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A Case Study in Narrative Design

Half rant, half case study, this long entry discusses the implications of implicit versus explicit narrative in video games. It also does a fair amount of complaining.

Douglas Lynn, Blogger

May 5, 2011

24 Min Read

Below is a passage I originally wrote back in September in response to the massive amounts of hate that were spewed for Metroid: Other M, a game which, while flawed, made me understand the meaning of the term “nerdgasm.”  In terms of overall presentation, it’s one of my favorite games of all time.  As I began my rant, I noted an interesting case study appearing.  I continued my line of thinking into a discussion of the differences between implicit and explicit game narrative, the emotional power of implicit narrative, and the largely unrealized potential video games have over traditional forms of narrative delivery.  In early April, I posted this essay to my blog, "Welcome to Gameland".

This admittedly unorganized essay is half case study and half fan rant, resulting in a work that jumps around a bit and gets a little…well, fanboyish.  Regardless, I’ve tried to make some points about game writing.  Prepare 8 or 9 sheets of A4 and make of it what you will.


Now that I’ve had time to cool down and return to normal following my combat high and subsequent crash, I wanted to mention the fact that I find this game to be a fascinating case study in game writing.  Other M finds itself in a unique position in terms of narrative.  Most game franchises already have an established storytelling format with well-established characters.  Nintendo, however, has a long history of not recognizing character traits in their lead characters.  It isn’t so much that Nintendo characters historically have no motivations or relationships, but rather that Nintendo characters have been built almost entirely through implicit narrative and gameplay.  Nintendo characters have a tendency to not speak, even when being spoken to by other characters. 

A key example is The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.  Though the story is told largely through cutscenes, the speech is all executed with text.  Even without the prospect of voice acting, however, Nintendo’s golden boy isn’t permitted to say anything.  Occasionally, in a cutscene, Link will be need to tell something to another character.  The other character will begin the conversation, then preface Link’s speech with something like, “Huh?  What’s that you say, boy?”  The scene will then fade to black, fade back in, and the character will “respond” to what Link has just “said.”  It works somewhat in this scenario since previous events make clear to the player the gist of what Link is saying.  Still, it can feel pretty forced and silly to see the scene deliberately omitting a potentially important speech by the main character.

This is where Metroid comes in.  Metroid has followed a similar philosophy of using implicit narrative for a long time.  Samus was at least given some identifiable character traits through some short monologues and scripted events.  In Metroid II: Return of Samus, she spares the life of the last infant metroid on SR388, and players are unable to do anything about it.  This, however, chiefly serves to establish the plot of the next game.  Appropriately enough, it’s in Super Metroid, that next game, where Samus first provides her first brief monologue, very matter-of-factly explaining the events that set up the game.  Still, out of the first three games, we’re left with only one identifiable trait for the character – she’s merciful.  Of course, given that she saved (more or less) one life out of thousands, even that’s somewhat debatable.  Not only that, the one life she saved, she proceeded to simply hand over to scientists for biological studies.

In response, we have two different paths.  In one corner, we have Metroid Fusion and Zero Mission; in the other, we have the Metroid Prime trilogy.  Fusion, in following Super Metroid and being produced by many of the same staff members, continues to build on the narrative structure established by Return of Samus and Super.  The monologues Samus presents in Fusion begin to paint a bit more of a picture in regards to her thought processes, but in being presented through text once again, they do little to provide emotional context.  She even has a conversation with another character, but it experiences the same setback.  Some simple responses, such as “!” or “…”, show an effort to convey a way of thinking, but provides little in the way of deeper emotion.  Does “!” imply surprise?  Shock?  Anger?  Awe?  Only the writers know this answer for sure.  Nintendo provides players with an outlook of what Samus thinks about, but not much in regards to how she feels about it.  Players are still left as the chief creators of the character, and it stands to reason that what players think and feel as they go through the game become the emotions and thoughts that they pin onto Samus.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but it does seem to have caused quite a rift to develop in the fan base.

Prime, on the other hand, focuses less on the thoughts of Samus and more on providing atmosphere through backstory.  Through the lore and research scans players make, information becomes available about Samus’s relationships as delivered from outside sources.  Space Pirates complain about her raids and Chozo talk about finding her and make reference to her fighting prowess.  A few cutscenes throughout the games of the trilogy suggest a certain stoicism and hint at the “merciful” tone again, but a lack of speech (Samus doesn’t speak one word in the course of the trilogy, even in text) and a… limited use of facial expressions restricts the amount of information that can be deciphered about what sort of character she really is.  The player, once again, is left to construct his or her own vision of what’s going on behind the eyes.

