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Andrew Kauz avatar 12:47 PM on 05.06.2009  (server time)
Storytelling: Doing Nothing in "The Darkness"

[For part 1 of my storytelling series, “The Power of a Single Line,” go to this link:]

As a general rule of thumb for videogaming, a developer shouldn’t force players to do nothing at all. Cutscenes aside, most gamers I know like to be in constant motion, whether it is exploring, shooting, driving—whatever. Those moments where the player stops playing, either due to control being taken away from the player or simply because nothing is really happening in the game, are sources of frustration.

Imagine my surprise, then, when one of my favorite storytelling moments of the past year happened to be a scene in which I, the player, relaxed my grip on the controller and enjoyed a quiet moment in which I did nothing.

The scene in question. Does it work for you as a storytelling device?

In a variety of ways, this moment in the game is one of the strangest development choices in recent memory. The player, who controls Jackie, is given a fairly simple choice: do you stay for a while and watch a movie with your girlfriend Jenny (an event that can, if you want it to, last the entirety of the film “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is about a two-hour movie), or do you simply leave, missing out on whatever this scene was trying to offer. In my case, I chose to linger awhile, and it ended up turning into one of the most memorable moments in the game.

Somehow, and against all odds, this moment made the act of doing nothing valuable. In fact, for reasons that will become apparent later, it ended up (at least in my experience) being one of the most tense moments in the game. However, this moment could easily have failed had it not been implemented in the way that it was. There are a few reasons why I think this scene worked in The Darkness, and I think they are applicable to video games as a whole.

What Do You Want From Me?

When I first played through this scene, I was utterly confused. It wasn’t the sort of typical videogame confusion that makes a player ask “Where does this damn game want me to go?” Instead, I was suddenly thrust into a situation that was supposed to be unacceptable: a video game seemed to be asking me to sit on a couch and do nothing. It almost seemed like a trick; would a tense firefight break out the moment I sat down?

Fuck it, I thought. I sat down, consequences be dammed. After a few moments of flirting, the feature presentation began: To Kill a Mockingbird.

Boo Radley, bitches

I didn’t give half a shit about the movie. I spent the majority of the time looking around the room: looking to Jenny, looking toward the door, looking out the window, glancing at the TV to make sure it wasn’t going to try to kill Jenny. At first, it was nice to have a moment to relax. Then something started to change; I was getting kind of freaked out.

I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This…

Quiet moments just aren’t present in games like this, and the more I thought about that, the more nervous I became about this scene. Something bad is going to happen, I thought, and when it does, it’s going to be really bad. And it would involve Jenny.

The simple novelty of this scene was making it potent. It was altogether defying my expectations: I was expecting to get attacked and startled, but the reality was far more frightening. Not knowing what was going on gave me a terrible sense of dread. Suddenly, I really wanted to protect Jenny, and I was worried that something terrible would happen if I left her.

I didn’t realize it then, but this was the moment that I began to care about the story. Jenny was worth protecting, and the moment that I left that nasty apartment, I couldn’t be there to save her anymore.

A rare sight in video games

You Have Chosen…Wisely…

Of course, The Darkness is a video game, and it wasn’t going to let me take Jenny with me or put her on the first flight anywhere. Eventually, I stood up, left that apartment, and went about my killing business.

After the dark and tragic events of the game, I realized that I had made the right choice in sitting down on that couch for a while. Then again, I wanted more story; the narrative in games has become a priority for me, so I’ll take more narrative when I can get it. At the same time, a scene like this could quickly become a terrible nuisance for the player who just wants to do his or her killing until the credits roll.

There’s lots of this if that’s more your style.

Thus, the first and main reason that this scene succeeds is that it is entirely optional. If you want to skip it entirely, you can just leave. Walk out and forget it entirely. If you want to sit down for, say, five minutes, you can. If you want to stay for the entire two-hour movie, you can. The choice is entirely up to you.

In fact, choice is very important in The Darkness; later, Jackie’s own freewill is, in many ways, taken from him. The player, and Jackie, are rendered helpless at one of the most pivotal moment of the narrative. The simple choice that you made earlier in the game will be much more meaningful here. If you didn’t choose to stay, you’ll regret the hell out of it.

History’s Mysteries

Making a player care about the story’s characters is something that, in films and literature, is often achieved through the use of backstory. In video games, this doesn’t always work so well. Backstory usually requires clunky “flashback” scenes that are either heavy on awkward gameplay or consist mostly of cutscenes. Other games ignore the backstory altogether, instead presenting the events of a game in a vacuum and effectively preventing the player from caring about the characters at all.

This scene manages to avoid the backstory pitfall by giving a compelling motivation to the character of Jackie. The game doesn’t just tell the player that he or she is supposed to care about Jenny; we’re allowed to make that decision for ourselves with the help of a very compelling stimulus.

Killing in the Name of

Games too often ask us to mow down waves of baddies without giving us a truly compelling motivation. Sure, it’s still fun to progress through a game, meeting bigger and badder enemies with similarly bigger and badder weapons. But when there’s something to fight for, it becomes an experience. Though the gameplay in The Darkness may have been only passable, I know that this one will stick in my memory, and it’s largely due to this one scene.

Would you rather have more story, or more of this?

I don’t expect every game to do this: in fact, I certainly hope that doesn’t happen. However, developers shouldn’t feel tied down to the traditional narrative style of video games: gameplay, cutscene, gameplay, scripted event, etc. When an event can carry the weight that this one did, narrative-loving players will certainly embrace it, and if it’s 100% optional, then there’s no foul committed in the eyes of the more gameplay-oriented player.

How did this scene affect you? Do you want more or fewer of these sorts of scenes in video games?

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