Tag Archives: storytelling

Being There

It’s a stormy night in 1995 and you’re a college student just returned from a year abroad. During that time your family moved to a large house on the outskirts of town. A house, you discover, without anyone home that looks like it’s been stolen.

That’s how Gone Home opens, a game where you assume the role of Kaitlin and explore your new house, trying to figure out what happened during the year you were away.

Now, Gone Home toes the line of being a video game. Sure, it’s ‘played,’ but there’s little in the way of actual choices to be made; you’re essentially walking around. There’s no proper conflict, no goombas to stomp nor Russians to shoot; you’re exploring a house and trying to discover what happened to your family. It’s a cool experience rife with environmental storytelling that sits somewhere as a first-person adventure game where the emotional heft comes from a sense of being there.

But that’s Gone Home, a game built entirely around that experience by an independent developer. It’s not something you’d expect to see in a Triple-A video game, the blockbusters of the gaming world. These games, much like movie blockbusters, focus on the action with the story being told through brief cutscenes (or, in the case of the Metal Gear Solid series, radio calls that last a quarter of Gone Home’s playtime). There’s a distinct separation of gameplay and story.

And this is where I talk about Uncharted.

Now, the Uncharted games have made a reputation for themselves by allowing you to play an action movie. Meaning that you don’t just watch Nathan Drake trying to grab on to a falling cargo container or running through a crumbling city; you, the player as Nathan Drake, get to try to grab on to falling cargo containers and run through crumbling cities. Big moments that would either be a cutscene or ignored entirely are made playable. It makes the action in Uncharted feel that much more visceral, you get to be the action hero.

Story, though, has mostly been done through cutscenes and bits of banter interspaced through gameplay. In that sense, Uncharted wasn’t really doing too much besides telling great stories.


Then, earlier this month, came Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Still a grand action-adventure story that would make Indiana Jones jealous, this entry took the time in the story’s downbeats to really let you be there.

Much of the central tension stems from Nathan being persuaded to leave the normal life he’s built with his wife, Elena. But the game doesn’t just tell you this, because that’d be obvious and boring. Rather, once we’ve caught up to Nathan in the present, we get the beautiful chapter “A Normal Life.” In it, the player can explore Nathan’s house, starting in the attic where they can look at notes and mementos of Nathan’s prior adventures before exploring the rest of the house where they can flip through a book of wedding photos and look at to do post-its on the fridge before sitting down with Elena to talk and play a video game (yes, in a video game; it’s awesome). What this delightfully quiet chapter does is put the player in Nathan’s shoes, establishing what he’d be walking away from were it to go on another adventure. Rather than just having Nathan say “I have a good life” in a cutscene, A Thief’s End employs Gone Home’s technique and has the player explore a space, using the clues to form their own narrative.

In other words, “A Normal Life” has the player playing a cutscene, only instead of an action one, it’s a purely story and emotional focused beat. You don’t fight anyone or climb a rockface, instead you just get to be there.

Which is pretty friggin’ fantastic.

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Learning From (Others’) Failure

You can learn a lot about storytelling from taking in great stories. Let The Last of Us teach you about immersive storytelling. Don Quixote effortlessly plays with the characters’ relation to the narrative. Learn how to have a bunch of different character arcs in motion from The Avengers.

Bad stories can also teach you a lot, especially bad movies. I’m not talking so-bad-it’s-good stuff like The Room where the movie fails so hard it creates an entirely new form of entertainment; I’m talking about ones that are just plain bad. Watch Twilight to learn how a passive main character makes for a boring book. If you lose sight of your protagonist’s arc you end up with the muddled mess that are the Hobbit movies. The Big Bang Theory shows you how to write punch-down humor at dated stereotypes.

And then there’s the new Fantastic Four.

Which teaches you how not to tell a story.

There’s a lot wrong with the movie. The grievous mishandling of Sue Storm. The oddly conspicuous absence of Ben and Jonny for chunks of the plot. The total lack of agency from everyone up to and including the protagonist. The utter abandonment of what could have been great themes. The fact that we don’t see the titular four in the same shot until over an hour into the movie. The arbitrariness of the supposedly-emotional beats. But it’s all rooted in a fundamental ignorance of storytelling.

Here’s the thing: Story is king. Yes, it’s a frustratingly patriarchal term (“story is everything” doesn’t sound quite as good), but the sentiment is there: story’s the most important thing. There are vital ingredients for story to ‘happen,’ which Fantastic Four just doesn’t have.

The first, is character.

Duh.