The Prime trilogy represents perhaps the most extreme presentation on implicit narrative in the entire series, mainly through its first-person perspective.  The interface design of Metroid Prime clearly goes to great pains to suggest that you, the player, are standing inside a metal suit, looking through the visor.  Various fluids and gases, from water and steam to insect guts, spray onto and run off of your visor in various ways.  However, Prime also takes this a step further by adding in a reflection of Samus’s eyes when a bright flash occurs, and for the first time, providing a vocal grunt upon taking damage.  These final two items are used to suggest to players that they are not the ones walking around in this suit – they are a completely different person.  At first, it seems like these two concepts are at odds.  The interaction of exterior elements with the “visor” implies that players are inside the suit, while the depiction of interior elements, like Samus’s eyes, implies that it is Samus, not the player, inside the suit.  However, what this interface design achieves is a combination of an “implicit” technique (you are the person inside the suit) with an “explicit” technique (Samus Aran is the person inside the suit) to create an effect that is actually more implicit in nature than the initial.  Instead of canceling each other out, the effects are cumulative, leading to an end result of “You are Samus Aran.”

Okay, perhaps I’m being a little overly-dramatic about an interface design, but this sort of effect is what makes the video game medium unique.  People often tout the fact that interactivity is what differentiates games from media such as film.  It’s true that interactivity is a big part of what makes a game a game, but in looking at video games as a storytelling medium, the real key is the implicit narrative derived from this interactivity.  “Choose-your-own-adventure” novels have been utilizing a second-person format for years to generate interactivity much in the same way as games, a style reflected in many of the early text adventures.  “You see the door to the King’s chambers at the end of a long hallway.  Another door lies to your right.  Which way do you choose to go?”  The reader (or player) then makes a choice, which carries with it certain consequences.  Since the player is responsible for making the choice, the player is the one who accepts the consequences.

Our personalities are characterized by the choices we make, the consequences they yield, and how we respond to those consequences.  Since the game character’s choices are produced by the player, the two individuals share very similar personalities.  It’s fairly natural to assume, under such circumstances, that the player might experience a certain understanding of the character’s motivations, mannerisms, and ways of thinking.  After all, the player and character share the same experiences and choices – they have an intimate knowledge of each other. 

Another interesting dynamic also takes shape in this situation.  Games are designed, created, and written by a group of people that may or may not share personality traits with the player.  The designers and writers work to create the situations and settings that generate the decisions the player encounters.  Many times, a game situation will have a very specific set of circumstances that must be followed in order to achieve the desired result.  A video game, particularly one centered around a plot or character, has a clearly-defined ending point.  Thus, if a player makes a choice that results in the game ending prematurely (e.g., being killed in a boss battle), the player knows that this was the wrong choice to make.  If the game character’s implied thoughts were entirely based upon the thoughts of the player, this would indeed be the end of the game.  However, in making a wrong choice and being aware that it was the wrong choice to make, the player can go back again and make a different choice.  The game’s creators have an idea of the choice that would be made to produce the desired result, and the character’s following of these choices will eventually lead to the end of the game.  As a result, the game character has a defined way of thinking – a personality that is derived from the game’s structure.  It’s true that the player controls the choices made by the character, but the game controls the consequences of those choices.  In order for the player to reach the end of the game, he or she must make choices that correspond to those that the character would make.  The end result?  The player has a style of thinking that is projected onto the character, but at the same time, the character has a way of thinking that is projected onto the player.

The relationship between the player, the player character, and the rest of the game is very much a subconscious one in an implicit narrative.  There’s a constant conversation throughout the process of developing the narrative.  It goes something like this: 

GAME: Who are you? 

PLAYER: I am me. 

GAME: Not anymore, you’re not. 

PLAYER: Oh…okay, so who am I? 

GAME: You are this game character. 

PLAYER: Okay.  What’s my motivation? 

GAME: For now, you’re trying not to die.  Is that motivation enough? 

PLAYER: Works for me. 

GAME: Alright.  Here’s a problem for you.  This is Art Intel.  We call him A.I.  He’s playing a character we call “The Situation.” 

SITUATION: My horrible deadliness of deadly death-bringing is the “situation”! 

PLAYER: He seems like kind of a jerk. 

GAME: Trust me, he knows what he’s doing.  Now, A.I. here is going to try to kill you.  ACTION! 

SITUATION: Here I come! 

PLAYER: I’ll do…this! 

(The Player performs an action.) 

