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Reliable story telling
by James Youngman on 04/14/11 07:23:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Originally posted on the Chromed blog here.

Recently, aspiring game designer Eric Schwarz posted an article in which he argues that an unreliable narrator is inappropriate for interactive fiction. As March 32nd‘s protagonist is very much an unreliable narrator, and its story dependent on the choices of the player, I feel the need to defend the use of this literary device in video games. This post does not contain spoilers for March32nd
Creative Commons License

A narrator-protagonist is an avatar through which the player experiences the world of the game. Like the player, the avatar lacks perfect knowledge of the game world. Given this situation, skilled narrative designers can match the options for discovery available to the player to those available to the protagonist, and in so doing allow the player to express his or natural curiosity in a way that doesn’t cause the character to take incongruous actions.

A protagonist whose knowledge is imperfect because their perception (or presentation) isn’t accurate allows designers to ratchet up the tension; the player is learning, but must be mindful that there are limitations to how accurately the protagonist provides them with information. These limitations don’t need to be a setup. They can be used to encourage the player to probe deeper with their own questions about the game world.

While protagonists with missing memories or dishonest intentions may frequently result in shallow “gotcha” reveals, an unreliable narrator doesn’t have to be setting the player up for a sort of reverse dramatic irony. Indeed, they can be used for good old fashioned dramatic irony. With an unreliable narrator, the player can make a choice knowing that the outcome will be different than what the character expects. This forces the player to give more consideration to their choices than if they were acting through a direct link into the world of the game.

Do these knowledge deficits create problems for interactive narratives? No. Players can still make choices, and the game will follow through on them. Schwarz suggests that an unreliable narrator takes away control of the narrative from the player in an attempt to forcibly retcon the player’s actions into alignment with the predetermined narrative. Some games do this, and as is noted, in a way that takes the player out of the game. I assert that the problem is in attempting to shoehorn the actions of the player back into the predefined narrative. When the actions of the player and the protagonist deviate this should be presented clearly at the time, in a way that makes sense within the context of the game. Done correctly, this sort of break can be very powerful.

Take for example, the scene in Final Fantasy VII when the player, acting through the protagonist Cloud, must swing his sword at an unarmed innocent. The player recoils at each press of the button, but must advance the blade, against both Cloud’s desires and their own. When the ultimate press is made, the deathblow does not come. Had the player killed the innocent, only to have Cloud suddenly remember that he did not take that action, it would have been jarring and cheap, but because the disconnect was built into the flow of the game, the scene was far more engaging that had it been a cut scene, or an impermanent act hidden by the unreliability of the narrator.

It is my intention, as well as that of the rest of the March 32nd team, to demonstrate all of this in practice. I look forward to feedback from the community once the episodes start coming out.


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Comments


Eric Schwarz
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I'm flattered that I've received so many responses to my article. If nothing else, thank you for taking the time to respond in such detail and provide your words of wisdom.



It's worth pointing out that when I wrote my original article, my intent was to discuss a particular type of unreliable narrator, namely, a narrator who takes on the role of "storyteller", either in the form of the detached, omniscient figure separate from the story, or as a character within the story retelling what has happened. Although there have been many games which have featured protagonists with unreliable memories, and indeed, have even made it the crux of the story (see Planescape, and I hear Silent Hill did just this as well, though I haven't played them), I can't recall many, if any games that have featured characters separate from the protagonist which act as unreliable narrators, and do so in a way that doesn't feel cheap or dissonant with the player's interactivity. You might look at someone like SHODAN in System Shock 2 as an example, but those strike me less as narrators and more as simple traitors. I don't look at denying the player or player character knowledge the same way I do as the presence of an unreliable narrator.



Why don't we have that fundamental dissonance in certain games, but it can be quite apparent in others? I think it largely comes down to what the goals of the game are, and what the expectations of the player are. In Call of Duty, I am under no delusion that my actions will ever influence the outcome of the story (short of "Pvt. Eric died here"), and those expectations are met with each game in the franchise. When something happens in such a game, it's not happening "to me", but "to the protagonist." I am willing to suspend my investment within the game world, that attachment I have to the player character, for the sake of enjoying a more defined story. Conversely, in a game which plays with ideas of choice and even presents them as fundamental game mechanics, it is ultimately jarring when the game denies the consequences of my actions.



It is my belief that games which invite choice are inherently more engrossing, as far as drawing the player in as an actor; as such, when the unreliable narrator takes over and chooses to change the circumstances of *my* reality, I am drawn out of the experience. The reason players might feel upset when an unreliable narrator violates that self-constructed reality is identical to the reason why we feel cheated when a game makes seemingly arbitrary decisions and outcomes, or the story goes in completely illogical and unexpected directions. See BioShock and its binary good/evil endings in a world built mostly on shades of grey as an easy example that almost all players objected to.


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