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COG II: Whose story is this anyway?? (1)

Caram on Games (COG) is an occasional ramble in which I discuss computer gaming, gaming culture and how I perceive them, in an attempt to talk about a medium that I've always been passionate about, or at least enjoyed. Every part is an exploration of thoughts, meaning that it comes together as it is written- so while they may meander for a while, a point will eventually be reached. Maybe. After a lot of words, and sometimes numbers. You have been warned- there will be a lot of waffle and fewer pictures than befits a visual medium. Now you've been warned twice. Enjoy!

There is a great problem at the core of narratives in computer games: The authors desire to tell a story. On its own, this is not a problem. It becomes thus when confronted with the readers' desire to experience their own story in the authors story. In itself, even this is not a problem- a game's designer can plan many branching strands of a narrative that will accommodate different approaches to the story they are telling. The problem is that a classical narrative has a fixed beginning, middle and ending, and that no matter what, you will reach those.

There is a great opportunity at the core of narratives in computer games: The players willingness to experience a story that is not their own, to live, however vicariously, a day in someone else's shoes, to perform an identity that they do not experience in their everyday lives. This opportunity goes beyond what frontal, linear media can offer- computer games are the medium that touts interactivity as its primary differentiator, this ability to experience your story within someone else's story.

My problem with both of the above is a lack of terminology to describe these personal interactions within a set narrative: Most of the terms used to describe video games, in critiques, reviews, or verbal description is borrowed from literary and film studies. This approach has its validity- many of the terms related to the (de-)construction of a narrative can be applied to storytelling in a game: we have three-dimensional characters, first- and third-person protagonists, unreliable narrators, antagonists, climaxes. Equally, many terms describing the visual storytelling apply, as much of the camerawork in games is derived from photo- or cinematography.

What these terms fail to take into account, however, is the interaction between the story and the player- up to now, they seldom had to. There are terms such as "culturally-based reading" or "visual culture" and "background" to describe the influence of the audiences perception on a narrative, but they don't cover direct interference on the narrative development by the audience. So far, most media has been linear, and, even if interrupted, continues neatly at the point you left off at- with very few exceptions, the only choice an audience had, once they engage on a narrative journey has been to continue, or not to.

Narrative computer games are mostly linear, even if they are built to seem full of choice and possibility. These choices are generally understood as narrative branches- decisions and interactions check boxes, and once the right preconditions are fulfilled, a new branch is opened, or closed off. Especially if a story feels like it is developing organically, driven by player actions, a lot of planning has gone into hiding the rails the game has laid out for the player from the outset. There is usually more freedom in a game once you move past the confines of the narrative and start playing around with gameplay systems, what you may call emergent gameplay, but it is much more difficult to implement a real emergent narrative that allows the player the freedom to approach every situation in exactly the way they wish to. Every choice in a game is an illusion (literally), as most choices you can make have already been accounted for in advance, and those you would like to make, but are not included in the branches, simply don't exist.

Even as an illusion, choices exist in game worlds- they range from choosing a tone to respond to an interlocutor in to whether to protect a city, rather than saving a castle to sacrificing entire universes to save one person. It is through them that the player develops their personal narrative within the framework of the overall story, how they shape a character and tone of a playthrough. If we stick with  the idea that gameplay is a type of improv theatre, one playthrough is one complete story, told from start to finish. And one playthrough can be a deeply personal experience that engages on an intellectual, visceral and emotional level, as the player learns the game world, begins to understand the subtle, or not very so, connections that make up the intricacies of the plot and experiences a possible narrative twist for the first time- it is the story of the protagonist, as seen and acted out in gameplay by the player by means of an in-game avatar.

Gameplay generally comes in two modes: narrative discovery and an exploration of the games' systems. There are games that combine this by making the narrative the main system by which the game world is explored- in writing, mostly. Others will include elements of cartography- charting the game world. One might argue that this falls under narrative discovery, as the world is the setting of the narrative, but let's separate them: the geography of the world is not the text of the narrative, therefore does not offer narrative options beyond situational agency, therefore has no bearing, except when explicitly tied to story, on narrative development, therefore is separate from narrative strands until mentioned in the text of the narrative. Separating cartography from story leaves us with a loose end, especially as we are discussing personal storytelling within a pre-existing narrative. But, in the tradition of loose ends, we will get to it later.

I always find it difficult to think of my first playthrough as playing the game if it has a narrative- I am here to experience, as first-hand as possible, the story I have involved myself in, to discover this world someone thought worth realising, and to debate possible outcomes through my interactions in that world. It's after that first playthrough that I start playing the game as  game, having allowed myself to be bad at playing it once. Up to this point, my main goal has been to discover the narrative. Now, to explore the gameplay, and figure out how to game the game. This is where my story in the game begins. But then- whose story have I been playing up to now?