SITUATION: You shouldn’t have done that. 

PLAYER: Why not? 

SITUATION: Because I’m going to do THIS! 

(The Situation performs an action.) 

GAME: And cut.  You’re dead. 

PLAYER: Oh dear…can I try again? 

GAME: Sure.  Take him down, A.I.  ACTION! 

SITUATION: Here I come again! 

PLAYER: Okay, I’ll do…THIS! 

(The Player performs a new action.) 

SITUATION: Oh.  Damn.  I don’t have a good response for that. 

(The Situation dies.  There is much rejoicing.) 

GAME: And cut.  Well done.  So, your character survived this problem by doing ‘this.’  I like it.  Cut and print.  Moving on… 

PLAYER: When do I get paid? 

GAME: When you finish the rest of the movie.  Shut up and do your job. 

PLAYER: Don’t go giving me lip!  I signed on as Executive Producer.  If I leave, this movie NEVER gets made! 

GAME: …Touché.

The limits of a game’s design generate the “personality” of the player character.  The player operates within these parameters by making a series of decisions.  As the player’s base personality is limited by the design and the character’s actions are controlled by the player, the personalities of the character and player slowly merge.  The closer these personalities become to being one cohesive unit, the better the player becomes at the game.  The player “understands” the character.

For all of these reasons, implicit narrative is a very powerful tool in generating an emotional connection between the player and the character.  A player who becomes very good at a game quite literally thinks just as the character would.  This connection, however, doesn’t necessarily apply to a non-gameplay situation.  While a player and character may deal with a situation in the same way, their reasoning behind the action may be completely different.  The character’s motivations are imaginary, of course, but they do theoretically exist within the context of the game environment.  Consequently, a large gray area is left in which those deeper questions of “why” reside.  Implicit narrative leaves that area open for interpretation.  It’s assumed or invented – hence the very name, “implicit narrative.”  Players can choose to invent or ignore their characters’ reasoning for actions that are performed in the game.

Explicit narrative exists in games to help colorize the gray area.  By its very nature, explicit narrative is something very simple.  Explicit narrative deals with closing that window for interpretation by stating, with certainty, the facts behind a character or event.   In a way, explicit narrative is harder to explain than implicit narrative simply because essentially every human being on the planet knows more or less what it is.  Explicit narrative is what we usually describe as a story (though “story” and “narrative” are technically different concepts).  It has a specific series of events contained within it.  Its plot is objective – it plays out the same way for every person who experiences the story, as opposed to the more subjective plot of an implicit narrative, which can vary for each person.  Any complete sentence ending with a period or exclamation point (including this one) displays explicit narrative.

The Metroid series, for the first 15 years of its existence, was centered almost entirely upon implicit narrative.  This is hardly surprising – games of the 8- and even 16-bit eras simply didn’t possess the processing power to depict high levels of explicit narrative elements, except through text.  Regardless, many games, particularly RPGs, took full advantage of what was available to provide an explicit plot for players.  The original Metroid had next to nothing to do with these sorts of elements.  The bulk of Metroid’s explicit narrative is presented in the user manual through the background story.  Beyond that, there are only two real bits of exposition in the game – a block of text in the opening titles explaining the mission (essentially an abridged version of the manual’s story), and a second block of text at the end of the game warning players of the potential threats elsewhere in the galaxy, closing out the game and setting up very loose potential for a sequel.

Again, this sort of thing isn’t all that unusual in a game of this era.  Explicit narrative, however, is laid out not just in elements such as blocks of text, but also in a game’s very structure.  Metroid not only lacks explicit narrative outside of the game space, but it even had little explicit narrative within its game structure.  Games built upon a linear level structure, such as the classic Super Mario Bros. games, are laid out in an explicit way.  Players progress through organized “plot points” by traveling from Level 1 to Level 2 and so on, developing a story that is, to some degree, the same for every player.  Nonlinear adventure games don’t offer such a rigid structure.  Players may pass from Area 1 to Area 4 back through to Area 2 however they choose.  Metroid follows the latter structure, but also does as many nonlinear games do – it lays out a certain sequence to be followed based upon a “lock-and-key” system.  Players must perform specific tasks in order to move on.  By forcing players to progress along this sequence, the game establishes a certain degree of explicit narrative.

