A Question of Action

Posted by on Mar 18, 2010 in Question, Story | 25 Comments

Twitter just isn’t affording the room to answer and engage with this question the way I’d like, so I’ve brought it here:

Why is the action in a game separate from the story when the action in a film is a part of it?

25 Comments

  1. Rob Donoghue
    March 18, 2010

    Because it’s told in different ways. Almost every game, computer or tabletop, uses entirely different tools for telling its story than it does for handling its action. The games aren’t really targeted at creating a story, so the fact that they’re vastly incompatible is not a problem for play, only for us. Consider how various types of beats are handled in an RPG. For almost every other kind of beat, things are pretty consistent, but action beats? It’s like you’re suddenly telling an entirely different story.

    Unified resolution helps with this: something like Dogs in the Vineyard certainly produces something more story like (though as this is not the only failing of games as stories, it still falls short in some ways), but there’s a simpler way to look at it. Could a game (any game, really) tell a story that had no action beats? Could it do it more easily?

    Seems like a strong yes to me, but then, I am biased to think I’m right. 🙂

    -Rob D.

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  2. Rob Donoghue
    March 18, 2010

    Bad pronoun references there. “It” being game action. Movie action is delivered to me the same way everything else in the movie is (usually) so there’s less of a disconnect (usually).

    -Rob D.

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  3. Fred Hicks
    March 18, 2010

    Rob’s saying it with more words, but my gut reaction is to agree by saying that anything systemized creates distance from the thing being systemized. Action is the thing most systemized in games, and therefore, the most distant. Without putting “so get rid of the system” on the table, this then puts a burden on the system to enact strategies that minimize that distance as much as possible.

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  4. Matthew D. Gandy
    March 18, 2010

    Rob, I’m gonna disagree with you a bit, citing console games, because my brain isn’t in RPG space right now. Look at Final Fantasy XII, which doesn’t separate fights from regular movement and action, and Batman: Arkham Asylum, which very closely blends action play with its story beats. Noteworthy to me is the fact they both use in-game cinematics for most of their content. (All of Batman uses in-game engine cinematics, IIRC, making for a very consistent feel throughout the game.)

    I’ll cite RPGs as I think of them, but I think the separation is more artificial than we think, and more born of history and evolution than deliberate choice.

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  5. Genghis
    March 18, 2010

    I actually think it’s that games have more action than movies, and as such, it’s often filler. In a videogame, I’d say this is usually the case: you’re killing hordes of SOMETHING or at least using your superpowers constantly. In a movie, even an incredibly blockbuster one, there’s what? An hour of real action? That’s the tutorial in a videogame.

    In RPG Tabletop, I simply don’t take your premise. As a Shadowrun GM, the runs are the biggest part of the plot, and players take two or three sessions to plan a mission that goes down in (gametime) 30 seconds.

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  6. Bill White
    March 18, 2010

    This is another way of getting at the old game vs. story distinction, viz., “A game is not a story.”

    It’s only partly true, though, in that there are ways of overcoming the problem. One is to make the moves in the game (i.e., the action) equivalent to “narrative functions” (Hero Arrives, Villain Tricks Innocent, etc.), although this may tend to make game-play more like puzzle-solving than like role-playing. This is kind of what Ganakagok does, and I try something that explicitly does this in a game called The Perilous Realm; see the stuff starting on about p. 14 and you’ll see what I mean.

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  7. Matt Snyder
    March 18, 2010

    I think Fred’s got a point. System creates distance in ways that many players see as interruptions.

    Stories require resolution to proceed, which is what systems do. They help players agree how to resolve conflicts of interest.

    Action systems vary, certainly. But, they often resolve only a few conflict options well. Things like “Do we kill the otyugh and get through the door?” But, not so much things like, oh, “As we whittle down the enemy’ minions, can we get the Big Bad to spill his guts about the secret plan?” Or, “If I win this race, will she love me more than him?”

    Sure, gamers make this happen ad hoc, and it’s fun. But, it’s not often systematically fun, in the same way that Great Cleave really makes everyone at the table cheer once in a while.

