Hollywood Jack of all trades David Mamet, creator of (among other things) The Unit
, wrote a letter to his writing team, which only surfaced online after the ill-fated show was cancelled. In aggressive-looking capital letters, it broke down the formula for ensuring that viewers would tune in week in, week out; a formula that, despite its overall length, could be summarised into three core questions: “Is it dramatic? Is it essential? Does it advance the plot?” The idea was that the team of writers on The Unit had to scrutinise each scene, ask those three questions in that specific order, and come up with the answer, “Yes”. Anything short of three positive responses meant that the scene should be cut.
I think it’s high time that game developers -- particularly those of the Triple-A persuasion -- printed out those three questions and placed them above the desk of anybody involved in the essential narrative component of a game. “Did he just say ‘essential’?” Yes. Even games that ask players to focus on gameplay over story (or lack thereof) still have a storyline or threadbare plot that drives the action -- and, thus, the gameplay and player -- forward.
As Brian Allgeier, creative director on Fuse, recently pointed out in an interview, story and characterisation (the ways in which the characters are portrayed in order for players to connect with them) are essential because of our (that’s you, me and everyone else) innate ability to connect with stories, as evidenced throughout human history.
Let’s take a closer look at some of mainstream examples of titles that have got it wrong, those that have got it right, and the all-important “why?” of what works when it comes to game narrative.
Is it Dramatic?
I’ve met more than a few gamers recently who’ve confessed they have yet to play BioShock
-- still one of the best examples of linear narrative in games. As much as this confession makes me want to slap them, I say the same thing every time: “Just play the first 15 minutes”. That’s not because BioShock loses its charm after its opening -- far from it -- it’s because the sense of majesty and awe in that opening are second to none in terms of a first-person shooter that doesn’t start with a shootout.
The BioShock intro stands the test of time, unlike games such as Half-Life whose train opening is a snooze after you’ve seen it once, and even Skyrim with its introductory section that makes you wish you could skip to when that first dragon attacks on a second play-through. I must’ve played or watched someone play the BioShock intro at least half a dozen times, and it never gets old. A snappy opening cut-scene begets an opening swimming sequence in a flame-filled ocean that looks
like a cut-scene. The world is introduced to the player in an emotionally impactful way that could only be done in a videogame: a descent into an underwater city intro with such scope that you may even miss much of the propaganda that Andrew Ryan is espousing over the loudspeaker.
Fast-forward to more recent times and we have Assassin’s Creed III
. You’d be flat strapped to find a more recent example of a title with such a divisive opening and, by “opening”, I mean the first four-to-six hours of the game. No matter which side of the fence you fall on, Ubisoft took a massive gamble in starting Assassin’s Creed III with playable character, Haytham Kenway, who isn’t the protagonist; isn’t the guy on the box; isn’t the guy who’s been shown in every video prior to release. This non-protagonist character is used to introduce an early (several hours in) twist, an easily predicted link to the protagonist, and a payoff that comes much later in the game.
Is it Essential?
But therein lies the rub. How long can a player be asked to play what is essentially a five-hour prologue? That’s precious time when the player should be connecting with the protagonist, but then whatever connection you have with Kenway is stripped when it’s time for Connor to take the reins. It’s not as though Assassin’s Creed III falls into the category of one of those games that takes on the risky (from a narrative perspective) task of repeatedly juggling protagonists. The opening hour or so of a game is the most important time for characterisation. If the player does not connect with the main character, how are we supposed to care about his or her plight? The short answer is we don’t.
Without giving too much away, Assassin’s Creed III’s real
story begins with a young Connor playing hide-and-seek with his friends. That is where the protagonist’s plight starts, and everything before it wasn’t essential to his story. The entire lengthy prologue could have been cut and sold as DLC that provides backstory insights into events leading up to Connor’s core tale. Hardcore fans would have had access to more story to play with at a later date, while everyone else would not have been deterred by playing as a character who isn’t the protagonist.
Despite the twists and turns of the plot, Connor’s plight is, at its core, the tale of a Forrest Gump-like assassin who’s involved with key events of the American Revolution; anything outside of that is subplot, including the lengthy prologue. Author Wilbur Smith banked on a changing protagonist between each successive novel of ‘The Courtney Series’, but given that you got to spend an entire novel with a character before they passed the torch on, it worked; had a fraction of the time been spent on familiarising the reader with a faux protagonist, it wouldn’t have been as effective to move on to another lead character. Had an entire game been dedicated to Kenway, or had Assassin’s Creed III featured two protagonists with equal time and development, his inclusion would have worked in terms of narrative and characterisation.
