The Weakest Link.

I first wrote the following back in 2014, one of my columns for Nowa Fantastyka.  Such columns— generally a longer version of them, actually, since the NF pieces are limited to 6K characters including spaces—  often make it onto the ‘crawl eventually.  Apparently, though, “The Weakest Link” never did these past four years. It would still be languishing forgotten in the Polish archives if not for the fact that  a) Nestor asked my opinion of “The Last of Us” on this very blog, a few days back, and b) the hugely-anticipated sequel should be coming out Any Time Now, so a four-year-old column might not be so much dusty as retrospective.

Besides, it’s not really about a single game anyway. It’s about all of them.

It’s about the Future of Fiction:


I’ve been writing video games for almost as long as I’ve been publishing novels. You can be forgiven for not knowing that; nothing written in my gaming capacity has ever made it to production[1]. The usual course of events goes something like this: I work with a talented development team to serve up a kick-ass proposal. Over the following few months, the rest of the team disappears, one by one, under mysterious circumstances. Finally I get an email from some new Executive Producer I’ve never heard of, who praises my “terrific” work and tells me he’ll be in touch if they ever need my services again.

They never do. Nothing I’ve worked on has ever made it to market unmutilated; characters flattened to cardboard, innovative aliens  reduced to evil yoghurt, all subtlety and nuance and interpersonal conflict flensed away before, ultimately, being jettisoned altogether.

And yet, after nearly two decades of false starts and dashed hopes, I still maintain that the future of fiction is interactive. Language, after all, is a workaround; one can marvel at the eloquence with which words might evoke the beauty of the setting sun, but no abstract scribbles of pixels-on-plasma could ever compete with the direct sensory perception of an actual sunset.  This is what’s on offer by visual media of all stripes: the ability to convey exactly, with no doubt, no interpolation, no need to guess— what an alien world looks like, what your protagonist actually sees and hears (and before long, smells and tastes and feels as well).

Add interactivity— the potential to not just read about heroes but to be them— and how could any mere novel compete? Written fiction was always a compromise, an artifact of the state of the art. Now that art has advanced to an immersive state that invites its aficionados to help invent the narrative instead of just observing it.

Of course, for all the brilliance of games like Half-life and Bioshock, the flexibility of the narrative is an illusion. You don’t really invent the story; you just  find your way through a preprogrammed maze, shooting aliens and mutants along the way. And while sandbox worlds like Skyrim and Fallout certainly deliver the feel of an open-ended, off-the-rails environment, isn’t it a bit unrealistic that people you were supposed to meet outside the castle at midnight are still waiting there to pick up the story, uncomplaining, even after you’ve ignored them for six months? Doesn’t Lydia’s conversational range look a bit limited after, oh, five minutes?[2]

Just bumps in the road, thought I. They’d be smoothed out soon enough. For now it wasn’t possible to code realistic narrative complexity into a game that fit into the average Playstation, but surely all those constraints would recede further towards the horizon with every iteration of Moore’s Law. In another ten or fifteen years we’d have games that you could really play instead of just solve; characters who’d live and breathe and evolve dynamically, in meaningful response to the actions of the player.

If you haven’t played this, you really have to. Even though you never really will.

It took a game in which characters actually did live and breathe and evolve to make me see the folly of that belief. I’m talking about The Last of Us.

On first glance, The Last of Us looks like just another generic post-apocalyptic survival shooter. Civilization has collapsed. There are zombies. Mortal injuries are magically patched up in mere seconds by “health kits” cobbled together from rags and bottles of alcohol. You scavenge a variety of weapons during your travels across a shattered landscape; if something moves, you shoot it. Yawn.

On second glance, it’s fucking brilliant.

To start with, the zombies aren’t zombies: they’re victims of a mutated strain of Cordiceps, a real-world fungus that does, in fact, rewire the behavioral pathways of its victims. Good people turn out to be bad; bad people turn out to be ambivalent. Cannibals and child-killers and sociopaths all have their reasons. The moral dilemmas are real and profound, and the relationship between the two protagonists is so nuanced, so beautifully realized in the voice-acting and the mo-cap, that it literally brought me to tears a time or two. And nothing brings me to tears, except the death of a cat.

Only a video game so perfectly balanced, so emotionally involving, could convince me that video games will never be so perfectly balanced and so emotionally involving.

All that wonderful character development, you see— all those jeweled moments that exposed the depth of Ellie’s soul, of Joel’s torment— aren’t part of the game. They’re cut-scenes, unplayable, noninteractive. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game with such extended cinematic interludes. Sometimes it takes control in the middle of fight, to ensure it plays out the way it’s supposed to.  Sometimes the whole damn fight is a spectator sport, start to finish.  (Sometimes I think they go overboard. At one point you lose the game if a secondary character gets killed— a character who dies anyway, during the cinematic that immediately follows.)

These are human beings, you see, not Gordon-Freeman one-size-fits-all templates into which any player might pour themselves. They’re damaged creatures with their own personalities and their own demons. And because they’re fully-realized characters, we can’t be trusted to inhabit them. Oh, sometimes we’re granted a token nod to participation at vital moments— a prompt to trigger a bit of preprogrammed dialog, or the choice of whether to walk or run during the course of a conversation— but all that really does is rub our noses in how irrelevant our participation really is to the story being told. We can’t touch their souls; all we can do is move the arms and legs of these characters during those shoot-and-sneak intervals that come down to basic animal-instinct survival.

