
For example: you’re Lara Croft in Tomb Raider and you’re navigating a dungeon with all its traps and treasures. You use your cunning and your skill to survive. You move deeper into the dungeon, and suddenly the game moves into a cutscene where Lara is ambushed and has to fight for her life.
From the moment this cutscene starts, you’re no longer Lara. The game has turned into a short movie. You can relax and sit back, despite the fact that Lara is going through a dangerous and tense experience. But you don’t care, because you’re not in control. The third dimension of interactivity has disappeared. You might have to press X a few times to survive a knife attack during the scene, but it’s too late. The immersion has been broken.
Some games do it better and don’t have cutscenes. But even in a ground-breaking game like Half-Life, the story is told to you. There are no cutscenes, but there are still narrative sequences where you’re stuck in a ‘story room’ and cannot get out. You’re forced to watch the story unfold around you. A prime example is the first ten minutes of Half-Life, where you’re in a train and are introduced to the Black Mesa facility.
I’ll extend an olive branch, because I love that sequence just as much as anyone else who’s ever played Half-Life. These story rooms tend to work better than cutscenes where you’re taken out of the character. Valve did as best as they could telling a scripted story with the technical limitations of the time (which they also pushed considerably).
I think Valve did an even better job with their 2007 game Portal. Similar to the Half-Life series, everything was in first-person and there were no cutscenes. Additionally, the story and dialogue of Portal’s antagonist GLaDOS was extremely well written.
But most importantly, it felt as if you rebelling against the experiments of GLaDOS were actions of your own agency. It felt as if what you were doing was going against what the game wanted you to do. As if your actions mattered. Of course, that wasn’t the case. The game was always designed for you to act the way you did, but even that fact was written nicely into the narrative, as it was just another GLaDOS experiment.
But despite Portal telling its story well and effectively, it was still relatively simple, with hardly any characters and in the very controlled environment of a laboratory. Any game that wants to add a shade of complexity to its story seems forced to break the immersion of a gamer by forcing a story onto them.
That’s why the gaming industry needs to think broader. Why does a story need to be conveyed in the way that we convey stories through books and movies? A game is interactive, and that fundamentally clashes with telling a story to the gamer. Interactivity means that the story should come from the gamer.
“What does that even mean?” you might now reasonably ask. It means that a scripted story in a game isn’t the best way to tell a story. You’re not doing full justice to the story, because the player can do things that are incongruent with it (e.g. chase a bunch of chickens as the most powerful swordsman in the world) and you’re not doing full justice to the immersion of the gamer either, given that the game breaks the immersion at certain stages to tell the story.
A game should tell a story in a different way than a book or a movie. And here’s how:
A Scripted Story Isn’t the Only Story
The tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons doesn’t have a scripted story. It has a unique world, with unique monsters, unique characters, unique weapons, and so on. But every time a group of players sits down to play, it’s up to them to decide what they’ll do. If the dungeon master created a story and you decide to follow it, then you can do that. But if you decide to turn around and do something entirely different, then you can do that too.
The story emerges from the actions of the player. And this is called an emergent narrative. It works much better than a scripted story, because it comes from the player’s actions. You’re much more emotionally involved when you’re in a unique world where everything you do has consequences that change the world.
This is where I believe game developers have an opportunity with blockchain. The technology asks them to rethink fundamental aspects of a game. Gamers have full ownership of their items, can exchange these items for money, and have much more power as a decentralized group than they used to have. How can that be integrated in mechanisms where stories will emerge naturally from the gamers themselves? That’s a vital question.
Some games already have emergent narratives, and blockchain developers would do well to reverse-engineer them. Two good examples are Dwarf Fortress and EVE Online. Both games are open-world games that have a specific theme with their own enemies, characters, weapons, etc... But most importantly, both games give the player the freedom to do whatever they want, within the broad framework of rules of that world.
It’s no surprise that thousands of people on forums and blogs tell their unique stories about what happened to them in their game. And sometimes, certain events in the universe of that game lead to an even bigger event that impacts even more people. The EVE Online Battle of B-R5RB in 2014 had over 7,000 players participate in a huge and sudden conflict that started because a single player failed to make a routine maintenance payment. This was a story that emerged organically, and five years later, people still talk about it.
That’s what I envision for a blockchain game. Game developers, here’s my plea to you: introduce emergent narratives into your game. You’ll have a community anyway, because that’s necessary to run a blockchain game. So give players a platform to create their own stories. Create a beautiful game where stories emerge naturally, and your blockchain game might well redefine what we think a game can do.