    So, I think that in order for action/combat systems to be more part of the story and narratively entertaining, they have to be able to accomodate the resolution of varied conflicts of interest. What’s at stake beyond the violence? How can the players fine tune that dial? Must it always be all or nothing violence/action? And so on.

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  8. Emily
    March 18, 2010

    What do you mean by separate? A change? Both do so.

    Editing style in film changes when action enters. Think of use of slo-mo, or rapid fire and overlapping cuts vs. slow, medium chronological shots for conversation or establishment.

    Movies that handle it similarly are few. I’m thinking of Fargo, the woodchipper scene perhaps. The emotional needs of action editing are different from those for character based dialogue et al. The information being handled is different. Formalized mechanics in rpg may be analogous.

    Rob wrote:
    “Could a game (any game, really) tell a story that had no action beats? Could it do it more easily?”

    I’d say yes! 😉

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  9. Josh Roby
    March 18, 2010

    This is when I really wish ProjectK was public — action beats are treated the same as other beats, and are absolutely part and parcel of story. The action-divorced-from-story thing is a phenomenon I’ve noticed many times and I really do thing it’s a Poor Tools problem. With better tools, this doesn’t (need to) happen.

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  10. Matt Snyder
    March 18, 2010

    Damn, forgot to close that italic tag after “systematically.” Sorry.

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  11. Sam F
    March 18, 2010

    I think there are multiple parts to your question:

    1. How do the mechanics create a division between action and story?
    2. What makes us need different mechanics for “action” and “story”
    3. What differentiates how “action” and “story” are told?

    I think 1 and 2 are closely related, and 2 and 3 are closely related.

    1 and 2 deal specifically with the rules-side of this division. I think there is some part of the gamer that wants different rules because of our experiences as children and developing our backyard “Calvin-ball” games. We want to be the most awesomest coolest sword-swingingest fencer EVER! But our buddy wants to be the coolest shootinest gun-slinger EVER! As children we resolve this with on-the-spot Calvinballing “I shoot you!” “Nuh uh! I block the bullet with my sword!” etc.

    As adults we want some sort of built-in balance. To achieve this we start making up rules about how guns work in the game and how swords work and how bullets deflect off guns and so on.

    2 and 3 relate, I think, to the way stories get told. One of you guys, I think, linked to a blog about how to write action scenes. I think, in theory, there doesn’t need to be such a rules-based divide on telling a story in action, but it requires that the goal of the action is telling the story.

    Basically, instead of wanting to show off how awesome I am with a sword, I need to want to show how I use my sword to deal with the current situation and get to the next plot point or develop some element of the story.

    The problem there is that now it’s less about flashy sword-fighting, and more about what’s going on outside the fight.

    Hopefully that made some sense…it’s all pretty off-the-cuff (and I have no sources to cite).

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  12. Chuck
    March 18, 2010

    In the game, the action is for me to command.

    In the story, the action is for the writer and director (and actor) to command.

    How is that different?

    Because the story is encapsulated. It has a number of parts, and That Action is one of those parts. The kick is the kick. The punch is the punch. We’re not talking quantum possibilities; we’re talking one possibility in one story, regardless of how well that action contributes *to* that story.

    In a game, I could kick. I could punch. I could run away. I could do all three by playing the game three times or reloading. Because of the essentially infinite options presented (I stand by the chair and kick you, I stand by the TV and kick you, I punch you through the window, I hit you with a blender!), you’ve disconnected from the story and instead connected with your own story.

    A dumb metaphor would be this:

    I attend a dinner party where the chef had produced a seven-course dinner.

    Everyone partakes in the same meal and discusses it.

    I swap course five for my own food.

    I’m still eating. And I’m still present. But I’ve broken out of the context of the meal; I no longer have a complete picture, and further, I’m disconnected from the larger experience.

    A story is one thing. Not many. It’s one of the things about poetry that high school teachers don’t seem to get, but college professors do (in my experience): poetry is not to be freely interpreted. The author meant something. You need to figure that part out. Yes, it can mean something special to you, but that’s not *what* the poem means.

    When you give the student — or the game player — free rein to interpret (or interact) wildly, the story and its meaning are unmoored.

