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Posted on Sep 14th 2014 at 09:47:30 AM by (Fleach)
Posted under Narrative, Plot, Story, Experience, Community Playthrough, Ico, BioShock Infinite, Player

Source: The Score

Lately the Community Playthroughs have allowed us to play a handful of incredible games. Coming right off of Ico I'm facing the question of how video games use or misuse narrative.

Whether used well or not, a game's narrative pulls in and ties together the experience the game is attempting to illicit for the player. Just like the laces on a pair of shoes, you can haphazardly tie them into a knot, but you may look a little odd and your shoes might fall off your feet. Without a story, a game can't effectively gel with the player, which at worst, results in a game left unfinished. Sometimes tight, solid gameplay can't redeem a game with a lackluster story. The narrative of a game serves a key role -- it is the foundation that the game's motifs and objective(s) rest upon.



Source: CSSE

Narrative as a foundation can work one of two ways (one of which is arguably an inappropriate use of plot, which I will discuss later). Used appropriately, the plot frames the game as a whole and provides context to the plight of its characters by informing the player as to why they should be emotionally invested in what happens on screen. Used this way, the narrative is like a contract between the player and the game, and it is a motivating force to egg someone on to see how the experience will wrap up. The player's experience can sometimes be described as a roller coaster ride as they can live through the protagonist's ups and downs in tandem, i.e. their opportunity to step into the shoes of the character. Such is the case with Ico; the titular hero wants to escape imprisonment with a mysterious girl, and in an empathic way. As a result of being drawn into the narrative, the player also fears the oppressive confines of the fortress and also desires to escape.

The arguably "wrong," but definitely less effective, way of utilizing narrative is to justify a situation the game presents by making a player to jump through imposed hoops. While not entirely bad, this use really diminishes the intent of a game's story.  This method assumes that under duress, you will perform deeds because they are required, even if the actions conflict with what the story says about the character. BioShock Infinite, which is a great game and very entertaining, suffers from this poor use of narrative. When tasked with arming the Vox Populi, Booker seeks out a gunsmith who he eventually finds dead. Thanks to a story that incorporates a "many worlds" theory, he can simply hop from universe to universe until the mission is completed. While an author is free to use their creative license this way, it typically comes off as an easy way out of a situation that is otherwise extremely complex. If the narrative only justifies the action, it serves as a "crutch" for the game instead of being an element of the game which can offer insight into the mission and make the player understand why it has to be done. This use of narrative assumes that the player will take on a supplicant role for the sake of progressing toward a conclusion. For a narrative to be successful, the player needs to relate to and understand the situation the characters, and by extension they, are facing.

Source: FTVMS 212 & 328 (Image resized for this blog)

Poor narrative doesn't necessarily make a game bad, but it takes the player out of the moment and makes them question the purpose of their actions. Sometimes this means that the game ends up unfinished, its story untold. A person can still like a game that is subject to a lousy story, but they are likely aware that it was merely shoehorned into a game for utilitarian purposes. A story which only justifies the action might be well written, but it's typically nothing special; the player comes away feeling that it's a suburban bungalow, as opposed to the lakeside oasis it could have potentially been. No matter how good or bad, a story should be present in a game -- unless the game is Tetris, though even some puzzle games incorporate some form of narrative structure.

A well told story is captivating an unobtrusive to the player. They offer just enough narrative to spur the player into action and rely on the imagination to fill in the finer details. This use of narrative makes the experience engaging, memorable, and personal because the player becomes cognizant of the situation that happens both on screen and sub-textually. If told too overtly, a narrative comes across clumsily and heavy-handed. If a game is to be remembered, the impression it leaves on the player should be rewarding and satisfying; there should be an understanding as to what the character(s) experienced and why.

When asked what a certain game is about, I'm presented with a chance to judge its use of narrative. If I can only retell the events of the game, the narrative did not succeed in reaching its full potential. However, if I can relate to a character's motivations or feelings and discuss them, the story typically hits its marks.


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Comments
 
Very nice, Fleach.  This is one of the greatest hurtles that modern gaming will face: Do we focus on player choice or tell a riveting story?  Sure, there is room for balance, but more often than not it is one or the other, and it seems that we have to make a choice.  In this modern era of gaming, the interactive nature of this medium demands it.  Personally, the last few times I really enjoyed the story in modern games were on indie titles, where the gameplay was simply an extension of the story itself where the character could not makes choices that would damage the narrative (Swords and Sworcery, Bastion, etc.).  Note GTAIV, where the story almost requires you to feel sorry for Nico, even as you mow down countless people in the street whilst out on a date.

