Category Archives: Story and Narrative

Two Stories I Played

 

I recently played through a game called Gone Home.  Gone Home is described by its creators, The Fullbright Company, as ‘A Story Exploration Video Game’.  While I wouldn’t expect this classification to bring scores of players hustling to download the title, my preoccupation with stories and interactive narrative had me immediately interested.

Home is where the...handwritten notes and cassette tapes are?
Home is where the…handwritten notes and cassette tapes are?

 I played through  the game in one sitting. After toying with it for fifteen minutes or so on two separate occasions, the third time I loaded the game I was able to complete the experience in around three hours.  At the end of the gameplay I felt a curious emptiness.  My reaction was not one of satisfaction or elation, despite the fact that I would say I enjoyed the game overall.  I was puzzled at my own reaction.  I played through the entire game; It had maintained my attention for three hours straight, but at the end of it I felt underwhelmed by the depth of the story.  To clarify, the story was executed well, maybe even brilliantly.  It was an expert use of the toolset and effectively communicated three of the Greenbrier family’s narrative threads in parallel (Sam Greenbrier, your character’s younger sister is the focus of the story).   But, although the story was executed well both from a narrative and interactive toolset perspective,  there was an element of depth missing.  The characters were never quite developed enough or distinguished from their formative tropes (struggling writer, unfaithful spouse) to stay with me at the game’s close.

One of the many examples of Gone Home's beautiful lighting
One of the many examples of Gone Home’s beautiful lighting

I was left with the question, “What about this game held my interest so tightly for it’s duration?” The obvious and complex answer is the execution; obvious because it is clear and easy to say the game was done well but complex in that the game’s execution is comprised of many elements and some help elevate the immersion more than others.  Regardless, this explanation felt incomplete to me.

I was also left with an inclination to compare Gone Home  with Photopia, a similarly well executed stand out in Interactive Fiction by Adam Cadre , the genre that feels like the progenitor for Gone Home’s gameplay.

Photopia's opening lines
Photopia’s opening lines

I think the reason I made this comparison and the answer to my question stem from the same source: elements shared between the two pieces that helped each convey their story.

In Gone Home, the entire story takes is conveyed (trickiness of time flow aside since the story is technically taking place in retrospect) within an eerie mansion at night.  The lighting in the game sucks you in, shadows accent the structure and changes in the light of the areas is really apparent.  Essentially, there is a strong visual element in the game that really drives home the game’s mood.  This mood borders on suspense or being ominous at times, thanks to the game’s hints at the mansion being known as “the murder house” and of its former resident going mad.

Similarly, Photopia gained notice in part because of a strong visual element. Since IF is a text based genre, this could be surprising to someone who hadn’t played it.  Photopia manages its effect by simply coloring text and the display’s frame at pointed times throughout the narrative.  However, it does drive these shifts home with strong moments of transition.  These moments are usually tied to specific events in the narrative which correspond to the color.

Photopia's first color change
Photopia’s first color change

Photopia Sea Blue

A second notable similarity can be attributed to  the interactions both games allow.  This is tied to the IF genre.  Photopia, created within this genre and it’s culture has the customary text inputted actions (i.e. “Look”, “Walk” , “Get”) For the most part you are observing the story rather then playing, however there are some really vivid moments in which the game calls you to interact and it feels impactful.  For example, at one point the character you are currently playing is called on to give his daughter CPR.  Typing “breath into Allie’s mouth,” struck me with this mental image of performing the action, and felt like a moment of immersion rarely achieved even by games using the most modern technology. I would like to look into the psychology of this further, but for now I assume the thought process to type the word “breathe” results in more associations with performing the actual action, then say, pressing a single button.

Gone Home also limits your actions to investigating and interacting with the environment, although the number and variety of items to interact with in Gone Home outweighs that of Photopia. These interactions also provide more immediate and varied feedback to the player then is present in Photopia (or any IF I have played for that matter).  However, this superiority in variety and immediacy ultimately has a price in the amount of space the game can allow.  The user’s actions can affect most of the objects in the game world, but as such he needs to be controlled and kept to a certain area where that reactivity can be fully supported in order to maintain immersion.

Finally, both narrative chose to handle multiple character’s stories in parallel and use non-linear timelines to communicate these stories.

Both stories are executed well and have strong moments.  Gone Home creates an excellent tone through it’s use of lighting and sound, which, when combined with the investigative act of uncovering the plot, does a good job of keeping the player engaged.  However, Photopia’s narrative left me with a more lasting impression thanks to its depth and subtle characterization along with the feeling of unity between it’s visual moments and the story.

Narrative vs. Tone in Games

For a long time I felt that the unique nature of the game medium set it apart as a special avenue for storytelling and championed the idea of story in games.  I knew there were difficulties and had seen first hand failed attempts at mixing narrative with interactivity, but I was convinced it was just a matter of finding the right approach.  But, my own recent attempt to create an interactive story and the games I have played in the past few months have had a decided effect on me.  I still feel a game can be used to deliver an effective narrative, however I think tone is the strongest use of the medium to achieve a desired emotional state for the player.  I believe that the tone of a game should take priority over narrative for the designer.

