Friday, 29 October 2010

Top 9 most brilliant narrative devices in gaming

If you've been patiently following Well-Rendered for a while, you'll know that I get really excited about narrative.

No, stop! Don't click away! There will be cake later!

Right, now that I have your attention, allow me to elaborate.

Someone told me the other night night that all that sets humans apart from animals is language and thus the ability to tell stories. I'm not sure that's all there is, but it certainly has some truth to it.

The ability to communicate events in the past directly results in the capacity to learn from the experience and knowledge of others and thus to advance a society. The state of human civilisation is debatable, but the significance of stories to the human race cannot be underestimated.

When a new way of telling stories emerges, it always takes a while for it to find its feet and for good stories to be told well. There will never be a perfect book, or film, or game, and all forms of narrative are constantly evolving. For example, graphic novels are one of the oldest forms of narrative, and even today they're still one of the most dynamic media around.

Games have come a long way since their origins, and they've got a long way to go. But along the way there have been some wonderful stories.

I'm not going to talk about entire narratives today (yes, I know, thank goodness etc). I'm going to tell you my 9 favourite narrative devices in gaming, the ones which could only appear in a game, and the ones that make me excited for the future of gaming.

Yes, they are all from games I have mentioned many times, but I'm not even going to apologise for that again today. I'm specifically looking at imaginative narrative devices, so hopefully I shouldn't be repeating myself too much.

No, I couldn't think of a 10th, at least not one I thought genuinely merited inclusion on these criteria. If you can think of anything, comment box south.

9: Enslaved

I have already written about narrative in Enslaved in great detail, but it's worth mentioning again here. The plot of the game hinges on the fact that one of the main characters (cute tech expert Trip) forcefully enslaves the other (grumpy muscle-man Monkey). She does this by means of a headband that is (somehow) wired into his brain. If she dies, the headband will kill him, meaning that he has to stay with her and keep her safe at all costs.

Firstly, this is interesting as a device which explains a game mechanic. "I'm controlling Monkey," thinks the player, "Why do I have to look after this woman? I'd rather just shut her in a skip and be done with it."

"Because," replies the great Video Game Deity, "she has wired you into a headband which will instantly terminate you should she die. She's not likely to last long in a skip".

"Ok, fair enough," you reply. As a plot device, the headband thing makes sense (well, not necessarily scientific sense, but never mind about that) and makes the premise on which the gameplay hinges feel less contrived.

But it's even more interesting as a storytelling device. Trip's enslavement of Monkey is exploitative, especially when you consider that she was originally intending to leave him to die aboard a crashing slave ship. It is only after he's had the audacity to survive the crash that she decides it's worth tinkering with his noggin.

Denying Monkey free will is inexcusable behaviour, and puts their relationship on uneven footing from the get-go. Every exchange between the two becomes loaded with significance as a result. Furthermore, the resentment that gamers occasionally feel at being bossed around a non-playable character is, in this case, entirely justified.

8: Grand Theft Auto

The Grand Theft Auto series is full of excellent narrative devices, but my favourite is the internet cafe (hilariously named "tw@") in Grand Theft Auto IV. Several missions in the game can only be accomplished by going "online" and replying to some form of advert, be it for a dating service or a used car auction.

Like everything in the game, tw@ is elevated above its puerile moniker through attention to detail. Nico Bellic can check his e-mail, read messages from his mother back "in the old country" and answer any number of personal adverts. The "home page" is realistic and fully interactive, a two-dimensional parallel of the "real" internet (oxymoron?) in the same way that Liberty City is for New York itself. 

7: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

This wins all sorts of points for general elegance of storytelling and the appealing relationship between the two leads. But today it wins Well-Rendered plaudits for the light-hearted way in which it manages one of gaming's trickiest problems, death.

Many games use the death of the main character as a penalty for failure. The severity of the condition varies from game to game, but generally speaking, it's not permanent. This means that gamers are conditioned to accept that "death" doesn't mean the end of the game, so the convention rarely troubles us.

But Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time is told within a "Chinese Box" narrative technique whereby the entire story is being "told" by the Prince to an unknown audience after the event. It doesn't therefore make any sense that the Prince would say: "and then I jumped off the ledge without really looking where I was going and plummetted to my death".

Ubisoft navigates this tricky issue by following the Prince's plunge into the abyss at the inept hands of the player with his confused matinee idol voice muttering "wait, that's not how it happened. Let me tell it again..." before seamlessly reloading the game to just before you fell off the ramparts.

