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Saturday, April 25, 2020

How the Internet Made me Love Essays

This will come as a surprise to no one who knows me well or to anyone who regularly reads this blog, but I really like YouTube. It's hard to explain the appeal that a platform with so much diversity of thought is able to offer.

I've found that diversity of opinion and thought is the most important kind; and YouTube offers just that. A (relatively) unfiltered and unmoderated place where amateurs can produce their own content. If you don't like or trust the content, talk shows or news networks produced by mainstream television, you can find countless alternatives on YouTube. Podcasts talking about unique topics or taking unique stands on topics that had previously been unexplored, videos from authors and creators sharing how they create their product or master their skill, shows and machinima made by a handful of hard-working people such as Red vs Blue and RWBY, alternative news outlets like Tim Pool and Louder with Crowder, you name it.

And I love all of it. I love the podcasts, I love the animations, I love the gaming videos and the booktuber discussions and the amateur news anchors. This is probably why I have so many subscriptions--I recently found out that apparently having 407 subscriptions isn't considered a "normal" amount.

Pffft, casuals.

But one observation I made was that out of the literally hundreds of YouTubers I follow, the YouTubers who I get the most hyped for whenever I see they've uploaded a new video are almost exclusively YouTubers who make long video essays.

And this also made me realize that the vast majority of what I write here on this blog is nothing but essays about writing, the Internet, and movies and games and stuff. And most of the blogs I read aren't people talking about their life experiences or travels, but just people writing essays about topics that I like.

If 21-year-old me told 12-year-old me that in the not-so-distant future I would be writing, reading, and watching essays outside of school for fun, I would have slapped the shit out of me. But I couldn't proceed to slap the shit out of me back because then that would be child abuse.

Yet why do people like myself and the millions of others who watch these videos (I mean they have to get a million views from somewhere) like watching and hearing these essays now, in 2020? (Or whatever year it is to you, future people.)

There are a couple of common denominators I can find in the type of people who consume this sort of content.

They're usually an older Gen Z or younger Millenial, between the ages of 19 and 35 in most cases, usually someone who grew up with Internet culture in some way (for the older people it might be the early days of Runescape or WoW), and are usually creative people themselves, whether it be music, screenplay, et cetera.

I can't say this is the case for most of these people, but looking back I can see my own taste for video essays growing right around the time I graduated high school, probably around 19.

It might be safe to say that one reason why people right out of high school or college are likely targets for the video essay community is because public education does a bad job of making students like essays. In fact it's the exact opposite, school conditions students to hate essays.

The majority of young students and adults in high school and college have been conditioned over years to associate essays with boredom, making it a chore.

Yet there's no inherent quality in an essay that says it has to be a chore; an essay is merely and broadly defined as a written (or narrated) discussion on a topic. That's about as versatile as a definition can get without spreading so thin that it breaks. The only distinction between a podcast and a video essay is that a podcast has multiple people talking about a topic and is usually filmed with some room from improv, while a video essay is written and narrated by a single person, usually over footage that they've spliced together themselves or hired someone else to do.

The other thing is that this diversity of thought and content applies to even the much more niche video-essay community and not just YouTube as a platform. Within the small video-essay sub-community you can find an absolutely mind-blowing variety of topics and personalities.

Even just in the ones I follow there's a massive disparity between the types of content produced by each creator.

EmpLemon for example covers some pretty bizarre and specific topics that I wouldn't find anywhere else; there is no mainstream education or news source that will teach the viewer about copyright extortion on YouTube, or how Spongebob became Viacom's most profitable piece of intellectual property. You definitely wouldn't learn about that time a hacker turned millions of YouTube thumbnails into an anime goat in public school.

Quinn Curio is the only creator I can think of who would make an hour-long video essay about the rise of a community of critics in a small YouTube sub-community who bully children.

Razbuten is the only creator I know who would make his spouse play video games for the first time in her life just so he can take notes about her experience and make a video essay breaking down what gaming is like for someone who isn't fluent in game-language.

There's plenty of videos talking about why The Last Jedi was steaming garbage, but The Closer Look is the only content creator to my knowledge who would break down bathos and how TLJ's use of bathos undermined its plot.

The Authentic Observer was the first content creator to make videos that, instead of swooning over her incestuous supernatural "romance," actually criticized Cassandra Clare's writing.

And I'd be lying if I said I didn't lactate a little when I discovered this YouTuber named Joseph Anderson, who happens to be a fantasy writer who makes extremely long video essays analyzing dozens of games.

^Me seeing a four-hour-long video by another writer about my favorite game's lore:

Obviously I wouldn't sit down for literally four hours straight, rather these long essays tend to have timestamped "chapters" so that the viewer can watch one chapter a day or something like that and basically enjoy the content at their own pace. A lot of people might be turned off by seeing such a long runtime but I see that and think, "Sweet, more content!"

