The Relationship Between Narrative and Technology in Videogames

Videogaming is a unique medium in that its ability to craft narratives is inherently intertwined with the available technology. The story of any game is expressed across multiple levels, both inside and outside the world of the game, and there is a relationship between game and player, through which the narrative is created and explored.

The Relationship Between Narrative and Technology in Videogames Cover

Increasingly, videogaming is a unique medium in that its ability to craft narratives is inherently intertwined with the available technology. The story of any game is expressed across multiple levels, both inside and outside the world of the game, and there is a relationship between game and player, through which the narrative is created and explored.

In this article, technology and mechanics might be considered in three layers. Firstly, the physical technology of the console and controller. Secondly, how the game presents itself, such as graphics and style. Finally the in-game mechanics that structure game-play and give the player boundaries (rule frameworks and point-scoring systems). 

The following will contain spoilers for Red Dead Redemption 2‘s campaign.

The Console and Controller

Referring to the console’s game pad, Rockstar producer Rob Nelson has described developers being “obsessed with this being the way you interact with the world”. This is not just the function of technology at the most blatant level, but shows the interest and imagination of the developers in using the physical features of the console. Vibrations in the controller let the player feel reactions and consequences of their actions, giving the illusion of something tangible. In puzzle scenarios or actions such as lock-picking or safe-breaking, the player’s rotation of the sticks translates to the rotation of tools or dials. The type and position of the shoulder buttons replicate a trigger in shooting games. In this way, players are able to in many ways physically perform the action that their character is performing.

alt=A PS4 DualShock controller, the player's way of interacting with the world of the game.

A PS4 DualShock controller, the player’s way of interacting with world of the game.

There is a phenomenon unique to videogames: players manipulating the technology in the “real world” to change events in a story. The Save and Load function is often used by players to rewrite the narrative, for example, quitting before the game saves to “undo” an event (of course this is only effective in non-linear games with optional elements). In this, the narrative sphere is expanded; it is no longer contained inside the machine but the machine becomes a part of it, so that actions in the player’s world have consequence in the character’s.

alt=The save screen for 'Crash Bandicoot' with the option to overwrite the save slot.

The save screen for ‘Crash Bandicoot’ with the option to overwrite the save slot.

Graphics and Style

Games are of course a visual medium, and the visuals are an interface between player and game. It is the most visibly obvious aspect of videogame technology, and improvement is most immediately noticeable in the quality of graphics. Graphics are not necessarily required for a game’s success and enjoyment, but as mainstream videogames become increasingly recognised for their artistic merit, they have become included what is expected of big-budget, successful videogames. Perhaps, videogames strive for legitimacy through aligning themselves with the longer-established and more broadly appreciated genre of cinema: some even regard the newest games as “interactive movies”.

alt='God of War' is known for its graphics and seamless transitions between gameplay and cut screens, making it all one long shot.

‘God of War’ is known for its graphics and seamless transitions between gameplay and cut screens, making it all one long shot.

As in cinema, improvements in computer generated images enhance the story for the player by creating a world and characters that are more recognisable and so believable. Although, of course, high-quality graphics are not prerequisite to the enjoyment of games, as proved by the earliest videogames and even table-top games with no graphics other than the players’ imaginations.

Indeed, often the limitation of budget can be used to a narrative effect, as many indie games demonstrate. Released in 2012, Hotline Miami sentimentally recreates the graphics and style of games in the 1980s, to match the game’s 1989 setting. The camera angle and the graphic style, although comparatively basic, serve to make the player aware of the setting. The players are asked to play as though they themselves are playing in the ’80s. To borrow a theatrical technique, it is almost Brechtian: by highlighting the fact the players are playing a videogame through a recognisably ’80s aesthetic, the interactivity is heightened and the immersion into the game takes on another dimension.

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The neon colours, squared, grid-like graphics and points system give ‘Hotline Miami’ an 80’s aesthetic.

Designers and developers are aware of the link between the narrative setting and what that means in the minds of players. Particularly if games are relying on visual motifs and icons, these have to in some way replicate the existing “real-life” versions. Although realism seems like a superficial concern, it has an impact on how the game design, and subsequently, the technology, responds.

