I’ve only gone and done it again. Here’s the next video in my new, exciting kind-of-a-podcast-I-guess-but-not-really series of ‘Everything Matt Knows About…’. Except I’ve dropped the subtitle on the video itself because I don’t actually ‘know’ anything in this domain, it’s 95% opinions. In this one, I try and identify what gaming has over other medium for purposes of providing engaging narrative. Transcription is below.
Hi everyone. In this video, I’m going to try and cover a few aspects of gaming narrative. I’ll attempt to define narrative in the context of gaming, and I’ll talk about the new kinds of narrative that the art form of video games introduced.
A couple of quick asides before we jump in. This video is a partial follow-up to my previous video on story structure. However, it’s not as heavily research-based as the previous video. Indeed, everything that follows pretty much stems purely from my own observations – people have spent a lot of time researching and understanding narrative in games and I can’t claim to have done the same. So if you’re already familiar with the more formal approaches taken to gaming narratives, this video might feel like amateur hour. I’m going to say the word ‘narrative’ so many times, it will lose all meaning. That said, I think it’s still going to be a fun talk, so stick around.
Also, in my previous video, I said that stories were structured narratives. That was something of a tautology because story and narrative are often considered synonymous, but the idea was to try and formalise the concept that without structure, a narrative – which is purely a description of a sequence of events – does not make for an entertaining story. But for simplicity, in this video, I will use the terms ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ interchangeably. The reasoning for this is that I will introduce new ‘kinds’ of narrative that do not necessarily follow ordinary story structure as applied to film and books, which we’ll get into later. Okay, with that out of the way, let’s go!
Differences to Novels/Films
To start with, let’s talk about the similarities and differences between gaming narratives and classic film/literature narratives. All of the key, important traits that define story structure in those media are still just as important in games. Games with a story still have a beginning, middle, and end. They still need to build conflict and tension, and provide the same breathing moments and crushing blows as their venerable counterparts. So what makes games unique?
If a picture paints a thousand words, it stands to reason that modern video games paint upwards of sixty thousand words a second. A pithy joke, but a thought-provoking one. In examining games with challenging gameplay elements, the most convenient non-gaming comparison is to cinema. In the same way that film revolutionised storytelling by introducing our eyes and ears to the stories being told, the same happened with the birth of narrative in video games. Instead of watching the main characters save the day, get the boy/girl, win the Superbowl, it was you, the player, doing this. This is the key point of departure between the two mediums, from which all other differences stem.
In mainstream cinema, the main character is assured to win – unless we’re talking about sequel-bait or horror. In gaming, this safety net is gone. If the player is not sufficiently skilled at the game, the story can often end prematurely with a death or other game over. In some cases, the game will end when the player puts down the controller and turns off the console, never to return – while analogous to pausing a film or putting down a book, there is a significant difference – the book doesn’t frustrate the reader into quitting by introducing more difficult words over time (generally). Comedian-philosopher Dara O’Brien once observed this peculiarity of gated narrative, drawing attention to Metal Gear Solid in particular. To paraphrase, he stated that a book or film won’t stop you from experiencing the narrative because you’re not ‘reading’ or ‘watching’ well enough, but most games have no such qualms about denying you the remaining story if you do not dedicate a significant amount of time to them. As a tangent, some game designers are becoming aware of this phenomenon, and introducing modes into games where the player does not have to play to the game’s skill requirement. As a tangent to the tangent, an increasing number of gaming enthusiasts do not play video games at all, instead opting to watch games being played online by other people, a phenomenon in itself which hasn’t been ignored by game designers.
For those, however, who are willing to put in the time, challenging gameplay can enhance the narrative experience by providing a sense of accomplishment that the player can attribute to themselves. In most media, the audience is assumed to empathise with the protagonist in some way, to put themselves in the protagonist’s position and understand their feelings and values. But in gaming, the player takes on the role of the protagonist themselves – their victories are therefore the player’s victories in the truest sense, and the protagonist’s victories can only be earned through effort on part of the player. Pure conjecture on my part, but I believe this gated narrative device therefore has the potential to exert greater influence on the emotions and values of the player through self-insertion and symbiosis with the player character, than film and novels can using their ‘regular’ narrative.
