Disclaimer: The following post contains potential spoilers for Far Cry 2 and Mass Effect 3.
Stories are our way of making sense of the world, and our imaginations often lead to places that defy conventional logic. We ascribe reason or complexity to coincidences, produce alternate thought processes to explain actions that aren’t understood, and assign intent to nature, time, and the universe. It doesn’t matter how implausible our versions might be, and we hold on to them for as long as the stretch of circumstance supports them as fact.
We know there’s no narrative to life, yet still do this. Some assign personalities to their pets, appliances and bodily organs, and either act or explain the actions of each. Children are especially good at this, explaining the things they don’t understand with reasons that while nonsensical to adults, are obviously completely plausible to them. It makes sense to them that a dog can’t eat chocolate because they don’t have toothbrushes, and they’ll often produce increasingly confusing leaps in logic. If you’ve rationalised that your family were abducted by aliens because the TV was left on and the house is empty, congratulations, you’ve still got it.
Games are by their very nature, designed. The narrative in a game is not left to chance, but is put there with purpose. There may be open-ended questions raised by the game that lead to players filling the gaps, and to lengthy discussions about the plight of certain fictional characters, but they are put there with that intent. Set pieces can trigger our empathy, or thoughts about what happened to the NPCs before we showed up.
In the case of open-world games where our character is personified in skills and appearance only, we sometimes project a story onto the blank slate of the player character. Sometimes our Argonian Spellsword ‘Scalehead’ is just a bad-ass magical lizard, and sometimes he’s a refugee ‘Runs-From-Kin’ that left the Black Marsh, cautious around any of his kind in case they’ve been sent after him. The characters may develop quirks beyond rampant kleptomania, even in games that have only cosmetic repercussions for actions. There are many locations and characters to find that do not hinge off the main story, and in many cases do not have a quest attached.
Far Cry 2 presents a low-key narrative very similar to Heart of Darkness, and is as subtle in its references to it as Spec Ops: The Line. It shows the invasive nature of the warfare, and how whatever rightness or wrongness may have existed between the APR and UFLL has now become an immoral quagmire of death. The environment is harsh and dry, itching to become a blazing fire, just as the political environment in this unnamed African country is. Unlike its successor, clearing an outpost does not permanently remove the threat, and while you’re working for one side or another, violence is a constant throughout the game. There are no free passes.
The narrative of taking out the Jackal is your overall goal, and at times the only hint of a mission presented. It’s up to the player to explore and navigate the savannah, desert and jungle of the country. The environment also reflects the volatile nature of the political situation in the country, as it too is volatile, dry and highly flammable. The buddy system gives the player an ally to pull them out of danger, though if they die, another potential buddy will step up and offer help. Yet it’s a horrible place, and even your chosen character’s body has to fight a constant battle with malaria, alongside a plethora of armed men. In that sense, the emergent narrative is a milieu, waiting to be learned.
Dear Esther and the recent Gone Home also take this approach to the story, putting the onus on the player to experience the world, and to uncover the narrative. they do not state plot, but present information, with the player being the one to interpret it, and to put together a narrative out of the facts. The Bioshock games have also done this, through the Audio Diaries scattered throughout Rapture, and the Voxophones that could be found in Columbia. The nature of these puts the responsibility on the player to find the story, just as it’s the responsibility of the player to explore in Dear Esther and Gone Home. It’s possible to play through Bioshock without taking note of the audio diaries, as there are more game elements present, where Gone Home is entirely narrative. For some players, less is more, but not all players want to see cutscenes, read notes or listen to dialogue either.
The original ending of Mass Effect 3 presented a confusing narrative in which squadmates disappeared, a ghost-like hologram of a boy gave you some choices, and then all relays in the galaxy appeared to explode, potentially wiping out all life except for the Normandy that’d crashed on a random planet. After that (if you’d chosen the Destroy/Red ending, and had a sufficiently high enough Effective Military Strength rating, Shepard would wake up somewhere and draw breath. Some of the questions that this ending raised were how the Illusive Man was able to control you, why did the post-Reaper-blast Earth have trees that weren’t there before but that were common in your nightmares, and why were the colours associated with the Illusive Man and Admiral Anderson’s choices inverted to what their character’s personalities were.
