The relationship between plot and video games has always been an awkward one. Almost every single game out today can be isolated from its story and explained in terms of its design or vice-versa. I can tell you the plot of GTA IV without referencing the game design once. I can also explain a Mario game without mentioning the Princess. The game design doesn’t need the plot to be fun or engaging and the plot certainly doesn’t need interactivity screwing around with its authorial nature. Yet there are a huge variety of games that try to make it work, everything from arcade shooters, board games, simulations and narrative heavy adventure games that propose a wide variety of ideas on how a game’s plot should work with its design. The theory of how to connect the two sides of the experience, narrative and design, is something that is unique for each game. What are some ways to keep the design and plot working together?
When you are combining design and narrative the first thing you have to accept is that both mediums, which can stand alone, are going to have to sacrifice key elements. A plot in a video game does not have a narrative arc. You can’t control the pace of the story and thus you can’t control how the narrative is progressing. The player might get lost, quit the game, go collect random items, or just be trying to get a high score at that particular moment. A game design, once you combine it with a plot, is no longer a dynamic process. Certain elements of the game are going to be set in stone no matter what the player says or does. To give the classic argument, the plot of a football game is dynamic. Anything could potentially happen within the confines of the process. Once you insert a plot, certain things are always going to be present. This football player is always going to have this reaction to a play, this coach is always going to say this particular thing at half-time under certain conditions. Whether it’s a highly linear game or an emergent narrative with lots of vignettes scattered around a world, the plot of a game can at best only be altered a finite number of ways. An essay by Jim Bizzochi argues that the distinction with games comes from identifying what types of immersion they are creating. One type of immersion is the ‘suspension of disbelief’, which requires a narrative arc because you have to tightly pace and control what the viewer is seeing for it to happen. The essay goes on to outline several other forms of immersion, such as “challenge-based immersion” from a game design or “imaginative immersion” from a plot. The trick is that once you combine the two you have to start aiming for a different kind of immersion from the traditional ones like preventing disbelief.
Another essay from Bizzocchi and colleague Douglas Grant highlights the basic hybrid that plot and game design create when merged. You get a Joseph Campbell monomyth. The hero rises up, collects artifacts, overcomes challenges, and returns home to save the day. The characters and development cycle in these stories are convenient for the needs of the game design because they are typically static. An epic hero does not change, there is no real rebirth occurring. Instead they simply become more aware or informed about themselves. Achilles at the end of the Iliad is essentially the same person from the beginning. The events of the book do not personally change him. An epic poem or myth does not depend exclusively on a narrative arc since most portions of it can be read in any order assuming you’ll follow one of the shorter stories. Myths and legends are particularly ripe for conversion into video games because they also revolve around activities. You can explain a huge fight with a Cyclops or a sacred beast in a brawler easily enough. A different approach is to still adhere to this convention but instead develop a plot by having the game be about other characters. Nick Dinicola explains that in aGears of War 2 the main character of the game is actually Dom. Marcus is, like the player controlling him, mostly an observer. Far Cry 2 is essentially the story of the Jackal and his approach to violence in Third World countries. The solution of these games is to keep the player fully immersed in the game design while they observe a plot which, because they are not the focus, can be appreciated independently.
The Darkness, Starbreeze Studios
Yet it is possible to successfully merge narrative and game design so long as you are able to pace the two experiences in conjunction with one another. One of the greatest success stories of a game doing this is Starbreeze’s aThe Darkness. The opening of the game is pure shooting, giving the player a chance to engage and learn about the game design. The plot is fairly typical and easy to grasp with no major events until a little bit before the half-way marker. The point is that the developers know that the first thing the gamer is going to want is to play the game and they give that to them. When the tedium of shooting, collecting hearts, and other powers starts to grind is when they let the plot kick in. Once a player is fairly familiar with the game, they’re going to be more receptive to story because they don’t have to concentrate as much. The Darkness mixes plot and game design by also fleshing characters out with countless tiny vignettes that are snuck in at every chance. The protagonist, whose change is characterized by personal loss, is has numerous monologues while the game is loading. His condition is reflected in the design as a character dependent on a demon who is slowly taking control of him. The game’s real elegance doesn’t come from the clever plot or game design, it’s how they work together. When the game is really challenging, they don’t bother with story. When the game’s challenge is fairly easy, they let the characters and story have their time where so that they can be better appreciated.
There are other techniques for merging the two mediums besides just pacing plot and game design together. You can just create a series of moments where the two reflect one another. Final Fantasy IV melds game design with narrative by having a key character betray your party. In the plot it’s a hurtful moment, in the game design you’re down a key member in the middle of a very difficult dungeon. Bioshock’s Little Sisters are a symbolic choice that represents the overarching narrative: in a perfect Ayn Rand society would you choose to be altruistic or selfish? Horror games like Silent Hill 2 or Eternal Darkness both rely on the player not knowing what to do and scaring them through a hostile game design. Games like Shadow of the Colossus or Ico rely on solitude and lack of plot to create a simple but powerful narrative. Some games create their design first and then deliver a static narrative that explores the symbolic and literal implications of constantly doing such an activity like the indie gem Immortal Defense. Combining the two means that new storytelling techniques must be developed that appreciate the strengths of both artistic mediums and does not let one or the other dominate.