Loads of games tell stories, but games often do a bad job of storytelling, and it’s because they’re interactive.
In this post, I divide storytelling into two simplistic and broad parts: narrative and engagement. Games tend to run into two problems with narrative, but do pretty well with engagement.
Let’s say narrative leads an audience through some sequence to a conclusion. A narrative is:
- linear (because it’s an ordered set of events)
- and controlled (insofar as it’s authored).
But almost all videogame stories are naturally told with non-linear elements, such as respawns, save states, and restarts — contradicting that first point — and are to some extent uncontrolled by the author of the narrative, because they are controlled by the player — contradicting the second point.
The hero problem
Just about all games are non-linear (including those criticised for being too linear). Typical mechanics of die-and-respawn, or even save-and-reload, result in repetition of narrative elements and contradictory events: on one attempt you died; on another you didn’t. This is at odds with a linear narrative. The problem is clear in any game with a final boss battle, where the encounter must be challenging, but the narrative will fall apart (at the climax, no less) if the protagonist doesn’t win.
When you fail on five attempts, you don’t imagine that the story is about a hero who succeeds on the sixth. The failures are not part of the narrative; we have to mentally erase them as we play.
I’ll call this the hero problem. This is an essential conflict in any game that bolts a narrative of player-character success onto failable mechanics without making them work together. This is a problem encountered by almost all videogames ever. Perhaps, then, overlooking this tension — imagining that last attempt never happened — is destined just to be part of the learned syntax of gaming.
During their ascendancy, LucasArts’ point-and-click adventures represented a whole mainstream genre that was primarily narrative-driven, and crucially eschewed the die-respawn/save-reload mechanic completely. How sensible that decision looks in light of this analysis. Unfortunately, the point-and-click has since waned to a small, unloved subgenre, suffering without the imagination (or the rose tint) of the pre-talkies. I’m sure I’ll dig up Monkey Island for discussion in some later post.
The Freeman problem
The hero problem arises because the non-linearity of games jars against the essential linearity of narrative. We have another problem when interactive games dissolve the author’s control over narrative. These two problems are related, but, I think, distinct. An essential characteristic of games as a medium is the potential for player control, and that is in tension with the game maker’s intent to guide a narrative.
My favourite example is in Half-Life 2 (2004), a game the discussion of which increases in po-facedness the longer its trilogy goes uncompleted. In City 17 and its environs, white-coated and serious men and women react in hushed, overwhelmed tones to the presence of the messianic Gordon Freeman, the enigmatic saviour of all humanity — and PC, Set, Go! magazine’s Hero of the Year 2004 — who, while his unique destiny is relayed to him, is trying to balance two side tables on top of a washbasin. Give the player a basic physics model and some unskippable dialogue and what do you expect? We’ll call this one the Freeman problem — perfect! It’s as if Valve named him for us. Player freedom can scupper authorial control when a narrative is set out during gameplay, and it's especially hard to buy into a narrative when it conflicts with frantic, irrelevant, and ignored behaviour of the player-character.
When games solve the Freeman problem, the narrative really captivates. A couple of examples are Rez (2001), which takes a very traditional approach but builds a sophisticated story by relating it’s minimal authored narrative outside gameplay, and Portal (2007), which is as smart as everyone always says it is and builds a neat structure that excuses — in fact depends on — wayward player activity. Those are each worth posts of their own. [Edit: Rez got a post in the end.] [Another edit: so did Portal.]
I introduced two features of storytelling: narrative and engagement. Narrative is in tension with interaction, but engagement thrives on it.
By “engagement”, I mean some impetus for the audience to care — perhaps most obviously eliciting empathy, but maybe eliciting some non-empathic interest.
Videogames are engaging both because they are interactive, and because of their unique depictive capacities.
Engaging with interactive fiction
If the player can control the progression of a narrative (or is conspicuously unable to), progression feels like the result of player decision (or conspicuously unlike it), which encourages investment in and ownership of the narrative. The simplest and most common example is identification with the protagonist when the character’s actions are determined by the player.
This identification is very obvious when we talk about playing games. In The Secret of Monkey Island (1990), you are Guybrush Threepwood, a mighty pirate; in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), you are but a humble spaceship person (or are you?); in Sprung (2004), you are Brett, a wannabe jock dickhead. You are, you are, you are — you are those characters, and we routinely talk in that way about our relationship with the characters we are playing because of the agency we have through them. The interactivity of the narrative engages the audience.
Interactive, branching narratives are so compelling that they form the entirety of the play mechanics in much of the visual novel genre and primitive Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style gamebooks.
Engagement through depiction
The other natural way for videogames to engage their audiences is through their unique potential to depict control, social interaction, and physical interaction.
When we are not only controlling a narrative about a character (as in a visual novel) but also controlling minute actions of the character below the level of narrative — run this way now, swing sword now, pick up chicken now — we develop a strong connection to that character. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011) exemplifies this, with Link’s sword closely following all the lifts and turns of the player’s hand. Unfortunately, that close mapping is a bolted-on novelty, and actually using the sword is limited to triggering one of 10 prescribed actions. Nonetheless, it still captures the imagination.
As for social interaction, MMOs can easily elicit empathy, because the other characters include other people. (They are other people, in the same way that you are your character. Let’s not get into the problem of other minds…) The only enigma around MMOs and engagement is why so many of the other people you meet are total arseholes.
Lastly, physical interaction with the world of a narrative can engage the audience. My go-to example is last post’s holding hands in Ico, but I will not turn down another opportunity to picture a Japanese arcade cabinet.
This time it’s Bandai Namco’s Ryouri no Tatsujin 2: Houchou no Tatsujin (Cooking Master 2: Knife Master, 2001). This game does not really have any sort of story, but you can cut up an octopus with a totally massive cleaver. If that isn’t engaging then I don’t know what is.
Where this takes us
If stories basically involve a narrative and something to engage the audience with that narrative, then videogames have some natural strengths when it comes to engaging players, but some inherent problems when it comes to communicating narrative: the hero problem and the Freeman problem.
These narrative problems are not fatal. There are plenty of games that solve or consciously explore them. I’ve already nodded briefly in the direction of Monkey Island, Rez, and Portal. Others that spring to mind are The Stanley Parable (2013), Majora’s Mask (2000), and Braid (2008). Fuel for later posts, all of them. [Edit: game names now link to follow-up posts on this topic.]
There are also plenty of games that make especially good use of the most engaging aspects of games to build atmosphere or character. Apart from Ico and Skyward Sword, immediate thoughts run to Journey (2012), Papers, Please (2013), and the DayZ standalone alpha (2013).
Finally, no particular way of addressing or ignoring the problems of narrative, and no particular way of emphasising or rejecting the advantages of engagement is necessarily good or correct, or bad or wrong. These are just more concepts for videogame criticism.