What Narrative Means In Games - Plot Vs. Play


Posted April 9, 2012 - By Dennis Scimeca

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New BioShock Infinite Details

David Gaider, lead writer of the Dragon Age series, feels narrative gives the player a reason to care about what they're fighting for. Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment, developers of Fallout: New Vegas, doesn't know whether story even matters to the gameplay experience, and ponders if narrative's role is to create backdrops, letting the systems and the player's interactions with them create the story. And Ken Levine of Irrational Games, who is releasing BioShock Infinite this fall, believes that story gives context for player experience, but the value of narrative in video games is rather marginal. Levine thinks his job is primarily to present an environment for the player.

Gaider's answers might sound more like what we'd expect to hear from all three men, who are known for their skills in telling tales, but their answers underscore the complicated relationship between stories in video games and video game mechanics.

Levine is more concerned with environment than the words he's going to write. “I would say the best tool we have to sell our story is the world. The visual space...if you think about dialogue, especially in a first person shooter...the environment gives you so much information,” he said. “You can take in so much more visual information than you can take in audio information.”

Fallout: New Vegas

Avellone works along the same lines. “One of the parts of a narrative designer's job is to tell out the story in the environments without a single line of text or a single line of dialogue from the characters,” he said. Environment artists in the Fallout: New Vegas DLC packs would tell stories through devices like the way a camp was set up when the player discovered it, which would indicate how long someone had stayed there, or what they were doing.

Even if narrative isn't the strongest aspect of many video game experiences, Gaider doesn't want to tell someone they are taking the wrong approach, because he doesn't know if he's taking the right approach. “There are many different types of narrative, and with the advancement of technology we're starting to encounter them,” he said. “Cinematic storytelling, environment storytelling...emergent narrative.” Proper writing demands linearity, but that's not good gameplay, so game developers have to decide where they draw the line between storytelling and writing, because they're not the same thing.

“What makes a game writer's job difficult is this cognitive dissonance,” Levine said. Characters like Nathan Drake and Commander Shepard are essentially psychopathic killers, dispatching thousands of people throughout the course of the game. “There's no way you do that and like, not wind up in a Nazi farm in Argentina,” Levine said. “Nobody goes back to a normal family life after that.” But without the sort of killing Drake and Shepard engage in, there's no challenge component to Uncharted or Mass Effect, and Levine feels that having these characters kill thousands of people is essentially no less goofy than the puzzle challenges in Heavy Rain.

Levine noted the developers of Portal came up with a world in which arbitrary challenges made sense, because the players were in a test environment where random experiments fit with the narrative. Valve created a context for those strange activities. Movies don't have the problem of having to provide challenge, Levine said, and he doesn't know how you make that story really organic compared to other media which don't have the challenge problem.

Gaider suggested the solution to these problems was sometimes stumbled onto accidentally, and Avellone agreed by using the example of Fallout which allowed players to be successful in the game purely through speech options. That trapped Obsidian into needing to concoct an endgame scenario which the player could win only by talking, which required a narrative solution. Gaider thought that was a good point. “I think there's often a tendency for people making games...where we try to force a player to play a game the way we think it's meant to be played,” he said. Sometimes designers have to step back and consider how the players will tackle the game, and Fallout was an example of that.

Narrative and mechanics can also come into conflict when the player wants to do something other than what their character wants to do. Avellone avoids this by focusing on player freedom to develop their own stories. Gaider thinks the player never gets to do what they want. “They only get to do what [we] let them,” he said. The difference between good narrative and bad narrative in Gaider's eyes is how much the player is led to believe they actually have control.

Dragon Age: Origins

Levine has to be really careful in writing the dialogue for Booker DeWitt, the character players will control in BioShock Infinite. Levine can't put too much of Booker's personality on the player. “He can't have as much of a say as Elizabeth. She can really have her own view of the world. Booker can't,” Levine said. “If Booker says 'You know, I really hate Jews,' that's going to be a problem.” Avellone noted that in Fallout there's always a neutral, flat-line dialogue response, what the Obsidian team called “a Clint Eastwood response,” because sometimes the player might not want to take an attitude towards NPCs. And in Dragon Age there are always emotions on the characters, which Gaider admitted is an imposition on player agency, which means BioWare has to provide agency in different ways.

Levine believes great game writers find a way to inject narrative into the world, and make it part of the world versus something extra. If there's a conclusion to be reached from the discussion of plot versus play at PAX East, it's that narrative versus mechanics isn't a choice. They have to exist in balance with one another.

Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. In addition to feature writing and event reporting for G4, his work has been published on Kotaku, Ars Technica and Gamasutra. His weekly column First Person runs on The Escapist, and you can follow him on Twitter:

What Narrative Means In Games - Plot Vs. Play


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