There is a duality in game narrative that I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around. On the one hand you have a discrete set of actions that are represented in a game as a linear sequence of events happening to a specific person. On the other hand you have the game design itself which is defining which actions that person may take based on its built-in rules and systems. Both of these areas tell a story, and both are equally important to modern games. But how does this work?
I’ve been thinking of this as a game of Senet. The ancient Egyptian game supposedly tells us the story of a person going through life until they die, and are reborn into another life. Each time the game is played, it simulates this experience, and individual actions made during the game represent the moments of the life of different people.
In modern gaming, we rely on discrete narrative laid over the top of this mechanical narrative. We use the rules of Senet to tell the specific story that, say, Ezio Auditore lived. We set up the game so that players will make certain moves at certain times that force them down the path Ezio took. Not literally, of course, but the idea is the same.
So then what is the advantage of telling the story of Ezio Auditore through the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed instead of through the game of Senet? By echoing the choices made by the protagonist, we more accurately simulate their life. If we wanted to tell Ezio’s story through a game of Senet, we would need to supplement our narrative with specific moments of text or video to fill the gaps the mechanics leave behind.
In this article series I want to break down a group of games that are known for their storytelling. I’m going to analyze their systems and define what those systems tell us, what sort of simulation we can run by looking solely at the systems available. Once I’ve defined the systems of the game, I’m going to look at the narrative of that game. I’m going to look at the specific events that happen to our characters and how those characters respond, and ultimately resolve the situation. Then I’m going to look at how the specific story moments are reinforced through the system. How do they use the gameplay systems to convey the events of the story, as it unfolds. Finally, I’m going to then take a look at whether the systemic story and the written story are equal partners, or if the written story could be told through other genres or systems.
For the sake of courtesy, I’m going to note now that there will be spoilers. I’ll do my best to avoid spoiling specific details, but some of these games can’t be adequately discussed without specifics.
Last of Us
Intro: Last of Us has become a sort of poster child for game storytelling since its release. It also features Naughty Dog’s cinematic approach to its narrative. I would be remiss not to take a deeper look at exactly how this game approaches its story, so let’s start there!
Game: Last of Us is a third-person shooter with survival elements. The simulation is trying to capture the experience of surviving a zombie apocalypse, scrounging for supplies and fighting off bandits. The core mechanic is about finding supplies, and then using those to craft weapons that allow you to fight enemies who then drop more supplies. It’s a relatively standard 3-point-loop system of progression, collecting loot to make you better at collecting more loot. The survival nature of the game simply means that loot supply is a bit more limited than in a collect-a-thon like Diablo or similar. Because this game is simulating a brutal landscape of human violence and emotion, the method for collecting loot is through combat.
Third-person shooter combat is designed to allow the player to interact with the world even in scenarios where the player character is positioned oddly, such as when they are crouched behind a barricade. In real life, a person behind a barricade would have other senses to allow them to understand their surroundings to some degree, so third person shooters simulate these other senses by pulling the camera away from the character’s body. There are other reasons, such as technical limitations for certain movement types, that might lead a developer to choose a third-person camera, but for the sake of discussing the third-person camera as a tool for simulation, its goal is primarily to represent other senses in a visual way.
Shooters, in a more general sense, simulate life and combat through the eyes of a particular character. Even if the game is about a squad or team, you will only be playing as one member of the group at a time, and will usually experience the game entirely from their perspective. Even if you are seeing the game from a third-person perspective, shooters simulate life from this person’s perspective very directly, as you can see in games that will white out the screen for a flashbomb that affects the character the camera is following. The methods for simulating these things are frequently also used in non-combative games, further showing the idea that the simulation a ‘shooter’ is doing is primarily about simulating life, and secondarily about the actual process of shooting.
Story: The story of Last of Us is about Joel, a bitter man who has lost his family as part of the onset of the zombie apocalypse. We follow his journey as he meets Ellie, a girl who may hold the key to curing the disease that caused this apocalypse. Joel travels with her to find someone who can figure out whether this key exists or is usable. As they travel, Joel, who has thus far been a bitter cynic, begins to feel an attachment to Ellie and thinks of her as a new member of his family. This opens old wounds and several points throughout the game he runs away from these feelings, leaving Ellie behind or trying to push her away so that his old wounds can stay sealed. As life tends to do, however, he is continually forced to deal with his feelings and eventually they develop a very close friendship and he finally comes to accept her role in his life.
