Narrative in Games Part 1

April 26, 2009

This post was going to be a comment on this post but it outgrew itself so I thought I’d put it all on here. Basically I’m addressing whether or not games are a  fundamentally narrative medium or whether we are applying inappropriate terminology to something that transcends traditional definitions. Can games be ‘more’ than narrative? Read this post first then see what I’ve got to say.

Gordon weaves Stories

Is there an example of a great game that doesn’t have an equally compelling story? I can’t think of one. Is there an example of a game in which the gameplay is inferior to the narrative but it is still revered? Well, pretty much the entirety of the adventure gaming genre that was popular in the 90s attests to the fact that basic, clunky gameplay doesn’t always matter when the storytelling is so engaging.

What I find so interesting about games as a narrative medium (which I believe they essentially are) is that the tools with which the narrative is conveyed can be so varied, unique and interesting. The level of interaction with the narrative is ultimately user defined. You choose to skip the cut scene or you don’t, you choose to read the memo or listen to the audio clip or you don’t. In recent years PDAs have been used (notably in Doom 3) in order to give the player access to extra narrative elements which augment the basic plot, but the interesting point is that the gamer has the choice to ignore these elements completely.

One of the first points at which I became aware of the power of not only narrative elements within a game but their integral position within gaming structure was playing the original Resident Evil many years ago. There was one room in which there was a diary, and similar texts filled the Umbrella Mansion. However, this was the most convincingly written, telling the story of a scientist who unknowingly becomes infected by the T-Virus. At first it goes through his routine at the mansion, but gradually as those around him disappear and begin to rot and the virus takes a hold of him, the diary entries become shorter, more angry and are written in more basic English. The final entry is something along the lines of ‘itchy…itchy…’ before it trails off. It’s disturbing and well written, and it’s impact is doubled when upon exiting the diary you are instantly attacked by the dead scientist when he burst from a cupboard. The early Resident Evil games suffered from bad control and ‘cinematic’ fixed camera angles which, depending on your opinion, made gameplay more intense or more frustrating as you couldn’t always see what was ahead of you. The Resident Evil chronology is also messed up if you bother to follow it all the way through, but each game has an atmosphere that would loose all power without proper narrative context.

More enterprising and subtle narrative elements are present in ‘better’ games than Resident Evil, and I’m referring to Valve’s Half-Life series (particularly Half-Life 2 Episode 2 which has the benefit of including developer commentary to give the layman insight into the game developer’s mind). These games not only portray a narrative in which the player actually wants to be involved, but also seamlessly blend narrative elements into the game play so that the player absorbs them without feeling a noticeable break in gameplay.

So what about games which lack any obvious narrative elements? Does putting gameplay first and ignoring narrative work? Well, as humans we tend to need context in order for actions to take place. Tetris is perhaps the purest example of a game without a story or narrative elements. Then you consider the famous theme song, the towers of St. Basil’s Cathedral that I distinctly remeber being part of the imagery for at least the Gameboy version of the game and the constant reccurence of Tetris in popular culture and it’s hard not to create your own narrative context for what is essentially a game in which you control a poorly constructed wall. Even reffering to the Tetris blocks as ‘brick’ infers some kind of context. There’s even a mental condition named after it, the ‘Tetris effect‘ which any modern player of Guitar Hero will be familiar with (look at the wallpaper after playing a song and you’ll see what I mean).

Anyway, this post is proving too long for just one go, so I’ll continue when I’ve got more time and less essays to be getting on with.


2 Responses to “Narrative in Games Part 1”

  1. simonkaye Says:

    Thanks for the mention, and the insightful article.

    I’m still vacillating over my position over all of this. I’m wondering if we’ve been semantically bound into the assumption that all media, all art, must involve or generate narrative.

    You could argue it’s an implicit human nature thing, finding stories or creating them, superimposing them where they don’t exist.

    But the interactive media aren’t necessarily bound to that. The question is whether an artistic effect can be created in a narrativeless item?

    I think I’ll write about this again when I’ve got a clearer idea of how to phrase all this.

    Nice blog.

  2. […] 4, 2009 I’m working on a proper follow up/continuation of narrative in games part 1 but for now here are a couple of examples of games that might prove problematic if considered as […]

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