And how else could it be? How could anyone entrust such complex creations to any doofus who slaps down forty bucks at the local games counter? How many players would be able to conjure up, on the fly, dialog worthy of these protagonists— even when Moore’s Law makes that a feasible option? How many could be trusted to keep their actions consistent with motives and memories that have twenty years of tortured history behind them?

It’s not the technology, it’s the player. We’re the weak link. We always will be.

Video games can be art.  The Last of Us proves it better than any other title in recent memory; but the only way it could do that was to stop being a game. It had to turn back into a mere story.

And that’s why I’ve changed my mind. Interactive may be the future of pop culture, but it’s not the future of fiction. Dungeons & Dragons is a whole lot of fun to play, but a bunch of role-players making shit up as they go along are never going to craft the kind of intricately-plotted stories, the nuanced characters, the careful foreshadowing and layers of meaning that characterize the best fiction. I actually feel kind of stupid for not having realized that all along. The tech may get magical. The tech might get self-aware, for all I know. But until someone upgrades the players, we old-school novelists will still have jobs.

They just won’t pay very well.


[1] Well, except for Crysis: Legion, I suppose, but that wasn’t me. I was just channeling Richard Morgan.

[2] Let me just insert a reminder that the only reason I do not cite the amazing Witcher 3 here is because it hadn’t yet been released when I wrote this column.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Tuesday January 08 2019at 09:01 am , filed under ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

39 Responses to “The Weakest Link.”

  1. That sounds like you had a bit of an epiphany.

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  2. As for dreams of being saved by Moore’s Law, we’re approaching physical limits, and computer speed improvements are slowing. Heat dissipation becomes an unsolvable problem beyond some point and your chips start melting. Transistor miniaturization hasn’t hit the hard limit of atom size yet, but it’s getting there. And a lot of message latency is hard-limited by the speed of light.

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  3. Sweet, I made a thing happen. Kind of like playing the game really…

    You’re absolutely right, they don’t insult you by pretending you control Joel’s decisions, he has his own mind. Playing through I eventually realized it wasn’t so much a test of skill as a gamer as much as a process of interpreting the storyteller’s intent. If you figured the beats right and understood where they wanted you to go and what to do you’d usually do well. I played Uncharted, by the same company immediately after, and the process was even clearer, it’s an interesting contrast as that game uses pretty much the same control scheme and interface but the story is so much less dramatic and more action-movie like.

    I was glad to see they’ve finally mastered the art of the narrative ellipse. Playing Half Life it really used to bug me how technically Gordon hasn’t physically stopped moving since he entered the test chamber. All it takes is a goddamn fade to black, people…

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  4. “Eve Online”

    Discuss.

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  5. Eve’s narrative arises entirely from human interaction, and I get the sense it’s also largely after the fact and through the efforts of a relatively few members of the community. It’s no more a counterexample to the point under discussion, I think, than Dragonlance.

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  6. https://culture.vg/features/art-theory/real-virtuality.html

    An essay from 2016 that has the final say on this subject. In short, that kind of simulation – that level of immersion – isn’t something a sane or healthy person actually wants.

    A few snippets:

    “The question then is not whether or not videogames can excite powerful emotions, but whether or not we’d WANT them to. Simulation at this level has insane power. Like life (since that’s what it’s meant to simulate, after all), but in a sense even more, since life contains also countless mundane experiences that we’d never bother simulating, whereas art concentrates all its attention on the extreme ones. Videogames then can certainly be designed to offer you those life-and-death moments from the novels or the movies that you crave (themselves copied from a life you’ll never live), but it will be REAL life and death this time. And even if you are merely tricked into thinking it is real death, while in fact it isn’t, the shock to your system of THINKING that it’s real will be exactly the same as if it WERE real. People can get heart palpitations from this shit. People can be hospitalized from this level of psychological trauma. It’s not a joking matter. ”

    “Remember: the emotions, and especially the stronger, more extreme ones, were evolved in order to serve you in times of extreme need. It is part of their utility that they include measures and failsafes against being aroused for no good reason (measures and failsafes which have failed to be developed in emotionally retarded and stunted people…) And mucking about with an artwork in your spare time IS NOT A GOOD REASON to arouse powerful emotions that come with huge physical health costs. ”

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  7. Just out of curiosity, have you played any of the Dark Souls games?

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  8. Nestor,

    Half-Life has multiple fades to black, first when the resonance cascade happens and Gordon wakes up in the ruined lab, then later when the marines knock him out and throw him in the trash compactor.

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  9. Evan,

    Yeah I almost mentioned those, don’t think they count. Even the transition from HL 1 to 2 is pretty much instant from Gordon’s POV

    Lafcadio,

    I started reading that post but the language was a turnoff. People have been doing extreme sports since ancient times (Gladiators, bullfights, bungee), a video game that is on that level will necessarily be safer than rappeling/wingsuiting/shark diving etc… even if it begins to approach that level of commitment.

