How can we tell more compelling and moving stories in games? This is a question that I guess many of us in the industry are thinking a lot about. There are a number of books out there that tell us all about story arcs, characterization and so forth. Most of these ideas come from the theater and movie writing and there has been attempts to transfer this knowledge into the domain of games. And whereas the skills of characterization, dialog and story structure are as crucial in games as in movies or theater, there are problems and differences that need to be addressed. There are technical problems that arise with the addition to player interaction, multiple choices and so forth and there are content problems that arise with branching story lines. Some of those issues, I have written about in the past, trying to point to means of keeping consistency, controlling damage and hiding the seams in a game. This article tries a more basic take on the fundamentals of game narrative.
Storytellers and processors
Humans are exceptional storytellers and story processors. If you reflect a minute on how much story you are exposed to during a single day you will probably end up on a quite high number. We read books, we watch TV-shows and movies. And we play games. In addition to that we tell a lot of stories, both to each other and to ourselves. Each time we tell a piece of gossip or an anecdote we create that information into a story, and we do that without really thinking about it. Also, our lives turn into stories in our heads as we live along (this is called the narrative paradigm). So everything we do and experience turn into stories, most of which never leave our head. Many clinicians even claim that creating a coherent story of a traumatic event and incorporating this into the self-representation is crucial for the successful treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. So storytelling is not only fundamental in our social behavior but probably also very important for our well-being.
So we are all a grand pack of storytellers that consume huge amounts of stories. Now, my knowledge in cognitive and neuropsychology is extremely limited, but I wonder what the differences are between the stories we consume and those we produce, and the reason I wonder is related to game narrative. It seems reasonable to believe that one function of our consumption of stories is to enhance our understanding of the world and the people around us. We can call those “external” stories since they are about other people. We also produce stories to project that understanding to other people (by retelling gossip and such), but we also produce stories as a means of self-reflection, to bring structure and sense to our lives. Those we can call “internal” stories because they are about ourselves. Interestingly, some people turn their internal stories into biographies and those turn into external stories when they reach the reader.
Internal game narrative
I have quite distinct memories of the game The Star of Africa that me and my brother and sisters played when we were kids. In this simple board game, the players are explorers who search the continent of Africa for precious gems; the ultimate goal is to find the huge African Star diamond and take it back to Cairo or Tangiers. I remember being sucked into the world of that game and it was thrilling to envision oneself traveling between countries. So as we played the game, I created a story about myself traveling in Africa.
“The Star of Africa” is by no means the only board game that have triggered my imagination and caused me to start making stories as I played along. It might even be that children playing such simple games as Ludo create stories as they go along – I really don’t know. What I do know though, is that when you play at least certain board games, stories are created in the minds of the players. Now, it seems reasonable to believe that playing a video game is not very different. When we run around in “Ratchet & Clank”, “Halo” or “Zelda”, I believe we produce internal stories out of the setting, the game play events and our actions.
External game narrative
When we think of game stories, we probably like to think of them quite similarly to stories in other media. Game stories contain the same elements as movies and books: a protagonist, a conflict and hopefully a few good characters that develop during the game. But it’s not just similarities. The most prominent difference is usually the scale of the story, which in games differ quite much from the ones in a typical movie. Game stories are longer and in some respects more complex than a two hour flick, which can be attributed to game play time.
The usual narrative tools available to tell stories in games are almost the same as in movies. Cinematic cutscenes are probably the most common, but games frequently bring the story into in-game events and conversations with NPC characters as well. Sometimes NPC communication becomes part of the game mechanics (see “Fahrenheit” for example, where dialog is time limited). But either way, the narrative in a game is almost always written by a writer and can thus be seen as a purely external story.
Now the big questions: what are the differences and similarities between internal and external stories? Can the two of them co-exist within the same frame? And is it possible for a player to merge the internal story she creates while exploring “Gears of War” and the one that is told to her in the cinematic cut-scenes?
The gap between internal and external narrative
I believe that there is a gap between the internal stories we make and the external ones we consume, and I believe that the boundaries between them are sensitive. I have a distinct feeling that the Link I’m controlling in “Zelda” is not quite the same Link as the one who appear in the cinematic sequences. I know in my head that they are the same character. He has the same name, the same clothes and moves the same – and he probably even smells the same. But I intuitively know that Link’s emotions are not the same when I control him as when the game controls him. And that feeling is quite close at hand, even though we try ignore it. When I control Link, his feelings and experiences are synonymous with mine. He is just a “shell” that I step into. I am the entity that takes possession of his body. In the narrative sequences something or someone else is taking my place and instantly the boundaries between the internal and external stories are exposed.
Now, even if the boundaries are exposed (as they are in most narrative games), perhaps there are means of eliminating the problem. Perhaps humans are perfectly capable of dealing with multiple “modes” of narrative within the same frame and they only need the right cues so they can join their experiences into one powerful narrative. It is perfectly possible that the problem is just a matter of learning – that players are becoming increasingly better at merging internal and external stories – and that it is just me who sucks at it and feels bad when my gaming experience is disrupted. But until someone finds out how these things really work in the minds of players, we can only guess. It would be possible to do experimental research and gather evidence that could help us draw better conclusions. Perhaps this information and research already exists, but I haven’t seen it.
To expose the gap – or not to?
During the production of “Riddick”, we tried to follow a narrative design where the Riddick who appeared in cutscenes did not act by himself. We failed at a few places in the game, but nevertheless I believe that the idea was sound: the game should not mess with the character on its own since the player is in control over him. At the time, I did not think of this in terms of internal or external stories, but the idea made sense anyhow. However, where the philosophy we followed in “Riddick” (and continues in “The Darkness”) is about player choices, the more generic idea of internal and external stories has even deeper consequences since it is about player narrative experience. Even if the design of “Riddick” tries to allow the player to stay “in character” mechanically, I believe the boundaries between the internal and external stories are exposed constantly. For example, we put Riddick on the screen in situations where the player was not in control (i.e. he figured in cinematics) and we put words in Riddick’s mouth in dialog sequences.
Could we then avoid exposing the gap altogether? I think so. In “Ratchet & Clank”, there are some cinematic sequences that begin with a sign saying “Meanwhile…” In those cinematics, the player character (Ratchet) is not present. We could have redesigned the narrative flow in “Riddick” in the same way by showing cinematics that explain the upcoming challenges. However, there is a problem with this approach. We deliberately wanted to keep Riddick in the camera view at all times in the game. The reason was that the player and the on-screen Riddick character should share the same knowledge. A “meanwhile…” sequence would give the player information that the on-screen character would not have. There are ways around this, of course.
Chances are that by now you do understand the problems I am talking about, but either think that I am wrong or that I am nitpicking. Who cares about all this phycho nonsense? Shouldn’t game stories be all about fun and exitement and first class cinematic experiences?
Yes, they should! I think it is important not to get lost in philosophical arguments about the player’s role and experience of narrative – at least if you’re into creating games. Also, I would trade a perfect example of problem free, but dull narrative against a vivid, fun and exciting game full of narrative flaws any day! But we are in the process of discovering narrative in a medium that we do not fully understand. Neither do we fully understand how the medium affects us and how we affect its affection to us! Just as other media has developed conventions and rules (the idea of the fourth wall, for example) over the years, we need rules and conventions that are efficient. Tailor-made tools that allow us to focus on the fun and thrilling aspects of narrative: story, structure, characterization and dialog. If we know that the stories we create land in one whole package in the minds and hearts of our gamers – our stories will rock them!