It reminds me of something I see girls who try to get into gaming say. Most women aren't really into gaming, but a lot of them have at least some experience with video games, whether it be playing the Wii with their family, playing Overwatch with their boyfriend or oldschool Runescape with their husbands, or just playing the Sims or NintenDogs on the DS. One thing I've noticed is that the one thing that keeps these women from being more interested in gaming is the barrier of entry; they see a game like the Witcher 3 that's several hundred square miles and has all sorts of gamey mechanics and they're immediately intimidated by the massive quantities of information and content thrown their way.

Yet that's the very thing that makes these "big" open world games so good--the fact that not only is it of quality, but also in great quantity.

I'll admit I'm a bit hypocritical for saying this because I've done the very same thing with TV shows, especially anime. I never watched One Piece despite the glowing recommendations because I saw the runtime.

Although maybe I shouldn't be.

That being said bigger isn't always better--a show might start off good and then overstay its welcome (Spongebob and Simpsons, I'm looking at you), but generally with video essays it's the opposite.

With television if a show is profitable (like Spongebob which makes up 5% of Viacom's total revenue just in merchandise), they'll keep making new episodes and airing them no matter how much the quality suffers because they want to squeeze as much money out of the IP as physically possible.

With video essays however, it's precisely the opposite. The creator who is writing a massive script, narrating / voice acting over it, and editing the entire video themselves is incentivized to make the video as short and precise as possible. If they rely on Patreon donations, they don't get extra money by making videos longer, and because making these video essays is extremely time-consuming and difficult to do alone, they make them as short as they can. Brevity is their friend.

Yet that begs the question, why would someone like Joseph Anderson make essays longer than an hour regularly if they're incentivized to make videos as short as possible?

Simply put, there's no filler, just a lot of content.

Take that ungodly-dense 4-hour Witcher video for example. Having watched the entire thing, I can safely say it could have been much, much longer. It just so happens that the Witcher games and narrative--especially the Witcher 3--are so massive that there really is hours of content that could be made breaking it down. In Quinn Curio's video essay about criticism, it doesn't feel like anything she's talking about is at all filler. In fact everything she brings up feels relevant. To take it a step further I'd argue each of her talking points is an integral part of a cohesive whole, and that just removing one of those talking points would make several of the others nonsensical. It feels the same way on a bigger scale with Joseph Anderson's Witcher video(s).

Of course video essays don't have to be long and bigger is not always better; that one by EmpLemon about the hacker who changed video thumbnails to a picture of a pink anime goat is only 12 minutes long. Yet because I know EmpLemon doesn't rely on filler, whenever I see him upload a longer video ( >30 minutes) I know it's just more good content and not something like the Simpsons Season 31.

Simpson predictions never fail.
I guess what I mean to say is that video essays of all lengths are good as long as the content is there to justify its runtime. The same applies to short video essays as well; YouTube has a system in place where only videos longer than 10 minutes get monetized (the ability for the YouTuber to run ads on a video and make any profit from it), so lots of YouTubers who previously made 5-minute videos are now relying heavily on filler by making 10-minute videos that are 50% filler just to pad out that runtime to 10 minutes, because if they don't their video won't get promoted by YouTube. And that fucking sucks because it means half of the content they produce is filler, and because we can't really blame them for doing this since it's the only way YouTubers can continue to survive.

That being said, the main problem with essays is school is that they're usually a generic topic that the student doesn't care about. It turns out a lot of people like learning about stuff if it appeals to their specific taste.

This is also a problem with reading, a huge one. I love reading outside of school, but hate every single book I've ever been forced to read in school. The only story I can think of that I actually liked was the short story The Most Dangerous Game, and any other time I did slightly enjoy a book assigned at school was when I broke the rules and read it at my own pace.

I've always had a disdain that's hard to describe for classes that punish students for reading ahead. If a student reads ahead, it means that they're actually genuinely enjoying the book, and you're taking away that pleasure by telling them they aren't allowed to read ahead and have to go back to chapter two where the rest of the class is since the students who hate reading get priority over those who do. Not only will this drag down the few students who do like the reading material they're given, but the students who don't want to read it still won't like reading, so all that this accomplishes is making everyone equally miserable.

The fastest way to equality is to bring everybody to the bottom.

To be quite frank, the State doesn't know what I want to read, and it doesn't know what you want to read, or what your kids or grand-kids will want to read. And some of their out-of-touch attempts are really questionable.

One that I could never get my head around is who on Earth thought making teenagers read The Catcher in the Rye was a good idea. For the people fortunate enough to have never been forced to read this crap, allow me to inform--the Catcher in the Rye is about a moody 14-year-old who smokes cigarettes, cusses out every adult he doesn't like, and acts real edgy and sulky.

To the vast majority of kids who read this story, they just saw it as an annoying kid whining about how much he hates his life for 300 pages, and the few kids who liked this story probably idolized the main character and decided they wanted to be edgy teenagers who cuss at adults and smoke too.


Take my word for it when I say high school has enough cringy, "edgy" and moody 14-year-olds as it is, we don't need more.

