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Going Beyond Backstory

So ya got a backstory. That's nice. But have you asked yourself how that impacts your game? Why it impacts your game? And is it really necessary? Don't worry - those questions are all answered here.

Gregory Pellechi, Blogger

April 4, 2019

12 Min Read

If it’s unclear, I am American. But here I am in Finland. Not that any of that matters since you get to watch or listen to this series wherever you may be. But for some it’s not immediately apparent that I’m American, nor that I’m in Finland.

Nor does any of that matter. Not for the purposes of this show. Or for the story of this series, at least the bits your privy to. Why?

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Because that’s all backstory. And ultimately not relevant to what we’re doing today.

“The most important things to remember about backstory are that (a) everyone has a history and (b) most of it isn’t very interesting. Stick to the parts that are, and don’t get carried away with the rest. Life stories are best received in bars, and only then an hour or so before closing time, and if you are buying.” — Stephen King

If it’s not apparent from the title of this episode, the title card, or the thumbnail image on YouTube this episode is about backstory. Or basically why not to do it.

Which I guess means we have to talk about why you would do backstory. And the main reason I can think of is — because beginnings are hard.

Just look at this series. I begin every episode the same way. Not just for consistency, but so I don’t have to think of a new and witty introduction. Rather you as the regular audience know what you’re getting when you hear me say “This is the Writing Game.” I do the same thing on my other podcast, Video Game Sauna.

Give that a listen to if you haven’. You can find it wherever fine podcasts are disseminated.

Beginning at the Beginning

Beginnings are tricky on two counts. 1) They have to be enticing enough to engage the audience and keep them hooked and wanting to find out more. And 2) they have to introduce a lot of information.

It’s why we things like the crawl in Star Wars. It quickly lays out what’s happening and who some of the characters are, and what’s at stake. Plus it’s a classic piece of cinematography.

But it’s a big ol’ exposition dump. And if you’ve watched or listen to the episode about that very topic, Exposition as Ammunition, then you have a good idea of why that isn’t a great thing. If you haven’t, go watch or listen to it. But the gist of it, is that exposition is boring. It’s the whole issue of “show don’t tell”.

Which is often the big issue with backstory. In countless media we are told something about a character and meant to take it at face value. But the thing is we as the audience often scoff at this ideas. It’s why we prefer to be shown something, rather than told.

Take the film Under Siege, we’re told that Steven Segal’s character is a former navy seal. But we’re never shown that. We’re shown a guy with a very un-military appearance working in a kitchen aboard a ship. And aside from his attitude we’re meant to intuit that he’s a bad ass. Frankly, it doesn’t work.

Compare that with Obi-Wan Kenobi talking to Luke Skywalker about Luke’s dad. We’re told about a character we don’t see and never meet. In the process we get some of Obi-Wan’s backstory, yet never in such detail to define our expectations to come. Instead, we’re given ideas and ones that fuel the imagination.

And this is the thing about backstory, it’s meant to be fuel. It’s the briefest of sketches that give us an understanding of what might be out there, but there are few definites. Especially in the case of Obi-Wan Kenobi where everything is “from a certain point of view.”

Backstory or its inclusion should really be like that in tabletop RPG books. Whether the core books or supplements the backstories provided are always in bits and pieces. The creators paint these vivid descriptions that don’t answer as many questions as they leave the reader with.

Destiny does this well. It starts with the camera following Ghost in their search for us, the player. Upon finding us it switches over to us and introducing the world in a very direct manner. But we’re so overwhelmed by all that’s happening, the structures we’re moving through, the enemies we’re fighting, the little robo-dude floating alongside that we’re too stunned to ask too many questions.

It’s fantastic. Then we complete the first mission and go to the tower. And that’s where the greatness ends. Instead of dropping little details and given reasons, motivations or a basic understanding of what we as the player are doing, we have to leave the game and go to the grimoire. There are some fundamental problems with the storytelling after this point, and a few of them have to do with backstory.

The Basics of Backstory

Backstory comes in two forms, character and world. In the case of Destiny, your character has no backstory because you’re freshly resurrected. No problems there, classic amnesia and relatively silent protagonist. The world, or worlds in Destiny’s case, has a lot going on, so much so that it’s hard to get a firm grasp of anything in terms of what’s happening.

All you know is that you’re there to help people fight for their survival. A noble enough cause and generally something that doesn’t need too many questions to be asked. Except we’re left with nothing but questions, because the whole story hinges on history. It’s all about backstory and not what’s happening at present.

Compare this to Anthem, which starts really poorly. In its tutorial mission Bioware is trying to present us as some noble fighting force doing the good work. Problem is we’re going up against something that is an everyday occurrence in the game world and we’re never given any stakes. So this attempt to establish a backstory falls flat. Especially when compared to the more immediate story with the Dominion and their invasion.

