“… Rise and shine.

Today was my first day at my new job, which meant getting up in the forgotten deadzone of ‘before 8AM’. Man. Also – fittingly – I’ve only started my post on the beginnings of game stories, so watch this space over the next few days.

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There’s more than one way to shear a sheep. Likewise, there are also many ways to tell a story. Games have all sorts of tricks up their sleeves to help get a tale across, but one of the most interesting is that of ’emergent storytelling’ – basically, stories that come about as a result of your interactions with the game world and playing the game, rather than a direct narrative. One of the best recent examples of this is Minecraft.

Click here to get an idea of what Minecraft’s about.

Starting Minecraft is also the one time I’ve ever been less prepared to play a game than Baldur’s Gate. In this case, I’d made a deliberate decision not to look up anything on the game before starting it, because (in what turned out to be quite a risky move) I wanted to discover the game for myself.

Things got off to a nice enough start – I found myself in a pleasant, grassy meadow with a few trees scattered around, a lake just visibile through their rectangular trunks, and a few sheep wandering about. A quick check of my inventory revealed that I had nothing to rely on except my right hand. Hmm.


Anyway, one of the sheep bounced over, looking as happy to see me as a 64×64 square of pixels can look. I punched it in the face, and all its wool fell off.

Notable Discovery #1: Punch sheep -> get wool. That’s progress.

Some experimental clicks later and I’d figured out that I could then place the wool on the ground in a block. This would prove important later on, but for the next ten minutes or so I simply wandered around a bit, contentedly beating up sheep and stealing their wool until I happened to look to the horizon and notice that a) there was a sun, and b) it was rapidly disappearing. That didn’t seem so bad, until…

Notable Discovery #2: Minecraft nights are dark. You know, like, night time dark. Madness.

Being humans, we’re used to having light around us – ever since the first cavedweller knocked his two favourite rocks together and accidently set his wife’s hair on fire, it’s been something of a trademark for our species. As the sun’s brightness drained from my surroundings, I was struck with the awkward realisation that I’d not yet even reached the Minecraft evolutionary equivalent of a neanderthal – I had no idea how to create a source of light.

It was as I assessed my options that someone with green-tinged skin walked out of the trees towards me, arms outstretched. I paused, unsure what to make of this new arrival, then drew upon my wealth of Minecraft knowledge and threw some wool at him. ‘MURRRR,’ the zombie (for that is what he was) explained, and bit a chunk out of my health.

That was everything I needed to know. It was fight or flight, and I didn’t currently fancy my chances against anything above sheep on the food-chain, so I ran, hesitating only when an unfamiliar sound shot out of my speakers.

Plinkthunk.

Interesting. I hadn’t encountered anything that went ‘plinkthunk’ yet… then I saw an arrow embedded in a treetrunk. Another plinkthunk followed, with an ‘Argh!’ from my character as two more hearts abandoned his health meter for safer pastures.

Notable Discovery #3: Arrows go plinkthunk… got it. Run, you idiot.

Leaving whatever had been plinkthunking arrows at me behind in the darkness, I made for a hole in the rocks I’d seen near my starting area. The sheep stared at me as I ran past, a hint of vengeance in their eyes while I desperately searched for the cave entrance.

Plinkthunk.

This time, I could just make out the archer: a skeleton. A skeleton that was more technologically advanced than me.

Not having the time to wonder how a skeleton can pull a bowstring when it has no muscles, I dived into the cave just as the Halloween Crew were almost upon me, and fled straight into the back. Which was about six feet in. Balls.

My mind cast wildly for options – my options were running lower than my health bar. Then the sheep’s judgemental expressions surfaced in my memory; I knew how to punch, didn’t I? I faced the wall of soil and dirt, and went full-on Rocky on it.