You know, I can't help but wonder if there's a correlation between the schools that have The Catcher in the Rye as a reading requirement and the number of students who either hate reading or act edgy and moody. Somebody get on that, I need answers.

And the thing is, that there are some objectively good and historically important books made mandatory in common core. But they definitely won't be to everyone's liking.

To Kill a Mockingbird is praised as one of the best books ever written historically, and is socially relevant today as a marker in social justice, prejudice, and equality. The prose is excellent as well, there is no disputing that the writing is top-notch and dripping with quality.

And I wanted to blow my brains out every second I was forced to read it.

It doesn't matter how good a book is if it's read by the wrong audience. Most 14-year-olds don't care about civil right movements that happened decades before they were born--they want something that's relevant to them.

And, you know, I really enjoy some of that sort of stuff today--one movie I really like is Twelve Angry Men, which has a lot of similarities in themes of justice and corruption as To Catch a Mockingbird, so if I read To Catch a Mockingbird again today I would probably love it, but I already loathe the thought of reading it because in high school every moment I was forced to read it felt like torture.

That being said there were some students who liked the book when we read it, but most young students don't give two shits about that type of stuff. That's why even genuinely good books like Huck Finn will make students hate both them and reading as a whole when the State makes them mandatory. And the time spend reading these books takes away time to read books they actually do like. In my first college English course, we had to read some obscure book written by some Indian guy in the 80s, and it was so excruciatingly boring that it made me question how much will to live I really possess, and at the time the book wasn't one we read in class, but rather one we had to read at home in our free time. I was reading the Dark Tower series and really wanted to find out how Roland's story ends, but I didn't have any energy left in me to keep reading anything I actually liked since multiple classes of mine were making me read books that I didn't care about.

Not to mention this is all rote learning; I don't remember a single thing from any book I was forced to read in college. I can't even tell you the names of the books or list a single character. I just wanted to get a good grade so all I did was scribble down enough notes about each chapter to pretend I knew what the book was about, followed by loosely plagiarizing Sparknotes and rewording it to make it sound like I was the one who came up with it.

You wanna know what all the other students in my classes were doing?

The same exact thing.

Now apply this same arduous process to essays and writing assignments.

The thing to realize here is that there aren't just people reading and watching essays online, but people writing them. It's not only surprising that hundreds of thousands of people were willing to watch a 4-hour-long video essay about a video game franchise, but that someone spent countless hours writing, researching, narrating, and editing that super long video... for fun!

Just because they wanted to, and for no other reason.

You could try to argue that a YouTuber who monetizes their videos or gets donations through Patreon isn't actually doing it "for fun," but I disagree. If that were the case, there wouldn't be any hour-long video essays. All videos would be in that nice, cozy 10-minute range. Anything more than that is the creator going above and beyond to create more content free of charge.

The other thing is that YouTube is a bad career choice. If someone's main goal was money, choosing to become a full-time YouTuber of all things is one of the stupidest career moves a person can make. It's about as reliable as a knitted condom. Same goes for writing--obviously we hope to break even and hopefully make a profit when we publish something, but if we just wanted money we would have chosen a career that was much more stable and higher-paying than writing. Even experienced writers don't get paid well.

So it should be abundantly clear that individuals making documentary-length essays for fun and uploading them to the Internet for people to watch for free are doing it because they want to and not because they assume they'll get buttloads of cash in donations.

Because relying on the generosity of the Internet to pay your bills is always a reliable option, amirite?

While this certainly doesn't apply to everyone, the fact of the matter is that lots of people will write and consume essays if it's a discussion that interests them.

The brilliance of this is how unbridled it is--a college student who starts a YouTube channel and decides to start making video essays for fun has complete agency and control over the final product.

No rules, no MLA format, no minimum length requirement or maximum length restriction, no having to research and write about a topic they don't give two shits about--just whatever they want.

(I'm still salty about this one time in a college health class when we had a group power-point project and got to choose any health topic of our choosing. I had the idea to make it about coffee, since the medical community is completely divided and some say coffee is damaging to your nervous system while others say it improves cardiovascular health and focus. And then one of my group members hijacked the whole thing and changed the topic to Bariatric Surgery, which is the most boring and dry topic I can imagine.)

And that is beautiful. The Internet made this a possibility; by exposing people to the world of video essays and essay blogs, it made it possible for people to express their creativity and insight without the restrictions imposed by another person.

People are actually willing to spend weeks working on researching and writing a video essay script just because they want to. The mere fact that anyone would do what sounds like countless hours of voluntary homework for fun highlights the tremendous movement the Internet is making towards making essays a fun and creative outlet for both creators and viewers alike. It's beneficial to the creator who gets to start discussions about things they actually care about, and it's beneficial to the viewers who get to learn things that they would never learn anywhere else. No one in school has ever been taught about that time a hacker changed YouTube video thumbnails into a pink anime goat, or about how Dead Space makes the player feel weak by giving them power and abilities that aren't nearly as useful as they seem to be.