For a story to happen, you need people with goals and fears and all that. The Lord of the Rings would hardly have worked if Frodo’s only characterization was that he was a Hobbit. Conversely, The Insider is so tense because of Wigand’s conflict between doing what’s right on a big scale (whistleblowing the tobacco industry) and keeping his family safe. Both of these devote time to building characters, giving us moments that highlight not just what they’re doing, but what they want and why.

Character down, we need conflict. Say John McLane asks Hans Gruber to let the hostages go and Gruber just says “yes.” There’s no story there. The protagonist needs obstacles in their way to keep the audience engaged and asking “how’re they gonna get past this?” These conflicts also allow chances for characters to show who they are (McLane really cares about his wife) and for them to make interesting choices (McLane chooses to soldier on even when the feds won’t help him). These conflicts, that happen because of character, get us as the audience invested and interested in what happens next. When they payoff comes, it’s earned and catharsis happens.

It’s honestly quite surprising how little character there is in Fantastic Four. No one has much of a goal — Johnny and Sue are literally kind of just there — and when we get hints of one they hardly affect, well, anything — Ben would like to be changed back so he works for the military until he decides he’s okay as he is. Reed’s characterization can be summed up as “very intelligent” and presumed antagonist Victor is “very intelligent and maybe a little anarchistic.” Characterization is never allowed out: nearly every conversation is pure exposition. There’s no banter, no subtext, no verbal conflict (Reed and Victor never disagree while working together, Johnny and Ben say maybe four lines directly to each other), it’s nothing but explanations about what’s going on.

That character is done in such broad strokes may be forgivable, were the characters given anything to do. But they aren’t. There’s never any conflict until Victor reappears and decides to be evil in the final thirty-odd minutes. In fact, Reed — the protagonist — only makes three clear decisions. First he decides to use his teleporter/transporter himself. Second, he decides to escape from the government base. Finally, he decides to fight Victor since, well, they’ve all been sucked into the other world and might as well. Only the first one is earned, and that’s only because we’ve spent the first half of the movie watching Reed work on the damn machine. To call Reed and the others boring is a disservice to boring characters: they do nothing, have no opinion on anything, and hardly react to the plot. He’s as bad as Bella Swan, and he’s the best character the movie has to offer.

We crave for stories. We want narrative to happen, characters to be introduced, conflict to break out, and resolution to give us closure. Fantastic Four does none of that.

Nothing happens.

No one changes.

It just is.

And that is terrible. Don’t do that.

Please.

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Importance of Different Narratives

Narratives are important. They don’t just affect how we interpret events happening around us, but influence the way we see the world. Stories tell us what to expect.

The question then is what narrative do we hear? Chances are, there’s an ‘accepted’ version of it all. Y’know the saying about history being written by the victors? That’s the thing about narratives: they tend to be established by whoever’s in power (usually meaning white, male, and wealthy). The problem is, that’s not everyone’s story.

There’s a great TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie about how there needs to be more narratives out there. She talks about how, growing up in Nigeria, she would read a lot of British books and thus, when she started writing her own stories, they were about traipsing about in the heather and drinking ginger beer and doing other things that were decidedly not typical of Nigeria. Because when people begin to accept one narrative and see themselves as the Other, there’s a hesitation to embracing that Other, even if it’s your story. The epiphany for Adichie was realizing that stories didn’t have to be about that; that she could tell a story about her own life. So she created narratives that were ‘different,’ but normal.

So we need more narratives. Different ones. Ones about different people, by different people.

It’s one of the big reasons I’ve really been loving Marvel’s recent work. I’m not talking about the MCU here — which tend to employ white dudes named Chris — but rather the comics. Marvel’s done quite the shake-up in their titles recently, adding a lot more women and people who aren’t white.

Sometimes it can be simple things. Silk features Cindy Moon, who was bitten by the same spider as Peter Parker, but instead of having an uncle Ben she was locked away in a bunker for ten years. Now out, she’s adjusting to the normal world while looking for her missing family. That Cindy’s both Asian and female isn’t overly important, but she does facilitate a new story. With that, she’s also a new face in comics that’s not another white guy.

These new stories can be really interesting. There was some outrage when Sam Wilson, who used to be Falcon, took over as Captain America from Steve Rogers. Some people said it was just a political correctness move, a plot to sell more comics because diversity. Thing is, Sam Wilson makes for a very interesting Captain America. Yes, he’s trying to live up to Steve’s reputation, but there’s the added depth from just who he is. The son of a Harlem preacher, Sam tries to father his father’s example best as he can while he, a black man, takes on Hydra — who still show shades of their Nazi roots. Sam as Cap is very different from Steve as Cap. There’s the story of a black man representing the US and taking over the mantle. It’s interesting, it’s new, and it represents someone else.

