A Rendevous With Death — Expanding Game Narratives

5 Oct

[Also posted on Destructoid]

I think we’re all familiar with the Gears of War 2 advertisement shown at E3 this year. Dubbed over the action is a rendition of an Alan Seeger poem (no, I hadn’t heard of him either). It’s a chilling advertisement, but that got me thinking: the actual Gears of War 2 story is going to be much different. It will have a pretentious act structure that doesn’t make sense for games but somehow legitimizes the presentation; it will fill in backstory; it will be cinematic and exciting — but it will not be chilling. It will not, like the advertisement does, prepare you to march your character headlong into a cesspool of death and destruction. Somehow that is moving, yet you won’t be moving any characters to that motif. It’s strictly an advertisement. Why is this not an acceptable storytelling format for games? But first, take a glance at the trailer.

Game writers would probably first argue that telling a story from an outside perspective would break the ‘immersion’. A game with narration or which was told in poetic chunks would break that ‘immersion’. But immersion is a misunderstood term; it implies that players actually think they are in the game world. The term ‘magic circle’ is a much better term borrowed from game theory that makes much more sense. We can say that players are inside the magic circle when they are involved with the game — they are following its rules and no others, for the time they are playing the outside world can go fuck off. Changing up the narrative to something more esoteric and subdued does nothing to pull players out of the magic circle.

Key to keeping players inside the magic circle is something called player agency. In Chris Bateman’s Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames player agency is described as “the capacity for players to effect meaningful changes in a game world, or at least the illusion that the player has this capacity.”

That’s tricky, because it means that the narrative in a videogame is traditionally delivered as a response to player actions. Isn’t that a problem if we want to tell linear stories in a different perspective, perhaps semi-narrated action as seen in the trailer? Not really. Games have been getting around this problem for a long time by giving players objectives. Sure, there are a lot of things the player could do, and that opens up a chaotic possibility space, but players are used to being directed. Sure, you could go jump over that log all day or you could enter the spaceship and get to the control console. Once the developer has full control and knows where the player must go, the story doesn’t seem so hard to integrate.

But say someone did make a game in this vein: a game divided into little episodic chunks in which you play out a poem or a short story, told in an actual third or second person perspective. There is the danger that it could feel too linear and maybe even constricting. Yup. And that’s the problem — it’s dangerous to experiment. We probably won’t see a game that experiments as much as this trailer has for a long time, and for obvious reasons. In its current state game development at the triple A level is not experimental in nature, it’s tried and tested methods funded by lots of money. While the game may evolve into something amazing during development as more fun bits are discovered and worked on, very rarely are radically new concepts approved.

But there is hope. I like to think that independent games are similar to independent films — they have enough freedom and a low enough budget to be allowed to grow a pair of balls and experiment. Strangely selected as a finalist in the visual art category, IGF finalist The Path is essentially a short story told through gameplay, with a very strange and artsy narrative style that’s reflected in the gameplay described.

What do you guys think, would you be open to a game that changed up the narrative style? I for one think it would do wonders for game stories. I mean, who even remembers or cares what Gears of War’s story said? Yeah I know the backstory, blah blah Locust, Emergence Day, Marcus and his father, Dom and his wife. That’s a good premise for the action, but that’s not a story.

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