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I don't speak "Game" - the theory of organic & inorganic game storytelling

A personal reflection upon the theory of organic and inorganic game storytelling from a games writer.

Daniel Hunter Dowsing, Blogger

June 29, 2015

20 Min Read

© Opposable Games

 

Once upon a time…

I love stories. I love games. I love games that tell a story. That’s why I’m a game writer-designer. I love an excuse to discuss games and the stories within so let’s give it ago…

[Note: it’s a long journey ahead so maybe pack a sandwich and put your phone on silent. Also, beware of potential spoilers for the following games: Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, Half-Life, Portal, Portal 2 Journey and Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.]

Through talking about, thinking about and working on the narrative of games I have come to consider two main forms of storytelling: Organic and Inorganic. Every storytelling medium from books to film to theatre and comics has their own narrative language. This language is inherent and, to some degree, unique to the each respective medium; books use the written word, film uses camera movement, framing and mise-en-scene, theatre relies on props and space and comics use images in lieu of descriptions.

But what of games?

Games are often referred to as a ‘young medium’ when discussions of their artistic and cultural value come to the fore. Whilst I agree the medium is still in its early days, it can’t stay young forever. I think, however, that we are in an era of realising the true potential of games as a storytelling medium. If you consider film by comparison, the first cameras were used to film a tree or a train before developing a filmic narrative language. I feel games are on the cusp of developing their own narrative language. Just as early films retold the same tried and tested storylines before realising the potential of all stories, so too are games taking the tentative steps to embrace narratives beyond those considered safe, marketable or mainstream. Just as critics began to reflect upon film as a form of cultural art through critical discourse, so too are games being critiqued as part of a wider cultural reflection rather than just reviewed or rated for economic value.

But what is this organic or inorganic business all about and how does it fit into the growth of gaming’s narrative language? Before I begin, however, I would first like to establish what a story is…

Thematically, for me, a story is ‘change through conflict’. A character, driven by motivation, overcomes obstacles (i.e. conflict) – both physical and abstract – to find themself (emotionally, morally, politically, physically etc) challenged and potentially changed.

Structurally a story is a beginning, middle and an end. In the beginning the main character(s) encounter an event from which there is no physical, emotional or temporal return (the inciting incident). The middle is the focus of the conflict mentioned previously. The character encounters obstacles and overcomes them with the tension of the story rising and rising as the main character reaches the climax of the story. The end (or denouement) of the story is the point at which the story is resolved.

If we use a tried and tested formula as an example: a brave princess sets out to rescue her robot boyfriend (motivation). The princess disobeys the orders of her family to not rescue him by leaving her VW camper van (inciting incident). The princess travels across France overcoming pirates, quick sand and doubts about her feelings toward her robot boyfriend (conflict). Upon reaching said robot boyfriend, she battles the gangster rap wizard holding him hostage (climax). Her boyfriend rescued, she realises, however, that she’s not ready for a committed relationship with a robot and decides to see more of the world (change/denouement). Makes sense, no?

 

© Crystal Dynamics

 

Inorganic is not the opposite of out-organic…

What is Inorganic Storytelling? I believe it can be defined as: the use of a language not inherent to the given medium for the purpose of delivering narrative development. An example of this might be being required to read a novel part way through a film in order to understand the story between two chapters; perhaps an extreme example but a valid one none the less. Whilst the story [of the film] is being developed via the book it’s contrary to the nature of the medium; the audience move from passive watchers to active readers and back again. The book could be a work of art in its own right but it is still an anomaly within the film experience. In relation to games this is where we get to discuss cutscenes.

A cutscene is effectively an animated film installed to play at set moments during a game’s progression. Obvious points include the start, ending and in between levels. Cutscenes use the language of film in order to reveal narrative exposition and proffer characterisation. They use framing/composition, acting, set camera movement and editing to tell their stories – elements not inherently found in the language of games.

Now this isn’t me calling for the ‘death of the cutscene’. Far from it, I love cutscenes. I have genuinely replayed sections of a game in order to see a certain cutscene again. I can’t wait to experience the next 50 minute sequence in the latest Metal Gear Solid (Konami) game, but as someone who wants to write for games I think it is worth being aware of the influence of different storytelling languages on the gaming medium. Writing as a film writer rather than a games writer can mean that the chance to tell a game’s story through the act of gaming are lost as the focus of the writer is stuck to cinematic ‘beats’ at designated points in between the gameplay. Cutscenes are effectively pockets of story during game time. This structure of gameplay – cutscene – gameplay arguably undermines the emotional impact of having a developed story within the game; the story and gameplay are not truly connected.