So our first point of departure was the gated narrative. The next is choice, or player agency. Games, in some way, offer the player choice. These choices drive the narrative in some way. Sometimes this choice is obvious – the player may literally be given an option to choose from a set, and that choice affects the narrative in some way, like taking them down a different path. Do you take the red pill or the blue pill? But what about linear games, with no clear options or branches given to the player? In these cases, there is less avenue to expand our narrative horizons, but I would still argue that there is still a narrative being driven, but not necessarily the narrative as written. Again, it’s a point I’d like to come back to later, so sit tight. Films too have occasionally toyed with the idea of giving the viewers agency, such as the recently released Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch, but I would argue that this moves them away from the domain of film and directly into the world of choice-based narrative, which we’ll discuss shortly.
The combination of gated narrative and choice is a unique element to gaming, and provides the storycrafter with opportunities that simply can’t be explored in other media. With choice, the writer is free to tell multiple, perhaps contradicting or otherwise incompatible stories, within in a single piece of media, and through the gated narrative, they’re able to engage with the player in a way that is simply not possible with film or novel. That element of choice is so important that it enables multiple new kinds of narrative in itself. But before we go into that, we need to start with the basics.
Narrative and Gaming
We’ve talked a lot about gaming narrative, but what does it actually mean for a game to have a narrative? Do all games have a narrative? Are there games without narrative? Are there games that are primarily narrative? To start with, let’s say that a game has a narrative if it attempts to tell a story in an analogous way to a film or book – there is a conflict-driven plot featuring one or more characters attempting to answer a central dramatic question. Games like Uncharted, Final Fantasy, or the Nier series are narrative games, where the player is trying to uncover ruins, or save humanity, or accomplish some other traditional goal. These games also feature gameplay which gates the player from proceeding if they do not learn and engage with the mechanics of the game – if the player can’t learn to aim and shoot Nathan Drake’s pistol, he has no chance of seeing the story of Uncharted to its conclusion. If the player can’t master the intriacies of the Materia system, much, if not most, of Final Fantasy 7 will be out of bounds to the regular player.
Those are games with narrative. Other games are less mechanic-driven, lacking traditional gameplay elements, and function more like interactive stories. For instance, visual novels are a genre where the player spends most of their time reading text and occasionally choosing between pre-designed decisions. There is little to no threat of failure in these games – almost no mechanical or quick (keyword: quick) mental skill is required on the player’s part in order to experience the full story. Examples here include Phoenix Wright, the Zero Escape Series, and visual novels in general.
Then there are games with no narrative at all. These games can include conflict in the gameplay – clashing swords, deadly puzzles – but there is no plot. Sometimes, there are no characters at all. These are games like Tetris, Flappy Bird, Bejeweled, Dance Dance Revolution… Puzzle and simulation games often have no narrative, but there have been recent efforts to marry these genres with narrative, in games such as Gyromancer, which combines plot with match-three gameplay, or Beyond the Echo, which combines rhythm and role-playing game mechanics while telling a complex story.
With the above definitions, we might say that we can group games into three buckets. Games with no narrative at all, games with narrative, and choice-driven narratives. We’d mark traditional puzzle and simulation games as pure gameplay, with choose-your-own-adventures and other gameplay-lite games as choice-driven narrative. All the rest of the gaming world sits in the ‘game with narrative’ bucket.
It might be unclear how you would partition games out of the ‘games with narrative’ bucket. To give you a concrete, if controversial, example – those armed with knowledge of story structure and what story actually means may put the majority of classic games in the narrative-free bucket. Games like Space Invaders, Defender, Pac-man – this are easy to classify as narrative-free. Even though they have characters and conflict, there is no beginning-middle-end, there’s no plot. The original Super Mario Bros. has less of a narrative and more of a framing device – there is a reason why you’re stomping on Goombas and collecting mushrooms, but this reason is almost entirely disjoint from the game itself. Instead of saving a princess, Mario could be a soldier fighting in a war, or just a very angry Italian, and it wouldn’t matter to the gameplay or the majority of the gaming experience itself. You could leave almost every other element of game untouched, from the graphics to the mechanics, and the overall gaming experience would be the same even with a different framing device.
