It’s Not My Story: Narrative Restriction in Interactive Media

This, clearly, is the ponciest title I have yet used in any blog post. What it really means is that for the next sixteen paragraphs, I’m going to be ruminating on how, contrary to superficial expectation, taking away freedom in immersive interactive media can result in greater investment from the media’s consumer, not less.

Books are kinda neat. I want to set out my stall right here at the start. I like books. Films too. I like books and I like films. If you asked me whether it was true that I liked those things, I would tell you that it was and I would be telling the truth. There, I’ve said it. Now we’re clear. But they’re a bit old-hat, aren’t they?

You just sort of sit there and look at them. Do you know what else you sit there and look at? Paint drying, minute hands on clocks in waiting rooms, the bleak abyss behind the eyes of the human resources drone delivering corporate training. Isn’t it more fun when you’ve got something to do; isn’t it more fun when you’re actively participating in something? Because they’re static, because they don’t react to the person consuming them, aren’t films, aren’t books a bit… boring?

Interactivity, now that’s fun. I’m not just participating in somebody else’s story, I’m helping to tell it — I’m telling my own. Home story-telling is killing books. And which medium best encapsulates the paradigm of user-driven narrative? Why it’s video games, of course.

I once shot a man in a video game just to watch him die. And as he collapsed into a ragdoll physics-enabled heap at my feet, I was glad. I was glad because I had wanted to kill him, and I had been able to. I can do anything, man. Move over Ian Banks, I’m the one behind the typewriter now. That character is annoying, much better that he should die painfully.

You hear a lot about freedom. Politicians talk about it as though it’s a physical product to be consumed, controlled and exported; games designers trumpet how Super Manshooter IV will have “unparalleled levels of player freedom”; the Earth rotates about its axis unperturbed. Freedom’s fun you see, freedom’s where it’s at.

How many amazing video gaming moments have only been possible due to the freedom of the player to make decisions? Save the world from the oblivion gates, or don’t. Shoot the krogran or talk him around. Take the road less travelled, or follow the crowd. It’s your choice, your experience. You’re not just an observer at somebody else’s show, you’re the main event at your own. Freedom feels good, man.

Sniper scopeFreedom isn’t free though. Cohesiveness is usually the first casualty of introducing more narrative interaction. Emergent narratives most often lack the finesse and flow of experiences which, if not linear, are at least guided by immutable narrative guidelines. If it has a good story, you can pretty much guarantee the freedom in your favourite non-linear videogame is just an illusion; if you want a good story then you need to have the bumper rails up on the player’s freedom.

In truth I have always been opposed to it. I’ve always wanted freedom. I’ve always seen the merits of my being able to construct my own story, let my own imagination loose. I have found the trend towards highly scripted corridor shooters to be tiring and sad. I’m a virtual book-burner, me.

Something happened recently to make me put my flaming torch down though, and that something was indie read-em-up Don’t Take It Personally Babe, It’s Just Not Your Story. Placing you into the position of a frustrated and damaged man who becomes a teacher after an early mid-life crisis, it’s more of an interactive novel than a game. Even the term ‘interactive’ might be misapplied here.

You might not agree with many of the actions your character takes, or the things he says. He’s morally questionable at least, falling in love with one of his fifteen year old students and manoeuvering two students into a gay relationship with each other. You can’t make your character behave in the way that you want; you can’t in any way construct your own narrative. That’s part of the conceit of the game though: it’s just not your story.

And you know, it’s captivating. I found myself utterly absorbed in the game’s narrative, more than I’ve been in any game’s for years. There’s a theory applied to roleplaying games called GNS Theory, which assigns motivations to players. There are gamists who enjoy the mechanics of a situation (“I rolled a 20! I get a critical hit!”), narrativists who participate in the construction of a strong narrative behind their characters and the events of the game, and simulationists who revel in the sense of place, and are likely to consider their character in third person and ruminate on how their character would react, as though it were a separate entity rather than being under the player’s direct control. It’s Just Not Your Story is a simulationist’s dream.

More broadly though, I found it interesting how easily I overcame the barrier presented by my innate attraction towards a freer narrative. Once I’d accepted the loss of control I found I could access a whole new level of imaginative interaction. Why was my character behaving in this way? This became the area I could improvise within and think about.

For games which uphold the consequences of the player’s actions (so not Super Manshooter III, where if a squadmate dies then you have to restart from a checkpoint) it has become gaming gospel that the only way a player can have freedom in the narrative is by allowing them to do anything. There are many worthy games which allow the player to do this, and they are not per se bad games. Games can have a strong narrative without diminishing player investment if the story they present is interesting enough to convince the player to get on board.

One of my favourite authors, when questioned when a particular character in the novel series he writes will die, answered “at the dramatically appropriate moment of course”. That’s what you lose with unrestricted narratives.

Freedom can be slavery, slavery can be freedom. Let’s see more exciting, enthralling and engaging games where the narrative rules the roost. Let’s see developers who are brave enough to challenge established notions of videogame plotting and who are inventive enough to rediscover what books have always known. Let’s see freedom dethroned and story regaining its rightful place in interactive media.

The king is dead. Long live the king.


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April 2011
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