2 August 2010

A Narrative Through Gameplay

After the recent release of Limbo, I’ve dived head first into the indie game ‘scene’. My taste for engaging and original video game content that seeks to achieve a greater level of artistry had been well and truly enticed. Limbo’s foreboding atmosphere; fiendish puzzles; brutal set pieces and subversion of video game norms resonated incredibly well with me and a great many gamers. In addition to this, for me personally, it was also how well the game managed to achieve such a strong connection between the gameplay and its narrative; a feat rarely achieved in video games.

Generally, a developer can utilise a number of different components to present a narrative within their game such as: dialogue, cut scenes, text files, audio logs, gameplay and the environment. Now, think back to the latest game you have played and consider which of those you received the most narrative information through. Consider also any of the major, triple-A releases over the past year and how they presented story information to yourself or the player. The chances are that the game in your mind told most of its narrative through a combination of cut scenes and dialogue, with perhaps some influence through text files and audio logs. Although it is an unquestionably harder task to utilise as an output for the narrative; telling a story through the gameplay or environment is often completely ignored.

Still, I have issues with games that rely so heavily on cut scenes to supply story information and character development. Doing so can create such a disconnect from the actual game thus conflicting the inherent expectations of the experience of playing and destroying the possibilities of exciting storytelling techniques in video games. Trying to involve the player by attaching arbitrary quick-time events is not a suitable fix for the issue and instead frequently results in unnecessary deaths. Thankfully, text files are fading in use with an emphasis on audio logs which at least allow the player to continue playing whilst receiving story details but can be drowned out if the player encounters a combat situation for example (this happened to me regularly in Bioshock). Beyond these relatively easy and direct methods of narrative presentation lie the gameplay and the environment; harbouring the potential of the unique storytelling capabilities of video games.

There are a select few games that have bravely employed the environment as a means for storytelling. A quick look at the games in Valve’s library such as Half Life, Portal and Left 4 Dead have all had a great emphasis on telling a story through the world the player inhabits. Of course the player can completely ignore this information if they wish but at least the opportunity is there for those who wish the discover more. Nevertheless, the connection of story and gameplay is far more elusive and to discuss it I must return to the humble indie game, and to Limbo.

Whilst it is not the first game to implement an engaging story, Limbo does so in such a unique way that requires the player to formulate an overarching interpretation from the narrative information present. I’ll try to describe the following ideas in the quickest way possible as I imagine Russian literary formalism is not on the list of your most exciting subjects to read. However, one concept that I believe can be applied to Limbo to understand its construction and that has also transferred into the study of narrative film is that of the fabula (story) and syuzhet (plot). Essentially, in the example of a film, the fabula refers to the complete chain of events in the narrative and the syuzhet refers to the actual presentation of those events in the film. For instance, the film Memento follows Leonard and his investigation into the murder of his wife. Yet, the narrative is presented in the film in segments that jump from different periods of time or are shown reverse (syuzhet) which the viewer then has to rearrange in their mind to create the overall story (fabula).

Now these terms could be taken and applied fairly easily to a game such as Limbo as it is also not so forthright in the presentation of its narrative. The game itself becomes the syuzhet, providing scraps of story information as we progress through the environment and experience the gameplay. These small cues in the game world are the catalyst for our own fabula construction. We can start to piece together a larger picture of the world of Limbo. How has the Boy arrived there? Why he is there? What are the different puzzles and inhabitants he encounters representations of? What are the fates of the Boy and his Sister?

There are already innumerable theories circulating so shortly after the game’s release which shows the power a well constructed, interpretive narrative can have and that the gaming community is willing to support one as adventurous as this. I do not wish to discuss these for the fear of ruining the experience for someone who is yet to play the game. It is clear though that Playdead have managed to craft a game that manages to tell its narrative, minus the trappings of conventional game storytelling, through simply the gameplay and the environment. I have no doubt that the developers will remain forever silent on the definitive fabula, if indeed they believe there to be one themselves. I would like to think they will leave the gaming community to thrive within this meta-game. It is fantastic proof that to develop a video game with a realised narrative you do not need thirty minute cut scenes or hundreds of hours of dialogue or pages of exposition but gameplay that reflects the purposes of the story and has a direct involvement in conveying it.

For those who are interested in more games that succeed (with varying effectiveness) to harmonise narrative and gameplay I shall list those I have played and also enjoyed below. Play them and decide for yourselves what they mean to you and I would be more than interested in hearing your thoughts. You may discover something completely different to other’s interpretations that will stay with you far longer than the replay value of many other games.

Limbo - XBLA

Braid - XBLA/PC - A gem of a game from Jonathan Blow with interesting mechanics and an incredibly well executed finale.

Every Day The Same Dream - Free/Browser Based - A short yet powerful examination of some aspects of modern society.

The Company of Myself - Free/Browser Based - An excellent experience, masterfully written with cleverly implemented gameplay mechanics.

Edmund - PC Download - A potentially harrowing game yet not as well executed as the others.

If you are still interested in the conflicts between narrative and gameplay and how they can be tackled I recommend that you listen to the following Jonathan Blow lecture. It is very long running at 90 minutes but raises some very interesting points for debate.

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