[9 May 2014]
Titanfall is a multiplayer-only online shooter that also features a story campaign that tells a linear narrative. Those two things shouldn’t work together, multiplayer shooters and linear narratives: One is unpredictable, the other is entirely predictable. One has a random cast of dozens, the other has a defined cast of a few. One is chaos, the other is organized. One is highly interactive, the other is not.
Titanfall tries to marry these ideas, and the results are mixed. The presentation of plot points before, after, and during a match is so rushed that the story quickly becomes nonsensical, but the general structure that story takes on in order to fit into a multiplayer-only game is very clever and probably could have worked with some better writing. Until now, stories in multiplayer-only shooters have only been bad, and while Titanfall doesn’t buck that trend, it does offer some hope for the future.
Perhaps the most difficult part of creating a story for a multiplayer game (and I mean an actual story with characters, plot progression, and the development of themes, not just some narrative context that justifies an endless multiplayer war) is that you have to take loss into consideration. Every match can be lost or won. Acknowledging a win is easy. That’s how most stories proceed forwards—with the main character succeeding in some challenge. But how can the story proceed forward when the main character loses every conflict and challenge that’s presented? The solution that Titanfall comes up with is ingenious in its simplicity; the player is not the main character in this story or even a character at all.
As I wrote in my recent review of Titanfall: “You’re just a grunt, one of the faceless expendables. There are characters in this story, but you’re not one of them; there are special narrative objectives to be completed on each level, but that’s not your job. Your job is to provide a distraction, by fighting, while the main characters do their thing to progress the story.”
Of course, other online shooters (or all of them) have made you a generic soldier in a larger war. Those games may cast you in that same role, but they don’t provide the same amount of story around that role. What’s surprising about Titanfall is that it actually crafts a story that takes place almost entirely outside our point of view.
And that’s what gives me hope for the future. Narrative justification does not equal story, and Titanfall seems to understand this, and then goes the extra mile that those other games didn’t in order to give players a genuine story with plot and character arcs and hokey themes. As such, it’s the first game (that I’ve played at least) to truly try and marry a linear narrative structure with the insane unpredictability of an online shooter, and so it’s the first game in which we can see how the unpredictable pacing of an online shooter can affect the narrative flow of a story.
By removing the player from the story, Respawn Entertainment is able to maintain full authorial control over the plot. They don’t have to worry about branching narrative paths whether we win or lose a match. Yet winning or losing does affect the story in that it can considerably change its tone.
Winning gives the plot momentum. The story feels faster and there’s an unspoken confidence behind all the dialogue. Your side feels powerful, and you feel empowered, which usually results in a more reckless playstyle. Go on, take those three titans at once, you can beat them, and if you can’t, it doesn’t matter, you’re already winning. The lack of a coherent story also doesn’t matter because you’re too engulfed in the glow of victory.
On the other hand, losing stalls that momentum. The story feel slower and there’s an unspoken desperation behind all the dialogue. Your side feels underpowered, but that just adds to the drama. A few losses make you an underdog, and the next match becomes more important. This has the same effect as a win, causing you to play more recklessly as you get more desperate. But several losses, especially consecutive losses, make you disillusioned. You start to hate your own team, have traitorous thoughts, and the lack of story becomes more apparent because what the hell are you even fighting for?
This raises interesting questions about the nature of storytelling in general, how individual scenes can change meaning depending on the scenes around them. The plot of Titanfall will always be the same, but the story (the plot plus context) changes every match. Context is everything it would seem, since context can make a big speech sound boastful or desperate without changing a single word.
This is what Titanfall brings to the storytelling table. It proves that a linear narrative can actually work with the unpredictable pacing of an online shooter. The pacing issues of the shooter don’t really hurt the narrative; they just provide alternating context for it. Sadly, this is only noticeable if you’re paying really close attention to the intros and consclusions of each level, and you don’t mind stopping mid-battle to listen to some exposition. The presentation of the story is horrible, but it acts as a roadmap to how it can be done correctly, which is more than I can say about something like Brink.