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Freedom in Video Games: The Difference between Plot and Narrative

Games need a certain level of freedom, but this freedom must be considered in parallel with the depth of character development present. We can see this through analyzing the plot-narrative dissonance between two games with different levels of freedom.

So, I had recently played Bioshock Infinite for the first time, and after the game, I was thinking about some of the ways that the game presents its story. I don’t know why, but watching that last scene (no spoilers) felt so real, yet so unbelievable. I think, in a sense, this disparity of emotions is due to the fact that the player is so engrossed into Booker DeWitt’s character, that the player reacts in a similar way (disbelief then a sort of realization) that Booker does. This got me thinking about the merits of such a format, and thus is what I’m going to be writing about today. Elements of freedom are portrayed differently across different games. Bioshock Infintite, however grand an adventure, has little to no freedom at all concerning its narrative. In contrast, a game like Skyrim, heralded to be a “pinnacle” in gaming freedom, allows the player to create his/her own narrative. Through these two games, I’m going to show that the difference between a game’s plot and narrative is a fundamental aspect to how the game immerses the player within the game’s world, and ultimately defines the game itself.

First off I’d like to address a common complaint when analyzing two separate games: the differing genres. Bioshock Infinite is classified as a first person shooter, while Skyrim is classified as an action role playing game, according to Wikipedia. While Wikipedia can obviously be an unreliable source, one can see how these two classifications could fit. Bioshock Infinite is indeed a shooting game, and Skyrim is indeed a role playing game, but what Wikipedia misses is the underlying game mechanics that these classifications are supposed to embody. A “role-playing game” is in essence any game that is meant to immerse and envelop the player in the game’s world and that can create a plot around character(s) that the player must control. Therefore, Bioshock Infinite and Skyrim can be compared when it comes to characters representation. Both games try and immerse the player into their world. In addition, both games have a sense of freedom of what weapons to use and how to use them. It’s all about currency distribution: both games have so many things you can buy (either with money or perks) and the player has to choose when and where to use the currency. So, I think that they two games deserves to be compared at least on a narrative and plot perspective.

Now you may be saying, “difference between plot and narrative? Aren’t those two words essentially the same?” The answer is no, but it is a common mistake that almost everyone makes. Although both, in a sense can be related to the “story,” the two words, especially in interactive media like video games, have distinctively different meaning. First off, what most people think of as the “plot” of a film or book or game is actually the “story.” Aram Zucker-Scharff in one of his blog post on hacktext.com clearly delineates the words “story,” “plot,” and “narrative.” First he calls “story … in the simplest terms, a sequence of events. So when thinking of a story it is A then B then C then D, the set of relevant events in chronological order.” He then continues to state the definition of plot as “a set of events as they relate to each other” and narrative as “how the events are told.” Although Zucker-Scharff makes the distinction between “plot” and “story,” I find them to be quite similar and could just be said as the single work “plot.” When using these words “plot” and “narrative” one can attempt to use them in relation to films. However, the downfall is that in static media like literature or film, “plot” and “narrative” can be essentially the same. This confusion is what usually leads people to use these words interchangeably. In any medium, the plot would therefore be what overarching story is, and the narrative would be the interpretation of that story to the audience. In a film, these are almost always the same, because of the medium in and of itself. The goal of any film is for the screen to relay some semblance of a story to the audience, and the story is presented however the director wants it to be presented. In essence, the static images of the screen lock the “plot” and “narrative” together because they both stem from the same source: the director. Of course there are exceptions, namely films like Memento, but in general this is the case with film media. In fact, most static media like books or television have the same restrictions. However, what defines games as a new medium is their interactivity. Game dynamics allow a difference between “plot” and “narrative,” and furthermore

When looking at video games, the freedom can be measured as the difference between the game’s plot and narrative. Let us first analyze the plot-narrative difference in Bioshock Infinite. The plot of the game revolves around Booker Dewitt and follows his incredible journey to retrieve Elizabeth so that Booker can “wipe away his debt.” Booker travels to a lighthouse that takes him to the “heavenly” city of Columbia where he must find and escape with Elizabeth. The leader of this city, Comstock, is set to not let Elizabeth or Booker escape for Comstock has prophesized Booker is a “false shepherd that will lead his lamb [Elizabeth] astray.” Religious metaphors aside, the game’s plot centralizes Booker as the main actor in this conflict, and because of the first person perspective, allows the player to become Booker himself. Using the previous definition of narrative, how would the narrative be constructed in this game? Well, first off, because of Booker’s well established character and back story, and because the player essentially becomes Booker, the narrative is almost exactly the same as the plot.

A recent example of how the first person perspective allows a greater sense of immersion is GTA 5’s current gen release on the Xbox One and PS4. The developers added a new first person mode to the otherwise third person game, and a lot of the reactions seem to coincide with the “holy crap I’m actually killing someone right now” nature. In one article of the new first person perspective on IGN’s website, writer Daniel Krupa tells of his changed experience:

I’ve just incinerated a wild rabbit with a rocket-propelled grenade. It’s one of the new animals you’ll find around the great state of San Andreas, and I’ve killed it. And as its blackened corpse slowly rolls down the foothills of Vinewood, I feel a tinge of sadness. He deserved better than this, but I’ve got much bigger problems than my own latent psychotic tendencies. Police cars are stacking up in the cul-de-sac below and a helicopter is hovering somewhere overhead. I can’t really see where it is, but I feel its presence, and the cops open fire. So I make a run for it, vaulting over a fence into a parking lot, where I jack a car, climb in, and as I look down to hot-wire it, I see there’s a bullet hole in my in my forearm and blood is running out. I’ve never had a GTA experience like this before, and that’s because it’s all playing out in the first-person.