Each of these creators has a clear and lively voice about a topic that only they can do justice. Sure there are the "generic" essay YouTubers who just cover trendy and popular topics, but the good ones--the ones that bring up things no one else ever has or take a stand that no one else has considered before--those are the channels that rise to the top as the most notable and respected. Not always the most popular, but the most influential.

EmpLemon is a relatively big channel, but not more popular than some of his generic counterparts--but when on the topic of YouTube history, people go to Internet Historian and EmpLemon, not one of the generic counterparts. He might not have more subscribers than everyone, but he has a bigger voice.

I'd say The Act Man has the same size voice in gaming and The Closer Look does in screenplay.

I see a lot of people admit defeat in the arts because they bemoan, "Everything has been done before," but I call bullshit.

I'd say the reason why so many people think that is because they themselves haven't been exposed to many new and original pieces of content. But one thing that's been made abundantly clear to me after watching God-knows-how-many hours of video essays on YouTube is that there is a lot of unexplored territory. There are so many things I didn't know existed that I wouldn't have had these essays not brought them to my attention.

This also ties into my post about Obscure Stories, but despite the millions of books written and movies produced, we've only scratched the surface of what's possible.

Take something like Bioshock, a game that's set in the post-apocalyptic ruins of a flooding underwater city, or a book like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which is about a modern man going back in time to the 500s and finding out that everyone in the famous King Arthur stories was a con artist, and "Merlin" was nothing but a common stage magician. He then proceeds to invent electricity and make them think he's a vengeful god.

I can think of many examples of stunningly original IPs that were created even recently; you just have to know where to find them. Not only are there still completely new and original concepts that haven't even been touched, but the ones that have haven't been fully explored.

People that have only scratched the surface of creativity and lived their whole lives on that surface will naturally assume that's all there is.

An ant who spends its whole lifetime in one person's backyard will never be able to imagine the greater world outside of that yard, and because we tend to be bombarded with what's the most popular, and what's the most popular is usually somewhat generic, it's easy to come to the conclusion that there are no more new and original ideas and that it's impossible to come up with an original thought or story.

But this simply isn't true and can be proven with what already exists.

The existence of essays on the Internet demonstrate the incentive to learn about new unexplored topics, either by creating a written or video essay about it yourself or enjoying what another denizen of the Internet labored to create for you.

In a way I found a creativity-home in online video essays despite the public school system's best efforts to make me hate essays.

That's all I've got for you today, hope it was worth the read, I started writing this in the early afternoon and now it's 8 o'clock so I think I'ma call it here and go play Bioshock. But real quick before I go, here's a nice, short little video essay to get you peeps hooked. I'm not going to tel you who made it or what it's about, you'll just have to find out for yourself. I'm a video essay drug dealer and this is a little sample. Enjoy.

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

On Writing Main Stories in Video Games

This post was largely inspired by a video by Razbuten where he talks about why he doesn't find it easy to roleplay in games marketed as "roleplaying" games. I'll link it below:

Razbuten on Roleplaying Games

Although the focus of this blog post will be something entirely different, talking instead about main story-lines, primarily in open-world games.

Game developers and writers are faced with a tremendous and seemingly insurmountable task; how do you give complete control and agency to the player, while simultaneously making a coherent story that makes sense?

Writing a novel or short-story is daunting in and of itself, but one thing that us fiction writers don't have to worry about is the choices the reader makes. If books were an interactive medium where the reader got to affect the outcome of the story, that would make our jobs infinitely more complex than it already is.

Yet with video games, open world games in particular, that's the very task the writers are given. How do you make a story that is original, entertaining, thought-provoking, fun to play, and makes sense no matter what the player does?

I'll be listing the six main ways in which writers and game developers best pull it off, both with open world games and non-open world ones.

However, out of these six I really only recommend five. The first one is much more tried and overdone.

1. The Cinematic

The cinematic game is the easiest to make but also the least rewarding. The cinematic game is essentially a movie with a couple of tightly-controlled moments where the player actually has any control. These are usually story moments--long strings of expository cut-scenes--with moments of combat and boss fights in between cut-scenes.

Just to be clear you can make a good game this way. The Uncharted games and the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy both do this by also adding in platforming and puzzles. In my opinion, Uncharted has a better story while Tomb Raider has better puzzles and gameplay, but that's just my take.

Yet the problem with making games this way is that it stuffs both the creators and players in a box. The creators don't get to explore different alternate endings, branching story-lines and interviewing narratives in the same way the other five styles do.

Not to mention, many other bloggers and game journalists have already noticed that most new AAA titles are starting to feel more like movies than video games, and that's purely because they've taken interactivity out of the equation. Again, with some games it works really well; like with the Hitman games. Since in the Hitman games you roleplay as Agent 47, the focus is on the narrative of the story surrounding him and the ways you choose to handle threats. Who do you kill? Who do you let live? How do you kill them? The focus is largely on the gameplay and stealth mechanics, but there were some instances like with Hitman Absolution where the narrative was quite potent. Yes the game was linear, but the story surrounding the character you're playing as is full of intrigue. The gaming market is currently over-saturated with this style of game, since it's easier to mass-produce games quickly this way. Most games of the current generation are going to be limited to online PvP games or single player "cinematics," where the game is basically just a movie with some combat in between cut scenes.