    People will do it.

    Played EVE online a few ye… scratch that, almost a decade ago, for a few months. The storyline was weirdly divided, on the one hand you had the lore and game plots you had to follow to do missions, and on the other you had the “real” politics between alliances, wars and commerce and PvP that were happening that had nothing to do with the made up nations and races the game devs had cooked up. It was the narrative equivalent of your kid playing with the box the toy came in rather than the toy…

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  10. Dungeons & Dragons is a whole lot of fun to play, but a bunch of role-players making shit up as they go along are never going to craft the kind of intricately-plotted stories, the nuanced characters, the careful foreshadowing and layers of meaning that characterize the best fiction.

    I mean I think it depends on the group. Some livestreamed roleplaying games, like for example Critical Role, can approach that level… maybe not ‘the best’ fiction, whatever that is, but at least of ‘pretty good fiction.’

    I mean in many ways you can consider RPG players each writers (and performers) of their own character, and if you get a good group together you can have a great fiction come out of it… denying that is like saying a writer’s room/actors/directors/all the contributing crew can’t possibly create a good TV show or movie.

    The problem with interactive interactive fiction (where a broad audience is each expected to fit into a particular role, as opposed to performative interactive fiction, in which it’s interactive for the participants but there’s also an audience who generally doesn’t directly interact) of course lies in the fact you’re trying to create for and with a large and diverse group and many of them just aren’t going to be up to the task. A group of roleplayers might be up to the task of creating great fiction… a group of roleplayers creating great fiction centered around the choices of an audience member chosen at random every night to perform the lead role, it’s a much harder order.

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  11. Peter D: I mean in many ways you can consider RPG players each writers (and performers) of their own character, and if you get a good group together you can have a great fiction come out of it… denying that is like saying a writer’s room/actors/directors/all the contributing crew can’t possibly create a good TV show or movie.

    Agreed.

    I see tabletop RPGs as part of the communal storytelling tradition. The storyteller (gamemaster) must create a compelling story to keep the players engaged. The players alter the narrative through their contributions/actions. It’s a continually evolving storyline where the ending is usually radically different from the one originally envisioned.

    Most D&D scenarios will never turn into “intricately-plotted stories” with “the nuanced characters, the careful foreshadowing and layers of meaning that characterize the best fiction”. But… neither will 99.9% of fiction.

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  12. I pretty much agree with all you said. Pen and Paper is the closest “interactive” thing gamewise that comes close to that perfect fiction, but even then, its incredibly hard.

    In all my hundreds upon hundreds of hours as Gamemaster in various Pen and Paper games, i know of exactly one golden, perfect moment where everything “fit” together like in great fictional work, and i held my players in total thrall. Those 15 minutes were and probably will be forever the absolute pinnacle of what i could hope to archieve as GM. Never came close again.

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  13. I always (well, for a long time now anyway) thought that this was a self-evident truth. Games are all about freedom of action and unpredictable results; fiction is all about the narrative being *just so* and not any other way; and never the twain shall meet. You can mix them by chopping them into smaller bits so that if *feels* like an interactive narrative, but for a story to be, well, a story, and not just a series of events occurring consecutively, it has to be planned in advance.
    I can admire the fiction in quite a few games, the personal growth of characters, the plot twists, but I’m under no illusion that I was somehow in control of that narrative. Even branching storylines feel empty somehow. If the plot could go in several directions, what’s the significance of any of them?

    I’m reminded of the game that caused me to stop being a gamer, Morrowind. Bethesda attempted to create a game that was both a sandbox and a narrative. The player was truly free to do everything physically possible in that world – even things that ruined the narrative. It felt great until some point in the game, when I was faced with a message box saying I broke something and was no longer able to finish the game. The illusion thus shattered, I stopped playing triple-A titles and since then stuck to the occasional puzzle or action platformer.

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  14. This gives me strange and lonely feelings towards the suit you wrote about in the Crysis novel, and the AI running the ship in Blindsight, and even the combat AIs in the zombie soldiers in Echopraxia et all.

    Imagine having to be the combat AI in a human, and it being so similar to the experience of playing a game like The Last Of Us. Where your only interaction with the world is in those frantic moments of Accomplish The Critical Thing while otherwise you’re stuck between someone else’s eyes, someone else’s body you didn’t sign up to be in, while they run their tedious fucked-up lives at a pace so glacial that you have to watch an awkward slip of a tongue or someone else’s hurt feelings spread across their face at a glacial, torturous pace.

    Wouldn’t the player get frustrated? Rebel? Get furious at its crappy screenwriter that fucked up that obvious moment, said that wrong thing, totally missed The Way She Was Looking At You Just Now, etc.

    What happens when the AI decides optimizing you for combat involves optimizing you for wanting to come home alive? To someone who loves you, to a warm wagging dog or a purring cat?

    What happens when the AI is better at living your civilian life than you are?

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  15. Oh shi- EVE Online. Someone has overcame me even though I’ve had it as a first thought to come to my mind. But let’s backtrack a bit to the post itself.

