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Found Footage: The Potential for Epistolary Narrative in Games

A short piece on the unique design possibilities of epistolary narrative.

Ian McCamant

February 18, 2016

4 Min Read

Like what you read? Visit Ian at his personal blog. For more information on De-Void, visit the Pulstense Games website.

How do you present a living, breathing universe? This question confronts all sorts of storytellers to some extent, but perhaps never so immediately as in the realm of games. Indeed, any narrative-driven game has to bestow upon the player the feeling of participating in a world, an organic space with an existence of its own. Essentially, suspension of disbelief hinges upon the illusion that the game world continues to exist beyond the game itself. Central to this illusion is exposition, how the player is informed about the game’s narrative context and backstory. As in any narrative medium, the handling of exposition in can make or break a game, and so it must be handled with style and elegance.

Perhaps the most resounding and ubiquitous solution to game exposition through the years has been the epistolary approach, in which the player must piece together the details of the story through documents found in the world. From the extensive journals in the library on Myst island to the enigmatic v-mails scattered around the Cyberia complex, from the cryptic newspaper clippings and graffiti of City 17 to the verbose audio logs of Rapture, epistolary narrative is a clear and effective way of allowing the player to experience exposition in a tactile way. Beyond the simple voyeurism of scripted cutscenes or the pontificating of talking heads, epistolary storytelling allows the player to feel involved in the unraveling of the exposition, and to experience it from within the world rather than as an outside observer. An epistolary mechanic brings with it the same immersive appeal of the “found footage” film, working to ensure that interactivity is carried through the entire experience.

Of course, the risk of any tried and true game mechanic is that it becomes cliche, a repetitive uninspiring crutch on which to rest gameplay. Narrative presentation is particularly susceptible to this, since story is so often relegated to a supportive role, propping up or contextualizing gameplay while contributing only in a secondary capacity. The best game narratives, as a rule, interweave themselves with the mechanics so as to be inextricable. Outlast’s camcorder, BioShock’s plasmids, and Portal’s eponymous gun leap immediately to mind. But what of the tidbits of exposition that populate contemporary adventure games? Often it seems that designers are content to just leave these narrative chunks scattered about carelessly, so that you wind up with a world the denizens of which evidently record their deepest secrets and then leave them lying around in cupboards, on park benches, in the trash, or on the ground. Even when they are distributed logically within the game world, they can often feel like added fluff, extras for those players who prefer a leisurely, immersive experience to a fast-paced, goal oriented gaming experience.

Writing De-Void, one of the challenges I’ve tried to tackle is how to introduce epistolary exposition in a way that is in itself substantial to the narrative experience. Central to this goal is the element of perspective. Fundamentally, epistolary narrative is all about perspective. When you find a note, an audio log, an e-mail, you gain a window into a particular perspective on the events of the story. This perspective shapes the information you are given, and thus affects your experience of the narrative and how you understand it. It is common practice in literature to play with perspective. A narrator becomes unreliable, for instance, when it is hinted that she may be delusional. A problematic event experienced from two points of view reveals a misunderstanding. A statement that appears at first glance to be true is undermined as we experience it from the perspective of the liar who spoke it. Through the intentional manipulation of perspective, a certain jigsaw puzzle quality can be bestowed upon the exposition itself, demanding that the player be not merely a passive audience member, a witness to the game’s backstory, but that they take an active part in piecing together the truth.

This was certainly the nature of narrative in the Half-Life franchise. Series writer Marc Laidlaw left a trail of narrative breadcrumbs, but it was up to the community to piece them together. Exposition was essentially relegated to a backdrop, and the player’s level of engagement was left up to them. Dark Souls followed this path as well, and the new generation of so-called “walking simulators” have embraced this method of storytelling-through-exploration. Games like Dear Esther and Gone Home have largely reduced adventure gaming to epistolary narration, and indie developers are ever tinkering with new twists on exposition. With De-Void, I hope to continue that work, creating a story that not only gives a context to the events of the game, but which upon intimate investigation reveals deeper layers of meaning.

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