Which leads me to the next game type, and the most rare:

2. The Shockingly Interactive

The shockingly interactive game is the exact opposite of the cinematic, where you not only have lots of agency and control, but it seems like any tiny thing you do has some effect. I can only think of a very small handful of games that pull this off.

The Stanley Parable does this by having a really small world.

In the Stanley Parable, you only have an office building to explore, but every tiny thing you do in the office does something. Touching a computer does something, clicking on a door a few times does something, listening to the narrator does something, ignoring the narrator does something, hopping on a desk does something, going through a door does something, not going through a door does something--I can go on.

Razbuten did a video talking about what it's like for a non-gamer to play video games, and one thing he noted was that his wife was always frustrated by her lack of control. The games always had some place or some thing that they wanted her to do, and she was frustrated that she couldn't do anything she wanted since a lot of the stuff she wanted to do was cooler in her head than the things the game enabled her to actually do.

However, the Stanley Parable gets away with letting you do a shit-ton of random stuff that you didn't think you could, purely because its world is so small that they were able to focus all of their efforts on letting you do almost anything you can think of in that limited space.

In a game like Uncharted or Skyrim, that wouldn't work. If the writers and developers tried to make the story work for every possible choice imaginable that the player might want to make, the game would never get finished. There are too many possibilities.

Yet in the Stanley Parable that's precisely what the developers at Crows Crows Crows did. I first realized that the game was shockingly interactive when I encountered a lift that went across the warehouse.

Once you step on this lift, it starts to move and it will raise you up and carry you across to the room on the other side of the gap.

However, this little lift has several branching story-lines attached to it.

In most games, a mechanic like this would have two outcomes; either you take the lift or you don't. Yet in the Stanley Parable, there's several other ways this can play out.

One thing you can do is get on the lift, spot the walkway off to the side, and jump off to land on the walkway. If you do this it leads to a completely different ending.

I was personally surprised by getting the lift to leave without me. Since the lift starts to move as soon as you step on it, I thought I could outsmart the game by stepping on the lift and then stepping off so that it would leave without me, but the writers thought about that too. if you do that, you'll be stranded on the side of the platform, since the lift was the only way off, and the narrator will say:

And then you jump to your death and it's all very tragic.

You can also jump to your death right from the get-go if you feel like it. Also if you jump from the lift too many times, the narrator will put a fence around the lift to trap you in so that you can't jump again, in response to your jumping from it.

Yet because of the rarity of this type of game, I'm hard-pressed to think up any other examples, although I suppose Portal is sort of in the same basket.

3. The Metroidvania

For the uninitiated, Metroidvania is a genre coined from the Metroid and Castlevania games.

The most puritan interpretation of the word defines a Metroidvania as a 2D non-linear exploration game, but I'd classify Dark Souls as a Metroidvania, at least as a 3D one.

More specifically, a Metroidvania is a game where the player has complete agency of where they go and what they do in what order, but certain things act as "locks" to progress. It could be a door that you need a key to unlock, or an object that you need in order to survive a certain area, or it can just be really difficult enemies or bosses that low-level players won't be able to kill without certain items and upgrades first.

In Dark Souls, this is everywhere. Locked doors that you need a key to open, bosses that drop objects that unlock new areas, rings that enable you access to a region, etc.

For example, in the game you die instantly if you try to enter the Abyss without a ring. However the ring is guarded by the giant wolf Sif, so in order to traverse the Abyss you need to kill Sif first.

Likewise, while you can beat the game with only 10 Estus flasks (health potions), some areas are basically impossible without at least 15 - 20, meaning that players are encouraged by the game mechanics to kill a "boss" (boss.... good one!) called Pinwheel to get an object called the "Rite of Kindling," which allows them to create up to 20 Estus flasks.

So while some areas aren't actually "locked" off, they're blocked by a difficulty barrier, where you can only get through them if either:

A: You get certain upgrades to equipment and stats (things like the Rite of Kindling)


B: You've already played through and beaten the game a bazillion times and have trivialized it enough to beat the game just fine at a low level. There are people who have beaten Dark Souls quickly at Level 1, so it is possible, just not plausible for new players experiencing it for the first time.

Another example of a modern Metroidvania is Hollow Knight.

In Hollow Knight there are so many different ways to get around that it yields thousands if not millions of possibilities.

Some areas can't be accessed on foot and require some other way to get to them.

Maybe you get the wings and fly there, maybe you combine the leap ability with wall jumping to propell yourself backwards, bypassing the wings--maybe there's a locked door that can be opened with the right key, maybe there's a lift somewhere that will take you to the area. Like Dark Souls, Hollow Knight offers multiple ways to access areas.

This means that there are essentially countless possible ways to make progress through the game; it means that not everyone will progress through the game the same way.