Mario does not feature a conflict-driven plot. Neither does Mario 2, nor Super Mario World, nor Super Mario Land… It’s not until the very modern eras of Mario do we actually see the hint of a true narrative. From a narrative standpoint, the beginning of Mario is the same as the middle of Mario, and only in the last twenty seconds of the game do we see any resolution when finally Mario rescues Princess Peach. But from a gameplay perspective, Mario is a constantly evolving experience – the levels become more difficult, new elements are introduced, there are secrets to find. Perhaps confusingly, Mario contains both scene and sequence-like elements in the form of levels and worlds, but without an actual plot to go with them we’re still firmly in the narrative-free arena. It’s a wonderful game – but it’s not a narrative one.
To be clear, there is no ‘best’ bucket here. Yes, there are games that are lauded for their beautiful narrative elements. Just look at Undertale, and how it repeatedly defies expectations by forcing the player to re-evaluate their understanding of its ‘combat’ system and feelings towards common RPG tropes. But does that make Undertale a better game than Mario? Or Tetris? I don’t think so. They aim to accomplish different goals – Mario and Tetris are not telling stories, they’re providing a challenge to the player – more of a challenge than Undertale, in any case.
But in the same bucket, same genre, is Undertale better than Final Fantasy 7? Again, it’s not possible to make an objective comparison. Undertale in particular plays off the expectations set by thirty years worth of RPGs, and serves as a deconstruction of the genre as a whole. That level of gameplay/narrative integration couldn’t have existed without the giants that came before it.
Now we’ve grouped games into our bucket, let’s focus on the ‘games with narrative’ and ‘choice-based narrative’ buckets and examine how these games handle narrative.
Classical Narratives in gaming today
In my previous video, I talked about story structure, the several key events that appear in successful stories, and used a roller-coaster analogy to describe the evolution of conflict over time. Tension builds, there is a bang, and then tension descends. This happens over and over, with higher tension, bigger stakes every time. This is a classical narrative – the way to structure a story for optimal entertainment. How do games manage this structure and rise and fall in tension? If a film is made up of 40 to 60 scenes, and a book is made up of around a hundred, how many scenes should there be in a game? Does the length of the game affect this? In fact, what is the gaming equivalent of a scene in the first place?! There’s so many things to unpack!
Let’s try and define what a ‘scene’ is in the world of gaming. In our previous definition of a scene, we called it a dramatic unit that is a combination of location and character. Games have analogous units as well, perhaps most easily seen in Japanese role-playing games, with their numerous, ceaseless, dialogue-driven cutscenes. Cinematic third-person games like Uncharted or Tomb Raider also heavily feature cutscenes between their action sequences. That word came up twice just now – cutscene. A cutscene is a sequence in a videogame which is effectively a non-interactive scene, in the same sense as a regular scene in a film or book. The word ‘scene’ is even in the name! But these cutscenes are not the only ‘scenes’ in either of these genres.
In cinematic third-person games and other action games, the action sequences where the player travels from point A to point B are also scenes of a sort. The protagonist has a clear value to protect – usually their lives – and over the course of the scene this value is tested when obstacles, in the form of both environmental hazards and regular enemies, block the character’s progress. It’s only through the player’s skill that the obstacles are overcome, and the player is able to carry on the game. Clear stakes, clear conflict, clear roller-coaster. These games are built on set piece followed by cutscene followed by action scene followed by set piece followed by cutscene and so on. In role-playing games, the action sequences are, again, usually ‘go from A to B’ affairs, with a cutscene on either side or, indeed, during the action sequence itself. We could enumerate all the different genres and try and identify the conflict-driven scenes in each, but we’d be here all day – and besides, we can do that another time.
How do the cutscenes differ from scenes in books and films? Fundamentally, they don’t – the content of those scenes is the same, as the ideas that drive the evolution of a scene’s conflict in classic media still apply to games. We’ll see that shortly when we try and do a structure breakdown of a popular JRPG.
