Narratives and Storytelling in Games – My Night at the NSWWC

On Tuesday, 16th of April, 2013, I returned to the New South Wales Writer’s Centre with Kate. It had been almost precisely eight months since we were last there, to dine on spit roast, eat delicious cake (apparently a trend at the NSWWC), and oh yes, get married.

As the title says, this was the Narratives and Storytelling in Games evening event thing. Been following this blog for long? You might be surprised to know it wasn’t my idea. Going definitely was, and I was happy to be able to to coax Kate into coming along too. I think her recently finishing Bioshock Infinite was definitely an assist, though it was the notion of revisiting a sunny August Sunday that really got her.

The speakers of the night were Daniel Wilks, Darren Wells, and Rose Powell. I can , who presumably had the initials DW in a past life. The focus for the event? The medium of games as an avenue for telling stories – some of the best examples of well-told stories, the history, the differences between it and traditional fiction, and well, a whole lot of discussion. It had the three doing a lot of speaking, and then toward the end opened up for questions – I also tweeted like crazy on the #nswwc tag, as did a few others. Here’s the wrap-up.

As one of the DW’s (I think Daniel) put it so succinctly, “In Games, you do the thing.” It wasn’t a euphemism, but a catch-all for that question about what might be considered a game. A cutscene isn’t a game. A movie isn’t a game. A phonecall to a talkback segment on 2UE isn’t a game. A slap in the face from a circus clown whilst playing Vivaldi on bagpipes? Definitely interesting, but still not a game. It was all the distinction that was needed for the night, and aimed chiefly at those in the audience that hadn’t played a game before. What it obviously wasn’t was an attempt to answer the “What is a game?” debate. We’ll pretend that old thing doesn’t exist, and go with what we’ve got here.

After a round of introductions came a video that would set the tone for the rest of the night. Another introduction, really, and what better hallmark of storytelling in games to start with, than the first glimpse of Rapture in Bioshock. Ryan’s propaganda, the music build, then– oh god, we’re under… a… a city? What? WHAT IS HAPPENING? The video stopped after emerging from the bathysphere, with the character of Atlas established as a quasi-narrator, a guide, and possibly… friend? Some post-video analysis occurred, highlighting the way the story was introduced. We’re thrust into a strange new world, and we don’t just get to see around us, but we get to choose where we look. I still recall the first time I played the Bioshock demo, landed in the water after the initial plane crash, and watched the pretty flames dance across the water. A few moments later, I realised the game had already given me control. Was I in awe? Yessum.

We have text to assist us, directions given to us for us to participate and explore and generally act. Music builds tension, and a world that could take pages to establish in text is immediately there to experience. Even the architecture, the advertisements on walls, and the lighting all add to the atmosphere. They give us the tone, they turn the world of Rapture real, and set the stage for one hell of a tale.

So, how did we get here?

The opposing paddle has long been thought to be the antagonist in this game, but it is the ball that has orchestrated this endless conflict between left and right.
The opposing paddle has long been thought to be the antagonist in this game, but it is the ball that has orchestrated this endless conflict between left and right.

Maybe Pong didn’t have a narrative like this. Or, you know, at all. It is the earliest example of a game (that comes to mind. I’m lazy), and whether your path leads to Bioshock, or Monkey Island, or Diablo, Pong is one of the steps in the journey there. Also, Journey. A reductionist view of high-profile (AAA) games can be used to isolate the mechanics of the game from its execution. I’m borrowing these examples from the speakers; Call of Duty becomes space invaders, layed flat and projected into three dimensions – Thief becomes Pacman, avoiding patrols for the sake of collecting goodies – and World of Warcraft… Pong. I don’t even have to explain that one. Each game has added layers to their individual predecessors, resulting in the current stock of franchises like Gears of War, or Zelda. It is almost most obvious within an individual franchise, but it goes beyond that too.

The same growth in complexity has also occurred with the narrative in games, from the early days of Super Mario Bros, until now. What were once simple stories have changed, in that the original goal could be present in any game as a simple fetch-quest. The simplicity of that favourite of the first few stories (Mario) also lead to players growing an attachment to the characters. It wasn’t the first time a setting or premise had existed in a game, but it was one of the earliest examples where the narrative ran alongside the gameplay, and it wasn’t seen as the same thing. The player’s failures always resulted in Mario failing, but your initial successes didn’t guarantee one for Mario – the princess was always in another castle.

