The Importance of Narrative in Video Games
Video games have come a very long way since the 1970’s when the first home video game system was released in 1972. It was a very primitive machine. It essentially was the standard pong game programmed slightly differently with no actual graphical indicators on the screen besides paddles and a ball. The rest was filled in by overlays that were designed to fit over a television screen and they would have drawings or artwork on them to represent the rest that the machine could not show.
This beginning of video games is far different from now. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, videogames were largely forms of entertainment for kids. I’m not disputing that adults did not play games then, but it was very uncommon compared to now. Games were much simpler in both design and complexity. Due to hardware constraints, not much could have been done to create anything that rivaled either epic, cinematic, or artistic experiences.
Of course, games did not evolve over night. It was a gradual increase. Over the 1980’s, a small amount of games did try to go above and beyond the competition in terms of writing. The best examples I can think of are Final Fantasy, Ninja Gaiden, Dragon Warrior, etc… In the early 1990’s, more games took attempts to have convincing stories. Some of these attempts in the early parts of the decade such as Chrono Trigger and Earthboundwere successful. If not coming close to what film and literature had achieved before, they were at least better than before and heading in the right direction. I think so at least. 1995 saw the release of the Sony Playstation and with this, the video game market expanded significantly. Sony’s library of games and marketing attracted older gamers, and suddenly it became acceptable in the media to be a grown adult playing video games.
Not much else happened for the rest of the decade of importance to this topic, but I felt the need to mention this because were it not for an expanded market/demographic, developers might possibly not have continued to improve the narrative status of games. Why do I think so? If the average gamer is around ten years old, chances are they only care about having fun. They wouldn’t want their hobbies to mature because they themselves wouldn’t be mature enough to handle and appreciate them.
The real breakthrough for the evolution of gaming from my experience and knowledge was in the 2000’s. Games were released that put story above gameplay, a controversial design choice amongst purists to this day. Indigo Prophecy is a paranormal thriller. New York City is struck by a string of murders in which normal people are possessed and kill other random people. You control Lucas, a man controlled by an unknown force and 2 detectives, unraveling the mystery behind the murders and the “force” controlling them.
Max Payne is the tragic story of a man who takes a new experimental drug from the government called Valkyr, an allusion to Norse mythology, of which this game is filled with. Max becomes aware of a group of junkies in the house and fails to stop them from killing his wife and baby on time. He eventually becomes an undercover cop to stop those affiliated with Valkyr, as a form of revenge for his family’s death.
Another pretty prevalent series during this time is the Silent Hill series. I will admit that the voice acting and dialogue is not always good. It can be awkward or even just plain bad at times. It mostly succeeds in these respects though. The true achievement in the Silent Hill series is its psychological take on horror, as opposed to closet “Boo” scares. Silent Hill was inspired by the movie Jacob’s Ladder. Most of the games are very heavy on symbolism. Silent Hill 2 is likely the best example of symbolism in the series. It’s possibly even one of the best examples of symbolism in gaming.
In Silent Hill 2, James Sunderland receives a letter signed by his wife telling him to meet him in his special place at the town of Silent Hill. The problem is his wife had died from a terminal illness three years ago. Does this sound absurd? It is and even James himself acknowledges the notion to be ridiculous, but for some unknown reason, he decides on going anyways. His wife’s name is Mary and he meets a woman at that special place, but as you expect, it’s not his wife. The woman there is named Maria. Very similar names, correct? There is a very good reason for that. She looks like Mary and sounds like her too. The only difference is the clothes and hair. She is not real. She is a manifestation of James’ guilt about his wife’s death. She has a tougher, more sinister attitude than Maria because James feels guilty and thinks he deserves to be punished in some way. I also assume that the slightly more promiscuous clothing Maria wears has something to do with his sexual repression.
