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The World Doesn’t Revolve Around You

Posted by Nick Dinicola on January 30, 2009

I was listening to the latest episode of the Rebel FM podcast, and there was an interesting discussion on game narratives. One of the guests, Ryan O’Donnell, used Half-Life 2 as an example of narrative done well, saying the story “…seems to have a lot more depth than what they’re showing you.”

The discussion as a whole, but specifically that comment, really made me think about game narratives, and I realized something I hadn’t thought of before. An important part of what makes a game’s story good is being able to understand how it fits into the larger context of the game’s fiction. It’s not enough to simply follow a story from beginning to end; we want to know what else is going on in this place. In other words: We should feel like we’re at the center of all the action, but not at the center of the universe. We always want to play as the main character, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but as the saying goes “The world doesn’t revolve around you.” No matter how epic our main character’s adventure may be, there’s always something else going on in the world that he is not a part of. It’s these tangential stories that flesh out the game’s universe, that make it more real and give the story the depth of context. There are a number of games that I feel do this very well.

Half-Life 2  is confusing at first because we’re thrown into a world with a complicated history and almost none of that history is explained to us. This is actually an excellent way to make the game’s universe feel real, because there’s a sense that this world exists and persists even when we’re not looking, even when we’re not there. However, this is just a start. What Half-Life 2 does so well is that it doesn’t let this lack of historical knowledge diminish the actual story of the game. Anyone can still enjoy Half-Life 2 without knowing anything about the history. But for those that are curious, the game also gives us opportunities to piece that history together from bits of information scattered around the environments. The more we explore, the more we learn; it’s entirely up to us and it doesn’t interfere with the plot. The Half-Life Sage Story Guide has a good timeline detailing all the major events of this universe, and even provides some screenshots of newspaper clippings from the game to validate the points.

Shadow of the Colossus has a very basic damsel-in-distress plot, but most of the details outside that very basic plot are left unexplained. We know Wander is trying to revive the woman he loves, but who exactly is he? Who is she? Where do they come from? Where did he get that special sword? These details, while they may seem important, are actually irrelevant to the basic plot. Shadow of the Colossus is about a man trying to bring his lover back to life, it doesn’t matter where they come or how they fell in love, or even if she really loves him back; all that matters is how he brings her back to life.  By leaving out those details and sticking strictly to the basic plot, the game leaves players with the feeling that this adventure was just a small part of a much larger story. For those that want to know more about that much larger story, there’s an interesting plot analysis of Shadow of the Colossus on GameFAQs.com.

Assassin’s Creed is unique because it tells two stories at the same time. It tells of Altaïr trying to regain his status as an assassin in 1191A.D. and of Desmond, Altaïr’s distant relative, reliving Altaïr’s memories from the year 2012. In both stories our avatar in these worlds, Altaïr and Desmond, are kept in the dark as to the purpose of their actions. In my opinion, the best parts of the story are experienced while playing as Desmond. At times he can sneak out of his supposedly locked room and hack into computers to read the email of his captors. It’s in these email exchanges that the fiction of Assassin’s Creed is opened so wide. We glean bits of information about the true goals of Abstergo Industries and how Desmond and Altaïr fit into those goals. For those curious, another story guide.

In each of these games there’s a trend of withholding information from the player so that we can discover it for ourselves later, if we so desire. While I do enjoy games that do that, letting the players discover details of the world themselves is not the only way to flesh out a game’s fiction. Silent Hill 2 is a great example of this. Silent Hill 2 is an intensely personal story focusing on James and his inner demons. But while James is the center of all the action that happens in Silent Hill 2, he’s not at the center of the universe. During his journey he meets several other people, each of them facing their own personal demons as well. By crossing paths with these people, we realize that James is just one of many people affected by the town. The story may revolve around him, but the town of Silent Hill does not. There are actually multiple guides discussing the story of the Silent Hill saga.

Metal Gear Solid 4 also has a unique way of showing players that we’re not the center of everything. At a couple points in the game the screen splits in half. On one side we continue playing as Old Snake and fight our battle, but on the other side is a movie of our comrades fighting their own battles. We’re seeing multiple stories play out at the same time, only one of which we have direct control over. Snake’s actions are just a small part of a much larger whole.

Even in games, I don’t think the world should revolve completly around us. Letting us see or learn of events beyond our control gives the world a persistence that makes it memorable. A good story set in a well-realized world will make us feel like we’re at the center of the action, while at the same time letting us know we’re not; our story is just one of many.

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