Game design corner: Story

Novelists have always had complete freedom to pretty much tell their story any way they saw fit. And that’s what I’m trying to do.
Quentin Tarantino


SPOILERS FOR: Inception,

The above image in the header, of the reader/author relationship, was found just browsing Google a few hours ago. I looked at it for a while and it just made absolute perfect sense. Unfortunately, there was a part of me crying out in disapproval. Namely, the part of me which holds a controller everyday – I’m not sure whether the same relationship applies to interactive media. Trying to take this and apply it to an interactive context may be impossible. The designers can lay out elements which may present, for example, the threat of nuclear war; but you may take it in the direction that everyone is paranoid. Then again, that’s the exact relationship, except there’s something different. When an author expresses themselves through a narrative, they are trying to suggest specific ideas and then lead readers/viewers on to interpret the meaning.

Consider the amazingly amazing Inception that came out this year. It’s without a doubt Nolan’s finest work and suggests things with utter ambiguity. Unfortunately, I feel that perhaps us ‘readers’ are lacking when it comes to what is actually being suggested. Nolan himself admits disappointment at this in the interviews he’s done, but he’s more than glad that such a intellectually stimulating film was a massive success. I think I get his point, at the end of Inception we are left to analyse Cobb’s place in ‘the world’. Is he in reality or dreaming? This then should lead us on to the main point to which I’ve been trying to get everyone to consider: what separates them. Fundamentally what makes reality what it is and the dream-world what it is. Would you rather live in an amazing dream or a dull mundane life?

The question of story here, of Cobb fighting his demons and getting ‘home’, is simply the embedded part of this. Through embedded elements such as the totem and the children themselves, we know that whatever Cobb only perceives as ‘reality’ is his ‘reality’. Then us, the viewer, should make our own spin on this. Perhaps in a more abstract sense, the film is asking a question that philosophers and artists and writers have been asking for centuries; what does it mean to be? My own perception is that the reality is there is no reality – only what we want to feel and touch and see. We effectively create our own definitions, and I liken that to the whole ‘what is art’ definition battle.

My own interpretation of Inception isn’t that “is he in a dream” or “is he in reality”, it’s something completely different. My interpretation is that Cobb is the dream. He is a projection inside Mal’s head who is toying with her, as she’s now realised she’s trapped in the dream world, so her sub-concious is fighting her concious state of mind. She dreams of the perfect husband, who then goes ultimately sour and kicks out to levels of the dream (eventually coming back down to try and talk him into staying sane). Throughout, other projections tell Cobb to “take a leap of faith” and kill himself, to end his sad mirage, and that’s what happens at the end of the film. He realises that none of it is reality, only what he calls reality, and so resigns himself to those last bitter seconds of the dream and finding his projected children. The totem spinning represents that he hasn’t found reality by its physical definition, but he doesn’t care, he ignores it; it doesn’t matter.

But that’s just my interpretation of Nolan’s expression, of what he’s trying to convey. Perhaps he has separate ideas of what it means, perhaps they’re the same, it doesn’t matter in the end. Like it doesn’t matter whether you’re in reality or in the dreamworld; so as long as you’re happy then that’s all that matters. However, applying the same thinking to video-game land doesn’t exactly pan out, does it? We, the player are effectively creating the experience in our heads. The decisions we make and the interpretations we have take full effect, games have that raw ability to show us the implications of our actions in a abnormal subtext.

It’s perhaps insulting then that we call all of this mumbo jumbo the ‘story’. It’s perhaps insulting I’ve only seen a few pieces of interpreting different video-games, such as Shadow of the Colossus and Braid, whereas quite clearly a damn lot of games are conveying ideas for us to interpret outside of just playing them. Bioshock, Mass Effect 2 and a handful of others massively reference biblical texts and carry some of the messages with them, yet I haven’t really seen anyone try and deduce them like they would any great literature classic. Are games just not old enough yet? Would it carry any weight to say that Bioshock mirrors the Adam and Eve story, and can be compared to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein? I intend to perhaps do this in the future, with Grand Theft Auto IV, but I’d like to see it happen more often.

Even further, isn’t it insulting to actually just lazily label it as ‘the story’? It’s the characters, plot, thematics and other technical terms that film critics talk of; so why don’t game critics talk of this? Are video-games beyond conveying serious narrative thematics through mechanics? I’d agree with these guys, and say it’s already been done before, we just need to apply ourselves. I think at some point I’m going to start writing reviews on the same level of film criticism; talking of thematics and interpretation levels. Even if it’s not intentional maybe someone will pick up on it and start doing it intentionally. This medium really does deserve better and I honestly don’t see anything that linear entertainment has done that we can’t do better.

It’s odd that gamers cry out for great stories, but they don’t know what they’re actually asking for. They’re asking for narratives, which they’re already getting in high quality, and that seems to be enough. Well, it’s not enough and it seems that you’re happy for your agency and general interactive rights to be abused. If you think Red Dead Redemption is a great video-game story, then you’re utterly wrong, and if you think I’m wrong in saying that then name me one key instance where the narrative is generated by the player or the player has actual choice that matters. The ending for a start is a complete shot to the foot of interactive storytelling, and I argue that for centuries people have told fantastic stories and it’s easy to write and make one. What’s hard is applying it to an interactive context, and we shouldn’t settle for the same linear formula over and over. Cutscene, gameplay, cutscene, gameplay should not be video-game narrative.

I’ll talk about actual ways to convey this. Not only through video-game mechanics but other traits of interactive media. In two weeks, I’ll talk about ‘Choice and Voice’ and maybe stretch it out a little because it’s going to be a lot of words.

If you want to learn some more about video-game narrative (specifically RPGs) and narrative design in general, have a gander at this. Damn good read.

PLEASE NOTE: This series will be moving to my bloggins in the new year, I will post here every week whenever my content is posted up on there. I will also start posting whenever my workshops go up on The Gamer Studio.

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