James meets many characters on his journey to and through Silent Hill. One of them besides Maria is Angela. She was abused and/or raped by her father. It’s clearly suggested she killed him. At one point while following her, the player sees fire consuming everything around her. This gives a look into her subconscious. She likely feels guilty about killing her father and feels as though she deserves to suffer in hell, hence the fire. The symbolism stretches even to the monsters James fights. One enemy type looks somewhat like a person in a stray jacket and symbolizes his inner torment. Another enemy type with a two legs spread apart in place of a head represent James’ sexual repression for not having had sex since she’s been dead for so long and terminally ill for a while even before that. The most iconic enemy in the game, Pyramid Head has a human torso with a pyramid for a head. He even rapes other monsters, no doubt another outlet of James’ sexual repression. Pyramid Head also is another symbol of guilt. It’s also important to mention the fantastic soundtrack that lends heavily to the experience of the game.
There are several other games in the first half of the decade of the 2000’s, and while I did play some of them, my full blown appreciation of them did not blossom until 2006 or 2007. I was between ten and eleven years old then. The first real game to my recollection I played mostly for the story was Heavenly Sword. Heavenly Sword was an action game about Nariko, who belongs to a clan that for generations has protected the Heavenly Sword. The malevolent ruler King Bohan wants the sword’s power, but Nariko grabs the sword herself to protect it from Bohan’s grasp, with the repercussions that come along with it. The Heavenly Sword slowly drains the life of whoever possesses it. The rest of the game follows Nariko across a five day period with King Bohan chasing after her. The basic plot is simplistic, but the quality of the voice acting and dialogue is superb.
Those well versed in the world of film are probably familiar with Andy Serkis, who provided the motion capture for Gollum in the Lord of The Rings Trilogy. He provides the voice acting and motion/facial capture for King Bohan. Heavenly Sword was a very emotional game, making great use of monologues from Nariko and facial motion capture for capturing subtler details to further add a deeper layer to the characters and dialogue. Nariko is very much a tragic heroine. Her selflessness saved her village while at the same time leading to her demise.
One of the biggest proponents of video gaming as a narrative and artistic medium is Heavy Rain, the brainchild of David Cage, whom also headed the Indigo Prophecy project. Before moving onto Heavy Rain, one must understand how storytelling/narrative works in games. There are two distinct ways a developer can chose to get their vision across. There can either be a linear story, which is just as the name suggests. Like any movie, the story plays out in a completely linear fashion, with the player taking control whenever the developers feel relegating control to the gamer is appropriate. It cannot be affected or changed in any way whatsoever. The other, more compelling form of storytelling in gaming is that of the interactive story. An interactive story game may either have a set story, and giving you branching paths through the mostly linear story, or they can be more significant with entire plot points, characters, settings, relationships, etc… changing depending on your choices. These games are built around player choice.
Indigo Prophecy and Heavy Rain adopted this style of interactive storytelling. The premise of Heavy Rain is that Ethan Mars, the protagonist of the game is a married father with two children. The beginning hours can seem mundane to some people, but they serve a purpose. In order to grow an emotional connection with a character, an attachment must be obtained somehow. In this game, you start off waking up, showering, brushing your teeth, doing drawings for architecture, and playing with your children. This slow opening serves to give characters time to develop. Eventually, the whole family heads to the mall, where one of the children becomes lost. Ethan furiously searches for him, only to find him across a street and get hit by a car, killing him. This scene happened towards the beginning and left me with a few tears. I genuinely felt bad for him and the loss of his child. The game fast forwards two years later and Ethan Mars is now divorced, living alone, and dealing with depression. He still does get to have his other child from time to time, but the mother has custody over him. When picking up the kid from school, the player takes him home and gets to bond with him. The player can choose whether or not to feed him, to force him to do his homework, etc… Tiny things like this strengthen the emotional bond with the game and its characters despite the slow pacing. The following day, Ethan takes his son to the park to play. He suffers from a random blackout, and when he wakes up from it, his son is missing. I bawled when he stopped searching, got down on his knees in the middle of the road in the rain, and cried “no”. I cannot think of any movie that has made me cry so excessively, but this moment sticks in my mind. The rest of the game sees 4 main characters. One is an FBI agent, another, a reporter suffering from insomnia, a private detective, and finally Ethan Mars from the opening of the game. For the rest of the game, all these characters are trying to find a serial killer by the name of The Origami Killer. The Origami Killer is the one that kidnapped Ethan Mars’ son and remotely leaves him clues that lead him to trials to partake in. What Ethan must do is complete all of the trials given by the Origami Killer to slowly gain parts of an address where the kid is being held captive.
