On Story, Plot, and Narrative in Games
On Story, Plot, and Narrative in Games
Video games have recently hit the mainstream and the reasons for this are varied and complex, especially when analyzing the casual market. However, two key factors seem to be largely responsible for this new trend in the AAA-space: Narrativism and Production Values.
Thinking back, video games did not hit the mainstream before a certain threshold of production value was reached, one that approached movie production quality. Today, games often proudly brand themselves “cinematic” and “story driven” with budgets close to many blockbuster Hollywood movies. Interestingly, the short era of Full Motion Video (FMV) games in the late 90s did not attract a fraction of today’s audience where Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare can easily compete with Hollywood’s best.
This disconnect is interesting as FMV games often incorporated heavily story-driven elements and were the closest to cinematic experiences a game could get without becoming an interactive movie. Wing Commander IV for example incorporated interactive cutscenes, dialogue-choices, outcomes and endings long before even a single line of Mass Effect’s script was written, and it featured an all-star cast including Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Malcolm McDowell (everything ever) and John Rhys-Davies (Gimli, Sliders).
Plot vs Story vs Narrative (vs Monsters vs Aliens)
While plot, story and narrative are often used interchangeably in casual conversations, in analytical terms they are separate entities and describe specific aspects of storytelling. If we want to talk about storytelling in games, we must differentiate between them to accurately describe concepts and ideas that the medium tries to express.
In the most basic terms, a story is a narrated (this takes many shapes, more on that later) sequence of events. A story can only exist post-hoc, after the events have happened. This also means that fictitious or future events must have happened in relation to the point of where the story gets told. If we read/watch a story about the starship Enterprise and captain Kirk, the events must have already happened (in the writers head) for the story to exist. If we imagine a future scenario where we can write stories about the future because we have discovered time-travel, the story would only be told after someone experienced these future events, i.e. for the storyteller they are past events.
I woke up, slipped on a banana and broke my leg.
Wake up -> slip on banana -> break leg.
This is the sequence of events, the story. If we rearrange the sequence, or otherwise change the events, we get a different story:
Wake up -> break leg -> slip on banana
I woke up, broke my leg and slipped on a banana.
As you can see, a different order of events gives us a completely different story; in one sequence, I break my leg after I slip on the banana, and in the other I break my leg before I slip on the banana. This works exactly the same in the visual space. Sequences of events are, for example, represented by panels in comics.
The plot of a story is concerned with how and why the events are tied together. It is the reason between events happening.
I woke up early this morning and sleepily sauntered towards the wardrobe. I slipped on the banana that fell out of the fruit basket the day before and broke my leg hitting the floor.
The sequence of events is still the same as before but now we have filled the blanks in-between the events to provide reasons and connections. The story is unchanged, however the story now has a plot. The plot-points of this story are that I:
a. slipped on a banana because I woke up early and was careless (in contrast to being careful and alert)
b. slipped on a banana that has fallen out of the fruit basket (in contrast to being placed there intentionally)
c. broke my leg as a direct consequence of slipping on the banana (which was not clear before)
Plot cannot exist without a story; it needs a sequence of events as anchor-points. However, story can still exist without a plot. It will be dry and uninteresting, a completely linear recounting of events, but it nevertheless will be a story.
Often when critics say that a story doesn’t make any sense, they actually mean that the plot makes no sense. A story doesn’t necessarily need to make sense, as its just an account of events that happened at one time or another before its telling. Plot however has to explain the connections between these events and is open to critique on the grounds of coherence.
Here it gets a bit tricky.
Narrative is the way in which we combine story and plot and present it to the recipient, the audience. However, narrative does not equal either part; it is not necessarily neither plot nor story. An example of this is Narrative Art; it tells a story, however the story is one that is constructed by the observer, the audience. Narrative can exist without story, because it is a way story is formed.
Furthermore, narrative can have many forms, even a non-linear one. It is entirely flexible because narrative does not rely on plot and story to exist. It can rely on the context or internal perception filters of the audience.
The difference here is that as mentioned before stories are a sequence of events and told over a period of time (diachronic), while a piece of art like The Last Supper is but one event frozen in time (synchronic). The story in The Last Supper is only recognizable if the audience has access to the context of the piece. The painting in itself does not contain a story; there is no sequence of events, however it contains a narrative that in combination with context can evoke a story in the observer. We call this idiosyncratic narrative action.
Story, Plot and Narrative in Games
When talking about story in video games, many critics seem to use plot, narrative and story interchangeably. The most often parroted and highlighted idea in the media’s current Narrativist mindset is the illusion of “writing your own story” by having agency.