Okay, I need to stop now before I cohesion on this (if it was there to begin with).
 
Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I enjoyed thinking about this topic as narrative has become the keystone in modern cinematic gaming but some games just aren't doing it right despite the huge emphasis they place on their stories.

I really like your point about story being an extension of gameplay and vice versa. You really hit the nail on the head with the take away message I hoped to create. I think we're going to have to meet up one day and talk games. Smiley
 
great article Fleach. Games these days are definitely having an existential crisis. do they want to be more movies, or more like arcade games? should they be something entirely different that doesn't fit either category, while somehow not feeling worse for it? These are questions most developers and game writers haven't quite figured out the answer to yet.

As much as I enjoy choice in some games they do come across as a "choose your own adventure" story, which is often extremely detrimental to any message the game is trying to convey.

It's much better in games like The Last of Us where the story is set and you can interpret the meaning of it in any way you please, but limited to the reality of the story presented to us. Do you agree with Joel's choices, or do you think he was evil? What was the game saying about society as a whole? The game makes you think about these things but doesn't let you mold it to your liking. You can't choose who follows you to the end, and you can't change the nature of the characters but you can consider their actions and whether you feel they are justified or not.

In a game with too much choice, you aren't interpretting the story but making it match your own set of morals or preferences. There's no ambiguity to choose your own adventures because you make the story end the way you agree with and already know, there's nothing to contemplate or make you rethink your opinions.
 
While I've always been that nerd who has championed gaming narratives since Final Fantasy VI was known as Final Fantasy III (and made me tear up a few times,) video games are too broad a category to assume each title is better served with a story.  TxK and its prequels in the Tempest series are another 'Tetris' type of counter to the argument.  For every 'Unfinished Swan' that uses an excellent fusion of gameplay and narrative, there is a 'Sims' or 'Rock Band' that displays how the very concept of interactive electronic entertainment has moved beyond 'all games should' paradigms.  Even the once agreed-upon requirement of precise and fluid control has been broken with examples like Desert Bus or Space Team, wherein clunky gameplay is inherently part of the design.

That being said, if a game is interested enough in narrative to attempt to make it a tentpole of the experience, the industry certainly has much to learn.  From the  overtly cinematic 'Metal Gear' series to the sublime open-to-interpretation Limbo, there are many examples of experiences unique to our medium.  Yet genre-defining success will always require the same deft hand elusive to most artists in any medium.
 
The music games are great examples of games where i HATE that there was a story.
Warriors of Rock? No reason for a story.

IMO every game does not need a story much in the same way that every game does not need multiplayer. I would rather have a solid (or average... or lack luster) game play experience rather than be forced to sit through dialog that was created for the sole purpose of artificially increasing the length of time it was going to take me to complete a game.

I have played games that probably had relatively immersive and well told story lines and i skipped them at every possible chance. I didn't want to hear about the evil forces invading into the country side and burning down the monastery run by the ancient faction of whatever-ma-bob. I wanted to run back out kill stuff, level up, get new gear, etc

I enjoyed the experience of that particular actiony hacky slashy magic using rpg simply based on the excellent game play. I got well over 30 hours of enjoyment out of it and probably skipped 10+ hours of text/video story.

On the flip side there have been average/mediocre games with (IMO) fantastic stories that i want to play through just for the story.

Whenever i get around to playing an Elder Scrolls game again i can tell you i will not be searching for lore and story and background (unless required). When the next Halo or Mortal Kombat comes out on the other hand the story is what i will be most interested in.

The Walking Dead: Season 1 & 2 are other prime examples of games i play because i enjoyed the story and focused entirely on telling a story. Season 1 "fetch" quests and IMO frivolous running around took me out of the game. Season 2 focused much more on point A to point B and fed my hunger for more story progression.

The Wolf Among Us has the exact same kind of game play but didn't grab me as much.

The Raven even less so. Out of 3 episodes (maybe 10-12 hours game play total) i was actually only interested in the ending of it when everything intertwined. Unfortunately i guessed who the Raven was early on :-/ so even the very end wasn't a surprise. Granted there were some twists getting there.
 
Also!
Choose your own games are still rather confined or inaccurate for choices given. I can think of only a handful of instances where the option given ends up being exactly what i wanted to choose or have the exact effect i desired at that time. Walking Dead again has 2 examples that immedialtely come to mind.
Teach Clementine to shoot. Cut Clementines hair.