And what about the action scenes? In cinematic third-person action games, these are again comparable to scenes in action films, with one important difference – player agency. If you remove the player’s agency, you’re left with something _less_ than the equivalent in film – without the player in control of the action, film could do a better job of the same. It’s a matter of opinion, but when experiencing stories that games have to offer, I believe that there is most enjoyment to be had in a first-hand experience.
So we have scenes – what about sequences? Sure, games have sequences too. Games in general are structured as a series of short-term goals. This is very clear in the adventure genre, for example. In adventure games, the sequences are the puzzles that must be overcome. Often, these puzzles aren’t solved through a single interaction, so we can’t say they were solved in a single scene. One interesting quirk to adventuring gaming – and open world games – is that these sequences do not need to be done – ironically – in sequence. They intertwine with each other, with progress not being linear on a single puzzle – instead, progress is made on multiple puzzles simultaneously, often culminating at the end of the act when all of the dominoes start to fall into place one after the other. It’s very satisfying.
Otherwise sequences and acts are pretty much as you’d expect from their classical counterparts – they hold the story together in a way that provides structure.
Deep Dive – Final Fantasy 7
Like how we broke down the narratives of Die Hard and Star Wars in my last video, let’s go ahead and dissect a gaming giant – Final Fantasy 7. We’ll apply the principles of structure to the game’s story and see if we can wrangle it into shape. Again, because of the nature of pacing in games, the ‘midpoint’ for any particular person is different in a chronological sense, but in the case of Final Fantasy 7, there are still clear turning points in the narrative which can be identified as the first plot point, the second act, the midpoint and so on. Let’s dive in.
The protagonist of Final Fantasy 7 is Cloud Strife, former member of the elite Shinra force SOLDIER. Shinra is a mega-corporation, primarily dealing in extraction of energy from the planet. Shinra controls the city of Midgar, where the game opens.
Opening scene: Sword-for-hire Cloud strife mounts an attack on a Midgar reactor with the terrorist group AVALANCHE.
Inciting incident: After attacking a second reactor, Cloud is separated from the group, falling into a disused church, where he (properly) meets the flower girl Aerith, who turns out to be the last of her people, the Centra.
Rest of act 1: After agreeing to protect Aerith from Shinra goons, Shinra attacks AVALANCHE, killing many of their members. Cloud agrees to attack the main Shinra headquarters in retaliation with the remainder of AVALANCHE.
First Plot Point: While the team reach the Shinra president, he is discovered to be already dead, killed by Cloud’s old mentor Sephiroth. Cloud vows to find Sephiorth, with whom he has a past connection.
Act 2A: It’s discovered that Sephiroth is attempting to call down a Meteor to destroy the world using the ‘Black Materia’. Cloud and team are able to retrieve the Black Materia before Sephiroth, but Cloud is then manipulated into giving it to him through some mysterious connection they share.
Midpoint: Aerith is killed by Sephiroth while she prays for protection against Meteor. As the final Centra is now dead, this means there is no one left who can use Holy magic to stop Meteor – except Cloud has managed to re-obtain the Black Materia.
Act 2B: The search for Sephiroth continues – Cloud discovers his much of his memory is wrong, and he starts to believe he is a clone of Sephiroth.
Crisis: Cloud’s mental state has deteriorated to the point where he is easily controlled by Sephiroth into giving up the Black Materia again, which he immediately uses to summon Meteor. Cloud is lost in the planet’s lifestream, but is soon found by his childhood friend Tifa a broken man, unable to support himself physically or mentally.
Second Plot Point: Cloud learns the truth of his past with the help of Tifa – he’s not a clone, but a normal person used as an experiment by a Shinra scientist, who is also the reason why Cloud and Sephiroth share the special connection. Finally able to reconcile his memories and experiences, Cloud accepts his past.
Act 3: The team learn that Aerith was actually successful in her prayer, and in order to stop Meteor Sephiroth must be defeated to ‘unblock’ the prayer’s power. The team mobilise for a final attack on the Northern Crater.
Showdown: Cloud and team break into the Northern Crater, where Sephiroth has taken root. They defeat Sephiroth.
