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The Deaths Of Game Narrative

August 5, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

It's been quite a year for epic, narrative-driven games -- titles vast in scope, grand in ambition, and gorgeous in execution -- and I have fought my way through a few of the best.

In recent months I have transformed into an exiled Florentine nobleman thirsty for vengeance in Renaissance Italy; I masqueraded as a continent-hopping, chiseled chunk of vainglorious derring-do in search of lost treasure; and I traveled the western wilds of the United States as a battle-scarred loner fighting to restore his dignity and return to his family.

To the ear of an outsider, this might sound like a pretty diverse scrapbook of experiences, and I'd say this was half right. But there's one element that draws all these titles together under a cozy umbrella. In each game, the protagonist -- my avatar -- is a mass murderer.

Perhaps this is an unfair choice of words. After all, the moral compass of these men points true. But no man in the history of our real world has more bodies on him than Ezio Auditore, Nathan Drake, or John Marsten*. The cold fact is, these guys are efficient and prolific killers.

They have murdered dozens, if not hundreds, more people than they have befriended. And why? Because it's so damn fun, son. Killing is an activity games actually seem to encourage, since it is perfectly suited to the computational aspect of a game's mechanics. Death is a Boolean operation: something is either alive or not-alive, which makes determining victory conditions easy. Are you dead? Then you have lost. Is your opponent dead? Then you are winning; keep it up.

Take a quick survey of most game mechanics based on real-life activities and you'll find this same criterion in effect in almost all cases: the conditions for success are always clear and decisive. Jumping, punching, racing, shooting, and pulling switches are all activities that can be scored or measured with a high degree of certainty.

Violence has the added benefit of being a clear indicator of conflict, so it shouldn't surprise us that killing has been so widely adopted as a primary game mechanic. This has been the trend for centuries, really. Chess and Go got the ball rolling when their rules insisted we "capture" our opponents. It was only a matter of time before we started killing them outright and leaving their bodies to, well, fade.

This remains a touchy issue, but I don't have too many ethical reservations with our present reliance on violence as a mechanic -- judging by its ubiquity and utility, it seems to have chosen us, rather than the other way around.

Red Dead Redemption

So What's the Problem?

What I do worry about, however, is the creeping damage this exaggerated quantity of killing has inflicted on the strength, quality, and seriousness of so many game narratives. Murder is making bad storytellers out of us all. Due in large part to their fast drift towards narrative realism, far too many modern video games are now suffering from split personalities, divided between the broad and sensitive stories we watch and the blunt, violent stories we create through play.

In all three of the games alluded to above, the storylines are well-written, often subtle, and chock-full of emotional intensity. But when it comes time for the player to engage the game, these narrative highs and lows are obliterated in favor of a much smaller and more stylized range of possible expressions: run, ride, jump, dodge. Kill or be killed.

While it is true that Assassin's Creed II and Red Dead Redemption take great care to highlight their protagonists' distaste for killing, the sheer scope of the in-game violence reduces these caveats to mere lip service in much the same fashion that the anti-spectacle message at the heart of the film Gladiator is undermined by the film's reliance on violent spectacle to carry the drama.

If we cannot overcome this persistent contradiction, game narratives will remain difficult to take seriously, for even as these stories get more serious, the gameplay remains ludicrously indulgent.

In life and in all the best literature and cinema, death is usually an unfortunate and tragic event, and in most cases represents a great loss or failure. But in games -- unless it befalls a character in a cutscene -- death is as common and impactful as a sneeze, and is usually a cause for celebration. It's a triumph of one will over another. What are players to think when a game tries to have it both ways -- a weighty, tragic story and a bloody good time?

For starters, we can mitigate this problem by creating a more stable synthesis between story and gameplay, infusing the game's mechanics with broader narrative utility. Sadly, this is easier said than done. Surveying the present scope of game mechanics already on offer, there seems to be a self-imposed limit to what sort of human activity developers are willing to transform into actual gameplay.

If a designer wanted to make a game called Terminal Relations, say, in which the only goal was to comfort your pious, cancer-stricken grandfather in his final days, she'd probably have a difficult time designing the actual challenges. Matters of emotion, morality, empathy, religion, cultural identity, and the like, are difficult to translate into iterative mechanics because they are primarily psychological or interior phenomena with no clear victory conditions.

Though it sounds unrealistic, Airtight Games' Kim Swift undertook a similar challenge at this year's Experimental Games Workshop with Karma. Note the word "experimental", of course.

When a game wants to inject some pathos or philosophy into the proceedings, it's usually handled in a cutscene. Over the decades, this restriction has had the unfortunate consequence of splitting the interests and priorities of game designers and game writers into separate camps -- often working in tandem, but rarely on the same problems.

Some symptoms of this split have been noticed over the years, although their cause has not always been correctly diagnosed -- as this Kotaku article claims:

Most video games are "written" after they're completed. Writers are usually brought on board to write dialogue and exposition. Only people who don't understand what writers do would think this is an acceptable use of writing talent.

This is a rather sweeping indictment, but it's only partially correct. Although this does happen, few of our most celebrated games are made so carelessly. Rockstar, Bethesda, Ubisoft, Naughty Dog, BioWare, Valve, and others clearly craft their narratives in conjunction with their design teams.

And as an internal writer for Foundation 9 Entertainment, I have been equally fortunate to start on day one of most of my projects. But there is a definite problem to be addressed: game writing is often sub-par, clumsy, and badly integrated even under seemingly ideal conditions. Why is this?


*At last count my John Marsten had killed 910 people, 74 percent of the way through Red Dead Redemption. This makes Billy the Kid (rumored body count: 21. Actual: approximately 4) look law-abiding by comparison.

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