Storium founder Stephen Hood on roleplaying in video games

If you’re reading this blog, you have to be a gamer. But if you’re a writer as well, then Storium is something you have to be on. It’s good old-fashioned play-by-post, only taken to the next level – a simple, structured, wine-and-chocolate fusion of tabletop roleplaying and collaborative fiction. Give me a shout if you hop aboard!

It’s no surprise that fan initiatives would arise from a community as large, talented and dedicated as this – like the unofficial podcast Storium Arc. Most recently, the hosts snagged an interview with Storium’s founder and CEO Stephen Hood. When they invited the community to pose him questions, I saw the perfect chance to air one close to my MMO roleplayer’s heart.

This is how I put it. Took a while to articulate.

I have something to ask Stephen: he has said that one of his biggest hopes for Storium is to get more people to roleplay, and ‘grow the hobby’. Does he have any thoughts on how a system like this stands with a certain subset of said people – modern MMO roleplayers, who must act within the constraints of mechanically and sensorially pre-defined worlds?

After nearly four weeks of anticipation, I finally got my answer last week.

It starts at the 46:38 mark in Episode 6. But I prefer reading to listening, so I have transcribed the first few minutes of Mr. Hood’s response (as best I could – I struggle with foreign accents) here.

That’s a great question. Modern video games have trained us to, I would argue, react more than improvise. I played WoW for years – way too long, in fact – and, fantastic game – so much fun – but there’s nothing I did in that game that no one else had ever done.

And when I play a BioWare game, when I sit down and play Mass Effect, it feels like my Shepard’s choices are mine: I care about what happened to the team, when people die it hurts. That’s a masterfully created story, in-game, that really involves you emotionally – in what happens to the character and characters you control.

But again, there’s nothing I did in that game that other people haven’t done. And there’s nothing I did in that game that the computer didn’t expect me to do. That’s fundamentally the challenge, I think, with most video games.

I actually gave a talk at GDC, about a month ago, on this very topic, and what I said was that, most video games put the computer into the role of the storyteller, and a tremendous amount of technology and art and skill goes into the construction of video games in a way so that that is a convincing storyteller. That you feel like you have control. When the reality is, you wouldn’t (unintelligible).

Because the computer is not able to respond to you. To the full breadth of human creative expression. The computer can only respond to the things it’s been programmed to expect, and when we sit down to play, whether it be WoW, or Mass Effect, or anything, we are translating the full breadth of what our brains can come up with in that moment, we’re translating it into a series of buttons, and clicks, that the computer can anticipate and know what to do with.

And so to me, that’s – it’s kind of the ultimate shell game, in a way. I mean, I don’t mean to be dismissive, right, these are fantastic games, but it doesn’t begin to compare to what happens in a tabletop role-playing game.

‘Cause the person on the other side of that screen, in that case, to kinda beat the metaphor to death, is not a computer. It’s another person. And they can interpret what you say. These completely unexpected, crazy things that come out of a human brain, right, they can do it.

The conversation even touches on open-world games, like Minecraft, where even though you “project your story onto the game”, the computer is “just reacting to you, not trying to tell stories” and so on. It’s an interesting discussion. But it’s not what I had in mind when I posed my question.

Note my phrasing – act within the constraints of mechanically and sensorially pre-defined worlds. Mr. Hood and the Storium Arc hosts tackled the question from the single-player perspective: an individual and his/her interactions with a scripted experience. Not, as I wanted to explore, the perspective of several or many players using a game engine as a platform to create their own experiences.

I wasn’t asking about how to build a stage. I was asking about what the actors do on it.

The point of collaborative fiction writing is that there are no constraints. Writers conjure landscapes, soundscapes, and runescapes out of thin air – limited only by agreed-upon themes and the skill of each conjurer. In an MMO, said scapes are pre-defined. Imagination has a ceiling.

Sure, you can ignore game mechanics like quest plots and character classes. But thanks to the visual nature of MMOs, it’s harder to suspend disbelief at the guy wearing cheap vendor-bought gear who paints himself as this. Or the group roleplaying as enterprising smallfolk and setting up shop in a locale that’s already claimed by hostile NPCs.

I’m aware this shakes a lot of worm-filled cans on what exactly constitutes ‘RP’ as MMO players define it. But those are musings for another time. All I was looking for, here, was a link between a game like Storium and the endangered practice of MMO roleplaying – and I didn’t get it.

Mr. Hood makes a lot of good points in his response to my question, and in his GDC presentation – as can be expected from one at the forefront of the new-age tabletop. But I wonder if he roleplayed during his time in WoW, and if so, what he has to say about the experience – about being handed not just a music sheet, but instruments as well.


7 Responses to “Storium founder Stephen Hood on roleplaying in video games”

  1. I’ve never heard of Storium before! It’s been a long time since I’ve RPed in a group setting online (mostly due to time constraints), but something like this would have been welcome way back when we used to try to organize stuff by email lists or forums. Good to see a system like this out there!

    • Time constraints was actually why I backed Storium. The asynchronous nature of play-by-post better suits my schedule these days, and besides, the quality of some of the storytellers I’ve met there is more than worth the price of admission!

      It’s no joke to say my PC gaming has taken quite the hit since I joined the Storium community. :D

  2. I discovered when making a survey a couple years ago, no matter carefully you think you’ve worded a question, the recipient will always have their own interpretation of your writing. And rarely can you give immediate feedback in those situations.

