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  • Structures Of Narrative: An Introduction

    [06.12.18]
    - Gregory Pellechi

  • The Epistolary Novel/Story/Game

    Which may not be a common form now but two of the most famous books to influence video games were written using this form - Frankenstein by Mary Shelley and Dracula by Bram Stoker.

    Documents, be they audio-logs, letters, newspaper clippings, or other mediums are rife within video games. But as mentioned before they more commonly used for world building. That doesn't mean they can't be used to tell the story of the game.

    What Remains of Edith Finch is an epistolary game. The entire story is being told as a letter from the player character/narrator to their unborn child. But it's also a frame story to tell the tales of the Finch family and their various comings and goings. The beauty of the epistolary is in its narration. It allows a narrate to speak to the player without directly address them or the players actions. In the case of What Remains of Edith Finch the narration is coming from the player character and providing context for all that's occurring. It also allows for a more natural way of speaking on the narrator's part as they are explicitly telling a story and not having a conversation.

    The epistolary novel by and large sticks to a single point of view but it doesn't have to. If the novel, or game in this case, is about the relationship between two parties then it makes sense for narration to switch between them and even have levels or characters change depending on who is narrating. Differing points of view mean conflict - not in the boom boom, bang bang, stabby stabby sort of way games tend towards. Rather conflict in terms of opposing ideologies, philosophies, strategies or personalities. As with the frame story, an epistolary game allows for the exploration of that perspective. It allows a game to take a side in a conflict and explore it.

    Games, given their youth relative to other narrative mediums, aren't always great at exploring a perspective. We see this time and again in AAA games that set up a world that appears to have conflicting parties, or at least one with an atrocious message. But the games end up not demonstrating how horrible those characters and their philosophy is. Instead the games end up equivocating and placing the player in a neutral position with no stake in resolving the conflict for one side or another. That neutral position a player is often placed in does little to explore the message of the antagonists, nor place them in a light that the player can feel true revulsion for. Instead the player is tasked with returning the game world to the status quo, rather than bringing about change. That lack of change and return to the way things were before does nothing to resolve the issues which brought about the rise of the antagonist in the first place.

    Epistolary games can explore the world the antagonists are creating and its impacts on others. By getting personal, by sharing the effects and not merely creating a player-sized hole the story told within a game can be one about consequences and change. It can explore the message. It can eliminate equivocation.

    The Chiastic Structure

    This is not be confused with mirroring, which will be explored on a future episode.

    Chiastic structure is sometimes called a ring structure, but we'll get to that in a moment. For now let's look at Halo: Combat Evolved and how it's story and level design provides a great example of this structure.

    Halo begins with the Master Chief escaping a spaceship and ends with him escaping the very same spaceship. In between those two levels he and the rest of the crew must descend to the alien artifact known as Halo and continue into its bowels to find a way to survive and fight off the Covenant. It's in the bottom of this hell they'll find an even greater evil, the Flood, whom they must escape and climb back out and away from Halo. Ending, as mentioned, in the escape from the very same spaceship the game began on.

    Halo's level design illustrates the chiastic structure, almost perfectly. Some may consider it boring to backtrack and go through the same or similar environments but in doing so the game is demonstrating the depths to which the protagonist, Master Chief, was plunged in his ordeal and what he must do to overcome them.

    A chiastic structure, if I wasn't clear enough, is about repeating elements of the story in a mirrored fashion. It can be locations, actions, events, themes or any combination of them that is repeated. The most common example used is the simple idea of ABBA.

    No not the Swedish pop band Abba, but the concept that there are two ideas - A and B. A occurs first in the story, followed by B. Then B is repeated and the story ends with A. Of course it can be far longer and more complex than that example. It can be ABXYYXBA or any such combination. And that's why Halo: Combat Evolved makes such a great example. It's not merely the physical descent and return of the Master Chief, but the way the level design plays this out as well. Levels gradually get darker until the player is in the swamp where you first encounter the Flood. The Master Chief returns to the light and ascends to the heavens once more.

    Now I may be waxing lyrical about Halo, it is one of my favorite games. Yet there is a degree of thought that went into the construction of the game which is often overlooked, and that's how the design of the game can be used to emphasize or mimic the journey the player character is on. Ascents or descents through the play space do more than mirror the they character's mission thematically. They provide a mental map for the player of where they are in the story.

    Bennet Foddy's Getting Over It is a great example of this. The mission of the player and the journey of the character are so succinctly mapped to the physical realities of the task at hand that were the game to be about descending then the relief at accomplishing it would never come given the easy at which one can do that in the game. Halo and other games that utilize the chiastic structure recognize that the task placed before the protagonist and player are not ones that are going to slacken upon reaching a certain point. Rather the return will be harder, the burden greater for all the weight that has been placed upon the shoulders of the protagonist.

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