[Many games support their narratives via cutscenes and other non-interactive channels, but Supergiant Games' Bastion finds a way to work storytelling into its very core.]
Narratives and video games have always gone hand-in-hand. Even simple games like Pong find a way to tell their own stories, as players create their own experiences based on what's happening on screen. Stories in games often emerge from the way we interact with them, but even decades after the medium's inception, we still don't have a solid consensus on the best ways to craft interactive narratives.
An exhaustive discussion of these methods will likely entertain scholars and designers for decades to come, but for now, it's worth taking a look at a few examples that in my mind demonstrate a seamless union of gameplay and narrative.
How does narrative come about in a videogame? In essence, it all comes down to the way the brain assimilates information. Based on the way we process visual information, images lead automatically to narratives. This is convenient for games because -- like movies -- they are all pictures strung together in sequence! It's important to note because that we often separate writing, dialog or story from play, but in reality they are as tightly interdependent as the two sides of a single coin. Since a videogame exists as a virtual environment, our perception of that environment and of what takes place within it automatically creates a story.
Many games today try to get the player to experience a written, pre-defined story on one hand, and on the other a series of interactions with the virtual environment, which create other, more spontaneous stories. Usually these two halves are kept separate by a series of constraints, whether technological or philosophical, so that we often experience them alternately (one section of gameplay leads into a corresponding cutscene and so forth). This creates a bit of a problem: proper storytelling is never addressed; as the stories that emerge during gameplay or cutscenes have little or nothing to do with each other. Thus, the whole experience becomes divided: One part is a game, the other is a movie contained within the game.
But despite this common problem, there are games that have found ways to work around the constraints of non-interactive cutscenes. One of the latest is Bastion.
Interactive Storytelling: Three Examples
The three instances we will be looking at are all underlined by the use of suggestion, a technique which is supremely suited to videogames but often ignored. It seems almost foolish to make use of something so understated in a medium that has a tendency to celebrate explosions, but the attention-demanding nature of videogames actually lends itself very well to suggestion. While you are distracted with the challenges of the moment, something entirely different may unfold beneath the fabric of the immediate, creating ulterior motivation and providing new context to otherwise obvious actions.
1. When violence mirrors narrative
Violence is often a vehicle for play, but when the user spends most of his or her time physically destroying opponents, combat tends to become trivial, and it tends to lose significance in terms of storytelling. The critical subtext provided by Bastion's use of suggestion changes all of this.
Consider first the game's array of weapons. The progression in their technological advancement reveals the increasingly warlike aspect of the society of Caelondia. We witness a hierarchy of needs: to build (the hammer), to defend oneself from the environment (spear, bow), to dominate the environment (fire bellows), to combat other societies (carbine, musket), to dominate those societies completely (mortar, calamity cannon), to unleash the end-all weapon itself -- the Calamity.
The progression follows the development of the story and its themes. The more destructive your weapons become, the closer you get to learning the truth about the equally destructive conflict between the City, founded by colonists who seek to exploit nature and harness its forces, and the Ura, who still live in a world of inviolate divinity.
It's a remarkably simple history of a society's violent deeds. As the colonists penetrate the new continent, they trade hammer for bow for musket for cannon. The Calamity, with its ability to sunder mountains and render any living being into ash, is a surreal nuclear weapon. It is also the logical extreme of the arms race and at the same time the ultimate guarantee against defeat. It's fitting that the game take place in the backdrop of the Calamity, because in attempting to reverse it the Kid has no choice but to come to terms with the reality of its deployment. Having just escaped it, he is embraced by it.