Resolution: But Cloud has one final battle to fight – in his mind. He defeats the final manifestation of Sephiroth with his ultimate attack, Omnislash. Meteor is still on the way, but with Sephiroth truly defeated, the planet’s lifestream itself attempts to fight against Meteor. How successful this final stand was is left as a mystery.
Final Fantasy 7 is a perfect example of correctly implemented story structure. Fans of the game will no doubt note that I’ve missed out most of the game’s supporting material when doing the breakdown – I didn’t even name most of the cast. The above plot points are enough to uniquely identify Final Fantasy 7, but the experience of Final Fantasy 7 is not just in the story of Cloud and Sephiroth, it’s in in the rich, detailed stories of its supporting cast. Pretty much every playable character has a subquest which further explores that character’s motivations and brings about character development. You don’t see this in films or books – they have a limited amount of time or pages in which to bring about one or two stories to a fulfilling conclusion. The optional nature of side-quests means the writer releases themselves from the constraints of primary narrative, perhaps at risk of harming the player’s perception of the main story’s pacing.
Here comes some controversy – there are very few ‘regular’ narratives in gaming that couldn’t be satisfactorily met by a film. Yes, in the case of Final Fantasy 7 you’re probably looking at several films, and yes, you wouldn’t be able to cover all the character development as seen in the games. But the base story of Final Fantasy 7 could be told through film, and you can easily apply the same logic to Uncharted or Tomb Raider. So then why make games in the first place? There’s a very good reason: the format of a game means it’s possible to explore completely new types of narrative.
New types of narrative
Let’s talk about these new narratives available to game designers. These are devices that do not follow the classical framework and in most cases only apply to video games or tabletop role-playing. From here on, I will refer to the regular three act structure as seen in video games as the ‘classical’ narrative to differentiate it from the types of narrative I’m about to outline. Keep that in mind, because I will be saying ‘classical narrative’ a lot.
The first new type of narrative is the optional narrative. Optional narrative is a narrative experience that is not necessary to complete the game. Sometimes, optional narrative is used as a bonus joke – perhaps throughout the game the player character is shadowed by another character whose story mimics theirs in a humourous way. Other times, especially in role-playing games, optional narrative provides character development for those who would otherwise not be in the limelight. In role-playing games, optional narrative is almost synonymous with ‘side quest’. In films and novels, stories do not have optional narratives. They have B-stories, which are lesser narratives that run parallel to the main story, but these are not ‘optional’ in the truest sense of the word, as normally their development comes back to the main story in an impactful way. But in gaming, there is the potential for an unlimited number of these optional narratives, limited only by the designer’s desire to flesh out their world – and perhaps their time and funding. In the Final Fantasy 7 overview, I touched on the idea that side quests can interfere with pacing of the main story, and that’s still true. But the trade-off is having another narrative to experience, sometimes resulting in developing a character and understanding them better, and sometimes resulting in a direct gameplay benefit like a stronger weapon. An example of an optional narrative in Final Fantasy 7 is the entirety of Yuffie and Vincent’s character arcs – optional characters with associated optional narratives.
The next type of narrative is the branched narrative. Outside of choose-your-own-adventure books and recent experiments with film already referred to, there are no media that allow the audience to actively change the flow of the story. In gaming, this is not only possible, but increasingly expected in certain genres, like role-playing games, and are a defining feature in choice-driven narratives. So we say a game has a branching narrative when the player’s actions or choices have an impact on the classical narrative. If you were to draw out the narrative for a game with a branching structure as a flowchart, it would look like a tree – hence the term branching. Optional narratives are a special case of the branching narrative, where the story flow eventually returns back to the main branch, making it more of a detour than a branch.
