Gamercamp: Dyad’s Shawn McGrath

On Mass Effect, Dark Souls and why traditional storytelling in games is “a worthless endeavour”

Gamercamp - Shawn McGrath
Shawn McGrath (Photo by Wesley Fok)

For his keynote speech at Gamercamp, Shawn McGrath wanted to talk about a lot of things, but he gave the floor to his Twitter followers, who overwhelmingly asked about the technology behind his psychedelic abstract shooter Dyad.

One of the topics that McGrath said he wanted to talk about was how storylines in video games are nonsense – a controversial thesis, considering that many of the discussions at Gamercamp were about elevating narratives in games.

Dork Shelf spoke with McGrath after his talk and it became clear that what was a potentially controversial take was really an outright rebuttal of the belief that traditional narratives had any place in gaming.

Dork Shelf: You mentioned that there were other topics you wanted to talk about, but didn’t get to. You mentioned that linear narratives weren’t your thing. Could you talk about that?

Shawn McGrath: Well, it’s kind of complicated. I’m actually trying to formulate my ideas and I wanted to use this talk as a way to do that, but it didn’t happen. I think linear story and interactive anything are completely diametrically opposed. They make no sense together at all, and any attempt to put storylines in games, in any traditional sense, is completely idiotic.

Mass Effect attempted it, and people praise it. It’s horrible. It’s horrible because the choices that you make are so meaningless and people say, “Oh, but it’s getting to a point where the whole galaxy is going to change based on your decisions,” and I say, no, that’s impossible, that’s an NP-hard problem, that’s a computer science problem where “that problem is not computable.”

So attempting that is a worthless endeavor. Games are really fucking awesome. We can tell stories through entirely interactive ways, with no text.

DS: How so?

SM: Well, Dyad tells a story.

DS: What’s the story of Dyad, then?

SM: I can’t tell you! Because it’s not something that you can put into text. That’s the whole point.

One of the Gamercamp talks was about telling a story so that you see the world from the perspective of the protagonist of the game.Right. That’s ridiculous. That’s what you do in linear storytelling. In interactive storytelling, you are that person. And you are that player. And if you’re trying to tell the story through the eyes of that, you are no longer that player – that is an avatar you’re controlling, which is a layer of disconnect which completely destroys the point of interactive games.

DS: So where do things that we’re normally familiar with like character, themes, setting in a game fit?

SM: They belong in games, absolutely.

DS: What about plot?

SM: Yeah, normal linear cause and effect – A happens, therefore B – does not exist unless B is entirely interactive, and that’s totally possible. But as soon as you start trying to tell a linear story with that, that becomes impossible.


DS: What about branching stories, or stories in a choose-your-own adventure format?

SM: That’s my point, is that it’s impossible to ever get it to be truly “there.” It’s absolutely impossible. It’s an incomputable problem. It is infinitely complex, it cannot be solved – if things get to a large scale, which is what games like Mass Effect are trying to do.

In Mass Effect, you make a couple of choices and some little things change, but they’re pretty meaningless and don’t matter. Some of them are like, “oh, this guy died.” And you’re like, “Aw.” But it’s pretty inconsequential. The Reapers are coming, the bad stuff’s happening, it doesn’t matter. That hasn’t changed. You cannot change that in Mass Effect.

DS: But each storyline or episode has its own thing going on, right? And you could get some significance out of those individual stories. E.g. The Lair of The Shadow Broker has its own arc, even though it doesn’t have anything to do with the final mission.

SM: Right, but this is busy work. I don’t know why they did that, probably to extend the game to get it a higher Metacritic score or something so you can play it for 70 hours instead of 30.

DS: But what can you take from each individual episode or side-quest, then?

SM: Oh, it’s just a waste of time. I’ve read a lot of science fiction. The science fiction in Mass Effect is not something I would consider even passable for a high school paper. It’s horrible. But if you put in a game then it’s praised for being so great. It’s especially so because in the context of video games, stories are fucking awful.

Benjamin River’s Home does it on a very limited, very small scale and it works. It only works, though, because it’s so small. And that game has, like, 15,000 branching pieces of dialogue, and it’s incredibly small. If that was any larger, the amount of dialogue and content that needs to be written goes exponentially higher and it still has an authorial voice, and it’s still contrived because it’s created by someone else and not by the player, therefore I don’t think it has any purpose.


DS: The fact that games are bigger than movies and books these days – as far as the breadth of content – what do you propose to change it, or provide as an alternative?

SM: Oh, I don’t give a shit. That’s a stupid number. It’s a meaningless metric. It means large corporations have made a whole bunch of money. That reflects nothing on the actual art form. Zero.

DS: Well, the fact that they’re making these games are – -

SM: Yeah, they’re crap. Almost across the board. There are some that are good – one of them is Dark Souls.

DS; How so, in the context of story and narrative?

SM: The start of the game where there’s “actually” a story is horrible. But for the rest of the game, you’re in a world that’s very weird and confusing, and there’s a fortress called Sen’s Fortress. I don’t know who Sen is. There’s no character named Sen in the game. The boss at the end of it is just a big iron golem. That exists as a thing in the game that has a title which should be meaningful, but isn’t explained at all. The player figures it out – and by “figures it out” I mean he invents a story.

You can go on Reddit, there’s a really long discussion about what it meant, and it’s traced back to a 14th century Japanese emperor, or not an emperor but a guy who had a castle and his name was Sen. And they’re like, maybe it’s that. And then other people posited very different explanations of what it could be. That’s really interesting – that’s a good story.

DS: So is the story the explanation behind Sen’s Fortress or the dialogue that followed afterward amongst the players?

SM: Maybe, but the story is what happens in your head. Maybe the player’s narrative was, “Oh fuck, I’m in Sen’s Fortress” and that’s the end of it.

