Let’s face it – we’re all suckers for a good story. Whether we choose to get lost in a good book after work or binge the new season of OITNB, there’s no denying our addiction to fiction. I know this is true for me and today’s guest blogger Emma Rose Hollands, fellow Creative Writing student at Winchester. Since we’re both writers, readers, and gamers, we’re lucky enough to enjoy the holy trinity of good stories.
But in the video game studies world, there’s actually a grisly debate going on as to whether or not games have narratives in the traditional sense. The feuding factions call themselves the Ludologists and the Narratologists; the former hope to see a shift toward a new field of study that focuses on games, and, as you might have guessed, the latter seek to base game theory on narrative and literary theory.
Have no fear, though – there’s truth in both sides, and the idea of embedded and emergent narratives seems to reconcile the two, but not quite:
- Embedded narrative exists separate from the player’s interaction with a game. This is what we might normally think of as literary narrative and includes things like backstory, character development, a general story arc, cut scenes, etc.
- Emergent narrative is entirely and directly influenced by the player’s decisions in a game.
I think most gamers can agree, even without knowing the technical terminology, that a good game balances both types of narrative and essentially places the player as character and co-author. We want to control our own gaming experience, but we need to be invested enough in what’s already there in order to do that.
What Emma and I are hoping to do today is look at narrative structure in a few of our favourite games to see how they manage to create a rich embedded narrative while leaving enough room for the player to create their own story. (And of course we’ve taken care to keep it spoiler free, but just in case, read at your own risk.)
Alright. Confession time. I recently bought Blizzard’s new first person shooter (FPS) Overwatch and I have to say, I am addicted. You play a cast of 21 heroes, formerly forming the Overwatch – a heroic league dedicated to protecting the planet. After being disbanded Incredibles style, they are called back once more to stop a rising evil – but this time, they might not all be on the same side.
It’s got fast action gameplay, great replay value and is a ton of fun with friends both online and on the sofa on a Sunday night. Yet, with the lack of a story mode, it may seem odd why I am choosing to write about it in regards to narrative. After all, there’s no plot to follow, no landscape to be immersed in – just explosions and crazy characters, right?
Well, narrative encompasses more than simply story; the characters of Overwatch, in and of themselves, are able to form an emotional, narrative connection to the player.
One of the main tactical mechanics of the game is to regularly switch heroes during fights. Because of this, every character on the fighting roster has been uniquely crafted, so as to have a range of abilities to choose from. While this forms the basis for enjoyable fights and gameplay, I find it also expands the physical and emotional dimensions of the world for players. From joyfully speeding into danger as Tracer, to protectively shielding your allies as Reinhart, to searching for nooks and crannies as Genji: as you switch to different characters to keep ahead of your competitors, you actively choose experience the world through their eyes. You encompass that character’s strengths and weaknesses, and approach the world accordingly: therefore, you immerse yourself into the character, and explore the world as a result.
While, yes, there is no story mode as of yet – though judging by Blizzard’s cinematic trailers there is more than enough potential for one – the characters’ individuality is enough to lay the foundations of a narrative. From design, to gameplay, to character dialogue, I have found myself losing hours in Overwatch’s colourful superhero world. And I just can’t get enough.
Let’s get one thing straight – I’m not a fan of Fallout 4’s main story line/embedded narrative, and I’m not particularly fond of the main choices you get for the emergent narrative. But – strangely enough – I think Fallout’s backstory speaks to audiences on a realistic level because it deals with some very real things our planet is facing today.
Playing any of the Fallout games scares me. And not in a Five Nights at Freddy’s sorta way, but in a ‘this is something that could actually happen’ way. Fallout’s universe occurs 200 years after the Great War between China and the US, in the irradiated, post-apocalyptic wasteland the nuclear bombs left behind.
Employing China as the enemy was an obvious choice. We can see tensions rising between the two countries even today, with the US military continuously tiptoeing into China’s sea space. And we all know how popular nuclear weapons are among the trigger-happy, militaristic world powers. I don’t think it’s wrong to speculate that we may find ourselves in a similar wasteland in just a few decades.
But the Fallout world has big plans for us, whether it’s restoring clean water to the Capitol Wasteland, stopping Mr. House, or figuring out who’s really right about synths. That’s where the emergent narrative is so rich – combine it with the entirely plausible embedded narrative, and you might have one stressed out character on your hands.
In a world that mirrors what our own might become, every decision we make has a profound impact. Will we choose to save the world? Or destroy it all over again?
There’s a general understanding that great writing – be it book, article, game – goes beyond telling a good story. It sticks with us, changing our view on the world and ourselves. For me, no game has been able to achieve this as effectively, and hilariously, as Toby Fox’s 2015 release Undertale.
The game’s story carries a fairy-tale simplicity. Once upon a time, monsters and humans were at war, the end of which saw the monsters sealed underground. Many years later, your character accidentally falls into this world known as the Underground, and you journey forth to find the exit. As you meet a strange array of monsters, it is up to you to decide how to deal with them. Do you slay them? Or do you show them mercy?
The whole game is full of childish wonder, heartfelt surprises and puns – Oh God, so many puns. Even if you’re not one for thinking about the deeper themes of video games, the sheer charm of the characters and dialogue is enough to get you wrapped up in the world.
Yet, as someone who thinks too deeply for their own good, I’ve found that the choice to slay or befriend the monsters holds the true beauty of this narrative. I won’t go into the specifics – honestly, it’s better for first time players to go into this game blind – but I will say that how you choose to deal with each encounter matters. Not just in terms of butterfly effect or character interactions – the music, the story, the atmosphere, the whole game reacts to your choices and never, ever forgets. No choice is without lasting consequence, no action without reaction. And what’s more, the game invites you to stop and actually think about what you are doing. Why do I want to do hurt this person? Where does my determination come from? Why can’t I give up?
This deeper theme of consequence and choice has stuck with me as I move on from game to game – heck, even from moments of my life. Who I choose to be is of value to those around me. As a player, and as a person, I hold the potential to make a difference in the world, for good or ill. This is a powerful lesson, which I learned through the narrative of a wonderful game. If you haven’t yet, I definitely recommend you check it out.
What’s interesting to the debate about video game narrative is that the Witcher series actually started out first as a collection of short stories before transforming into full-length novels. Knowing this, what sort of narrative structure are we willing to apply to the Witcher? Surely we must consider literary theory with a case like this.
And I think we should. The first book in the Witcher chronology details how Geralt initially met key characters in the both the book and game universe: Dandelion, Yennefer, Ciri, Crach an Craite, and more. For a newcomer like me who has bought into the story, finding out the background is interesting and helps me make more informed decisions in the game.
Equally, from a Ludologist point of view, this knowledge is not necessary in order to play the game. In fact, if anything, the game seems to accommodate for those people entering the story at its latest stage. There’s even a book you can read in the game called The Last Wish that gives a summary of the real short story.
Yet as a life-long storyteller, I can’t shake the notion that there’s just something about being able to physically explore Kaer Mohren instead of just visualising it based on what the book says. That’s where games take narratives to the next level. Though a reader might trust in their author, they might come away saying, ‘I would have written it differently.’ Well, the Witcher games give you the chance to do just that – and speaking as both a reader and a gamer, nothing makes me happier.
(It’s a little on the long side, I know, but what else would you expect from two girls with an intense love for fictional narratives?)
The real question is, which side of the debate are you standing on? Narratology or Ludology? Careful which faction you pick – you never know how your choice might impact the world at large.