A large problem with game narrative isn’t the content or even the way in which it is conveyed to the player, but the linear path structure it follows. The streamlined tales found in this format not only direct story direction in a contrived progression forward but also limits gameplay to conform to the rules and boundaries it abides by.
Many say the world of movies has aged with society causing it to shift into something greater than it was originally ever thought possible; however in saying that, has it ever evolved? The answer is no, for decades the same story has been proclaimed as new and relevant simply by adding a new skin or adjusting the content to popular views. It is only these views that have altered, not the story in which we allow to be regurgitated to us over and over again.
A Hero’s Journey is known as the essential key to any story, a structured set of rules that movies and books follow in order to assure the viewer agrees with what is put in front of them. Whether this is believability in the world or the events that occur, we are presented with an easy to follow path to be stringed along. This is the exact problem with stories found in gaming, they try to shoe-horn this archaic cliché into any new or original idea that may have been. People continue to want “The Godfather” of video games but what they need is the “No Country for Old Men”. A story that does not follow a pattern or even logical path, but causes a much more realistic sense of empathy with every character and denotes an emotion to the world itself.
Every step proclaimed as a necessity in film is contorted into an over-encumbering burden on video games and any potential is thrown to the way-side for the safe-bet. It seems the choice of security has smothered the freedom to create a unique experience. The simple acknowledgment of this list of rules, not only shows the predictability of stories in games, but what is being withheld in the realm of possibility.
•The Ordinary World – The hero starts off in a setting of their comfort, not always in the physical sense but in way which is normal to them. The character is established in the first scene to the point in which an entire description of their personality can be created within the first ten minutes.
•Call To Adventure – Something happens, taking the protagonist out their element. The rewards and dangers are partially set in front of them and they always correlate with the hero’s desires/fears.
•Refusal to the Call – The hero is not committed to the adventure and has to be pushed by some kind of ranged emotion such as fear or anger.
•Meeting with a Mentor – The words of a wise character who has walked the same path as you before or at the very least is very aware of what you are about to face. Their voice comes with the promise of aid such as weapons or advice that will help you on your journey.
•Crossing the Threshold – A physical and mental threshold is broken as the hero becomes determined in their task with no thought of hesitation or risk involved.
•Tests, Allies and Enemies – Companions and antagonists are established simultaneously to introduce a clear good and evil side of the tale. The rules of the world are shown as tests that must be passed, each of which either adding to or showing some part of the hero’s character.
•Approach in Most Caves – The moral fibre/ideals of the hero come to light, through a great confrontation or problem.
•Supreme Ordeal – All hope is lost and a moment of doubt is felt in a life/death, win/lose scenario.
•Seizing of the Sword – The hero is bestowed with what they need to prevail, something that inevitably responds to the hero’s original fear. Insecurity is suddenly replaced by overwhelming confidence in a moment of triumph.
•Road Back – Something devastating happens to the villain’s plans or whatever the antagonist may be. It is shown that you have grown and those you were opposing you have not, of course leading to their downfall.
•Resurrection – The body has to be purified after battle before true progression can be obtained and they return to their home changed for the better.
•Return with the Elixir – You win... the player is happy, everything is resolved nicely and final scenes show us how much they have changed.
How many times have you heard that story before? I’d guess it’s pretty close to how many games you own. The fleeting few that do not annotate this structure stand out incredibly easily, hence why Bioshock and Half-Life have deservingly become so well-known for their plot. Bioshock basically does that entire story-arch in the first five minutes of the game. All of which, except for an explanation of the player and what his motivations, origins and desires are. The only characteristic known is that he has the will to survive no matter the cost. By having this constant unknown throughout, the game allows for one of the greatest plot twists in the medium ever. In all definitions it’s not even a twist, it s literally an answer to a question that had never really been asked. Who am I?
So few developers see this genius, instead they try to re-create it with ham-fisted “twist endings” that are either convoluted to the point of broken or leave the player sociopathic towards the entire game because it changed everything that had been created as fact.
Another good example of this differing story is Hitman. Never in that series is 47 really called to action, he never leaves his original environment or comfort zone. This allows the player to interact in a completely relative and believable way because this is what 47 does; there is nothing more to his character. By leaving all this pre-constructed explanation in a applicable fashion, the player is given a completely non-linear choice how to get the end result. This is because it all is established to be something 47 would have done, no matter how varied the choices are.
Imagine what other games could do just by not conforming to this pre-conceived bullshit that society can’t handle a change to the schedule, when monotony isn’t welcomed with open arms. What if the protagonist and antagonists evolved so greatly that the roles of which is which blurred and left completely to the player’s interpretation. What if a hero is accompanied by companions and those relationships are the entire source of problems and resolution. Throughout the game no antagonist ever appears but the overall presence of mis-trust and conflicting ideals brings hardship and unsolvable ordeals to what is essentially a straight-forward path. Or even a complete blank slate, a character in a completely incomprehensible environment that meets but never truly interacts with another individual. The whole purpose is unknown, but you have an untold drive for something that is not ever told to you. Every different event the player witnesses or is part of defines a part of their personality, but with no conformation if this is true or not they are always left to question. The ending comes with a resolution or maybe it doesn’t, but either way it never answers if this is actually what they were driving for.
The potential in games is their ability to show information to a story in any order and at any point of time. The need of consistent character development over an hour and a half period is unnecessary and by stretchy this process out to 10 hours is a waste of everybody’s time. We as people may continue to ask for what we already know, but that in which we don’t even comprehend is possible, is what we truly appreciate.