The "You" Continuum: Narration and Narrative Agents in Video Games
By Mark Newheiser
4 May 2009
It goes almost without saying that the earliest forms of storytelling involved a storyteller. Without the devices of a stage, props, actors, or effects, all you're left with is a storyteller to explain things in words, either orally or in a written record. Homer's Iliad is an oral epic that describes the Trojan War, not as a history or a collection of facts from reliable sources, but from the point of view of an omniscient narrator who's able to tell us about the thoughts and motivations of the characters, and the dealings of the gods. As an alternative to direct narration, Greek plays used actors to portray a scene taking place, but they still made use of a chorus to provide a form of narration, and communicate information and provide perspective beyond what could be garnered from watching the scene take place on stage. With the advent of movies and other new media, the balance has shifted further from "telling" to "showing," with the camera often serving as our sole view into the world. Rather than filtering a story through the lens of a protagonist, narrator, or chorus, the camera provides a strictly literal perspective.
While narration is no longer the primary method used for storytelling, it still fills an important niche with its ability to communicate aspects of a story in ways that are difficult to achieve by other means. When done well, narration can add a lot of perspective and color.
Video games represent an interesting exercise in storytelling, both in making use of narration and other storytelling devices, and also in making use of protagonists or player characters, which are in a sense representative of the players themselves, and in a sense distinct and independently motivated. What I'd like to discuss in this piece are some of the techniques used in video games to communicate story and to represent the relationship between the player and protagonist.
The earliest video games had stories that were external to the game itself: you have to read the manual to learn why Mario needs to save the princess or who Bowser is. Arcade cabinets might have a few paragraphs of text written on them to explain the game, or have a slow introductory scroll of text. The story designer for Link's Awakening has said (in an interview with Wired) that often the core features of gameplay and levels would be designed first, and then a story would be built around them. Under these circumstances, a story seems to simply serve as an excuse for the necessary features of gameplay—to explain why it's important to crush robots and let fuzzy animals escape from them. The preferred storytelling device in this context is usually a compact narrative info dump, communicating everything the player needs to know to jump into playing the game.
The "mission briefing" form of storytelling still persists in games to a certain extent, although it has evolved considerably. Modern games often try to avoid relying on a manual and include any necessary tutorials or story information in the game itself. "Briefings," which communicate critical story and gameplay details, occur at more regular intervals, as games have grown too complex to explain all up front. Such briefings are often dramatized in the context of a story, with the necessary information being communicated by other characters to the player's character, rather than being addressed to the player directly. To illustrate how these styles have evolved, I'd like to take a look at how Blizzard Entertainment's real-time strategy games have gradually shifted storytelling techniques. The first two Warcraft games introduced each mission with a scroll of text representing a military commander addressing the player's character, to inform him of the state of the war, the mission's requirements, and intelligence about the enemy. Starcraft took the briefing system a step further, with briefings taking place as a conversation among relevant characters allied with or opposed to a faction. The player's expected role in the mission became clear from the dialogue. Finally, Warcraft 3 eschewed explicit mission briefings altogether; instead of taking on the role of a nameless and silent commander receiving orders, the player followed the story of a "hero" unit, a main character whose goals in the mission were made clear by scenes taking place in the game itself, with those goals often changing as events played out. Rather than being told what to do, the player followed the story of a "hero" doing as he or she pleased.
In addition to its practical purpose in communicating goals and objectives to the player, storytelling in games can serve some other important roles. Many games spread out their chunks of story like breadcrumbs for the player to follow, in between somewhat repetitive sessions of gameplay; the continuation of the story serves almost as a reward for getting through more of the game. After playing through a difficult level, the player is treated to some cut scene or dialogue that further develops the story and presents the player with new information to mull over when he's next out hacking goblins. And of course, in most cases the player expects to ultimately be rewarded by some form of an ending. Alongside maintaining interest in the features of gameplay, many games use the parallel presentation of the story as a hook to keep the player engaged.
The last main purpose I see story as serving in games, on top of simply illustrating the player's goals and keeping him interested in what might happen next, is to immerse the player in the game's world and give him a sense of interactivity with the current scenario. A good story doesn't just make it clear what's going on and maintain your interest; it gives you a sense of the reality of the game's world and your role in it. While it's certainly possible to analyze video game storytelling in terms of how clear and uncluttered it makes the player's objectives and how reliably it doles out cliffhangers, it's in terms of immersion and how the player relates to the game that I'd like to discuss different storytelling methods.
