Narrative Contracts

Early on in Borderlands 2 the player encounters a fence of electricity in between them and their goal. Claptrap, the voice over the radio, tells you there’s a fusebox on the other side and that if you run fast enough, you won’t take damage from the fence. Your objective changes, now saying to run into the forcefield. So you do, and it deals damage to your shield and pushes you back. Claptrap suggests you do it again, he says you weren’t running fast enough. Seeing as this is a video game and voices-over-the-radio are seldom wrong, and your objective once again tells you to run into it. You do, and the same thing happens.

Undeterred, Claptrap tells you to try again, only for you to once again be electrocuted and pushed back. He then starts to make another suggestion for how to run through it when another voice on the radio comes in and tells you to just shoot the fusebox. And to ignore any advice Claptrap gives you.

It’s a funny moment, in no small part because the player is used to games and objectives being helpful. Borderlands 2 is effectively using the tropes of the medium itself to screw with you. It’s like a betrayal by the game, a really funny one. But it also serves to highlight the contract between a player and a game.

See, when it comes to entertainment there’s this sort of unspoken agreement. The movie’s arc will come to a head and resolution, the book’s narrative will conclude in some way, this essay will make a point at the end that warrants the five minutes you spend reading it. In video games, completing objectives will both advance the plot and progress the player. When the voice on the radio gives you an objective, you do it.

Which is what makes that gag in Borderlands 2 so great. These narrative contracts are vital to maintaining reader interest and telling a good story, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in breaking them. Community, for example, plays fast and loose with the expected promise that a tv show doesn’t know it’s a tv show. There’s something a little unsettling when a character in a tv show refers to ‘seasons’ or seems acutely aware that it’s a show.

Yet in the series finale a couple weeks ago, the characters envisioning how they’d want the Season Seven of their friendship to play out give us a unique look into each character’s psyche. That each scenario is introduced by a truncated version of the show’s opening only further draws the viewer in. What’s key is that the breaking of the rules service both story and humor.

For another example it’s hard not to mention Ulysses. The James Joyce novel eschews much in the way of the plot that’s expected of it. Bits of stories are started and continued, but nothing is ever truly resolved as the modernist novel captures the wandering minds and lives of a fairly average day in 1904 Dublin. Had the book instead followed a more traditional structure, we wouldn’t have one of the greatest books ever. More importantly, it wouldn’t have felt half as realistic and emotionally true to life as it does.

But if we’re talking about books breaking narrative contracts, nothing quite beats Denis Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist. In an increasingly frustrating fashion, the narrator tells the reader that he, as the storyteller, could do anything he wanted, like set the titular Jacques and his master off on a great adventure. But he doesn’t. Instead the book is one of unmet expectations, where the reader neither gets to hear the true story of Jacques’ loves or is even given a proper ending to the book — rather the reader is given three to choose from. But as an exercise in playing with narrative, it excels.

All this to say that rules are meant to be broken. That said, rules have to be broken right, like in Community or Ulysses. Because unless you’re Denis Diderot, there’s not much point in doing it just to prove a point. Or if you want to screw with your player.

Now I’ve just gotta finish Borderlands 2.

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