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Ambiguity in Videogame Storytelling, Part I

Ambiguity is where the story leaves the player unsure about something—what has happened, what will happen after the story ends, what a character thinks or feels, whether something is true or false, etc.

What It Is Okay, for a Game Not to Tell Us?

Spoiler Note: This post contains big spoilers about Persona 3 and Final Fantasy X and moderate spoilers about The Last of Us, Assassin’s Creed, Gears of War, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, Prince of Persia (2008) and Spec Ops: The Line. If you don’t want to know about the plots of these games but wish to read the rest of the post, avoid paragraphs in which the title of the game you don’t want is in all caps and bold print.

            One of the three hardest things for a videogame story to do well is ambiguity (the other two are unhappy endings and unheroic player-characters). Ambiguity is where the story leaves the player unsure about something—what has happened, what will happen after the story ends, what a character thinks or feels, whether something is true or false, etc. Ambiguity is a key ingredient in many great stories, but it’s particularly tough to pull off in a game. This is because uncertainty is the opposite of how game rules work. Players are accustomed to knowing, or at least wanting to know, as much as possible. We get nervous when we don’t. Most gamers would be upset with a game that didn’t tell you how much ammo or health you have (though on the other hand, some folks occasionally go to the opposite, Huddles extreme for an interesting challenge), and the game itself always knows how much ammo you have and whether or not a bullet hits—as quantitative, procedural systems, true ambiguity would be very hard to include in the data crunching even if it was wanted there. This nervousness carries across to knowing or not knowing things in games’ stories. For the decades that we’ve been playing videogames, we’ve gotten very used to knowing most of the important stuff going on and assuming that even if we don’t know something, the game itself definitely does. This makes it jarring when games incorporate major ambiguities into their stories.

The other thing that makes ambiguity especially difficult to deal with in games is that players have worked hard to reach the end of the plot, so it’s extra hard to take when the ending doesn’t resolve all our questions. We feel like we’ve done everything we could and have earned a resolution that’s being withheld. Games teach us to expect that our actions have consequences, and that we can find ways to reach desirable outcomes—they train us to expect win conditions. Ambiguity (like unhappy endings) goes against this message buried in the core of gameplay mechanics. When the reward for achieving a game’s win conditions doesn’t feel like a win, either because something bad still happens or because we’re not sure what happens, players’ responses are going to be more complicated than simple happiness and satisfaction.

This is not always a bad thing. Complicated can be good. It can be surprising and thought provoking. Ambiguity resonates with real-life experience, where we surely don’t always know everything that comes of our actions, everything that happened to bring things to where they are, or everything about what someone else is thinking or feeling. Ambiguous game narratives can get at these issues in interesting ways, as in the difficult and hard-to-read character development at the end of THE LAST OF US or (in some endings more than others) SPEC OPS: THE LINE.

Ambiguity can also cause us to change the kinds of questions we ask at the end of a story. If the game denies us answers about, say, whether a character lives or dies, it suggests that maybe life-or-death isn’t the most important thing about the story—if it was, they’d tell us the answer, right? So instead we’re encouraged to ask what was this story about if not whether that character lives or dies? This is part of what makes the ambiguous endings of PERSONA 3 and FINAL FANTASY X interesting (if somewhat frustrating). Their endings shift emphasis to what has been accomplished and what is worth possibly dying for. They also encourage us to consider both what the future is like if the character is alive and what it’s like if the character is dead. Leaving a few questions open rather than providing all the answers leaves room for the player to think and imagine after they’ve reached the end. Alive-or-dead ambiguities always feel a bit cheap to me, though, because they’re not really about moral or psychological issues so much as just what-happened.

Ambiguity in videogame endings is more interesting when it leaves us wondering what well-developed characters will do or why they’re doing what they’re doing, as in THE LAST OF US and SPEC OPS: THE LINE or in the underrated ENSLAVED: ODYSSEY TO THE WEST (whose great story and acting and fascinating ancient Chinese literary heritage make up for moderately entertaining gameplay). Like in The Last of Us, at the end of Enslaved, one of the main characters makes a major choice that affects the protagonists and many other people. After this choice, the narrative tracks of The Last of Us and Enslaved diverge in interesting ways (that I don’t wish to spoil), but each creates thought-provoking ambiguity about the characters, the fate of the world, and the morality of what has happened. These are the narrative stakes where well-designed ambiguity is at its most rewarding.

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that ambiguity is also frequently used to provide a teaser of future games/narrative, as in the endings of the original ASSASSIN’S CREED or the first GEARS OF WAR, both of which provide temporary ambiguity (cliffhanger style) to whet interest in the planned sequels (while trying not to piss off players by providing no satisfying narrative resolution within the game already paid for). Though temporary, this is still ambiguity because there’s usually a long wait for the next game, which sometimes doesn’t come at all, as in the 2008 PRINCE OF PERSIA reboot that ends on a never-resolved cliffhanger.

Do you think some kinds of ambiguity are better than others in games? Does it work better in some genres than others, or more in indie games than AAA titles? Are you a player who never wants ambiguity in your gaming, and if so, is it because you prefer a win to feel good?

Written By: Brandon Perton

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