As mentioned above, many early games simply contained an omniscient narrative info dump as an alternative to having no story at all. Super Mario World places just a few lines of text after each chapter in the game to provide some context to what is happening. The key difference between this and other styles of storytelling is that the story is presented to the player directly as a gamer external to the world, not presented from the perspective of someone immersed in the world. Some games make limited use of this style of direct narration to provide an introduction or get through a tangled section of story, just as many movies start out with a brief narrative voiceover or text to quickly provide the audience with what they need to know. Some movies and games even use direct narration throughout, which tends to highlight the separation between the audience and the story, causing them to take a step back and view the story in a more self-aware fashion. This is often done with the goal of humorous commentary and ironic detachment rather than immersion, as in the case of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show on TV or the Space Quest series for the PC.
As an alternative to narrative that directly addresses the player in the style of a manual, some games tie the narrative to the perspective of the player character. Many novels, even if they do not use first person narration, similarly rely on a single character's perspective. The Harry Potter books are done almost exclusively in this style. Nearly every scene described in the books is able to be described because Harry is included in that scene, and we get all the facts, thoughts, and impressions of the world from Harry's vantage. Despite the use of the third person, the perspective in the story is quite clearly tied to Harry Potter. Many of Sierra On-Line's classic adventure games employ this style to the same end; third person or second person narration is used to describe the environment as the main character experiences it, and also to explore the thoughts and feelings of the protagonist. As with a novel, there is often literal dialogue that takes place, but the bulk of description and development is done through narration tied to a character's perspective.
There's an interesting distinction to be made concerning a related style of narration found in the Zork games by Infocom. These games similarly provide description and narration tied to a perspective, but there is no player character; the main character is described as "you." As we've seen, direct narration says, "This is what's happening," and perspective narration says, "This is what's happening to your character"; second person narration says "This is what's happening to you." Rather than putting you in the driver's seat of a strongly established character conceived by the designers, these games posit that all these things are happening to you as the player, rather than some intermediary character. This is also the style used by a form of game-like stories, the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Rather than naming and developing a character for you to guide into whatever scenarios you want, the books place you in the role of "you." which may be a "you" in another time, place, or circumstance, but with the ultimate expectation that you're stepping into the role of yourself exploring those different circumstances. In other words, you'll be roleplaying yourself, not anyone else.
On the other end of the scale from making the player's character as transparent as possible, some games place their protagonist in the role of narrator. Many of LucasArts' adventure games, such as the Monkey Island series, do this. So do games such as Max Payne and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, although in a slightly different style. Adventure games generally require a great deal of description and exposition for the purposes of puzzle-solving, and the responsibility for that has to fall to the protagonist or some external narrator. In the LucasArts adventure games, the main characters react with descriptions; they vocalize their own thoughts rather than having them described through third-person prose. And since the running commentary is spurred by the player's attempts to interact with the game world, the narration takes place entirely in the present, following the adventure of an exceptionally talkative hero.
Although similarly narrated, both Max Payne and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time differ in that they're structured as stories being told after the fact by the main character. Even when events are unfolding and the main character is giving his thoughts on them, it's in the past tense, from the perspective of a character who's already been through all that and more. Whereas the LucasArts games are structured as a running commentary, these two games work as stories told by the two main characters, whose thoughts and perspectives serve a significant storytelling purpose rather than simply informing the gameplay.
Before I move on from styles of narration to the relationship between player and protagonist, there are two more narrative styles I would like to bring out. The first is a form of third-person narrative in which the burden of exposition is placed on a character other than the protagonist. Rather than the running commentary being generated by the protagonist as he carries out his actions, it's generated by a character from the game's world in response to the protagonists's actions. For example, in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess a "helper" character, Midna, follows Link around and reacts to events, providing exposition when necessary and advising the hero, Link. Link himself never utters a word, and Midna is given the responsibility of being the loquacious one and vocalizing reactions on behalf of the hero. Other Zelda games give Link a talking boat or fairy to offset his characteristic silence, and many RPGs with silent protagonists employ a helper character or exceptionally talkative cast to offset the player's own silent role.
The last narrative style I'd like to point out in the gaming world is embedded storytelling, as seen in the Myst series. For most of the game, there are no characters to interact with; your primary vehicle for learning about the story is seeking out recorded information, rather than being informed through narration or dialogue. The player must spend a good deal of time finding journals and recorded information penned by the (seldom seen) characters in the game. These documents contain clues relevant to the game, yet they mostly exist to explain the history and back story of the world. Similarly, in Bioshock, a good deal of the plot is unearthed by listening to audio diaries that reveal the city's secrets. Revelations about the plot occur as a result of the player mentally piecing together the clues, rather than roleplaying any specific character who discovers and reacts to events. The player must make the journey unaided, learning primarily from recorded information rather than participating in conversation, as the story is embedded for him to tease out; it is not presented directly.
