Fidelity is Killing Narrative

I have a problem with developer-driven narrative in video games, namely that I think it has no fucking place in them. But that’s a pretty strong statement, so let me clarify.

There’s an inherent tension between game play and developer-driven narrative. Video games are defined as a medium by interaction, and any developer that wants to tell you a story is going to have to take control from you at some point. Developer-driven narrative limits choice, by nature.

The thing is, though, I’ve often had to concede that there are some fantastic narrative-driven games out there: Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Planescape: Torment, Portal. The question arises: how can these games make narrative work, while most (and I’m talking the vast majority here) fail so utterly, so miserably, that they actually flip the scales and become hilarious and endearing in their own weird way?

Watching Will Wright talk about abstraction in video games set off some light bulbs. He talks about how the mind is constantly filling in gaps of information to give us a more complete picture of our surroundings. And while video games are very good at showing us some things (player input-to-consequential output, for example), they’re terrible at showing us other things, like emotions, moral gravity or consequences that aren’t directly related to player interaction. The thing thing that unites all of the aforementioned games, as well as pretty much every game with compelling narrative that I can think of, is that they’re all abstract in some way, sometimes to a great degree.

The nature of this abstraction differs from game to game, though I think of a lot of it comes down to creative workarounds to technical limitations. This is why so many games with successful narratives are older; In trying to deliver a story, the game is in some ways very primitive, and lets the mind fill in its own emotional reactions to what’s happening, instead of ham-handedly showing you some awful mo-cap while dead-eyed characters wave their mitten-like hands around on screen in an attempt to TELL you how to feel.

Ocarina of Time is a good example of this, and arguably the team was aware of the limitations of video game fidelity and ran with it. There is no voice acting. Your avatar, Link, is characterized entirely by ellipses and grunts, squeaks and high-pitched yells. The hub world in the game, the Field of Hyrule, is completely barren and an almost neon shade of green. All of these things are holes in the game that the player’s imagination filled in, and Nintendo assisted this filling-in with the game’s most important asset: music. Music characterizes everything you do in OOT, and everything in the game – dungeons, combat, characters – have their own soundtrack. Ocarina of Time’s soundtrack is one of the most timeless in all of video games because it serves as the narrator. And because music is abstract in a way that image, and to a lesser extent words, aren’t, music-as-narrator allows the player to interpret the story on his own terms. Instead of developers forcing the message, the player becomes part of shaping the message’s meaning.

A somewhat different take on this is Portal, Valve’s bite-sized paean to physics-based brain-fuckery. Ever since the days of Half Life, Valve have been known as “those guys that do story right”, and many of the things that make Half Life and Half Life 2 successful narratively are present in Portal as well. The understated voice acting, the attention to detail, and the silent protagonist are all there. What makes Portal a particularly successful story, though, is something that probably seems counter intuitive at first; Portal is stripped down. The set pieces are completely bare bones, and more importantly there’s a reason for that – the whole thing takes place in a testing facility that’s made to look as soulless as possible. The only real characters in the game are you (playing Chell, which I’ll come back to later) and GLaDOS, that gleefully murderous A.I. that instantly became a fixture of internet pop-culture. The objectives were never more complicated than “get from one end of the room to the other”. Somehow this lack, this absence, created a game which kept players moving not just because the core mechanic was amazing (it was), but because they cared about the story.

I think the most successful aspect of Portal was its characters. Five years after its release and you still can’t boot up the old web browser without tripping over some appropriated one-liner delivered by our beloved Ellen McClain. GlaDOS seems to be a character forever ingrained in our collective unconscious, whispering malicious, passive-aggressive snarks about our weight and parentage when all we want to do is solve the fucking puzzle. Meanwhile Chell is arguably a deconstruction of the supposed disconnection to character that players get when playing from a first-person perspective. Chell is a very strong character, not despite the fact that we never see her or hear her speak, but because of it. In a brilliant display expectational Jujitsu, Valve defined Chell using GLaDOS’ interaction with her. In the same way that people project emotions onto emotionless faces in a film, Valve used dialogue to let us know that Chell was there, so to speak, and then let our minds do the rest. When two of the most memorable characters in video games are a faceless robot and a voiceless protagonist, clearly something profound is going on; maybe less actually is more.

There’s a lot more that could be said here (a certain debate about graphics vs. game play comes to mind) but ultimately what I’m getting at is that I think video games are awful at visual fidelity, and that may not be the limitation that a lot of people think it is. Somehow developers got trapped in this idea that polygonal rendering was going to catch up to film as a way of delivering message and meaning, and this wasn’t the case. Video games aren’t film – the image on screen isn’t the mode of delivery. Video games are about choice, interaction, active interpretation. Games are mirrors, reflecting our own minds through the pressing of buttons.

In this sense fidelity is the enemy, removing some of that abstraction and interpretation that makes a game as much the player’s experience as it is the developer’s. If narrative in games is going to be successful (and I think it can be) it has to be a willing collusion between developers and players, and to that end developers are going to have to stop being so goddamned narcissistic as to think that I care about whatever story they’re trying to tell me. I don’t. I care about my story. But they can help a little, if they want.

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4 thoughts on “Fidelity is Killing Narrative

  1. This makes me think of so-called moral dilemmas in games, such as Bioware’s games. People always seem to think that there needs to be some sort of mechanical feedback to the player’s choice–good and evil, for example. But why can’t the player reflect on the choice without the game insulting their intelligence?

  2. Reblogged this on The Digital Age Soapbox and commented:
    Sonictitan raises some very good points in regards to the gameplay vs. narrative dilemma that game developers are facing.

    I strongly disagree with him however as in regards to the problem facing developers and players. It seems that developers seem to by in large eschew any sort of narrative for gameplay. This sort of thinking seems to extend from the idea of the Illusion of Control is utterly worthless.

    Take Roleplaying Games as an example. When one compares say for example Planescape Torment to say Mass Effect there is a marked shift. Whereas in Planescape Torment there is a strong narrative and relatively weak gameplay (at least in the start of the game) Mass Effect emphasizes a more action oriented saga. The narrative is less apparent and more subtle, hidden away inside the various codex entries tucked away on the menu screen.

    Will Wright makes a good point when he talks about abstraction in video games but it is not necessarily fair to argue that vidoe games are not capable of emotions or moral gravity. I don’t think they are meant to necessarily. Instead games offers questions, a melancholic meandering into the psyche of the current generation. Take for example Lone Survivor which is phenomenal in the sense of providing a horror experience.

    A character rarely ever feels as if it is a character that belongs to you. You generally do not have a choice in its design or actions and in the cases that you are allowed the design and scope you are offered a very limited choice. Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate all of which offered a variety of character classes whose powers at the end of the day amounted to how to best smash through to their objectives.

    Portal is successful in terms of gameplay, in terms of actual narrative it appeals to the archetypes that are in every gamers heads. That is what makes the game successful in terms of story telling; because the characters are similar to the villains of old such as System Shock and System Shock 2.

    With this in mind it seems that the idea of trying to argue that developers need to shift away from a narrative focus is not necessarily the best approach. There should be a stronger focus on a narrative from the developer and perhaps even a gradual inclusion of a developers-player narrative structuring.

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