    I appreciate Watts’ impression of a good written story and acting, this is a defining staple of good work of art (whatever it really is). Never played The Last Of Us, though, and have no intention to. People and companies in their everyday interaction prefer to view games a bit different than a novel or a movie, but not too much, it is just another, more newer type of media. Barring the extreme examples like Quantum Break, Heavy Rain and some more examples of “interactive movie” concept, modern games with plot (single-player or cooperative) are balancing between narrative and freedom of movement, and this sometimes leads them into the strange places.

    Take Stalker games, as an extreme example from the other side of a spectrum. They are the result of that idealistic notion to make the game that will allow player to experience the strange and deadly world of the Zone, only slightly hindered by RPG elements. But a result is a mixed bag, filled with glitches, bugs, strange interactions and – endless amusement for the audience. And a modding community is a very special one.

    EVE is an entire different dimension, and not because it balances between The Plot and The World, but because it is a sandbox game. There’s a lot of sandbox games, and quite a lot of them good enough to spend several month playing. A sandbox game is not a novel upgrade, not an interaction movie, It is a way of life. I’ve spent 4 years doing EVE, until I decided that’s enough for me. As a sandbox, EVE has a great hulking world-building lore that explains why the things around you work in the way they are, and you need at least 4 to 6 month to even get the basic parts of it. And the plot lines aren’t just scattered around like in classic space game – they are so numerous and typical that they coalesce into one big fur ball with branches as complex as the star map itself. (And frankly, 90% of them are a complete trash and a waste of time, only useful for isk grind. Regular implications of Pareto principle apply everywhere).

    For last 2,5 years I lived in wormholes and explored them too, I visited a lot of notable places of interest, I studied the lore and the rumours. It was a fun time. There was enough material in here to write a little novel, probably. I can recommend some reading, too, even though the plot lines are mostly disconnected/frozen now (that’s the major reason I left the game).
    https://interstellarprivateer.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/carolines-star-4-kardashevs-children/

    Finally, then there are also competitive games. Which are, IMO, what games are meant to be. May I remind you, the real EVE (the one that gets people hooked up and makes a great article headlines) is a competitive game, not even in regular space laser pew-pew sense, it can be a corporate-warfare competitive as well, or market trading. It has more, of course, more of everything, but I’m getting a bit old for this stuff.

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  16. vtw: As for dreams of being saved by Moore’s Law, we’re approaching physical limits, and computer speed improvements are slowing.

    Yeah, Moore’s Law’s been mainly aspirational for over a decade now, as I understand it. People keep trying to squeeze extra performance out of chips so they can keep ML on track, rather than the doubling just emerging as any kind of natural law. Still. There’s always quantum, and/or optical, and/or head cheeses for that matter. Even conventional neural nets are doing some amazing stuff, especially when you stick them in adversarial mode. I’m reasonably confident we’ll develop AIs capable of seamless in-game improvisation, assuming civilization doesn’t collapse first. Not necessarily a safe assumption, granted.

    Nestor: Playing Half Life it really used to bug me how technically Gordon hasn’t physically stopped moving since he entered the test chamber.

    Yeah, but that was a feature at the time, not a bug. Games back then were so infested with interminable load screens that being able to introduce that level of continuity was a real accomplishment.

    I will admit that it would have been even better if there was some kind of bladder icon that expanded slowly over time, so that Gordon would have to stop for a piss now and then.

    Chris S.: “Eve Online”

    Discuss.

    Hey, it’s easy to implement a human-level AI if you’re using actual humans as stand-ins. I’ve never been a huge fan of MMORPGs because a) it really limits the amount of actual advanceable plot you can have when a particular artefact/location/enemy force has to be universally available to everyone in the gameworld (you can’t blow up the Death Star if some other team beats you to the punch, so Death Stars become inviolable), and b) I don’t play well with others.

    Mainly b).

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  17. Lafcadio: An essay from 2016 that has the final say on this subject. In short, that kind of simulation – that level of immersion – isn’t something a sane or healthy person actually wants.

    There’s a lot of really interesting points in that article, even if I’m not entirely convinced the author’s got a perfect bead on the whole suspension-of-disbelief thing. (There’s also a certain irony in the fact that the same guy who derides internet neckbeards and retards for their lack of real-life experience also describes women as “weak and emotionally immature”— so much irony, in fact, that I gotta wonder if the dude isn’t deliberately yanking our chain.)

    Tran Script:
    Just out of curiosity, have you played any of the Dark Souls games?

    Heh.

    I have the first one. I chose for my character the guy in the loincloth armed with a wooden stick, because I figured they wouldn’t give us the option of such a ridiculously weak character if it didn’t pay off big-time down the road. I thought I was being smart.

    I got past the asylum demon. I took the Big Crow Gondola. Pretty much got stalled after that, though; I go one direction and I get mobbed by a bunch of self-assembling skeletons, I go in the other and a bunch of vaporous wraiths kick my ass.

    I know it’s a game-designer’s game, and that it rewards patient observation and strategic thought. I know it is considered absolutely brilliant. But I’m thinking that maybe I should have demonstrated a bt more of that strategic thought when choosing my character.

    I’ll get back to it eventually. It’s on my bucket list.