Let’s look at an example of this.

One of the most important games to me both professionally and personally is Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver (Crystal Dynamics). I say that this game is important to me because I consider this the game that truly got me ‘into gaming’ and at which point gaming became more than just an activity – it became a passion. Soul Reaver tells the story of the vampire Raziel as he hunts his former master, Kain. As a piece of inorganic game storytelling I would argue that Soul Reaver excels; it’s beautifully written and well-acted. Nicely directed cutscenes abound, truly developing the two main characters. Raziel moves from someone assured of their place in the universe to one confused and burdened by anger and the manipulation from other characters. Kain, on the other hand, starts as the tyrant ruler only to become a character persecuted by his desire to have free will. The characters experience an arc through conflict (though speaking objectively the game’s narrative does technically fail at the end by not offering complete resolution – if anything it provides more questions than answers before ending on a ‘To be continued…’ message).

It’s understandable for games to use film language in lieu of their own narrative language. Consider that games are first and foremost about gameplay i.e. how the player-audience interacts with the game. Early games were therefore reoccupied with developing the language of gameplay above all else. Early narrative design, in my opinion, stems from a need to justify the gameplay within some form of narrative context. Beat ‘em up games are a good example of this: why are these people fighting each other? Narrative justification: win the tournament. Or in the Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo) games: why is Mario leaping through these environments? Narrative justification: rescue the Princess. These examples, however, lack part of the essence of storytelling: character development; the characters are defined solely by the act of having a motivation rather than the experiences that arise from it. As gameplay language developed and became solidified, however, gaming narrative was given the chance to form. 

The use of film language in games is a logical first step for game developers for whom narrative design isn’t their primary skill. Films are a common cultural medium that most people have experienced, effectively acting as a familiar bridge into a new medium; comparisons can be drawn with early films that simply recorded stage plays before their own language was realised by the likes of DW Griffith. Using film language allows game developers to show character development and characterisation as the game progresses, but by moving the player-audience from a state of active input (gameplay) to moments of passive absorption (cutscenes/film) they are effectively creating two artistic entities – the game and the film – running in parallel with each other. They only intersect at designated points during the play time of the game, rendering the opportunity for organic growth, power and surprises diluted as the player-audience enters a state of ‘here comes a cutscene, something is going to happen.’ From the perspective of a writer, this could be considered ‘telling’ the story, rather than ‘showing’ the story. Through Organic Game Storytelling the potential for emotional narrative impact is, arguably, higher.

 

© thatgamescompany

 

Organically does it…

So let’s face Organic Game Storytelling head on. What is it? If you’ve made it this far (thank you very much) you might well have a good idea but to clarify, I would define it as: the use of gaming language in order to developer and deliver a narrative. The next logical question would then be: what is the language of games?

Games are an active form of media requiring the interaction of the player-audience with the player-character in order to progress through an enclosed gaming space. At a most basic level this involves moving a game piece i.e. the avatar of the game in the case of computer games. This movement can be further defined as acts of running, jumping, climbing, swimming, sneaking, gathering, playing, talking, upgrading and attacking/defending; essentially the ‘verbs’ available to the player-audience in order to influence control within the game space. Overtime, player-audiences have come to accept this ‘language’ as the way in which they experience and progress through a game. Those familiar with the act of playing games will come to expect some or all of these language elements to be present within the game they are playing; understanding of gaming language is transferable between games just as learning to read is transferable between books.

With that in mind, how can this language be used to tell a story? Let’s consider a few examples; firstly, the games Half-Life (Valve) and Portal (Valve).

I mentioned earlier the use of cutscenes as a form of Inorganic Game Storytelling. Half-Life and Portal tell deep and engaging narratives without a single cutscene. In the case of Half-Life, when the player-character encounters another character with which dialogue is being shared, they simply talk. Rather than use a cutscene, the player-audience engages in a conversation with another character within the game space without losing control of their gaming language. Should they move away from the talking character the audio levels realistically fall, implying the player-audience can effectively ignore the narrative should they wish. In later scenes, hostile aliens and soldiers invade the science lab setting of the game. Neither of these developments are shown through cutscenes but happen organically whilst the game is in session. This system of narrative development means the player-audience is never removed from their active role within the game experience and as such, I feel, they are part of a developing (and dangerous) fight for survival.