The idea of a story told in retrospect is not often attempted in games, and fits well with the game's theme of time-travel. The idea that the Prince has "forgotten" what happened in the recent past is an amusing (if transparent) circumnavigation of the problem of gamer control over what should be a recollection.

But most of all, it's a playful joke about the finality (or lack thereof) of death in video games.

6: Ghost Hunter


This underrated game features spikey-headed everydoofus Lazarus (yes, honestly) Jones in his quest across time and space to retire a volley of restless spirits.

It's notable in this context because it features a false ending. Following a particularly taxing fight, our hero is killed, and the game returns to the title screen. Conditioned after years of humiliating defeats to simply select "Start Over", the player receives a shock when the action resumes not from the beginning, but from where it left off.

Filmgoers might be conditioned to false endings, but the technique is almost unheard of in games. Consequently, the player is completely wrong-footed in Ghosthunter, to the point where they are genuinely uncertain as to whether or not they should continue playing, even though all the signs suggest that they should. 

They become just as disorientated as Lazarus himself, which makes the final levels genuinely creepy. If you're not a gamer it's hard to explain the exhilerating effect of this subversion of gamer conventions. I was utterly spooked by the fake menu screen, that if I believed in ghosts, I might actually have believed that my console was haunted. 

If I believed in ghosts...

5: Beyond Good and Evil

Beyond Good and Evil features a buffet of brilliant narrative devices. I've spoken about the subversion of minigame conventions before in my list of top 10 racing games. I'll just quote myself:
The hovercraft races in Beyond Good and Evil function both as a mini game and a plot device. As a mini game, they're great fun, and much care has gone into the level design. Each one of the four races are fully playable, and the player wins a valuable pearl for each one they win. However, the climactic Slaughterhouse level is only accessible by entering the third racetrack.

Consequently, a player must start the third race as normal and go through the "3-2-1" malarky in order to find the hidden passage. This is a really nice idea because it functions as a bit of a double-bluff. In a film, characters entering a race under false pretenses in order to find a hidden passage wouldn't be terribly exciting. In a video game however, players are conditioned to think only within the perameters of gaming conventions, so having to enter a race and then sneaking off the track feels genuinely subversive.

This might be hard to understand if you're a non-gamer. Allow me to explain. It would be akin to watching Star Wars, only when Luke and Han arrive on the Death Star, instead of going to find Princess Leia they start knocking down the set (without breaking character) in order to capture George Lucas to prevent him from ever making The Phantom Menace.
So there's that, for a start.

There is also the way Beyond Good and Evil bled out of its own universe and into the real one. It has been shut down now (apparently by the fictional Alpha Sections), but there used to be a page linked from the (also fictional) Hillyan News which would enable users to "hack" into the Alpha Sections' central computers in order to obtain a code.

I'm pretty sure Beyond Good and Evil is not the first game to create a real website for a fictional organisation. Films and books have been doing it for a while. Notable mentions go to Bret Easton Ellis' website for his fictional wife Jayne Dennis, built to promote his novel Lunar Park, and the entire viral campaign for the film The Blair Witch Project, which hinged upon the premise that the film was composed of genuine footage.

But Beyond Good and Evil gains points for the level of detail put into the site and the way it continually refers back to the game. The opportunity to "access" the Alpha Sections' computers is only available to players who have adanced far enough through the game to obtain a necessary code. And it's likely that players only thought to look to the site in the first place because it was mentioned in the in-game Hillyan radio station alongside broadcasts about the latest Domz attacks.

"Hacking" consists of a timed word puzzle in which users have to guess the name of the Hillyan creature. Incorrect guesses result in a "system lockdown". If successful, you're given a 4-digit code which can then be used to access a locked trunk in the Akuda bar, back in the game.

The "Hillyan News" site also contains headlines which expand upon issues in the game. Sadly, nearly eight years after the game's release, most of these links are broken, but when they were working, they added an extra dimension to the game.

As a final touch the link from the "Hillyan News" site to the officical game site is signposted with a graphic which reads "Play the Game: The Simulation of Hillys". Unlike The Blair Witch Project, no-one was ever going to be fooled into thinking Hillys is a real place, but its web presence gives the overall experience more depth, and gives it a sense of existing outside the game itself.

4: Assassin's Creed

The title of the original Assassin's Creed contains an apostrophe whose placement suggests that there is but one assassin, which makes me wonder why he needs his own creed.