It worked, and after a few seconds one block dissapeared with a pop, then another and another, until I was through, blocking up the space with wool just as a skeletal shape filled the cave entrance. What I hadn’t considered was that as the last gap in the wall was filled, the only source of light disappeared, plunging everything into absolute darkness. With the wall behind me blocked, however, at least I was now safe.

MUURRRRR.

Notable Discovery #4: No I bloody wasn’t.

The shuffling of another zombie disrupted the black recesses of the cavern, and I sped into action, slamming down a wall of wool and dirt as fast as my right hand could manage until I collapsed back in my seat, letting the breath I’d been holding rush out in a sigh of relief.

So there I was, trapped between a zombie and a hard place, and another zombie. I weathered the night, surrounded by the groans and hisses of monsters. I waited a while longer after they subsided before digging an experimental hole in the ceiling, basking in the shaft of daylight it created as I climbed out to greet a new day, having (barely) survived my first night in Minecraft.

Sadly I don’t have any screenshots of the tiny cave as it looked on that first night. I can only show you what it looks like now, after the fortification that began in earnest that very morning:

There are still sheep everywhere.

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Popular wisdom states that times of strife are when the biggest advances in technology are made, and from playing Minecraft, I’m not surprised. When shit hits the fan, you learn fast and you try things, even with no idea if it’s going to work. Give a human being a purpose, and we’ll even surprise ourselves at what we can come up with.

What Minecraft represents is the possibility for gamers to create their own narratives. It could just be a world-building tool, but the addition of survival elements and the dynamic generation of random content means that each player forges their own narrative as they play, creating a personal connection to the events that unfold as a result of their actions. It encourages you to find a reason to survive. Why are you there? Why are you building? It’s not so much storytelling as storymaking, and it’ll be interesting to see where these first steps take us.

Following last week’s Baldur’s Gate yarn, this post is an attempt at an actual introduction, so I’ll try not to distract myself – or you – with tales of gaming adventures. Instead, I figured I’d try and imagine some of the questions that might have been going through your head when looking at this site. If they weren’t, well hell, I’ll put them there anyway using an ancient mental-subversion technique known as the art of writing them down so you have to read them. Let’s get started before I go mad with power.

– Video games, then. Those mind-destroying murder simulators tell stories now?

Despite doing their apparent best not to admit this fact, they do! Or, perhaps more accurately, they can.

– I’m all a-quiver. But why write words about it?

This is a Fair Question. There are a lot of other things one could put on the internet, after all. Like, say, cats. The internet just freakin’ loves cats, doesn’t it?

Much like cats, games didn’t pop into existence with Jackanory-tier storytelling abilities.* Even (and, perhaps, especially) when looking at the most high-profile titles on the shelves today, there’s often still a lingering feeling that plotlines had to sneak in through the back door while the game itself was busy torturing mice. However, when a game that’s actually designed to do the whole ‘narrative experience’ thing comes along, it can tickle places that films and literature only dream of reaching. There are types of stories that can only be told through a medium you’re able to interact with, and we’re only really beginning to explore these emerging possibilities.

Back when gaming first prowled onto the entertainment industry’s doorstep, it was a feral creature that didn’t bother explaining its actions to anyone. Pong was a ball and two bats, end of story; Space Invaders involved a ship shooting at aliens. They didn’t provide context or explanation – they simply were. Interactivity was the sole source of amusement.

As technology and gameplay moved on from these simple ‘one screen’ scenarios, justification was needed in order to stretch out the amount of entertainment on offer. A spaceship zapping away at aliens on one screen was an activity, but a spaceship travelling forwards while blasting through those motherlovin’ Martians was a journey. And those journeys, like West Ham last season, needed goals.

So now there was a defined starting point, gameplay in the middle and a goal to achieve. From that point onwards, it has been a matter of finding interesting ways to tie those three points together, and we’ve certainly come a long way from ‘Mankind’s last hope speeds onwards in his spaceship on a daring mission to the alien’s home planet to stop them once and for all!’ Not that those types of games aren’t still around, mind you, but as different genres and developing houses emerged, games with different focuses – such as character interaction, divergent storylines and provoking emotional responses – have made their way into the market.

