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Posted on May 16th 2016 at 08:00:00 AM by (slackur)
Posted under Video Game Narrative, rants, overthinking, Black Ops III, seriously go play Soma I wont tell you again Yes I will

pic from Bo News

So for the first time, you see this very attractive and interesting person from a distance.  Later you find yourself with the good fortune to begin a conversation with this person, and also find that they are fun to talk to and seem to have some points worth considering.  Things are going great, and you are considering arranging time to hang out more with this new person.  And then, in the middle of the conversation, for no discernable reason, they quickly rabbit-punch you in the nose and continue talking as if nothing just happened.

Blinking, disoriented, and in at least a little pain, you are confused as to what just happened.  But you continue the conversation, desiring to dismiss the random event in light of how well everything else is going.  Besides, maybe it was an accident or easily explained later.  You reinvest your attention into the other person, a short time passes, and your concerns start to assuage, then *BAM*!  Again on the nose.

It doesn't take much more time for you to seriously question if investing in this relationship is at all worth it.  And sure enough, this becomes a pattern, an understood factor to any time you spend with this person: interesting conversation, some fun thoughts, and then sharp, immediate, frustrating pain for no real reason.

If the article title doesn't already give it away, this is how I feel about many video game narratives.  By narrative, I don't mean story. The story is what is being said and the thoughts that are explored.  The narrative is the method, the way in which the story is presented and progresses.  And many video games greatly struggle with this; the story is at least somewhat interesting, but the game design just seems determined to toss random things in to keep you from enjoying it, and for reasons that fail to improve the gameplay experience.  This isn't about a 'get the game out of my way, I want to see the story' complaint.  (Yes, yes, I'd just go watch a movie.)  It is about when a game displays a focus on telling a narrative, but the gameplay ignores or works against complementing the narrative in ways that do not improve the interactive experience.  When we see this conflict of intent, both narrative and gameplay are less than the some of their respective parts.

Perhaps, I should clarify before continuing. I'm not arguing for every video game to have a story and the story to be well-told.  Tetris Worlds has forever taught us that shoehorning a story into a game can be more than unnecessary, it can be distracting or even unbecoming.  And some games avoid narrative problems almost altogether by making the story a flavor to the game instead of the progression through it.  (Much of Nintendo's output fits well here, as well as Sega's console years.)  What I'm specifically covering are the games that are obviously interested in telling a story, and the ways they shoot themselves in the foot while doing it.

Let's break this down by examining (arguable) successes and failures from different extremes.  The first is where narrative seems self-important but compromised in game design.  Let's call these Narrative Compromised.  The second is where narrative is thrust to the forefront at the expense of interactivity.  Let's label them Narrative Focused.  Of course, we have also have some rare but great examples of games that sythesize both into a middle ground, so those we'll call Narrative Sythesized.  In addition, there are Narrative Dissonant games, where the narrative given is in direct clash with the actions of the gameplay, and Narrative Dismissive, where there is obviously a huge story going on, and it influences but does not hamper gameplay.

Narrative Compromised
The game that inspired me to finally write this article, and not in a good way, was Call of Duty: Black Ops III.  I'm in the minority in that I wait until the new CoD is on sale, and then pick it up to experience the campaign and the occasional 'Zombies' co-op survival.  I've played through most of them, and agree with popular opinion that the highlight of the series' campaigns is probably the first Modern Warfare.   Afterwards, the summer blockbuster feel just overshadowed the 'real-world' feel and while they were fun, I just didn't find any gravitas in the events portrayed. 

The Modern Warfare games felt like a culmination of the original engine and gameplay, stretching the enemy respawn line/set-piece/corridor design as far as it could really go.  The Black Ops campaigns, however, I enjoyed for different reasons.  They always felt like a design team was trying to make a different set of experiences altogether, and was hampered by the design limitations of the rest of the series.  Especially by the third one, it felt like the design team wanted to give us Risk while having to stick to the rules of Checkers.  Nowhere is this more evident than in narrative, and no game in the series shows this more than Black Ops III.

