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.