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The Armchair Empire is starting a semi-regular feature discussing story telling in games.  Jeff Nash kicks things off with a discussion of Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, and how leaving things up to the player's imagination can make for a great story.


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Storytelling in Games:

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord


Can the best story be little or no story?


For many, storytelling is a very important part of their gaming experience.  A gripping tale needs to be told, adding some context to whatever it is that the player has to do in each stage of a given game.  Whether it’s something like Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, Planescape Torment, or a classic Sierra adventure game, narrative plays a huge role in a lot of games.


That being the case, we plan to start a semi-regular feature, discussing story telling in games at the Armchair Empire.  The topics discussed will be quite broad, and can range from discussing common themes in story telling, to narrative mechanisms, to comparative criticism, and a host of other areas.  Generally these pieces will focus around a specific game or two, and look at them as examples to further our point, and to act as a way of keeping the whole article coherent.  Seeing as this whole thing was my idea, it seems logical that I be the one to kick things off.


Games in the early 1980s were very rudimentary by today’s standards.  It was all about the high score back then.  However, there were small groups of friends huddled in their basements, hammering out the foundations for the computer RPG.  Among these people were Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenburg, who together created the Wizardry series.  The first of these games, Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, proved to be THE game that got me interested in video games.  I have countless memories of wandering the mazes in search of treasure, adventure, and if I was lucky, maybe I would even find the evil wizard, Verdna, who lurked in the very depths of the game’s confounding labyrinth.




To say that there was an actual story in Proving Grounds would be an exaggeration.  At best the game had a premise: find Verdna, kill the bastard, and take his amulet. There was a back story that explained how the Trebor and Verdna hated each other and the realm of Llylgamyn had its own mythology, but these were explained in a very un-pervasive way. Much of this information 


could be plucked from the game's instruction manual, and stumbling across certain sections of the Proving Ground.  It was very simple, and a long ways off from what we may consider a story in a game today.  It wasn't until later in the Wizardry series that story telling really began to take form in-game, especially after David W. Bradley stepped onto the scene.


However, it’s this very lack of a story that has helped make for an amazing narrative in this game.  We as the players were the ones creating the stories as we went.  Players would pick up their jolly, indifferent, or downright mean party of adventurers from Gilgamesh’s tavern, suit up at Boltac’s, and head to the maze.  One could think up all sorts of back-stories for their characters as they were being created in the training grounds, and parts of their personality could be manifested in how the characters perform while in the Proving Grounds.


As players explored the maze, there were no fancy environments with decaying stone walls, ancient statues, dingy cells, and so forth.  We were greeted with a boxy grid on-screen that looked just enough like a corridor to ensure that players maintained their sense of direction.  Meanwhile, players weren’t interrupted by scripted plot points, unlike games today.  There was the occasional point of interest that one could stumble upon, and these things were generally helpful in learning a little more about the Proving Grounds.  However, there wasn’t the sort of hand holding that we see now in a lot of modern games.


Adventures in Proving Grounds came from what the player experienced in the game.  They could talk with their friends about how they barely escaped a swarm of creeping cruds, or how they accidentally got teleported half way across the maze, lost their sense of direction, and barely got back to town alive (a particularly scary proposition in the Apple IIe days where perma-death was a very real possibility).  Players had more of a sense of being directly in control of the experience here.  There wasn’t a game designer’s unseen hand guiding the gameplay in order to make things happen, and tell a story.


In modern narrative games it can feel as though there is an invisible barrier between the player and the game.  At the back of one’s head there’s the thought that we’re being guided on an adventure that is being controlled by a game designer.  He wants us to do things at certain points, and will tell a story as we go.  With Wizardry I, this isn’t the case.  It’s like Woodhead and Greenburg said to the players, “There’s an evil wizard at the bottom of that maze over there.  If he isn’t stopped, he’ll cause all sorts of trouble in town.  Why don’t you rustle up a posse, and go kick his ass,” after which point they patted players on their collective bottom and sent them on their way.  From here on in, we were on our own, and would have to figure out just about everything for ourselves.  Our imaginations helped to temper the experience while playing.  We didn’t worry about narrative cues to tell us what to do, or add context to the game.  We created our own context as we went.


To a degree, this level of freedom makes Proving Grounds feel like a very early form of sandbox gaming.  Players were put in a game world, and given a decent amount of freedom in how they conducted themselves.  Granted players weren’t roaming massive cities, chasing hookers, or learning how to fish, but the freedom found in the early Wizardry games certainly seem like an early, unintentional baby steps to sandbox games.  There was a lot of freedom to explore and make your own fun.


We see this to an extent in a handful of more recent games, like The Elder Scrolls, for instance.  Here players have the main quest ready and waiting, but one can also wander off and find ruins that they might not have ever found if they weren’t suddenly overcome with wanderlust.  In these places players are rarely given much in the way of context other than extremely vague hints as to the significance of the structure and those that inhabit it.  The game leaves it up to us and our imagination to fill in the blanks in this regard.  How we interpret the experience could be way off from what the game’s designers had in mind, or how other gamers look at it, but to each person individually it is extremely fun, and even a personal experience.  Because of how we each interpret the events it becomes our adventure, and the “narrative” that unfolds can strike us far more than any pre-scripted event could.


There are some story-heavy RPGs out there today that are very well written.  However, many of them would probably be twice as good if they were half as long.  With some of these games it feels like quite a few parts of their stories are added as filler simply so that the game can get an extra bullet point on the back of the game box stating “Over 100 hours long!” or some such.  Sometimes less is more.  If it makes sense to have tons of story in the game so be it, but don’t put in a bunch of narrative where it isn’t necessary.  Let a game’s length be dictated by gameplay.  Leaving more of the game world up to the player to interpret, while scaling back on heavy-handed story telling would improve quite a few games.  There are a few RPGs whose stories still stand out to me today, but the adventures that resonate the most with me are the times I spent wandering the Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, or the time I stumbled across some dwarven ruins in Morrowind.  Those times truly felt like they were my adventure and my story, and I wasn’t simply an observer that was being allowed to watch the events unfold.


Maybe it's a bit strange to kick off a semi-regular feature meant to discuss storytelling by talking about how a lack of a story can be a good thing, but it's true.  Sometimes our imaginations can create the best stories of all.


Jeff Nash

February 25, 2007

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