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About Narration In Games

by Paul Mozet on 08/23/21 11:02:00 am   Featured Blogs

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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.

 

   Recently, I played Bandai Namco’s Scarlet Nexus. As I enjoyed the game, I took a look at what people and media were saying about it. Through my readings, I found myself being a bit confused, noticing that some reviews were listing narration as one of the weak point of the game. It became quickly quite clear to me that those reviews weren’t criticizing the narration strictly speaking, but instead the direction of some narrative sequences of the game. Said like this you could think that I’m just being pernickety, but this slight difference is in truth essential. Actually, Scarlet Nexus’ narration is far from being one of the game’s weak point, it’s instead one of the most interesting part. If you’re interested to know why, and why analysing a game through its narration can change the way you view it, then we’ll have to talk a little about narratology.

So, what is narratology?

   That is certainly a good question to ask. Narratology is the field of study that is focusing on the narrative structures. Said like this, it’s probably not still quite clear. Then, let’s quote an article about narratology made by Lucie Guillemette and Cynthia Lévesque (linked bellow), based on Gérard Genette’s work: “to understand narratology’s contribution to semiotics, it is important to grasp the distinction between its three fundamental entities: story, narrative and narration”. Crystal clear no? No? Ok let’s analyse what this means then. Semiotics are basically the field of study about how you can communicate between individuals (it’s actually way more deep than that, but it’s the main idea). What interest us the most here are those three mentioned entities: story, narrative, and narration. So, what are those three? Stories are successions of events. It’s what did happen (whether it did in a fictional universe or not), no more, no less. The narration is the action of telling those events. And narratives are the final products, what emerges from those stories through the prism of a narration. To make an example, let’s look at what an autobiography is: the life of someone (the story, a real one in this case), wrote by this someone (the narration), into a final form: a book that relate this life (the narrative).

   Now, we got something to work with. Genette said in Nouveau discours du récit that “narrative doesn’t represent a real or fictive story, it recounts it”. This is a primordial statement. It means that we are never directly confronted to a story, but only to narratives. And as a narrative has to pass through a narration to exist, it implies that for every narrative, there is an entity to tell that narrative. And here we find our well known narrator. It’s important to note that the narrator isn’t always a someone, it can be a something (the majority of the novels that we read nowadays have an external narrator, undefined, which we don’t know anything about). Now, there is another not so well known entity that we have to talk about. When a story is told, it’s always told to someone, or to something. And this something is called the narratee (you probably never heard this word before but it does exist I swear). Then, a story is tolled by a narrator, turning it into a narrative, to a narratee. To put it simply then, narration is how a story is told, by an entity, to another entity.

   Narratology is of course way more deep than those few elements, and I invite you to take a look to the article quoted before. It’s a good way to introduce yourself to many concepts and it can really change the way you’re seeing narratives. But enough talking about generalities, let’s get back to what interest us here, games.

How does it apply to games?

   It wont be a surprise, but the majority of works on narratology are mostly been centered around literature, and those which aren’t concerns mostly narratology applied to cinema. For now, video-games are still a bit out of the field of study, even if it’s totally acknowledge by now that games are a narrative support. This acknowledgement is not enough tho, because video-games opens a gigantic ocean of possibility for narration, which are endemic to the interactive storytelling ecosystem.

   Each and every game are gigantic narrative factories. Let’s try to apply the concepts we saw before to games. For starters, let’s see how the difference between stories and narratives works with the medium. If you take Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series, the games follow the story of Nathan Drake, and the narrative is the player’s playthrough, discovering the game’s event while progressing. But as each playthrough are unique in some way, then each playthrough is a single narrative, as each will have (slightly) different events in it (how a fight goes by, how many collectibles are found...). This way of putting things raises questions about the relation between the narrator and the narratee in an interactive narrative medium. The narratee is definitely the player, as the story is always directed to him, even if sometimes it can additionally be addressed to intradiegetic characters. But what about the narrator? In a game, the narrator can’t fulfil his role in an independent way. As it is interactive, the narrator is always influenced by the narratee’s actions. We can see the player has some kind of parasite sticking to the narrator, always twitching the narrative, creating a strange symbiotic relationship between the two entities, where none can live without the other. There is moment where the narrator take bake the full control (in a cinematic for example), and other where the narratee take the upper hand (during a fight). This is a very large subject, impossible to cover correctly here, but there is a lot of things to say about this curious relationship, as it is completely novel to narratology.

About focalization

   The narrator is a very complex entity (which do a more than just reporting the story), which is defined by various elements, but we will only focus on one here, the narrator’s perspective. Perspective is about how much the narrator knows about the events of the story. There are three kinds of focalizations:

  • the zero focalization, which correspond to the omniscient narrator, the one that knows everything about the story, what there is in the head of each character, etc.
  • the internal focalization, when the narrator is focusing on a specific character, and knows as much as him. 
  • the external focalization, when the narrator knows less than the character it focus on does.

   In games, playing around the narrator’s perspective is an incredible source of creativity. There is a lot of incredible narratives idea in games. And some can work at there best only if the narrator’s focalization is judiciously chosen. Let’s take a look at some interesting examples, and to start the best example I can think of is 2K’s BioShock. There will be heavy spoiler here, so be careful. In BioShock, the narrator’s focalization is internal to the character we play as, Jack. We know just as much as the character does. We dive into the city beneath the ocean, Rapture, use weapons as if we always have known how to use it, and kill again and again, following the orders of a guy named Atlas. We don’t question any of this elements, because it is a game, and it feels normal as a player to follow an objective and to use any tools that is given to us to fulfil this objective. Then happens one of the most incredible twist in any narrative experience, we learn that we have been fooled since the beginning and that those capacities, those objectives we followed, we did those because Jack has been made to do it, and force to obey any orders containing the trigger words “would you kindly?”, words that Atlas always used since the beginning of the game. The shock that we feel when the plot twist happens, can only happen thanks to narrator’s judicious focalization. If, at only one moment, the focalization would have left Jack’s one, it would have been less powerful. Bioshock’s huge twist works thanks to the fact that we only see the events through Jack’s eyes, not only because it plays around our habits as players.