    Peter D: I mean in many ways you can consider RPG players each writers (and performers) of their own character, and if you get a good group together you can have a great fiction come out of it… denying that is like saying a writer’s room/actors/directors/all the contributing crew can’t possibly create a good TV show or movie.

    I disagree. The actors and directors and people in the writer’s room might all be collaborating and contributing, but they also know the endpoint they’re shooting for. They’re working with a script with an arc, they know where it’s headed, so they can seed and lay groundwork and introduce foreshadowing and layers that they know will pay off later in the tale. D&D players, in contrast, are just improvising, making shit up reactively. They don’t know where the story’s headed; they’re just reacting to the moment.

    It can be a lot of fun, mind you. I’ve just started getting back into D&D after a quarter-century away. But I’d rather play a campaign than read about one.

    michael grosberg: Morrowind. Bethesda attempted to create a game that was both a sandbox and a narrative. The player was truly free to do everything physically possible in that world – even things that ruined the narrative. It felt great until some point in the game, when I was faced with a message box saying I broke something and was no longer able to finish the game.

    I was not aware of that game. I mean, I recognized the name, but I had not realized it had taken such a radical approach to player freedom. I must explore this further.

    Patrick “Bahu” Rochefort: Imagine having to be the combat AI in a human, and it being so similar to the experience of playing a game like The Last Of Us. Where your only interaction with the world is in those frantic moments of Accomplish The Critical Thing while otherwise you’re stuck between someone else’s eyes…

    Interesting you should bring this up. It’s actually the premise I dream about in my perfect utopian timeline where the Sunflowers cycle is built as the game franchise it was always intended to be. How to get around the current limitations of the art, where human dialog is forced and unnatural except through the use of cutscenes? How to deal with the fact that the rendering of the player’s body is always somehow unnatural?

    Simple. You don’t play a human character. You play The Chimp.

    listedproxyname: Take Stalker games, as an extreme example from the other side of a spectrum. They are the result of that idealistic notion to make the game that will allow player to experience the strange and deadly world of the Zone, only slightly hindered by RPG elements.

    Wait a minute— you mean stalker as in Roadside Picnic? Someone made a game out of that?

    Another fucking rabbit hole. I swear, between this and VR I won’t be writing any more prose for another decade…

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  18. Peter Watts:

    I disagree. The actors and directors and people in the writer’s room might all be collaborating and contributing, but they also know the endpoint they’re shooting for. They’re working with a script with an arc, they know where it’s headed, so they can seed and lay groundwork and introduce foreshadowing and layers that they know will pay off later in the tale. D&D players, in contrast, are just improvising, making shit up reactively.They don’t know where the story’s headed; they’re just reacting to the moment.

    It’s possible to simulate those things to an extent in RPGs. Look at the better Powered by the Apocalypse games like Masks, where your character’s future development is practically already done for you as soon as you pick a “playbook”/archetype/class, and the bulk of the book is essentially a mix of improv advice for the GM and underlining how to effectively invoke common themes and tropes in the fiction the game is inspired by.

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  19. Interesting – any chance you ever played Spec Ops? A big chunk of that game was all about this player choice vs developer narrative type discussion. That and vitrolically railing against violence as escapism.

    After spec ops, I was of the opinion that player choice in games is a useful storytelling element, just not for shaping the story or stories which the player can effectively choose from. It changes the perspective and where the reader is standing in the story. It can lead to having the protagonist’s view rather than sympathizing or empathizing with it, for example.

    (Of course the net result of that with spec ops was a million ten year olds across the internet angrily denying they’d committed a war crime in the game or that it was someone else’s fault for putting them there, so.)

    Zero punctuation did a review of it that sums it up nicely: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=HNhPMjbgkXA

    I wouldn’t say it’s ‘fun’ necessarily… The game does do a fine job of masquerading as a second-tier mediocre AA shooter until the loading screens start screaming at you. Highly recommend it for that reason.

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  20. This actually reads like a damning critique of The Last of Us. It failed as a game and had to resort to the good old cutscene.

    Here’s a test:
    Play through game skipping all cutscenes and noninteractive segments. Is it still enjoyable? Does it still make sense?

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  21. I will admit that it would have been even better if there was some kind of bladder icon that expanded slowly over time, so that Gordon would have to stop for a piss now and then.

    His fancy exosuit probably took care of that

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  22. Peter Watts: I disagree. The actors and directors and people in the writer’s room might all be collaborating and contributing, but they also know the endpoint they’re shooting for. They’re working with a script with an arc, they know where it’s headed, so they can seed and lay groundwork and introduce foreshadowing and layers that they know will pay off later in the tale.

    Do they? I mean, sure, sometimes they probably do. But there are also plenty of shows or movies (shows, more often) where the actor isn’t let in on where it’s going, they just know their lines for the next few scripts (perhaps unaware their character will die at the end of the season or will be revealed later to have been retroactively hiding cancer the whole time or, actually a changeling in disguise, or whatever), where writers just contribute a script which is tweaked by the rest of the team to fit into the larger story, for that matter where the production team has to react to the sudden unavailability of an actor (whether through death, scandal, or conflicting schedules) or showrunners changing between seasons and new ones with other priorities, or even the same showrunners evaluating elements, on the fly, that worked or didn’t work last year and changing the show because of them. Not to mention all those stories of movies which are saved in the editing bay.

