Game Mastery

Link: Review of Quests, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives

by on Sep.09, 2008, under links and articles

Never expected to link to a slashdot review here, but this seems pretty damn relevant: Quests, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives.

Basically this outlines how quests in games have degenerated from being meaningful to just being filler.  I pretty much agree with everything mentioned in the review and am linking to it so I don’t have to type it up myself later.

I found myself nodding in agreement with most of what was said.  Scratch that, I agreed with all of it.  Quests are supposed to have meaning.  There should be a reason why they’re part of the story.  To paraphrase one of their examples, Frodo didn’t have to skin 12 bunnies before he could put on the One Ring.  And even if he did, Tolkien wouldn’t have mentioned it, because it has no bearing on the story.

Writing is as much about story omission as it is about telling.  Actually that goes for all art.  Many moons ago I was interested in going to art school.  I had a decent amount of talent and could recreate the smallest of details.  What I couldn’t do was filter out details.  This made it impossible to draw a good sketch that highlighted only two or three characterizing details.  I had to draw every last one of them for it to look accurate.  In the end, all I was doing was creating pictures, not art.

A story also has extraneous details that can be eliminated.  A good author will know just how much detail to include to keep the world vivid without drowning the plot in detail.  And a bad author will write The Wheel of Time.  I’m sorry, that was mean.  Robert Jordan received quite a bit of criticism for the inclusion of a few too many details.  He could have told the same story in half so many pages if he could cut out some of the unimportant bits.

Video games, especially MMOs are written like Wheel of Time.  They go over each and every thing your character does in excruciating detail.  If an RPG is supposed to be a story, does it really need to include your character’s fight with a  pack of free range chicken?

But these little quests aren’t just unnecessary, they’re also distracting.  As soon as you get on the collect 104 chicken beaks quest, you forget about the main story until this irrelevant task is complete.  Because of how the game is written, the chicken beaks will not come up again.  Their sole purpose is to be filler.  If a bad story is one that didn’t trim the fat properly, what does that say of a story with more fat artificially inflated into the story?

So what does this have to do with GMing?  Cut the fat.  Get rid of the stuff that’s irrelevant.  It’s only diluting your story.  I don’t do random encounters in my games any more.  What would I?  They don’t push the story forward.  They only distract from it.  If the players need a fight, there are any number of factions that can attack them.  But not every fight needs to derive from a story already in the game.  It does get a little tiresome to have everyone you’ve pissed off sending out assassins.  Fights can appear random, but integrate them into the story after the fact.  Use some enemy that’s out of place and then have the players investigate what a mind flayer was doing in the town water supply.  Fine them for killing owlbears in the king’s private hunting ground.  Or use random encounters to tell stories with your PCs.  We recently saw some paladins riding down orcs unprovoked.  Party members took different sides in the fight.  Others stood still and watched.  The fight itself was a one shot deal, but still had meaning.  It doesn’t matter how you put it there, but each scene in the game needs to mean something in your story.

Sorry for the rant.  I really meant to end it after the suggested link.  Honest.

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