An Interactive Arrangement: The Strengths and Weaknesses of Video Game Storytelling
Guest blogger Tim Poon is a writer and professional dodgeball player from Dallas, Texas. Formerly an editor of The Daily Toreador newspaper, he currently freelances for various magazines and websites and specializes in critical analyses of video games, though you may have seen some short stories floating around out there, too. Screenplays and novels are next on the agenda, right after he figures out how to cook and eat his keyboard for sustenance.
Though such products still exist and manage to thrive via indie channels and retweeted links, games have moved beyond the days of pure mechanics. A thin veneer of mostly implied story doesn’t really cut it anymore and now a new generation of sophisticated gamers requires a story, an explicit narrative that can keep pace with those told on televisions and movie screens.
As an interactive medium, though, video games are able to do certain things that movies simply will never even have a chance to pull off. They, for instance, can actually provide a highly personalized, dual-layered catharsis, one that works to vindicate the character as well as yourself by getting as close as possible to putting you in their shoes. It’s the difference between watching someone else get their revenge and you being the one actually pulling the trigger. Video games provide that because they are, by definition, interactive.
And for that reason alone, games still struggle with certain elements of a traditional story and have quite a ways to catch up with films, but they also have a much easier time with other parts. Along the Beat Sheet, certain peaks and valleys of the plot stand out as simplified for games, such as the Catalyst and the Fun and Games.
Catalyst – Let the Games Begin.
The Catalyst is easy because it’s usually dictated by the genre. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you are set forth to adventure in a classic fantasy world full of elves, dwarves, and magic, so what better than to have a dragon attack get things going? Resistance 3 is a sci-fi shooter, so let’s have a giant alien ship destroy the hero’s safe haven.
For games, it’s important to set up the premise and get the Opening Image and Theme Stated as quickly as possible so players can get to the meat of the game (read: actually playing it). Depending on the intended audience, this can force your hand on being reserved and subtle, but when games skimp on the Set-up, they can more than make up for it in making a grand spectacle of the Catalyst.
It doesn’t hurt that you get to witness and control your experience yourself. When that dragon flies overhead, spewing fire and shaking your screen with its roar, you are also the one running for cover and looking around for fear of being set aflame. This takes the character’s Catalyst and makes it your own. This winged beast is as much of a shake-up for you as it is for your character. I love high tech visual stuff, it’s only normal that I know a bunch about screens. Here are some comparisons of the best gaming monitors.
A Game’s Fun and… Games
Fun and Games kind of speaks for itself. For the most part, “the promise of the premise” is the entire reason the game exists. Pitches of games will often focus mostly on the gameplay because that is the core of the product. If the game plays horribly, it most likely won’t sell well and most definitely won’t be received well, so the mechanics are discussed and fleshed out first before a story is then built up around them. It’s not that one is more important than the other, per se, but rather it usually helps to have the way the game plays inform the story it tells.
To fall back on Skyrim, the premise is that you are a Dragonborn, an individual (of any number sentient races) that has the soul of a dragon, and you have the ability to learn and speak the language of the dragons. This just so happens to be the key to unlocking the power of the dragons, therefore the promise of the premise is that you will get to unleash dragon powers upon your enemies, which will at some point include other dragons. And once the story breaks into the second act, you get about 50 hours of that promise being fulfilled (more if you indulge in its seemingly endless amount of B Stories).
Playing on Doubt – From Debate to All Is Lost
Where games struggle, however, are where you have to show doubt and weakness within the hero. These are crucial moments represented in the Debate early on and across All Is Lost and Dark Night of the Soul just after the Midpoint. They are chances for you to humanize the hero and show that just like you, in spite of being the only person able to save the princess/the world/whatever, the main character still has his dark times, too.
The Debate is a bit easier to take on than the other two because you are still in the formative stages of the game, where you have yet to fully realize the power fantasy that most games indulge in. Before the Fun and Games and before you have all of the alien weaponry, Joseph Capelli, the main character of Resistance 3, is mostly just a regular dude, so when he discovers that there may be a way for him to singlehandedly destroy the invading Chimeran forces, he refuses.
However, as players, we know this isn’t true. Perhaps meta to the entire medium, we know this doubt is superficial. Unless executed flawlessly, we gloss over this hesitation in our hero like we would the new iTunes Terms of Service. We know that stampeding through this Debate is the only way to get from shooting-free Point A to bullet-ridden Point B. Anything else and it would be a very different story within a much different game.
