On Mass Effect, Dark Souls and why traditional storytelling in games is “a worthless endeavour”
For his keynote speech at Gamercamp, Shawn McGrath wanted to talk about a lot of things, but he gave the floor to his Twitter followers, who overwhelmingly asked about the technology behind his psychedelic abstract shooter Dyad.
One of the topics that McGrath said he wanted to talk about was how storylines in video games are nonsense – a controversial thesis, considering that many of the discussions at Gamercamp were about elevating narratives in games.
Dork Shelf spoke with McGrath after his talk and it became clear that what was a potentially controversial take was really an outright rebuttal of the belief that traditional narratives had any place in gaming.
Dork Shelf: You mentioned that there were other topics you wanted to talk about, but didn’t get to. You mentioned that linear narratives weren’t your thing. Could you talk about that?
Shawn McGrath: Well, it’s kind of complicated. I’m actually trying to formulate my ideas and I wanted to use this talk as a way to do that, but it didn’t happen. I think linear story and interactive anything are completely diametrically opposed. They make no sense together at all, and any attempt to put storylines in games, in any traditional sense, is completely idiotic.
Mass Effect attempted it, and people praise it. It’s horrible. It’s horrible because the choices that you make are so meaningless and people say, “Oh, but it’s getting to a point where the whole galaxy is going to change based on your decisions,” and I say, no, that’s impossible, that’s an NP-hard problem, that’s a computer science problem where “that problem is not computable.”
So attempting that is a worthless endeavor. Games are really fucking awesome. We can tell stories through entirely interactive ways, with no text.
DS: How so?
SM: Well, Dyad tells a story.
DS: What’s the story of Dyad, then?
SM: I can’t tell you! Because it’s not something that you can put into text. That’s the whole point.
One of the Gamercamp talks was about telling a story so that you see the world from the perspective of the protagonist of the game.Right. That’s ridiculous. That’s what you do in linear storytelling. In interactive storytelling, you are that person. And you are that player. And if you’re trying to tell the story through the eyes of that, you are no longer that player – that is an avatar you’re controlling, which is a layer of disconnect which completely destroys the point of interactive games.
DS: So where do things that we’re normally familiar with like character, themes, setting in a game fit?
SM: They belong in games, absolutely.
DS: What about plot?
SM: Yeah, normal linear cause and effect – A happens, therefore B – does not exist unless B is entirely interactive, and that’s totally possible. But as soon as you start trying to tell a linear story with that, that becomes impossible.
DS: What about branching stories, or stories in a choose-your-own adventure format?
SM: That’s my point, is that it’s impossible to ever get it to be truly “there.” It’s absolutely impossible. It’s an incomputable problem. It is infinitely complex, it cannot be solved – if things get to a large scale, which is what games like Mass Effect are trying to do.
In Mass Effect, you make a couple of choices and some little things change, but they’re pretty meaningless and don’t matter. Some of them are like, “oh, this guy died.” And you’re like, “Aw.” But it’s pretty inconsequential. The Reapers are coming, the bad stuff’s happening, it doesn’t matter. That hasn’t changed. You cannot change that in Mass Effect.
DS: But each storyline or episode has its own thing going on, right? And you could get some significance out of those individual stories. E.g. The Lair of The Shadow Broker has its own arc, even though it doesn’t have anything to do with the final mission.
SM: Right, but this is busy work. I don’t know why they did that, probably to extend the game to get it a higher Metacritic score or something so you can play it for 70 hours instead of 30.
DS: But what can you take from each individual episode or side-quest, then?
SM: Oh, it’s just a waste of time. I’ve read a lot of science fiction. The science fiction in Mass Effect is not something I would consider even passable for a high school paper. It’s horrible. But if you put in a game then it’s praised for being so great. It’s especially so because in the context of video games, stories are fucking awful.
Benjamin River’s Home does it on a very limited, very small scale and it works. It only works, though, because it’s so small. And that game has, like, 15,000 branching pieces of dialogue, and it’s incredibly small. If that was any larger, the amount of dialogue and content that needs to be written goes exponentially higher and it still has an authorial voice, and it’s still contrived because it’s created by someone else and not by the player, therefore I don’t think it has any purpose.
DS: The fact that games are bigger than movies and books these days – as far as the breadth of content – what do you propose to change it, or provide as an alternative?
SM: Oh, I don’t give a shit. That’s a stupid number. It’s a meaningless metric. It means large corporations have made a whole bunch of money. That reflects nothing on the actual art form. Zero.
DS: Well, the fact that they’re making these games are – –
SM: Yeah, they’re crap. Almost across the board. There are some that are good – one of them is Dark Souls.
DS; How so, in the context of story and narrative?
SM: The start of the game where there’s “actually” a story is horrible. But for the rest of the game, you’re in a world that’s very weird and confusing, and there’s a fortress called Sen’s Fortress. I don’t know who Sen is. There’s no character named Sen in the game. The boss at the end of it is just a big iron golem. That exists as a thing in the game that has a title which should be meaningful, but isn’t explained at all. The player figures it out – and by “figures it out” I mean he invents a story.
You can go on Reddit, there’s a really long discussion about what it meant, and it’s traced back to a 14th century Japanese emperor, or not an emperor but a guy who had a castle and his name was Sen. And they’re like, maybe it’s that. And then other people posited very different explanations of what it could be. That’s really interesting – that’s a good story.
DS: So is the story the explanation behind Sen’s Fortress or the dialogue that followed afterward amongst the players?
SM: Maybe, but the story is what happens in your head. Maybe the player’s narrative was, “Oh fuck, I’m in Sen’s Fortress” and that’s the end of it.
At the end of Sen’s Fortress you go to Anor Londo, which is completely different-looking from the other areas in Dark Souls. So Sen’s Fortress is clearly a gate to something. You don’t know what that gateway is, but you can put meaning in there. And really, the story is about putting ideas into people’s heads, right?
It’s superficial to say a story is a sequence of events. A story is a sequence of events that does something, and what it does it put ideas into readers’ heads, or people who are observing the story. Dark Souls does that in a lot of places – Sen’s Fortress and The Painted World are examples; fuck the entire shape of Anor Londo is another example – by using setting and theme and gameplay interactions. It uses all of those things to put ideas in your head the same way that linear text would put ideas in your head, but it uses gameplay to do it. I don’t think it goes particularly far with this idea, but it goes in a direction that I think is substantially more valuable than linear storyline in video games.