I’ve identified two ways of implementing branching narrative. The first is to tell as many stories as there are significant branches. A significant branch is one where going down that branch results in a significantly different ending from another branch. There’s lot of games where you can make small tweaks to the ending depending on your actions, but usually these are changes to a significant branch where those little actions don’t change the climax or resolution for the protagonist. Think of a game like Chrono Trigger, which has multiple endings, but the ‘best’ endings are variants of each other. Crono, the lead, is happy as he’s rescued Marle and saved the world from Lavos, but what about his companions? Depending on your gameplay choices, they may be just as happy, or perhaps their endings aren’t as good. In this format, one branch tells a complete story. In choice-driven narratives, these are often ‘character-based’ stories, where your choices in the narrative attach you more strongly to one character over another, leading you down a path which examines your relationship with that character and their particular woes. In role-playing games, there is often the question of ‘alignment’ – is your character good, evil, or neutral? These games normally only differ in their climax – refer games like Balder’s Gate or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. In games with many branches, there’s often a ‘golden’ branch – a happier or more complete ending that results from making the correct (not necessarily gameplay optimal!) choices. Players are encouraged to replay the game to explore other branches or find the golden path. Examples of games with branching narratives include Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines and Undertale.
There is another way of constructing a branching narrative – and that’s to only pretend you’re writing a branching narrative, when in fact the writer is using the branching mechanic of the game to explore the player’s relationship with the medium itself. This happens most often when the writer wants to tie the branches together, or when they want the player or player character to abuse knowledge gained from other branches in order to make optimal choices and reach the _real_ ending. These games have branches which do NOT tell complete stories, often ending prematurely with partial success, or due to the death of a character. The more cerebral choice-driven narratives often fall in this category, requiring complicated plot devices to marry revelations across different ‘branches’. Examples of this type of faux-branching narrative are rife in the visual novel genre – but to name specific examples would mean spoilers for some seriously satisfying games, so I’ll refrain.
Next, let’s talk about emergent experiences. In films and books, the writers have the capability to control the flow and changes of emotion throughout the story down to the very last detail, but game designers do not have this luxury outside of cutscenes. If nothing else, in action sequences, it is up to the player to ensure the continuation of the narrative, and when the designer gives them this agency, they are also giving the player the power to engage with the game in ways unplanned by the game designer. This isn’t limited to player agency – some games design complex systems which interact with each other in ways that are anticipated, but not directly controlled, by the designer. Think of games that feature ecological elements – autonomous animals wandering the landscape, eating, sleeping, hunting each other… The designer wants to achieve an ecology but does not want to directly control the actions of each participant in the system. But when the designer gives the player agency, they’re releasing into their world a creature they have almost no control over. When players use this freedom to form their own experiences outside of the classical narrative, I term this emergent gameplay narrative, the narrative formed by the player’s personal experience with the game. It’s potent because of how personal it is.
The magic of this emergent narrative is that it applies to non-narrative games as well. Let’s take a non-narrative game as an example – Minecraft. In Minecraft, players explore the world, exploit its resources, and construct marvellous creations like houses, statues, farms… The list goes on. One thing you can do in Minecraft is tame animals, transforming wild wolves into friendly dogs. The very action of deciding to tame a wolf begins an emergent narrative. Let’s structure it traditionally. The inciting incident – the player sees a wolf and wants to tame it. By the end of act one, the player has gathered the necessary materials to tame the wolf and does so, breaking into act two with their commitment. So far, this is as intended by the designer – this is how the taming mechanic is meant to work. Now in act two, the player takes their new friend on an adventure. They go around fighting monsters together until at the midpoint of our story, they come across a monster fortress. Again, the fortress is a designer-intended feature, but the interaction of player, dog, and fortress and any conflict that comes out of it is entirely outside of the control of the designer. At the end of act two, disaster strikes and the dog is killed by one of the denizens of the fortress. In act three, the player fights through their grief, avenges his dog and clears out the fortress. While reflecting on their journey, the player spots another wolf…
The player may not have realised it, but in this hypothetical but entirely plausible example, they’ve went through a fully-featured narrative, with all the conflict ups-and-downs you’d see from any given blockbuster, but it was completely brought around through the player’s actions and the emergent nature of the gameplay. And this is in a game without a classical narrative. Indeed, the possibilities of this narrative are at the most in open world games – I believe the higher agency the player has, the more likely they are to form their own emergent narratives. But even in games that have a classical narrative, we see the potential for emergent narrative. Just look at Skyrim and Fallout, where companions are analogous to Minecraft’s pets. Those games have classical narratives, but for many players the main story takes a back-seat to exploring the world, having their own adventures, and discovering secrets. Actually, speaking of secrets, let’s move on to another subject: Hidden narratives.
