Narratives Versus Interactivity In Games

(I tried to come up with a comedic, sarcastic title, but I failed – you’ll have to make do with my self-deprecating, meta-sarcastic subtitle, which is a phrase whose existence almost heralds the death of bluntness on this blog)

I’ve been ploughing through CD Projekt RED’s excellent The Witcher 2 recently, because prequels are often available on the cheap from Steam when their sequels are being released, and I was wondering why I’m in love with it after just nine hours of gameplay. It’s not just the characters, locations or depth of gameplay – InFamous, Skyrim and Darkest Dungeon all have those respective qualities, but I was less immediately enamoured with them – but something wider. Something only a pretentious English student would notice. I love the game because it strikes the rare balance between having a coherent, gripping narrative, and being largely interactive.

There’s been a big push in the games scene for interactive story-telling in recent years; giving players freedom to do what they like is as old as the first Elder Scrolls game, but games like 2007’s Mass Effect and 2010’s Heavy Rain extended this quirk into a gameplay mechanic in and of itself, with the latter title resembling more of a visualised gamebook than a video game. As a result, it’s common to mistake a non-linear narrative, or one with irreversible decisions, as being synonymous for a complex, engaging narrative. But in reality, the opposite is likely to be true.

Take the most recent Elder Scrolls game: Skyrim. It’s a fantastic game that deserves all the praise that’s been lobbed in its general direction like a character with a low Destruction level haphazardly flinging flames at their enemies in a desperate attempt to level up their magic skills; but I found that in its attempt to immerse the player fully in the game world, there was actually distance between the player and that world. The entire game is in first- or third-person, so grand speeches worthy of Metal Gear Solid 4-style cutscenes are reduced to mere conversations, and the game’s relentless lack of cutscenes or alternative perspectives turns the whole world into a sandbox in which only the player is of importance, and it is only their actions and viewpoints that matter. Obviously it’s a single-player game, so this is true on a practical level, but for me, Skyrim wasn’t an expansive, living world for me to interact with and live in, but a series of complex and diverse tasks ultimately centred around me. For instance, the player can become the leader of the Companions, the Thieves’ Guild, and the Collage of Winterhold, playing them in a position of power in all three of the game’s skill disciplines – combat, stealth and magic – all at the same time; I was the leader of the land’s greatest collection of mages, and I never got beyond level 20 for my Restoration skill.

The most extreme example of this ultra-sandbox world is perhaps Mount & Blade: Warband, a 2010 open-world medieval RPG in which the player can rise from a peasant to a noble through a series of wars and political alliances; it’s basically Game of Thrones. But again, there are no cutscenes, no mechanics for informing the player of the game’s political events beyond a small update log in the corner of the screen; as a result, the world is practically wholly interactive, yet is devoid of humanity and personality to the extent that it becomes a really big quest-completing exercise, rather than the world of far-reaching, human consequences that make Game of Thrones a fantastic TV show, instead of a dry piece of historical fiction.

The other extreme is the ultra-linear game, ones such as classic Zelda titles that are great fun to play through, but offer no character creation, no free choice, and make the player feel like a train driver: shoving coal into a furnace to drive the story onwards, but without any ability to change the direction of that narrative. Simultaneously, these games often have great cutscenes, and are the most human and moving ones available; I’m thinking Skull Kid’s loneliness and the general despair in Majora’s Mask as the prime example.

So there’s a paradox in most games: an overly linear narrative deindividualises the player, while an overly interactive one deindividualises the player’s character and kills the wonder and realism of the worlds these games create. And to answer this problem, enter Mass Effect.

This is why I harp on about the series so much: it is one of few titles that manages to have an interactive narrative, yet doesn’t render the game world as existing purely for the benefit of the player; it has a linear enough story to allow for progression from game to game, yet the player never feels like they’re retracing the pre-rendered steps of the developers who play-tested the game before it was released. Mechanics such as the ability to name and mould your character’s physical body, yet still have them be fully integrated into the game’s world through their own voice, and being named by NPCs, means each player creates their own protagonist, yet no protagonists are separated from the world around them, as they are in Skyrim where NPCs never name the player, or GTA Online where players’ characters never speak.

Similarly, the narrative (of Mass Effect 2 particularly) is a masterclass in combining direction with interactivity. The basic premise is that you must recruit a team of heroes from across the galaxy to stop a threat to all life in the universe, a structure that has enough linear progression to never bog the player down in endless inconsequential side-quests, but is open-ended enough to let the player pick what order they recruit people in, and how those heroes interact with each other. The relationship between Jack and Miranda is a great example of this, as the player can recruit and interact with these characters however they like (interactive narrative – tick) but their relationship changes as the player interacts with them, or completes other quests, or ignores both of them altogether (player not distanced from the game world – tick).

The Witcher strikes a similar balance; having a premade protagonists, Geralt of Rivia, other character can call me by name, title, or creative insult, involving the player in the reputation-driven, scummy world of a medieval backwater. Yet the player can still choose how to complete quests, so they’re not going through the motions as one does in Skyrim, but creating a unique character through their actions.

And it’s this balance that I love in games: The Last Of Us, InFamous and Assassins’ Creed: Brotherhood are all brutally beautiful narratives, but have been created largely by someone else; Skyrim and Mount & Blade are expansive and complex, but lack the artistry and engagement of titles with more linear narratives. I stumbled onto a beautiful addiction when I impulse-bought Mass Effect 2 over Metal Gear Solid 4 back in January 2011, and it’s an addiction I now realise I’ve not properly fed until I downloaded The Witcher 2 this week.

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