The narrative here is split up into discrete sections. We start off in Summer, move into Fall, then Winter, and end in Spring. The seasons reflect the emotional tone of each chapter. This structure also reflects the typical three-act-structure commonly found in film. Summer is Act 1, Fall is the lead-up to the big mid-story twist that happens in the form of Joel’s injury, Winter is the low point of the story as we deal with the consequences of that injury, and then Spring is Act 3, the climax and resolution as we finally reach the people who can determine Ellie’s usefulness as a cure.
Ludo-Narrative: The gameplay of Last of Us uses a number of small moments to convey its story through mechanic. Last of Us is one of the few games I’ve run into that has a full mechanical arc of progression, as we start the game being the only combatant, but eventually Joel learns to trust in Ellie and we begin to rely more and more on her as a gameplay element. The same progression is true for how story is conveyed through the gameplay, as we start the game interacting only with simple, discrete systems, but later begin to get moments built into the gameplay that convey more of the story. Famously, there is a scene at the start of Spring where Ellie doesn’t respond to the expected input as a way of conveying her mental state, and throwing a wrench into our expectations. There is also the usual elements of environmental storytelling, as we see various other survivors’ stories play out through notes left behind, blood left on the walls, or their belongings piled into specific places with specific things. We see nurseries setup in a sewer, we see a school full of zombies, etc. Nearly every set piece in the game is designed to show us how human life has been upended by this apocalypse. The combat is setup to tell us how brutal this world has become. Animations and tactics are designed to showcase that brutality, and some of the take-downs are truly horrifying in their violence. Aside from conveying the tone, however, the combat is rarely used for narrative. At its height is the sequence at the end of Winter where you have to hide in a restaurant and sneak up on a crazy person to stab him with a knife several times. However, this sequence doesn’t really change the gameplay to convey its story, it just relies a bit more heavily on stealth than the average combat. The game introduces new weaponry throughout the game as a way of keeping interest up, but the choices you make never change, it’s just a matter of which gun you’re using to kill the same enemies. Chest-high-wall placement becomes more hazardous, and enemy count does increase, but it’s the usual linear progression you find in most games. Even the time when you take control over Ellie doesn’t change the gameplay beyond making your movement a little bit lighter and faster, which is never required or emphasized in any way.
Conclusion: So let’s take a look at all of these systems and piece them back together. The story of Last of Us is the central pillar around which the rest of the game is supported, so let’s start there. Last of Us is about a man who’s life was destroyed when the world was destroyed. He travels in order to find a cure for the world, and ends up finding a cure for his own trauma. Ideally, telling a story about trauma and the aftermath of global destruction would be done in a way that lets the player explore both the physical and emotional trauma. In this case, the shooter aspect allows us to follow this specific character through life as he perceives it, which is exactly what is ideal. The survival mechanics force us into combat situations in order to get more supplies that will help us survive combat situations we can’t avoid. This is a perfect simulation of the life of a person living in a zombie apocalypse film, and it allows us to explore the world around us as a metaphorical representation of the internal struggle Joel is experiencing. With that said, the gameplay is only minimally used to tell the story. We get a few sparse moments where Ellie’s AI responses will change to show us how she is being affected by the story, and a few sparse moments where Joel’s gameplay changes as a direct result of what’s happening around him (such as when he gets injured half way through the game). However, the gameplay and narrative elements of even this game are generally quite separate. We get gameplay moments and story moments, and the two are largely disparate.
The genres chosen to convey this story are chosen well. The third-person shooter is a great vessel for simulating the experience of surviving a zombie apocalypse, and for telling the story of a character dealing with emotional trauma and interpersonal relationships. The gameplay design of emphasizing combat by creating a collection loop emphasizes the foraging lifestyle Joel would be living, and also presents us with an opportunity to have to share supplies among you and your allies (though this is never taken advantage of). The combat is also well setup to enable you to decide whether or not you have the supplies to engage, creating a risk/reward system that would further convey the story (also not taken advantage of). All of these elements would be a great vehicle for showing us an increase in trust and companionship through gameplay systems, but the game simply never capitalizes on them. We see our trust of Ellie develop in her being allowed to participate in combat, but we never actively participate in that trust as a player. The game simply tells us that these story elements are different now, so Ellie will shoot stuff too. Which is a great start, don’t get me wrong, but the systems could definitely be used more. Fortunately, all the base choices made to convey the story are perfect for this simulation, the only thing missing is some refinement of presentation. Hopefully we’ll see more of that in the sequel.
stay tuned for part 2!