The Art of Video Game Narratives

Video games, I undoubtedly adore them. It's delightful to encounter a game designed so masterfully that it doesn't feel like a game anymore. Video game narratives add so much to this feeling. But, there is no narrative without flaws.

The Art of Video Game Narratives

Everybody loves a good story. Seriously. It’s refreshing to experience a fantastic narrative that can effortlessly go toe-to-toe with your all-time favourite movie. It’s no secret to anyone that videogame narratives have grown closer to our hearts. More compelling throughout the years. Although it varies based on multiple factors, a good story adds much to the final game value; It can emboss the developer’s name in history for eternity.

You see, to create a game that will be forever remembered as a masterpiece, you need to support the story with the required tools to piece together a great narrative. A good story on Its own is less likely to make it. One of these tools is how you tell the story, gritty or lighthearted? Dramatic or easygoing? A more solid story or a flexible one? It’s entirely your call.

Heavy spoilers ahead for the following games: The Last of Us Part II. Red Dead Redemption II. Batman Arkham City. Batman Arkham Knight.

It’s safe to say that there’s a critical difference between storytelling in video games and movies. Video games have a more extensive capability of immersing the player than a movie to a viewer per se. Why you ask? In movies, usually, you get to watch events unfold for the protagonist. While in video games, you are usually the protagonist (or the antagonist?), so events unfold in front of your eyes. If you fail, you get affected by the consequences (and probably get taunted to the 7th hell until you come back up). It’s easily deduced that video games, naturally, have the required tools and resources to immerse the player. In contrast, movies have to spend more time and resources to keep up on the same level of immersion as games.

Who does immersion better than Naughty Dog themselves? From the Uncharted Series to The Last of Us series, the studio has absolutely mastered the tool of immersion to the point that it intercedes forgivingly for their monotonous gameplay, but not for the overall narrative; This takes us to the question, is immersion on its own enough to make a compelling narrative? To go in-depth in finding the correct answer, let’s first talk about The Last of Us: Part II

The Last of Us: Part II

I know, dear reader, that you’ve had enough of “The Last of Us: Part II bad” media, but bear with me, promising you that you will get to put extra 222 brain cells on your enormous gamer brain.

The Last of Us: Part II — The Art of Video Game Narratives

Ellie, The Last of Us: Part II.

While the gameplay stayed the same with the exception of minor upgrades, the narrative of The Last of Us: Part II is the complete antithesis of the first game; for a multitude of reasons with no actual excuse from Naughty Dog. The team of Naughty Dog chose to bonk the hammer on the subject of revenge in the most inadequate way of storytelling possible. Not just that, but the game has a considerable disconnection between the gameplay and the story.

Ludonarrative Dissonance

Throughout the main story, Ellie seeks revenge for Joel’s gruesome murder by Abby. At. All. Costs. Meaning that Ellie doesn’t really care that much if 200 or 300 or 600 are on her way to getting to Abby, she will kill them all, pursuing redemption for her father figure throughout the events of both games. So after vengefully, carelessly killing hundreds of people, even pregnant ones, Ellie suddenly decides that killing Abby is not the right choice.

Ludonarrative Dissonance is when the gameplay mechanics don’t make a complete picture of what’s being told. The game is supposedly trying to discuss the cycle of violence and how destructive revenge is. But when you try to pair it with the gameplay, where Naughty Dog is encouraging you to stab, shoot, decapitate people while swearing at them for the game to progress. It’s the developer’s choice to make the game more Naughty Dogish at the cost of the overall narrative quality.

The Last of Us: Part II — The Art of Video Game Narratives

The Last of Us: Part II

Did I mention the pacing yet? After Joel’s death, you play as Ellie, with the primary objective being “Kill Abby.” The game rewinds a couple of years a little bit before the first one, only for you to control Abby. Then you discover that Abby is not that bad; Do you remember the surgeon Joel killed in the first game? Well, Abby is his daughter. She decided to take revenge on her father by killing Joel. Now your primary objective is “Kill Ellie.” Suppose you choose to kill Ellie just like you were asked, bam, a game over screen. When you switch back to Ellie, if you kill Abby, say you’re still somehow not sympathizing with her after the game begs you for hours to do so, also a game over screen.

The game gives you the illusion of choice, but you actually have no control whatsoever. Do you remember the difference between a game and a movie? Well, there you go. Don’t get me wrong; some games are made to be more like an interactive movie, for instance. But in Detroit, like most games, they give you a clear objective, only if you fail, you probably get some cutscene indicating you failed, or just a game over screen. However, in The Last of Us: Part II, you fail when you do the objective. Maybe that’s the game’s aesthetic; you always fail by achieving revenge. I would’ve personally adored that if they had put more effort into creating alternative endings.

How to force the player into the right choice?

In Batman: Arkham City, If you have Catwoman’s DLC, you are given a choice by Rocksteady to either escape Arkham City with your loot or save the Batman. If you choose the uncanonical option of fleeing Arkham City with the loot, the credits roll with the terrified voice of Oracle saying that they lost Bruce Wayne. If you don’t know who Bruce Wayne is, he’s the Batman himself. I know that your brain is about to explode from all the information packed in this article, but stick with me.

After the credits roll, the time goes back to when Rocksteady gave you a choice, forcing you to choose to save Batman. Do you see the difference here? This. This is how to force the player into the right choice. I was interested in seeing something like that transpire in The Last of Us: Part II. In the end, The Last of Us: Part II is overall a mediocre game, a disappointingly mediocre game, to me at least.