*very mild spoilers*

First, some positive comments, because when it comes to narrative I'm glad Black Ops III was brave enough to try new things.  I enjoyed how the game played with false chronology and identity.  And I'm always a sucker for stories that have a much deeper rabbit hole to be follow in order to understand what is really going on.  Normally I'm very forgiving when it comes to artistic experimentation, especially when it comes to my favorite hobby.  Black Ops III wants to tell a horror story not just of warring nations, but of where that conflict could take is when technology outstrips humanity.  DNI, robotic warfare, AI, drones, inhumane experiments, lost identity, all familiar tropes in sci-fi.  And many of these, though worn, certainly seem closer to home in our current real world year of 200X.  Actually, I very much like the story of Black Ops III, but getting through it was much like having a conversation with an interesting person that occasionally punched me in the face.  Just to get through the main overarching story was difficult on a number of levels.

Why?  Well, I know this is a Call of Duty game, so I'd be the one at fault for expecting a cat to act like a dog, so to speak.  But even within its own skin, Black Ops III is a game at war with itself, sabotaging its own efforts to build any understanding or narrative tension.  It's one thing to be purposefully vague and opaque, as that's inherent to the type of story being told.  But to not even really build the world around the player or explain anything in it is another thing entirely.  The sides of the conflict aren't purposefully vague, they're never explained at all.  Speaking of unexplained, lots of acronyms are tossed left and right for very important things (like, all of the enemy force) and because they are all newly imagined, it just comes across as confusing instead of speaking the language of past or modern wars, as in the previous games.  Certainly some world building is present from the previous two games.  But I spent an entire game fighting enemies that were completely undefined, to the point that the 'human' enemies were explained less than the robots. 
Many issues stemmed from what was obviously several artistic elements tossed together and then later poorly edited without a cohesive flow.  In fairness, some of this is purposeful because the story it seems to tell is revealed to be different than what it appears.  But often a snippet of world building or character dialogue is placed in jarring fashion.  These are less about a story intelligently told out of sync, and more like scenes written and then needing to be dropped in somewhere.  Instead of being purposefully paced and building tension in order to 'pull the rug from underneath,' the cinema scenes and artistic renderings felt haphazardly injected and randomly placed.  Imagine if a film directed by Tarantino and Lynch were then edited by an amateur studio head that understood neither director.  There are moments that start to build, and then are quickly deflated by bad cuts or direction.  It wouldn't be so frustrating if it didn't come so close to being great, unnecessarily undone by poor implementation.

That being said, presentation is far more forgivable than execution, and here is where the real issues lie.  In earlier CoD games, by design it was easy to dismiss the story and just play through, in that summer blockbuster way.  But Black Ops III has many missions designed around telling the story, from altering perspectives to all-in-your-mind missions to artificial simulations.  Over half the game is dedicated to using the game mechanics to tell the narrative, instead of the story being the backdrop to the 'real' action.  This could have been refreshing if the gameplay that works for the series was kept instead of breaking to fit the narrative.  Black Ops III seems to really want to tell its story, but the gameplay keeps getting in the way!  The mission structure and game-to-player communication CoD games are known for just break down.  It may make sense for story reasons that enemies randomly spawn in and behind the player with no rhyme or reason, randomly switch to different types with no identifiers, and the out-of-bounds limitations to be poorly telegraphed.  But the carefully polished, if limited, gunplay the series is known for gets thrown out the window and the whole experience devolves into memorization and repetition for the sake of advancement.  The same unskipp-able monologues repeat endlessly while the player is forced to remember each sniper, heavy weapon placement, and spawn point.  And that's on the easy difficulty!  Basically, the worst issues of a typical CoD game were magnified instead of polished out, mostly because the game design is not successfully altered to complement the artistic designs that the narrative is driving.  Instead of changing the game design to work with the narrative, or (like previous entries) keeping the narrative in the background and focusing on polishing the gameplay experience, we have a forced combination that hampers both. 

