02.23.12

The Indie Talks: Daniel Benmergui's Storyteller lets you make webcomics, simply by playing.

The first time I met Daniel Benmergui––the creator of dreamy games such as I Wish I Were the Moon and Today I Die––wasn’t when I interviewed him, but the night before. I had been playing a preview build of his IGF finalist game Storyteller before I went to bed. The game has you to arrange pixellated men, women, and tombstones on an empty comic strip in such a way that it tells a story. As Daniel said, “You can make a lot of bad things happen. Cheating, stealing, abandonment.” 

A combination of Storyteller’s subject matter, my subconscious worry of not having prepped at all for the interview, and having had a few beers manifested in a strange way. After going to bed, I dreamt of an incident that happened in college, when the girl I was crazy for cheated on me (okay, officially we weren’t a couple, but still!) with a good friend. It was like a scene straight out of the game. Only in a bizarre turn of events, in my dream, Daniel was the one who stole her from me.

“Did you start hating me?” he asked, when I told him about it during the interview the next day. “I get pissed with people who piss me off in my dreams,” he explained. And even though I assured him I wasn’t mad, he apologized. Twice. The rest of the interview went as follows:

Do you read comics?

I’m not a big comic reader. I’ve read Maus and Persepolis. I’ve read Scott McCloud’s books several times. He wrote comics about writing comics. They are very good. As a kid, I read DuckTales and Transformers and Robotech. I was too soon for X-Men. I was born here in Argentina. It took a long time for comics to arrive here. They had to be translated. We got comics and cartoons very late. Music still takes a long time to come here. What’s hot now was probably hot in America seven years ago. 

What does Storyteller take from comics, besides the look?

My goal is for the story you build to be readable by people who haven’t played the game. [In order for that to happen,] I need players to learn techniques that are part of storytelling in comics. There are a lot of complicated concepts in comics that have to deal with closure. When you have two frames, you have to think about what you are going to show in each frame, so that people will realize what happened in between. If you put too much into the space between the frames, people might get lost. If you show too much, you’re being redundant. Storyteller is forcing you to think about that. 

Also, I really like the idea of the abstraction of time. I like to remove time from my games. How does time work in comics? Each panel translates into time passing. If I make a long panel, the reader gets the impression that the panel lasts for a long time. In most story games, you have to wait. If you kill somebody important in a role-playing game, maybe that has consequences far down the road. Personally, I hate waiting. I try to make my games so you don’t have to wait. You can change the story very quickly. You switch in two characters and suddenly there is a murder. 

The comics created in the game often reduce love and greed and hate to yes-or-no solutions. It seems that if you ran these human feelings through a computer, it would break them––they wouldn’t seem right at all. Yet somehow Storyteller gets these feelings right.

It’s a hard problem. There are a lot of people working with interactive storytelling. Mike Treanor has been working on a game called Prom Week, which is also an IGF finalist. It’s a social simulation. It has these characters and each one has feelings towards other characters. But they are very numeric feelings. I like this guy X much. I hate this guy X much. I think this guy is X cool. The social rules make waterfall effects with all the characters.

I wanted to go in the other direction. How does love work? It’s pretty complicated. There are a lot of variables. But when you look at a children’s book, a character has a crush on another character. And that’s it. It doesn’t bother explaining how it happened. The feelings are simplified and iconized. I wanted to try that. This character is in love with another character, but I don’t bother explaining why. 

My characters can fall in love. They can hate each other. They can kill each other. That’s it. If I start adding in more things, a huge amount of consequences show up. For instance, if I wanted to show the ways a character could kill another character: by poisoning, by stabbing, by shooting, or whatever…

Then, you’d have to program all that stuff in.

Exactly. The rules start multiplying. They combine with other things. Female and male characters would have to die differently. Some different situations [would need to be added.] It starts getting very complicated. One of the things I did to solve that was to drop all of the burden on the player. It’s your problem, not mine. I’m showing you what happens before and afterwards. The rest is hidden in the gutters between the comic frames. Most of the magic of Storyteller happens there.

It’s the complete opposite of Skyrim.

Skyrim is trying to give you details about the most things possible. It breaks because it is impossible to control. Too many things can happen. You could put a bucket on people’s heads and rob the stores because they couldn’t see you. The simulation was broken.

Whereas a major retail release like Skyrim will pass through the hands of hundreds––parts will be outsourced and decisions are made by people who never work on the game––independent games are personal affairs. I’d even call them intimate. 

These huge games offer a mixed bag of stuff. They’re made by a lot of people doing different things, with different motivations and morale, at different companies with different cultures in different places. The producers are trying to streamline it and avoid the Frankenstein-effect. But it’s impossible because there is an army of people. With independent games, the communication is purer, because two or three guys are working on it. It feels less like a crowded room.

It’s not scientific. It’s not even rational. But I do believe that what games say the most is how they were made. You’re drawing a lot of information out of the details. In a good game, you can see that the developer has spent a long time working on the details. It has very fluid communication. It’s happening with intent. Games that were rushed feel like they are making you work. When you’re playing a 3D game, and one of the textures doesn’t match, you can imagine someone looking at that and saying, “I don’t have time to fix that.” You’re seeing how it was done. When a lot of unhappy people worked on a game, you can feel that too. In some odd way, it transpires to you. Even if it isn’t conscious.

-Jason Johnson