A Brief Look At Narrative In Gaming

Several weeks ago, my mother caught a glimpse of me playing Final Fantasy X; a now twelve year old game. She caught me during a cinematic and asked if it was a movie or a game. The legitimate confusion in the inflection of her voice genuinely worried me as she went on to add about how boring it was. This lead to a realization that in spite of how long it has been since the release of such a narrative driven, albeit poorly executed, experience there still exists this massive misconception among non-gamers about what video games can be.

42 years ago, this was considered cutting edge

Technology has progressed at a rapid pace since the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game console, hit store shelves in 1972. The rudimentary technology of the day was incapable of using graphics to represent anything aside from a few white blocks. Everything else was to be replaced by a screen overlay, which would fit over the television and have artwork that represented what the limited computational power of the system could not hope to achieve. Fast forward to 2014 with the Wii U, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One on the market and we are early into the eighth generation of home consoles. The shift in gameplay experiences, visuals, and storytelling over the past forty or so years reflects much of what film went through upon its inception. Video game consoles have existed less than half a century, whereas the likes of film has existed over a hundred years with literature trumping even that lifespan by a wide margin, making gaming still a fledgling medium.

Other forms of entertainment have had plenty of time to grow and mature over the years, becoming what they are today. Video game developers have only just begun to tap the surface of how to tell stories while working within the constraints and strengths of the medium. Storytelling isn’t necessarily new to video games. It has always existed, though much like the porno industry(forgive that poor analogy), it was never integral to the experience and merely existed as a means with which to drop the player into different settings or scenarios. The best-selling video game franchise to date, the Mario series, has kept story to a bare minimum since the original Mario Bros. arcade game in 1983. Nintendo has been content with recycling the tired damsel in distress trope for practically every game since Super Mario Bros. on the NES in 1985.

There is nothing inherently wrong with that model. Nintendo does what it does best. They know how to make video games in the purest sense of the word. Gameplay is the focus with minor exposition the player won’t care about because he/she wants to play the game for fun. That is not, however, the limit of the medium. Many games during the late 1980’s-early 1990’s experimented with the idea of bombarding the player with walls of text in hopes of creating real context behind everything in the game. Games like Chrono Trigger or the early Final Fantasy series were some of the most prolific examples of that era, experimenting with telling a story that went beyond the superficial “Good guy kills hundreds of bad guys because it’s fun to play”.

3D gaming was introduced to the masses in 1995 with the Sony PlayStation. Not only were games brought into the third dimension, but voice acting became a viable option for any game, further expanding the possibilities. The following console generation defined by the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube saw its fair share of well told and emotional stories such as the Max Payne series, Metal Gear Solid series, Ico, Shadow of The Colossus and the Silent Hill franchise. That trend would only continue to grow through to the current generation.

One major advantage gaming has over film and literature is the interactive nature of it, lending itself to an entirely separate feel from the passiveness of a movie or book. Executed properly, that player interaction helps the gamer connect more deeply with the events transpiring before him/her. This deep emotional connection can greatly elevate horror games above horror movies or novels, most notably Silent Hill. The most highly regarded entry, Silent Hill 2(2001), is a deeply entrancing, psychological experience rife with symbolism. The franchise unsurprisingly takes inspiration from Jacob’s Ladder(1990), a great movie to base its psychological horror off of.

Silent Hill 2 stars James Sunderland, a man whom has just received a letter from his wife, Mary. The letter tells him to meet her at their “special place” in the town of Silent Hill. The problem with that is Mary died of a terminal illness three years prior. In spite of this, he decides to visit Silent Hill in hopes of finding his wife. Upon arrival, he finds a woman named Maria. The name isn’t the only similarity. Maria looks and sounds exactly like Mary. The only tangible differences are in her hair and clothing. She is not Mary or anyone else for that matter. Maria is an image created by James’ subconscious. The town of Silent Hill simply makes those subconscious thoughts come to life in her slightly more devious personality and revealing clothing. Virtually every creature and human character in Silent Hill 2 has some sort of meaning attached to them. One of the characters James comes across before even Maria is Angela who seems to show signs of schizophrenia or possibly another mental disorder.