Before moving on, however, it’s important to mention another characteristic of the Metroid series that has generated an entire subset of fans – sequence breaking.  Sequence breaking – the practice of violating the game’s established sequence of events – is a defining piece of the series for many fans.  It demonstrates significant attention to detail and great skill, but in addition, it provides another interesting quality in the dynamic of Metroid’s narrative.  For a serious sequence breaker, the entire structure of the game breaks down.  The established plot points can be mixed, warped, or even skipped altogether.  As a result, the elements of explicit narrative presented by the game structure also cease to exist, making for a story almost entirely determined by player actions.  The character-to-player connections established by implicit narrative become even more thorough as the player and character not only share decisions on how to overcome in-game obstacles, but also work as one to overcome the obstacle of the game itself.  The conversation between the player and game becomes more like this:

GAME: Alright.  Here’s a problem for you.  This is Art Intel.  We call him A.I.  He’s playing a character we call “The Situation.”

(The Player stands off to the side, chatting with Little Bug, another supporting actor, who also happens to be romantically involved with the Game.)

GAME: Player?

PLAYER: Huh?  Oh, sorry, I was just chatting with Little Bug over here.  You know, she was telling me about how she thinks you should write her into the script.

GAME: I really don’t think that’s a good idea.

LITTLE BUG: Excuse me?

GAME: I mean, no offense, Little Bug, but you really shouldn’t be here in the first place.  You’re not an actor or anything.  I just brought you along because, well, what can I say…we’re inseparable.

BUG: Aw, that’s nice.  But I was thinking, as long as I’m here… 

PLAYER: Yeah, I mean, can’t I do a scene with her?  I mean, she just seems so cool.  I really feel like she’d enhance the script. 

GAME: Do you know how much trouble I went through to get Art Intel on this project?  I really feel like he’s the best choice for… 

BUG: I don’t like A.I.  He strikes me as a bit of a jerk. 

GAME: Come on, Player, we’ve got a script all made up here.  I mean, there’s a lot of improv involved in this project, but that’s just in the specifics.  You’re talking about changing the entire structure of this movie. 

PLAYER: No, no, hold on a second.  I can totally see it.  What if I do something like this?  

(The Player performs an action.) 

PLAYER: Bug doesn’t even have to do anything!  She can just be herself and be brilliant! 

GAME: But… 

PLAYER: You know what?  I’m the Executive Producer here.  I’ll figure out how we’re spending the money.  Someone roll the cameras!  I want to try this out. 

GAME: *Sigh.*  A.I., go wait in your trailer.  I’ll call if we need you. 

SITUATION: I hate you all. 

(A.I. storms off, ignoring the scene being played out.) 

PLAYER: …And then I do this, and this, and THIS!  Ha ha! 

GAME: I’ll give him credit…he’s certainly committed to the role. 

By having more control over the game, the player subsequently increases the level of implicit narrative and decreases the level of explicit narrative presented.  When you consider the connection between player and character personality, it’s likely fair to assume that an avid Metroid sequence-breaker might tend to view Samus as being a tiny bit more rebellious and independent than would someone who feels tied down to the structure of the game.

Sequence-breakers make up a large segment of the fan base for the three “classic” Metroid games – Metroid, Metroid II, and especially Super Metroid.  In these fans, you have the group that is most heavily exposed to the implicit narrative the series provides.  Ironically enough, through being devoted fans of the series and the character in this way, their views on the specifics of what sort of person Samus is tend to vary considerably.  For players following the established sequence of events, Samus’s personality and style of thinking become more explicit.  (As previously discussed, the game character’s “personality” is projected onto the player via the nature of the game’s victory conditions.  In the case of “average” players, more of the character is projected onto the player – in the case of sequence-breakers, more of the player is projected onto the character.)

So where does this take us?  We had begun a discussion on Metroid Prime’s interface, and how this presentation greatly facilitates the development of implicit narrative.  However, the Prime trilogy also presents some significant steps forward in the series’ use of explicit narrative.  Again, we turn to an interface tool – the Scan Visor.  At first glance, it seems innocuous enough – it’s a device which allows the player to gather information, particularly on enemies and environments.  The team at Retro Studios decided to take this a step further, though, by providing “Lore” objects to be scanned.  Depending on how involved a player chooses to get, the Scan Visor becomes not just a tactical tool, but a thorough plot-delivery system.

Regardless of how much implicit and explicit narrative is presented in Metroid Prime, the narrative is still presented largely externally from Samus herself.  Lore entries may detail Samus’s past or present, but they do so from an outside perspective.  This system, though utilizing explicit narrative techniques, still preserves the integrity of the developing implicit narrative.  It does, however, serve as a sort of half-step into the text-based explicit-narrative-heavy Metroid Fusion, released at the same time.  With Fusion attempting to move towards a more character-based narrative, the Prime trilogy expanded its own explicit narrative, leaning towards a more plot-driven structure.  Metroid Prime 3 even featured full-on voice acting for the first time, though Samus herself remained silent.  Even with the combination of all of these storytelling elements throughout the series, a vast amount of space was still left open for interpretation.

