Without fail, whenever people discuss narrative in games, someone brings up the red herring, “Can a video game make you cry?” What about this question makes it stick in people’s minds? Neil Young, Electronic Arts’ Vice President and Executive in Charge of Production, opined at last year’s Game Developers Conference and again this month in Wired, saying, “I think we’ll crack that problem in the next five years and it’ll be a watershed event for our business.” It is an interesting issue. However, I do not believe we are framing this discussion properly, causing us to overlook some incredible narrative work already available, such as Tim Schafer’s new game, Psychonauts.
Perhaps the question should be reframed, “Can a computer game manipulate your emotions?” And the answer clearly is yes. They already do. Nothing makes me angrier than losing to the lowly Bengals in Madden. This is clearly the intent of the designers. They want to excite and frustrate me just enough that I will play again.
This leaves me refining the question again, “Can a computer have a well written narrative?” Of course, the narratives in games are immaculately constructed. The stories must fit together believably as the player encounters events in different sequences. The scripts may be clichéd or corny, but they are written with care. So then what is the central issue at stake? Why do so many people lament the state of narrative in games, including people responsible for designing games?
The problem stems from the fact that game narratives more closely resemble the narratives of epic poems, than novels. Using familiar tropes of heroes and epic journeys, games and epic poetry tend to focus on narrative events, detailing the exterior life of characters. The stories aim not to detail emotion, but events and action. Reading Beowulf does not force the reader into the mind of the Danish warrior. Game players move Mario through environments, not through emotional states. Modern readers, used to the emotional catharsis of everything from Jane Austen novels to reality TV cannot emotionally engage with the exterior focused narrative of Beowulf or most game worlds.
It was not until the advent of the novel that fictional narratives began to detail the interior life of characters. The contrast in styles can clearly be seen by reading Beowulf followed by the 1971 novel Grendel. In his book, John Gardner reworks the story of Beowulf and reveals the interior life of the story’s villain, drawing a picture of an ambivalent, sulky, goat-loathing monster. Despite detailing the life of a flesh eating monster, Grendel engages the audience through humor and is much more likely to evoke an emotional response in modern readers than the original poem.
So let us refine the question once more, “Can a computer game reveal the interior life of a character?” The answer is yes, if the makers approach narrative in a way that plays to the structural strength of games: exploration. Tim Schafer’s Psychonauts provides a wonderful template for effective narrative in games. Schafer is not new to creating interesting game narrative, having written Monkey Island and the widely praised adventure game Grim Fandango. Psychonauts does not strive to make you cry, but instead engages the player through character development and laughter. And laughter is no easy state to create in a reader or player. But what makes the game so stunning is not just clever jokes, but the marriage of narrative and game space. The game literally interprets the interiority of characters in the narrative, making personality into physical space.
Admirably, the writing in Psychonauts succeeds not with non sequitur lines or potty humor, but with clever puns and jokes fully integrated into both the gameplay universe and narrative. The game revolves around a camp for young psychics, where gifted (and deranged) kids refine their abilities before joining the ranks of the Psychonauts, a cadre of special agents charged with protecting the world. The action focuses on a talented new recruit, Raz, whom you guide through the game. The narrative draws upon genre tropes of special agents and rambunctious children, to springboard into puns and musings on the nature of personality and psychology. Raz spends the majority of the game traipsing through the minds of different characters, literally sorting their emotional baggage.
The milieu of the interior world provides rich terrain for gameplay. Each personality affords a different version of the world and a new gameplay dynamic. From the disco infused party world of Raz’s levitation instructor Milla, to the warped streets in the mind of a paranoid security guard, personalities become physically tangible. Exploring these worlds provides a unique and engaging way to experience character. Not only are you given good dialog, but the characters’ personalities manifest themselves as landscapes for the player to explore. Bouncing through Milla’s mind fills you with a light airy feeling. While the confusing dead ends of a conspiracy nut will leave you muttering to yourself.
By using recognizable character types, like the obsessively tidy scientist and militant war veteran, Schafer grounds you in the narrative and points you in the right direction for exploration. Unfathomable characters would leave the player adrift. Yet Schafer and team are careful to pepper their characters with enough unique details to provide some genuinely funny and disturbing moments.
But narrative wields a double-edged blade. Does a tight narrative preclude repeat plays? By forcing a dynamic system into a narrative arc does the game simply become a retread on replay? Psychonauts provides enough stimulating dynamics to warrant further play. But equally importantly, Schafer spins a compelling and engaging story that also rewards revisits. The characters are unique and robust enough to compel you to continue exploring the terrain of their minds, just as you would characters in a good novel. Game designers take note: we don’t need to cry, we just need to be engaged.