One series that consistently gets it right when it comes to juggling multiple characters and an ever-advancing, punchy plot is Call of Duty. As much as the concept of a five-hour campaign may sound like a negative, it’s actually the perfect length for the high-adrenaline Michael Bay-type take on action/drama: that is to say, it’s big on the former and less on the latter. Character deaths are often glossed over, and important moments come and go to drive you forward to your goal, but there are very few slower sections in the overall frantic and consistent peaks of the storyline. The Modern Warfare games are particularly fond of this formula and, had they included narrative troughs -- slower points that allow you to catch your breath -- it would have felt like out-of-place filler in a twitch-shooter experience that wants you to focus on big bangs over narrative coherence.
For another example of a game that gets it right, look no further than 2011’s close-to-perfection Batman: Arkham City
. Beneath the hood, Arkham City was a honed experience in terms of its engine and all-important gameplay. In terms of narrative, it blew the lid off how developers can treat seemingly sacred IPs.
Right from the outset when Joker poisons Batman in an effort to make the Dark Knight find a cure for their (now) shared medical condition, Rocksteady was playing with gamer expectations. (Warning: SPOILERS ahead
) Surely, there was no way that this illness was going to result in the death of Batman or the Joker, right? Wrong. Rockstead had the minerals to knock off the Clown Prince of Crime for an ending that’s both poignant and fulfilling. The fact that Batman was fully prepared to save Joker, and then carries out his body -- instead of Talia’s -- placing him almost tenderly on the bonnet of Commissioner Gordon’s police car, is an impactful ending that no gamer is likely to forget anytime soon. In terms of characterisation, it’s perfect: Batman always has the power to stop Joker for good by killing him, but never does; Joker can’t help but take a stab (literally) at Batman, which results in the Dark Knight dropping the half of the cure he’d saved for Joker (spoilers end here).
In terms of the narrative, it’s a wholly satisfying and haunting ending that really could not have been done any other way. It makes sense, and it offers a pay-off for the aforementioned plot setup that rewards players who stick around until the end.
Does it Advance the Plot?
My biggest beef with Red Dead Redemption
was the book-ended narrative. The real game was found after the drawn-out introduction and before the epilogue when former outlaw, John Marston, returns to his home life. By far the biggest problem in terms of connecting with Marston’s plight was that his family was only ever talked
about, they were actually never shown
. This means that we had to rely on his core motivation -- going home to his family to live out the rest of his days in peace -- being communicated through dialogue instead of actually seeing what was at stake. The old writing mantra ‘show, don’t tell’ springs to mind as a perfect example of how to rectify this oversight.
In my experience with Red Dead Redemption, I was constantly wondering whether there was going to be some twist at the end about his family: that they were actually dead, or something similar. It never happened, so the gripe was validated, and I was distracted from Marston’s storyline by my constant wondering at never having actually seen them or, more importantly, seen Marston with them.
Because of the third-person perspective, this matter is further complicated. As with the literary equivalents, first-person-perspective gaming lets you be
a character, even if they don’t look, sound or act like you. The perspective alone is more intimate and allows the player to assume more about the character in a way that allows for a greater potential for connectedness. Take the silent Gordon Freeman of Half-Life fame, for instance. He says nothing, but clearly he’s able to talk, as evidenced by the characters that respond to lines he must have said. Yet, it’s up to the player to imagine what he said and even how he said it. The best part is that every player is right in how they fill in those blanks.
In third-person games, the perspective alone -- over the shoulder, from behind -- is a whole lot less intimate, and immediately flags that while you may be playing as a character, you are not that character. It means developers have to work harder to achieve consistent connectedness with the playable character in third-person games and, interactivity aside, it’s an experience closer to filmic than gaming. First-person gaming, on the other hand, is closer to a literary experience than filmic.
Interestingly, returning to the afore-griped-about Assassin’s Creed III example, the Assassin’s Creed series had seemingly learnt from its sins with Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Nearly all future Desmond-time content was optional -- with the exception of shifting between portals to play as Altair or Ezio -- and there was plenty of evidence of the realisation that people played Assassin’s Creed games to play the historical missions; not to explore the Desmond character who is, for all intents and purposes, a plot device that allows the series to move throughout history without the need to use the same protagonist.