    I can see if I can make out that unintelligible part, if you’d like. I kind of agree with both you and Mr. Hood. While the PvE game leaves little room for improvisation; you’re right, when playing with other players, you can expand on that. After all, even within collaborative fiction, there are constraints on what you can have your characters do, and what you can introduce into the fictional environment. Unfortunately, perhaps because it is where I pause to look around, most RP (but not all) in MMOs seems to be centered around hanging out in Taverns. Perhaps there is more going on than I see, because I’ve never gotten deeply involved.

    As I commented on my own blog, I personally RP very little while online in MMOs. I don’t think I can type fast enough or well enough off the cuff. I am a much better proofreader. The interaction around a Tabletop RPG is much quicker and more “real,” I think, because people can just say what they want say or do, without worrying about typos. This Storium looks very interesting, too, because the asynchrony means I could develop my part of the story much better.

    • Your experience sounds the same as mine. Open-world RP is dead in most MMOs I’ve been on – you’ll find RP only in taverns (most of which is subpar) and within guilds (most of which is pretty good, but exclusive and/or off the grid).

      Every initiative to get RP going in out-of-the-way areas, even in a community as flourishing as LoTRO’s, flops. I can only recall one instance that was a resounding success (and that I had the privilege to be part of, if only on the fringes due to timezone differences), but it was a one-off.

      It’s documented here if you’re interested:

      There IS indeed more going on than we see, but planning and scripting usually takes precedence over spontaneity and randomness. Which is not a bad thing! It’s just that it’s usually the only thing…

      Look me up (@Syrmaticus) if you do join Storium – would be happy to write with you! And yes, if you know what that unintelligible part was, I’d be much obliged. Someday I hope to be able to articulate like the folks I hear on podcasts.

  3. Sorry I misinterpreted your question! I’ll try again.

    When I said that we hope to get more people to role-play, I was mostly talking about pen-and-paper role-playing games. But role-playing in MMOs is fun, too, and I think Storium can have relevance to those players as well.

    I didn’t do much RP back when I was playing WoW, but I did RP while playing LOTRO and it was a lot of fun. I’m a bit of a Tolkien geek, so it was compelling to be able to meet up with some friends in a beautifully-realized version of Middle Earth and tell our own stories. There’s no question that RP’ing in an MMO can expand the experience beyond what that game’s creators have provided. And even if you can’t set the stage yourself (to use your metaphor), it can still be fun to act on that stage.

    But I also found it frustrating in a couple ways. One was that the world didn’t really *change* as a result of my storytelling. The world didn’t even know my story happened. It wasn’t a part of the fabric of the ongoing “main” story.

    When you play Storium, the story you tell *is* the main story, and the world changes as you play, because it’s your world. This is why I personally believe that the power to set the stage is just as important as the ability to act on it, and I hope this will make Storium interesting to MMO RPers.

    Another frustration I felt while trying to RP on LOTRO was that my story was ephemeral. When it was over, it was lost. I would have had to take extra effort (like recording a video, or writing up a transcript) to preserve it. In contrast, the act of playing Storium automatically creates a permanent, written record of your story. It’s one of the things you get for trading 3D models for written text.

    By the way, I know what you mean when you say that, in MMOs, “imagination has a ceiling.” But I also think there’s a flip-side to that. I believe very strongly that constraints can fuel creativity. There are few things more intimidating than a blank page. Forcing the player (or author) to operate within some constraints can often spur creative expression. Storium has many less constraints than MMOs, but by design they still exist, particularly in the game mechanics that guide the actual storytelling. So I think that someone who likes to RP in MMOs won’t find Storium to be a completely alien place.

    Does that help?

    • It certainly does. After reading your words, I think I see the answer.

      Personally, I’m not sure ‘telling the main story’ and ephemerality matter much to MMO RPers. They’re already accustomed to ignoring the main story because they know they can’t affect it in any meaningful way, and as for chronicling their roleplay, videos aside, there’s always the far simpler option of screenshots and chat logs.

      This is where I think you nailed it – “the world changes as you play, because it’s your world”. A common complaint among MMO RPers is having to grapple with static towns and NPCs, and mechanics like instancing and phasing (“Is your father a ghost, or do you converse with the Almighty?”). All that goes away with the tabletop element, because RPers have total control. The world and every little detail that transpires in it IS what they write!

      But then, there lies the main obstacle I face when recommending Storium to folks who’ve only known MMO RP. Oddly enough, they’re fine with writing dialogue, lengthy emotes, and even backstories and short stories, but when it comes to abandoning the 3D and going full-on plaintext, they go “Whoa. Not my thing.”

      It’s a contradiction I haven’t yet found a way around. Nobody can help it if they just don’t see themselves as writers (a mental block no creativity-fueling constraint can overcome), or if it’s simply gameplay and game engines that draw them above the writing. But, in the event high-quality visuals are the key, Storium’s wonderful art library would certainly help (once it’s live). I’ll keep trying – MMO RPers are too large a crowd to be ignored!

      Thank you very much for stopping by, and taking the time to share your thoughts!

  4. […] the sum of variables, key among which is the player’s own creative senses. To borrow the words of Storium founder Stephen Hood, “the computer is not able to respond to you. To the full […]

Shtay a while, and... talk!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: