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This past weekend, I was a guest at Nanocon, a convention put on by the gaming club at Dakota State University. As part of the gig, I gave a presentation and did Q&A, along with fellow guests Richard Dansky and Chris Sims, on Friday afternoon. Many of the people in the audience were DSU game design majors, but from what I heard afterwards, there were plenty of con attendees and non-majors in the audience as well.

My relatively short presentation was about the value of story, speaking not in waffly vagueness, but in precisely measured dollars. When you’re a young designer, especially, it’s easy to assume that the factors that make a game successful and good are its flashy elements: powers, polygons, pixels. But focusing on those things is not only expensive, it doesn’t necessarily lead to a good game.

The “hard data” I used to try to impress the importance of story came from the Significant Objects Project, which completely fascinates me. The project buys essentially worthless bric-a-brac from thrift stores, presents each bit to a pro writer, the pro writer writes a short piece related to the object, and then the object is sold on ebay.

In this way, a $1.00 ashtray is sold for $17.79, a $1.00 creamer-pouring porcelain cow is sold for $26.00, and a $0.75 jar and brush for basting meat with barbecue sauce is sold for $54.00. And this return on investment comes even though the fiction is completely exposed: The ebay auctions bear a disclaimer that “[t]he significance of this object has been invented by the author” (emphasis mine).

As of last week, about 80 bits of written context had turned $112.02 into $2,857.22.

I say “context” rather than “story” because the Significant Objects writings aren’t necessarily even narratives. Some are, but one of the things I wanted to impress on the students at DSU is that it’s possible to make a game better in this low-investment way even without even going so far as to impose a narrative on the experience, but instead, just by creating an in-game context for the game’s elements.

Jonathan Blow, the creator of Braid, who’s gone on record saying that story is at odds with gameplay, turns out to be a master at this weaving of context. When I played Braid, I was blown away (already knowing Blow’s take on the utility of story) at the emotional punch he had packed inside his platformer.

During the Q&A at DSU, Richard Dansky told a story about some dialog he wrote for some guards in Far Cry; one guard tells another guard about growing up in New Jersey and going to the beach. Some Far Cry players approached Dansky at a convention and told him that once they overheard that guard’s story, they went out of their way not to kill him when they advanced on his position, because they were from New Jersey, and they had been down to the beach. That guard was one of them, and no way were they going to kill that guy.

I don’t care who you are, you just can’t accomplish that with polygons or pixels, no matter how much you spend on programmers and painters.

Hi, convention organizers! Keep Gameplaywright in mind when you’re planning the GoH list for your upcoming event! We love to talk gaming and meet gamers, and you know how to get in touch with us…