As fantastic as Desmond is as a narrative device for moving sequels around in time, he’s far less enticing as a character and, also, not the main character of any of the games despite his consistent presence. He’s ultimately secondary to Altair, Ezio and Connor. With Assassin’s Creed III, Ubisoft kicks off with the futuristic Desmond, and then throws the story to Haytham; neither of whom are the protagonist. As previously highlighted, Haytham could have been cut, and Desmond could have been kept to cut-scenes -- as he essentially was in Revelations -- but that’s a gripe I’ve had with Assassin’s Creed since the first game. There’s simply no way that Desmond can compete with any of the historical playable characters, as his gameplay mechanics are watered down to training-wheel variants of what his assassin forefathers can perform.
If there is ever an Assassin’s Creed game set in Desmond’s time, it will be instantly compared to other contemporary assassin games, such as Hitman or Splinter Cell. This makes it harder for the series to have a noticeable point of difference. Being set in the past in historical revisionist tales, on the other hand, is a fantastic point of difference for the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
As far as mainstream narrative experiences go, I still pick Half-Life 2 as the best example of storytelling. Unlike the original Half-Life which spoon feeds the story like most other shooters, Half-Life 2 closely locks the player experience with that of Gordon Freeman. Both player and protagonist are thrown into a world they don’t understand. Ingeniously, Freeman’s lack of an audible voice means neither he nor the symbiotically linked player can verbalise pressing questions about what the hell happened to the world since the last game. Yet it’s clear that much has happened in the 20 years since the events of the Half-Life.
Curious players can interact with NPCs, but the future world’s inhabitants seem less interested in exposition and more in talking to Freeman as if he understands what’s going on. It means the discerning player has to read between the lines and discover the story of the post-apocalyptic world by playing a shooter more like an RPG and actually listening to conversations that would normally be glossed over without really missing out on much. The plot is there by necessity, but there aren’t really any cut-scenes to drag you out of the moment, and it feels truly empowering when you spot the G-Man in the background, interacting with every possible side of the conflict.
You can finish Half-Life 2 in a speed-run fashion, ignoring the narrative titbits on the wayside and still have a great experience. Or, like me, you can search every nook and cranny, listen to every conversation, and try to interact with as many people as possible to piece together a picture of the world in which Gordon Freeman has been dropped. Half-Life 2 offers a beautiful insight into the potential of storytelling in games that can appease fans of gameplay and lovers of narrative alike.
But that truly only scratches the surface of a fantastic new trend towards emergent narrative. Where an embedded narrative is the same game plot that every player can explain to each other, emergent narrative refers to those little short stories that occur -- mostly by accident -- as you explore a world. These are most evident in open-world and/or sandbox games that emphasise choice and exploration. Thief, Deus Ex and System Shock stand as easy go-to examples of the type of game-world and gameplay mechanics that encourage players to make and discover their own stories within a core plot.
This is the true future of gaming, reflected most recently in the likes of Borderlands 2, Dishonored and Far Cry 3, because it presents a linear plot to characters, but in such a way that the gameplay mechanics and game systems afford each player’s individual storyline to feel personalised. Better still, games such as Skyrim and Deus Ex also let you play a particular path that involves smaller decisions which help to personalise a narrative. For instance, playing stealthy or loud are two obvious binary choices for either example, but throwing magic or specific biomods into the mix can add personalised variety to your specific emergent narrative experience. Tying these variables into a reactive gameplay approach in a game-world that is, in turn, engaging with you, or reacting to your choices/reactions, means that players are empowered with the tools to influence their own narrative, which can be completely different to how everyone else plays. That is the true potential of gaming that all other linear forms of storytelling cannot compete with.
Beyond this, the next trick is to combine emergent narrative and reactive gameplay with the emphasis on meaningful and linked player choices found in the Mass Effect or The Walking Dead franchises that carry over between titles/episodes. You don’t need to look too far beneath the surface of the outcry against the divisive ending
of Mass Effect 3 to see why certain gamers felt robbed: their personalised story didn’t end in a way that they found personally satisfying. In many respects, that’s a fair call on their part; despite the counter argument that storytellers are free to tell and end stories however they choose.
Given the money put into Triple-A titles each year, the ability to attract Hollywood-calibre talent for behind-the-scenes and front-of-screen work, and the exclusive narrative possibilities that our beloved interactive entertainment medium affords, I expect a stronger and tighter emphasis on storytelling and characterisation in upcoming games. Do you?
Nathan Lawrence is based in NSW and has been writing for the games industry for the past four years. His other passions include movies and screenwriting (he is currently working on a feature-length comedy). You can follow him on Twitter at @nachosjustice