The biggest issue with Anthem and it’s backstory is there’s no separation of the character and the world. We as freelancers are meant to be those noble warriors, who have fallen from grace as a result of the tutorial mission. Everyone keeps telling us that. Only problem is we have no reference for that. It’s not like the Jedi which we have no reference for because they no longer exist, but it’s us the player character who has no reference because we never see or experience the freelancers as something great before their fall.

So we’re loaded with this backstory that means nothing to us. And told time and again, that we should care. But why should we care as players or an audience? Nothing has changed for us. The focus on the past and the redemption of it is not motivating in the least, because that past is never truly shown. Thus the reverence to which it is held is never earned.

Focus on the Future

The past is a weight that players are burdened with. It’s something the game world expects us to know, yet struggles to get across. It’s why you amnesiacs and silent protagonists are so common — they lighten the load of what the player is expected to know and instead allow them to fill that space with their own imagination.

Video games are a medium focused on the future. Their systems are designed to largely empower the player which is often at odds with backstory. Because backstory takes us to a time when they player wasn’t empowered. It’s why so flashbacks aren’t a big thing in a lot of games.

Which leads me to talking about Arrow. A show that for the first five seasons has reveled in the idea of backstory and flashbacks. Every episode contrasts the present with the past to show how Oliver Queen aka Arrow has dealt with a similar problem before and overcome it or gained a new understanding.

In this case the backstory is fully part of the story, as it generally is whenever flashbacks are used. But as this isn’t a game the respective power level of Oliver Queen doesn’t change all that much. Rather it’s a focus on character development over empowerment. Arrow is a comic book soap opera, and there’s a lot to be learned from them, so if you want to learn more about that than check out the previous episodes: Soap Opera Antics and Comic Book Antics.

Games could do this. They could utilize a similar structure, and in fact it might make tutorialization later in the game easier given it ties so readily to the story. Thing is, they largely don’t. Or at least no examples are immediately coming to mind. The only ones that come close to this that I can think of are combat games that have you go through training as a means of tutorialization, like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and ARMA III.

Some games don’t even bother with this. Case in point — Fallout 4. Ostensibly your character is a former soldier, so you know how to fight and use a variety of weapons. Only this is never shown and instead the game has to teach the player how to fight, reload, etc. Added to that is the importance the story gives to your child, someone who have spent no time with to establish a bond. That supposed bond is meant to be the driving force for the majority of the game.

And as a father myself I would do anything to protect my child, yet the game doesn’t provide that emphasis. And I’m not talking about how the game is structured, and the numerous distractions it provides in terms of side quests and crafting. Because those are distractions. But ones that are far more enticing than the backstory you as the player character have been given. The backstory in this case is unnecessary to the purpose of the actions and verbs of the game.

Compare that to my favorite game to talk about — Firewatch. The game starts with establishing the backstory, and then follows through on the choices you made during the beginning throughout the game. It’s reflected in art, dialogue, and the choices available to you. Campo Santo gave an importance to the backstory that was buoyed by the game itself. Everything you did was tied to who you were as Henry and what you did before. And it worked beautifully.

This doesn’t work out so well in a story where the creators tried to tell the backstory after it had already been established. Take any prequel series — the Star Wars prequels, Fantastic Beasts, Wolverine: Origins, etc and you’ll immediately get my point. Because I like Star Wars, we’ll look at the prequels.

Problems with Prequels

They were ostensibly about Anakin Skywalker and his fall to the dark side. And we got that. In The Phantom Menace he’s a little boy and in Revenge of the Sith he becomes Darth Vader. All well and good — except it isn’t. Because his turn isn’t earned. He’s not becoming evil just for evil’s sake. He’s changing his methods because of philosophical differences between his status, his wants and his needs.

The problem with the prequels in terms of Anakin’s story is that it isn’t believable. He isn’t wronged enough, he doesn’t make enough attempts to get what he wants, he isn’t denied his needs enough, to justify his choice to go to the dark side. Part of the issue is the format, we don’t get to explore his situation and state of mind in an hour and a half.

But the main issue is that we’re telling backstory. We know what’s going to happen. We know Anakin will become Darth Vader. If you were a fan with deep knowledge you may have even known that there would be lava involved. But what we didn’t know was why.

And the why we were given was unsupportive of the galactic genocide it resulted in. Not that anything justifies genocide. But for a hero to fall, we need to be supportive of it as the audience. And if it’s a game, then we need it to be a choice that we as the player would make.

And that’s the real crux when it comes to games and the inclusion of backstory. It’s a medium that’s about choice, and that needs to be part of the backstory. Or at least so heavily implied that even if a player isn’t explicitly making one they feel like they’ve made the one — the same one as the player character.

Any change in a character has to be justified by the story. And that change is ultimately seen in the action and choices a character makes. It’s just as true for an anti-hero as it is for a hero. If those changes are supposed to be based on past actions or experiences then the audience isn’t going to care.

It’s the immediate, the now that matters. Especially with characters players get to inhabit. So any storytelling needs to focus on the present and keep the backstory to a minimum. Or at the very least just make it intriguing details that spur the imagination.

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