Perhaps the most interesting new face is Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel. Kamila is fourteen, a total fangirl, and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants to New Jersey. She’s a lot like Peter Parker of old, a teenager thrust into superheroing and wrestling with all that means. Alongside that is her own personal life. Ms. Marvel is in many ways a story about identity: it’s Kamala as Inhuman, Muslim, an immigrant daughter, and a teenager. Each attribute affects her adventures; she finds solace at Attilan with the other Inhumans, but lessons from her Imam help her grapple with the heaviness of being a superhero. Kamala’s story is unlike many others in fiction in general, let alone comics. Importantly, her narratives says that anyone can be a superhero.

So yeah, narratives are important. Diversifying a cast lets more and different stories be told. And all this is hardly touching on the topic of representation, which is important too. Let’s not have just one narrative in fiction, like Adichie says, let’s bring more in and create more normals. Let’s tell more stories.

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In Search of Story

I have spent entirely too much of my life playing The Sims. Seriously, since I was first sent a copy of the game by my cousin in 2002 I’ve logged endless hours in the original game and its sequels. I’ve bought expansion packs and borrowed them from friends.

What I’m saying is I’ve played a lotta Sims.

Now, The Sims is one of those games that there are many ways to play. Personally, I got through my burning/starving/drowning phase relatively quickly (though I do enjoy revisiting it) and moved on to trying to make my Sims as rich as possible. When Sims 2 introduced family trees I’d craft magnificent family ties and recently in Sims 3 I’ve been trying to create some mildly bizarre characters with the intention of forming a dynasty and/or soap opera-esque melodramas.

All this to say, within The Sims I am constantly creating stories. It may be Jack and Tracy falling in love, Paul Tay fathering two dozen children by half as many women, or Hope the firefighter-adventurer fighting fires and adventuring. Within The Sims, a game with ostensibly no real goal. I find myself actively seeking out narrative.

Why?

When you tell someone about the time you ran into Mike Wilson from High School at the grocery store you don’t just say “I ran into Mike Wilson at the grocery store and it was odd.” No, you make it into a story: “So the other day I was at the grocery store [set up], and you won’t believe who I saw [build up]. Mike Wilson from High School [inciting incident]!”

See, story is how we process things. We, as people, naturally want there to be an arc to events. We want the end to be resolved — it’s what the whole notion of getting closure is all about. To this effect, we see narrative everywhere.

Like in sports. According to friends of mine who actually know about these things, a lot of investment in something involves the narrative of the adventure. Look at the recent Women’s World Cup; the US was once again facing Japan in the finals. Where last time Japan won, this time the US were able to pull of a victory. It’s exciting because, for the Americans, there was a comeback narrative. Had the US won the last three World Cups too, another victory wouldn’t have had as much impact as this one did. Even look at the Men’s World Cup, where interest in the US team piqued when, hey, they had a chance of making it to the Round of 16. Suddenly, there was a story to the sport.

Narrative shapes everything. Much of American propaganda in the Cold War had the country presenting itself as the underdogs against the Evil Empire of the Soviets. Because an underdog narrative is far more sympathetic than one of domination. Creating a story around the war inspired patriotism and helped make sense of it all. Just as it’s more interesting for a Sim who’s been having a real lousy go of it to turn their life around, the United States painting itself as the dogged good guys trying to do right legitimized their cause.

Because we want life to make sense. So much of The Sims is about making something happen. Drowning a family is (sociopathic) fun in and of itself, but it’s more fun if you make their best friend watch. There’s a lot more fulfillment to be found in making a Sim pursue a career rather than to hop from job to job (unless there’s a reason for that too). In chaos, be it life, war, or The Sims, there’s a want for order: story gives it that order. Because yes, there is a purpose to slowly starving virtual people.

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Another Life

I’m me. That’s pretty obvious. I’m a biracial guy in my mid-twenties who lives in New York. I’ve had my own relatively interesting life, but at the end of the day it’s mine. Barring some crazy The Matrix or Total Recall-esque invention, I’m only ever going to live my life. It’s the only experience I’ll get.

Well, outside of certain kinds of fiction. Fiction offers a window into someone else’s life. The thing is, it’s hard to really make someone experience that life. Doesn’t matter how expertly crafted the movie is, at the end of the day you’re watching someone else’s life, not experiencing it first hand. You’ve no actual involvement.