At the end of Sen’s Fortress you go to Anor Londo, which is completely different-looking from the other areas in Dark Souls. So Sen’s Fortress is clearly a gate to something. You don’t know what that gateway is, but you can put meaning in there. And really, the story is about putting ideas into people’s heads, right?

It’s superficial to say a story is a sequence of events. A story is a sequence of events that does something, and what it does it put ideas into readers’ heads, or people who are observing the story. Dark Souls does that in a lot of places – Sen’s Fortress and The Painted World are examples; fuck the entire shape of Anor Londo is another example – by using setting and theme and gameplay interactions. It uses all of those things to put ideas in your head the same way that linear text would put ideas in your head, but it uses gameplay to do it. I don’t think it goes particularly far with this idea, but it goes in a direction that I think is substantially more valuable than linear storyline in video games.

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  • http://www.untoldentertainment.com Ryan Henson Creighton

    i did some soul-searching and thought-formulating during Gamercamp as well, and arrived at the conclusion that folks like Shawn who praise “emergent” storytelling are stuffed with crap. No, not “full” of crap – STUFFED with crap, so that you couldn’t cram a single glob of crap into their crap-packed selves if you tried cramming it in there with a cannon rammer. Blog post to follow.

  • MartinB105

    Such arrogance. He asserts his opinions as though they’re facts. They’re not. I’ve played tons of games for their stories during this generation, and I think many of them are very good.

    He almost makes me regret supporting him by buying his game. Almost. I like all kinds of games.

  • Day Zero

    @Ryan: comments on most gaming sites are ‘STUFFED with crap, so that you couldn’t cram a single glob of crap into their crap-packed selves if you tried cramming it in there with a cannon rammer.’ You know, like your comment.

    I think it has to do with people like yourself becoming irrationally angry when someone has a differing POV because it threatens your fragile self esteem. Just a guess tho.

  • DD

    I completely agree with this Shawn guy. Especially the part about Mass Effect being shit and Dark Souls being awesome.

  • http://isntitaaronic.blogspot.ca/ Aaron F

    I disagree with him, but to be fair he does admit at the beginning of the article that he’s still in the process of formulating his thoughts on the topic. Where he probably throws a lot of people off (including me) is that, for someone still working through to a conclusion, he certainly seems pretty sure of himself. Such-and-such is completely “idiotic” or “pointless,” which doesn’t really allow for a lot of middle ground or discussion.

    I’m not a game designer, nor have I studied game theory, so a lot of my opinion is anecdotal, but his stance reminds me of Roger Ebert’s infamous declaration of “video games can never be art”. Both have set-in-stone ideas on what the medium must be. Games have to be X, so they can never be Y.

    Yes, Mass Effect was ultimately a letdown, but in my opinion that was more because of failings on EA’s part, not because their storytelling aesthetics were in any way flawed. The latter would imply that there was no way Mass Effect 3 could have ended well, and I don’t believe that for a second.

    One of the most immersive, gripping experiences I’ve had concerning video game storytelling was in the game Nine hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors for the DS, which is essentially reams of text cut up by escape the room style segments. Recently I’ve started playing TellTale’s The Walking Dead, which employs many of the same storytelling techniques as Mass effect, and it’s been keeping me on the edge of my seat.

    Video games are an incredibly new medium, and erecting limiting dogmas on what games can and can not be seems very short sighted to me. By extension, I appreciate that Shawn is approaching games in his own way, because it allows us to experience a wide variety of game styles and philosophies. For every text heavy game, there’s a Dyad, and that’s fine by me.

  • James Glass

    Wow! This guy is so mind numbingly arrogant. What he’s saying, it’s like if you went back through history and told all the famous realist painters that what they are trying to do is meaningless, because true 100% realism is impossible with paint on canvas, so they should just give up.

  • Andrew Traviss

    My go-to response to the idea that scripted narrative has no place in games is “The Stanley Parable”. It relies in equal parts on its narrative and its interactive nature to make its statement and both aspects bring a lot of value to the table.

  • Joshua DeSimone

    Well here’s one guy who’s games I won’t play(not interested in that load of a game anyways).

    You don’t play a game with a story because you believe you’re going to interact with it. Was there any choice in Final Fantasy, ever? What about King’s Quest or Wuest For Glory on the pc? Dead Space? Lufia? Panzer Dragoon Saga? No? Uh oh, I guess those games are totally useless then because I can’t control the story.

    This guy’s opinion combines two things that aren’t meaningful to one another. He seems to think that, if a game has a story and it *isn’t* interactive then it has no worth. So books have no worth because the story isn’t interactive? Just because you hold a controller and hold a character in an interactive story doesn’t mean you need to be able to control the story. You merely need to be able to control the avatar exploring the story. It has no bearing whether you control the direction of the story or not, you want to know what happens in the world. I’ve been playing RPGs and they’ve been my favorite genre since I was four for this reason. I love books, I love movies, and I love games and it always boils down to my love for story, settings, and characters as well as the themes artists can get across with mere words. Whether or not I can control the direction of it makes as much difference as if I can choose which way Frodo walks to Mordor.

    He completely misses the point and is as arrogant, entitled, and downright blinded as all those who cried out against Bioware to change ME3′s ending. We’ll see where this genius is in ten years.

  • anonymous

    @James Glass: Actually, that’s basically the consensus that artists came to about a hundred years ago. Hence modern art.

  • Pingback: untoldentertainment.com » Wrong McGrath: Why Linear Storytelling in Games Matters()

  • http://www.untoldentertainment.com Ryan Henson Creighton

    As promised, my rebuttal:


    Ball’s in your court, McGrath … if that IS your real name.