827105 is a quasi-random number.

Stories in Games, Part 1: Narratives

October 16, 2002 essay

We begin exploring the, um, wonders of video game storytelling.

I wanted to discuss rather specifically the stories found in role-playing video games. (I’ll call them RPVGs, since it’s important to distinguish them from their Dungeons and Dragons table-top counterparts.) Then I realized there was a lot of material, so it’s now broken down into two parts. This is the more academic of the two sibling pieces. We go through written stories, stories in movies, and finally, stories in games, comparing and contrasting each. This might bore you, so feel free to skip to Part 2 if you want the sweet sugar without the essential vitamins and minerals.

So, let’s jump in immediately with written stories. There are two kinds of narrators: third-person and first-person. There is, technically, a second-person, but it’s pretty obscure and I don’t see much difference between it and first-person. A first-person story is seen through the narrator’s “eyes”. We experience nothing he or she does not experience. A third-person story is told by a voice that tells a story but does not take part in it. We are usually let in on a lot of knowledge the characters don’t know.

The novel isn’t a very immediate medium. Even when stories are told in the present tense, we still feel like we are reading about events that have already happened. This is because we are in control of the story’s telling: the story stops when we stop reading. Obviously, engrossing stories can shake this reality from us and keep us turning pages, but in general we have this inherent sense that what we are reading doesn’t exist on its own.

Now we jump to movies… what narrated games are starting to resemble much more than written stories. Films don’t have to have stories, let me point out, but we’re focusing on the ones that do. They also have points of view much like novels. Third-person is the vantage point of practically 95% of all movies. It happens when we place the camera whenever it looks best and just let the scene happen. We see only what cameras see and know only what editing lets us know. First-person… well, first-person doesn’t happen much. First person would technically be where the camera is the eyes of the narrating character. We see only what he sees and know his thoughts. We aren’t granted special knowledge of what is happening around him. This has happened more with digital cameras, though. But often the “eyes” of the character are just the camera he is holding… a la The Blair Witch Project. So we are a degree detached.

There is a third point of view available with movies. This is when we have voiceovers and, occassionally, when the narrating character talks directly to the camera/audience. We aren’t restricted to what that character sees, but the story obviously revolves around his presense… we don’t go too far away from him. This is typically what happens when a first-person novel is translated to film. An example is High Fidelity. This, I guess, is second-person.

John Cusack talks directly to you as part of the narrative in High Fidelity

Movies are much more immediate than films are. If you turn your head, the story will still be going when you look back. It continues of its own accord. Stopping it requires actively participating in it. Novels, as we said, happen only when you participate with it. Of course, movies are generally less intimate than novels for this same reason.

And so, the malleable art form that comprises games. It has adapted over the years. Before graphics were feasible, they took many cues from literature. And now, as polygonal characters look more life-like, cinema-like techniques of storytelling reign. But text is still used for dialogue, even though voiceovers are now possible. Time will tell whether text in games becomes practically extinct.

RPVGs are taking to a lot of cinema moments to advance the story. These points remove the player from all control.

As it is, games are generally third-person. Games that use first-person are not really story games. And also, I haven’t played enough to get the feel for how their stories are told… but I’m sure it’s not a tremendous boost to our literary heritage. The story of Halo, for example, was enough to get the character from scene to scene, giving a reason for the increasing difficulty. RPVGs are almost always third-person. In fact, please tell me if there are any non-third-person RPVGs. I’d like to know.

Games also have a strange way of combining the immediacy of movies with the intimacy of novels. Like in most stories, we begin to connect and identify with the main character. Which is no difficult task since, as players, we control him. (Or her… I just don’t like typing “him or her” all the time, and 90% of RPVGs are lead by males.)

While we have the power to turn off the game as we want — usually after saving — the game, when on, still breaths with life… even more life than a movie, as its events are not entirely scripted. They will wait for you to come to them, and then play out as you watch and read. Reading, as mentioned, is more or less reserved for dialogue, since we are easily able to see the events going on about us.

So what we typically have are characters who walk about and talk, plot events that are triggered, a limited third-person view of the world, limited generally to the hero and his allies, and every once in a while, a movie-inspired cut-scene where we learn of things happening elsewhere. What is specifically unique about the way games tell stories is that, for one, the story can mutate. RPVGs generally do not allow much of this, however, since they are about the telling of a very particular story, and branching storylines are very difficult and resource-consuming to create accurately. Also, scripted events generally become divided into short, controllable sequences: the next line of dialogue won’t be spoken until the player presses a button. As a compromise, though, these sequences will often “time out” and continue when the player doesn’t respond for a certain period of time. This is the closest example of the novel/movie hybrid storytelling.

Games sometimes play out like the mix of a novel and a movie. Read and watch!

So now we understand how role-playing video games tell stories in a more abstract manner. They are intimate, like novels, but immediate, like movies. They are always third-person, so as players we have a greater understanding of the environment than the characters do. But Part 2 of this article starts to look at the substance of these stories, and why RPVGs just haven’t been pulling their weight as a storytelling medium.


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