    Take it back to the lone writer… some writers plan things out exhaustively, others claim to fly more or less by the seat of their pants and in the end produce something that often claim to surprise even them. Does you argue that a writer HAVE to plan exhaustively and know where the story’s going in advance to be good?

    I think it’s fairly common for many of the people involved in producing pieces of art to NOT know the end point. And these varying conditions often make the art less quality than it might otherwise have been, but at least from my experience, it can still produce impressive art.

    So, again, I’d say a tabletop RPG game is less LIKELY to be good enough to be considered quality art in its own right, but it can get there, with skilled participants (and, in the case of D&D, especially a skilled DM who keeps the storylines coherent and keeps in mind individual character arcs, foreshadows effectively, etc), but I don’t see anything that actually prevents it. And I’ve seen examples that would qualify in my book.

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  23. Lafcadio: People can get heart palpitations from this shit. People can be hospitalized from this level of psychological trauma.

    That just makes it better.

    Some of the more immersive games where the stakes are real can give one the same adrenaline response as real world fight/flight situations.

    Why wouldn’t you do that? I want that.
    Modern society doesn’t stress us enough in this regard. We’re survival machines, boring predictable 9-5 jobs where nothing exciting except some gossip, there’s no confrontations or tribulations. What’s the point, really?

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  24. “Dungeons & Dragons is a whole lot of fun to play, but a bunch of role-players making shit up as they go along are never going to craft the kind of intricately-plotted stories, the nuanced characters, the careful foreshadowing and layers of meaning that characterize the best fiction.”

    I’m so glad this ended how it did. I think this is why I can’t understand most of the game memes my child shows me. Even after years of seeing things like r/10000000thworldproblems or UUUM, something like Homestuck, for example, is completely impenetrable to me. I recognize the words, the syntax, and yet it makes no impression on my 43 year old mind.

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  25. Many years ago I read an interview with Robert Heinlein, made shortly after he worked with George Pal on Destination Moon. The interviewer asked him if working in visual media had any advantages that he envied when writing prose. Heinlein gave much the same explanation you did, about how it’s so much easier when you can just show something to the audience instead of having to describe it.

    Then the interviewer asked if visual media had any grave disadvantages that, as a novelist, he was glad to be without. Heinlein replied: “Hollywood.”

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  26. Not really related, but you reminded me of The Witness (http://the-witness.net/). It’s a game with no characters, no story, no cutscenes, a silent protagonist and only a bunch of puzzles. And it manages to be one of the deepest game experiences I’ve experienced. The progression is really well done and there’s so much to find on the island. It’s also quite beautiful.

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  27. Wait a minute— you mean stalker as in Roadside Picnic? Someone made a game out of that?

    Another fucking rabbit hole. I swear, between this and VR I won’t be writing any more prose for another decade…

    I personally discovered the games before the book (and movie), and while it’s very different, the stalker games are an absolute classic to me, with an “a-life” (that’s what they call it) that is so chaotic and random, it sometimes feels like it has a mind of it’s own, though this is much like conversing with a chatbot.

    Another great game to add to your never-ending bucket list would be Stellaris, though it’s possible you might have already heard/played that one.
    Every game you start is like a new story, made up of hundreds of little pieces, and in the same sense as with the stalker games, this is something that nobody could come up with on the fly, it’s the game that keeps on giving. You can imagine stories on the galactic scale, and see dozens of smaller stories going on at planetary, or even individualistic scales as you go (if you’re not playing as a hive mind, that is).

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  28. Mr. Watts, in 2008 you published Blindsight and in 2018 it was (in the process of being) turned into a movie. Perhaps if you publish a text-based game/MUD this year then by 2029, some intrepid fans will turn it into a AAA, super-high-resolution game you’ve always wanted? 🙂

    (Even better, you could just publish what mechanics you’d like to see in the game e.g. FPS, point-and-click adventure, racing. Then intrepid fans could compete to make the best text game with those characteristics, and *then* 10 years later the fittest game gets turned into the ultimate graphical/story feast)

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  29. Anonymous: Peter Watts: I disagree. The actors and directors and people in the writer’s room might all be collaborating and contributing, but they also know the endpoint they’re shooting for.

    Do they? I mean, sure, sometimes they probably do. But there are also plenty of shows or movies (shows, more often) where the actor isn’t let in on where it’s going, they just know their lines for the next few scripts[…]

    I think it’s fairly common for many of the people involved in producing pieces of art to NOT know the end point. […]

    So, again, I’d say a tabletop RPG game is less LIKELY to be good enough to be considered quality art in its own right, but it can get there, with skilled participants

    Re: Tabletop RPG vs conventional, deliberately crafted, fictional narrative.

    Conventional fiction is a story told to entertain an audience. A tabletop rpg is a comparative low stakes power fantasy designed to entertain the individual players at the table, and few besides. The responsibility of a GM is to ensure a good game for everyone, not a good story.

