Games & the emergence of story

“The most in-depth storyline on the Nintendo DS – almost a novel’s worth of narrative”!

this game

In 2006 somebody thought that they could sell a real-time strategy game by comparing it to a novel. In 2013 you could read about any big release and be forgiven for thinking that it was one. I can understand why someone would ask: “is our reliance on stories holding games back?”, ’cause a lot of the hype surrounding games, and a lot of the discussions about them, are predicated on an analysis of plot and characterisation. My beef is that these elements don’t make for compelling stories by themselves. “If plot and character was all that mattered, Wikipedia would be a sufficient replacement for literature”, as Aevee puts it: amidst those ever-present spoiler-warnings we can forget the form that stories take, and even that games & stories are not two discrete categories: games tell stories, both through more readily-recognisable elements (like a novel’s worth of on-screen dialogue) and via more subtle ones (the environment, the UI, the win conditions).

This is something that several of the BORT posters got their teeth into as part of the roundtable on games and stories.

Mark Filipowich described how mechanics tell stories:

There’s plenty of writing already about how mechanics ought to pair with the narrative context, but mechanics themselves are a language and therefore communicate a story. When a system demands something of the people in it, it carries ulterior meanings. The bullet economy in Metro 2033 implicitly tells the player that access to lethal force directly creates wealth. Faith in Final Fantasy Tactics is a stat that makes characters more powerful and more vulnerable, suggesting that belief in God is as dangerous  to a person as much as it is a source of strength .

Sylvain L, meanwhile, noted the futility of trying to separate a game’s story from the game itself:

When we make a three-hours movie out of the Last of Us, we do not watch these images with the same mindset we have when we encounter them in the context of the full game because a cutscene has some functional purposes with no equivalent in cinema: cutscenes, on the most basic level, are a tool to establish the next player’s objective. When watching a cutscene, controller in hand, we’re not only thinking “oh, look at what’s happening!” but also “oh, this is what I need to do next”. And anyway, a three-hours movie made of cutscenes from the Last of Us is radically different than what a real movie of the Last of Us would be like if it was conceived as a movie”

What I would like to try to do is to expand on both of these points by looking at a handful of games in slightly greater detail. In this, the first article, I’ll explore how mechanics can communicate plot and themes, and how they can take the place of more traditional characterisation.

(NB: These games are all free, and can be experienced in only a few minutes, so I encourage you, Dear Reader, to play them and to see if you agree with my analysis.

A Good Husband

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One of the first things you may notice if you play A Good Husband is that you have a Score, and that Score is zero. This suggests your Score can be improved. As you explore the environment, you may realise that you can interact with particular items, and that these interactions have a value in points. You can Clean the dishes (+25), or Vacuum (+100), but you might not want to Put the seat up (-10) or even Watch TV with your wife (-1).

Perhaps because of my history with games, on first playing AGH I quickly mapped out the most efficient ways to increase my Score: It’s faster to Vacuum once than it is to Pay the bills four times; it’s fastest to Take out the trash by turning right and going outside the house, and best to leave the trash where it is and Mow the lawn instead.

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I also discovered that the points system was unfair. Although it appears that Cook Dinner is worth (+25), if the player presents the dinner to the wife, they lose (-50) instead. Similarly, the player loses a point when they walk in front of the TV, which breaks the unspoken game rule: every action that has a value has that value clearly labelled. And it seemed unjust that I lost (-10) for putting up the toilet seat, but putting it back down was worth (0).

Of course, most unfair of all is the promise afforded by the premise of a Score itself: a Score implies that your actions carry meaning. It implies reward. Reach 6000 to unlock a well-deserved cup of tea! perhaps – but such a reward is never forthcoming.

Thus the game made me feel acutely that the relationship between husband and wife was unjust – one where the rules were rigged against the husband and myself, and where no matter how hard we tried to be Good, we were always bound to failure. The points system also suggested to me a reason why the Husband has stuck around for so long: there’s always the temptation that, if you just gained X000 more points (Make breakfast in bed, Clean the fridge, Go shopping) things will finally work out OK.

Indeed, one of the tragedies of A Good Husband is that – despite how deeply harmful it is to think that you can buy love with “points” – I can kind of see the appeal it might have for the Husband, that it’s a way of making sense of a world that seems to have stopped making any.

Dehoarder

One of the unique things about games is the relationship between the player and their avatar. Two distinct entities are connected through the game, much like puppeteer and puppet. Many games don’t call much attention to this relationship, and those that do tend not to do so subtly.

In Dehoarder, the player is tasked with reaching 10,000 points by clearing away the junk that’s accumulated in a room: fast food wrappers, broken TV sets, boxes of knick-knacks. They can navigate the room and interact with any object to be given the chance to Keep, Trash or Sell. The catch is, if they try to trash or sell an item that the player character is still attached to, the game won’t let you do so – it plays a rather defensive “nuh-uh!” and a message in red appears at the bottom of the screen:

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The only way to circumvent this is to build up the character’s willpower: by trashing smaller items (bags of waste, old soda bottles, etc.) the player can then trash progressively bigger and more expensive ones.

The other catch is that every ‘day’ in the game world, the character will use whatever cash they have on hand to buy more junk. This sets up a very clear contest between player and character. To me, it was though I was one force in the character’s head, willing them to desperately overcome their impulses and keep the house tidy, whilst the character played another force – one that wanted to sit in their room, in peace, with all of their accumulated trash. This simple and effective characterisation forms the basis of the story that emerges from the gameplay.

Naya’s Quest

You see an isometric grid. A tile hovers neatly below the one that you are on, so you move [down] and promptly fall through it to your death. It’s not that the tile itself was an illusion, but that an optical illusion tricked you into thinking that the tile was somewhere where it actually was not.

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Naya’s Quest is about the limits of sensory experience, and about expanding our perception of the world by learning to see in different ways.

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Central to this theme is the game’s main action: Scan. Scanning tiles gives the player a cross-section of the world, which lets them deduce the relative positions of tiles (though crucially not their height). Progress depends at first upon learning to use the scanner to read each level differently, supplementing the visual information on the unscanned screen, then, increasingly, upon using the scanned/unscanned screens to construct a mental picture of the level independent of either version of reality.

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Although Naya’s explicit empiricism ran contrary to my experiences as a player (where I most definitely could not trust my eyes) her monologues focused my thoughts on the pursuit of truth, and how we achieve it. Sometimes, subjective experience can only take us so far on our journey to discover meaning.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent

Whilst writing this brief article I’ve felt very much like Naya. Fumbling through a maze whose parameters I don’t quite understand, what’s kept me going is my belief in an objective truth – and that I can uncover something of it in my subjective explorations.

We are storytelling creatures. People engage with even the most abstract games as stories and metaphors for life experience, people write fanfiction about Asteroids. Even when we are not deliberately formulating stories from gameplay, even the most fundamental game mechanics induce simple narratives whether we are conscious of them or not.

I think that we still lack the mental framework and the critical vocabulary to describe how exactly games tell their stories. But if we continue to work together, perhaps the sum of our cross-sections will afford a glimpse of a greater whole.

(Note: This was originally posted on my tumblr, September 30th, 2013).

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