   Another interesting example of what we can do with a judicious focalization. Let’s talk about Bioware’s Dragon Age II. In Dragon Age II, the narrator is intradiegetic (the narrator belongs to the game’s universe, it’s not an outside entity), in the person of Varric, one of the player’s companion, who is interrogated by another character, Cassandra about the players’ character, named Hawke, actions. What it means, is that everything that happens in the game pass through Varric’s telling. And what is characteristic of this specific character? He is a storyteller who love romanticized, tragic, and epic stories. There is two instances in the game where he will openly tell lies to Cassandra, and in both it implies the player doing a lot of glorious, violent, epic, enemies slaughter. For now, you’ll think that it’s pretty obvious, and you will be right. Now, let’s point out one thing which is slightly different in Dragon Age II from the two other games in the franchise. There is a lot of fight in this game that implies a lot of foes, way more than in the two others game, foes that you will sometimes annihilate in an instant, taking place in a city where you probably have killed more than a thousand persons at the end of the game. Doesn’t it feel a bit off, narratively speeking? But thinking this would be forgetting that in DAII, all the events we see are told through Varric’s perspective, not through an omniscient and objective narrator. So we can easily say that, in the Dragon Age universe, Hawke did not really slaughter thousands of people, it’s just that Varric enjoy to add a generous quantity of epicness in his stories, and when we see things like this, it makes way more sense. If you fight a gigantic dragon, what is the more entertaining? Fighting a gigantic dragon alone, or fighting a gigantic dragon with his cohort of little dragonlings? Which version do you think that a character like Varic will chose to tell Cassandra, and thus to us as a player since his telling is what we play?

   Note that a focalization doesn’t have to be unique in a game, it can change throughout it. In Remedy’s Quantum Break, you will in each chapter’s conclusion leave the protagonist’s perspective to swap for the antagonist’s one. In Spore, the narrator’s focalization is in a first time on a single individual, to switch mid game to a more global one, where it follows the species’ society. There is a lot of things that we can do in game design around narrator’s perspective on the game’s event. But there is still a lot that we could talk about game’s narration, probably enough to make multiple thesis. But there is one last thing I need to bring up, as it was the original motivation to make this article.

About Scarlet Nexus’ narration

   As I started this post stating that Scarlet Nexus’ narration was one of the game’s stronger part, I think that I have to end it explaining why. One of the core idea of Scarlet Nexus is that you can play ether as Kasane, a young withdrawn woman, or Yuito, the male and joyful equivalent, as they enter a special task force against monsters, named “Others”. This kind of choice is frequent in games (Assassin’s Creed Odyssey or Resident Evil 2 to give some examples), but in the vast majority this is a choice that will only slightly change the game’s events (some dialogues, some introduction’s elements, etc...). This is not the case in Scarlet Nexus. The two stories are not only complementary, they are interdependent. You need to play both to have a global picture of the game’s events and universe. In each there will be a lot of shady events that will become clear only if you play the other character’s narrative. To apprehend the story well, to understand your companions better, to get all the themes that the game is approaching, you’ll have to pass through Kasane’s and Yuito’s perception. Some parts of the plot are completely absent on each of the campaigns, and the game plays around it in a very interesting way when the characters reunite. Even some details only make sense if you played the other side of the story. When a character that leave in a seemingly random place, his hidden agenda become quite clear only if you played the game through the other perspective.

   Don’t take me wrong though, Scarlet Nexus’s narration is not perfect, and this approach can impact in a negative way other parts of the game (event if there is slight differences, some levels are globally played two times if you do both character’s campaign, some players will find it annoying). Nonetheless, reducing the game’s narration to some narrative sequences’ direction is just not fair (even if they are indeed part of it) as the game has one of the most innovative and ambitious narration I’ve seen in a recent game. Choosing Yuito or Kasane isn’t only about which perks you will use, it’s about which side of a story you chose to follow. Throughout the games, you will cross the path of the other characters, without knowing what their objectives are (for a time at least), without knowing what their motivations are, without knowing which side of a conflict they chose. So please, don’t reduce Scarlet Nexus’ narration to only some narrative moments. Because narration is permanent (outside of menus and loading screen for the vast majority), each frame of a game reflect an event of the game’s stories. It doesn’t matter that this is a dialogue sequence, an epic fight or an exploration time. Narration is always present, as long as there is an intradiegetic events depicted.

Let’s conclude

   If you’ve been through all my ramblings, well, thank you! I hope that it’s been interesting enough to make you want know a bit more about what a narratological viewpoint on games can bring up. There is a lot of other great example of what can be done with narration in games (to name some, Hollow Knight, Dark Souls, The Stanley Parable, 13 Sentinels Aegis Rim…), there is countless great things that can be done. I can only wonder what a narratological approach of Civilization, Fifa, or Counter Strike can bring up, as even games without scenarios still depict a succession of event. And what is a depiction of events, if not a narrative?

References:

Lucie Guillemette and Cynthia Lévesque's article: http://www.signosemio.com/genette/narratology.asp 


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