However, we have to distinguish the illusion of agency within a story and actually writing a story. Stories in games are pre-defined, already selected sequences of events that do not change, and even if they can be changed it is an illusion. We only select another set of events, we do not actually change them. Writing your own story is an illusion created by the agency that games provide.
Let’s assume a game in which by selecting binary options the story is “changed”. The following diagram illustrates how these branches aren’t really changing the story but rather act as selectors for content, or different pre-made stories.
This is of course a simple example and complex games like Mass Effect can have many more decision points. However, all these complexities can be unraveled in the same way. As an example, the picture below shows the entirety of all decision points in A Duck Has An Adventure, which boasts 16 endings.
As you can see, it’s not 16 endings to one and the same story, it is in fact 16 distinct stories, including a time-loop, not dissimilar to choose-your-own-adventure books.
What about other games? What if the amount of complex decisions approaches infinity? Couldn’t it be said that players in highly complex games like Super Street Fighter IV truly and really write their own stories? After all, they do not select between a set amount of stories via dialogue choices or other well known video game story-mechanics. Their decisions are directly influencing the game and no match is going to be exactly the same and hence it is a unique story.
As I elaborated before, stories can only be told post-hoc after events have happened. “Writing history” is a poetic expression; it is in no way accurate to say that a chess-player is writing his own story, nor that the soldiers in the Second World War wrote history. Events that are happening in gameplay are not a story, because stories are told after events have occurred, otherwise all events are “a story”. Similarly, Daigo did not write a story when he was playing against Justin Wong. It was a historic match no doubt, stories about it exist and videos have been made, but the players themselves did not “write their own story”. Daigo and Justin Wong were no more writing a story than Isner and Mahut at Wimbledon were (Beyond a poetic expression to show our respect to their display of skill of course.)
What about acting out roles in tabletop role-playing games or role-playing in MMORPGs? Aren’t we choosing the characteristics and behavior of our avatars? Aren’t we then acting out and writing a story?
Yes, in a limited sense. Play-acting exists and roleplay can lead to the collaborative storytelling possible in tabletop or other freeform games/simulations. In a sense it is comparable to LARP (Live Action Role Play), or more accurately, improvisational acting. However, these actions are never and can never be tied into gameplay as the structure of overcoming challenges is inherently counter to the idea of writing a story. Gameplay and game mechanics are never concerned about the story, because their function isn’t storytelling. They are only interested in testing the player to overcome an obstacle. Play-acting around an obstacle without the use of game rules for the benefit of plot is commonly known as god-modding in the tabletop roleplay community.
Hence we invent terms like “Ludonarrative Dissonance” to illustrate the disconnect between gameplay and story.
From my analysis so far, it might seem that interactive storytelling in games has insurmountable hurdles to take and just can’t be reconciled with gameplay, which is partly true. The current obsession with cinematic and story-focused games has unfortunately thrust us in entirely the wrong direction. Our over-reliance on the traditional diachronic view of the medium has created a situation in which stories are either traditionally linear with agency being a secondary concern, closer to film, or creating a veiled illusion of agency within a story that is in reality no agency at all, no matter how many paragon interrupts can be crammed into it. The current mindset of the Narrativist is missing the point.
Ironically the Narrativist has the point in his name: Narrative.
Narrative is not bound by story and hence can be entirely flexible and be adapted to gameplay. Instead of treating storytelling in games as we do today, seeking inspiration from books and cinema, games must be looked at similarly to Narrative Art. Ultimately, in any story the audience is interested in the plot. He or she wants to know why events are happening. Narrative can give games a way to create a story from context, specifically through gameplay, without actually requiring a pre-made story to be present.
A game could be treated like a painting, not necessarily in the way of synchronicity or the literal interpretation of games like Dear Esther in environmental storytelling, but in the way the entirety of it existing without a pre-made sequence of events that constitute a story. Instead of engaging the player through the illusion of agency in it, it might rather do so through discovery of (gameplay) context. A skillful craft of game-mechanics would be akin to crafting a narrative and the player would experience the story after understanding the context of his agency.
The video games industry is struggling with the cinematic and “story-driven” approach because the medium is just uniquely unsuited for traditional storytelling in which pre-planned events and authorial intent collide with the agency of the player. “Ludonarrative Dissonance” will never go away. Even if you craft the most coherent story of all time, players will invalidate it the second they pick up the controller.
Not only that but we have now, with regularity, started to make excuses for games that mesh these concepts wrongly and its pushing us further and further away from embracing the strength of the medium instead of rethinking our options. “It’s an action game, what did you expect?!” isn’t a good enough excuse if your emotionally wracked heroine turns mass-murderer in the first third of your game just because the designer and writer failed at the “impossible job” of tying gameplay and story together.
The fact we have to invent excuses and engage in apologetics proves that this approach isn’t working. We are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.