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Videogames and Narrative: It’s a Matter of Perspective

Every new entertainment medium has its own strengths to offer a potential audience.

Literature allows us to explore inner monologue and focus on granular details in a way that stage plays simply can’t. Theatre gives us an opportunity to draw on our own observations and infer intent between the lines of an actor’s performance. Film allows us to draw on spectacle and create meaning through the juxtaposition of images in a way that was unimaginable a few decades ago.

While each of these disciplines draws on the successes of the others, the greatest expressions of their form, the masterpieces of the medium, play directly to the strengths inherent within the mechanics of their form.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions has long been considered unfilmable, and for good reason. It’s a novel of ideas that relies not so much on the interplay between its characters but on the existential meditation on the death of the American dream constructed by Vonnegut’s brilliant prose.

Anton Chekov’s The Seagull requires an ensemble cast of players to enact a kind of double-blind performance on the audience, simultaneously playing the earnest intent of each character’s motivation while retaining a feel for the absurdist nature of the events unfolding.

Orson Well’s Citizen Kane altered the course of an entire industry when film makers suddenly realised that a camera could have an opinion all its own instead of simply framing a playwright’s work in static proscenium.

Filmmaking is now in its golden age and while it will continue to develop, as all art does, it’s facing a future of diminishing returns where innovation is concerned. Video games, on the other hand, are in their infancy and if they’re going to mature its time to step out from the shadow of Papa filmmaking and learn what makes games unique as an art form.

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I’m going to pick on Naughty Dog for a second here. It’s not that I hate Naughty Dog or its incredible portfolio of games at all; quite the contrary. Naughty Dog has produced some of the best arguments for narrative depth that gaming has ever produced. But all that depth was clearly plumbed from a tremendous love and respect for cinema.

And that seems to be where the industry wants to take itself as incredible experiences like The Last of Us gain near universal critical and popular acclaim.

The cinematic experience is the thing now. Videogames should be beautifully choreographed, interactive movies. There’s just one problem with that: movies are better at delivering a linear narrative than games are. The industry will never beat film at its own game, just ask theatre how futile that struggle is.

The disconnect the audience feels from the protagonist of a cinematic drama allows us to relinquish control and cede our disbelief to the story being told. We have no effect on the action taking place so we have no say in the outcome. It’s an important contract between writers and their audience at the outset of a new work: “let me tell you about the characters so that you’ll accept their actions going forward”.

The problem with games is that a player is ostensibly free to take whatever action they see fit and, when that action is at odds with the character of their established avatar, they feel a dissonance between action and intent, pulling them from this suspension.

The true strength of video games as a narrative art form doesn’t lie in the first or even third-person narrative style most commonly found in storytelling. No, video games are, perhaps, the first medium to feel entirely at home within the second-person. Instead of I, me, he, she, they, games should start exploring the artistic merit of you.

Let’s use the incomparable Portal 2 as an example, as I think it might be the best use case for second-person narrative in all of gaming.

Sure, there is a character named Chell who exists in some of Valve’s marketing material but as far as the game world is concerned Chell is nothing more than a cipher who is never seen, heard from, nor accurately described by any other character in the game. Chell is not a clearly defined protagonist with thoughts, feelings, goals, or interests, she is a phantasm inhabited by the player throught your journey to Aperture Science.

In most games, Chell would become an avatar from which a first or third person perspective on the narrative would derive. In the third person, you, the player, would be asked to identify with the object that is Chell as she goes on her journey. In the first person, you would be placed in Chell’s shoes and asked to act as a passenger within her psyche. In either case, the player is a step or two removed from a direct relationship with the events unfolding before them. However, by reducing Chell to a cipher, a blank slate that carries nothing but what the player brings with them, the player is afforded the opportunity to directly interact with the world in a way that’s transformational.

Suddenly the player is not a semi-active observer watching the other but is, instead, a willing participant invested in everything happening on the screen. This all but eliminates ludo-narrative dissonance as there is no longer an established history separate from that of the player to draw upon in order to contextualise the actions they choose to take.

Everything the player does is done because they do it and requires no further analysis. It also increases immersion as the narrative is now directly addressing the player as the agent of change in its world instead of placing the responsibility on a detached personality the player is merely asked to identify with.

No other artistic medium has ever possessed the kind of potential for a second-person address that video games have. Sure, it’s been attempted in literature and film before but it’s of limited utility in a non-interactive art form. Without the ability to direct the action to some degree you’re still only accepting the actions dictated by the narrator upon the protagonist no matter the pronoun in use.

In order for video games to take those first, fleeting step into their artistic renaissance I think it’s important for developers to begin taking advantage of this unique ability to place an audience at the centre of the narrative and utilise their own personality and experiences instead of merely cribbing the shorthand that has made other visual mediums so successful.

Until that happens, games will remain little more than the envious siblings of film and television, hoping to outshine their brethren by following in their footsteps instead striking out on a path all their own.

Wesley is a writer and actor living in Chicago in a tiny studio apartment who spends his days gaming, reading comic books, watching TV and occasionally going to his day job. He's been playing games since the Atari 2600, has owned every major Nintendo system, and thinks Chrono Trigger is the greatest game ever made. He plays everything he can get his hands on except for sports titles, racing simulators and RTS games.