Saturday, January 24, 2015

Michael J. Tresca gave 5 stars to: Video Game Storytelling

Michael J. Tresca reviewed:

Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques by Evan Skolnick

5.0 out of 5 stars For game designers in any medium, January 24, 2015

At first blush you might think Evan Skolnick's Video Game Storytelling isn't relevant to role-playing games. I've written at length about the challenges video games face in crafting a good story, something which the nascent industry still struggles with. As a result, video games often repeat the mistakes learned by tabletop board and role-playing games.

This is the book I was hoping Tom Bissell's Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter would be -- an explanation of the flaws in video games and a clear path as to how to fix it. Skolnick isn't a journalist or "artiste" visiting the video game world and espousing his opinions about what's wrong with it; he's a narrative designer in the trenches battling for respect and trying to keep games from completely bombing. In some ways it's sad this book had to be written at all.

The book is divided into two parts, Basic Training and In the Trenches. After outlining in Basic Training the basics of a three-act structure (Setup, Confrontation, Resolution), Skolnick demonstrates how this narrative concept can be applied to a game's structure. Of particular relevance is his discussion of the Monomyth.

The Monomyth was first outlined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The archetypes are well known to gamers everywhere: Hero, Herald (who announces the conflict), Mentor, Shapeshifter (a character who changes allegiance at a critical moment), and of course the Villain. There's also the Story Structure, which is familiar to fans of "Star Wars" and "The Matrix":

1. The Ordinary World: An introduction to what passes as "normal" in the protagonist's life.


3. The Call to Adventure: The hero faces the possibility of a quest...


5. Refusal of the Call: But refuses to do it.


7. Meeting with the Mentor: He meets a mentor, a character who convinces him to resume the quest.


9. Crossing the First Threshold: The journey begins and the hero leaves the normalcy of home.


11. Tests, Allies, Enemies: This is the meat of the adventure -- challenges, fights, puzzles, etc.


13. Approach to the Inmost Cave: The hero ventures into enemy territory.


15. The Supreme Ordeal: Things get bad; the hero is sorely tested.


17. Reward: The hero retrieves the item he needs to be successful, but he's not done yet...


19. The Road Back: He must return with it, enemies hot on his heels.


21. Resurrection: This is the moment in every story where things look their worst.


23. Return with the Elixir: The finale, with everyone getting their just rewards, hero and villain alike.


Skolnick goes well beyond the Hero's Journey into villain and hero motivations and narrative techniques, like how to not info-dump massive exposition on characters. There are also critical chapters on dialogue and believability. It's this kind of clear-headed approach to telling a good story that is often lacking in tabletop adventures.

The second half of the book covers what most tabletop gamers have long suspected: game designers get no respect. Or worse, sometimes there's nobody in charge of storytelling at all!

I've often spoken about how, bored with a game, my character shifts from following the Monomyth to just murdering everything -- a stark example of ludonarrative dissonance. Skolnick's frustration with the industry seeps throughout this part of the book as he reinforces the importance of achieving "ludonarrative harmony," the player aligned with the game character's intent.

This is an important work, bridging the storytelling we know so well from movies and books with the gaming tropes we've come to mock. It's an excellent reference for any game designer in any medium.