Proximity Breeds Endearment

Here’s another example of where our brains trick us into enjoying things in spite of ourselves.

I was reading a book of folk tales and I got to the story of The Snow Queen. It is about two innocent children who have adventures and then grow up. It ends this way:

Gerta and Kay went home hand in hand. There they found the grandmother and everything just as it had been, but when they went through the doorway they found they were grown-up.

There were roses on the leads; it was summer, warm, glorious summer.

This struck me as a satisfying ending. Which is odd because, frankly, the story of The Snow Queen is really bad. It is a series of unconnected events filled with randomness and deus-ex-machinas. But it’s quite long compared to most fables in the book.

This reminded me of the uncomfortable truth that TV writers seem to know: the more screen time someone has, the more you’re likely to feel something for the character.

Of course, if the character actively repels you, that’s different. But if they’re just a sponge for the action going on around them, you tend to fill in the blanks for that character and make him real even if the story doesn’t.

This is a critical device in RPGs because RPG stories are usually very poor. I am thinking back to the story of Final Fantasy X. This was not a good story. In fact it is a collection of tired old tropes mixed with gibberish anti-plot events. But at the end, you have a modest sense of satisfaction for a story well told.

Our brains are tricking us! It’s not like I was playing Final Fantasy X to find out what happened next in the story; if I had, I would have quit long ago. Likewise, I’m researching folk tales, not reading purely for pleasure; if I had been, I would have skipped over The Snow Queen after about one page. But because I went on and exposed myself to the story, my brain made the story better than it otherwise was.

This helps explain why Flash RPGs that are mere handfuls of hours long rarely have as satisfying a story as an epic-length adventure. It’s just trickery of the brain, since the Flash RPGs I’ve seen have stories of similar quality to Final Fantasy.

I guess the practical upshot is that if your game has fun mechanics, you can tack on some thin veneer of story and people will find it more compelling than it deserves.

This is hardly a new revelation, but definitely something to keep in mind.

* The Snow Queen from “Wise Women: Folk and Fairy Tales from around the World”, copyright 1990, retold and edited by Suzanne Barchers.

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3 Responses to Proximity Breeds Endearment

  1. Nils says:

    This reminds me of Bioware stories. These, too, are usually very bad. But they are told very well. In contrast to Blizzard, who have not yet managed to employ a good storyteller. The Lich King story was grand. But it was told so miserably, that you really need to be a fanboy to enjoy it.

    When a story is not only great, but is also told skillfully, it can be one of the most enjoyable things in life; no overstatement here. What I love most about stories is when a protagonist is introduced with perfectly understandable principles (e.g.protect my little sister vs. lead the revolution, or pazifist vs. save my dad, ..), and while the story runs its course he finds himself in a situation where those principles induce different actions.
    If told skilfully, you start overheating your brain as a watcher/reader, trying to find a solution for him. This, more than anythings else makes you identify with him.
    But there are many more story telling elements.

    Of course, many game designers will tell you that games are not movies and if you want to make a movie, make a movie. To some extend I agree with that.

  2. Noah says:

    Unfortunately, the ways of storytelling have gone to the wayside with graphical updates as a substitution. To continue your Final Fantasy Example: FF6–awesome story, FF7, 8, 9 all awesome stories; they were all on PSX and were all using the same (generally) graphics technology. Not until the PS2 FFX came out did the stories suddenly dive off a cliff only to leave you wondering what happened to the great inventive stories that these production teams once were marveled for? Look at Final Fantasy Tactics for example, the story is AMAZING, gameplay is AMAZING, graphics are SHITTY. Who cares though? The game is regarded as one of the best RPGs of all time.

    It seems as though developers take graphics as an equal trade for story–it doesn’t and shame on you for thinking it did.

  3. Jeromai says:

    Or is it just the difference between a short story and a novel? The latter has room for extraneous details and window dressing, and the other does not, making the first more unforgiving a structure to waffle around the point?

    I find the key to a good story, besides having all the parts of beginning, middle and end, is change. Change that moves the story forward, to paraphrase Holly Lisle. This tends to screw up stories in MMOs very badly because they rarely have an end, or if they do, nothing story-significant is changed by it.

    Knowing absolutely nothing else about the Snow Queen story, I can see from the blog that it has an end, and the children have changed, leaving a satisfying sense of closure one rarely gets from MMO stories.

    The whole thing about growing more to like a blank slate or cardboard character the longer a time you spend with them, seems to me exactly that, wishful thinking and projecting.

    For example, the protagonist in Guild Wars’ main mission storylines are your own character, but he (or she) is bland and uninteresting, a simple foil for which the story resolves around, he/she is just heroic enough to not feel embarassed being represented by him in a cutscene, period. I was by far more drawn to the colorful NPCs (Asura are classic) that surrounded the protagonist and the irrevocable sense of change and development as one progressed through the story – eg. Gwen and what one finally achieved at the end of Nightfall.