This first person perspective allows the player to be fully engrossed into whomever he/she is playing, whether it be Trevor or Booker. It allows for an alignment of minds, and a link between plot and narrative. If the narrative is how the plot is told, then it is clear to see that the narrative would be the player’s interpretations and actions throughout the game, but these interpretations and actions are already set in Booker’s mind. Booker follows the games’ plot, and the player follows Booker. In a sense, because Booker exists, the player is forced to embody Booker and therefore match the player’s narrative to Booker’s plot. That is not to say that there are moments when the player can stray from Booker’s plot like in some optional objectives, but they are far and few between. Mostly, the player follows Booker through his own adventure to get back home, rather than allowing the player the freedom to choose his own actions. Even though this lack of freedom is present, this game is still magnificent because of the awesome characters and story.

Skyrim holds a new level of freedom all together. Skyrim’s plot is that you are the Dovakhiin, a person born of dragon’s blood. Dragons have returned to the world and are wreaking havoc across the land of Skyrim and you must defeat the dragons by slaying their leader Alduin. Whilst traveling throughout Skyrim, the player must learn dragon shouts that empower them with the power of the dragons, and allow the player to eventually match the dragons’ power. In addition, the player can also participate in a rebellion against the current government system can choose the side of the imperials or the rebels and fight in a civil war. In contrast with Bioshock Infinite, Skyrim’s narrative is wildly different than its plot. The first aspect is the character creation. At the beginning of the game, the player creates the character in its entirety: its race, its facial features, and its build. The dovakhiin is meant to be this empty character that the player can fill themselves into. Next, we have the vast amount of adventures and quests that have nothing to do with the dragons or the rebellion at all. While exploring Skyrim, the player encounters a variety of people who need something done and would be willing to give a reward to see it done. These sidequests may reward the player with loot or gold and can reveal interesting embedded narratives, but they do not help further the plot. Instead, the player creates emergent narrative about his/her character based on how the player would react to certain situations. For example, a player may decide to just murder all of the people in at the College of Winterhold. The in-game character can then be defined as to be murderous, or there could be some sort of emergent narrative as to why the character wanted to murder everyone. This amount of difference between plot and narrative allows for an extreme amount of freedom for the player.

In many reviews, Skyrim has been heralded as the pinnacle of freedom. Reviewers have used things like, “you can buy a house if you want,” or “you can walk and travel wherever you want.” In one review on pcgamer.com, Tom Francis goes into some detail on how the freedom affected his gameplay. For him, “Even after spending hundreds of hours in Morrowing and Oblivion, the sense of freedom in Skyrim is dizzying. The vast mountains in every direction make the landscape seem limitless, and even after exploring it for 55 hours, this world feels huge and unknown on a scale neither of the previous two games did.”  Francis states that part of the game’s freedom stems from its vast world, and that the exploration of said world is what drives the game. While this is true, I think that it’s the interaction between the world and the player’s character that creates true freedom

Skyrim’s gameplay mainly focuses around the character skills and perk. Essentially, the player can put points into a myriad of different skill trees that grant the player different attributes or skills. Much like character creation in D&D, these skill trees are the main resource the player has to craft his/her own character. You can be a powerful mage skilled in Destruction and Conjuration, or you can be a fast thief skilled in Sneak and Lockpicking. This is where characters are built, and I think that this brings us to the crux of the argument: freedom is best used in creating characters.

A lot of games try to incorporate different levels of freedom, and most allow for some levels of success. In the case of Bioshock Infinite, the level of freedom is restricted as to establish an already existing narrative and character that the developer wants the player to experience. In contrast, a game like Skyrim can have enormous amounts of freedom because of the emptiness of character that the Dovakhiin embodies. Skyrim forces the player to embody themselves as the character and thereby allow a certain level of freedom of representation. This freedom is created from a difference between plot and narrative. Bioshock Infinite’s plot is focused and directly linked to its narrative, while Skyrim’s plot is very broad and expansive that it allows for completely wild and varied narratives to appear based on the player’s choices. These narratives are achieved because the player has invested time into discovering who his/her character is, while in Bioshock Infinite the character is already established for the player to connect with. To me, the amount that a playable character is established should be inversely proportional to the player’s freedom. Debatably, the problems with Final Fantasy XIII can be explained because the game does not follow this metric. The game is extremely linear for the most part; literally the Minecraft exemplify a limit to my freedom-character metric. Freedom can increase without bound, but character cannot decrease without bound. Minecraft’s freedom dampens the character entirely and almost removes it from the game. Ultimately, this freedom-character metric isn’t necessarily a perfect formula for making a game; rather, it shows that these two aspects are inherently linked. To make a good game, one need not follow this metric, but take into consideration each aspect as connected and necessary to understand. One cannot have levels of freedom without taking levels of character development and vice versa. A game needs a certain level of freedom, but the level depends deeply on the character development intrinsic to the player’s experience.

 

Works Cited:

Francis, Tom. (2011 Novemeber 9). The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim [Web blog post]. Retrieved

December 6, 2014. From pcgamer.com

Krupa, Daniel. (2014 Novemeber 4). Grand Theft Auto 5: A New Perspective [Web blog post].

Retrieved December 6, 2014. From ign.com

Zucker-Scharff, Aram. (2011 September 8). Story vs Narrative vs Plot [Web blog post].

Retrieved December 6, 2014. From hacktext.com

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