Sometimes the few lines of dialog i am given as an option end up being said in a manner that is not at all how i expected.
Do you:
A. Agree
B. Disagree
C. Say nothing



A. I agree everything you have ever said is right. You are certainly a wordsmith and have always had a way of conveying your point without cause for confusion ever Izret.

B. I totally don't agree with anything you just said. Simply put i don't have "opinions" or "beliefs" on the subject. I have facts because i am right.

C. *Your character stumbles away confused before slumping over dead.*
Too much thinking can be a bad thing...
GAME OVER
 
@Izret101: and @slackur: You guys bring up a very good. This issue of questionable narrative is really only relevant with the current more cinematic games. The games which seem to be facing an identity crisis of not being able to differentiate themselves from games and film.

The Indies seem to have figured something out as often these game will have the story and gameplay rely on each other. Perhaps this is because of the greater creative freedom associated with the genre (for lack of a better word). They can hone both aspects of a game with little to no resistance or constraints which the major name developers face. I don't work in games but I do see a trend of accentuated action in most big developers. Could the corporate machine have too much of an influence in the design process? Are marketing departments persuading creators to go a certain way due to current trends? I really can't say, but it seems that that might be the case as often there is a disconnect between the way the player is supposed to feel for the character and what the player has to do. See my BioShock example or Bomba's GTA IV example.

You both are right that a game does not absolutely need a storyline. I recently played Metrico and loved it to pieces because it made me feel very smart when I solved the puzzles. I think that if there was a check list of things a game must have the ability to make players feel satisfied, rewarded, and accomplished would be pretty high on the list. A narrative wouldn't rank as high. Not every person wants to sit through a pixel recreation of The Odyssey, but every gamer wants to have fun and enjoy themselves.

I think the motivation behind my blog was to scratch an itch in my mind, put some thoughts on paper and come to some understanding of how current AAA cinematic games are using narrative. This wasn't intended as an address on how to tell better stories in games or that a story needs to be worked into a game, but I do value your comments and criticism about shedding some light on the other side of the coin.
 
Oh, I didn't mean any criticism; you have a very well written and relevant article here, and thank you for it!  My comments were meant more as a continuation/clarification.  When narratives are imbued into interactive media successfully (i.e. Ico/SotC) we see something wonderful and uniquely achievable.  When the story is tacked on, it shows (not going to even pick on one title, shooting fish in a barrel there.)  There are games that don't quite nail it, but are interesting experiments none-the-less (El Shaddai, Mr. Bones.)  And then there are games that don't really need a story at all, though sometimes they can be tossed in just for fun (Yar's Revenge comic pack-in, anyone?)

Great (and important!) conversation piece here. Smiley
 
Maybe criticism wasn't the right word. Whatever you want to call it your replies made me think and evaluate both sides of this topic. I thank you guys for that and I'm enjoying the conversations we're having.
 
^Responses were not from my A, B, C check list.
Cheating detective. 3 day ban.

Tongue

I don't tend to comment on most of the blogs (i read nearly all of them though)
But this was one where i felt i could continue the discussion Smiley

Since i play such a wide variety of games in such short periods of time(~20 games a month average over the last several years) i'm exposed to quite a few different takes on game play/story telling.

 
I feel narrative is severely underrated, or not quite understood by many when it comes to any type of storytelling. To describe the difference between story and narrative to somebody I just keep it simple and say; "Story is what happens, narrative is how it happens." One of the worst devices to continue a story is the ever popular fetch quest mentioned above, at least in games that are built entirely around it. As much as I love the Elder Scrolls games the stories, both main and side, just send you into some ruins to find something. Its nothing but fetch quests. The fun in those games comes from the open world and building your own story outside of the quest lines.

Its a shame you're not playing the Suikoden games with the site. The first three have a near perfect mixture between the story and its narrative.
 
I really feel that JRPGs and CRPGs (until recently, maybe) had the greatest balance of forced narrative and choice.  Take Planescape: Torment for example.  It manages to provide one of the greatest and most cohesive stories ever told in a game, yet provides just enough choice to keep the player going without breaking the character or narrative flow.

The irony about all of this is that while I love a good story, I tend to gravitate towards games that either are more open ended or provide a way for me to "break" the game to my own amusement.  I can't you how many hours I wasted trying to get on top of all the buildings in GTAIII.  Hundreds, must be.  And the Adoring Fan in Oblivion?  Let him to his doom in a multitude of fashions, all in the name of trying to see how good his "AI" was.
 
@bombatomba:I remember trying to see how far I could get in ESIV: Oblivion just by using my summons so I could technically say *I* never killed anything.  I cleared a good chunk of the game before losing interest. Tongue

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