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  • Premise: The Key to Interactive Storytelling

    - Stephen Schafer

  •  Storytelling as Psychological

    Within the context of psychologically serious games, the purpose and premise in games wield a serious potential to influence, to teach, and to heal. It is an incontestable fact that stories must have a purpose, but this fact is seldom appreciated in games. Merely winning becomes the purpose, and winning by any means becomes the associative message of games. Such industry policy is not only irresponsible, it is stupid. It fails to perceive the enormous value-both cultural and financial-that games as education represent. If story purpose is rare, premise is nearly non-existent, and this brings us back to my thesis that premise as the key to identification with game stories. Glassner observes:

    "Because of its value as a test, the more sharp and succinct we can make the premise, the more valuable it will be. ‘Peace is good' is a premise, but it's vague: there are lots of forms of peace. ‘Refusing to fight leads to personal strength' is better.

    A strong story tests a premise all the way through, showing each side of each choice. If the premise is ‘honesty leads to harmony,' then its opposite might be ‘Honesty leads to conflict.' The main character should see in every choice that he makes just how honesty could lead to either outcome, usually in their most extreme forms. Then when the climax arrives, he will have seen both sides of the question and will truly understand the nature of his choice."

    Good games have strong psychological components. The more psychological the game, the more intensely the player becomes immersed in it. What the game industry calls immersion, literature understands as "suspension of disbelief." In this state of immersion, the player or viewer becomes a part of the action, and the degree to which this happens depends on the degree to which the player/viewer identifies with the story and its characters. The degree of identification will determine the degree of association and appreciation of the purpose and premise in the story.

    The advertising industry knows a lot about association, identification, and suspension of disbelief. Through a very sophisticated psychological process of analyzing focus groups, the advertising industry has become adept at getting people to associate the good, the beautiful, and the true with a product, and, therefore, to identify with the product. There is not room in this essay to consider the research, but the PBS feature, The Persuaders, is a very thorough study of the subject. It harks back to Vance Packard's premier study, The Hidden Persuaders. The selfsame marketing practices are used in the selling of games. Why not use these principles of symbolic interactive storytelling to develop high quality game stories? If game companies can target a group of potential buyers for a game, using the same principles of psychological symbolism they can create stories and characters with which the gamers will identify.

    The Persuaders

    Misused, this psychological power of identification in conjunction with sophisticated storytelling could be very dangerous-a combination of advertising and myth. On the other hand, used carefully and intelligently this same power could be used to teach and to heal-to help players acquire knowledge, gain self-insight, and form values. My point is that creating more sophisticated games that appeal to wider audiences, and have significant, constructive impact on players can be accomplished by employing all the skills of good traditional storytelling. In no way are the traditional skills of storytelling inconsistent with interactive game play. Actually, the fact that players can have a visible impact on the game is of relatively minor importance if we begin to realize that games are and should be played in psychological dimensions.

    As I said at the beginning of this essay, the key to sophisticated interactive story telling resides in the skillful use of purpose and premise. The first thing I tell Digipen students in creative writing classes is that if their story does not have a purpose, they are wasting their time. Often, students misunderstand. They think their purpose is to write the great American novel and become famous. I try to explain that such a purpose is their own personal purpose, not the purpose communicated by the story. Story purpose usually has to do with the contemplation of some valuable idea. The story may probe the nature of a concept like, honor, love, or integrity. If the author does not have such a purpose, the story will be pointless, vacuous, and uninteresting.


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