Game Narrative – More lucid, less linear

December 19, 2008

I truly believe that the videogame medium has reached a point of maturity. In fact, it has matured extremely quickly comparatively if we look at other forms of media. But clearly, the narrative form in the realm of the gaming space has a long journey ahead of itself to gain the same sort of poignancy, emotional weight, political stance, or respectability with other forms of narrative media. I do not care what you say, the majority of the time if I want a good story from the game I will read a book. We invest a larger percentage in our experience with a game rather than trying to take away a thematic message. The concern with the player is moreso the input rather than the output towards the game. Of course, as I have posted previously there are various experimental games that do blur the line between these two authoric intensions and there are always exceptions to the claim.

But, even though I do not believe that videogames have reached a point of prominence in linear narrative design I wonder why the opposite approach has not been done instead. I am not referring to the kind of open world, choose your own adventure foray. But rather a more restrictive, autuer-esk apporach of revealing a story–if any. Given a game’s set-piece, episodic nature of its design believe a more experimental design towards narrative structuring has immense potential in the game space. Why not offer a more “playful” and cerebral experience rather than forcing plot points and emotional benchmarks? I have discussed my appreciation of non-narrative games in the past and I have no doubt touched upon the difficulties of the narrative, in general, for games. But this is the first time I have discussed narrative experimentation. Where is my French New-Wave Godard, Lynch labyrinths, Van Sant fragmentations, or Linklater stream of conciousness?

Last year’s Odin Sphere has a particularly unique narrative design that I wish more games would take advantage of. The game had an array of passages integrated into a story book structure where the player would take the role of multiple characters in numerous but an overarcing storyline. Way of the Samurai was another game that required multiple playthroughs with various endings (seven if I remember) each unique depending on the faction you chose and who you allowed to live. The black sheep of Zelda games, Majora’s Mask, is one of the most unique, enthralling and experiemental games in the series from it’s assumption that the player knows the ropes of the game mechanics to the time-limit sensitive narrative. It may be telling that both these games are Japanese titles and both of them are moderately successful comparatively to the normal blockbuster.

But as the gaming industry continues to grow into an oligopoly of studios, I hope that smaller development houses will fracture off and create more experimental narratives in games. Or at least, a sub-studio within a developer will have the balls to take the risk along with a business model to be wise enough to develop and market the game. The problem is that non-linear narrative itself is a risk, a gamble to the mass audience. Games are already confusing enough as players attempt to learn the controls and the mechanics of the gameplay. It makes sense that one would believe that streamlining a narrative to create a sense of cohesiveness and attachment to the game is necessary. But like any narrative or media, these are just excuses to not take risks and attempt something different. Which is a problem with our gaming industry in general. A risk is not successful unless it is either a Metacritic success or a sales success. I will not go into the problems with reviews and the response toward them because I am sure they have been discussed elsewhere ad nauseum. It is a mindset that had been criticized upon for years if not decades.

I did not come here to talk about the specificialities of risk. I came to talk about experimentation. And we need more experimentation, not only in design but also narrative. And what better way to open up new ideas for game design than not experimental narratives? They say to always take baby steps and the game industry has. Whether is it the occasional intextual game interface in the Metal Gear Series, the dream sequences in Max Payne or even the fear of death in Dreamfall. Experimentation is a good thing and we need create a community where developers are allowed to make mistakes and still survive in the business. We need to stop thinking of ourselves as consumers and embrace ourselves as enthusiasts.



  1. I liked your article. I agree that more risks need to be taken in order for growth to occur, however as you somewhat pointed out, there is lots of money riding on video games, and there just isn’t a lot of room to try new things.

    Sure there are small studios that can try all sorts of different storytelling methods, but they aren’t going to reach as many people. Games have sort of backed themselves into a corner.

    I’m so glad someone besides myself played Way of the Samurai. I loved the game despite it’s frustrating difficulty, and getting the really good ending was incredibly hard to obtain. I think the problem is that games are becoming more and more of a mass product, and that puts a leash on creative types.

    For books it’s easy, because publishing a book isn’t that expensive and doesn’t involve as many people (as far as vs. video games)

    I certainly hope games will change. My prediction is games will be big just like tv and movies, then it will die down and niches will start to form again, which will leave more room for creativity as well.

    Also I think gamers need to start playing games that are different, if different is what they want. Spread the word, tell people to play World of Goo, Way of the Samurai, etc. Because without the vote of the people behind it, the game isn’t going anywhere.

  2. I completely agree. I do think that now is the perfect time to start experimenting with games as digital distribution is on the rise and all the console have their own independent distribution system for indie developers. Of course there are always great flash games that take advantage of their restrictions.

    I feel like there is a sort of punk rock movement going on in the indie game developers’ scene. But most of the experimentation is in game design and not narrative structure. Which is just one aspect I believe that even large financed studios can at least attempt this kind of approach.

    And of course, World of Goo is great. And it is people like us that need to spread the world of these types of games. Now I feel that I need to trek over to the used game shop and try to find a copy of Way of the Samurai since I’ve excited myself to play it again. Ha!

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