These trials are the crux of the game’s central theme: “How far are you prepared to go to save someone you love?” The trials are not simple tasks. These trials are driving against oncoming traffic for five miles, going through a maze of electrical conductors, being given five minutes to cut off your finger, Killing a drug dealer, and taking poison that will give Ethan just enough time to find his son and save him before dying. Of course, this being an interactive experience, the player can chose to not attempt the trials, fail them, and never save his son. Characters can also die at any time during the game, drastically altering later events in the game. There are a total of twenty-two endings.
The trials were an eye opening experience, giving a greater appreciation of human life because some the things needed to be done to save his child, Ethan was required to do a lot. It goes to show how deep a bond a father and son share, as well as the sheer power of love that if the player so chooses, can quite literally accomplish anything and provide a motivational drive behind even the most questionable activities.
Heavy Rain was one of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve had with anything and speaks to the power gaming can have as a narrative medium when done well. Due to the interactive nature of the medium itself, whether or not the story is linear or interactive, games’ stories have the potential to be more engaging than any other entertainment medium. The game accomplished its goal well. My father who is one of those adults that puts down games as a waste of time was engrossed while I played it. He does not live with me, but visits every two days. He was so enthralled by watching me play the game, that he did not want me to play it when he wasn’t home.
There is also the Mass Effect series. It is a trilogy that also incorporates interactive narrative. The basic plot across the trilogy is an ancient alien race was wiped out by another alien race. Startled by this, the protagonist tries to dig up the mysteries behind the occurrences and learns about an alien race that every few hundred years wipes out all organic civilization. Preparation must take place to fend off the impending attack. This is an extremely condensed summary because the three games together are massive. Each one took me approximately thirty hours to complete, and the average game length is around eight hours. The game certainly has its issues, but ultimately the personalization of an interactive story, with choices and consequences carrying over across three games is rare. It is an achievement worthy of note, but I have nothing really to say about it for the moment.
The game that pushed me towards buying an Xbox 360 was Alan Wake. Alan Wake is a famous writer within the game world and is currently suffering from writer’s block. He goes on vacation to the town of Bright Falls to get away from all his pressures from his work. Little did he know that his wife used this as an excuse to inspire him to write more when he wanted a break from writing. After a fight with his wife, she disappears. The search for his wife spurs on and he ends up finding manuscript pages from a horror story he has no recollection of writing. These pages are coming true and Alan must put a stop to it.
Remedy proved previously with their Max Payne series they are excellent writers. Alan Wake is no exception. The bulk of the main story is told through traditional cut scenes, and these are constructed very well, but the lip syncing issues lessen the immersion it might otherwise have had. If you are a completionist and chose to go out of your way, you can collect all 106 of the manuscript pages. These pages give extra tidbits of information, and together form a pretty well written story, even if it isn’t fully cohesive. The manuscript pages are examples of exemplary writing skills on Remedy’s part. Credit also goes to the voice actor for Alan, giving the proper delivery when reading the pages aloud.
It’s no secret the game was inspired by the likes of Stephen King, famed horror novelist. It unabashedly references a saying by Stephen King in the opening scene: “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s very little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear” This sets the tone for the game. It is a well written horror story that takes inspiration from Stephen King, but things aren’t always explained clearly. Alan Wake may not be the best story in gaming, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have some of the most engaging dialogue/monologues in gaming. This game could have had the most mediocre gameplay in existence, but it’s writing would be enough to carry it.
