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First up is context. Film provides a broad range of experience – from the non-narrative work of Koyaanisqatsi, through the short film made of still images La Jetee, to the massive blockbusters of Iron Man. Novels are the same – from the epic poetry of Sharp Teeth, through the metatextual work of House of Leaves, to mainstream work like the Da Vinci Code. Comics take us from the 4-colour world of Superman, through the stark, washed out textures of Jimmy Corrigan, to the allegorical Maus.
And games are the same, stretching from the purely mechanical experience of Tetris through games where the fiction is a backdrop for the mechanics, like Gears of War, to heavily narrative experiences like Dragon Age or Mass Effect.
These are all games though, and what I want to look at is the storytelling strengths of games compared to those other mediums.
When I was younger, I used to go on these caravan holidays with my family, and one of the small pleasures I had then was when I got my daily allowance and disappeared to the park’s grubby little arcade with the hope that they’d have a Star Wars arcade cabinet – and that nobody was using it.
It was my escape. For as long as I could survive, I got to play at being Luke Skywalker flying through space, shooting down Tie Fighters, destroying the Death Star.
But, I grew up, I stopped going on those holidays, and that arcade game slipped into memory.
Until I went to the opening of the Game On Exhibition at ACMI, where they had a pristine cabinet just sitting there, bleeping out John William’s score, spilling green and red vector light out onto the floor, reminding me of the time I’d spent with it years ago.
So, why am I talking about this? It’s because the personal experience I had with that game – through play, through identity, and through the moment to moment choices I made, are fundamental to how games deliver narrative, and to their unique storytelling strengths.
One useful way of thinking about story & narrative experiences (for game writers at least) is as a space, with the form you experience that space being a guided navigation of that. The job of the individual form is to encourage you to explore – to find out what happens next, to dig into the subtext & themes, to empathise with the characters, to raise questions and push forward for them to be answered.
And in a lot of ways, this is the same process that we go through when we learn & play – we form a hypothesis about the rules of the world, we probe the world with that in mind, and then we integrate or reject our initial idea.
Which is mirrored in how we read and internalise narrative. Stories, good stories, should surprise & engage you, putting you in free-fall, leading you along a trail of breadcrumbs that you can follow and integrate. Every word you read, every panel you read, every frame of a film causes you to evaluate & re-evaluate the shape of the story you’re experiencing, and form the shape of the story out of that questioning, that learning, that playing.
What games do though, is make that process of play more overt.
One of the ways they do that is by encouraging the player to adopt identities.
Going back to Star Wars, everything in that game was designed to make you feel like you were Luke Skywalker destroying the Death Star. It’s a game that kids had been playing for years before the game was available, but sitting in the arcade, you could immerse yourself in the feedback loop of the moment to moment choices of flying the X-Wing, shooting down Tie-Fighters, and shutting your computer down in the middle of the trench run.
In that cockpit, the player becomes the protagonist, with the same goals and the same level of freedom of choice as Luke in the movie.
If you speak to people about their experience playing games and what they did, it’s always of the form ‘I did this…’, never ‘The character did this…’
Choice is one of the fundamental forces in narrative. Character want things and make choices to get them, and in doing so they exhibit agency in the world. By having the player adopt the identity of an in-game character, games shift that sense of agency onto the player, having them make moment to moment choices within the rules of the game. These choices manifest in different ways depending on the game, with some having limited effect on the narrative, and others causing grand changes in the shape of the story arcs.
The Star Wars arcade game has limited choices in narrative terms – fail or succeed – but moment to moment, you’re constantly reacting to incoming fire, the swarms of fighters, avoiding towers, all in a feedback loop of figuring out the rules of the world and how it works.
A game like Mass Effect by contrast has much larger choice. Decisions you make in conversation, how you approach combat, and how you’ve chosen to roleplay your character, all affect the steps you take through the larger narrative, crafting a unique, personal, experience.
Osmos is a game where the entirety of the mechanics are embedded in the fiction, and which encourages you to adopt the simpler identity of a cell floating in some space or liquid along with other cells. You expel some of your mass to move, absorb things smaller than you, and can be absorbed by things larger than you. Beyond that fiction, the game has no narrative elements at all.