With Dark Souls, some people might have done the Depths before Darkroot Garden, others might have done the Catacombs before even getting to Undead Burg, and there are multiple lifts, ladders, and locked doors with keys that can access different areas. How one person progresses through the game isn't how another does, and there are endless possibilities.

The key to making a good Metroidvania is offering tons of alternative ways to get to places and accomplish things, but make it so that each one progresses the game in some way.

That way, no two players will progress through the game the same way, but every player will be making progress in some way.

With the old Metroid games, that wasn't entirely the case; in fact there were things called "Hard locks," which is where you can't progress at all in any way without doing X or accomplishing Y. However a good Metroidvania is one that offers multiple ways to make progress through the game.

Take a look at this map in Rise of the Tomb Raider:

Not every area in Rise of the Tomb Raider is this linear, but it's a good summary of these types of games. You have a little bit of room to explore, but you essentially just start on one side of the map and make your way to the other.

However, with a Metroidvania, the maps loop, interweave, and connect in all sorts of ways, almost in a maze-like way. Here's the Hollow Knight map for comparison:

As you can see, it's much more elaborate and complex, and this is because there are countless ways and numerous routes to progress through the game, so that the player can proceed however they want.

The same goes for the Dark Souls map, which looks similar to the Hollow Knight map at a glance, except it's 3D instead of 2D, and is very vertical.

With Metroidvania games, the only effective way to tell a good story is by utilizing environmental story-telling, where the world itself reveals what's going on and what the lore is.

There can be a main narrative too, but without environmental story-telling it will be impossible to link the player's experiences and decisions to the story being told.

Metoridvanias are quite rare these days but they aren't as hard to come across as styles like the "Shockingly Interactive" game type of which, to my knowledge, only the Stanley Parable epitomizes.

4. The Blank Open World RPG

This is usually what comes to mind when people think of RPGs. This is a game where there is no main character, rather you create your own character--usually with your own backstory and stats--and then roleplay as that character. These are most famously found in open world Bethesda and Obsidian games.

In games like The Outer Worlds and Skyrim, you get to create your own character, choose their race, gender, height, name, and in a good RPG, their backstory. In The Outer Worlds you get to choose the profession of your character and their personality type. Maybe they were a doctor or a medic, maybe they were an engineer or a lowly janitor. Maybe they grew up with a rich family or in poverty. You get to decide.

Based on my experiences with Bethesda and Obsidian games, I can safely say that the best way to write a story for these types of games is to make hard decisions that have a big impact.

In the Outer Worlds it's possible to fuck up so bad that you launch a space colony into the fucking sun, killing everyone, and in Fallout New Vegas you can choose from a whole bunch of different factions and side with whoever you want. You can join the NCR, essentially being a military man (or woman), you can join the Legion and be an evil dictator with an army of slaves, or you can join Mr House and lead an army of robots.

The key to writing these types of games is to not actually have a "main" story. Well, they might have a main story, but the main story is actually just an excuse to expose the player to the side quests where the game is actually at.

We see this the most evident with games like Fallout 3. Nobody actually wants to finish the main story and end the game, they just want to play around with their character in the wasteland doing as many activities as they can before putting the game down.

Most of these open world RPG games don't have a very interesting main story. And that's kind of inevitable.

In a game like Skyrim where you can create your own character and do whatever the fuck you want, how do you make a story that will make sense for everyone? By making it as generic and cookie-cutter as possible.

Skyrim and Fallout 4 have generic main stories because they don't know what your character will be like. They don't know if the character you choose to create is good or evil, tall or short, male or female, or if they're even human in Skyrim's case. How are they supposed to make a story that makes sense in every possible context?

It's an insuperable task.

So instead they make up the most generic main quest possible, say "You're the chosen one, slay the big bad dragon and win the game," and that's it. With Fallout 4 it's finding your son and that's the only force behind the main story-line.

But what does that mean? That making a good storyline for an open-world RPG is impossible?

Well, no. It just means the writers have to adopt the right point of view.

Instead of making one main storyline like Skyrim or Fallout 4, there should be one main storyline that branches into multiple "main stories."

The main story should only be the start of the game, and it should change depending on the player's actions.

In Fallout New Vegas, the main story is simply, "Someone shot you in the head to steal a valuable item from you," and then from there you can proceed however you please. You can try to track down the chip for yourself and kill Benny, you can seduce Benny, you can forget all about it and let Benny keep the chip, you can steal it, you can retrieve it for yourself or for your faction leader, should you choose one--the choice is yours. New Vegas and the Outer Worlds--both Obsidian games mind you--work because the main story is only the start of the game, and then it branches into multiple possible paths depending on your actions and decisions.

While this isn't necessarily a requirement, one good way to implement this is to have each "faction" or side that you can work with embody one specific ideology.

The Brotherhood of Steel operates under the idea of preventing dangerous technology from falling into the wrong hands.

The NCR operates under the assumption that they're the saviors of the wasteland and it's their duty to save everyone from poverty and corruption.

