Narrative in Games Part 2 – Finding Exceptions

May 5, 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 representative of traditional narrative forms.

iFluid – Indie games are always going to be the place to go if you want to look for innovation in both game play and narrative (see my review of Braid for example) and if you’re looking for a story that just wouldn’t work in any other medium the iFluid is suitable. It’s available on Valve’s digital download platform Steam, which also sells and supports other independent game companies, and it’s worth a look as it’s inexpensive but highly innovative and interesting. You play as a droplet of water, controlled using mouse and keyboard with the ability to double jump, pick up more droplets along the way to increase your health, and manipulate the various objects around a super sized kitchen in order to reach your goal. There’s no real story, you’re just a drop of water that is semi-sentient, trying to get from A to B whilst avoiding absorbent surfaces. On screen instructions prompt you towards your goal, and they break what can only be called the third wall of gaming by falling from the screen in front of your eyes onto the work surfaces over which you roll your water droplet.

Flower – Another Indie game, this time for the PS3, with even less traditional gaming structure than i-Fluid but arguably more innovation. Though I’ve not played it so I can’t comment on what the experience is really like, there are no menus and no on screen instructions, you just start play and let your instincts guide you. It’s been described as a ‘relaxed’ gaming experience but there is no question of its artistic quality, so whether this makes it more of an interactive work of art than a game is another area for debate.

The basic question in both of these cases is what function does narrative serve and in what way does the player contextualise their playing experience? The main problem most people have with talking about narrative in games is that in some cases it is an entirely arbitrary choice. A developer will have an idea for a game/game play element, build the game and then tack on a story at the end in order to contextualise the player’s actions. This is done in order to provide motivation for the player to keep playing the game and so that they have something to write on the back of the box. Both iFluid and Flower have interesting game play elements which are unique and need no narrative context, though both rely heavily on creating a spatial context and a gaming ‘world’ in which events take place. Flower sets itself up as a purely escapist work, using a dreary apartment room overlooking a grey city as a menu system and presenting each segment of game play as an imaginary, metaphorical escape made real. This is a game which doesn’t have a story but does have a message and a purpose, and it is in this way that games can be a medium of great power beyond a purely narrative level. Ineffable feelings can well up from deep emotional stores that you didn’t know you had, and the way in which reactions are triggered is something I’ll talk a bit more about next time.


2 Responses to “Narrative in Games Part 2 – Finding Exceptions”

  1. benben78 Says:

    I think the best story in any game has been the Legacy of Kain franchise. Some amazing acting helped the cutscenes but the storytelling was a masterpiece. I’ve always dreamed of winning the lottery and spending LOTR type money on creating the movies, hehe!

  2. fungalporpoise Says:

    I have Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver on Dreamcast and I remember when I bought it being impressed with the originality of the storyline and the gameplay, though I’ve not played any of the other games in the series. The video which opens up the game in which Raziel evolves before his masters, grows wings and then has them pulled off by Kain (I think) is awesome. You can find it here
    Thanks for the comment!

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