Video games, Narratives and Mechanics

Whilst on the my holidays I’ve been able to (briefly mind) catch up on my old hobby/waste of time (delete as desired) that is video games. I’ve tried a good few when I’ve had the chance, I continued on some of my Fighting games and First Person Shooters that I had started a while back, My family recently gained a Nintendo Wii so I have also been trying my hand at Peripheral based games such as Wii Sports and Wii Fit and as well as that I have been paying particular attention to the modding community and social medium games which I will discuss later on.

I have been thinking about what makes videogames unique and how they work as a medium and what differences they have from other storytelling mediums such as Film and books.

As an introduction to the idea of narration in video games, I’d like you to consider the question; If football has a narrative. who creates that narrative?

An Arsenal/Spurs Derby and it’s many different stories surrounding that game for example have little to do with the group of people that created the Sheffield Rules of the game. I think this is a good way to consider certian videogames, while the rules of a real sport or game such as football are a lot easier to break than the strict coding that goes into videogame ‘worlds’ they both allow for stories to be created within that world, I’m sure a number of people reading this will be able to recall a time they have talked about a great game of fifa, halo, etc… they had one time, this is just one way that a narrative has been created by the player that was not created by the orginal creators. Games such as The Sims and Fable intentionally have blank slates as characters so the player can fill in their own gaps in creating the characters,  however this can limit creativity aswell in cases such as fable where the game also tries to tell it’s own plot within the game.

Who creates the narrative behind a football videogame such as fifa?

One thing I would like to see improve in videogame storytelling is more games telling stories using just their mechanics. Some of the old classic arcade games had stronger narratives than what initially meets the eye. For example consider Missile Command, The plot is simple you play a crosshair that must defend 6 cities and 3 bases from an endless army of Missiles. However an important point to note is that this games was developed during the cold war and the threat of Nuclear war, putting yourself behind the character defending the cities in the game presents some intresting moral choices. How can I defend all of these cities? once it becomes impossible to save every city, which do I save? While the game was designed the six cities were meant to represent Programmer Dave Theurer’s 6 nearest cities CaliforniaEurekaSan FranciscoSan Luis ObispoSanta BarbaraLos Angeles, and San Diego. He also stated that while programming the game he would wake up in the middle of the night having had nightmares about these cities being destroyed in a nuclear blast. Also the very fact that you can not ‘beat’ missile command is a deliberate methaphor to nuclear war, in that there are no winners in it.

Missile Command

More modern games such as Metal gear solid have aimed to take an approach in narratrive and story similar to film, this can be annoying for some gamers where they will have sometimes up to two hours in a game where they simply watching a cutscene rather than playing, however in some scenes MGS can show again how the combination of this style of narrative and the use of game mechanics can create unique experiences. Anybody that has struggled through the Psycho mantis level of the first game, or found out every way to kill ‘The End’ in MGS3 knows exactly what I am talking about here.

Pyscho mantis, The character could read the ‘left’ side of a characters ‘mind’ creating an interesting interactive challenge for the gamer.

Games character and world designs also add alot to the story without having to add anything, so much so that when Game developers decide to rework a portion of their characteristics it can destroy the entire illusion for long-term players as seen in the case of Metroid Other M which divided the metroid fan base, where a mute female character was given more obvious personality and a fully structured narratives. a quick search on google will show divided opinions on what they did right and wrong with the character. but many felt that the changes contradicted with the little they knew from the games prior.

In terms of improvements and how I can use VG influences in my own work, I believe that Videogames still have a long way to go and for everyone of the examples where I feel games have used their mechanics and USP well, there are hundreds of poor examples. I also believe that Games and gamerification is useful in film especially when it comes to marketing making the audience feel more involved in the process, for example Mind Crime, which was used as a game/preview for the movie Inception.

Ad for Mind Crime/Inception

But as a closing thought here is a quote from Games Desginer James Portnow. “…We as developers ship products that are by neccesity incomplete. A painting on the wall is a finished work, a movie on a reel is whole and complete, a novel on the shelf is what it will always be, but a game without a player is nothing. In any given medium people may interpret a given work differently but they won’t fundamently experience it differently.” If this is true does this make a gamer just as much a part of the artistic process as the original developers? or are they simply being guided all along and just filling in the gaps? either way. I feel video games are an interesting medium to look at that is finding new and interesting ways to tell new and exciting interactive stories.


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