Finding The Story: Blurring The Line Between Content Use And Creation

June 27, 2010

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been working on an interactive project that focuses on the line between story consumption and creation, and it’s made me reflect on how games utilise and blur this line.

When we talk about Content Creation (and specifically User-Created Content), we usually refer to the creation of assets for a game, such as models, music and levels. To be more specific, we usually don’t refer to player stories as a type of content that is created, even though it is a massive part of the Content Creation landscape.

Today, I’ll take a look at this landscape, and specifically at the transitions between Content Use and Content Creation. These transitions come in two basic flavours: when the user goes from using content to creating it (the Use-Creation transition) and when the game goes from supporting creations to utilising the creations that users make (the Creation-Use transition).

The most transparent arena in which Content Creation occurs is that of level creation, which therefore seems like a good place to start. Level creation began primarily in the realm of the RTS, with games packaging level editors as separate applications into their installations. This trend of an explicit content creation mode which hooks directly into existing game modes continues with the existence and rise of modding and their surrounding communities. In this content creation mode, the game developers are providing tools for players to explicitly create experiences for other players, which is then delivered either personally or through a system of level sharing.

For some games, such as Little Big Planet, the creation process is as important as the game itself. This type of game elevates the creation process, but is still operating on a similar mode to those mentioned above. The barrier to creation is certainly lessened (particularly from the inclusion of level editors as a part of the main game executable), but it doesn’t traverse these lines completely.

I can’t go all that much further without mentioning Spore, which has to be the most ambitious example of Content Creation out there. The game is all about creating content: whether it be the shape of your creatures, the direction of its society or the design of its buildings and machinery, Spore gives you an unprecedented amount of control over the content you play with.

When we look at Spore, we see that the creation of your society and its creatures is new in two ways: its scope and its distribution. In terms of scope, we see that plenty of games allow you to shape a society (see the Civilisation games), but Spore takes this a step further by allowing a massive variety of creatures with accompanying advantages and disadvantages. In this way, Spore breaks down the transition between use and creation of characters, units, models and stories in the way that games like Civilisation, the Movies and other sandbox games will often do for characters and stories.

The distribution in Spore, however, marks a marked change in the way we look at user generated content. Specifically, the aforementioned units, characters and models are automatically distributed to other players online, to allow them to experience other players’ creations in their game’s galaxy. Spore manages, where many games fail, to completely streamline the entire Use-Creation-Use lifecycle by implicitly making the act of use the act of creation and distribution.

At this point, we come to story. Now obviously, user created stories are both created and transmitted all the time through level and mod creation, which is a process which generally sacrifices the ease of the Use-Creation transition in favour of a simpler Creation-Use transition. When I talk about story in this context, however, I’m not talking about these crafted stories: instead I speak of the stories crafted from the individual players of a game, whether that be a linear first-person shooter or a sandbox empire-building game.

And we hear these stories all the time – remember that time that I sliced that line of a dozen zombies in half in Half-Life 2 with a single saw-blade, only to be ambushed from behind by a fast zombie? Or that time you were able to take out entire countries with your devastating web of spies and assassins in Rome:Total War? We’re aware of the power of games to create very personal stories without any extra effort (the Use-Creation transition), but the Creation-Use transition in this area is seldom made simple. Even the act of recording games generally requires a third-party application, and many players will have to write the narrative of their playthroughs to allow this transition to occur.

Interestingly enough, it seems like RTS’s are somewhat leading the way here, but are doing so for tactical reasons rather than for narrative ones. Many games will now allow for the recording of games, which can then be played back later. I haven’t seen any that then allow for the easy or automatic distribution of such recordings, but I’ll admit that I haven’t looked all that hard.

In any case, I feel that a simple video is not the answer when it comes to recording player stories. A large amount of the story is, quite often, not all that riveting once communicated in its entirety, and so tools to allow the player to easily communicate the most important aspects of their story are needed. In order to blur the transition lines entirely, these tools need to be hidden within the gameplay, perhaps algorithmically generating content that other players can either watch or play through.

The question now becomes not how to make users create content, but how to pick the content that should be utilised and how to take advantage of this content. Do we allow players to play through a world within which another player’s story is progressing? If so, how do we control the interactions this new player might have with the existing story?

We all experience stories within our game playing experiences which transcend those of other mediums, and we often find ourselves wanting to share these experiences with others. Can we streamline this sharing process while capitalising on the creative potential of the stories that players create? And can we find more ways to insert content creation into the general stream of gameplay? These questions, I leave to you.