Plus the breath.
Some of this caused fans to tell their own narrative, in which the ending was not legitimately happening, but Harbinger’s attempts at indoctrinating Shepard at close proximity. Whether you believed in this possibility or not, this was not something expressly stated by the game as a fact (and Bioware folk present at PAX Australia stated on a panel regarding the Indoctrination Theory: “If that’s your ending, who are we to say otherwise?”). The uncertainty and gaps present before the Extended Cut ending (and still after for the die-hards of the theory) led to an emerging narrative that supplanted what was happening on-screen. Given the challenges that exist to wrapping up an ending that could have ended in three very different ways in terms of the state of the galaxy, it’s possible that future Mass Effect games will not follow after the events of ME3. If that’s the case, for some people this particular narrative will be their experience.
One of the best cases of a story underlying the gameplay, but that is never quite made clear is in Journey. The game starts with the hooded character in the desert, with no explanation of how they got there, who they are, or what’s going on. It presents the spire as a goal, and play continues from there. We’re given a world enveloped by sand, structures that have lost their lustre and expanses that are empty, save for the occasional companion that either follows or leads the way. There’s no details on what happened, and the murals that tell the story rely on pictures only. It’s up to the player to decide what they think has happened, what is happening, and what might happen. The details are given, but the narrative is up to us.
Have you ever filled the gaps in a narrative, or extrapolated a story from the gameplay that may not have been one intended by the creators? How do you feel about Emergent Storytelling, or stories that are pieced together in games, rather than outright told?
Tash: I have indeed added stories or character back histories to games that likely haven’t been intended by the creators, but ‘intent’ here is an interesting word. I believe the best stories are those which leave some degree of ‘what if’ to the players, so that players are free to extrapolate certain parts of a story. In this way, I feel that the best storytellers provide answers to some questions, and yet allow enough interpretation in their endings that they can be different things to different people. Again, I believe this is tied to the satisfaction of an ending which we previously discussed, but if creators provide enough grey areas within their endings, the chances of players being satisfied by the story resolution improves.
As for emergent storytelling, I am a huge fan of this technique, and I feel some stories benefit immensely from this. When it is used well, within a genre that is amenable to it, emergent storytelling can be the most efficient way to convey history and scope
Darren: It’s a great indicator of the unique nature of the medium, and for a situation to invite the player to establish their own narrative… I think that’s just brilliant. I’ll always be interested in stories offered to me by those charged with creating games, but inside that story, where moments emerge that allow me to explore elements at my own pace or even use those elements to create my own narrative, that’s a unique power of video games that demonstrates and justifies its place on the spectrum of art and expression.
Jimmy: I like the idea of finding out what’s going on while you’re playing and I like there to be a clear goal in mind. Final Fantasy basically lets you fill in details about the world, which I like, but I mean as to whether or not you’re supposed to see something that isn’t there or whatever? A good game will let me do it. Bioshock (again!) did that well, left you to discover what fell apart, its something modern games are doing much better than in the 16 bit era.
Chani: I don’t create back stories or fill in the gaps for characters/stories. It’s just not what I do. I wonder about it a bit and see what others on the internet have to say and their theories, yet I wont go “Oh yeah! That’s totally it!! That’s what happened” I like to keep it open. It’s more fun that way and I won’t get disappointed if the details get revealed later and I was wrong. I like having the whole story available to me but I have to work to uncover it all. Like finding clues in game or doing certain actions. Getting things handed to me on a platter is boring, I like the challenge.
Hong: I think one of my favourite things about being a gamer is just being able to spend hours and hours talking with friends sharing theories on certain plot elements in games and pointing out little quirks or inconsistencies and trying to explain them together. Sure, the same can be done for movies and TV shows but I think games can get away with leaving bigger gaps and inviting more extrapolation from the viewer because you’re usually playing from a single character’s perspective (or a single faction’s perspective), and in real life people don’t always learn everything they should know.
Next: Everything Ends