Games and the „best way“ to tell stories

Torsten Meyer (thanks!) just sent me a link to a recent interview with game designer Peter Molyneux, published in the „Tageszeitung“, the title translates as „Fable-Gamedesigner Peter Molyneux: A visionary and charlatan“

Molyneux is quite enthusiastic about interactive-adaptive stories as games, but omits other aspects of the relation of „story“ and „game“ resp. „play“ which I think are quite important.
If there’s the question „How can stories in games ever compete with books and movies?“, one may have fallen to an error of categorisation. Stories in games have to deal with similar problems as texts in the digital medium: They are easily seen as simple transfers from previous technical media, but basically the same as before, a linear progression of meaningful – or dramatically arranged – information.

The common misconception is, that movies, books and games are all media and therefore all tell tales and stories: So, one would think, it depends mainly on the story if there’s acceptance and success for a medium.
Though this is a valid point, it’s not the decisive one, as McLuhan already stated 40 years ago in „Understanding Media“. The concept of stories and of storytelling in books, movies and games is unique for each technical medium: „The Sims“ builds upon a staggeringly trivial, everyday story – or rather storyspace – but it is one of the most successful games of all times.
How come?

As for the concept of „text“/“authorship“ in digital media, there are also new approaches for „story“ and „storytelling“ in games:

1.) The game as interactive-adpative storyteller (see above interview)
Here the ongoing story adapts to the reactions and wishes of the reader/player, the game creates on-the-fly a customised storyline.
This is – in analog, social gaming – an old hat. A.S.Neill applied interactive storytelling in his „The Last Man Alive“ as early as 1938; and face-to-face roleplaying has today still millions of listeners/authors who create their adventures on-the-go.
In the digital media, this concept would be comparable to social software algorithms, personal software agents, or intelligent/adaptive tutoring systems for education.

2.) The game as configurable medium for storytelling
Here the player is the author of a story, arrangeable in a simplified authoring (sic!) environment as text, movie, even game, which can be shared with others.
In digital media this would be comparable to constructionalist approaches as seen with Papert, Wilensky, Harel, where the concrete object of a story is used for reflection and communication.

3.) The game as simulation of a mappable storyspace
Here the player experiences the story as changeable configuration of story elements, characteristics, decisons. It is something which can be fast-forwarded, or saved and altered at any point in time or its dramaturgic development. This concept of a story isn’t about a single line of events, but a spreading storytree, unfolding the cognitive map of it from classic linear 1D to a „possibility space“ landscape 2D. This story is about all possible stories sprung from a certain starting configuration.
This concept probably comes closest to take full advantage of the possibilities of the digital medium. We see approaches as stated by Wright („Gaming is a form of time travel“) or Frasca („Rethinking Agency and Immersion“) who try to explore this path.
In the new media, this would be comparable to ’serious‘ simulations, mostly of the physical ilk, game simulations in sandbox-style, hypertexts and database-queries to a certain degree.

So: The storyconcepts in games are different from those in books, movies, theatrical plays; the ‚competition‘ is at best a quantitative one based on the numbers of PURVs (Player-User-Reader-Viewer), not a qualitative one which medium is better suited to transfer stories.
Some quotes about the role of stories in games:

„The ideology of a game is in its rules, its invisible mechanism, and not only in its narrative parts. Thus a global innovation of this medium will be very difficult.“
– Paolo Pedercini from Molleindustria (translated from German)

„The storyteller has direct creative control over his audience’s experience; the game designer has indirect control; the toymaker has almost none.“
– Chris Crawford, «The Art of Computer Game Design

„The gap between those who want games to entertain and those who want games to be art does not exist. Because both entail posing questions – tough ones even, ethical ones, even. And games will never mature as long as the designers create them with complete answers to their own puzzles in mind.“
– Raph Koster, „Theory of Fun“

„Interactivity is one of the core features that differentiate games from passive media like film. In a game we play a role. Most of the time, the roles we play in games are roles of power. Space marine, world-class footballer or hero plumber. Isn’t it about time we played the role of the weak, the misunderstood, even the evil? If videogames remain places where we only exercise juvenile power fantasies, I’m not sure there will be a meaningful future for the medium.“
– Ian Bogost, Watercooler Games