One of the more underrated games this generation in my eyes is Mafia 2. It’s most certainly not ashamed to be similar to many other Mafia movies. Vito Scaletta gives his accounts of rising from the bottom to the top of the Mafia. It starts off like a typical Mobster/Mafia movie, but for a game, it sets the stage well for what will be a story with fairly endearing characters, some genuine heart and comedy, and effective use of narration. Anyone who has seen the movie Goodfellas is most likely going to feel right at home with this game. Just like Martin Scorsese’s movies, this game is more about characters than actual plot. In this Mafia 2 succeeds.
One of my favorite videogames is Catherine, and that is thanks in large part to the superb story and symbolism. Vincent is dating Katherine, who proposes to marry him when he ends up sleeping with another girl named Catherine. Vincent is a normal guy with nothing particularly special about him. As with many men, he wants the best for his girlfriend, but is hesitant about marriage because of his fear of commitment. Some childlike qualities also abound within him. Throughout the game, the player can choose to be with either girl through a series of moral questions and dialogue choices, leading to up to twenty different endings. Very few games these days are mature. There may be plenty of games with mature content and a mature rating, but that alone does not make a game mature. In order for a game to truly be mature it must have a deep narrative and deal with topics/subject matter dealt with on a normal basis such as racism, for example, and tackling them in a meaningful way. If there is to be cursing, nudity, or sex in the game, it must be conductive to the narrative rather than being there just for the sake of being there or causing controversy. Catherine is one of the few mature games out there. There are important themes and symbolism present in the game that is not jammed down peoples’ throats.
The game is filled with symbolism, metaphors, and questions of morality that fall into the grey area instead of being strictly black and white. The two ends of the spectrum of morality are a comfortable and steady life or a life more full of excitement, but it is so subtle it won’t be recognized until the game is over and a voice at the end explains some of the symbolism and themes dealt with in the game. The basic gameplay revolves around talking to people at a bar or nightmare sequences in which Vincent must climb a series of stairs or he dies in the real world. Of course the dream sequences are riddled with imagery of the pressures of his life and issues Vincent deals with. At the end of these, the player is asked a moral question and must answer one way or the other. The stairway is a metaphor that symbolizes Vincent’s journey to adulthood, pressuring him to make tough life decisions with consequences that must be dealt with.
Looking at this game and at the general stance on gaming from the media, as well as many adults that are not gamers really sickens me. No matter how far gaming evolves, some people will brush off gaming because of their pre-conceived notions that games are all mindless entertainment for children. Catherine is a brilliant game and one that I hope everyone without a measly attention span experiences. It is a masterpiece in storytelling, symbolic representations, metaphorical objects, and thematic elements.
When all is said and done, what about the artistic games that have very little story or dialogue? These are traditional examples of art, often using minimalistic design and story elements to present something as being grander than it actually is. Shadow of The Colossus exemplifies this minimalistic attitude in conveying its story. All that must be done by the main character is to kill sixteen creatures called colossi. The only dialogue that occurs is between each colossus kill in which a spirit tells you about the next colossus you must kill. You set out on horse rides to these colossi to kill them.
This structure works perfectly in tandem with the game because it feels as though the gameplay was built around servicing the emotiveness and ambiance the game tries to convey. No gameplay elements feel unneeded or superfluous. Shadow of The Colossus is an audio-visual assault on the senses. Everything from the gameplay elements, to the world’s structure, to the actual battles with colossi, to the soundtrack, lends to the game a very special feeling that is difficult to explain. It is an emotionally charged game not simply for any one element, but for every element working in tandem perfectly with each other. All of the elements making it up are additive to the experience.
Roger Ebert, one of the most well-known critics of all time once said videogames are not art. He is clearly wrong as evidenced by my previous examples. I hope he, among others start to open their minds to videogames. They must realize that they have as much relevance as a book, or a movie, or music, maybe even more so because of the interactive nature of the medium as opposed to a passive experience. The problem is that while games may be taking the right steps, they are largely still in their infancy. Film is over 100 years old. Music and literature both being over 200 years old. They have had a lot of time to mature. Games are not even fifty years old yet.