Throughout the game, the player finds out Angela was physically abused by her father growing up and she ended up murdering him with a knife. She constantly feels remorse for her actions, as evidenced by a sequence in which James is accompanied by Angela. He begins to see fire in the building as he’s with Angela. She mutters something to the effect of “You see it too? For me, it’s always like this”. That fire isn’t physically in that space. It is all a projection of Angela’s guilt. Everywhere she goes, the fire follows. She believes she deserves to burn in hell for killing her father.

Silent Hill 2’s mannequin monster

Most of what James sees in Silent Hill is specific to him and him only. That is why so many of the characters seem to get by just fine in the town and almost seem impervious to whatever James is facing. The town of Silent Hill projects a person’s inner most thoughts, fears, and personality traits onto monsters or even other humans as seen with Maria. The “lying figures”, creatures vaguely resembling a person in a straitjacket, represent James’ inner torment. The mannequin monster is a set of legs with two more legs split in a V-shape where the torso normally would be. These monsters symbolize his sexual repression, an understandable thing to deal with when his wife is deathly ill for so long before passing away. We as human beings are driven by lust.

One of the better franchises to tackle as far as narrative in gaming is concerned would be Metal Gear Solid. Spanning over half a dozen entries, the mythos of Metal Gear Solid is incredible dense and filled with all these predictions and ideologies about society, the ethics of technology, genetic engineering, nuclear war, and even government control in a largely digital society. It also plays very heavily with conspiracy theories. One of the most profound conversations within the series, lasting twelve minutes, occurs just before the final boss fight of Metal Gear Solid 2(2001). Much of what was said in that conversation was far ahead of its time and some of it ended up developing into actual issues in the coming years. Here is a small excerpt: “The digital society furthers human flaws and selectively rewards development of convenient half-truths. Just look at the strange juxtapositions of morality around you. Billions spent on new weapons in order to humanely murder other humans. Rights of criminals are given more respect than the privacy of their victims. Although there are people suffering in poverty, huge donations are made to protect endangered species. Everyone grows up being told the same thing. Be nice to other people, but beat out the competition…You exercise your right to ‘freedom’ and this is the result. All rhetoric to avoid conflict and protect each other from hurt. The untested truths spun by different interests continue to churn and accumulate in the sandbox of political correctness and value systems. Everyone withdraws into their own small gated communities, afraid of a larger forum. They stay inside their little ponds, leaking whatever ‘truth’ suits them into the growing cesspool of society at large. The different cardinal truths neither clash nor mesh. No one is invalidated, but nobody is right”.

In stark contrast to that, Shadow of The Colossus(2005) features very little dialogue or cinematics. It is the tale of a man who travels to a forbidden land in order to find a way to revive a dead woman. He is confronted by an ominous voice telling him he may be able to save her provided he is able to wipe out sixteen monsters, the Colossi, though there is no guarantee. These sixteen bosses are the only enemies the player encounters. Oftentimes, the journey to the Colossus’ dwelling is as integral to the experience as engaging them directly. It is a very low-key, almost serene experience traveling from Colossus to Colossus, soaking in the sparse environments and heavy atmosphere. The player begins to stumble across many questions as he/she plays. Who are the Colossi? Why is the land we’re trudging through so forbidden? What is the significance of the Colossi? Nothing is explicitly stated, instead remaining shrouded in an aura of mystery so as to keep the player on edge. For a game with little dialogue aside from exchanges between the protagonist and disembodied voice before and after each boss encounter, there is a surprising amount of emotional depth. Shadow of The Colossus grasps the concept many movies have perfected; the art of visual storytelling.