What sets games apart from most other media, and definitely from non-interactive media (and I’m making the distinction because of the existence of Choose Your Own Adventure books, and other aberrations), is that the player has choice. Agency. Options. Paths. Synonyms. Then things get weird.

Which statue do I want to be? Quest for Glory offered multiple solutions to puzzles, according to the skills that your character had.

Once you give the player the ability to choose where the story goes, the story branches. A traditional story has a beginning, an end, and a single path between the two. The story in a game can be linear, but it can also take a dozen different routes on the way to the end. It can go to different endings. It can even start differently. Players can choose their own way through a story, and then talk to other players later to compare experiences. There’s alternate playthroughs, and dynamic scripts. A comparison was made to the novel, “House of Leaves” by Mark Danielewski, though I was also reminded of “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.”

To immerse a player in the story, the story needs to be bigger. Not in terms of scope, but it needs to be broader and deeper, or as it was put, be ‘structurally dense’. There needs to be glimpses of other stories, a breadcrumb trail laid out for the player to follow if they wanted to, little touches of colour that add to the world. Bioshock did this well with the audiologs scattered throughout Rapture – sometimes you’d find ones that pertained to the plot, giving you a little more insight into each of the characters. There were many that were from unknown characters, giving you a peek at what the city would have been like at its peak, and then at that moment right after it first slipped. These are obviously tricky, because they’re still optional – it’s double-edged, because when its pertinent to the core plot, such things could be considered telling, whereas when it’s just another detail, it’s really showing. The first blurred the line between the two quite often.

That sort of thing is done often in open-world roleplaying games, where a jaunt off into the wilderness could reveal a cave with dead explorers. It’s also one of the places where things get difficult with story, since the player won’t always act as you’d expect. That cave they entered could be pertinent later, but because they’d already been there, triggers mightn’t fire and the quest becomes stuck. It all depends on what scenarios have been catered for, and how readily adaptable it is. The story needs to expand exponentially, though the focus is always on the choices themselves, instead of the outcomes. Many games will normalise the choices made by a player, so that they have still experienced a unique fragment of the game’s potential story, but that it comes back to a logical point from which the story can continue.

Imagine the Matrix gave you an option while watching it - what happens if Neo chooses the other pill? Would that really be it?
Imagine the Matrix gave you an option while watching it – what happens if Neo chooses the other pill? Would that really be it?

One aspect of game narratives that was implied, but not explicitly mentioned (and I want to throw it in here), is emergent storytelling. That is where the world is such that the player projects their own imagination onto a relatively blank slate, when they fill in the gaps when taking experiences from the game. How active or passive the player is when interacting with the world is a definite factor here, because it’s very easy to run-and-gun through Fallout 3, but you could also take your time, think about what your character’s motivations are, or give them a personality. It’s about using the world presented, and adding details to it, or deriving ones from it that didn’t previously exist there.

The next game discussed was Mass Effect, especially as an example of how branching stories could be handled. Yes, that topic came up – Daniel said that anyone that didn’t like the ending of Mass Effect 3 could suck it. No, I declined the offer. One of the main points that came out of the discussion, was that although the set pieces do move back into position between each part, it’s the branching paths that change the experience that a player has. Players might arrive at the same location, but their own personal Shepard is different. Do the choices need to have more outcomes, though? Is it about the journey, or the destination?

From branching to linear, and the wonderful world of Portal. A video was shown, and then we ran through about five-ten-twenty minutes of the audience yelling out their favourite portal quotes. The elements that were great about it? Obviously the unique gameplay, but then we have the humour, the character of GLADOS, and what was said to be the undercurrents of other stories. There are references in the game to the nature of the world outside Aperture Science Facility, and while you can diligently complete the tests as they’re presented, there’s a few opportunities to explore, and uncover extra details.

Back to choices – and specifically with regards to morality. Games like Knights of the Old Republic didn’t just give you the chance to make choices, but they made those choices about morality. It was heavy-handed from the outset, feed the orphan, or feed the orphan to the tiger? The sequel dabbled more in the middle, of when was it better to do nothing. There was a choice on Nar Shaddaa, where a beggar asked for money. Give him some, he gets robbed and killed. Don’t? He turns to crime and kills. It’s the biggest stand-out in terms of causality in game narratives to me.

Yes, I actually found it. A definite no-win scenario.
Yes, I actually found it. A definite no-win scenario.

Other games that definitely pushed the idea of choices being neither wholly holy or demonic were Jade Empire, and the Mass Effect series. Yeah, I’m a Bioware fan (though not as keen on Dragon Age for some reason I just can’t put my finger on). It isn’t just them doing it, either. The Walking Dead was shown in a video, with a summary of what players across the world did for pivotal choices.

