Let’s Get Deeper into Narrative

I’ve spoken a little about how I’m keen to research ways of shaking up the classic Aristotelian plot structure. There are, of course, many, many people doing that in many ways. In this post, I’ll look at variable plot structures and how multilinear and emergent plots can challenge the classic 3-5 act narrative structure, with a particular focus on gaming as our lens of discussion.

Video games are often cited as a natural habitat for variable plot structures to thrive. There are, of course, many video games which follow a linear narrative, where the points of conflict introduce playability for the player. Writing on the dramatic elements of games, Tracy Fullerton gives an example of how linear narratives are often employed in the form of cut-scenes, at the beginning of a game or of each level, and when a problem (the conflict) is introduced, the player is then employed to solve it. In these instances, “the backstory gives a setting and context for the game’s conflict, and it can create motivation for the characters, but its progression from one point to the next is not affected by gameplay” (Fullerton 2008).

Multilinear and emergent narratives allow “the game action to change the structure of the story so that choices the player makes affect the eventual outcome” (Fullerton 2008). For example, Life is Strange (2015) is a narrative-focused game where choices made by the player “are reflected throughout the game: from subtle changes in the scenery, to offhand references characters make while talking about something more important, to what feels like the pinnacle of all video game choices–choose if somebody lives or dies” (clagnaught 2016). I’d argue that categorising games into plot structures is not always clear-cut, but rather, that game narratives exist on a spectrum from completely emergent to hardline linear. Half-Life (1998), for example, has linear elements in the form of backstory cut-scenes with chapters of conflict gameplay, but also has emergent elements, where some of these story sequences are triggered based upon player actions. Games like Halo 2 (2004) also have somewhat linear storylines, but player actions affect AI non-player characters resulting in “unique and often dramatic responses” (Fullerton 2008, pp. 101).

So how do these innovations in plot structure challenge narrative structure? The examples we’ve discussed all have different ways of laying out what happens and how the player, or audience, gets from point A to B and so on, yet, notably, traditional narrative structure seems to remain the same. Regardless of the order of sequences, the decisions made or the plot path chosen by the player, the narrative arc seems to remain the same: establishment of a world, inciting incident, conflict and resolution/forming of a new equilibrium. The John Yorke ideas that were discussed in my previous posts seem to hold up here. It seems that regardless of plot innovation, storytelling returns to the basic 3-5 Act or Freytag (1863) structure that we’re all so familiar with.

I’d like to introduce the critically-acclaimed and Smithsonian-inducted Flower (2009) as a powerful contender in challenging this. Developed by ‘thatgamecompany‘, Flower (2009) is described as an “emotional experience from beginning to end”(Chen qtd. By Sheffield 2009).  The developers, Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen, talk about the emotional arc of the game, in contrast to a dominant narrative arc:

“I know I’m not that great a screenwriter… so I decided that rather than to try to write a good dialogue — English is not even my first language — I want to focus on the interaction part…

…We tried to come up with a story, but the more we worked with it, we found out how abstract the game was. It doesn’t fit with a detailed story. We tuned down the story. We put it in the back. You can sense the progress of certain narratives.”

(Chen qtd. By Cacho 2009)

Critical communications scholar Shira Chess describes the challenge that video game narratives pose to the kind of heteronormative, male-centric experience of climax that we discussed in my earlier posts. The kind of emotional arc and sensual experience that Chen describes of Flower, aligns with Chess’ notion of queer narrative structures that “offer small moments of pleasure through exploration and discovery” (2016, pp. 92). Chen says, “challenge is the biggest enemy in delivering the experience we wanted for Flower because we wanted the game to feel very relaxed, safe, and friendly” (Chen qtd. By Sheffield 2009). For thatgamecompany, gaming is not necessarily about high adrenaline, climactic conflict and resolution. It is about a deeper experience for the player, an emotional experience, a meditative state.

The final example that I’ll offer is Chess’ description of Gone Home (2013). Gone Home employs an emergent plot structure, where the player pieces together what happened to the protagonist’s family by exploring their family household. It offers a compelling challenge to classic narrative arc:

The story is revealed in small pleasures and snippets—although it leads towards a singular, inevitable end (wherein the player finally finds out why the family is missing), there is no satisfying final climax. The things that have been wronged cannot be fixed—the player has arrived too late to help. The game ends with the discovery of a notebook which reads “Letters to Katie” and explains at the bottom, “Do not read if you are not Katie.” When the player clicks on the book, the scene fades to black—we are not permitted to be part of the character’s narrative climax. In this way, the player is ultimately denied the climax both literally and figuratively.

(Chess 2016).

Works Cited

Cacho, G. (2009, February 12). Game Philosophy and Narrative Behind Flower. Retrieved from A+E Interactive: http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/2009/02/12/game-philosophy-and-narrative-behind-flower/

Chess, S. (2016). The queer case of video games: orgasms, Heteronormativity, and video game narrative. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 33, 84 – 94.

clagnaught. (2016). The Choices We Make: Narrative Consequences in Life is Strange (and Other Games). Retrieved from Giant Bomb: https://www.giantbomb.com/forums/life-is-strange-659679/the-choices-we-make-narrative-consequences-in-life-1784764/

Flower. (2009). Los Angeles.

Freytag, G. (1863). Freytag’s technique of drama: An exposition of dramatic composition and art. London: Forgotten Books.

Fullerton, T. (2008). Game Design Workshop (Second Edition): A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Inc.

Gone Home. (2013). Portland.

Half-Life. (1998). Bellevue.

Halo 2. (2004). Redmond.

Life is Strange. (2015). Paris.

Sheffield, B. (2009, May 27). Interview: Jenova Chen and ThatGameCompany’s Vision of the Future. Retrieved from Gamasutra: https://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/23612/Interview_Jenova_Chen_and_Thatgamecompanys_Vision_of_the_Future.php

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*Featured Image Credit:
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