Walk down a normal street and ask random people how they would feel about a human being murdered in an inhumane way, then proceed to ask them the same question about an animal. Many more people will tend to sympathize with the plight of an innocent, defenseless animal in comparison to a person. Team Ico, the developers, tapped into that human affinity for animal companionship and in turn ends up creating the single most fleshed out “pet” I’ve seen in a video game. Through the expansive journey, the player crosses the vast landscape using his horse. Initially, It is seen as merely a mode of transport, but it’s in the little touches that one can connect so deeply with the horse. It won’t always run to you when you whistle for it. Sometimes, out of fear, he may even completely fail to respond to your commands and kick you off him. This emotional bond strengthens as Shadow of The Colossus moves on to its finale, making it the only animal in any movie or video game I have felt any ounce of emotion for.

It wasn’t until the following generation, though, that developers and publishers began a large push toward artistic and narrative driven experiences. This past generation has seen some of the finest examples of writing, characterization, and emotional depth while also experimenting with different ways of utilizing the inherent strengths of the medium. Games like The Witcher 2: Assassin’s of Kings, Mass Effect trilogy, Catherine, Heavy Rain, and Beyond: Two Souls chose to take advantage of the interactive storytelling approach. Each of these games are different in every sense, though they share one common thread; that is each game relies heavily on player choice and divergent story paths.

Heavy Rain, a 2010 release, was a deeply flawed game in many respects, but it ultimately delivered on its promise of player choice. With twenty endings and four playable characters, any of which can die as the story continues without them, Heavy Rain invites repeat playthroughs for a different experience every time. Certainly, the dialogue can reach high levels of embarrassment along with the inconsistent voice acting, but it mostly transcends these issues. Heavy Rain begins with Ethan Mars, a loving father and successful architect, getting stuff ready for his son’s birthday party (he has two children). Shortly after this intro, a scene plays out in which one of Ethan’s sons is hit by a car. Fast forward two years and he is now a divorced man living with depression. His ex-wife holds custody of the one child, though they do take turns raising him on occasion. It is during one of Ethan’s weeks with his son that he is kidnapped by a serial killer under the alias– The Origami Killer.

Ethan Mars playing with his son. Too bad he’ll die in 10 minutes.

The game then begins proper and the other three playable characters aside from Ethan are in some way connected to the origami killer and want to find him as well. The player had already spent some time with his child in the opening scenes, though due to the unrestricted length of gaming, a fair amount of time is spent developing a faint bond with Ethan’s son as he does his homework and plays with him at the park. After the disappearance, Ethan comes across notes and clues left behind by the origami killer. In an almost Saw like fashion, Ethan is tasked with a set of challenges ranging anywhere from driving against oncoming traffic to killing a person, gradually receiving bits and pieces of the address where his son is being held captive. Of course, as an interactive story, it is entirely possible to fail these challenges and never rescue the protagonist’s son. Its central tagline—“How far are you willing to go to save someone you love” hits home with a lot of people. I won’t deny Heavy Rain was one of the few games that made me tear up twice. Amid the less than stellar execution lies a deeply personal narrative that also manages to challenge the preconceived notions of a traditional video game. Imagine what could be done with this template in another ten or so years as the medium evolves.

Whereas Heavy Rain was billed more as “interactive drama” than a video game, the Mass Effect series still has the same core tenants that carried Heavy Rain; It is about delivering player choice, albeit in the case of Mass Effect its actual gameplay isn’t so limited. It plays like a standard shooter with role playing elements while never losing sight of the narrative and characters. The overarching plot of the trilogy essentially boils down to the protagonist attempting to ready himself for the impending threat of invasion from an ancient alien species known as the Reapers.  It sounds very much like a typical space opera about saving the universe from aliens and while that may be true in a sense, the basic plot is not where Mass Effect’s strengths lie. Its strengths lie in dialogue and character development while providing a rich universe with intriguing lore. This being science fiction, several species of alien co-exist with human beings, allowing for a colorful array of faces. In spite of some of the seemingly bizarre appearances of some of the aliens, their personality traits remain human, making them that much more believable.

