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The Narrative Pastiche of Games

In her feature for PopMatters, Cynthia Scott examines the way that various media tell stories. In particular, she focuses on the differences between novels and television writing (“HBO or TV: Or How The Wire is Not a Novel”, 4 February 2011). As she mentions each medium’s unique form of storytelling, she could easily be talking about games in general, as well.

Video games are often compared to film because both are highly visual mediums, but games also owe a lot to novels and television, as well. In fact, beyond the cinematic presentation of many games, their pacing and storytelling has more in common with novels and television than it does with film. It’s only because gamer culture has gotten so accustomed to using the language of film, like the term “cinematic”, to describe games, that this narrow comparison persists. Even as games try to be more cinematic, their fundamental narrative structure is anything but.

Novels

Novels are far more versatile than television. As Scott explains: “[S]ince it is written mainly in prose, can get away with a style of storytelling that isn’t dependent on scenes (dialogue and/or action) the way film and television is… Since language allows writers access to areas the camera does not, a novel need not always express itself through the scene in order to be coherent or to push the story forward. Hence, in regards to the novel, narrative is simply prose that can include and/or exclude the scene and can involve interior dialogue, historical or character background, and/or description”.

The same could be said of any game that uses an in-game encyclopedia or a similar collection of writings to expand its fiction. The miscellaneous books in Oblivion, the glossary in Final Fantasy XIII, the species and character bios in Mass Effect, all of these add historical background or character background and descriptions not found in any cut scene. Even descriptions of the player’s current objective can work as interior dialogue when the information is written from a first-person perspective. We glean new insight into the protagonist by how he or she describes a given person, place, or goal.

The interactivity of games gives them a unique advantage but also a a disadvantage with this kind of expository storytelling. When a novels breaks from a scene, it risks hurting the pacing of its story. Since a novel must be read linearly, readers have no choice but to read through this background/description/history/etc. before returning to a scene. Too much additional information interrupting a scene can result in the reader losing track of what’s happening in that scene. Games, by virtue of being controlled by the player, make this diversion optional, so there’s never a risk to pacing. Only players that want to know more will read the encyclopedia, and when the information starts to become boring or overwhelming, they’ll stop and return to the game proper.

The disadvantage is that the main plot can’t rely on this extra information. If the encyclopedia is truly optional, the plot that unfolds in cut scenes must be coherent even for players that never look at the encyclopedia. In a novel, if the author thinks a certain piece of expository information is essential to understanding plot or character, it can be added even at the cost of pacing. Games don’t have this option; everything in the encyclopedia must be elective.

Mass Effect 2 straddles this fine line with ease. In the game, there is a subplot involving two species at war, the Quarians and the Geth. Through cut scenes you learn that the Quarians were chased off their homeworld and are now at a major crossroads, deciding whether to return and fight or abandon their planet for good. This quick summary is all you need to know about the conflict in order to follow the events that play out in the game. The encyclopedia provides additional information, such as where the Geth come from, how the Quarians now live, and how other species view the conflict, but none of this is necessary.

Final Fantasy XIII fails to straddle that line. As you progress in Final Fantasy XIII, the encyclopedia is updated with brief summaries of each cut scene, but the summary often contains more information than what was shown to begin with. For example, we may read about a character’s growing suspicions in the summary, but no such suspicion is evident in the scene itself. Twists later in the game come off as forced and unearned because we weren’t privy to the character’s internal dialogue during the cut scenes. Their actions are consistent with their portrayal in the encyclopedia, which many players might never read. Necessary information is hidden behind an optional menu.

Scott also brings up an interesting point about endings, and how the choice of medium changes our expectations of what an ending should be: “With the novel (for the most part) viewers are rewarded simply by being in the presence of an artist at the peak of her literary skills. This does not mean that the readers don’t care about good endings, but rather that the experience of reading a great novel is a reward in itself. A boring novel can be a waste of time too, but a great ending won’t redeem that experience”. Game endings are similar to novel endings in this regard. In games, players are rewarded by simply experiencing a mechanic made by a developer at the peak of their skills. The very act of play is rewarding, which is why you can make an excellent game without any sort of narrative at all. Fun gameplay mechanics are like good prose, both are intrinsically rewarding to the experience and both are surprisingly difficult to create, so we praise the writers and developers who can master this most basic piece of their medium.

Television

Scott’s most apt description of games comes from her analysis of television. She writes, “television is a medium built on a series of interruptions to the narrative”. Game narratives are structured in exactly the same way. For as often as video games mimic film and are decried with words from the lexicon of film, the narrative structure of games has more in common with television: You can’t consume most games in a single sitting like you can a movie, since games are played over multiple play sessions that can last days, weeks, or months (though probably not years). As you play any game, its story is constantly being interrupted by player mandated stopping points.

Television shows can survive their constant interruptions because they’re under complete authorial control. The writer knows when the interruptions will occur within the story and can prepare the audience for them. A normal television show almost always comes to some kind of cliffhanger before each commercial break. Serialized television shows follow a similar structure, but the length of the interruption is extended to a week instead of a couple minutes. Episode recaps clue the viewer in to important information, and again, this is only possible because of the writer’s control. The writer knows precisely what plot details will be explored in the upcoming episode and gives the viewer background for essential plot details only.

Developers have none of this control over their games. Strict save points offer a semblance of authorial control since developers know a player must get through a certain section of game before stopping, so any story dolled out between save points is very likely to be seen during a single play session. But as an interactive medium, there must always be a give and take between developers and players, and save points are too obvious a means of developer control. Many players reject them, frustrated at their inability to quit whenever they want. To appease players, most modern games have a “save anywhere” feature or enough checkpoints to render saved games pointless. These solutions only benefit the player however, and developers still face the challenge of telling an episodic story when they can’t control the length of each “episode” of gameplay.

Some games try to combine the episode recap with their interactive story, but this never works because the recap either doesn’t appear at the right time or doesn’t cover the right information. Alan Wake is structured like a television show with levels broken up into episodes, including a recap at the beginning of each episode. But in Alan Wake you might save, quit, and resume play within a single episode and not see a recap, or you might play for several hours and see multiple recaps in one sitting. The developers try to retain too much control over the story, they don’t take the player’s actions into consideration, and as a result, there’s a constant fight over pacing between the developer and the player. The episodic structure doesn’t change how the story is told or how the game is played, the only thing that sets Alan Wake apart from its peer is that it describes itself with the language of television rather than the language of film.

Deadly Premonition takes a similar approach with more success because it does take player action into consideration. It treats each new play session as a new episode. Every time that you load a game, you see a recap of previous events. This would be a perfect compromise — except the game doesn’t far enough with this trick. Like Alan Wake, Deadly Premonition is split into developer-specified episodes that are so long that one can easily forget that the game is structured like a TV show. Since the episodes are so long, you’ll often save and quit multiple times within a single episode and end up watching the same recap multiple times. The repeated recap doesn’t actually cover the most recent events of the story, rendering it pointless.

Developers have to relinquish control to players on this matter because it’s the player that will always control how much of a game he or she plays at a time. Any attempt to corral this behavior, like through save points or an episodic narrative, is ultimately futile.

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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