I realize that within literature tone is seen as an element of narrative, as just a part of the whole.  But in games, and video games in particular, creating the tone of the piece is more analogous to creating tone in film.  I would go so far as to say that the narrative in video games frequently serves as a part of the tone, rather than the inverse, which also feels true for film. Similar to film, in games the tone is the desired effect created through all the medium’s elements. The games creator can direct the sound, visuals, gameplay, narrative, tactile aspect, and many other elements in order to generate a tone which is unleashed on the player with the hopes of achieving a specific emotional state.  The medium’s interactivity and many possible elements present a unique and often trying difficulty to storytellers in the field, but at the same time are alluring for the immersion and potential for strong impact.

Baldur's Gate: Lots of fun, lots of dice, lots suspicious guards.  The Forgotten Realms is rough on law enforcement.
Baldur’s Gate: Lots of fun, lots of dice, lots suspicious guards. The Forgotten Realms is rough on law enforcement.

Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn, and Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber were two titles that played a formative role in my belief that games can deliver on story.  Story and narrative aspects have a strong presence in both games despite differences necessitated by gameplay.  In Shadows of Amn, the player is largely free to roam about either experiencing the central narrative thread, or encapsulated stories in the form of side quests.  Person of Lordly Caliber primarily delivers a linear narrative with some player choices but the only noticeable results of the choices come at the game’s conclusion.

 

Ogre Battle 64 Screen shot Go Find Him

 

I loved the story in both of these games, and was completely immersed in the games in different ways.  However, in looking back I realized that while I enjoyed both the story and and gameplay of both experiences, the two elements operated more in parallel then as parts of a single thing.  And, while I had a strong emotional connection to the story of Person of Lordly Calibur, when the game ended I felt a strange displacement.  I now attribute this to the impression that my agency in the game world was inconsequential.  I was asked moral questions at the game’s start and presented with weighty and seemingly important decisions at different times, but at the end of the day these decisions changed little about the story.  As a result I felt a tension between my affiliation with my avatar in the game, the strong story, and this strange illusion of control which ultimately undermined the impact for me.

Before I played either of those games though, I had one of my strongest experiences with any creative medium  through The Legend of Zelda: The Link’s Awakening.  I originally thought it was the game’s story that had left such a lasting impression on me, bringing me back to play through it again and again.  But I now realize it was the game’s tone ( and possibly my young age to some extent) that still conjures up strong feelings for me now when I think back on playing it.  The story itself was simple; you (or Link) have washed up on an island, shipwrecked, and don’t remember anything.  Gradually you regain your memory while protecting the village and yourself from the monsters on the island that have recently become irate.  It turns out the whole thing is a dream, and if you wake the Windfish, the dream will end (either yours or his, it is somewhat unclear).  The kicker for me was the end of the dream, while your only means of escape, also means the end of existence for the villagers and island inhabitants that you have been interacting with all game long.  The characters generally had a distinct appearance, even on the limited graphics of the original Game Boy, and perhaps their simplistic representation conversely allowed a more detailed existence in my head.  I had become quite attached to the world, and now it was quite literally coming to end on multiple levels, to the point that I couldn’t even imagine these characters having a happy existence once I turned the cartridge off for last time.

It's hard to believe but that raccoon has a bad mushroom addiction.
It’s hard to believe but that raccoon has a bad mushroom addiction.

The memorable, distinctive music, surreal feel of the colorless, simplistic visuals, gameplay, and just united feel of the game world as a whole all contributed to such a strong tone that I will likely remember The Link’s Awakening as one of my favorite game’s indefinitely.

More recently, I enjoyed played Limbo and Bastion, two games that I think achieve a similarly strong impact on the player because they focused on using a unity of their game elements to achieve a distinct tone.

These experiences in isolation wouldn’t have convinced me to see narrative and tone as carrying different priority in games, but a few months ago when I worked with a team to create an interactive piece for a class I felt first hand the tension that can exist between story and interaction.  Our game, or experience, used the PlayStation Move and the Oculus Rift in an attempt to put the player in the role of a former musician struggling with drug addiction.  One of the large barriers to strong interactive storytelling is the efffective use of the interactions.  If the interactions are not used effectively to immerse the player or tied in a meaningful way to the story, then a disconnect occurs.  For our experience we used the PS Move controllers to allow the user to experience or act out cello playing movements and hypodermic needle injection in an attempt to not only convey loss but a visceral element.  But not only were we limited by a desire for a simple and strong effect, but our inability to completely master the technology we used resulted in some small disruptions in the movement of on screen arms which was enough to weaken the whole thing.

One scene from my team's interactive story effort, The Cellist.
One scene from my team’s interactive story effort, The Cellist.

Obviously our own technical issues and difficulty with storytelling have no bearing on the medium as a whole.  But we were successful in certain ways which affected me more than the failures.  There were mixed responses from those watching the experience, but the majority of the feedback said they liked it because the lighting, visual setting, sound, and concept made them feel something, even those who were unsure of the story.  Based on the feedback, I felt that the emotional response we got was stronger then if we had made a clear story with less substantial tone.  Amongst the other games shown alongside ours those who had a strong tone, even those whose story was sparse, were the ones which stuck with me.  On the other hand, in the experiences which conveyed a clear narrative the interactions did not particularly bolster the story; they just coexisted with it.

After this experience I looked back on the catalogue of games I had viewed as strong interactive narratives and realized that, more often than not, the lasting sentiment had from from the game’s tone rather than specifically it’s narrative.

I still feel that an effective narrative can exist in games, but a designer concerned with maximizing their influence on the player would do well to consider story as just one of the many elements at their disposal which must fit into the tone as a whole.

 

The Windfish tells Link about tone.  He thinks it is important.
The Windfish tells Link about tone. He thinks it is important.