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Interactive Storytelling - Narrative Techniques and Methods in Video Games

Mike Shepard, Author

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The Cave, Bastion

Normally, narrators are employed in fairy tale films or gritty old detective movies.  In some cases, the narrator is creeping its way into video games, and rarely as an omniscient ‘storyteller,’ like a reader of an unabridged book: the most effective narrators in recent games are narrators who are characters unto themselves.

For example, Double Fine’s The Cave (2013) has the narrator introduce itself as the Cave in question before introducing the available characters.  Once character have heard (or skip over) the characters’ stories, they venture into the Cave, wherein the Cave’s voice follows you and your characters throughout their journey.  What makes the Cave a particularly fine narrator is how it adds to every situation: if one ever finds a chance, playing through the game sans-narrator detracts from the entire experience, almost sucking the life from the narrative.  Without the Cave’s voice, players don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing, may not think as deeply about their actions, and may not laugh at their otherwise macabre situations.  The Cave adds everything, from humor to thought to motivation, to the experience, and is the first and last thing players hear in the game.

As mentioned, the Cave adds to the experience: joking about the situations the characters find themselves in and they cause themselves, from inconveniences to deaths of those around them; expressing disbelief or disgust as players press forward on a destructive (yet predetermined) path; quipping about the fragility of our lives in the face of our desires, giving pause in an onslaught of sarcasm and underhanded insults; the Cave drives the entire experience, giving players a myriad of emotions they wouldn’t have felt otherwise.  Just as the Cave controls itself and the experiences of the characters, it drives, controls, and magnifies the experience of the players as they venture into its depths.

Supergiant Games’s Bastion (2011) has their character introduced fairly early on as Rucks, an old survivor of the worldwide Calamity who retells the story of the Kid’s (player character) exploits across the world to power their haven and make things right.  The entire narrative, as players move through it, is told as a story that Rucks is conveying to another character as they wait for the Kid to return from his final mission.  As something happens in, what appears to be, real-time for the Kid and player, Rucks is able to talk about it with experience; for him, it’s already happened.  That’s the powerful thing with Rucks as a narrator in Bastion: he reacts to the player’s actions.  Move through the game on the linear path?  He’ll talk about it.  Pick up a new weapon, or swap out a particular weapon?  He’ll talk about it.  Get punched by bad guys a few times?  He’ll talk about it.  Fall off the edge of the playing field and seem to fall to your doom?  Rucks will even talk about that, and any other number of ways the Kid seems to die.  In many ways, Bastion is a good game(hyperlink, accolades), but it truly was the narration that propelled (hyperlink, Wired review) it leaps and bounds above other narratives.

The dynamic narrator, reacting to the player’s decisions in-game, helps to immerse players in the world they’re exploring; that’s powerful in itself.  But Bastion goes even further with Rucks: he’s weathered, has seen a lot, and it shows in his voice.  He’s seen the world die around him, and sees its only hope off into the great unknown.  Aside from being a narrator, he is a character, both in and around the narrative; he is his own person, for all that he is describing the story as it has already unfolded.

Like many other features, a narrator can be used well in a story, or it can be poorly tacked on to the product.  The pitfalls are large with narrators in video games, but if one can clear the gap as The Cave and Bastion have, they open up a new level of storytelling.

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