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Storytelling in games – should it be different?

07 July on Blogs, Editorial  

My recent discussions about how videogames should handle narratives has been very fruitful lately, with a few interesting discoveries lately. One little exercise we proposed in the discussion group was to try and imagine something that could only be done in interactive media - and I brought an example that many people thought provoking.

The concept was actually a bit backwards: how to adapt the 3D animated movie "9" into a game. When I first watched it, frankly, the story was weird. In what seemed to be a response to bad focus group results, the ending looks like was changed for something happier - because it goes against what the plot was trying to establish all along: that a sacrifice was necessary to "fix" what had been causing the problem all along.

Now, I am sure you can read a plot synopsis of the movie just about anywhere, but I will try to address most of the points here. The movie starts very much like one of my favorite games, The Neverhood. The main character comes to life with no knowledge of who he is or what is going on - and will learn, in time, that his creation is connected to the plight the world is currently in.

There certainly were enough action elements in the movie to make it an easy candidate for the game treatment, but it is in the story that I think we find the really interesting aspect of this adaptation: at one point, we learn that the big monster was actually meant as a useful tool made by humans that got out of control because it lacked a soul. And the numbered doll characters we are introduced to as the protagonists are actually different pieces of the soul of its creator, that were meant to be imbued in his creation all along. Now, by the time this discovery takes place, the monster has already consumed part of these characters.

Now, with this knowledge, you’d think that the remaining characters would just sacrifice themselves (they even catch glimpses of their fallen comrades inside the creature). But no, they fight and defeat the monster, and see the others “freed” from it. Yeah, it makes for a happy Hollywood ending, but what if that sacrifice was on the hands of the player? What if he had to go against everything he’d been doing so far?

We have seem some similar cases in gaming like this, but I don’t think they have ever been done properly. We all know RPG battles that cannot be won, but the plot just progresses after you lose. A better example was wearing the glasses and defeating the ghost possessing the character in Symphony of the Night (something we also saw in Aria of Sorrow by solving a puzzle and equipping three very specific souls). But then again, in neither case the decision was properly tied with the plot for the player to feel engaged in doing so.

I deeply believe that, like movies took some time to truly stand apart from theater (go watch Méliès A "Trip to the Moon" to understand what I mean.)

For a good while, even while they already had special effects, movies lacked modern camera angles and editing. I think videogames are still using movies as crutches - especially when it comes to storytelling. And I think it's a few small ideas that will make the most difference.

For one thing, I believe the biggest, most important lesson we have to learn, is that the best narrative tool for interactive media is actually changing rules. If we try to decompose games into their smallest particle, we will see that they are a set of rules. Now, by bending these rules we really get an effect that could not be achieved in other media. See the ending of Super Metroid as an example:

It starts as a quite normal fight. Samus actually goes on a trip down memory lane and defeats Mother Brain pretty much exactly like she did in the first game. But then the foe actually get a body, and the skirmish marches on. After a certain point, Mother Brain starts charging an unavoidable beam that completely ravages our heroine. Note that the game never takes away control, and you can suffer from it for quite a while depending on your skill. You eventually get down to your last drop of energy and you can't move Samus while the monster slowly kills you... and starts charging the big beam again - only to be interrupted by the baby Metroid (now all grown up) you save in the end of the previous game. All bets are off: you get your energy replenished and an incredible new weapon - all while Mother Brain slowly kills the Metroid. We had both storytelling and a bending of rules that completely immerses the player, delivering gameplay and emotional response at the same time. Other good examples of this include the ending of Earthbound (Mother 2) and Metal Gear Solid 2.

We need to encourage more experimentation, something that Hollywood actually had the time to do before budgets skyrocketed and enforcing formulas to ensure profits became the law. Unfortunately, games jumped from niche to mainstream too fast - but the wonders of digital distribution have opened doors for the indie market to flourish and make a stand. You don't have too look any further than Daniel Benmergui's unorthodox-yet-amazing interactive poem "Today I Die". But it's hard being noticed and making an impression when you are going against budgets that rival even the production of the games themselves.

In an age where "emergent gameplay" is a common buzzword and presentation takes front seat to actual narrative, I fear that the next level of storytelling may already be being buried before it was barely given a spin.

Esta postagem também está disponível em: Portuguese (Brazil)

Author, freelance videogame journalist, cinematography major and a little insane.