    That’s not a bad thing, always. It’s just a thing.

    Oh, IMO, YMMV, etc.

    — c.

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  13. Fred Hicks
    March 18, 2010

    I’m really excited to see how Project K is changing the Cortex system — I know it and Leverage are coming from similar spaces at the root, but the differences ultimately are what will excite me the most.

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  14. Deborah Donoghue
    March 18, 2010

    Because I don’t have to think tactically about a story. I have to think tactically about a fight. Chewing scenery and having involved character moments and pushing plot don’t require me to reference my character sheet or reach for dice. Anything that does is going to stand out to me. Anything that makes me do it repeatedly, worrying about the slowly shrinking pool of options, is really going to stand out, possibly on my head.

    In a *good* film, rather than one that feels like a Feng Sui game, action feels like part of the story because the characters on the screen don’t swap modes. They don’t stop talking in their own voices, they don’t stop having emotional engagement, they don’t suddenly start saying, in someone else’s voice, “Wait, how many dice?” It seems seamless because it is.

    I answer this as a player, obviously, and not a GM.

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  15. Josh Roby
    March 18, 2010

    I think Sam’s got an important chunk of it, there — if you’re playing through a fight scene because you want to look cool, you’re already not telling a story (outside of initial character-establishment badassery and the typical character arc finale of sudden competence, that is). And if you’re rolling dice for stuff that isn’t story in the first place, acting all surprised that you’re shifting in and out of story is kind of silly.

    I know in designing and writing Project K (and thanks for kind words, Fred :), one of the big hurdles is getting players to telegraph what they hope to accomplish with a die roll rather than just narrating what they do. The *why* of any given die roll needs to be (and usually is) intrinsically linked to the story. Not losing sight of the *why* (and getting distracted by damage modifiers and such) is essential to keeping action scenes on point. Otherwise you’re doing Gameplay Level and Cut Scene sort of stuff (which is its own thing with its own aesthetics).

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  16. Chuck
    March 18, 2010

    Another difference of value:

    Outcome.

    John McClane falls in a fight to an Austrian ninja, it’s because the story (and its collaborators) want it that way. For the story. His failure is a good conflict. It feeds the tale.

    When I fall in a game fight, I have “lost.” It serves nothing if I lose. It’s based on random factors and my Mad Button Skillz. It isn’t, however, based on what the story needs — not even from my perspective as “player-collaborator.”

    — c.

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  17. Fred Hicks
    March 18, 2010

    Matt (Gandy), I think what you’re saying supports my notion that system creates distance, because I think this is where video games can, at least, take care of the distance reduction imperative by making system highly transparent. A lot of complexity can be going on but the player doesn’t have to be interacting directly with it in a video game. In tabletop, the player is often also the parser.

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  18. Samantha
    March 18, 2010

    I think in a movie, you are passive to both action and story. You (the viewer) are doing the same thing in the action parts of the movie that you are in the story parts of the movie, that is: watching. The action is there to help move the story along.

    There are very few video games in which the action is there to move the story along. In many games, the story just seems to be there as an excuse for the action/shooting or particular game mechanic.

    My family and I like to do video games together. We treated them like interactive movies. One person will play and the others watch with popcorn and snacks like a movie. It was fun to play “Twilight Princess” and “Wind Waker” and the like because there were great puzzles and stories and lots of interaction between the player character and NPCs to get the viewers involved. Now that the kids are older, it’s very hard to keep everyone but the player interested in the more mature games. We get a little bit of story, then lots and lots of sneaking around and shooting. Half of us get up and leave saying, “call me if anything happens.” Or “just tell me what happens with _____.”

    The “action” ends up interrupting the story so badly that those not actually performing the actions lose interest.

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  19. Ewen Cluney
    March 18, 2010

    I think that in fiction as well as in RPGs, the degree to which action scenes are integrated into the plot can vary. If you saw the epic 70-minute review of The Phantom Menace, one of the things it pointed out was that the light saber battles in the original Star Wars movies had a tremendous amount of story and emotion permeating them, whether it was Obi-Wan facing his fallen pupil or Luke and his dad. The battle with Darth Maul is all but the polar opposite, two Jedi fighting some guy with funny makeup who we couldn’t care less about. Or to put it another way, action movies can fail to integrate action and plot too.

