Playing Other People’s Stories
Thinking about the stories games tell, it’s easy to see how similar in theme and substance most are to traditional narratives we know from film, television and literature. The three-act progression is usually there, for example, and within that the familiar rhythms of disturbance, plan, surprise and resolution. Character archetypes are generally very similar, and segmented story events ape accepted film practice almost exactly in terms of framing and editing.
Yet film spent its formative years emulating the style of literature and the stage before decades of practice helped break the form away to create and engender its own storytelling structures specific to the screen, which video games adopted.
The question is, after decades of refining storytelling in video games, are their stories or narrative elements in turn beginning to shift into structures more specifically suited to the medium?
There’s often a noticeable tension in games between satisfying play – which requires player agency and the application of non-trivial effort from the player to progress – and the perceived need to deliver a satisfying story – which involves imposing upon the player and reducing interaction to that of a choose-your-own adventure book or even a straight linear narrative.
Cutscenes and controlled quick-time events spring to mind as obvious examples of that tension: they’re techniques that allow all the structures and techniques of traditional film to be inserted into a video game, adding weight to the game scenarios, guiding the player and aiding retention. Yet owing to the obvious difference between the two media — the video game with a constant loop between player input and machine output as its core, the film with a linear one-way visual communication – the imposition of these narrative forms can often jar the player.
However, as the pool of material that a storyteller can pull from (i.e. other games) grows, and as more and more designers grow up having modern video games as their primary frame of reference, one can see developers becoming bolder and more creative with the types of tales they weave. Consequently, while the supporting role of narrative may not have changed we’re getting better and better at implementing story in a way that perfectly suits the form and its own intricacies.
Take a look at BioShock Infinite as a very recent example. An immediate narrative theme of the game is that today’s progressive uprising rebels are often tomorrow’s dogmatic oppressors. It’s an application of political will-to-power, which has seen many expressions across film and literature to date. In Infinite’s case though, it’s the method of delivery that most indicates a shift away from traditional ideas and structure of narrative.
Nobody ever explains to you the source of their patriotism or their plans for the nation-state when they assume control – and through the first-person view you really only ever get a small slice of that reality – yet the end result of the competing personalities are made clear to you through the primary perspective-shifting gameplay element.
Points in the game that allow a shift in perspective from one parallel reality to another don’t just move the narrative along, they allow you as the player to contrast and compare what changes and what stays the same in a world controlled by seemingly opposite ideologies.
By no means is this a story that has never been done before, but the depth allowed by a narrative so clearly designed in tandem with the gameplay allows it to be told in a way that never would have been comfortable in traditional media. (Of course, other aspects of Infinite’s gameplay aren’t paired quite as elegantly with its story.)
Even smaller games that don’t appear to have such narrative ambition are paving the way for new nuances of storytelling. In fact, a number of recent indie games that seem to eschew overarching narratives entirely could rather be said to be telling their stories in a more game-sensible way.
For example, one might be tempted to characterise Antichamber as akin to a straight-gameplay experience like Tetris. However while Tetris makes no (or very thin) attempts to deliver rhetorical messages with its semiotic elements, that isn’t the case with Antichamber.
There are directive signs on the walls for example, and there are allusions to your character as an individual with a past and an objective. These aspects are not merely directive to you as a player, but they’re of interest from a story point of view. It’s difficult to play the game without wondering as to the events that preceded all this, and that wonderment is smartly supported by the elements in-game, crafting a simple but very elegant story.
Ridiculous Fishing is in a similar boat (ha!) as a game that doesn’t really need narrative to function at all. In the past a similar game might have a few lines of backstory printed in a manual to describe the characters and motivations.
What the game actually has, however – in addition to subtle visual allusions to a wider universe – is an incredibly innovative and hilarious in-game version of Twitter, which allows you to view interactions between the protagonist and various other characters, feeding you hints and reinforcing game milestones. The system is actually tied to your real-world Twitter too, meaning that in addition to providing a perfectly natural-feeling narrative aspect, it doubles as an obligatory way for you to promote your mobile gaming prowess to your friends.
Circling back around to look at another more mainstream experience, this year’s Tomb Raider was a great example of applying new-school narrative structure to a very traditional story. Cutscenes, loading screens, story-based quick-time events – basically everything that indicates to a player that they’re being shunted along a linear path – are all-but removed, relegated only to times when they would have maximum emotional impact.
For the most part Lara’s trials are presented with a careful blend of player agency and behind-the-scenes scripting, allowing for a guttural and incredibly affecting relationship between player and avatar that in itself serves as a much more satisfying narrative element than the discrete story about supernatural winds and crazed cult leaders.
At the other extreme, there are experiments in self-reflection such as those seen in Bit.Trip Runner 2 and Evoland which, to say nothing of their gameplay, are making conscious efforts to use other games primarily as their semiotic frames of reference rather than an older media.
Games like these really punctuate the move away from Hollywood-inspired aesthetics, begging the question: as a visual medium, will video games always take a bulk of their thematic reference material from older forms of visual storytelling, or will there come a time when the pool is so deep that a game can refer only to systems and structures developed in other games, yet not directly be about games?
Narrative serves a vital – if secondary – role in video games, connecting players to the created universe, facilitating shifts in gameplay, helping relate more complex function and adding entertainment value.
Storytelling in games like Half-Life 2 or the original Metal Gear Solid satisfy these roles while sticking very closely to the forms perfected in Hollywood, and there will always be games that separate minute-to-minute gameplay from narrative, using story only as a conveyor belt to move the play scenarios along. (Look at Injustice: Gods Among Us for an extreme example.)
Yet the fact that we’re now truly enjoying narrative elements that have been wholly constructed to fit within gameplay rather than linear storytelling – or at least that challenge the suitability of older structures for use in video games – has exciting implications for the future of our pastime.
What games do you think have best embraced the video game medium’s unique qualities to tell a story or frame a narrative? Let us know.
Tim is a games writer based in Melbourne. You can catch up with him on Twitter or here at IGN. And why not join the IGN Australia Facebook community while you’re at it?
By Tim Biggs