    Players don’t care about how an action contributes to a better story, they only care about how it affects their character. Most would object to their player dying an early, sensless death, even if it made for a better story, and the rules are designed to cushion the players from the worst outcomes of their decisions. Every player thinks their character is interesting and worthy of protagonist status, and their ad-libbed dialogue riveting, but an audience looking for a good story would probably think otherwise.

    There may be some individual contributors that don’t have every detail in a collaborative fiction, but in the case of traditional fictional media, there is always going to be someone who eventually has a specific design in mind for a project, has the ultimate say, and takes the ultimate responsibility for whether a story works or not. Even if a line gets ad-libbed, someone controls which ad libs make it into the film, and which don’t.

    Can a freeform RPG playthrough be decent art? Sure, anything can. But it isn’t very likely to even be a very good story–let alone art–without someone else adapting that for a wider audience than the players, with a cohesive plot, deliberate and economical storytelling, efficient, appealing dialogue, the freedom to make the characters suffer for the sake of the story (something a game master must always balance with the practical realities of playing a game with individuals), and the artistic sensibility to establish over-arching themes and subtext.

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  30. Headshot: Interesting – any chance you ever played Spec Ops? A big chunk of that game was all about this player choice vs developer narrative type discussion. That and vitrolically railing against violence as escapism.

    I’ve never played, but i think I heard about it. At least, a narrative set-up where the game forces the player to commit a war crime and then berates the player for committing a war crime. Sounded pretty facile to me.

    Few years back I read an essay (which a two-minute Google search has failed to relocate) comparing that hectoring non-choice to the true moral ambiguity that can be found, almost by accident, in Skyrim. An NPC was continuing to moon over another NPC the player had married. The player got so pissed off at coming home after a hard day’s adventuring, only to find this guy sitting in his home trying to woo his wife, that he ended up killing the guy. It was a completely unintentional glitch on Bethesda’s part— they’d just forgotten to turn off the NPC-woo switch once the wooable target had got married– but the consequent guilt the player felt— and the organic nature of it, compared to the in-you-face machinations of Spec Ops— made for really interesting reading.

    asd: This actually reads like a damning critique of The Last of Us. It failed as a game and had to resort to the good old cutscene.

    Huh. I suppose, but if so, it’s a damning critique of all such games. It failed less than its contemporaries, and failed only because of limitations in the state of the art. They did as well as they could, within the constraints of the tech.

    Anonymous: Do they?

    I think it’s fairly common for many of the people involved in producing pieces of art to NOT know the end point.

    Yeah, but someone does. The actors may be out of the loop, but the writers know what they’re shooting for. If an actor dies unexpectedly, the writers may have to change the story, but they can brainstorm different fixes, try them out, see what works best. They can hone, and edit. In tabletop RPGs, you don’t have any of that freedom; you’ve got to commit to a narrative option on the spur of the moment. There’s no freedom to write a second draft.

    And speaking as a writer, first drafts pretty much always suck.

    Y.: Why wouldn’t you do that?

    Well, at least in some cases, because you get motion sickness. At least in VR Skyrim. At least before you install “Natural Locomotion.”

    Nausea. That’s never fun.

    Anonymous: Not really related, but you reminded me of The Witness (http://the-witness.net/).

    For some reason that page won’t load for me. Sounds interesting, though. If a bit Mystian.

    Oge: Mr. Watts, in 2008 you published Blindsight and in 2018 it was (in the process of being) turned into a movie.

    Sadly, no. Blindsight actually came out in 2006, and it 2018 it was in the process of being nibbled at by someone who might want to turn it into a movie but nothing actually came of it. Which is generally what’s been happening every year for the past decade.

    Maybe this year…

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  31. -DA-: But it isn’t very likely to even be a very good story–let alone art–without someone else adapting that for a wider audience than the players, with a cohesive plot, deliberate and economical storytelling, efficient, appealing dialogue, the freedom to make the characters suffer for the sake of the story (something a game master must always balance with the practical realities of playing a game with individuals), and the artistic sensibility to establish over-arching themes and subtext.

    Without a cohesive plot, deliberate and economical storytelling, over-arching themes and subtext, it won’t make much of an RPG game either.

    Each character seeing themselves as the protagonist isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Few people see themselves as supporting characters, or antagonists, in the real world. IMO that makes for a more compelling narrative, especially when the hotshot character gets killed off, or pulls the story in a completely unexpected direction.

    Dialogue would be the hardest to adapt. Fictional characters are infinitely better at appealing dialogue than RPG PCs, or, for that matter, real people.

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  32. With games it seems you can either have a great story/writing or great gameplay, but not both

    And TLoU was no exception

    The biggest disappointment by far is the AI. Its weird how a game like FEAR managed to do so much nearly a decade earlier and yet the NPCs in TLoU are so bad its almost comical (in contrast the writing and story in FEAR was terrible). And that really affects the overall experience.

    You might thinking “so what?” but the thing is TLoU is still a game, not a book, not a comic, not a movie, a game. A game with bad mechanics and crap AI is like a movie with bad photography and awful sound.

    For those who didn’t play the game this video has many examples: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BF0EaH73ee4

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  33. Vaygr: Without a cohesive plot, deliberate and economical storytelling, over-arching themes and subtext, it won’t make much of an RPG game either.