One useful way to compare all of these styles is by the role in which they place the player character. When presented with a talkative protagonist or a third-person narrative that gets inside the protagonist's head, the player is simply tagging along with a strongly motivated character; the player may participate in the action but the personality of the player character ultimately dictates what has to happen. By contrast, other styles of storytelling eliminate the middleman and place the player in the role of the main character directly, making the decisions and actions taken ultimately the responsibility of the player as he guides a blank-slate hero.
While using a strong character makes it easier to tell a classic story, one reason for representing the player's avatar as a mute hero is that it can allow the player to watch a story play out without chafing against a lack of control over a pre-conceived character who is central to the story. In Starcraft, the player acts out the role of a commander for each of the three warring factions. The chief actors of the story remain the same throughout, and are outside the player's control, allowing the player to step in and out of the roles of less significant characters. Thus, the player need not feel responsible for the fixed actions of more powerful characters, who may lack the right kind of appeal or interest to be protagonists. Ultimately, for any "voiced" protagonist, the player can never be in complete control of everything the avatar says and does. This is why any dialogue for silent characters is implied rather than spoken; the player's imagination can flesh out the details. A player may decide he doesn't particularly like Max Payne or the Prince of Persia, but Link from the Zelda series is more or less a blank slate for the player to fill in with his own personality, and hopefully have an easier time relating to. By making a protagonist this transparent, the designers push back a greater part of the story into simply being implied, and imagined by the player. However, when crafted well, a transparent protagonist can be a useful device.
A common feature of all the styles of narration we've discussed, with the exception of direct narration, is that what's known by the player and what's known by the protagonist is assumed to be the same. In a horror movie, when a character walks into a house the audience knows is haunted, they're expected to yell, "Don't go in there!" In a game, if you see your player character about to make a mistake, the natural response is to tell him to do something else. Literary critics talk about dramatic irony, arising when the audience knows more than the characters do. In this situation, the audience can look on with amusement at the characters' mistakes, or with anxiety while hoping that the heroes will be able to figure things out. In a game, if you give the player more information than the characters, they'll either try to act on it in a way that makes no sense in the story, or be unable to do anything about it, and feel trapped in their options and less immersed in the game. Most often a game will try to forcibly narrow the player's options into the role they have to play, and won't let them progress until they make the "correct" choice, even if it's a mistake from the informed player's point of view.
Many of these issues in storytelling and roleplaying have been explored in the context of tabletop games such as Dungeons & Dragons. In D&D, you're often expected to keep your knowledge as a player and your knowledge as your character separate, and it's a faux pas to behave out of character or have your actions dictated by anything other than your own character's motivations. In the context of video games it's much less reasonable to expect that players will make gameplay decisions according to their willingness to roleplay someone else's vision of a character to an audience of no one. As we've seen, games have a continuum between strongly defined characters tied strictly to a story conceived by the designers, and more free-form characters whom the players are free to create and fill in. The problem with video games is that a designer can't anticipate everything a player might possibly want to do, often narrowing in the range of free-form options to a "good" path and an "evil" one. But since Dungeons & Dragons uses a live storyteller rather than a pre-scripted one, players can flesh out their own characters with as much detail as they want, and the story can be adjusted to suit them. It's a very powerful medium for interactive storytelling when done well, and many game designers who tried for more free-form story experiences in video games got their start there. This was the case with Lori and Corey Cole, designers of the Quest for Glory series. Working with a live storyteller just comes at the expense of production values, economies of scale, and repeatability. It's like the difference between an improv show and a scripted comedy. Video games stake their claim somewhere in between the possibilities of fully dynamic stories tailored to the participation of the current players, and canned or static stories that are inevitably the same every time.
Games stand out among all the forms of art for the unique demands placed upon the participants: players have to work to create the experience themselves. The player is often responsible for making choices that affect the plot, and the player is sometimes given the responsibility of fleshing out and roleplaying a character without being given explicit direction from the designers. It's a medium that makes use of many interesting storytelling techniques, some of which would not be possible in any other form because of the nature of interactivity. And as the medium matures, it will be interesting to see how video games shape our ideas of storytelling, and participating in a story.
 For instance, movies (a medium based around showing rather than telling) are much more popular than novels. A 2009 study by the National Endowment of the Arts indicates that only fifty-seven percent of Americans read even one book per year, whereas The Gallup Poll: Public Opinion 2005 indicates that sixty-five percent of Americans go to a movie theatre one or more times per year. The number of tickets sold for the first Harry Potter movie was roughly three times the number of print copies sold for any book in the series. Peter Jackson's Return of the King achieved ticket sales numbering about twice as many as history's combined book sales for print editions of The Lord of the Rings. Useful statistics can be found on Box Office Mojo and Wikipedia's "List of bestselling books."