Books can be a little better, as can let you actually into a character’s mind. Something like Ulysses is an exercise in empathy. There’s very little actual plot to the story, rather the catharsis and enjoyment of the story comes from being someone else. I got to spend a day in the head of an Irish man in his thirties in 1904. It was weird, somewhat long, but a completely new experience. Few books can really make you feel like you are someone else, let alone at this level.

So ‘normal’ narrative isn’t really that good at giving you another life. But video games are. Video games are an experiential medium, rather than being a spectator, in a good game the player experiences the narrative. In The Last of Us I got to be a father trying to protect his daughter. Hopefully, I’ll never have to carry my daughter through a crowd of zombie-esque people, but the game gave me that experience. And because I ended up so invested in the action — after all, I was the one trying to protect her — the ensuing story progression was that much more visceral. I got to be Joel.

It’s part of what makes action games like Halo or Uncharted such fun. You’re not vicariously taking part of the action, like when watching Bruce Willis Die Hard his way through Nakatomi Plaza, instead you get to be the action hero. Halo has you fighting off aliens while Uncharted 2 lets you run across the rooftops escaping from an attack helicopter. The player gets to be the action hero.

But it’s not all fireworks and zombies. Papers Please has the player as an immigration officer in a country that’s not unlike a Cold War USSR. Gameplay centers around making sure travelers have the right documents to cross over, and then rejecting or allowing them. This means double checking stamps and forms with a precision that gave me too many flashbacks to my time as a temp at a law firm. There are some choices too, like whether you help the resistance or if you’ll let the old lady with the sob story over even though everything’s not quite in order. But the strongest aspect of Papers Please is the experience. Suddenly I found myself caring a lot more for immigration officers at the airport, since for a few hours at a time I’d gotten to be them. I wasn’t just told their story, I got to live it for a while.

It’s fun to be someone else for a while, to not just be told someone else’s story, but to actually experience it. When games give you choices (from small ones like how best to get through a group of guards in Uncharted to major ones in Mass Effect where which squad member you assign to a task risks their death), they let you take an active part in the narrative. Storytelling then stops being a spectator sport and lets the audience be a part of it.

So yeah. Games are a fantastic method of telling stories.

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The Pay Off

I liked Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. when it first aired. Its potential was a big reason, as was, well, bits with characters. There was little else like it on tv and hey, I’m always on board for something science fiction, especially if it’s in the Marvel-verse.

Granted, the show meandered for quite a while, but I enjoyed it all the same for what it was. Monster-of-the-week and decent characters, so hey, I was in. Then the show got good. Really good.We’re a solid eight episodes into Season 2 and these episodes show how strong the show has gotten. It’s been a long time coming but following the show has finally paid off.

So what’s SHIELD been doing right? Or, more to the point, what’s the show doing that makes it successful? The biggest difference between where the show is now and where it was a year ago is the clear presence of a proper overarching villain: Hydra. Antagonists are driving forces in serial fiction, often creating tension and giving individual episodes weight. Chuck had an evil spy agency per year, season 1 of Buffy had The Master. Now, in the latest season, the heroes in SHIELD have to try to stay one step ahead of their antagonists, lending a sense of urgency to what they do.

Developed characters are vital too. In lieu of an active antagonist, early seasons of Lost forced the disparate survivors together, creating tension where personalities clashed. We even got to know them better through extensive flashbacks, fleshing out who they were and giving context to what they did. SHIELD’s characters had hints of depth early on, but not much was done with them. On occasion they were pushed a little further, like exploring Fitz and Simmons in “F.Z.Z.T.”, but for much of the first season they pretty much were who they were. Not so in Season 2. Introducing a handful of new agents adds the variety of characters and SHIELD now mixes them up in interesting ways. For example, pairing former lovers Bobbi and Lance is comedic but can also yield strong dramatic beats, especially when accompanied by the no-nonsense May to play intermediator. Giving Fitz a bromance with fellow engineer Mac lets us have some good character moments for everyone involved. We get to learn more about each one by changing the dynamics and relationships, giving us more compelling reasons to connect to and invest in the characters.