    That’s probably why in terms of producing a story I find RPGs that integrate conflicts with the rest of what’s going on to be more effective. I do enjoy throwing down with D&D4e, but there’s a very sharp division between combat and everything else in the game, so the source of the enjoyment is very different. Some games have reduced if not outright eliminated the mechanical distinction between action and not-action, and I wonder if perhaps those kinds of games make it easier for the action to feel like part of an overall narrative.

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  20. David Conrad
    March 18, 2010

    The story in a game is planned out. It happens for a reason, based on the GM / DM / Writer’s intentions.

    The action can’t be pre-planned. It has to be random. The players would feel it was completely unfair, otherwise. (“What do you mean, it was foreordained that I would be killed by that Ogre?”) So the action never happens for a reason. It isn’t based on the author’s intentions.

    Try to imagine if it was the other way around. If the GM rolled dice to decide what the story would be, but just told you what happens with the action.

    Since the outcome of the action is necessarily unpredictable, it can’t be taken into account in the GM’s preparation which is designed and planned. So the action will always end up as a sort of bolted-on adjunct to the rest of the story.

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  21. Samantha
    March 18, 2010

    Oh ROFL! I was thinking video games! So sorry…I do NOT feel that way about pen and paper games!

    With respect to TABLE TOP gaming, which we do as a family as well, my husband the gamemaster is a natural storyteller. The action, while slowing down the story, is very much a part of the story.

    *sorry for the flub*

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  22. Pete Darby
    March 19, 2010

    Looking at this as a designer rather than a player, the question becomes “does action in my game stand separate from the story?”

    Which could make it a mechanical question of interfaces (whether in video or tabletop gaming), or a question of who is making the story and how.

    Very interested by the comment “If my guy is beaten in combat, I’ve lost”: if the game is about continuing a story, the only “lose” conditions are “no story” and “dull story”. In story telling, reversals of fortune are bread and butter. In some people’s views of gamist play, reversals of fortune get identified as player failure, rather than character failure (with, yay for hardcore gamists, more challenge up ahead).

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  23. Trilly Chatterjee
    March 23, 2010

    I think the most significant distinction between action in games and films is the same thing that distinguishing games from most narrative media – agency.

    Of course, actions contribute to story in both games and films, but in many games, player agency is dealt with in a way that generates a fundamental tension between the progression of the story and the free will of the player.

    Most games that have narratives let the story wait for the player to a greater or lesser extent. Films generally don’t. There are pros and cons to both when it comes to storytelling.

    Films have a pre-determined duration that narrative events are carved into – like a block of ice being sculpted, say. This allows narrative forms to be defined and refined with greater precision, because what is decided stays decided.

    Games (again, to greater or lesser extent) have the fludity of spontaneous choice to contend with. However, the reward for succeeding in this is the ability to involve us more actively in a narrative by giving us choice and control.

    Ultimately, both narrative games and films represent events in sequence tied together with some sort of causal/logical/thematic thread. However, within the bounds set by game designers, opportunities to forward the action are often in the player’s hands, and the story must necessarily wait for those choices to be made.

    I don’t think story and action are separate by necessity. To my mind, the former requires the latter. Why we experience them differently in films and games is down to how much of each are determined by ‘author’ and ‘audience’.

    I think the reason action is considered more separate from story in games than in film is because action tends to be the focus of a game’s ‘fluidity’. If stories could be given the fluidity in games that actions have, then perhaps the two wouldn’t feel so separate.

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  24. Will Hindmarch
    March 23, 2010

    “If stories could be given the fluidity in games that actions have, then perhaps the two wouldn’t feel so separate.”

    Great point.

    Lots of great points, throughout this thread, in fact. I know I’m smarter for having asked the question. I hope you all are getting as much out of this as I am.

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  25. Trilly Chatterjee
    March 24, 2010

    Indeed. One of my favourite threads here so far. Props to all. 🙂

    Reply

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