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Opinion: The Reflective Leather Hood Of Character Death

In her latest opinion column on storytelling in games, IF author Emily Short takes a look at a free, Web browser-based dungeon crawler to examine how narrative could be created and extended, even in titles with currently minimal narrative.

Emily Short, Blogger

September 22, 2008

5 Min Read

[In her latest opinion column on storytelling in games, originally part of her 'Homer in Silicon' GameSetWatch column, IF author Emily Short takes a look at a free, Web browser-based dungeon crawler to examine how narrative could be created and extended, even in titles with currently minimal narrative.] Confronted with a new game with minimal narrative trimmings, my instinct is to ask: how could we do a story with this mechanic? How do we make it good? Sometimes I have to conclude that we really can't -- that the game is so abstract or so essentially lightweight that the elements of narrative can't be convincingly hung on that hook. But sometimes I can imagine what the story would be -- except that it would fundamentally change the nature of the game. Take the free, Web browser-based Monster's Den: Book of Dread: it's a dungeon-crawling game, with a party of four who can engage in tactical battles with assorted monsters. I've had a guilty fondness for this genre since Wizardry, though Monster's Den is slicker and easier to handle than the versions I tried in the 80s, and it's free, too. Monster's Den offers a little bit of framing narrative for each of the three campaigns available (one of which is a survival mode where you face wave on wave of attackers until you and the city you defend finally collapse). At level changes, the characters are usually given some portentous dialogue to say, too. And that's about it as far as narrative arc goes in this game. But a few features of the mechanics contain the seeds of narrative significance. Your party can earn regenerative abilities, so that each move during battle raises health and power. When battle isn't raging, though, you can only increase these stats through the use of healing potions. So I soon found -- especially in survival mode, but even during the regular scenarios -- that it was most efficient to play against a group of enemies until the last enemy was essentially harmless but not dead: weak enough to be killed with a single blow, and maybe blind and poisoned as well. Then I'd have my characters pass for turn after turn while their health and power stats rebuilt themselves. Sometimes the remaining character dies on his own, of poison inflicted earlier in the battle. Sometimes one of the party executes him when they have no further use for him. There could be a scene there. Not a pretty one, either. My party of hard-fighting adventurers becomes much less admirable when they are essentially standing around smoking cigarettes while their dwarf maniac opponent -- wounded, blinded, poisoned -- slowly dies in the corner. We could put him out of his misery with a single blow of our Vampiric Mithril Longsword of Insight. But we choose not to. That same interaction takes on a different meaning in the survival mode framing of the game. This time, my beleaguered heroes allow one attacking wave to survive a little longer because it knows -- knows! -- that this pause is the only thing holding off another wave of enemies. The next one will be better equipped, stronger, meaner. Each new group is hardier than the last. That's the way it goes. So yes, we'll let the wounded man in front of us struggle on a little longer, just to buy ourselves a moment's respite. Now it's desperation, not gloating. Knowing you're going to lose in the end changes the calculus. We can start to see, too, how character dynamics might shape up within the party. The different characters have lots of opportunities to protect and heal one another (or not): might the mage resent being allowed to die and await resurrection because the cleric had something more important to do this turn? And what if the player's tactical decisions about how to arrange characters for battle were instead attributed to the group leader? Might some of the other members of the party start to resent his favoring one character or another? Or be angry that they weren't put up front to prove their macho-ness? Or be wistful because they never got assigned the best weapons and armor? As I said at the beginning, a game that used the mechanics of Monster's Den to do small-group personal dynamics would be very very different from the original in tone and style, even if it kept the nominal frame story of descending through nine levels of dungeon to defeat a boss monster. It might turn out to be a story about hubris, or raw determination. The group might start out as strangers and become friends -- or they might start as comrades and find themselves too divided by the end to share any joy in their profits. Does this all seem far-fetched? Maybe. But a number of games have proven that character stories don't have to use dialogue or combat as their mechanic. Adam Cadre's Textfire Golf uses the mechanics of a putting game to represent power-plays in office politics. There are a lot of ways to communicate. All of them are valid bases for character interaction. [Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

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