The Real Storytelling Challenge in Games – Dark Night of the Soul
Within All Is Lost and Dark Night of the Soul is the biggest hurdle in storytelling in video games. In general, the player has just spent the past eight or so hours being a complete badass, so to make him feel weak and get that “whiff of death,” you’ll have to pretty much start him back at square one, which isn’t a lot of fun. Players have invested hours upon hours and gallons of virtual sweat to make this character their own, so to completely disregard all that work in service of the story would be tantamount to taking a pie they had just made and throwing it in the trash.
Even with the promise of returning said powers and upgrades, we are still left with a section of the game that isn’t fun to play. The solution, generally, is to not take everything away, which then weakens the impact of the Dark Night of the Soul. So then the developers are stuck between a rock and hard place: do they make the game less enjoyable to play—arguably the one attribute a game should have—or do they sacrifice the potency of the story?
Let’s Take a Closer Look: Dishonored, Uncharted 2, and Mass Effect 2
SPOILER ALERT: From here on out, I’ll be discussing some plot points of the recently released Dishonored and last year’s Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Mass Effect 2. I feel like the moratorium on spoilers for the latter two is up, so if you want to just stay clean for Dishonored, skip the next two paragraphs. Otherwise, go play all three games and then come back. Don’t worry, I’ll still be here.
In Dishonored, they opted to take the narrative hit. Late in the game, supernatural assassin Corvo Attano finds himself locked up with all his gear taken away. Luckily for him, his “gear” does not include his ability to possess animals, warp across open space, blast wind at things, or throw bricks. For any savvy gamer, you’ll be locked up no less than 10 seconds before you are back to stealthing around and killing guards. It’s less of a Dark Night and more of a Speed Bump of the Soul. You don’t feel depowered and you don’t feel like all is lost. You feel inconvenienced.
At least Dishonored got that whiff right. People die just after the midpoint. In fact, a lot of them die if you played a certain way. You don’t see them die and it’s not Corvo’s mentor, but there is at least one death involved in the All Is Lost part.
But this weakness is not limited to Dishonored. If you look at Mass Effect 2, the second in a fantastic trilogy of games that span a galactic epic of ancient civilizations and overwhelming odds, it suffers from a similar problem of insufficient doubt. When the IFF is installed on the ship, the Normandy SR-2 is assaulted by Collectors due to the fact that the IFF was actually a homing beacon. Everyone save for the physically disabled pilot is abducted.
This would be a dark turn, if not for the fact that the main character Commander Shepard and his combat squad had conveniently decided to take an off-ship sojourn. In effect, no power is lost, and thus no doubt is instilled in the player. Not once do we feel the darkness of the night nor do we feel anything at all is lost. If anything, our ship is just emptier. Even playing as the fragile pilot isn’t much of anything since he was always physically weak (plus he succeeds in saving the ship!).
There have been, however, successes in this regard. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, in fact, is about as close to perfect as you can get to a video game story blended adeptly with superb gameplay. It revealed a little trick to destroying the power fantasy usually set forth by games without ruining the experience for the player, boring them and whatnot.
You simply have to make the character seem powerless without actually take away his power. After treasure hunter Nathan Drake manages to destroy an entire train on a Himalayan mountainside, he wakes up severely injured on a train car dangling over the edge of a cliff. Normally, he is spry and pretty much indestructible. Nathan can climb anything and kill just about anyone (if not with brawn then with brains). But as soon as he attempts to climb up to safety, it becomes apparent that this injury, one among countless others, really did a number on him. He’s slow and his movements are labored, the antithesis (recall this is important to the All Is Lost beat) of our normal Nathan Drake.
However, he can still do everything he needs and you want to do. He may appear lame in this state, but he still manages to clamber up 50 feet of train and then slay about 20 more bad guys before finally collapsing in the snow (there’s that whiff of death!). You see, the developers didn’t really take away anything that made Nathan Drake “Nathan Drake,” but instead just made it look like they did. It a small deception that aids the game in still being a fun, functional product while playing into the traditional story beats effectively.
Uncharted 2 actually excels in its story where most other games fail. Its theme is quickly established with a Marco Polo quote, setting the tone for accomplishing the extraordinary despite being just an ordinary man, while its Opening Image builds on that to say that chasing the remarkable will also bring remarkable pains. This is contrasted with the Final Image where solace is found in the mountains with his mentor and his lady friend. It even comes complete with flashback Setup, setting the foundation for the betrayal and love triangle that will form the B Story.
Which is to say video games don’t necessarily have to have those usual story weaknesses. Just like how found-footage movies manage to capture some of that “in the shoes of” magic of interactivity, games just have to work around their limitations and massage what would otherwise be a bumpy ride into a smooth landing. A good story can be told in any medium. Some just take a little more work.