Portal, similarly, doesn’t feature any cutscenes, but neither does it feature any physical characters for the player-character to enter a conversation with. Instead, the dialogue is delivered by an omnipotent presence within the game space that the player is unable to escape or ignore. In terms of game experience – of being trapped within a science experiment – this structure works superbly. The player-audience is Chell (the protagonist), they start the game without any knowledge of the situation they are in (even the game’s synopsis doesn’t allude to the narrative of the game beyond, ‘solve puzzles with portals’) and they finish with a clear understanding. As such, by overcoming the obstacles within the game environment (conflict) the player-audience goes through a form of proxy character development: from lack of knowledge to understanding, and from trusting GlaDos (antagonist) to being afraid of her to defeating her. Similarly, GlaDOs experiences character development; at first she considers you merely a test subject before acknowledging you as a worthy adversary at odds with the control she has within the game world – in Portal 2 she experiences further character development by first viewing the player-audience as the enemy before (begrudgingly) acknowledging them as an ally. For me, Half-Life and Portal show the power of not pulling the player out of the gaming experience in order to tell their stories – something I was very conscious of whilst developing the narrative for Salvaged.

A detail worth mentioning about these two games (and worthy of its own discussion) is that they feature silent protagonists. Silent protagonists in games create an interesting narrative situation in which support characters are the ones that develop explicitly (e.g. GlaDos) as a story-consuming audience would expect. The player’s silent character, therefore, doesn’t develop in this traditional way. Rather, the main player-character and the player-audience develop through their understanding of the situation and the physical trials they overcome. Because of the active nature of experiencing games (as opposed to the passive nature of experiencing film) the player-audience’s growth comes from their physical involvement with the game.

This leads me to talk about Journey (thatgamescompany). The aim of the game is to reach the summit of the mountain looming on the horizon. There isn’t a single line of dialogue throughout the game yet it manages to convey a truly organic game story. There are technically two stories running parallel throughout Journey: that of the player-character’s journey to the mountain and the mystery of the ruins surrounding it. Both of these stories develop through the process of completing each other i.e. by reaching the mountain the mystery is explained, by understanding the mystery progress is made towards the mountain.

Physical progress is important to the narrative of Journey – it’s kinda in the name after all. The game uses the language of gaming to convey its narrative. Moments of serene and peaceful walking give way to challenging feats of climbing and suspense-filled moments of hiding. The narrative experience is truly ripe with conflict for the player-character to overcome. This organic storytelling reaches a climax as the player reaches the summit of the mountain. A mighty blizzard begins to limit the speed at which they walk whilst flying enemies rip chunks of the character’s life essence away. The game physically becomes harder to interact with during this scene as the game environment no longer works with the player-character but against them. This is the language of the game showing the player the hardship being faced by their character rather than telling through a cinematic. It is a strikingly powerful moment, allowing the player to experience the story in a way that no cutscene truly could. The final reveal of breaking through the blizzard of one’s own volition and reaching the summit in all its glorious sunlight is a truly rewarding denouement. 

The physical toll exacted on a player-character is something that often get’s overlooked in game storytelling. For all the knocks and falls they suffer, they rarely show any outward change. Journey touches on this idea by having the avatar’s scarf change in length as they progress through the game. When the scarf is at full length the sense of power and growth is quite genuine. When the scarf is lost the sense of frailty is just as real. Another game that I feel uses the physical change of the player-character to great effect is Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (Ubisoft). The Prince begins the game fully dressed in very clean clothing reflecting his royal status and naïve youth. It helps to establish him as young, fresh but inexperienced. As the story progresses and The Prince is forced to face the death of his father and the ravages of the eponymous sands of Time, his clothing becomes ripped and sullied and his body shows wounds. By the climax of the game, having reached the source of the Sands of Time, The Prince looks and feels like a character that has gone through an experience. His physicality has aided in his character development from a clean-cut royal, to a hardened and exhausted warrior. On top of this, The Prince naturally becomes more powerful and capable in combat in order to survive. His early weapon of choice is fairly weak making encounters with monsters quite challenging, but with each new weapon he acquires on his journey he becomes stronger – symbolically showing the player-audience his character development in the face of his need to survive. The denouement for Sands of Time cleverly plays with the physicality of The Prince by having him revert back to the clean-cut royal at the very end in order to face the final boss. The difference being that whilst his physical appearance has reverted, his personality remains changed from a carefree young man to a wise and purposeful prince. The player-audience still feels that The Prince has grown through the conflict he encountered (‘change through conflict’).