Red Dead Redemption II

Red Dead Redemption II is the third-second game in a series we talk about in this article. Although the number 2 is in the title, Red Dead Redemption II is considered the third installment in the series. So technically, It’s not really the second game. I know; I should’ve set a “Neeerd Alert” initially. Moving along. Red Dead Redemption II is absolutely my all-time favorite when it comes to video games. The excellent narrative was something I failed to foresee when the game was first announced.

 John and Arthur, Red Dead Redemption 2.

John and Arthur, Red Dead Redemption 2.

Although I consider the game to be a timeless masterpiece and attacking it feels like shooting my own person, It’s no secret that the game’s fantastic narrative has hurt the game a bit. But how?

Ride, walk, and listen, carefully!

One of the most talked-about aspects of the game is that it sometimes gets sort of boring..? In the first chapter, Rockstar introduces you to the Dutch Van Der Linde Gang and how things are not so great with them after the said ferry job. If I had to describe the first chapter of the game with three words, It would be “Riding. Walking. and Listening.” you do this for the rest of the game, of course, but the first chapter is riddled with just these three words.

The thing is, riding and walking speeds are capped to match the rest of the gang members who are doing the mission with you. So if Dutch, for example, decided to stop abruptly, horses suddenly have power brakes now. Unlike Grand Theft Auto V, If you’re walking with Reverend, for example, you will WALK with Reverend. I’m aware that It’s not gentle of Arthur to run while Reverend is walking. If only Mr. Swanson didn’t have baby feet

I don’t know if it was just me, but I felt like Rockstar was trying to cram up the largest magnitude of dialogue while riding between points A and B and then back from B to A. I never felt bored while listening to the conversations, as I was thirsty for the smallest piece of content Rockstar was trying to shove down my tiny brain. But there is something else that I found annoying about Red Dead Redemption 2

Rockstar has a PLAN!

Rockstar Games have always been famous for their immersive, remarkable open-world games. Seriously, none of their Open Worlds since Grand Theft Auto 3 have aged a second; they all give a unique sense of freedom and realism, even to this day. But gradually, since Grand Theft Auto IV, Rockstar wanted to take the way they tell stories more earnestly, so their open-worlds have developed more linear mission designs.

A Quiet Night in Saint Denis, Red Dead Redemption 2.

A Quiet Night in Saint Denis, Red Dead Redemption 2.

In Red Dead Redemption 2, It’s the least to say that the linear mission design has achieved its prime. It’s not always a bad thing, you know. But most missions in the game are so scripted that it’s becoming clear that Rockstar Games have a plan that they’re not willing to ditch. In comparison, it is understandable in missions like “Blood Feuds, Ancient and Modern,” where you go with the gang to retrieve Jack, John Marston’s one and only son, from the Braithwaites who have previously kidnapped him. It’s less understandable in train heists where players should be able to approach their scores in their unique ways that can minorly affect the story.

When the random events are less scripted than most of the game, It frankly speaks about how the video game narrative hurt your quality of gameplay.

Batman: Arkham Knight

I know this might seem like an antagonistic opinion, but I think Batman: Arkham Knight is the best in the series. It’s not the best the series could serve (psst! Batman: Arkham City), but this game is genuinely close to my heart. I think it has to do with Scarecrow being my favorite Batman villain. Not to brag, but I’m that kid that thinks a Batman Horror game with Scarecrow as the lead is a missed opportunity. Rocksteady nailed his redesign, speeches throughout the game, and nearly everything.

The Arkham Knight, Batman: Arkham Knight.

The Arkham Knight, Batman: Arkham Knight.

The game served the finest form of Batman’s inner and outer conflicts, then their consequential resolutions. That being said, both endings of the game are totally extraordinary and compelling. But even with all of this, there is no game without flaws.

The Arkham Knight

Writing a brand new character (especially an antagonist) is pretty hard. My problem with the Arkham Knight is that Rocksteady chose to make him “Batman: The Baddie” instead of having a compelling story arc for him. He admits it by constantly saying,

Jason: I know exactly how you think, which means I know how to defeat you

although he never did or even got remotely close

Did I mention how cheesy his dialogue was? Joker’s dialogue was appropriate due to his manic/psychopathic self. Scarecrow’s dialogue was proper due to his megalomanic self; how starved he is to seeing Batman drown in his worst fears, only to feel the true sense of power. The Arkham Knight’s dialogue feels so lame compared to the others. He could’ve had so much character in his dialogue due to his tragic past, which ties us to my next point…

The not so big reveal

Jason Todd, huh. After all the extensive research done by Alfred, It’s one of the robins. Not any of the robins; it’s the Fallen Robin. The reveal was not so big for multiple reasons, the first being that we never heard of the Red Hood in the series; there’s no character left in Batman’s gallery that could be the Arkham Knight except for the Red Hood. He definitely had some sort of past with Batman, and he KNOWS who Batman really is.

The Red Hood, Batman: Arkham Knight.

The Red Hood, Batman: Arkham Knight.

There are many ways a brain can think of that could’ve made this reveal bigger, more unexpected, making the character more of a mystery than a taunting idiot. Making the character silent could’ve made this reveal much more immense. He could’ve been an unknown guy capable of deploying fifty tanks and an entire militia to control Gotham, all without talking. And it would’ve made more sense for his character not to speak due to his tragic past.

Conclusion

To create a great game is to have a narrative done right. You don’t need a melodramatic narrative for the most melancholic game. You need to master the art of video game narratives. Setting the essence, the heart of a game, creating an entertaining story, a great message without getting distracted from what makes video games what they are; fun. Succeeding in piecing together a great narrative that will be remembered in an everlasting legacy of masterworks. The way of telling your story is as important as the story itself. It’s about utilizing the gameplay, the cinematography, the animations to benefit your story. It’s about immersing the player, making him ponder in action that takes place in a world made of 0s and 1s and a couple thousand lines of code.

 

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