Editorial: Stuff. How Does That Work?

There are topics that pretty much write themselves. I have been writing professionally for over ten years now. I have had columns in every publication from my local newspaper (I covered sports!) to my high school paper (I was editor!) to my college paper (I was a loudmouth) to the Internet (I am the least-popular columnist on a moderately successful gaming blog!) and in the future, I have no doubt that I will be the most prolific article writer for my firm’s newsletter.

No words on whether I will still cover World of Warcraft. Is Blizzard an evil empire built on world domination? Yes? Oh, well I suppose I will then.

This week, Greater Nerddom lost one of its stalwarts — the television show LOST. Now, whether one was a “mainstream” geek with shreds of social respectability, or a basement dweller coated in the neon orange of Cheeto dust and blogging on Internet game sites, LOST was a topic for discussion. Some liked it, many hated it, most were confused by it, but for those of us that promote the art of speculative fiction, LOST represented a strange success: mainstream acceptance of genre fiction.

True, most people stopped watching when LOST ceased to be a soap opera with occasional flashes of sf, but more of us really got into the show when it conveniently forgot that love triangles are cliche and boring and started getting in to deep mythology and fuckin’ smoke monsters… how do they work?

This seems like it would be the opportune time for me to talk about storytelling in a non-linear fashion, unbounded by the limits of temporality or coherence, that LOST was famous for, and wonder if there were any lessons for game developers to take away from this popular TV series.

But I am not going there; if anything over a decade of writing has taught me, it is that low-hanging fruit is popular, generates lots of discussion, and leaves everyone feeling refreshed and hopeful for the future. It sounds nice, no?

Unfortunately, I hate everything with the fire of a thousand darkened suns of nether dimensions, and so people must suffer.

The optimal way to make my readers suffer of course would be to try to out-loli my fellow columnists, but I am sadly unequal to the task. I even combed the barren wastelands of 4chan, but all I got was a few phone calls from the Secret Service, a questionable look from my wife, and a newfound hatred for the “dick nipple.”

Therefore, everyone will have to wait until Friday for their dose of loliriousness, and I will slink back to my cave, defeated, and talk about storytelling.

LOST! Just like half of America!
Imagine if LOST were reshot by the Japanese. With Lolis. Lolilost. Ew.

Cracked magazine, not known for its humor, intelligence, or tact, had a decent article today. In it, a gamer lamented the reasons why gaming is not taken seriously, namely: misogyny, immaturity, racism, immaturity, misogyny, and Peter Molyneaux. Which is a good point — games are in their troubled teenage years. They are finally growing up, out of childishness and childish things (despite Nintendo’s best efforts), and in to maturity. But how, how can we shepherd these fragile young things into the sort of hardened, jaded, drunkenly sad adulthood we all experience?

No, for the love of God Nate, do not try and slip God of War a roofie and “make it a man.” Bad Nate, bad.

The point of this rather long, disjointed and frankly insulting diatribe is that we must abandon convention in game mechanics and storytelling. In more traditional narratives, a convention is called a “MacGuffin device,” something that does not exist for any independent purpose, but only to propel a story forward. The big MacGuffin of LOST is the Island, a place that exists for no other reason than to bring the characters together. I will not spoil it for anyone, but trust me, the fucking Island is a MacGuffin.

Using a MacGuffin is generally considered bad storytelling; it’s the deus ex machine of the modern narrative. It is lazy storytelling.

That is not to say that good storytellers always avoid MacGuffins. Many times the plot requires the use of a MacGuffin to propel something forward. It is the central artificiality of fiction writing that something improbable must occur in order to make the story interesting. Without it, stories are literally about the everyday, the blah, the boring.

MacGuffins frequently appear in game as a side-effect of the mechanics. Why do we feel the need to plow through faceless hordes of goons in an action game, or fight endless random encounters in an RPG? It is because these encounters exist to add an element of challenge and nothing more. Even advances in storytelling like Heavy Rain that make player input incidental to the storyline ultimately do not advance the story: it advances whether I shake the controller a certain way or no.

One of the best storytelling experiences I have had with a game in a while was Assassin’s Creed II, which, for all its typical ultraviolent shallowness (the modern day story reads like one of Dan Brown’s abortions) manages to weave gameplay and learning game mechanics in to the storyline. It is still a MacGuffin, but as far as breaking the fourth wall goes, it is far less intrusive than the damn Final Fantasy shake and sound blast that triggers a random encounter.

Assassin's Creed II
Wolverine in Renaissance Italy, coming soon from Joss Whedon

How can games advance beyond this point? One way that developers have been going (and will probably fail at, miserably) is to make games more immersive and responsive to real actions. See, e.g., Project Natal, Move, or that abomination the Wii. However, natural motions are generally preferable, in theory, to button presses. They add immersion. 3D, another terrible idea, would aid to the immersion. I fear, however, that until the virtual reality envisioned by luminaries like William Gibson or Neal Stephenson is made a reality, that true storytelling will forever take a back seat to convention.

Should, then, developers attempt to hide their MacGuffins behind artifice, in the vein of Assassin’s Creed II? It was certainly an enjoyable game, but are cheap kludges preferable to real solutions? Or do they just work to delay real progress? Fuckin’ stories, how do they work?


  1. The gaming industry matured in the late 90’s, now it has devolved into a mewling infant.

    -Not a fan of Lost btw.


    We’ll do it live! Fuck it! Fucking thing sucks!

  3. LOST was a story only a storyteller could love; it’s got technical narrative whizbangs, but wears paper thin on people who require more from plots than love triangles.

    As for stories that were just good, I think that probably the same amount of good stories are produced, but with more widespread literacy and more people consuming narratives that the signal to noise ratio has gone all wonky. It’s not that stories are worse, it’s just that there is a lot more shit out there you have to wade through to find the gems.

  4. LOST was a story only Jerry Bruckheimer could love, a loose conglomeration of Macguffins and pointless red herrings arrayed to create the outward appearance of faux depth, later retconned to fill in holes to imbue this rank slavered mess and the whiz-bang set pieces with some semblance of meaning, to mask the pervasive air of incompetence and woe.

  5. I think the problem with modern games is they lack Quicktime Events. Assassin’s Creed II would be the ultimate videogame if they ported it to the Wii (or wait for Move/Natal) and added that AC “2.5” DLC entirely as a series of Quicktime Events. Like when the machine that let’s you relive genetic memory is activated you need to waggle the Wiimote at blocks of GNA at fly towards the screen like those Gummi block things that were in Kingdom Hearts for some reason.

    Ubisoft needs to hire me ASAP.

  6. @SN – damn, man, that is MEAN XD!
    @EP – stop sniffing paint, it fucks with your brain.