The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
We love the story of the underdog, the person for whom things don’t always go right, those that face a struggle and still manage to overcome. Unless of course we’re playing video games.
“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” — Helen Keller
Video game protagonists are so often not just power fantasies but the best person to handle a given situation, so their struggles are often physical ones. They’re related to the obstacles placed in front of them.
Puzzles, platforming, enemies — each is an obstacle to be overcome
Some through physical exertion, some mental, others it’s just a matter of time. And occasionally there’s a conversation. But whether it’s a dating sim or a first person shooter the player character is the one and only person capable of solving the problem.
These characters are this way for two reasons — 1) the aforementioned power fantasy and 2) they readily create a player-sized hole. It’s the second that enables anyone to pick up a game and slot themselves into it.
But it doesn’t make for very interesting or compelling stories. A big reason, and one often discussed in the gaming press, is the inability of such blank slate characters to be committed to any one cause or story for fear of turning off the audience. We’re not going to discuss that in much detail on this episode because I think plenty has been said on the issue.
What’s more interesting and relevant for this show and the writing of video game stories is how little the narrative actually plays in to the difficulties faced by the protagonists. Those obstacles differ depending on the genre of game but they often present little in the way of the character’s development. The character and the player may be faced with arduous and dangerous tasks but more often than not the sheer tenacity of continuing to hammer at their head against until it falls before them. Or as some people who want to go the pacifist route do, run past.
But it’s the player who must truly contend with any obstacle. The character simply exists and is not affected one way or another by a particular problem. Overcoming it doesn’t change them, it may improve their situation in regards to the game at large but the next task placed before them is no different than the last. It may be harder, it may be different, but in terms of the story nothing changes.
That because failure is so rarely an option in video games.
Games like to reset upon failure. Pick a series — Halo, Destiny, Diablo, Far Cry, Dark Souls, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Baldur’s Gate, Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted, Tomb Raider, etc. all reset upon failure. It can be a mission failed or death and yet the game goes back to a previous state.
Some of that is by design, especially in games like Dark Souls or rogue-likes. Those are games with a very particular type of story that’s based on the player and their experience. They may have a narrative within the game and the mechanics play into that story to some degree, but even then it’s limited.
There are some games that accept failure as part of the narrative, not resetting the game but pushing you forward
Moon Hunters for example. But these games are few and far between.
Stories rarely contend with the death of the protagonist. They may get injured, maimed, lost, disenfranchised, or captured. But death is rarely an obstacle they have to overcome. So the world doesn’t reset. Unless we’re talking comic books, but that’s a special attribute of that medium. But that’s really the only other medium where the hero can die and return.
And no Gandalf doesn’t count, because he’s nothing more than deus ex machina in human form. He’s quiet literally placed on Middle Earth by the Gods.
The degree to which a game resets varies greatly. The Dark Souls series repopulates its world, bosses return to full health and the player must traverse the same path once more. Diablo and other action RPGs simply require the player to traverse the space again. Sometimes without their gear, other times if it were a boss fight then the boss is restored to full health. Does any of this mean anything in terms of the story? No. Unless it’s Dark Souls, but that’s an exception… As that game always seems to be.
The Far Cry series tows a middle line with its revive mechanic. Yet even that at some point can fail and the game resets, especially in the modern incarnations. Rarely do you as a player get revived and feel the need to run away because things have gotten out of hand.
The undeniable best of the series, Far Cry 2 could overwhelm you with its fire propagation, weapon jamming, limited ammo and medical supplies, the death of your AI companion, and an unrelenting slog of enemy NPCs who just happen to keep rolling up on you. Gods that was fun… Why did I go for Far Cry 5 and not just buy 2 again now that it’s backwards compatible on the Xbox?
The failure to take an outpost or complete a mission didn’t add to or change the story in the game in anyway. It was part of the narrative you as the player would tell when talking about the game, which is something procedurally generated and systems-driven games are good at. But the outposts, while they would reset, would never increase their level of security. There wouldn’t be new, harder enemies.
