Adam Saltsman on Vanquish. This is good.
There was a reason I wrote a piece of fanfiction based on a game that boils down to a spreadsheet.
Game Dev Story is interesting, for me, because, when you take it apart: there’s almost no Story within the game. It’s just a mechanical engine for simulating a games company (and not even that sophisticated an engine). People work; numbers go up; games either sell or don’t, with sales figures rarely correlating to review scores.
But where’s the story?
There’s a loose theme, sure, with a defined arc: start small, grow into a bigger company by selling more games. There’s almost no writing; what there is is weakly translated, rammed into a line or two of the lazy port. There’s a lot of Devving of Games, but, in the code that executes, there’s relatively little Story to speak of. Just numbers, going up, or down.
Every now and then, the game asks you to type something in: the name of your company, the name of a game. And that’s where the magic begins.
In that little flight of creativity, the game opens up: the player starts writing their own story. The player isn’t just typing names into boxes. They’re saying the words aloud in your head – and that conjures images of box-art, screengrabs, scathing magazine reviews; cardboard standees packed full of buggy, terrible, detective puzzle games, waiting to be flogged.
Sometimes, the companies we invent ring true. Gnarly Games, though named as a pastiche of Visceral, turned out to become a strange mix of From Software and Konami, through their constant return to dour mecha-games and campy vampire nonsense. Their greatest success was, essentially, a Castlevania MMO. Or rather: that’s what I saw in my head. A goofy name, combined with two drop-down fields defining the type of game, led to a moment of wishful, what-if? thinking.
Sometimes, we just give things rude names for the fun of it. But so often that’s a joke that keeps on giving. As the eager secretary tells you again of the wild sales figures for Buggy Shit!! 3, it’s hard not to raise a smile.
The stories you end up telling yourself are surprisingly complex, too. The rise and fall of little companies, kept down by absurd devkit costs and the inability to shift enough units on consoles with dwindling popularity; the companies that held on to founding staff as totems too long, rather than hiring the staff they need; the companies that failed to diversify out of the genre they first found success in. All that is in your head; all the game presents is numbers and loose encouragement.
Game Dev Story exemplifies a kind of mechanical storytelling: stories told not through text or voice-acting, but through coherent systems that cannot help but generate stories. I’m not waving my hands in my air here and making an excuse – “Oh, it has emergent narrative“; my point is that, in good mechanical storytelling, narrative cannot help but emerge. It’s designed into the system.
Such systems are shaped to tell tales of lower-tier football teams, or the survivors of a zombie apocalypse, or mercenaries in Africa, or little companies trying to make videogames. Experiences you play, and feel, and believe, because you’re as much a part of the telling as the machine throwing its myriad D20s.
And, for all its lazy porting, weak writing, and repetitive formula, that is something Game Dev Story does remarkably well. It turns out that it’s not a story in itself. It’s a tool to help players tell thousands of stories. Telling your own stories about running a games company – through the medium of tapping on icons, and waiting – is far more compelling than any description could make out.
It’s a tool to help you do something. That notion led to the thought that mechanically-realised stories – the kind that movies can’t really ever tell, and the kind that games are invariably best at – are a kind of narrative exoskeleton.
Exoskeletons can do two things. Firstly, they can enhance your own abilities: they make you better at something you can already do – faster at running, stronger at lifting. And secondly, they can give you superpowers: things you could never do yourself – such as flying, or breathing in a vacuum, or surviving intense heat.
The best narrative exoskeletons do a bit of both. Off the top of my head: Left 4 Dead; Far Cry 2; Championship Manager; MUD; Acquire; Illuminati!; Werewolf; almost any tabletop RPG. Stories are baked into systems, but told through the by – and through – the players operating within them. Sometimes, we bring our own stories and personalities to the table, and the system amplifies them – the individual relationships between each player in a Left 4 Dead game add as much to their realisation as the characterisation in the script. Sometimes, those systems allow us to do things we could never do: they kill off characters we were too fond of; they force us to move out of our comfort zones; they have a grace of language or performance that we might be unable to attain.
I’m fed up of talking about stories in games (and I say that as someone who has loved many narrative-heavy, densely-plotted titles). Games are much more effective – and interesting – as tools for delivering stories, and, given that players will find their own stories anyway, why not build interesting systems that will shape their tales in exciting and unexpected ways?
Why not build story-telling engines, and narrative exoskeletons?
And that’s why I like Game Dev Story so much: for a game with so little of what most games would call “story” in it, it turns out to live up to the promise of its name in so many ways.
…eventually this tiny detail, this thoughtful little adjustment of the pillow beneath the player’s head, became emblematic of something big and important at the heart of game design: Shouldn’t games be an opportunity for players to wrap their heads around counter-intuitive truths? Shouldn’t games make us smarter about how randomness works instead of reinforcing our fallacious beliefs? Shouldn’t games increase our literacy about interactive systems and non-linear possibility spaces? Isn’t contemplating the elusive truth about these things one of the most powerful cognitive benefits of a life spent gaming?
Yes, it should.
Lantz is right about Poker: there’s a surprising moment when you start to study opening hands in Texas Hold’Em, and you finally come to know – in your gut – the relative value of opening hands. Two cards never feels enough to make an informed bet, but it usually is. When you first learn the relative value of opening hands – either from experience or, more likely, a book – it doesn’t quite sit right; it doesn’t feel intuitive even when you’ve learned it.
It takes the application of that knowledge – a series of hands betting based on the numbers, not on your feelings, to learn what that list of probabilities really means. You begin to see just how some opening hands, being better than others, lead to better results at the turn and the river. And then the numbers become bound up in your gut, the system internalized, and the game becomes intuitive – until the next series of numbers and calculations need to be internalized.
It’s the same in Virtua Fighter, or Devil May Cry: games based on highly rigorous systems, punishing at first, that demand you understand the rules to understand the game. No player really bases their in-game judgment on frame advantage; they base it on their gut, on what they see on the screen and hear from the speakers. The secret is that the system – the windows for counters, the execution time of moves in frames, the incoming attacks signified by various sound effects – is in their gut.
You learn the system to forget it again, and in doing so, are presented with an entirely honest game: a game that makes its system clear and consistent, never beats you unfairly, but never makes life easy.
The best Lost Cities games I had were not the highest scoring, but those with the most entertaining narrative and best banter. The best Street Fighter IV games I’ve played weren’t the most technical, but the most entertaining. The best Left 4 Dead rounds I’ve played were the most haphazard and messy. And yet all of these games are based around rules engines of varying complexity: the rulebook, the movelist, the AI Director.
Games are clockwork, logical engines that are fun to play with. The very best are rigorous in the systems and fairness, and yet not to the point of destroying that fun. And, if we’re very lucky, offer a glimpse of the “computational heart of the universe.“