Narrative in Gaming (Part 1)

Narrative storytelling in gaming gets a bad rap.  Few but vocal are the ones that find it a necessity, and while their numbers are growing, tastes in the mainstream gaming culture still aren’t mature enough to handle the growth necessitated by the stories that many developers want to tell.

First-person shooters, in general terms, are the most underdeveloped of the lot, and many of them sell millions and millions of copies.  Certainly, Bioshock and its predecessors are exceptions, and worthy exceptions at that.  But these are not the rule.  Even these fine examples of design and narrative fell apart due to convention and cliché at the end of their respective journeys, something that proved disappointing to the players who found themselves caught up in 2K Boston’s cautionary tale.

How disappointing is it then, to those that value games as art and hold narrative progression in as high esteem as they do in film, that a game such as Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was hailed as an innovator in storytelling?  How much of a letdown was it to find that the game offered nothing more than spectacular set-pieces and nothing that the hungry masses hadn’t seen before in countless action films?

Such an argument deserves justification on my part, and that justification comes from my background as a gamer and a person.

My parents – particularly my mother – always stressed the importance of story.  For one reason or another, fiction became an integral part of my being, and that inexorable sense of story came with it.  The games that I found too shallow or predictable may have been played, but fell to the wayside in the deluge of stories that I’ve found myself in, in books, film and gaming as a whole.

As a gamer, my growth began in the medium at an early age, as many do.  As a child, narrative didn’t mean much to me; I found it as uninteresting as I found hopping on Goomba’s heads exciting.  This was through early childhood, and things were bound to change.

In prepubescence, then later in the growth to my teenage years, I found myself captivated by genres that have since fallen to the wayside.  Adventure gaming, in particular, held my interest for long periods of time, and not for reasons of methodology or design but simply for the stories that they told.  So far ahead were they in the realm of character development and growth that many games are still playing catch up to this day simply based on the writing that they employ.

I remember quite clearly seeing a friend of mine work through Final Fantasy VII, and later Final Fantasy X, and not quite understanding the draw.  The games seemed vast experiences to me, a game that practiced exclusivity on those not versed in its ways.  Progression through games such as those on my own time – and more importantly, as I have grown older and matured in my tastes – has revealed my main issue with many JRPGs in general.  Mired as they may be in aging mechanics (which, depending on whom you ask, is either a very good or very bad thing), the main flaw with titles in the RPG genre is cliché.

Certainly, this isn’t just an issue with RPGs, but let’s focus there for a moment.  The vast majority of these games are literally tens of hours long, many exceeding one hundred hours in playtime.  While I’d be delusional to even suggest that all of this time is spent with story exposition (it’s not, and it’s not intended to be), much of the story exposition is formed by convention.

Anime and manga play a huge part in the style and progression of RPG plotlines, from the events portrayed to the archetypes represented in the characters of the game.  This is hardly a negative thing, but it hinders both the accessibility of the game as well as innovation in the storylines.  Games such as the Shin Megami Tensei series, as well as some of the less-popular, more bizarre fringe RPG titles have done much to attempt to undermine the status quo established by industry juggernauts such as Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.

In some part, they’ve succeeded.  Battle systems have evolved slowly but surely, successive iterations refining and innovating stagnant mechanics and stale trends; games have grown and expanded in scope, while refining vision and narrowing focus.  Ambition has flared.

Still, it seems that much of this ambition has resulted in something of a deadlock for narrative progression in RPGs.  Even the most successful of games has a hard time breaking out of the cliché that its predecessors and influences have established, so expecting too much from one game or one genre could be considered too much.  A major problem for games in general is that they’re far too self-referential, and RPGs are no different.

What I mean by this is that game developers, for the most part, draw inspiration from other game developers.  Successful games in the modern era have been successful either because they’re part of an established franchise or because they attempt to draw inspiration from other sources.  A game like Uncharted 2, or, yes, even Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, draws its influences from both the world outside gaming as well as other games in their respective genres.

This is key, in my estimation, to narrative success for a video game.  Influence is necessary (T.S. Eliot famously said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal…”) but wholesale imitation is another thing altogether.  This concept goes further than narrative and into gameplay itself.  In the past ten years, we’ve seen light bloom and motion sensing and ragdoll physics and regenerative health all spread like a venereal disease, popping up in places that they shouldn’t be, sometimes to the detriment of the game in question.

There is a good argument for why this happens and why it will continue to happen: Familiar mechanics are easier to digest and acclimatize to than new mechanics, and audiences as whole tend to gravitate towards the easier, more familiar route.  Final Fantasy XII is an excellent example of this.  A critically lauded game, it was criticized by longtime fans of the series for abandoning too many of the long-standing pillars of the series itself, from combat to story design, from characters to art style.  There’s no denying that it was an inventive game and not everyone’s taste, but to shun something like that simply because it wasn’t familiar and wasn’t what fans were used to?  That’s something exclusive to two groups of people: gamers and music fans.  In both groups, it’s almost repulsive.

A large factor in the problem of narrative storytelling in games is the general lack of maturity found in the games in question.  The Grand Theft Auto series has, as a whole, done much to progress narrative beyond what it once was into something mature and relevant.  This is a contradiction with the core design of the GTA games, to go anywhere and do anything in a sandbox city.

The moral problems presented to the player in the narrative arc didn’t gel with the player’s actions, resulting in a massive disconnect that continues to this day.  Combine that with the series’ penchant for immature humor (which isn’t a problem) coupled with an attempt at mature examination of dark subject matter (this is, after all, what Rockstar tries to do in almost all of its games), and you have a game sending mixed messages all over the place.

I’ll be the first to say that I appreciate what Rockstar does and tries to do in its games, both in regards to how the game plays as well as how the story plays out.  Continually pushing the envelope of what’s considered acceptable is a very good thing, and the tales that they’ve brought the world have been nothing short of captivating (even Manhunt, in its depravity, had social commentary dripping from its ears).

That said, the very real disconnect between linear narrative and player action is something that is perhaps the biggest flaw that the company has running through the games it creates; both Jimmy Hopkins and Niko Bellic are morally sympathetic characters, but the things they do (with Hopkins, the bullying; with Bellic, the criminality) and the corresponding actions in the story proper don’t always line up, and this prevents the titles from achieving what is hinted at throughout the narrative.

In Part 2, analysis of the current state of narrative in games will continue, with a focus on the innovators.

    • Lazarus
    • March 22nd, 2010

    Nice blog.

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