The reason behind this GCSE Bitesize lesson in how the gaming industry began is to highlight the fact that – perhaps pretty obviously – videogames’ roots are in gameplay rather than storytelling. Despite many successes, they’re still growing into the role of a storytelling medium, and the aim of this blog is to explore the often undersold potential and achievements of this oft-overlooked side of the medium.

– So glad I asked. But what do games bring to the narrative campfire that books or films don’t already have?

There are many things, but for now, here are two of them:

  •  Reactivity

Like applying for housing benefits, this takes many forms. In terms of storytelling, at the most basic it’s the player choosing how to react to a situation or character, or how to traverse an environment. On a more complex level, it might involve carefully manipulating a plot to overthrow a dictator, shaping the ruling council to your preference, then facing the resulting unease and satisfaction amongst the members involved. In terms of gameplay, it can take the form of recative music and visuals, that alter and shift as you perform actions or make choices, creating a sense of involvement with the events you are unfolding. So on and so forth.

  • Creativity

One of the most potent weapons in the arsenal is allowing players to forge their own story – just look at the massive success of Minecraft. Asking any of its ten million players “What happened on your first night in Minecraft?”, will, without fail, result in eyes lighting up, a deep breath, and a story. Each one of those stories will be wildly different from the last, thanks to the beauty of an almost completely player-driven environment – what you discover, what you build, and where you go is completely up to you as the newcomer in an unfamiliar (and randomly generated) land. It probably deserves its own post, actually, so I’ll add it to the list. Well, I’ll start a list, and add Minecraft to it.

– Hmm, that was actually sounding a bit interesting for one moment back there. I think I might check in again to see what’s going on next Monday…

Hey, yeah, that’s gr-

– …lol. As if. I’m going to see if Catsthatlooklikecelebrities.com has updated.

…dammit.

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With that wrapped up, you’ve found out a bit about why I’m writing this blog, and I learned that imaginary you is damned hard to please. This post has run on a bit longer than I was expecting, which I suppose is what I get for just winging it as I went along, but I hope that those of you who aren’t all that into gaming got something out of it. For the people who are into gaming, well, with any luck you enjoyed the read, or disagree vehemently, or have better ideas of how to go about it. Whatever the case, feel free to make use of the comments section, because that’s what it lives for!

Thanks for reading 🙂

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*I don’t even know what I’m saying.

Just kidding, of course. This is the internet; all hope got left at the door with our hats and coats, though what there are plenty of, are words. Little buggers are everywhere. Within these four walls of your internet browser, the words are about stories, and how those videogame things are changing the way they are told.

To kick off, however, is an actual creaky old school story, that isn’t interactive, cost no more than the mug of tea I drank writing it, and has no progressive narrative devices in it whatsoever. It is a true story though, which possibly counts for something (although I’m not sure what).

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“Gorion is dead?”

It is a Tuesday evening in June, 2001, and as a bunch of pixels rearrange themselves on a 15” CRT monitor, a young Alex Masterson does something he has never done before while playing a computer game: he subconsciously leans his head closer to peer at the screen. The image blurs into an indistinct mess and he catches himself, settling back into the office chair, but thoughts are already racing through his mind. “Gorion is dead?” “Who is that guy in the spiky armour?” and then, “What am I supposed to do now? I am screwed.”

There’s no coming back from (14) damage, no sir.

The game in question was the PC Role Playing Game Baldur’s Gate. Based on the ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ ruleset – about which I only vaguely remembered the cheesy Saturday morning cartoons – I had no experience with the game’s rules or settings; nor did I know how to fight properly or what the goal was supposed to be. The extensive manual (something I only learned about after it was far too late), was not something my friend had thought to include when shoving the CDs into my bag earlier that day. To summarise – I was not prepared.