I classify Black Ops III (rimshot) as Narrative Compromised because the game doesn't allow the story to be competently told, and instead of simply bolting on a (purposefully) convoluted story atop classic CoD gameplay, it dismisses both narrative and gameplay by compromising both in the worst ways.  The story can be tough to appreciate due to directorial and editorial problems (likely from several teams all cramming efforts together).  But more importantly the gameplay is neither altered to comfortably fit the narrative nor left alone to simply enjoy regardless of the story.  Thus in the end, narrative and gameplay are compromised.  The game was still worth experiencing, in my opinion.  It's like those movies that, when you are asked about, you have to begin with "I liked it, but..."

If you've watched Pam's excellent Snatcher video review from a few front-pages back, we have another perfect example.  Mostly a visual novel with some puzzle solving, the end requires an extremely challenging 'shooting' segment that breaks up the flow and instead of creating tension, just tends to lead to frustration.  Imagine getting to the end of Super Mario Bros. and then fighting a Dark Souls boss.  Sometimes a good game 'breaks' because it loses the flow of what it's trying to do.

I've heard the argument that the best video games are ones that may or may not have worthwhile stories, but gameplay is king and narrative is always secondary to fun.  I would have once agreed with them, but my thoughts on that have changed over the years, mainly due to games like Shadow of the Colossus and most recently, Soma.  Which leads us to...

Another great reason to use this awesome pic!  Nabbed from Kotaku.

Narrative Focused
What should we classify as a "Video Game"?  Any interactive video experience, or just ones with a certain amount of "gameplay"?  That this is even a conversation topic shows how far our industry has come.  Suffice to say, any video game where the main focus is story and the interactive elements are simplified, non-traditional, or the risk of failure mitigated, would fall into the Narrative Focused category.

It may seem as though this is a fairly new category, with the relatively modern development of 'walking simulators' (Gone Home, Dear Esther) , visual novels (Fate/ stay night, Steins;Gate), and newer hybrids like Telltale Games' Walking Dead and Minecraft: Story Mode or Dontnod's Life is Strange.  But I'd argue this is really just the modern form of the old text parser classics like Zork and Maniac Mansion.  'Point and Click' adventure games like the King's Quest and Space Quest series may be considered more puzzle games than story games, but the advancement of the narrative is imbedded by design, and 'gameplay' is second to experimentation and understanding the game's internal logic.  Speaking of 'point and click,' Myst and its sequels are particularly known for really driving environmental storytelling. 

It's tough to fit all these into a solitary genre, simply because creative folks have been using video games to explore narratives since the beginning of the medium.  We've heard these are for 'casuals,' or not 'true games,' or any other derogatory commentary from folks who assume 'video game' intrinsically means 'shoot something in the face.'  But of course this broad category tends to be the most exploratory, open, and experimental space in the industry.  However, that doesn't give these games a free pass when it comes to narration or gameplay.
Telltale Games, for instance, is highly praised for its stories, particularly starting with Walking Dead Season One and Two.  However, as anyone who played them can attest, they are often technically clumsy, poorly optimized, and in some cases just run outright terribly.  This isn't just being picky and not seeing the 'art.'  Several times when attempting to play through the PS3 version of Season One, our game crashed, froze, or became unresponsive to input during crucial decisions, and at times the auto-save meant that the technical foul forced a decision we didn't want to make.  A focus on narrative is no excuse for a shoddily-running game.

What if technical problems aren't the concern, but the gameplay itself?  Even though the focus is more on spectacle instead of story, I place games like Dragon's Lair and FMV games in this category.  Most folks who played it in the arcades never saw the lion's share of the actual game due to the difficult controls and timing, which encompasses the entirety of the gameplay.  I'm not at all implying it is impossible to enjoy these type of games, but it has to be admitted that the mechanism of gameplay does prevent many players from seeing the complete spectacle (until the home released offered to view the game to completion without inputs.)  In fact, the ability to experience a game despite skill level is a relevant topic all its own.  And before completely decrying these type of gameplay experiences, it should be mentioned that there are other ways to build a game around these limited inputs.  From Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective to Papers, Please, and the recently acclaimed Her Story, there are other arguments to be made besides 'gameplay is king.'     

