Thoughts about Neil Gaiman’s Wayward Manor, and General Storytelling in Games

By now, you’ve surely heard last week’s announcement that Neil Gaiman is working on a video game named Wayward Manor. As he puts it, “I’m a storyteller. What I tend to do is try and find the right medium to tell the right story.” That’s worth a lot of attention on its own, because historically, games have not been known for very good writing. Most gamers love the idea that there are things that make their medium right for stories, but there isn’t a lot of evidence yet to demonstrate that. I have to wonder how this new project is going to work out, myself: I love adventure games, and I love Gaiman’s sensibilities, so I expect to like this game. (Though admittedly, I had similar thoughts about Starship Titanic.) But, even though Gaiman has excelled in many different genres and mediums, I don’t know whether he appreciates the unique challenges of storytelling in a game.

Most stories in games have been static. When you reach a certain point, you see the same cut-scene that every other player does. Maybe there are slight variations, or a few different endings available, but none of that impacts on the gameplay or overall experience. If there’s no interaction, and they only meaningful way for the player to impact the events is to die and restart, then how is that really “part of the game” instead of a split up movie or novel? (And if your answer is that it wouldn’t be very good as a stand-alone movie, then is it really any good in the game either?)

The other problem is pacing. Traditional stories are meant to be read in a way controlled by the author. Games are meant to give the player a challenge that they may not be able to overcome for a while, if ever. I mean, I’ve never made it to the last cut-scene in Ms. PacMan. That’s not a big deal because I didn’t care about the story, but I sure would be upset if I couldn’t unlock the last third of American Gods. The specific genre that Gaiman is writing for is especially notorious for this, because each puzzle in an adventure game will stump some people for longer than others. If you are moving through the game quickly, but then you get stuck for three days on a puzzle right at an interesting part of the story, then it probably won’t seem as interesting once it resumes. The easy way to prevent this is to make sure that each puzzle happens in between concrete chapters of the story, but then we’re back to this being a serialization that feels separate from the game itself.

I’ll admit that I haven’t kept up with most recent games, so I can’t comment on the ways that they are trying to overcome this. I also haven’t been very active in the interactive fiction community, whose main focus is on the literary potential of games. But these are the three major approaches that I can come up with:

Use the game to engage the player in the story.

This is the response to the idea that a linear story has no place in a game. If it makes the player feel connected to the story in a way that traditional media cannot, then it serves a purpose. This may just be used to raise the stakes, or it may actually introduce surprising twists. A few games (which I won’t mention for spoiler purposes) have actually made the player complicit in the events that happened and then revealed that they were committing atrocities.

This can be powerful, but I haven’t yet seen a general technique for it. Right now, it seems to me that this is a minor factor in all games, but can only ever be significant in a few.

Take control of the pacing while the player controls the events.

To avoid letting the story get “stuck” because the player fails to solve challenges, simply make the story continue. If they can’t clear the butler’s name, for example, then the butler will be arrested and all the other characters will react accordingly. If you want to find out what would have happened had the butler stuck around, you’ll need to replay the game and figure out how to save him on time. And, of course, your goals don’t have to be obvious like that. Part of the game may involve figuring out new ways to influence the story.

This can be the structure for an interesting social game, though it’s almost impossible for an action game where failure means death. It’s very difficult for the game creators, too: Now they need to spend time developing scenes that most players will never see, as well as put in the extra effort to make sure that each possible path through the story is logically consistent. This is most commonly seen in choose your own adventures or gamebooks, in which the changing path is the point of the story, but players never slow down trying to make a decision. For an in-depth story, though, it would be time consuming to keep replaying in search of the right path, and as I said before, it would be frustrating to be unable to finish a Neil Gaiman story.

Leave the interaction, but take away the challenge.

One thing that fascinates me about computer role-playing games is that winning them is almost always a matter of putting in the time to level up your characters. Though CRPGs are generally considered a “hardcore” genre, they don’t actually have challenges and potential failure like other games do. This isn’t a criticism, as I like these games, and it would feel unfair to have to restart these because you failed. I’ve been thinking about this genre lately, and I’ve realized that it can be more of an interactive experience than a game in the traditional sense.

This may sound pointless, and admittedly, maybe it can be sometimes. But that lack of challenge makes it the perfect venue for a good story! The story would have to be designed for some real choices and at least some flexibility to the order of the actions, but the creators can control that by putting tougher monsters in the later scenes. Now you have a plot in which the player gets some agency, but the author controls the overall arc and can more or less predict the pace of the game.

Unfortunately, CRPGs haven’t been used for this very often in the past. Yes, plots are common in these games, but it’s usually accepted that they should be skippable. (The most plot-heavy ones, such as JRPGs, are generally the ones in which it’s safest to ignore the story.)

Admittedly, not every story can be fit into a CRPG. They work best when the hero fights a lot and keeps getting stronger, and don’t generalize to stories without explicit conflict. Also, these usually aren’t the most important parts of traditional stories. If Rocky were a role-playing game, the training montage would expand to fill 90% of the content, with everything else just being a few starting and ending scenes. But we can design good stories to fit this model, even if we usually don’t. After all, the original point of this discussion was to find the stories that work better for games than for other mediums. CRPGs have finally started to offer real choices in recent years with open world/sandbox games, but they still usually don’t have much plot. I hope that that comes next.

Will Gaiman use any of these tactics? I’m not sure yet. He’s a creative storyteller, though, and I hope that he helps to advance the cause of stories in games.

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