Lots of people – even game developers who specialize in narrative games – fall into a couple of common traps when they think about games and stories, and about the roles of players and developers in the telling of those stories.
First is that any series of events, with setup, complication, resolution and denouement constitutes a narrative, in any medium, linear or interactive. By the letter of the law, I suppose that’s correct. But before you plot out your magnum opus, I’d contend that the characteristics I just listed, must be in support of something – something deeper, a meta-narrative. There has to be a subtext (or, to be just a tad judgmental, you’re just making crap and you can stop wasting my time and yours).
Put another way, before you start crafting your story, make sure you have something to say. You’d think this would be self-evident, but I’m not sure it is, given the quality of most game stories. Frankly, for me, the statement I want to make is of paramount importance. Actually, that isn’t quite true. If I wanted to make a statement, I’d write a novel or make a movie. What’s of true importance to me is the issue I want players to grapple with.
Here’s the key for me when I think about game narrative as opposed to traditional narrative forms:
Linear media answer questions; games ask them and allow players to answer them.
Note that the word “interactivity” is nowhere to be found in this formulation of the defining characteristic of game narrative. That word is overused, ill-defined and really kind of useless. Think back to the narrative games you’ve played and see if you can identify the questions they ask you to answer… see if the game empowered you to answer them yourself, as opposed to just divining the answer the developer predetermined for you. It’s an interesting exercise.
Let me give you some examples from two games I worked on.
For me, Deus Ex is “about” four interrelated questions:
- What happens when you take a guy who believes the world is black and white and throw him into a world that – like our own – is all shades of gray?
- What would the world – our world, the real world – be like if every conspiracy theory people believed to be true were, in fact, true?
- What’s the nature of humanity – at what point in the world of human augmentation do we stop being human and start being… something else?
- What’s the most desirable “end state” for the world? Are we better off in a technological dark age in which people have genuine free will? Are we better off in a world where an all-seeing AI can gift us with total connectivity and, one hopes, the empathy that arises from universal connection, at the cost of giving up our freedom? Or are we simply better off as we are today (IF conspiracies are real), ruled by a shadowy elite, not knowing it, and going about our daily lives none the wiser?
Two things to note:
First, answering these questions doesn’t involve defeating anything or solving anything puzzly or being told anything by an author. Yes, you play a character named J.C. Denton and, yes, there’s an overarching plot that allows these questions to bubble up so players can interact with them. Yes, that’s true, but those questions can only be answered by YOU, the player, not by a PC puppet. At the end of the day, the character you play is of secondary and, basically, irrelevant in narrative terms.
Second, I don’t really care whether anyone knows the game is “about” your personal answer to those four questions. No author wants his/her/their themes expressed obviously and unsubtly. Frankly, I doubt most of the Deus Ex team even know what the game was about for me. All that mattered – to me – was that the game allowed players to answer those questions through their choices during play.
Another example. Disney Epic Mickey asked a few questions, too. Frankly, it pains me that a lot of players didn’t see how similar in intent and philosophy Epic Mickey was to the other games I’ve worked on, but that’s another story… Anyway, Epic Mickey asked a completely different set of questions than Deus Ex:
- How important are family and friends to you?
- Is it better to be less powerful, but have friends who will help you do what you need to do; or is it better to be more individually powerful, but alone in the world?
- Is it better to do the easy thing to solve a local problem, when the fate of the entire world is in your hands; or is it better to do the hard thing in solving local problems, because the small things we do add up to far bigger things?
- Allen Varney, one of my longtime collaborators, who was critical to the early conceptualization of Epic Mickey reminded me about a fourth question: What happens when you remain rooted in the past, versus being willing to forgive past grievances and move on?
Again, players may not realize it, but they’re answering these questions with every step they take and through every interaction with the gameworld, the characters and the developer-generated situations they find themselves in.
Yes, even a cartoon mouse can be the vehicle for asking big questions…
Next time (pretty soon, I suspect, ’cause I’m on a roll and feeling frisky), I’ll talk about another narrative trap game developers fall into – that games are all about choice.