The Walking Dead is a tie-in to the series, comics, and the like. Yes, there are zombies. They’re right there in the name. There’s zombies all around, but at its core, the game is about people. Survival. The lengths we go to for the sake of another day. There were some definite grey areas in the choices, in that doing what is right was very rarely painted as easy. Find an abandoned car full of supplies – you can take them, and possibly deprive others of survival – or leave them, and risk both yours, and that of your ward, Clementine.

That reminded me a lot of the emergent gameplay that came out of the ARMA2 mod, Day-Z. There’s no story. You’re somewhere in Europe, alone, scavenging whatever you can so you don’t get killed by zombies. Players banded together, betrayed one another, whatever it took. The best and worst example was one where a group had salvaged a bus, and drove around looking for survivors. One guy came on, and they offered to let him join their team. Dumped him in a circle, with another guy – they’d have to fight to the death for the chance to join the gang. Once he’d won, they shot at him until he ran away. Not scripted, mind you. All of the participants were players.

Seriously, it’s on Youtube here!

It was around here that my notes started to die off, a bit. There was a brief discussion about the non-event that is the story in Halo, where Daniel referred to Master Chief as “Robocop in a Motorbike Helmet.” There was a mention of Quick Time Events being a way to get scripted things to happen while still maintaining player involvement, and a special mention of Heavy Rain, for allowing failure in a QTE to not result in a loading screen. They’re a way to engage a player SOMETIMES, but they’re often seen as a crutch. I know half the time I’ll be watching a cutscene, and suddenly there’s an X on the screen, and by the time I bring the controller back to both hands… it’s loading my most recent save.

Press nothing to watch Lara die. Repeatedly
Press nothing to watch Lara die. Repeatedly

It’s this part where questions happened. I don’t recall the exact phrasing of the questions, so I won’t bother trying. Coincidentally enough, the first of them lead to some chattery around Tomb Raider. Character development in games was the first topic of discussion, specifically about the progression of Lara from – no, not her old ways – but from being hesitant about killing a deer, to being able to rack up kills on the scale of Vasili Ivanovich Koslov. Heroes kill a lot. It was a point lampshaded in Uncharted 2, and despite its other issues, I thought that Jason Brody’s progression from college douche to serial killer felt like it occurred at a more natural pace than it did with Lara.

Jason Brody (aka, Dudebro. Yeah, Daniel again) had his own issues though, and the next question was about it – and really, emotional attachment in games. Far Cry 3 was seen to have handled it badly, because some of the audience felt it was too insistent that they care about the characters. Personally, I didn’t feel that, though I got that yes, Brody likes his friends. Far Cry 3 seemed to struggle with making the player feel attached to Brody, though it was definitely said to be a source of terrific characters regardless. Jaybro seemed to be where things fell short, especially in contrast to Michael Mando’s Vaas.

One of the things that didn’t fit, that broke the dramatic build, was that the developers obviously had a story to tell – but it was constantly interrupted by the free roaming. Your friend is in danger? Let’s go racing! Fallout was mentioned as an example of a rich world where players became attached, especially for its immersive qualities. I mused on Twitter about whether it was possible that blank slate characters worked better in proper free-roaming, where free-roaming does reduce the dramatic tension/buildup because of the constant segue into events/gameplay outside the plot. No, it didn’t fit in 140 characters. It’s all about what the player gets out of it, and that hinges mostly on what they put into it.

A few questions about the writers of games, about breaking into the industry, about the storification of player actions as in Bastion, of whether linear storytelling still had ground to break or if it was all about branching narratives now, more about Mass Effect and thoughts on artistic integrity in the light of the ‘clarified’ ending, about who the story belongs to, games as modernist literature, player complicity and… you know, it’s difficult to sum all these because they feel like they are owed a lot more time than I’m going to give them in a two sentence summary. If one of those things stands out to you as something you’d like to talk about, hit up the comments or rant about how stupid I am on your own blog, or drop me a DM or ESP me… do those things.

The questions in a nutshell
The questions in a nutshell

At the end of this, I realised that I had a lot of controversial statements from Daniel, and none from either Darren or Rose. I’d already bugged Rose enough over the past few days, so I asked Darren for one. Unfortunately I couldn’t get anything too incendiary out of him.  Maybe next time.

Update: If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy my more-serious multi-page look at game narratives.

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