One game that got me into reading more often recently is Bioshock. A man’s plane crashes into the ocean. The player proceeds to find the nearest lighthouse, only to find a bathysphere inside that takes him underwater. This bathysphere brings him to an underwater city known as Rapture. This city was built by Andrew Ryan in the 1940’s or 1950’s. He built a city where “the artist would not fear the censor, where the scientist would not be bound by petty morality, where the great would not be constrained by the small”. Andrew Ryan wanted a perfect, Utopian society after his experiences with World War 2. Another narrative driven game, the beauty lies within the mystery of Rapture itself. The Rapture the player encounters is a heavily deteriorated version of the old rapture. For a time Rapture was perfect, but it didn’t last forever. Once plasmids, genetic mutations granting special powers, were discovered, the city went downhill. The enemies in the game are known as splicers and they look oddly similar to human beings, only with slightly disfigured faces.
The citizens never left Rapture. Their overabundance of plasmid use lead to weird mutations and loss of certain brain functions. Bioshock does contain some allusions to other works. For example, Andrew Ryan is a reference to Ayn Rand, a famous writer and philosopher. One of the characters named Atlas, probably references Atlas Shrugged, on of Ayn Rand’s more influential and controversial books. The game’s currency is Adam and the energy needed to use plasmids is called Eve. These are no doubt allusions to the story of Adam and Eve in the bible and the creation of life. In this way, by unraveling the mystery of Rapture and killing these splicers, the city’s former glory is slightly restored. You get a sense of what Rapture used to be like through audio diaries scattered throughout the game, revealing bits of story or simply adding background behind the city’s Utopian period. Andrew Ryan was a very idealistic man. He did not like capitalism and socialism, and fell more in line with a belief in objectivism and social Darwinism. My fascination with the game’s thematic elements inspired me to start reading more, beginning with the author that influenced Bioshock.
The final game I will talk about is The Witcher 2, a role playing game with an interactive story. Geralt of Rivia is framed for the murder of a king and must find the real killer to clear his name. A witcher, if you were wondering, is a person genetically mutated to deal with the job of slaying monsters. Like Catherine, The Witcher 2 is another excellent example of a truly mature game. The developers had a story in mind that they wanted to tell, and there is cursing, nudity, and sex. There is a lot of that, but like a true mature experience, it is also meant to be conductive to the experience of the game, not intrusive to it.
The game developers do not hold your hand. There will be many characters you meet and many choices you make that have no clear right or wrong path. Morally ambiguous choices have dire consequences either immediately or hours later into the game. It is also not afraid to concern itself with issues of racism and political intrigue. It is a complex game with a complex story not for the weak-minded individual.
The reason I game is probably different from the reason most gamers play games. Most play games for fun, and while I have no problem with that because I play plenty of games for fun, I believe the narrative/artistic approach is more important. I prefer it. It gives weight behind my in-game actions. Videogames are not taken seriously enough. I despise my mom whenever she calls a game “stupid” or uses a curse word to describe it. She simply doesn’t get it. Most people don’t get it. I play games for a deep experience with a deep story. I’m sure many people, especially long-time or retro gamers would call my ideals blasphemy, but that is the way I see it. Videogames have helped me in other ways besides just increasing my appreciation of narrative and art. Videogames have also improved my vocabulary.
It is no secret that my vocabulary is more extensive than most of my peers. I’m sure English teachers would like to believe I gained that through reading novels. That’s not entirely true though, as I have not taken reading seriously, as a hobby at least, until after finishing Bioshock. The majority of my vocabulary came from video game reviews and playing video games myself. Video games are more than mindless junk. They are very important forms of entertainment that deserve to be treated with the utmost respect on a similar level to that of film and literature.