 

© Fireproof Games

 

In the end…

Upon reflection, I have a theory that there are two main forms/schools/guilds(?) of storytelling for games: Organic and Inorganic. Inorganic game storytelling relies on the primary use of film language to develop the story of the game through scripted cutscenes. Whilst artistically stunning, I believe cutscenes create a disconnect between the player-audience and the potential emotional impact or investment of the game’s story. By effectively having two artistic entities running in parallel – the game and the ‘film’ (cutscenes) – dividing the player-audience’s emotional bond between the two, the player-audience is pulled between moments of interactive control with little emotional resonance and moments of passive observation with a spike in emotional exposition; the characters developing through film language in the cutscenes are not the same characters the player-audience controls during gameplay.

Organic game storytelling uses the language of games in order to develop the story of the game. If the player-character enters into conversation with another character, the player maintains their position of active control by having the conversation happen within the game-space of the game rather than its potential film-space (cutscenes). The three-act structure of a game isn’t broken into three separate parts with the beginning and end delivered through bespoke cutscenes and the gameplay filling a loose middle, rather the three act structure is organically woven into the gameplay. Where film and prose reveal and develop through exposition, games – happening in the present – rely on discovery within the game space/world.

If a story can be considered as ‘change through conflict’ then the manipulation of gameplay (the game language) to show, rather than tell, the conflict is one of gaming’s greatest strength. Rather than telling the player-audience that the main character is losing heart in their quest, it can be shown through the interaction of the player-character with the game space. Rather than telling the player-audience that the player-character has become stronger or wiser or suffered hardship, it can be shown through their physical appearance. The relationship between the player-character, their controls and their environment are the key elements of organic game storytelling.

But does one trump the other?

No.

When I first started writing this essay thing, I was using the terms ‘pure storytelling’ and ‘impure storytelling’. Firstly this made me feel like some kind of eugenicist but secondly, it seemed ripe for causing conflict within the games industry between those whose work can be considered inorganic and those whose can be considered organic. The quality of storytelling in games improves with each year from inorganic masterpieces like The Last of Us (Naughty Dog) to organic gems such as Monument Valley (Ustwo). Is rating one style over the other truly the way to help the movement of storytelling within games to grow when, in fact, a lot can be learned from both forms – the use of mise-en-scene in games is just as important as it is in film, the use of staging in theatre is just as effective in game storytelling.

But here’s the thing: many games tell their stories through a combination of both organic and inorganic storytelling. Improving stats, learning new skills and growing in capabilities are a common feature of many games. Characters develop physically to deal with the challenges they face yet this development isn’t linked to their emotional development. For every glorious CGI cutscene a Final Fantasy (Square Enix) game throws at the player-audience, the player-character is able to organically walk through towns talking to characters within the game space and learning something of the world or themselves. At which point do the murals in Journey stop being organic parts of the game space and enter the realm of inorganic cutscene? A powerful strength can be found, I believe, for establishing games as a storytelling medium by embracing and pushing our skills as game writers/narrative designers in both organic and inorganic storytelling. Whilst the difference between organic and inorganic game storytelling might be defined as the degree of separation between a game’s story and its game language, the difference between a respected storytelling medium and one which is shunned (or considered beneath other mediums) is the unity between its storytellers.

On a final note, if you were to ask me to give an example of a game that I feel comes closest to embracing organic games storytelling, only one that I have experienced comes to mind: The Room (Fireproof Games). From the beginning to the end I found myself truly drawn into the game story through the development of myself as the player-character, the development of narrative context through discovery rather than exposition and excellent union between this organic storytelling and the game’s audio-visual qualities.

Thank you for reading this article. If you made it this far then expect many karmic rewards in your next life. I have enjoyed writing it and attempting to express my feelings about the theory of game storytelling. I feel it still has some polished development to do but I hope this is a good start. I hope you found the article interesting and I look forward to hearing your own thoughts and reflections on the theory of game storytelling.

 

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