My favorite recent experience with a successful Narrative Focused game has been Soma.  Even though the player character can 'die' and there are moderate puzzles to solve, most of the game is designed around atmosphere, storytelling, and mood.  The action element is all evasion and careful observation, designed around the narrative elements.  To call the game 'fun' isn't quite right, but the experience was superb and left me really dwelling on what the game was exploring.  Soma's gameplay could be said to serve the narrative, but the combination works because of clear focus and design.  There is no sudden platform challenge or impossible boss to fight, because the game stays on task and is consistent with its internal design.

Narrative Synthesized
And what about those brilliant unicorns, the rare breed that blends storytelling and gameplay like peanut-butter and chocolate?  I can think of quite a few examples.  Both Portal games absolutely nail the story and gameplay intertwining to a better whole.  BioShock (and IMHO, the criminally underrated BioShock 2) is another popular example.  The recent Tomb Raider reboot and sequel really focused on character development, a welcome and interesting design choice.  Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City blended narrative, character development, and gameplay in very intuitive ways, even as the games presented other faults in the experience. 

Narrative Synthesis should not be the goal of every game.  It all depends on the experience the game is made to give.  But this category is definitely the toughest to pull off successfully, and therefore the rarest.  Thus when everything comes together perfectly, these games are rightly praised for the effort and good fortune involved.

Then there is Narrative Dissonance and Narrative DismissiveNarrative Dissonance is a huge topic all its own.  This would be when narrative and gameplay are completely at odds, such as Fallout 4's synth-defending faction going into detail about how synths are worth liberating and defending, but then the game immediately commands the player to go and kill these synths because they are guards and the player needs to get past them.  Or how Uncharted allows an everyman, likeable hero to slay hundreds of other human beings, basically becoming a sociopathic murderer, in the name of treasure hunting.  Or how Borderlands 2's  big bad owns the company that runs the machines that instantly rematerialize your character and apparently needs the paltry few bucks it takes to respawn your character instead of, you know, turning them off.  Yeah, we could be on this topic awhile.

And then there is Narrative Dismissive, where much story exists but is easily dismissed altogether.  The difference between this category and the bulk of most video games ever created is this is referring to a game with a large pre-existing story and lore for the game's universe, but it isn't necessary to 'get' into the game or enjoy it.  It is there to absorb at the player's discretion, even though a narrative is clearly driving the game from the background.  Because by design the narrative can be easily dismissed, it would seem silly to critique it.  But sadly, there are definitely ways to mess this up.

An example is how cross-media can greatly impact the way a narrative is told.  For some IPs, it may completely compromise the ability to follow a story if the game is the only narrative source.  The most recent egregious example, of course, is the Halo universe.  Between movies, books, comics, ARGs, and DLC-exclusive content, it is impossible to really know what is going on in Halo if the only story bits come from the games themselves.  I'm all for cross-media supplementing a main story, but something is lost when I can play a game (Halo 4, for example) and have no idea who the big bad is, why he hates humanity, what's up with his giant black basketball, and why he's looking for a good composer.  (That one we know; Bungie fired him.)  Unless we read a thick prequel trilogy beforehand (which was actually pretty good) we really can't answer any of that clearly, and most of the game is spent chasing this dude.  At least give me an in-game cliff notes to read or something.

Which is still better than one of my strongest love/hate video game relationships, Destiny.  There is a rich lore and a ton of backstory completely absent (though hinted) in the game, and the only way to get any of it isn't in printed books, extra games, or vinyl LPs.  No, its in an app, in paragraph-sized snippets, scattered and unintuitive, and clunky at that.  The 'real' stories are all locked away, piecemeal, completely separate from the game universe.  This is not the best way to get us hooked into your story, guys.   

A modern example of a game that surprisingly got this right is the new Doom.  There is a story, lore, and interesting details that paint a full picture.  And all of it is easily dismissed, left to the background if so desired, while the gameplay is the focus.  Doom 3 had a very slow beginning and at times a poorly paced campaign, even as much as I enjoyed the focus on story and lore (and the game overall).  The new Doom starts with your Doomguy punching and the rest of the game runs with it.

