Erik Loyer's Stories as Instruments or Why Isn't Bigger Always Better?

Interactive media artist Erik Loyer, perhaps most well known to academics as Creative Director of Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology visited the University of California, Riverside earlier this week to give a talk titled “Stories as Instruments.”

Loyer explained his design philosophy that games should break free of the restrictions of plot-centric progression and character focused instrumentality (his recent innovative iPhone game Ruben and Lullaby is a particularly illustrative example of this trajectory). Loyer points to the genre of the musical as an important influence and model for new forms of storytelling in games. Musical arias feature characters that step just outside the world in moments of intense expression. Loyer analogized this as a blend of first and third person perspective. The singing character in the musical is locked into the narrative space contextually yet elaborating that context. The best games, according to Loyer, allow the player to assume this role: doing things as they should be done logically in the world but also knowing what one is doing.

In this way, the best moments in games happen when a player does what the developer wants them to do, without explicit narrative prompting, and does it in a way that fits within the context and expressive aims of the game. He cited an example of his own experience with the N64 classic Goldeneye where, after having just learned to use the sniper rifle, he was presented with a situation where he got to surreptitiously eliminate a few targets from afar in a building. The revelation was that he had done exactly what James Bond would have done and that’s what made it so exhilarating. He was simultaneously doing something and knowing what he was doing. He was character, fan, and player all in one.

Loyer’s central critique is of the obsessive push in game design toward large branching plot-driven stories centered on the freedom and autonomy of a character (think: Mass Effect) which often denigrate the Goldeneye experience. He argues that the focus should be on the potential for dynamic experiences of subjectivity, affect, and emotion rather than thousands of potential choices. Characters and stories should be considered the facilitators of these experiences not the ultimate focus or endgame as in plot-centric design.

I think this point is provocative and worth exploring. In both game design and theory, we are still affected by the nagging myths of cyberspatial freedom (or lack thereof) as well as neoliberalism and its interest in consumer empowerment. In terms of design, each new game or iteration needs to be bigger, more varied, and full of options for story, character, and customization. In terms of game theory, we study the oppressive logics of algorithmic technical objects and theorize methods of subversion and resistance such as cheating, performance, countergaming, and so on. The subtext to politically progressive game theory is often that games need to counteract these power problematics by being as open as possible.

But what about embracing limitation, restriction, and prescriptive design?

Why not create games that box in the player and why not study how restriction can be productive?

Design can constrain space in order to open up new modes of perception and attention as well as expose the illusory nature of freedom in all games – even those marketed as boundless (GTA anyone?). By directly confronting the inherent logics of control, by bringing them into stark relief, we can perhaps finally move past the reductive myths of liberation and empowerment that mischaracterize interactions with digital media and network technology and provide potentially illusory resistant formulations.

Linear goals set before a

Linear goals set before a player with an extrinsic motivator to keep them interested are productive, just like they are in the business world.

Non-linearity allows players to be more creative and curious. If they have no extrinsic motivators to rush to the end of a level, intrinsic motivation kicks in and they start to experiment.

It's part of a survival mechanism to always chase the carrot of success (unless it's in a trap) and always avoid the sharp stick of failure. But if there is no carrot to chase, nor a sharp stick in sight, we start to look around for more carrots. Whether we find them or not isn't important at that point, what is important is to be interested, curious, and experimental with the environment.

Stories are great and all, but when there's an extrinsic motivator presented to encourage you to get to the end, what do you think is more important? The story or the reward? 9 times out of 10, the game's story is ignored while the ultimate reward is the primary goal in the player's mind.

Disagree

I completely disagree with you. I think you have never played the best games in the history. Have you seen the plot of Soul reaver - Blood omen? this is a huge plot, about 5 games, and is excellent from the beginning to the end, It has nothing to critic about. Have you played mafia? The most exiting and amazing game plot. The final reflection shock me and most of my friends. Max-Payne, fallout, torment, etc. The list is huge!. I know the plot only won't save any bad game, but it is an importan part. A good plot will bring a new life, and a new point of view.

An not restricting plot will make the game longer and more playable. I hate when I reach a limitation of the game, for example an invisible wall at the end of the map. At least be creative and hide the end with trees or something. Another thing I hate, is when you are teached to used something and inmidiatly you are asked to use that. I think that's toooooo predictable, and boring. Let me discover how to use things, and let those things free in the game, or at least, make the plot follow that change. Don't let a new weapon over the floor being so obviously. I hate that!.

I think the most important part of the game is it's dynamics, and how playable is it. If I feel confortable with a game, I'll play it a lot of time, even if the plot is awful, either the graphics, and everything else. A good dynamic will save everything else. But a good plot and a bit of thinking will make it better. For example, the game "Marshmallow Duel". A DOS game that I still play with friends, just because it's fucking hilarious. It has no plot, it has no 3d graphics, but it's easy to play, dynamic, and over those things, FUNNY. I spent hours playing without being bored. It might take you a little to get used to and old game. We are used to ultra graphics, so, we are not very confident to an old game, but when that barrier is broken, you won't stop playing.

Just my humble opinion.

Interesting

This was really interesting to and I'd never quite made this connection explicitly, though I have felt a similar experience in gaming when the supposed "vast, endless world of free choice" comes up against it's own limitations, which in fact are the conditions for the possibility of that free choice that it offers. The connection here to neoliberalism that you make here is especially smart, I think, when you bring to mind something like a Thatcher-esque "there is no alternative" coupled with neoliberal "freedom of choice" (which, as you note, is really just freedom to choose as a consumer... you do not have the freedom to chose not to be a consumer). The issue that you're drawing attention to is that we have a world of freedom of choice (the toothpaste aisle, Dominos or Pizza Hut; you can progress the game's story by helping the old man or by betraying him - up to you) but that freedom of choice disappears when you want to choose something like, say, a non-capitalist society.

I remember playing Knights of the Old Republic and having all that "free choice" throughout the game and then realizing that none of your decisions actually mattered and it was only your very last decision at the end of the game that made a difference; granted that's an old example, but I think the same logic holds for "open-ended" games today and it's just an issue of scale/quantity, not a fundamental qualitative difference. So I definitely see how these concepts can be frustrating in terms of gameplay. At the same time, I am generally drawn to sweeping epic plots with vast universes and lots of choices (Oblivion). Maybe that's just the little neoliberal in my head, but I can't really envision a good alternative model (at least as I'm writing this blog comment, Thatcher seems to have a hold of me). Perhaps in another post you'd want to flesh out what you imagine as the alternative gaming model?

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