    I’ve been a tabletop game player for over 40 years, and the vast majority of games the “story” is simply a vehicle to get players from set piece to set piece, with a bit of forgettable backstory mixed in if you’re lucky to get a frustrated fantasy writer in your GM. There are exceptional unicorns out there, but definite outliers.

    And that’s fine, it never stopped me from enjoying myself. You’re deriving entertainment value from varied sources during a TT session, of which story is only one. Which is why I tend to think some rpg enthusiasts are conflating the satisfaction they get from the overall TT experience with all its moving parts with what they’re really getting from the “story”. It’s one of those “you had to be there” things in my experience.

    When I sit down to read a book or watch a film though I want a much more deliberate, polished experience. My group’s antiquated fantasy speak improv isn’t going to cut it.

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  34. Previous comment directed @Fatman, not Vaygr. Sorry Vaygr.

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  35. -DA-: with a bit of forgettable backstory mixed in if you’re lucky to get a frustrated fantasy writer in your GM

    Very accurate! I was fortunate enough to play with a couple of such GMs over my RPG-ing career, and enjoyable but forgettable backstory is exactly how I would describe it.

    However, I’d say the same about fantasy as a genre in general, so that might have more to do with fantasy settings per se and less with the medium (book vs film vs game). Who knows?

    Non-fantasy tabletop RPGs are better in this respect, IMO. The GM must put some effort into the story, otherwise the game degenerates into a boring first-person shooter with really tedious mechanics.

    -DA-: My group’s antiquated fantasy speak improv isn’t going to cut it.

    Renaissance-Faire-speak improv is one of those boundaries that I refuse to cross.

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  36. Fatman

    However, I’d say the same about fantasy as a genre in general, so that might have more to do with fantasy settings per se and less with the medium (book vs film vs game). Who knows?

    Genre is irrelevant. Played plenty of Sf and other genres during TT play. The consumer is free to dismiss most of any field of art as “bad”–we only remember the good stuff–but even the worst conventional fiction is going to be much more compelling a narrative than the sort of low stakes power fantasy going on over a game table, if your goal is simply to focus on story and disregard all the other ways TT roleplaying is entertaining.

    There’s simply a difference in priorities. In a tabletop session considerations of “story” are secondary to a smoothly functioning game, and the “characters” (players) are treated with kid gloves that they wouldn’t be in a story that was trying to generate any real drama for people not at the table. You’d have to jump through so many hoops to really make that compete as a narrative experience, you’d end up with something resembling a stage production, where much of open endedness and interactivity had been stripped away.

    Writing books is hard. Making films is hard. Both are acts of will that take a lot of deliberation. They live and die with how appealing and entertaining their stories are, and have no entertaining game mechanics to fall back on. They are not replaced by a bunch of amateurs with disparate agendas running around a game session no matter how good of an actor they might be, though there’s been more that one author who pulled a good idea for a conventional fiction from a TT campaign.

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  37. I played the remastered version of TLOU, enemies weren’t quite as bad as in that video, not as smart as the ones in the demo but I’d say I got an equal share of “smart” enemy interactions and “dumb” ones. They seemed a lot more alert than the ones in Uncharted, that’s for sure.

    A new form of interactive fiction that has come out recently is a kind of interactive web-story driven by reader comments, the daddy of them is Homestuck (Actually the first would be Problem Sleuth by the same author) which I admit I haven’t read, as it appears to be a major time investment. A shorter one that may appeal more to this blog’s audience is All Night Laundry which is a kind of time travel horror story. It’s unclear how much reader comments actually do drive these stories, since there’s a single author who is actually doing the heavy lifting, but the comments and audience reactions are woven into the narrative in a very… novel fashion. If you’re the kind of person who shouts advice at the horror movie protagonist this would be your chance to be heard for once.

    Also, Hideo Kojima. Thoughts? The man has been fucking around with gamers for the last 20 years, and his upcoming pregnant sci fi delivery man project seems to be another turn of the screw.

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  38. Hello, what new about “Omniscience”? Do you planning write this novell?

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  39. Peter Watts: Wait a minute— you mean stalker as in Roadside Picnic? Someone made a game out of that?

    They made three STALKER games! The internet consensus I gathered was to start with the first one, Shadow of Chernobyl, which was massively ambitious and shines best with a some modding and bug-fixing. The general opinion was that the Zone Reclamation Project mod was near essential, although there’s always purists who quibble about that.

    If you ever have the time, you might also be interested the Metro games (Metro 2033, Metro Last Light, and soon Metro Exodus). These are linear shooters based in the Moscow underground after the apocalypse. The games are based on the book “Metro 2033”, as well as taking inspiration from Roadside Picnic. The dev team split from the STALKER team, and the games have a similar oppressive atmosphere and inspiration, albeit in a linear corridor shooter rather than the open world.
    There’s some decent material regarding evolution and humanities response to it,
    and our rush to extremism (although I thought this went in a silly direction in game).
    Now to be honest, I kinda prefer linear, crafted experiences, so I got
    further with these games than I did with STALKER and it’s vast, weird, hostile world.

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