The villains too have been amped up. The end of the most recent episode (“The Things We Bury”) saw Ward, Whitehall, and Skye’s father entering into a sort of unholy alliance. It’s remarkable that these three characters, two of whom have only been around from the start of this season, are at the point where we as the audience are aware of their own motivations and goals: Whitehall wants to further Hydra’s goals, the doctor wants to reunite with his daughter, and Ward is a wildcard who could do anything. We know that they’re willing to backstab each other and cut deals with the heroes for their own ends, so seeing them together creates not just interpersonal tension, but an interesting foe for our protagonists to face off against. At this point, the villains are as interesting as the heroes, and their interactions are diabolically layered with veiled subtext.

SHIELD too is really getting its hands dirty with the general Marvel universe at large. It’s not just paying lip service to Extremis like it did early in the first season and it’s not just reacting to Hydra’s reveal like it did after The Winter SoldierRather it’s blazing its own trail, bringing in elements of the from the comics we haven’t seen on screen. With the show looking to introduce the hidden city of Attilan anytime now, Agents of SHIELD is probably going to feature the Inhumans a solid couple years before the movie about them is slated to be released. The show’s coming into its own, not just with characters but with its array of plot and elements of the Marvel mythos.

It may not have started out as strong as it could have, let alone one of the best shows on air, but watching it has really begun to pay off. And I’m really enjoying it ‘cuz we always need more good tv.

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In Defense of Destiny’s Story

I talk about video games a lot on this blog, because I love them and play a lot of them. I also write about storytelling because it’s kinda my thing. Now, there’s a lot to say about video game narrative, which, honestly, can apply to narrative in general. Games are special because narrative — or even story of any sort — isn’t necessary for a good game (See: Pacman, or better yet,Pong).

But, contrary to what game designers like Jonathan Blow think, games can tell excellent stories. Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is an emotional story that rivals great film and has found its way into many of my papers for school. Bungie too has told great stories through the Halo games. No, they may not on the same level as The Last of Us, but the original trilogy did tell a solid story, ODSThad great characters, and Reach was genuinely sad at times. All of these games are very linear and have a very traditional narrative. Which is great.

Destiny, on the other hand, is very loosely linear. There are story missions for you to do, but there’s no urgency with which you have to do them, and thus you can spend plenty of time exploring the world at large and taking on side missions. Story information itself is dispersed through the occasional story-focused cutscene and through bits of dialogue with your companion, the AI Ghost. This all to say, there’s very little in the way of explicit storytelling.

The game’s gotten a lot of flak for this. Here’s this grand expansive world with hints of incredible backstory, but where’s the actual story? Where’s the character development? Where’re the big arcs and twists? The story, apparently, feels too nebulous to be worthwhile. Granted, the gameplay more than makes up for it, but the way its critics see it, a weak story is Destiny’s greatest flaw.

But Destiny’s story isn’t weak, it’s open. Modern Warfare 2 had a woefully weak story, with underdeveloped characters and a plot that made very little sense. Sure, it was spelled out for you, but there really wasn’t much there. See, a lot of Destiny is conveyed through spatial and environmental storytelling. The very world of Destiny: the ancient ruins on Venus, the decaying colony on the Moon, the colonyships in Old Russia’s Cosmodrome; they all harken to something older and greater than what we see now. Mentions of the fall, of the Hive taking over the Moon, all this hint at something big. This is what Destiny does: the incredible world building does much of the heavy narrative lifting. Those scraps of story which, combined with the Grimoire accessed online or through the companion app, paint a great world for the player to inhabit. In there you go on these missions and carry out the main story, with lots of empty spaces in between.

These empty spaces is where you come in. Destiny wants you to use your imagination. There’s so much empty space in the story it’s easy to fill it up with your own ideas as to what happened. It’s like playing with your toys again, where you’re given the character and a little bit of story and let lose to make up how it plays out. This is the strength of Destiny’s story: Your imagination. Yes, it’s drastically different from a lot of modern — or even adult — storytelling, but it’s this open-endedness that sets Destiny apart. Here the player is free to create their own story. The nature of fireteams, the backstory of your Guardian, even some of the relations between characters, it’s all up to you.

This is what I’m loving as I play through Destiny, the freedom to wander through the world. I’m still not yet done with the game (almost finished the last mission on Venus) due to not only real life commitments, but also plain getting distracted by every Patrol mission and Strike in Destiny. But unlike Assassin’s Creed 4 where spending hours sidetrack hurt the plot’s pacing and any emotional attachment; Destiny’s side-missions and even competitive multiplayer feel like an addition to the overall narrative arch. It’s as if Bungie’s opening up a big sandbox and inviting you to play.

 

For more on spatial and environmental storytelling, read Henry Jenkins’ Game Design as Narrative Architecture. If you have a PS3 and want to play Destiny with someone cool, let me know.

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