Games struggle to tell stories. I like games, I think they do tell stories, and sometimes I think they tell them well. But they struggle. As players, we usually have to do a lot of interpretive work to make narratives stick together.
This week I’m looking into two games which certainly set out to tell stories, and which do pretty well. In particular they show how to respond to one key question for story game design.
The games are The Secret of Monkey Island (1990), which we’ll do today, and South Park: The Stick of Truth (2014), which we’ll do later in the week. And the question they’re addressing is the Freeman problem.
Please stop going on about the hero problem
The Freeman problem is the narrative tension that results when a player is free to perform all sorts of actions that are not accounted for by, and may be contrary to, the story of the game. I named it after Gordon Freeman, because in Half Life 2 he regularly spends 30 or 40 minutes just trying to pile stuff up into a tower while he should be saving the world and while his desperate and hopeful admirers watch on, misty-eyed and uncomplaining. At least, that’s what he does when I play.
That means you end up with an odd series of onscreen events which seem to happen on a separate plane to the narrative, with no causal connection to it. That also draws us players away from the plane of the narrative, and we have to engage in a kind of cognitive dissonance to sort through which actions really happen in the story and which don’t happen, even though we do perform them.
Case 1: Monkey Island
The scene: Guybrush needs to locate the Swordmaster of Mêlée Island. There is a shopkeeper who knows where she lives — out in the mazelike woods — but he’s a grumpy sort. So grumpy, in fact, that it’s a little suspicious when he grudgingly agrees to go and talk to her for you. We discover he has a thing for her — an unrequited thing — which is a funny side to see of this grouchy old man.
The tension: We are free in this scene to attempt to follow the shopkeeper to the Swordmaster — or not — as many times as we like. It’s a puzzle and you’ll need to repeat it to get it right. But if we do that and the characters don’t seem to notice the repetition, the magic of the story is going to wear off pretty quickly.
We deal with repetition all the time as gamers, and we know what to do: when the dialogue repeats, exercise some discretion and move along. But that’s such a sloppy way to handle things.
The solution: The scene is effective because the repetitiousness fits, and even expresses, the shopkeeper’s character: he denies his willingness to visit the Swordmaster yet again, but his actions — his unfailing agreement eventually to do it — betray his real desires.
The resulting narrative of this section has a working linearity despite the gamey cyclicality that will run on and on at the whim of the player. However long the cycle runs, we get a perfect closure when we follow the old man and see Carla the Swordmaster telling him to scram and stop leching after her. This neat resolution of the Freeman problem is satisfying and funny. (Well, less funny when I dismantle it so tediously.)
It’s so heartwarming to play this scene. Because we know from experience that games will let us repeat these cycles with infinite patience, we’re certain that the old man will pretend to begrudge going to see Carla for eternity, and will nonetheless submit to hiking to her house for eternity.
To then find that Carla is quick-witted, assertive, cynical, and lethal, and has the measure of him immediately, is sort of tragic and adorable. The scene rides our presuppositions about games and lets them support the story, then delivers a brilliant, dry punchline typical of Monkey Island.
One of the most accomplished scenes in story gaming? I think so.