Organic storytelling: narrative through play

By 29 January 2013 Analysis No Comments

There is no denying the importance of narrative in video games. The subject has graced the front page of this website and many others on more than a few occasions, and, as games have become a more prominent entertainment medium, there’s no shortage of epic stories told through pixels on a screen. Story, though, is more than a tricky project when the creator has to balance narrative control and player interaction.

While I maintain the often unpopular opinion that complex narrative is not the fundamental aspect of video games’ ascendancy toward artistic mastery, to brush aside its influence would do the medium (not to mention the legion of writing teams toiling away) a grave disservice. I do believe, however, that the best narrative techniques arise organically from the strengths of their respective media. A good novel tells a strong story with well-rounded characters; a great novel exercises control over written language, linking form and content to provide a richness below the surface of plot. A timeless film operates similarly, albeit through visual language rather than labored exposition. It follows, therefore, that game narrative is most effective when it communicates meaning through the mechanics of play in conjunction with the audiovisual strengths of the medium.

At first glance, it seems an obvious statement, but video games rely heavily on the facilities of other media to provide character or environmental background in order to enrich the overall player experience. Games utilize cutscenes that remove altogether player agency in order to maintain narrative control. Or games use texts, like the books in Skyrim or the tomes of Dragon Age, to legitimize the fully-realized worlds with which the player interacts. While I would not go so far as to say cutscenes and textual language have no place in games, games often overlook their own media languages to manufacture meaning in lieu of using the language of film (cutscenes) or novels (textual language), leading to a potential disconnect between narrative and play, or “ludonarrative dissonance.”

I’m not saying that all text and videos should be eradicated, as both can be used brilliantly (such as providing clues to a safe combination or showing some stark, provocative visuals). I’m stating that these devices are not exclusive to games and can, if used to excess, take away from the way a game can invest narrative meaning through interactive mechanics in digital environments. When a game uses its greatest visual, auditory, and mechanical cues to allow the player to learn about the world organically through interaction, a narrative level is reached beyond the boundaries of novels or cinema.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Samuel, the boatman in Dishonored carries the player-controlled Corvo to and from his missions. Samuel is man scarred emotionally and physically, from a lost love he had forgotten and from his time at sea wrestling the dark leviathans beneath the dark waters. He is a man caught between the political machinations of a group of freedom fighters and a totalitarian monster, finding solace alone with his pipe and his thoughts. He was the only character in the game for which I felt a genuine fondness, a connection. I appreciated his stoic dignity right up to the moment I launched an arrow through his throat and dumped his body into the sea before he could warn the guards that I was coming to kill everyone on that island. I know these facts about Samuel because I actively sought them out through use of the Heart, one of my favorite gameplay mechanics from last year.

The Heart, given to you by the elusive Outsider, points out the locations of bone charms and runes used to upgrade Corvo’s powers, but it also offers subtle background for the locales and people of Dunwall. Pointing the Heart toward Samuel and pressing a button, the eerie distant voice of a woman explains, “He has many scars. Some from the phlegm of the river krusts, some from the nameless monsters of the deeper ocean.” From this sentence delivered in haunted, breathless timbre, I learned that Samuel worked at sea–not just the inlets–and has been marked by the leviathans beneath the ocean. This knowledge does not add anything to my quest or strengthen my powers; it provides a sad weight to Samuel’s character, something he’d never divulge, as well as bit of information about the weird world of the game.

And then there’s the object itself, the “heart of a living thing” as the Outsider calls it. There are subtle hints that it may have belonged to the murdered Empress, whose same voice actress provides the airy whisper of the Heart’s haunted musing. The aesthetic design of its fusion of organic tissue with bizarre clockwork gears provides such a beautiful metaphor for the physical interaction of manipulating the nobs and buttons on a controller. The organ visually and audibly beats on the screen and vibrates the flesh-held device  in the player’s hands, reminding the player that his/her connection to this world is mediated by the machinery of the computer. But most importantly, the Heart never interrupts gameplay to offer its cryptic information, and it never insists on its use.

While I could spend the rest of this article discussing the nuances of Dishonored‘s Heart, it’s far from the only method of organic story-telling in the game. Dilapidated buildings you explore reveal the levels of destitution in the city. Hushed conversations heard through keyholes provide information about goings on in Dunwall, while providing the player with a delightfully voyeuristic mechanic. Marks on houses show where the plague has been, offering warnings to those who would brave the risk of rats and weepers for a possible trinket. When playing Dishonored, I never felt the authoritative pull of the expository narrator; it was all there for me to discover.

Other games function similarly. One of my favorite moments of Red Dead Redemption occurs after the overlong trip to Mexico. John Marston returns to America and journeys to the progressive city of Blackwater to meet his government leash-holders, and then something beautifully subtle happens. For hours on end, I had listened to the rhythmic thud of my horse’s hooves on hard earth as played through John Marston’s epic story of a man out of time, caught in the teeth of the grinding gears of modernity. When I entered the city of Blackwater, the hoofbeats I had grown accustomed to hearing gave way to an uncomfortable clip-clop of hooves on pavement. The sounds that were once so liberating now seemed vulgar, and the game’s theme of bringing civilization to the savage West and the erasure of freedom become much clearer than any of its cutscenes possibly could.

Far Cry 3 boasts some impressive organic narrative moments as well. Sneaking out of Vaas’s camp at the game’s onset and turning just at the right moment to see an enormous pile of luggage lets the you experience the terror of the game’s opening moments. By haphazardly seeing the collected spoils from unlucky tourists, you realize that you are just a statistic among countless victims of their sadistic trafficking ring. Other moments involve the player stumbling upon abandoned picnic settings, dead Japanese World War II soldiers, or precarious ruins. These places fill in the island’s history without the need for heavy-handed exposition.

The reason these moments stand out to me is because they allow the player the opportunity to find meaning in them. Maybe a player does not notice the subtle changes in sound in Red Dead Redemption, or maybe he/she goes through Dishonored without ever reaching for the heart. If these moments are missed, the experience is not necessarily cheapened; they simply reward play with subtle narrative hints that neither break up action, nor take the player out of the game. When systems like organic narrative work so expertly, I find it hard to care about external narrative devices like cutscenes or printed text. Stumbling on a note in a Dunwall home, I have to put the game on hold to read the item. Even when I’m watching a cutscene in Far Cry 3, as engaging as it may be, it still takes control out of my hand and speaks through a language of what I’m seeing instead of what I’m doing.

Revealing a world’s intricacies through play is an art of subtlety and restraint. Organic narrative maturely trusts the player to seek out narrative meaning, should he or she so choose, and it shows faith in the game’s design that it warrants such exploration. But most importantly, when narrative is carried through play, the game becomes something more than the sum of its cinematic and novelistic parts; it becomes immersive through sight, sound, and touch in ways only a game can–after all, we came to play.

David Chandler

About David Chandler

A teacher, a scholar, an editor, and a vigilante -- sometimes all at once. He likes to read about writing and write about reading. When he's doing neither of these things at the University of Tulsa where he's working on his PhD in English, he's playing video games or biking all in the name of freedom and pancakes.

Talk with gamers and writers in our spiffy Chat Room!