The Legion operates under the philosophy that only the strongest deserve to survive and reproduce, and that he with the most might should conquer what he can, and Mr House operates under the philosophy of a neutral, capitalist society being the optimal outcome for the wasteland.

This can also make it so that there is no "good" and "bad" ending per se, but rather a menagerie of different endings that are usually bittersweet in some way. This also encourages replayability; it makes the player want to come back for a second, third and fourth playthrough to experience each of the different possible story-lines. As much as I liked Fallout 3, there's not much nuance to the endings, as it's basically, "Do I get the good-guy ending or the bad-guy ending?" whereas in New Vegas and The Outer Worlds there are several branching endings that aren't purely good or purely bad.

In my opinion, this is the optimal way to write "blank" open world RPGs. Make them dripping with personality and have multiple "main" stories that the players can pick and choose from, along with side quests, so that they can experience the game in countless different ways since there will be countless possibilities. The exploration and gameplay won't be non-linear in the same way as that of a Metroidvania such as Dark Souls, but the narrative will be. And that's the key focus here; New Vegas and Outer Worlds are almost like narrative Metroidvanias, where the narratives and stories can be changed and affected by the different choices the player makes and in the order that they're made in.

Writing these types of stories isn't easy, but it's completely doable and Obsidian has proven that it can be completely worth the team of writers if done well. The thing to note with these games is that they either aren't that big of an open world or they're a semi-open world.

The world of Fallout New Vegas is tiny compared to GTA V, Breath of the Wild or The Witcher 3. Whereas these games are more than 100 square miles, Fallout New Vegas is only about 2. However the map doesn't have to be that big if it's dense. Just like how the Stanley Parable offers more than 3 hours of gameplay in a little office, New Vegas can easily offer more than 40 hours of content in a relatively small map that's only a couple miles large.

The Outer Worlds isn't even completely open like New Vegas is; instead it has open world "zones" and you travel between them with your ship, and all of them combined are probably around the size of New Vegas or Fallout 3. Yet because there are so many different ways to play through the numerous stories, these games can be replayed multiple times and still be fun each time.

*oinks softly*
 5. The Semi-linear Explorable World

I'm not actually sure what to call this one but I think that's as good as I can get. These are games with linear stories but lots of room to explore, like Dead Space and Bioshock. These games are just as much story-driven as they are gameplay driven; in Bioshock it's finding out what happened to Rapture and in Dead Space it's finding out what happened to the survivors on the ship. These games don't have massive open worlds but they aren't completely linear either; Bioshock let's you explore an underwater city while Dead Space has you exploring a large space ship. These areas are dense with content, story and combat. There isn't some huge set of branching stories like in Obsidian games or Mass Effect, and you don't create a character with their own stats and backstory rather you roleplay as one specific person.

Bioshock has you roleplaying as "Jack," and Dead Space has you roleplaying as Isaac Clarke.

In many ways I'd say Metro Exodus fits most snugly in this category, although the larger open world areas make it not a perfect fit. Yet at the very least Metro Exodus captures the spirit of this category and does it brilliantly (just like Bioshock and Dead Space which are both masterpieces).

However while I don't want to say that Metro Exodus is necessarily better than say, Bioshock, it's easier to explain how it works so I'll be using Metro Exodus as my example (I really love Bioshock too please don't come after me with pitchforks).

What would you say the biggest difference between a car and a train is?

The size? The speed? The fact that one drives on tires and the other on steel discs?

It's clearly that one can drive anywhere with road and the other is on a fixed track. A car can go left, right, forward or back in any combination of the driver's choosing, and because roads are effectively everywhere where people exist, they can drive almost anywhere.

However a train is on a fixed track--it can only go forward or back on said track. Sometimes a track can branch onto another track, but once on that other track it's the same situation.

This metaphor can explain the difference between non-linear games and linear ones, but it's also used literally in Metro Exodus.

In the previous Metro games, you explored underground tunnels during the aftermath of a nuclear war.

However in Metro Exodus, you and a team of skilled Marine-like soldiers get a train up and running and flee the metro station, plowing ahead on the train to find out if there's any other survivors or civilization in the outside world.

The train takes you to an area, you explore that area, then the train takes you to a new one.

The story is linear in this way; when the train breaks down or runs out of fuel, you have to go out into the dangerous wasteland and find a way to fix the problem so that you and your wife and comrades can continue on your journey.

And once everything is settled in one area, you get back on the train and head to the next one. The winter area called "Volga" and the desert area called the "Caspian Sea" are the two main large "open world" areas you'll be exploring, but once you leave one area behind there's no going back. The train will continue forward into the next area after you're done in the current one or solve whatever problem needs to be solved.

And there's a lot of story going on in each area or "zone." In the cold Volga, your wife almost dies, religious freaks worship a giant fish that they feed bodies to, and they'll kill anyone on sight that they see using modern technology (you). You can rescue a missing engineer and find a little girl's lost teddy. You can save merchants who were kidnapped by bandits and explore every nook and cranny of the world for supplies. In the dry Caspian Sea area, there's a local warlord that you can help take out with force in order to get the support and aid of the locals. There's also cannibals somewhere along the line that you might cross by accident, but that's neither here nor there.