Dying and resetting or even incremental progress impeded by being knocked down/disabled is unfettered success in most games. For a game that attempts to tie story-elements and difficulty increases to failure, look at Shadow of Mordor or Shadow of War. Falling to an orc increases their power and can change the world as they move up the ranks of the orc hierarchy. That affects the player’s story, but not so much the game’s story missions are still pass/fail.
This resetting creates a difficulty curve that’s similar to puzzle games in that there are spikes that quickly drop even as the overall difficulty increases. Narratively, these spikes make for a more interesting story but by and large we don’t see that in games. Outside the aforementioned puzzle genre, but more on those in a future episode.
The straight forward success of completing missions, whether they’re side quests, incidental encounters or story segments is boring. It offers the character and the player no chance to learn or change. But it does reinforce the power fantasy — look at how all fall before me!
It creates a straight line from the beginning of the game to the climax, where the player character plows through all obstacles before them. To better illustrate this, it’s time to turn to Brandon Sanderson, the author of numerous books such as the Mistborn series and the Stormlight Archive. He’s also one of the hosts of the excellent podcast, Writing Excuses. You’ll find links to all of that in the show notes.
That clip is courtesy of Write About Dragons which can be found atwriteaboutdragons.com and on YouTube at Write About Dragons. A link to the full episode that clip is fun can be found in the show notes. The sheer variability of the try/fail cycle, as Brandon Sanderson points out, makes for a more interesting story. It also allows for more dynamic storytelling, not just books but TV shows. Matt Stone and Trey Parker use the Yes But/No And technique Brandon Sanderson mentioned to write South Park.
Games do try to do this. Far Cry 5 and its constantly interrupting Seed family of antagonists attempt this very thing. The player character’s constant capture by the Seeds is meant to be a set back to your continual progress in rooting the Seed’s particular brand of evil out of Montana. “Meant to be” is the key phrase, because even in these forced instances these set backs aren’t driven by the player character but moments of deus ex machina. It’s factors outside of the character’s control that takes over the story and influences the situation.
Even these events don’t truly create a try/fail cycle. They merely sidetrack the player momentarily and occasionally disempower them by stripping them of weapons. These missions are pass/fail as well, resetting to a save point should you die. Those interruptions are an attempt to implement a try/fail cycle on the story in the unleashed and undirected mayhem that is an open world game.
I keep harping on about the try/fail cycle for two reasons not related to the gameplay mechanics. And not just because it’s boring without it. It’s vital for change and characters. Change is vital to storytelling. Change is vital to missions and quests. Change is vital to feelings of success.
Every story we tell, every joke we relate, every quests we take is about one thing — causing change
If nothing changes then we don’t have a story. That change can be internal or external. But the best stories, the most memorable tales, the sagas that stick with us are those that have both — the world changes and the characters change.
Characters change in the most interesting ways, and create the most dynamic stories when they aren’t the ideal person for a given situation. But that idea isn’t conducive to the power fantasy games like to provide.
Because I didn’t talk about Firewatch and Gone Home & Tacoma in the previous episode, I have to now. Henry is not ideal, he’s not the smartest, he’s not the most physically fit, he’s not in a healthy position mentally or in his life, nor does he have any special skills that make him standout. But would there be a story if Henry wasn’t a misfit? Henry feeds into our love of the underdog because he doesn’t have the skills to handle every situation perfectly. It’s not like he’s faced with major obstacles either, but he’s not really a person who would handle the isolation of his position in the Wyoming wilderness in a healthy manner. And that’s why we have Delilah and how they play off and change one another.
Compare that to Gone Home and Tacoma, in each of those instances the player is a character that is the ideal person for the game because the story isn’t about them. Sure they have motives and ties to the world, but they are by and large player-sized holes. Kaitlin Greenbriar in Gone Home and Amy Ferrier in Tacoma don’t change, nor are they underdogs because they don’t have any obstacles to overcome. So the entire premise of a try/fail cycle is irrelevant.