It is also a potentially excellent game that is slightly impaired by the fact that you don't actually get to do much assassinating. Most of the game consists of tedious busywork such as collecting flags and finding tall objects to stand on (yes, really). Which is a shame, since the premise of the story is a bold attempt at metafiction in gaming. Books have been commenting on the act of reading for centuries, but gaming has understandably been less eager to ask its audience why they are spending their Saturday nights wedged into a beanbag, drinking Tanglefoot and pressing buttons on a slightly sticky bit of moulded plastic.

Or something like that.

Moving on.

Assassin's Creed bravely asks these questions though the gruff and stubbly mouthpiece that is Desmond Miles, bartender and ex-member of a modern day Assassin's Brotherhood. Further creative use of the apostrophe implies that there is just one assassin in this, too.

Anyhoo, Desmond is kidnapped by Doctor Warren Vidic, who for various reasons needs Desmond to re-live the memories of his ancestor, crusade-era assassin Altaïr. To achieve this, Vidic plugs Desmond into an "Animus" which enables Desmond to "relive" the memories of Altaïr, which are apparently contained in his genetic code.

Silly science aside, this is an extremely interesting device, because it circumnavigates an area of logical fuzziness which action games have always struggled with, and that is the fact that although the screen shows a character jumping around, the player is just pressing aforementioned buttons. I am reminded of Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation, which features a training level that takes place in Cambodia as a teenage Lara is instructed in the art of jumping by the slightly dodgy Werner VonCroy. The believability of the sequence is slightly undermined by Werner saying things like "Press the Square button to jump" in his rent-a-Nazi accent.

Assassin's Creed features a comparable training area, except Desmond really is being taught how to control Altaïr in the same way as the player is. So when we are told to "Press B to push bystanders aside", it makes logical sense. That's what Desmond's being told to do as well. Consequently, all the video game conventions which would under normal circumstances detract from the narrative are explained by it being virtual reality for the character, too. The player is playing a video game where the main character is also playing a video game, which makes the "remembered" sequences set in the Holy Land are about as realistic as it's possible for a video game to be.

3: Shadow of Memories

More time-travelling here, as the unfortunate Eik is killed just minutes into the game. Fortunately, the incident seems to affect the spooky Homunculus, an androgynous being who gives him a "digipad", enabling him to slip in and out of different timelines. Talking to people in each timeline gives Eik vital information which he can then use to access another.

When Eik finally discovers the reason for his death, he is in a position to change events in the past to avert it. Although Eik remains in the same town for the duration of the game, he sees it in 1580, 1980 and 1902, and can interact with events throughout. One scenario sees him plant a tree in 1902 to avoid a sniper in the present day.

The cleverest thing about Shadow of Memories is the fact that it has eight different endings depending on the decisions you make throughout the game. In some cases, the identities of the characters are completely changed depending on who you talk to and what you say. These differences aren't random, they have a solid logic, so the game truly is fresh each time you play it.

It's a story that could only take place in a video game. Although books and films (Sliding Doors limps to mind) explore alternative outcomes to stories, only games can place the weight of decisions so heavily on the player. Every action the player takes in Shadow of Memories is endowed with a sense of urgency as the player knows they are deciding not just Eik's fate, but the fate of Lebensbaum and its citizens.

2: The Longest Journey 

The Longest Journey has one of the best stories of any game, ever, so it's perhaps not surprising that it goes about telling it in such a sophisticated manner. Aside from the attention to detail that gives the characters humanity (see Fiona's living room, above), The Longest Journey lightly taps at the fourth wall whenever the scenario veers towards whimsy.

As a point-and-click puzzle adventure, the game requires players to use their cursor to command April to interact with objects on the screen. If you click on April herself, she will make a comment such as "I almost feel as though there's someone watching me..."

Which of course there is. Rather than detract from the immersiveness of the game, this gentle reference to the mouse-wielding player allows them to identify more with April, not less. Parallel universes are ten-a-penny in video games, as are incredulous protagonists. Heroines who immerse themselves in bizarre scenarios whilst never quite forgetting the absurdity of the situation are less common. 

April's almost-acknowledgement of the unreality of her situation reflect the dream sequence which opens the game. How often during a dream has the surreality of the situation given you cause to wonder whether or not you are dreaming? April frequently wonders whether what she is seeing is real, and whether she is fully in control of her actions. The fact that it isn't and she isn't - she is an imaginary character in a fantasy video game - makes one of the strongest cases for video games being art that I have yet come across. How do any of us know that what we experience is really taking place? Do we really have free will? Does it matter?