My character, a half-elf named Esteban, was supposed to be an archer. As it stood, he had a bow that he was not strong enough to use, a high charisma rating, and he could see in the dark. None of these things were helping.

Returning to the scene that had just unfolded a couple of inches in front of my squinting, fifteen-year-old eyes, let’s get a bit of context. I had just witnessed Gorion, Esteban’s surrogate father (an elderly but powerful mage of world-renown), get brutally murdered just as the two of them had set out from Candlekeep, the peaceful and sheltered starting area of the game. It’s the moment that comes in every story, when the narrative picks up a gear and lets you know things are about to get serious. But what if you’re part of the narrative? What if you’re not halfway ready to get serious?

“Who is that guy in the spiky armour?”

I had still been nailing down my tactics for fighting rats when the armoured figure – who the game helpfully labels as ‘Armoured Figure’ – cleaved those plans, not to mention Gorion, in two. If I were to play the scene for the first time now, I’d probably note that the murderer is really a fairly generic evil fantasy archetype, but my younger self had no idea what one of those looked like. He didn’t know much of anything about traditional fantasy. All he knew at that moment in time was that this giant bastard had appeared out of nowhere and removed the only thing in the game so far that had given my out-of-depth self some sense of comfort.

Don’t ask him about comfort. His spikes have spikes.

I had reasoned to myself that as long as Gorion was around, I could get to grips with the game’s mechanics at my own pace. Clearly someone had other ideas. Whether it was the one inch tall mass of spiky black pixels on the screen or a writer somewhere in Black Isle Studios didn’t matter; the deed had been done, and Esteban was on his own. With a high charisma rating.

“I am screwed.”

Abandonment, unease, and even a sense of loss swept over me. Not emotional loss, you understand. Rather, the disappearance of my one guide in this wildly unfamiliar (and now clearly hostile) land made me realise that my chances of surviving in it had just taken a dramatic dive. At this point in my early gaming career games like Donkey Kong Country, Theme Hospital and C&C: Red Alert were my timesinks – platforming, resource management, and exhilaration I knew well, but never before had I experienced the sensation of being abandoned.

The situation soaked in, and it began to feel like a challenge. As the chapter ended, an image of Spiky McArmour looming behind the scrolling narration, I felt a strange drive to track him down. I wanted to damn well get to grips with the world of this game, become a force to be reckoned with, and exact revenge.

Involvement… in a game story? Over the years, other games would go on to evoke more complex emotions and ideas (such as Planescape: Torment) or offer greater exploration and freedom (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion), but this was the first time a game would deal out quite such an unexpected slap to the face.

It was almost disappointing when another character popped up shortly afterwards, having snuck out of Candlekeep to follow Esteban. For a moment, I had been absorbed in my Lone Wolf fantasy, ready for a long, personal slog against the antagonist, and Imoen’s presence suggested that was not to be the case. Then I realised she could actually use her weapons, which put things into perspective a little considering Esteban’s notable abilities at this early point were pretty much limited to staring at things in the dark.

This is Miss ‘I brought a bow I can actually use to kill things with’. What a showoff.

So it was that I, as player of the incompetent (but charismatic!) half-elf, was struck with the realisation that Gorion’s murder had triggered a personal motivation in the game’s story unlike anything I had experienced before. My memory cast back to the one piece of advice Gorion had imparted before his doom: “It is imperative that you make your way to the Friendly Arm Inn. There you will meet Khalid and Jaheira. They have long been my friends, and you can trust them.

I had names. I had a goal. I had much to learn.

The story began.

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I hope you enjoyed that tale, wrenched unceremoniously from my gaming history as it was! Having gotten all the new-blog narcissisism out of my system, the next post – coming a week today – will be a bit more broadly focussed. As for this entry, if you’ve been struck by any thoughts, opinions, or wild ravings, feel free to let them loose in the Comments Section!

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Persuasion Check will be updated every Monday. No offense, Monday.