A quick recap: I defined two problems for interactive storytelling — the hero problem and the Freeman problem.
The hero problem is the tension between a narrative of heroic success and a game mechanic of failable challenges. That is, if the story is about a former policeman escaping an exploding island on a jet-ski with the President’s daughter, then what do we do with the fact that he might crash the jet-ski and get them both killed?
What we actually do in that situation is forget it ever happened and try again, erasing the event from our conception of the narrative. But that’s an untidy shortcut to telling a story, and although it looms menacingly over the land of videogames, total disaster can be averted.
OK, hero problem, got it.
Last time I looked at this, I noted that Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Braid both resolved the tension of the hero problem with a time-rewind mechanic. How do you explain the apparent erasure of the hero’s failure you’ve just witnessed? By making the player’s mental “undo” explicit in the universe of the game: time really does rewind in that world.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask (2000) suggests another time-related approach to the hero problem.
Which one’s Majora’s Mask again?
Majora’s Mask is the second N64 Zelda, re-using the Ocarina of Time engine and many of the assets, and setting itself up as more of a side story than a whole new Link-Zelda-Ganon epic. That, and the fact that it was the first Zelda game to be directed by Eiji Aonuma, gave it license to be quirky and try some new things. Its signature twist was a Groundhog-Day premise where the same three days repeat over and over, with the player and protagonist returning to the start each time.
The narrative explanation for this is that the moon is going to crash into the earth, destroying the land of Termina. At the final moment before it strikes the earth, Link plays a song on his ocarina that sees him reawaken at dawn, three days earlier. As he learns more about those three days’ events in Termina, he arrives at a way to save the land and its people.
This is wonderfully effective, not least because the people of Termina all know that the end is coming, and that they are all going to die. They go through their clockwork motions time and time again, mourning their own demise in unknowing, tragic repetition. Somehow, the fact that the end never quite comes is all the more painful: you go back to the start to witness again their fading naivety and growing fear as the moon gets bigger and bigger in the sky.
Oh right, that one. Isn’t that a rubbish one?
It’s the best. Majora’s set-up is romantic and melancholic, and videogaming’s familiar die-and-respawn ritual is explained away to boot. When we do the old mental “undo” and reorganise our cognitive dissonance about the narrative, as always, like performing a gamers’ salute, we don’t actually need to break any of the rules of the game’s narrative universe. We don’t have to step out of the story and say “that didn’t happen”, we can stay within the story and say that it did happen, but now — and this is the brilliant part — the fact that none of the NPCs seem to know about what happened has suddenly become interesting.
Whenever you play a game, restarting and retrying, you know things that the characters in the game don’t — so you’re not like them. You know that things happened that you’re pretending didn’t happen: you died; you failed. The problem of the hero problem is that you’re forced to go through that suppression to make the narrative hang together for yourself. You still have that epistemic privilege over the NPCs in Majora, but now, for once, the protagonist is in the same boat as you: you are like Link, and you can be part of the game’s narrative universe. It’s a beautiful resolution of one of story gaming’s eternal tensions.
Aren’t there loads of holes in this theory?
Well… yes. Or, more to the point, there are loads of holes in the narrative structure of the game once you get into the nitty-gritty:
- How come Link keeps all his items?
- When you open new areas or defeat bosses, why aren’t those things ever reset?
- What if you just fall off a ledge or something? You don’t play the magic song then, but somehow you’re back up on the ledge — just like any other game, pretending you didn’t die.
There are lots more. I can’t really defend the game against these charges. I do think the Groundhog-Day mechanic makes those holes less of an affront to narrative engagement than they would be otherwise, but in all honesty, this is probably another case of projection, charitable interpretation, and rose-tinting.
Anyway, if I haven’t really shown you an interesting example of narrative delivery in a videogame, I have at least shown you the idea of one. Hopefully, one day, solutions to the problems of interactive narrative will be varied, imaginative, and intentional, instead of the rare and imperfect accidents we seem to have had in the past.
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