Apologies for lack of posting. I got really, really sick on Sunday and remained such throughout yesterday. Still a bit wobbly, but I can work.
So I’ve been thinking a little bit about video game storytelling. Basically, most genres of video game tell their stories indirectly, through visual and musical cues and the gameplay itself, without much in the way of traditional text. (See Mega Man II for arguably the moment at which this technique was first perfected.) The player themselves constructs most of the narrative, imbuing their character with personality through the decisions the player makes in the game.
Of course, as video games have become more filmic, this approach has been somewhat superseded by the use of tools such as cutscenes and voice acting to firmly establish the characters’ personalities, while increasing amounts of text (both written and spoken aloud) permit the establishment of more complex, concrete stories. There’s nothing wrong with this shift (unless you’re substantially worse at coming up with compelling characters than your players were, see Final Fantasy series, history of), and some truly great games have been made which give the player no say in the story at all–I like Xenosaga as much as, and probably more than, the next person.
But one structure I really like, and wish there were more of, is a combination of the two: a game where you both control a character and shape who they are and what they do, and participate in the telling of a complex and interesting story. Specifically, one that does this by distinguishing between plot and story, between a sequence of events in linear time and the presentation of those events to the player.
Namely, I’m referring to video games where the story begins very near the end of the plot, and part of the game consists of discovering what happened up to this point. Two games come immediately to mind as doing this well, and both use similar mechanics to accomplish it: Metroid Prime and The Ur-Quan Masters.
In the case of the former, by the time Samus arrives on Tallon IV, virtually the entire plot has already happened: the Chozo encountered, were corrupted by, and then annihilated by Phazon, then years later the Space Pirates began experimenting on it, creating Metroid Prime. All that is left is the final chapter, in which Samus stumbles onto the Space Pirate base, finds her way to Metroid Prime, kills it, and destroys the base. From the perspective of the Space Pirates, it is a story of their hubris and resulting humiliation and destruction by their equivalent to the boogeyman; from Samus’ perspective, it’s the story of another day’s work blowing up Space Pirates and their dangerous biological experiments, albeit one with long-term consequences explored in the sequels. But the plot of both stories is the same–and within the game, which is from Samus’ perspective, it’s revealed almost entirely through files the player has the option of finding and reading.
In The Ur-Quan Masters, once again by the time the player’s ship arrives at Earth virtually the entire plot has already happened, a span of thousands of years of which the game itself comprises at most five to seven (depending on how quickly the player moves and whether they manage to get the time limit extended). It is a rather more text-heavy game than Metroid Prime, as befits an action-RPG as opposed to a first-person shooter, but since the player both picks their dialogue options and is not voiced, there is still significant freedom for the player to shape their character’s personality. More importantly, the player is simply dropped into a world in which there are quite a lot of things going on, with no walls and no limits except the fuel capacity and fighting capability of their ship. The number of tasks which have to completed to end the game is quite small compared to the number of tasks available, and there are few restrictions as the to the order in which the player can complete those tasks, meaning the story is very much up to the player to shape. But optional conversations with others can reveal a plot stretching back thousands of years, full of pain and revenge and tragedy (quite astonishing in a game as generally lighthearted and laugh-out-loud funny as this), with more recent events generally easier to discover than more ancient history.
In both games, because relatively little of the plot happens during the story, it is possible for the writer to exert fine control–and thus finely craft–that plot, creating something compelling, interesting, and professional, while the final few beats are provided by the player, creating something immersive, interactive, and personal. It’s a fine compromise between the demands of story and the demands of game, and one I’d like to see more of.
*The greatest game of all time, previously titled Star Control II before the owners of the trademark on the name screwed over the owners of the copyright on the code and story. If you have not played it, go get it, it’s been open-source for years now. No, really, stop reading right now and go play it. I don’t care if you’re at work, do it.