In the current era of gaming, designers have begun to experiment with stories that are actually hidden from the player. These games feature deep histories (termed lore by gamers) that is not fed to the player via the regularly structured channels. These games usually have most of a classical narrative as well, but underpinning that narrative is a history that the casual player will never understand. In a way, for those games one of the goals of the classical narrative is to have the player engage with the hidden narrative. Hidden narratives are like puzzles – the designers hide clues to the narrative in the environment, or behind gameplay elements that are otherwise optional to engage with. An example – the player may have the clear goal of assassinating an evil despot, which they can accomplish through gameplay. But there are clues or hints to the player that suggest there’s more to the situation than meets the eye… An engaged player can then hunt down the remaining clues – perhaps a photo reveals something about the despot’s past that puts all their actions into new context. But critically, this knowledge does not let the player impact the classical narrative – they will still kill the despot. If this knowledge could change the story’s ending, it would be part of the gameplay itself and would form a branched narrative. Instead, it supplements the players understanding of the actions of the player character and the actors that surround them.
Examples of games with hidden narratives include Hollow Knight and Dark Souls. Both of these games open with silent protagonists entering a dark and dangerous land. The player has no indication of the eventual goals of the protagonist. Instead, non-player characters provide hints as to what the player is meant to be accomplishing. It eventually becomes clear what the physical actions are that have to be done in order to progress the narrative. In Dark Souls, the initial goal is to ring the two bells, but why? In Hollow Knight, you seem to be just an explorer, but is that really the case? These goals alone are enough to form the beginning of the action, or external story. But these games hide the internal story..! The player is forced to derive it themselves from the environment, the enigmatic words of the non-player characters, and in the case of Dark Souls, through descriptions of various items provided by an unseen narrator. This is unlike any piece of mainstream cinema or literature – it is simply unheard of to create a piece of successful traditional media that has no clear inner story. Then why can games get away with it? There are two reasons.
One – It comes back to the idea of player-as-player-character. The characters in these games are blank slates – silent protagonists who have an unknown goal. They’re perfectly suited for projection by the player onto themselves. Players can form their own inner story, even if it’s not the intended one, which loops back into the emergent gameplay narrative.
Two – The inner stories _are_ there, but are only given to players who are patient enough to learn them. A good game rewards players for their time in a way that a films or books can’t – those media are of fixed length, and you only have so much story you can tell in a hundred scenes. But in games, which can be replayed and have open exploration elements, so much more content can be squeezed in. Films like Star Wars have rich supplementary material that helps to build an expanded universe, but that’s exactly what it is: supplementary. Video games are the only media that let you build that material directly into the game itself in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion. With the right external story, the player is motivated to explore the game to discover the inner stories.
And that’s about it for the new narratives made possible in gaming. Let’s wrap this up. Each type of media is suited to a particular type of story. Books are useful for detailed character studies, and stories with powerful internal narratives. After all, it’s much easier to get inside someone’s head when there isn’t a skull in the way. On the other side, films are well-suited to loud, bombastic external stories. For example, you would struggle to write the novelisation of the film Transformers in a satisfactory way, with all its explosive action scenes and, er, giant robots.
Then what are games for, if other media have the internal and external stories covered? Games enable their audience to experience a personal story unlike that of film and novel. Giving the player choice and putting them in charge of ensuring the continuation of the narrative allows for greater engagement between the player and the story – we root for ourselves more than anyone else, after all. And with optional, branched, emergent and hidden narratives, games have significantly more narrative potential than their classical counterparts. Should all games feature all kinds of narrative? No – they should use exactly what they need in order to tell the stories they want to tell, and what they need to invoke the emotional response they want to invoke. Should all games have a narrative at all? No, games are a flexible form of entertainment – not every game needs an epic story. Sometimes you just need a round or six of Tetris.
And that’s about it. If you enjoyed this rant, please let me know, and if you have anything you want to add, also get in touch, especially if you’ve identified any other new types of gaming narrative! See you in the next one.