This is what brings us to Other M.  Over the course of the series, a series spanning 23 years, the most that had been overtly explained about Samus, at least in terms of character traits, is that she has a merciful side (possibly) and is a highly skilled and powerful warrior.  Also, she has a certain respect for the late Adam Malkovich, though in what regard is not entirely clear.  It’s suggested that she’s a bit more intelligent (or perhaps a more accurate term is “wiser”) than the average Galactic Federation official.  One could also use the term “stoic,” though this is, to some degree, only implied.  The entire remainder of her character traits are based on the minds of the players, and each view tends to be a little bit different.  With so many gaps to fill, fans had the opportunity to sculpt whatever character they wanted to fit the bill.  Thus, it’s not that surprising that so many fans reacted so strongly to the depiction of Samus provided in Other M.

Fans on the disgruntled end of the spectrum used words like “weak,” “subservient,” “scared,” “emotional,” “desperate,” and even “helpless” or “pathetic” to describe the version of Samus portrayed in Metroid: Other M.  More cool-headed fans lean towards words like “respectful,” “traumatized,” “a little over-confident,” “trusting,” “heroic,” and “highly competent.”  Personally, I play the field.  My Other M trait list for Samus includes (but is not limited to) the following words: understanding, desperate, emotional, heroic, cautious, deadly, and gentle (a word I feel is overlooked in this portrayal).  All in all, it’s a pretty broad assortment of character traits, and frankly, a bit odd for a video game action hero (possibly what throws off a lot of non-fans).  Yet even with a wide set of traits being potentially depicted, it still isn’t even close to providing the character many people are looking for.  The reason is implicit narrative.

Fans of the series (and, specifically, the character) were looking for a character they knew, but not in the same sense as in literature or film.  This character had a few clearly-defined traits, but she was built largely from interpretation.  In other words, players weren’t looking for the one and only Samus Aran – they were looking for their own personal Samus Aran.  The sheer range of specific interpretations for the character, a range as wide as that of the players themselves, makes it impossible to depict a character that meets everyone’s expectations. 

It’s clear that there was verylittle love for the end product.  The exceptions are people like me, who happened to have a very similar interpretation of the character to Other M writer and director Yoshio Sakamoto.  Those of us who got what we expected didn’t feel betrayed, and thus had far less to complain about.  Sure, there’s a little to complain about in elements like the writing, voice acting, level design, artwork, and that ridiculous, ridiculous title (seriously…”Other M”?  What the hell is that?  I know the game inside and out and it still doesn’t make sense.), but they don’t stand out nearly as much when you don’t feel like the purveyors of the product have destroyed a childhood hero.  That, I feel, I where the real hate for the game came from.

And speaking strictly as a fan, I reserve the right to state that any and all players who were not already Metroid fans who hated the game are just cynical idiots who are too stuck-up to broaden their horizons and are definitely in no way reflections of my own personality.  No.  Definitely not like me at all.

 I’ve made this into a discussion about Metroid, simply because that’s what I know.  The real topic here, however, is on the power of implicit narrative and how this gives games a unique edge over other media.  Games, through their ability to carry out a “conversation” with the player, have the potential to generate a true emotional bond.  A player who controls a game character blurs the lines of reality.  The player who understands the game understands the character.  As the player’s thoughts and action become more in sync with how the game works, the player and the character become more and more alike.  In this sense, the player understands a game character better than he or she can possibly understand a movie character.  After all, is there anyone easier to empathize with than yourself?

Don’t let this serve as a rallying cry against formal explicit narrative.  I love a nice cinematic game (as I’ve hopefully just demonstrated), and even in a game centered around implicit narrative, formal exposition serves a valuable purpose in generating context and setting.  What I’ve noticed, however, is a continual desire to figure out how to take game narrative to the next level.  I’ve seen questions of why stories in games have seemingly failed to garner the same respect and emotional impact as movies.  Most game writers seem to understand that the answers lie in interactivity, yet the most popular games seem to move farther and farther away from making interactivity an integral part of the narrative.  We need to take a look into the past, back to the days before games had the ability to imitate movies.  When we get back to that mentality, we can investigate alternatives to the modern game narrative structure and, hopefully, find a way to bring games into a world all their own.

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