The Narrative Pastiche of Games

by Nick Dinicola

18 May 2011

A still from the cinematics of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (Ubisoft, 2010) 

Combining It All Together

Games do have their own unique way of telling a story, but most are content to borrow various techniques from other mediums. The advantage of this kind of narrative amalgamation when further combined with player interactivity is that it allows games to tell multiple stories at the same time using different narrative techniques.

The Assassin’s Creed games borrow from many mediums in order to tell its complex, thematically dense, alternate history of the world. The central story in each game is treated as a film. This story always revolves around an Assassin in the past and climaxes with said Assassin confronting and defeating the Big Bad. This story is told through cut scenes. Like a film, its plot is very curt and to the point, telling the player just enough of the story to justify the action. There are a wealth of supporting characters and hints of subplots, but none of these are explored in any depth. It’s all about the Assassin.
The frame narrative that takes place in the future is treated as a television show. This story is constantly being interrupted, and each interruption begins with a cliffhanger. When getting into the Animus to continue the Assassin’s story the cliffhanger is subtle, a tease of a revelation that might be discovered. When getting to the end of the game, the cliffhanger is more severe. Revelations are pronounced, characters die, and answers are given that change the nature of this fictional world. Unlike the Assassin’s story, this frame narrative never ends with a resolution, just progression.

Historical information is treated as it is in a novel. This background information is accessible from an in-game encyclopedia and gives players a very detailed description of characters and places. Players learn more about the time period that they’re in and the historical figures that they interact with, but none of this information is necessary in order to follow the plot of the Assassin vs. The Bad Guy.

The back story told through the Truth glyphs is uniquely gamey. Like a novel, the writers are no longer constrained by dialogue that must sound natural or time constraints that limit the length of a cut scene. This element frees them up to explore the more complex elements of the story as much as they want. The back story therefore takes on a novelistic depth but only if the player is able to solve various puzzles. The background/description/history/etc. is unlocked out of order, forcing players to piece it together themselves. The player is therefore integral to the storytelling because they must take on the role of Writer (or perhaps Editor might be more apt) as they reorder the unlocked pieces of information into a coherent sequence of events.

The Truth glyphs are an example of the inherent paradox that faces storytelling in games. The more uniquely gamey that the storytelling is, the less obvious it becomes because the less obvious the author becomes. A player could easily pass through each of the glyph puzzles without catching on to the story being told. The same problem exists for any game that wants to tell a story through its environment, a uniquely “gamey” narrative technique since it only works with the participation of the player.

As far as developers go, Valve does this better than anyone: The back story of Left 4 Dead is told through graffiti that can easily be missed, and the world of Half-Life is fleshed out using signs, newspaper clippings, and snippets of conversation. Of course, this means Valve’s stories are vague by necessity since there’s only so much that you can “tell” through such limited space, but a game’s story doesn’t need to be very detailed because the player “writes it” as he or she plays.

Games can eschew any kind of traditional storytelling altogether, and instead use gameplay itself to evoke emotions and take players through a cathartic character arc. In Medal of Honor, you spend the whole game fighting a faceless enemy, and by the end, you haven’t actually changed anything but now your friends are dead. Letting players experience a pointless battle for themselves, rather than just stating outright that war is pointless, makes the game’s message both less obvious and also more impactful. In Shadow of the Colossus, the empty world lets us experience life through the eyes of a man who just lost the woman he loves. There’s no need for any dialogue or exposition to explain their history or relationship; the environment itself serves as character development. These are video game stories in their purest form—with a focus on the experience and nothing else.

Which is not to say that games like Assassin’s Creed, Alan Wake, or Final Fantasy XIII, are examples of bad storytelling in games. They’re just games that use more traditional forms of storytelling. It might be disheartening to think that Valve or Fumito Ueda (the man behind Shadow of the Colossus and Ico) won’t tell a story as complex as Assassin’s Creed any time soon, since all of their games adhere to a very strict form of storytelling but that strict storytelling is a much better example of the unique capabilities of this medium.

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