It is not easy to parse personal involvement in a linear narrative, designed to appear non-linear through gameplay. If we apply the old adage that it is the journey, not the arrival that matters, it is the player's journey, but it is a journey not only to a predetermined ending, but on a path that has been carefully laid out, markers skillfully hidden, that cannot be diverged from, yet the path has to feel as if it is being discovered by the individual player. A path is made up of its individual moments, beads on the string of the story necklace.

Living in the Moment

Sticking with the idea of the story as a necklace, let's take that and make it hollow: Each bead is full of life, challenges and puzzles, and things to discover, connected by a narrow tunnel- the string- to the next bead. Sometimes, you can re-order the beads so that different ones follow each other, but the world contained in every one does not change. What changes is the relation of that world to the ones that follow it, depending on decisions made in one, the next one may unfold with some variation. May unfold, because not every game includes several story branches that reflect decisions and choices- sometimes, the beads are just full of content for a player to discover, but none of it really impacts what follows.

My story within such a game is simple, and related mostly to gameplay: I am here to "help" the character that the story presents as its protagonist achieve their goal, even if they die a few times along the way. In helping this character, I embark on an empathic journey with them- walk a mile in their shoes, experience the world, narrated through their perspective. A relationship develops between us, and somehow, keeping them "alive" is enough of a story for me to enter the role of the character, while dialogue and narrative interactions remain, mostly, out of my control. Again, I try to differentiate between an interactive narrative that you follow, and a modular narrative which you can influence. But on the level of personal engagement, it seems to be the journey, and the discovery of the story behind it, that defines the narrative experience.

In the latest God of War, which looks like a masterpiece of a linear narrative, your overall goal is simple: Dead Mother has asked you to scatter her ashes from the highest peak in the realm(s). This dying wish takes Kratos, accompanied by his son, Atreus, on a journey that spans most of Norse mythology* and allows the player to discover the characters of that mythology and the stories that connect the protagonist to it. This is a case of the geography being tied to the story- every realm you travel reveals a new morsel of information, and you must travel these realms to gain full understanding of the overall narrative. There can choose- to a point- the order in which you visit locations, but the overall progression through the narrative geography remains the same.

Whether it is Kratos, Geralt, Lara, Larry or Aloy, the aim is, beyond glorious battle*, to discover their perception of this world they inhabit, and their relation to the various people and factions within. To feel, in other words, what they would feel in the situations they encounter, and understand the motivations that drive them. This is comparable to any medium, but again, this medium is defined by its interactivity. A second characteristic is the  longevity of engagement with the medium- the latter makes games more like a book than a film in the way it is consumed: It can be engaged with at the users pace, and there is something to be said for a slow reading***.

At some point, you begin identifying with the character, understanding their view of the world. Like a good book, a good game immerses the player in the world, it becomes real somewhere between the eyes and the brain. Motivations become clear, attitudes internalised, reactions anticipated- where once you were in a foreign country, the PC the tour guide, a good game will allow the player to inhabit not only a character, but also the world. An even better game will deliver on the emotional build-up- this is why ending slides remain an effective way to convey the effect the player has had on the game. But there are other methods. An example:

The scene before the final battle in Dragon Age: Origins (DA:O). You meet up with the companions you have been spending the game with, and they sum up their relationship with the Gray Warden, how you have affected them over the past 40-100 hours of gameplay. As a player, you realise that this is the last time you might be seeing these characters, your last interaction with them. It came as a great relief to me to meet them again at the celebration that marks the end of the game- they survived! They will continue their lives after this is over! I will travel the deserts of Qu'nar with (the) Sten! Many games provide you with companions that ground you emotionally in the world, but also provide the player with a number of (simulated) emotional relationships. Few games I have played have used leverage those relationships into emotion at the endgame with as much finesse as the older Bioware titles.

Like the relationships we have with the people that surround us, the relationships we develop in a game world define how we view the world, and how we are attached to it. How the player interacts with these characters, or the PC's actions towards the characters, shape the way they experience their individual journey through the game, even if it is on rails. If a game manages to touch me on that emotional level, I am living, vicariously, my own story in that game, rather than spectating.

But is that enough? That is a question I'd like to explore in the next part of this.

Notes & Links:
* Consider this my acknowledgement of the relationship between video gaming and violence. That's another big story altogether, and will be discussed at some point. I do enjoy a good sword-fight, though.
** I would love to see a game based on Aboriginal tales, or African legends, or set in the realms of the Mayan and Incan Myths. Gamings fascination with Norse mythology may be rooted in familiarity and fashion, but certainly there must be some storytellers interested in adapting these into a gaming format?
*** As a former English Lit Major, I used to hate this mode. Over time, I grew to like it again- in a world that demands a much more frequent absorbtion of media, it is a very relaxing way to step out of it for a moment. This also applies to non-fiction.

On how to draw players into an interactive narrative:
Noclip: John Gonzales on Writing Horizon Zero Dawn (and FO: New Vegas)
Registration required: Hartmut Koenitz: Towards a Specific Theory of Interactive Digital Narrative
Cory Barlog on the process of developing the narration of God of War:


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