You also get Best Girl™ Anna which contributes to the story in leaps and bounds which has nothing to do with what I'm talking about but would be a sin to exclude.

I think Metro Exodus captures this sort of style so well by getting as much story out of the train as possible.

If the train runs out of fuel or runs into an obstacle of some sort, any "progress" (i.e., the train reaching its destination) is halted until the train can get up and running again, and just like how linear story-telling tells a story from A to B, the train can only go wherever the tracks take it, and by extension, wherever the tracks take you and your family.

But the brilliant thing about the train is that it gives the player a tangible, grounded feeling. Whereas a lot of linear games can feel gimmicky, as if the player is at the mercy of an invisible, omnipotent game developer choosing what happens to them and when, with Metro Exodus it feels like you're at the mercy of the train and whether or not you can keep it going. It acts as a catalyst for that invisible, omnipotent writer to control how the story goes. If they want the player to experience things in a certain order, all they have to do is have the train tracks encounter those things in that order.

In many ways, the omnipotent writers behind the scenes get to tell their story vicariously through the train, and I think it's one of the most brilliant ways any linear action game has been executed.

Moving on, the last major way of telling a main story or narrative in a video game is:

6. Large open-world as one person

This is one of the harder ones, but it can definitely be done. I'll be using the Witcher 3 as my example, but GTA V also does this well.

The term "Open world RPG" might confuse people because of the two major types; blank and one-person.

A "blank" role-playing game is one where you invent your own character and backstory, whereas the "one-person" style has you roleplaying as a pre-written character. In the Witcher 3, you don't create a character, you roleplay as Geralt of Rivia. Everyone that plays the Witcher 3 will be Geralt of Rivia.

GTA V is slightly different because it has you roleplay as three different people, alternating between them and their respective stories, but for all intents and purposes we'll extend the definition to a handful of people, as rare as that is.

Someone playing a game like Skyrim or The Outer Worlds will have a very different experience from someone playing a game like the Witcher 3.

The Witcher 3 is interesting however because it actually has a damn good main story. Games like Skyrim and Fallout 4 don't really have a good main story, and people play instead just for the exploration and side quests, yet the Witcher 3 let's you explore an absolutely massive open world and do whatever you want while somehow not ruining the main story in the process.

How is that?

Take a look at a map like the Breath of the Wild world map and compare it to one of the Metroidvanias above.

How can you create a story where the player has the agency to explore this massive continent and do whatever the fuck they want, while simultaneously making a main story that makes sense and is actually good?

It's at least possible with this type of game because of one key difference; the player doesn't get to create their own character.

Since you don't have a blank-slate character, the writers get to tailor their main story to the character in question's personal life and experiences.

With the Witcher 3, the games are also based on books, and even though the books and games diverge in many massive ways, large sections of the game are taken right from Geralt's story in the books. While it isn't a fully open-world game like Witcher 3, Metro Exodus is also based on a book series, which gives the writers of the game a lot of existing material to work with.

When you hop into the Witcher 3, you're hopping into a character with their own established story and life. You're roleplaying as them with all of their relationships, history and baggage, so the writers get to write a story that involves those numerous relationships and baggage. They also have a lot of freedom to work with the side quests and other activities.

In the Witcher series, Geralt is a Witcher, or a monster-hunter for hire, so when you go around exploring caves and killing monsters for money in between the events of the main story, it feels like something Geralt would actually be doing. If Geralt was attending to some serious business in Velen trying to track down someone, he would do some monster contracts along the way, after all, he's a professional and that's how he makes money, which he needs to pay for life expenses like gear and supplies.

So even though the player has this absolutely massive map to explore...

Everything that you do or can do in this world feels like something Geralt would or might actually do. You can't go around slaughtering random people like you can in Skyrim, but there are lots of side quests and activities with branching possibilities, and the main story branches off in several ways to create many possible endings. The main quest and the side quests complement each other; since Geralt is a Witcher, he'll be doing Witcher-things during his journey, and the writers crafted a journey that they knew would be interesting, thought-provoking, and entertaining.

Half of the fun of the game is discovering Geralt's past, his history and his baggage, and the other half is in finding out what happens next.

These are the major ways that games can tell a story, but of course, none of these are even necessary; you can always design a sandbox where the player explores a randomly or procedurally generated world like in Minecraft or No Man's Sky.

Although these games don't have any real story but rather are about the fun of experiencing the game world for yourself. Obviously online games also exist, many of which don't have a story of any kind (like battle royales), but this post is focusing on single-player experiences. There are online games that have a single-player story or "campaign," like Call of Duty for example, but those games are usually purchased for their online-play and not their campaigns, whereas a single-player RPG is purchased just for the single-player experience and writing.

This was a big topic and I hope I was able to shed some light on just how challenging and complex game writing can be, and if you learned anything from this post then I would consider it a tremendous success.

And as always,

May all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.