The Stories People Tell

Working at a printing company that helps produce on-demand custom photobooks, I sometimes get an interesting peek into the lives and interests of a pretty broad range of people.  In my completely anecdotal, thoroughly non-scientific experience, there are a few common patterns in what people take pictures of–and presumably, the parts of their lives that interest them the most.  In approximate order, they are:

  • Sex (including weddings and babies)
  • Food
  • Other people (and their pets)
  • Variety: new places, experiences and activities

It should probably not be surprising that survival and reproduction are at the top–they are, after all, our most fundamental drives, the ones we share with all living things.  What’s a little more interesting is that we seem to value other people and new experiences almost as highly.  Social interaction and curiosity are almost as fundamental to our behavior as basic survival.

Perhaps it also shouldn’t surprise me that I immediately start thinking about how this applies to games.  Most games seem to place a much heavier emphasis on exploration and problem-solving than on social interaction, while more linear media such as films and (especially) literature tend to place more emphasis on characterization and social interaction.  I think it’s no coincidence that the most popular genres in prose fiction are the ones like mystery and romance that derive their interest almost entirely from the characters.  Why do so few games do this?  The popular answer–that social interactions are too complex to easily model–is clearly bogus.  The success of franchises like The Sims and the popularity of the “dating sim” genre in other countries is proof that social interaction in games can still be deeply engaging and successful even when the underlying model is cartoonishly simplified–indeed, perhaps all the more so because of it.

Is it simply because modeling social interaction in a game seems harder?  Perhaps…but I think it’s more likely that the problem lies in trying to reconcile simplified social interactions with the epic, highly-structured narratives we continue to insist on stuffing into our games.  The Mass Effect franchise is perhaps the defining example of this style of storytelling, and it was clearly successful, but it took massive amounts of people and money to (mostly) pull it off.

Are smaller, independent games just doomed when it comes to combining social interaction and narrative realism?  A lot of people seem to think so, but I’m not so sure.  Perhaps the solution lies, not in removing the narratives from our games, but in recognizing that the narrative is not the same thing as the story.  We often forget this due to the ubiquity of literature and film, but non-linear media such as painting, sculpture, and architecture have been telling stories without narratives for centuries.  It may be impossible to fully author the narrative of an interactive work–but that does not necessarily mean that they cannot tell authored stories.

I wonder…what might a non-narrative story look like?  How would you tell one?

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