Note: if you are a bit uncomfortable with the differences between stories, narratives and narration, I invite you to take a look to a previous post I made on this same website about narration in games here.
An interesting particularity of video-games, as they are interactive, is the fact that the story which serves as a base for their narratives is always influenced by the player’s actions, it’s never fully previously written, as interactivity implies that the player will have different actions possible to do, and that each action will generate series of events (and stories are by definition a succession of events). Of course, the extent of the influence the player can exert on the story will vary a lot accordingly to the game (you definitely wont have the same amount of influence on the story in What Remains of Edith Finch than you have in Mass Effect). Note that we are talking about stories and not narratives here, the player influences directly the events of the game, not only what is shown to us during the game. If you chose to cure a genetic disease infecting a whole species in Mass Effect, you won’t see all the newborns that this action will allow to live in the game’s story. Only a part of the consequential events (probably the most important ones) will appears through the game’s narrative.
When it comes to multiplayer, the influence the players have on the story starts to become very chaotic, especially if the game has a story line to follow. One of the most important thing is that each player has his own narrative narrated to him, which means that all have a different perspective on the story’s events. The other important thing is that every player as the ability to meddle with the story’s events, and also that each have the ability to influence the narrative of the other players.
Currently, I’m playing Gunfire Games’ Remnant: From The Ashes with two friends of mine. We just started new game plus and right now none of us wouldn’t probably be able to deliver a precise summary of what the storyline actually is. It’s not that the storyline is bad, it actually seemed pretty okay to me. It’s just that it was probably much more fun to us to simply follow the chaotic behavior of three so-called heroes with a tendency to shoot in each other’s back whenever a bad pun is made or when one of them abruptly decide to shoot an NPC to “see what it does”. It’s not that we don’t care about the game’s story. It’s only that we don’t really focus on the game’s storyline, and that we are intuitively more interested by the part of the story including all our interactions with the game’s world and each other. It’s another approach that the game can offer, and probably one where there is more fun to take when you play with friends. It’s not a thing limited to Remnant tho, I could have taken the example of Borderlands 2 and it would have been more or less the same problematic. Note that even if I didn’t focused much on Remnant’s narration while playing the game, I must admit that there is a lot of interesting things about it, especially about how the game handles new game plus which is one of the boldest and most interesting I saw to date.
Multiplayer games can offer three major types of narrative approaches. The first one is the one described in the precedent paragraph. It’s when there is a written storyline, that the player will have to follow to advance further into the game. As we saw previously, the major default of this approach is that often the players won’t pay too much attention to the storyline as they will focus more on the interactions they have with each other. On the other hand, it makes those games offer two different experiences, a single-player one where the player can focus more on the storyline, and a multiplayer one, both experiences being interesting in their own ways.
The second approach is the less interesting in terms of narration. It’s the one we find in multiplayer games without storyline and without any real focus on the ability of making interesting narratives out of the games mechanics. Basically, think about Mario Party. Those games are more close to board games than to tabletop RPG in terms of narration. I insist on the fact that I’m talking about narration, narration in those games may not be something of interest but it doesn’t means in any way that the whole game isn’t interesting.
The third one is the one that interest me the most actually. We find the approach in games that doesn’t have a real pre-written storyline, but instead give a setting and tools to the players to make their own as they play the game. 2020 saws two of those games getting a lot of attention: Kinetic Games’ Phasmophobia and InnerSloth’s Among Us. As I played more Among Us than I played Phasmophobia, I will focus more on this one. Among Us is a wonderful story generator. Once it has been defined who is an impostor, who is a crewmate, and what their tasks will be, the current game’s story will only be defined by the player’s doing until the end. And what’s formidable is that the game works around the fact that each player has its own narrative of the story, and it’s all about confronting this different narratives to have the opportunity to guess who is an impostor, or how to tweak the narratives to bring the suspicion on an innocent. Each games have a story to tell, and each players have a unique narrative to share about this story. And this story is all about player’s decisions and actions. It’s globally the same with Phasmophobia. The game provide a place to investigate and tools to make the corresponding investigation. Once it has been done, it’s all about the players’ decisions and actions to survive and succeed this investigation, making this investigation’s story unique.
We often hear about emergent gameplay. But this kind of narrative approach actually give the opportunity to generate emergent stories – stories that are not pre-made and only came to existence trough players actions and decisions -. They are a framework for making the players generating new stories each games, and that is why with such a simple concept you can spend hundreds of hours playing those. All they do is giving a settings and some chore mechanics to give the players what they need to create new stories each time they play. When you think of it, there is a lot of successful games that could be place in that category. In addition to Among Us and Phasmophobia, you will find Worms, Civilization, or Minecraft (those that are playable in single-player still are able to generate emergent stories actually, but with only a unique narrative instead of multiple ones).
There is of course still a lot to say about what we can do with multiplayer’s narration and those deserves also of course a lot of attention. I especially think about split screen, which is way too forgotten and underused (thanks Hazelight Studio for making games that are smartly exploiting it with A Way Out and It Takes Two). There is also a lot that can be done with asymmetric gameplay that would implies an asymmetric narration as well. But there is a lot about video-games’ narration to tell, and we are far from seeing all that our medium can offer. And I can’t wait to see what will comes next.