Culture Bytes: Story Telling in Video Games

It seems that for all of mankind's rich history of fiction and story telling, the structure of the stories we've told and the way we've told them have remained relatively similar. Of course, there are millions of different stories yet the structure of the narrative in books, films and theatre has remained untouched since their inception. In this article I'd like to explore whether video games follow the same structure as the mediums above.
To do this we have to understand a little about the structure of stories, which means I get to talk about literary theory! In fictional theory, one of the overriding themes is Todorov's Three-Act Structure. This is the theory that most fiction can be divided into three acts; Equilibrium, Disruption, Resolution. If we apply this to a Hollywood such as Die Hard we can see it in action. John McClane is estrange from his wife and the party is in full swing (Equilibrium), Hans Gruber and his band of terrorists take everyone hostage (Disruption), John McClane overpowers the bad guys, saving his relationship and the lives of the hostages (Resolution). Die Hard is fairly typical of the Hollywood film and follows Todorov's theory.

There are games that of course follow this structure. One such would be Gun, a Revisionist Western Action Game that takes its cues from the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s. With influences such as this, it perhaps isn't strange that Gun has such a conventional structure. In the game, Colton White is hunting with his father (Equilibrium), his father is then killed and Colton vows to avenge him (Disruption), Colton then hunts down his father's killer, resulting in a showdown (Resolution).Of course, Gun is not the only game that follows this structure. Red Dead Revolver is almost identical, another Western influenced by similar sources. There are countless others and it could well be the influence of movies that has led to this narrative decision. In the desire to tell a cinematic story, the developers may have made a conscious decision to use a structure typical of the medium that has inspired them. That said, it is possible to tell a story in three acts in an entirely novel way. Ico follows the same structure; Ico is locked in the castle (Equilibrium), Ico falls out of his cell and meets Yorda with whom he decides to escape (Disruption) and then the pair escape (New Equilibrium). However, this game is told with almost no dialogue at all and the cut-scenes are few and far between. Structurally it is a very typical story, yet the gameplay-element of the Platform-Puzzler adds the explorational element of the game, which is arguably the real story. They player is rewarded for interacting with the environment, unlocking new areas. This is as far from a linear cinematic story as possible, though it's structure is the same, but this unique narrative trait of expedition enlivens the conventional plot outline.

It's something of a strange thought, but even very simple arcade games tell a story. Pacman, for instance, still has a narrative structure; it tells the story of Pacman running through the maze, eating the dots and fruit and escaping from the ghosts. The only real difference is that there is no real resolution - save for the loss of all of the player's lives. It's a story told only through the player's actions, but it is still a story. Equally, even fighting games have a narrative. Take Mortal Kombat on the Mega Drive. It tells the story of the fighting contest with the resolution being becoming the champion. Arguably, each individual round of the contest even has its own three-act structure; the contestants are squaring off (Equilibrium), they fight (Disruption), there is a winner and the fight ends (Resolution). It's a very simple story, but a story nonetheless.

It's arguable that most games start in what would, traditionally, be the second act, Metal Gear Solid starts in the actual mission which is the Disruption, with the Equilibrium only told through exposition not as an actual act. In this respect, there are only two acts; Disruption and Resolution. It just so happens that the Disruption act has a lot of twists and turns to keep it interesting. Resident Evil 2  and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis are the same, starting in the zombie infestation, again with the Equilibrium told only through exposition. There is the Disruption; the infestation; and Resolution; escape. We can see this in a host of other games too: every First-Person Shooter, Golden Axe, Worms, the Tomb Raider series; I could go on. So, why is this such a convention in the medium? Again, we have to look at the gameplay element. The Disruption is the most interesting part of any story, the part with the most tension and action - action, of course, being imperative to creating any kind of gameplay experience. When we do have Equilibrium as a first act, as we do in Gun or Red Dead Revolver, it tends to be in the form of a tutorial level, because Equilibriums have no conflict in them - conflict being imperative to a story. The traits and limitations of the video game as a medium lend themselves best to a traditional second act.

Some games go even further to eschew the traditional three-act structure. The sheer length of RPGs, combines with the myriad side-quests within them, don't convert well to a three-act structure; 40+ of the same disruption is likely to become quite tedious. Final Fantasy XII  is the perfect example of such an RPG. With its highly character-driven story, the characters push the narrative in constantly changing directions with their differing motives. Add to this the fact that the characters' super-objectives change as the story moves on and we have a very complex plot-structure. This is a game of Disruption after Disruption, with many Minor-Resolutions along the way, removing it entirely from Todorov's theory. Other RPGs follow a similar theme, though in a slightly different way. Kingdom Hearts has the meta-narrative of Sora searching for his friends, but also has the episodic nature of the stories on the different worlds he visits. Each of these worlds have their own story, with Sora appearing in the Disruption and bringing about Equilibrium. These Minor-Resolutions keep the player gratified enough to keep playing until the New Equilibrium of the game's ending. Arguably, each of these minor-narratives are an act in themselves, making Kingdom Hearts very usual indeed - a story with acts within acts. Persona 4 is very similar, except, whereas Kingdom Hearts  has Equilibrium in the first act via a tutorial level, Persona 4 starts in the Disruption. However, after this, we have another episodic RPG, with the meta-narrative of apprehending the killer being interspersed with the sub-plots of saving each individual victim. Each of these episodes have their own three-act structure, giving Persona 4 the same acts-within-acts structure as Kingdom Hearts. That a whole genre, specific to this medium, has such a strange act structure is strong evidence for video games having an unusual way of telling the stories within them. Arguably, this is the closest a narrative experience has come to real life. Life doesn't fit into a neat three-acts. There are constant Disruptions with Minor-Resolutions along the way. Add to fact that with the changing nature of life as a concept and the changing world around us, there is no such thing in a real life as Equilibrium.

But plot structure is only one element of a story is told. Video games are in the idiosyncratic position of being exclusively first person in terms of perspective. The very fact that the player has the control the characters makes every game first-person, even if the camera isn't in first-person point-of-view. Of course, there are first-person books, but we are still separate from the character telling the story; we may identify with Holden Caulfield, but he is only recounting the story to us, whereas we are Cloud Strife, we live as him. Equally, some films are shot in first person in the form of found-footage (Troll Hunter, Rec.) but we are merely an observer, no matter how captivating the film is. Video games exclusively force us into the life of a character. When speaking about gameplay to others, we tend to say "I did this" as opposed to "Lara Croft did this". The medium tells the story in an immersive way, due to its interactivity, that other mediums cannot allow.
Following on from this, video games are the only medium in which the story is unlocked through the audience's actions. In other words, the player can set the pace of the story, spending more time than needed on one level if it suits them, meaning that the player can dictate the story to a certain extent. Moreover, certain games rely on the player to make choices which change the story that's being told. For instance The Walking Dead Game forces the player to chose what to say to other characters and even certain actions to make. This was especially evident in the second season game where many players were met with with entirely different endings. This simply can't be done in a film, play or novel.

In conclusion, the very interactivity of video games allows them, sometimes forces them, to eschew typical story telling conventions, giving them different act-structures and perspectives to tell their stories from. As video games grow and become ever more their own medium, moving away from those they once stemmed from and were inspired by, this looks set to continue. The future of story telling looks to be very innovative indeed.

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