Contrast that with Geralt in the Witcher 3 and you’ve got a character who walks a middle line between being the ideal character and not. His role and skills as a witcher, a hunter of monsters for hire, make him the ideal person for moving through the violence-prone world of the game. But because so much of the game is about conversing with characters and interacting in “civilized” environments, about playing politics and getting NPCs to react he isn’t the perfect person for the job.
The Witcher 3 may walk the line of a the perfect/imperfect person for the story, but it still lacks the try/fail cycle in terms of its combat because should you die then the world will be reset and the game will reload you to an earlier point. The conversations are another matter, the sheer ability to avoid combat all together or inadvertently fall into it provides that very dynamic. And being dynamic is what it’s about. A flat line whether it’s ascending or descending is still just a flat line and is undoubtedly predictable. Predictable is boring. Boring means people aren’t engaged in nor will they remember the story. Flat lines offer no change, no difference, nothing new.
“At its most basic, a scene starts one place and ends another. It starts with a positive (man meets woman of his dreams) and ends with a negative (woman rejects man’s advances). Or it starts with a negative (rejected man calls his best friend for consolation) and ends with a positive (friend convinces rejected man to get a dog and try again). It can also begin negative and end double negative (someone falls…and then gets hit by a car) or positive and end double positive (man wins a hand of blackjack, puts it all on a number at roulette table and wins big)… That’s about it.” — Shawn Coyne, The Story Grid
Games have scenes, generally they’re called missions, sometimes chapters, other times they more closely resemble scenes in novels, movies or plays. The relevance of this idea depends on the type of game and its mechanics, so make of it what you will. But the point is games rarely turn in the manner Shawn Coyne describes. Each mission tasks the player with moving closer to their end goal with nary a setback or outright failure. It’s the equivalent of each scene beginning positive and ending positive. That lack of variation is boring and leads to a flat line.
The emotional core of a game, let alone a story, needs to vary. It needs to have a different pattern than others, even if it is following the three act structure or resembles the hero’s journey. You don’t want it to plateau, because as so many have said before if a game is always at 11 then before you even reach half way it feels like a 3. Richard Lemarchand during his appearance on Tone Controlsaid that.
Varying the outcomes, varying the emotions is dynamic. And dynamic is interesting
How you add that dynamism to a video game narrative depends a lot on the game and its mechanics. If they aren’t going to allow for try/fail cycles without resetting the world then you need to write sections where the character fails to accomplish their task. Destiny 2 starts out this way. Your first mission as a player to to repel the attack by the Red Legion, only you fail at it. In failure your powers are stripped from you and your world is broken. It’s great, it’s compelling, it gives you hope that Destiny 2 might actually be on its way to telling a memorable story.
Only it doesn’t. Destiny 2 never has you fail at any other point. You regain your powers with a little effort. You get the band back together and make new friends. You accomplish new feats all with the goal of taking down the big bad. At no point in that journey are you diverted, nor do you experience any obstacles beyond the ones you keep shooting out of your way. So if Destiny 2’s story were drawn as a line it’d look like this — a straight drive towards the final boss with a minor dip in the beginning when we first encounter the Big Bad Gaul. And ultimately that’s boring.
If you’re going to write games and design narrative, even ones that are about the power fantasy, don’t just have success after success. It’s overcoming failures, in the plural, that gives that feeling of accomplishment and power. It’s what makes tales of underdogs so intoxicating. And it’s why soap operas and comic books keep throwing more curveballs to their characters.
But more on soap operas, comic books and what we can learn from them in a future episode. Just like we’ll explore more of the Yes But/No And idea, as well as player-sized holes. There’s still so much to come in this series. I hope you’re looking forward to it.
Thanks for taking part in this episode of The Writing Game, I’m Gregory Pellechi. Everything I do can be found at OneGameDad.com and I can be reached there or on Twitter @OneGameDad if you want to talk writing, games, this show or even working together. The Writing Game is hosted by Third Culture Kids which can be found at ThirdCultureKids.net, where the full transcript of this episode is available. Please be sure to like & subscribe or rate and review this show on whatever platform you find it. I’ll see you on the next episode.