player choice is what makes the Mass Effect experience

The depth the player gets out of the experience is roughly equal to the amount put into it. All of the characters Shepard meets on his/her journey can be expendable bullet fodder or they can become so much more than that. Some of Shepard’s crew/squad tend to only show themselves on a shallow surface level in the main story, therefore becoming acquainted with them on a deeper level is entirely open to the player. Outside of missions, Commander Shepard can roam his/her space ship and have optional conversations with the crew on-board. The backstory and inner most feelings of many of these characters can only be uncovered through the player’s own persistence to get to know them each as individuals. Likewise, with the ability to import saves across all three games keeping tally of the choices made, the experience of the Mass Effect trilogy is personal to everyone. I have easily sunk in well over a hundred hours across the Mass Effect franchise and that time investment has stuck with me more than any investment I’ve sunk into a film franchise. Very few experiences I have had with any set of characters in any medium will remain engraved in my memory the way the Mass Effect trilogy has with its ambitious scope. This level of character development, emotional attachment, and personal narrative could not have been reached were Mass Effect relegated to a mere film or book series.

One theme that tends to become muddled and underrepresented in games is that of love and relationships. Many games have sexual themes and romantic interests, but hardly ever show an accurate depiction of such a complex human emotion. Films have tread that ground many times over and done it very well, but few games aside from Catherine tackle the subject matter in a believable and respectable way.

Under the guise of a puzzle and social sim, Catherine follows Vincent Brooks, a young man who has been dating Katherine for several years as he contemplates his life. You see, Vincent is the typical twenty something year old man with a fear of commitment and hesitates around the prospect of marrying Katherine, especially once he comes across Catherine(no, that is not a typo); a young woman that seems to be just his type. Throughout the game’s puzzle sequences taking place in Vincent’s dreams/nightmares, the player is invited to imagery and symbolism befitting of how he feels. It also confronts players with moral choices, reflecting that player’s own feelings about relationships. When I first played through Catherine, I treated each moral choice as I normally would if I were in Vincent’s position. It was much easier to do than a Mass Effect or a Heavy Rain because of the plausibility. Never in my life would I have sex with an alien or be forced to shoot a drug dealer. We’ve all likely had our fair share of relationships and to have a game like Catherine explore that is refreshing. It’s also commendable that tons of quotes from philosophers, writers, and poets were included in the loading screens for a further sense of reinforcement. Moral grey areas are abundant. You’re never too sure whether Catherine is in favor of men, women, or indifferent to either in regards to their love lives.

 

There are so many other brilliantly realized video game worlds, stories, and characters, but even had I delved into Bioshock’s objectivist and altruistic themes or The Witcher 2’s political, racial, and adult subject matter, none of it would significantly help the case I’m trying to make. I could have dived deep into many other games such as The Last of Us, though relegating them to a snippet of a larger article would be doing them a disservice. Video games can and should be able to appease two different kinds of gamers—those that want a plain fun traditional video game and those that want something more immersive. The beauty of video games is the sheer variety of experiences they can provide. Whereas a film’s genre generally dictates its tone, a game’s genre only dictates how it plays and has no bearing on whether it is a dumb or a deeply engaging story with a specific tone. The animosity from video game purists I tend to see on the internet is appalling.

Cinematic games and traditional games can peacefully co-exist. I feel that a real gamer is open to any kind of experience. Surely,everyone has their preferences. I prefer games rich in story, though I also love and appreciate traditional games such as the painfully underrated Singularity. Storytelling isn’t going to leave the game industry. It’s going to become more and more integral to games as technology improves and consumers desire more. Done well, a video game story can be more engaging than anything else and that is what excites me so much about the medium. I want to grow up and see where gaming will be in twenty or thirty years.