Flower is a game that, at first glance, appears to be in the same vein as Osmos, but the way that the game’s goals have been constructed, and the presentation of the dull grey city during the game’s brief introductory cutscenes paint a story about the balance between nature and man-made technology, how they can live in harmony, but also how one can overpower the other. In the simple shots of zooming in on the flower, the suggestion is made that the game is the flower’s dream, and in the taking on of that identity, the player follows the goals of opening up the other flowers and restoring colour to the world.
Batman: Arkham Asylum
A much clearer example of identity and how that shapes narrative and choices is the game Batman: Arkham Asylum, in which you play as Batman (which is cool!). Everything in the game, from the moment to moment gameplay choices, through how you move through the space, to what Batman wants as a protagonist, and to how the linear narrative plays out, is reflected in the player adopting that identity, while still allowing space for the player to express themselves and make choices.
Machinarium is another example of a game that encourages identity adoption of a narrative rather than a character. The player is encouraged to empathise with the character, but the game’s presentation distances the player from him, making control of him indirect. Its narrative is also doled out piece by piece as you move through the world and solve puzzles. Failing to solve these puzzles stalls the narrative, and it’s only the desire to see what’s next in the story, and to help the little robot out, that keeps the player going.
Uncharted 2 (and it’s predecessor) is a narrative best described as a roller-coaster. The narrative is linear, and the player moves through it at a proscribed pace, performing the necessary actions along the designed path. While choice is non-existent in the story, and also limited in the mechanical elements, it succeeds in drawing the player through a challenging, surprising set of puzzles and a story full of interesting twists and turns populated with well drawn and acted characters.
Grand Theft Auto 4
Grand Theft Auto 4 is an example of a game where the player is put into a thematic space and allowed to explore the extents of that, both through the linear, twining plots of the multiple narratives, but also in the side-quests & open-world. The game is an exploration of the immigrant experience, and everything is designed to support that – from watching the absurd shows on the television, to the hyper-bright lights of the entertainment district, to the missions where the character’s past catches up with him.
Grand Theft Auto is at its most interesting when the internal conflicts of the character are played out, putting what the game’s story & mechanics ask you to do – which is to steal & kill & run drugs – in conflict with Niko’s desire to build a better life for himself away from that. To complete the game, the player has to undertake those missions, just as Niko has to in order to survive, but his questioning of them bleeds out into the player’s experience, causing them to question them too.
Mass Effect, and its sequel, are examples of games where the player has much greater control over the shape of the story, both in terms of the moment to moment mechanics and the narrative choices. Players control conversations, choose how to approach situations, choose which missions to take in particular orders, and to craft a unique personal experience. However, while some of the details of the story are unique for each player, the key goals remain the same – destroy the Geth race, save the Citadel station. Within that space though, the amount of player choice & impact on the world is considerable – Mass Effect 2 has over 700 hooks into the choices made in the original story, from characters who died, to adverts for movies made of your exploits.
These concept of play, of identity, and choice are part of the fundamental strengths of games as a storytelling medium, one which we’re only just working out how to properly exploit. All of these games encourage you to take on the identity of the protagonist, with varying degrees of agency, but an interesting question is raised when that sense of agency is questioned in the game itself.
Bioshock is a game that, at its core, is about agency, about a man’s ability to act in their own intersests & change the world. Based on Ayn Rand’s philosophy, the player enters the underwater city of Rapture, built by the industrialist Andrew Ryan as a place, in his words, ‘where the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small.’
But it falls apart, because not everybody can be a captain of industry, or a great scientist, or a famous artist – somebody still needs to scrub the toilets.
It’s into this crumbling world that the player is dropped and from its earliest moments, encouraged to approach the city as they see fit, to choose how to move through the space, what weapons to use, which abilities (from pyrokinesis to controlling swarms of bugs) to focus on. Everything the game does is to give the player a sense of agency for the first 3 or 4 hours of play.
And then it changes that.
It’s revealed that you were grown in a vat and hypnotically conditioned so that every time someone says anything with the phrase ‘would you kindly…’, you do what they tell you. Suddenly, in flashbacks presented in the game, but also in the feelings of the player, you’re forced to reevaluate everything you’ve done in-game up to that point, and realise that the agency you felt had been a lie.
And that feeling is something you can only get from having spend that time in the game, making choices, feeling in control, piecing together the narrative and the mystery as you did.
This is the unique strength of video games because rather than empathising with a character in a novel or on a screen, you take on their goals and actions, and in response feel some of their successes and failures. The experience of the game is a personal one, and so when games raise questions and choices, the responses reflect the player and, at their best, reveal something about you.