1: Portal

If I had to explain to anyone why video game narratives need to be considered on their own merits and not merely compared to films, I would cite Portal.

Because it's a short game which hinges on a single game mechanic, I feel justified in just listing Portal itself as an example of excellent narrative, rather than any specific aspect of it. Although now I come to think of it, there are two facets to its brilliance.

The first is GLaDOS, the computer whose machinations are the only indication of intelligence the player comes across, other than their own. Cliff Bleszinski, creator of Gears of War, compares her utterances to one of his ex-girlfriend's in this interview:

I dated this girl once and she texted me and said 'Hey what are you up to?' And I was taking a shower and didn't respond immediately. And 30 seconds later she was saying 'Hey, you a--hole, you're not that f---ing cool. You can rot in hell.' And then 30 seconds later, 'Hey, I didn’t mean that, what are you doing tonight?'

GLaDOS' passive-aggressive unpredictability is not only amusing, but as the single force behind the game's environment and events, they are also terrifying. The player controlls Chell, a human test subject in Aperture Science's "Portal Gun" laboratories. The majority of the game is comprised of a series of Portal-based puzzles, much like a three-dimensional version of the 1989 classic Chip's Challenge.

Portal follows the puzzle-game convention of presenting the player with a succession of progrssively harder challenges to which they must apply the simple logic they learned in the early levels. Like many such games, perilous elements (such as automated guns and, erm, pools of acid) are introduced around the midway point. Unlike most puzzle games, which never hint at a world outside their rigidly-controlled borders, Portal (not to give too much away) smashes both expectations and conventions by giving Chell an escape route, if not from Aperture itself, then from puzzle gaming conventions.

And it's this which makes Portal number one. Most art forms have to be around for a while before people start breaking the rules and playing around with their conventions. Portal isn't quite the Tristram Shandy of the gaming world, but if it's a sign of things to come, then I am thrilled to be along for the ride.

*     *     *

Now, about that cake.

You may have noticed that today is Well-Rendered's first birthday. I'm really please that it's been going for a year, and that I've managed to average a post a week.

But I've only been able to keep up the momentum because people take the time to read it. So I would like to thank everyone who reads, comments or follows, everyone who has let me write things for their sites, and everyone who has linked to me.

Here's to many more years of Well-Rendered, in whatever form it takes.


    1. Thank you so much for a year of Well Rendered! I look forward to your posts every week, they're always well written and great for talking about levels beyond games themselves!

      PS. I must admit I was thinking that the cake would be a lie...

    2. Thanks Sean.

      Yeah, I don't think I handled the cake thing very well.

      It started off being biscuits but then I couldn't find a picture of biscuits, and then I thought "hey, the cake from Portal would be perfect because of the whole birthday thing.

      But then there wasn't really a h-i-l-a-r-i-o-u-s way to make it a lie. It is Well-Rendered's birthday, after all.

      But then I didn't actually provide any cake. Just a picture of one.

      I suppose if anyone actually thought I would be able to provide cake over the internet, they may have been disappointed.

      But they would have bigger problems.

    3. I'd add Bioshock. I'm not so sure about Assassin's Creed. While it does display an interesting storytelling device, I must say that I haven't been too impressed by the story itself. The writing just feels very...weak. As a matter of fact, I'd argue that the cut scenes in AC2 are even laughable, but this might be a result of the seemingly downgraded character animations.

    4. Hi Anonymous,

      I would agree that the general storytelling in Assassin's Creed leaves a lot to be desired (I had a rant about it yesterday).

      But I still think that the idea of having the main character "control" an avatar within a video game is a really interesting narrative device, bordering on a kind of metafiction, but for games. Metagaming, if you will.

      In general, I tried to choose individual devices in games which I thought were interesting storytelling devices, rather than entire games, which is why a game that isn't necessarily a good game in itself still ranks quite highly. Assassin's Creed is sadly less than the sum of its parts.

      And I'd agree that the original Bioshock has one of the most well-told stories of any game, ever. If I'm completely honest, the main reason I didn't include it here was because the main storytelling "device" is similar to that of Portal, i.e. an omniscient voice who you begin to doubt as the game goes on.

      I haven't played AC2 (still too irriated with AC1), although I have heard that it is very good and gets rid of some of the huge problems encountered by the first.

      I'd be interested to do so.

      Thanks for commenting!

    5. Great collection of narrative devices to work, Its very helpful one. thanks for this collection.

    6. Of all I just love the Assassin's creed! Its an amazing game i have played so far.

    7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    8. Just love every dare games..!!