What You Leave Out Of Stories

I’ve been thinking about stories a lot lately. Which, you know, is nothing new. I was going to start this next sentence by saying “what is new is…” but none of this is actually new. I’ve been thinking about story craft for decades at this point and recent years have only seen the amount of time I spend on it increase. In the past, I’ve mostly thought about the way books are written and how stories are told in that format, from what gets included to what gets left out and how not enough of either one can make an otherwise enjoyable story unpleasant. My go-to example for that has always been the level of unnecessary mundane detail that started getting included in the Wheel of Time books after the conclusion of what was originally intended as a trilogy. There are only so many times I can read about characters’ individual hygeine habits in a two-week period that was initially skipped over before it was returned to so the author could describe what happened during that period in detail. For as many memorable, cool story moments I remember from the series, I have an equal number of gripes about frustrating repeated details that shouldn’t have been included.

Generally speaking, I feel like that sort of thing happens once a popular author has reached a certain audience size or income, or maybe ego (this is all speculation based on personal observation, so I’m hesitant to define a likely cause). Whether the editor working with the author changes or the author starts pushing back on the editor or the publisher allows less time for edits, it doesn’t really matter. The end result is a lot of detail that shouldn’t have been included and wasn’t a part of the earlier works in the series. It feels like this applies to every long, consecutive series I’ve ever read in sci-fi and fantasy, so it’s difficult to say what should be done to fix this, or that the problem is actually in the books and not a result of my shifting attention to detail (new stories are always more exciting than the middle sections by dint of sheer story structure for any story that large). Which is generally why I’m hesitant to voice this criticism. It feels like I’m just looking for problems rather than talking about some actionable piece of literary criticism.

As I’ve spent more time playing video games over the last year, and playing a wider variety of video games, I’ve started to think about how this pattern emerges in video games. It’s a lot more difficult to define what parts of a video game feel like unecessary details that should have been removed since there are as many opinions about the place for side quests and world exploration in a video game as there are people who play any given game. At the same time, it’s also a bit easier to point out when a game clearly has no extraneous details or unimportant information. I still feel hesitation to voice this type of criticism, though, since it is so reliant on preference and even how much time is given to a game in a single gaming session. Further complicating this issue is the varying scale of video games. Some games can be played in an hour or less. Some take twenty hours. Some can keep players going for hundreds of hours. So what counts as an extraneous detail when it doesn’t stop a player from enjoying their game?

I’m still working through this issue myself, but the best example I have is to hold up two games I’ve played recently. Death’s Door, while nothing particularly unique or amazing in terms of storytelling and writing, felt like there were no extraneous pieces. Sure, there were collectibles I could pursue, some of which were relevant to the larger plot of the game beyond the simple “start to final boss” arc, but they fit into the story so well that I hardly felt like I had to step aside to pursue any of them. I beat the whole thing in fifteen hours (or fewer, since I definitely left the game running when I wasn’t playing at times) and the story kept an even, measured pace throughout, constantly doling out details to help the player build their understanding of the world and the stories playing out withing it.

On the other hand, there’s Horizon Forbidden West. The game has so many different things you can spend your time doing, most of which have almost nothing to do with the plot or the worldbuilding, which means you can spend hours playing the game without getting a single piece of information about the world or the larger stories playing out in it. On the other hand, sometimes, in the middle of hunting down some machines for parts, you’ll find some people living the world, pursuing their own ends, and your interactions with them provide some important, key details about the world and the people in it. It doesn’t feel like extraneous detail to pursue collectibles and side quests, but they’re sometimes completely detached from the world and the stories the game is telling other than to supply you with materials, gear, and experience points that will help with future story missions.

While I’m not ready to call these things extraneous or unnecessary since I’m largely enjoying pursuing them, they feel beside the story enough that I could have enjoyed the game without them. And though that is true of the various collectibles in Death’s Door, it was only a matter of minutes to get them whereas about twenty-five to fifty percent of my playtime in Forbidden West has been wandering around the world in search of relevant details and interesting whatnots. Complicating this sort of analysis is that while I loved Death’s Door and think it deserves accolades for being such an even, constantly-enjoyable game, I think that the peaks of the rise and fall of Forbidden West far outweight the valleys and would earn the game a higher rating than Death’s Door if I were in the habit of assigning numbers.

At the same time, it feels a bit cruel to compare the two games because Horizon Forbidden West is a classic Triple-A game whereas Death’s Door is an indie game from an small but established studio that isn’t one of the “big names” in indie gaming. Their budgets are vastly different, as are the expectations brought to them. If I were to link this back to books, I’d say that Triple-A studios are like established authors, where the expectation is an inconsistent experience with higher highs but also lower loes and a long, meandering game that has way more content than plot. Indie games are like new authors or writers who specialize in shorter stories, where little goes to waste and every minute the consumer spends is justified by the constant build of a story and every page is another step on the path from a story’s beginning to its end. Neither one is really better than the other. They are both valid ways of creating games (and writing stories) that will appeal to some more than others depending on their personal tastes. I don’t avoid big books because of bloat. Instead, I’ve developed the skills to detect bloat and skim it when it shows up in a story I’m otherwise enjoying (though even this has its limits).

I don’t really have a point, other than to raise this idea and put my thoughts on it somewhere. I just keep thinking about what kind of stories and games would come out of Triple-A studies doing their best to make a “small” game with a limited scope and story. To avoid collectibles and really put their all into making a solid twenty-hour game with very little fluff. On the indie side, I think we’ve already got an idea of what a large, open-ended game looks like thanks to things like Stardew Valley. It is a labor of years and constant updates to get the game into a position like that, but it can be just as big and meandering as any Triple-A game. I’d say the difference is that Stardew Valley was designed to be meandering and uses that to its advantage by being a life simulator with some plot elements you can seek out if you want to. I often wonder what kind of mess Stardew Valley would be if it got the Triple-A treatment, or if it’d be a solid game despite the general drive to add content to justify the time and number of people working on it.

I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever figure this out. I’ve been thinking about it since I started getting into a wider range of PC games over a decade ago, though my recent gaming experiences have sharpened my focus on it. In all that time, I’ve made even less progress than I’ve made on bloat in books.

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