Perhaps the best current example of an excellent Narrative Dismissive is in the Dark Souls games and Bloodborne.  There is obviously a huge story going on in each of these, and it literally infects every artistic and gameplay element.  The games can be thoroughly enjoyed without really even knowing what's really going on, but the background lore is there to be explored if the player decides to invest in it.  Sure, it's as occluded as Destiny, but at least I can access it all from in-game.

As video games are the newest storytelling medium, it makes sense that there is a lot of conversation on its successes, failures, and the process that distinguishes each.  And at the end of the day, it is important to admit that most fall somewhere in the middle and few ever hit everything wrong or right.  So join in the conversation around the digital campfire and help us argue over what makes the best new cave painting.


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I wish I could say I'm sorry I didn't play BLOPS III. The truth of the matter is though, my interest in the CoD games has gone steadily downward the more they focus on nonsensical bombast instead of compelling gameplay. It's nice to hear Black Ops III tried to do some cool things; that spinoff was the one that seemed to be differentiating itself pretty well with the first two entries. I actually thought the story in Advanced Warfare was better than a CoD game had had in a good long while, but that can mostly be attributed to Kevin Spacey just Kevin Spacey-ing up every scene he appeared in.

I always thought the more recent Grand Theft Auto games did a pretty decent job of integrating the story into the gameplay, with conversations taking place as you drive to different jobs/missions. That kind of thing felt very unique and interesting to me at the time I first saw it. Although, GTAIV still had a huge amount of narrative dissonance as well, with Niko constantly saying he wanted to get out of the mob life in between missions that had him doing all kinds of masochistic and destructive things.
Yeah, the Grand Theft Auto games have lots of positives going for them, but the narrative dissonance grew as the series went from parody to drama. Not to say the newer ones don't have humor or parody, but there is a definite change in tone after Vice City that made me personally lose interest.

Hiring Kevin Spacey was a step in the right direction for CoD, but I felt the game narrative didn't match the ambition of the story. He did make a more interesting villain than generic West-hating Makarov, though.

Thanks for commenting!
Nice article, Jess!  Man, I really love the variety of games we have now.  Like you wrote, I think there is a time and place for everything when it comes to narrative, and I think I can point out a lot of games that have different structures that I enjoy playing.  Sometimes I like a good, thick story; sometimes I don't want the narrative rolled up like a newspaper and hit with it.  Sometimes I want to glide along without a care in the world, then suddenly remember there are actually story-based missions, and I need to circle back to Seyda Neen to get back on track.  Currently I think Dismissive is my favorite.  I really dig discovery and sometimes having to piece things together myself is the best part of the journey.

@zophar53: That is exactly the problem with trying to have a strong narrative while giving the player a ton of freedom; it gives too many chances to break the game for some people (in a non-comical manner).  Funny, but GTAIV was the exact game I was thinking of too while reading about Narrative Dissonance.
Great article, man!  I'd never given it this much thought, but you're right - as gaming has moved further and further toward more story-based narratives, it becomes more difficult to tie the game and the story together.  I quite enjoyed the inFAMOUS games, in that, you could really choose your direction, and either you're just killing the "bad guys" to help save people and right your mistakes, OR you could be the bad guy, killing everyone at your discretion, and taking out the bad guys becomes just more targets on your path of destruction.  Sure, the narrative in those games isn't perfect, but it's mostly well-weaved into the game, with the news broadcasts popping up during gameplay, and supplementing the main story sequences that present in more of a "cutscene" fashion.  I would be interested in finding and playing more games that connect the story and gameplay together as well as those 1st 2 games did.

Yeah, the infamous games are interesting and well-done narrative-driven games, good call! Smiley 

I've been superbly impressed by Tales from the Borderlands which features surprisingly well-written characters and a fun story.  And speaking of Dismissive, Overwatch has a lot of background lore that is teased out but explained in places other than the game proper, including animated shorts and a great visual sourcebook.  It really helps the world feel alive and 'lived in'.

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