Motion capture has seen a significant increase in its use in videogames. So much so, it is now perhaps even more closely associated with games than with films. As well as improving a game aesthetically, graphics can more subtly enrich a narrative. Being able to fully translate an actor’s performance to the screen allows more nuanced characterisation, and exposition can happen as visually as it does linguistically. This can create the space even for subtext and more complex story-telling.

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Based on the behaviour of the character, it is up to the player to decide if they are lying.

It seems obvious that the first uses of motion capture were to improve visuals in game-play, helping bridge the previous gap between the game’s story and its playable elements. Now, it is also used to enhance the narrative ability within playable elements, for more intricate mechanics that shift ever further from the “push forward to run, x to jump” format. Games like Rockstar’s L.A Noire have even utilised this to the point of requiring players to interpret details in characters’ facial expressions. Non-verbal cues are an integral part of not only characterisation but the player’s success in the interrogation mechanic, which determines the fulfilment of the objective of the game: solving the case. This works to two ends: the mechanics enhance the game because of its nature of being a detective story, and the narrative allows the technology to be pushed to its potential.

L.A. Noire Gameplay Series Video: "Investigation and Interrogation"

In-Game Mechanics

Whilst creating a believable enough world is a requirement for all narratives, videogames have the unique aspect of being interactive, and the sense of realism extends beyond merely looking realistic. The space held by the more passive reader or viewer in books, TV and film, is occupied in games by the player. By virtue of the name this role is an active one and players have to feel like they are having a plausible and lasting impact on the world around them

Narrative seems to be the glaringly obvious answer to providing the meaning necessary to give value to interactivity and agency. Giving the character motivation theoretically gives the player motivation, as they occupy the place of that character. Just as narrative can give meaning to game-play, an effect on gameplay can encourage players to care about narrative decisions.

alt=In TellTales' 'Tales from the Borderlands' the player's choices have a lasting effect on other character's decisions and actions.

In TellTales’ ‘Tales from the Borderlands’ the player’s choices have a lasting effect on other character’s decisions and actions.

Part of interactivity and agency, and making them meaningful, is the concept of consequence. Increasingly in games, the sense of the long-lasting effects of choices is not just an illusion, but player actions actually do impact story events and even the overarching narrative. This concept is being pushed in contemporary games that offer the chance for fully personalised experiences for players, which of course requires more technological effort. In any game that gives player’s agency, there is a logic with which both narrative and game-play are in conversation.

For example, in Red Dead Redemption II, the fixed narrative follows an Arthur Morgan who revaluates himself and his behaviour. The player sees him change, not just in response to story events, but in response to their version of him. He always has the same moments of epiphany at the same points in the narrative, but how they present themselves depend on the player. The biggest difference is in how that journey ends, which does not just rely on one or two explicit big decisions, but on the player’s continuous choices throughout. It relies on what is perhaps better described as the player’s behaviour throughout the game, and so a multitude of actions build up to decide the final outcome. And beyond: even in the epilogue, Charles’ memories of Arthur differ depending on how the player behaved, how their version of Arthur lived.

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Only when the player achieves high honour does Arthur see the deer imagery in his dreams.

The significance of player choices and the severity of their consequences follow the game’s narrative contours. The consequences of Arthur’s/the player’s choices build in importance as the story progresses. The earlier, less significant choices ease players into decision-making. They are also already coded with the game’s honour system and so it also becomes a form of foreshadowing. The stakes are steadily raised for both the player and the characters. As the story progresses the honour mechanic also awards players more points per each honourable act they do, mirroring Arthur’s character development. Finally, all the player’s previous choices come to a head as the narrative comes to a climax.

The words Charles inscribes on Arthur's grave differ depending on his honour level.

The words Charles inscribes on Arthur’s grave differ depending on his honour level.

From a basic narrative angle this allows the story and the character to make sense throughout, without undermining the large amount of agency the game affords the player. As well as saving bland, generic dialogue that could apply to both a moral and an immoral Arthur Morgan, it emphasises the feeling that the player’s actions have meaning and consequence, even years after the main game.

Conclusion

As mainstream, big-budget games become increasingly narrative- and character-driven (arguably following indie games in that respect), there is increasing opportunity and incentive to explore the relationship between narrative and technology. What’s possible between the two increases proportionately; as videogame narratives get more complex, they are better able to utilise various game mechanics, and as technology advances, game mechanics become more sophisticated, allowing more intricate story-telling. The medium of agency, games are continually interrogating and expanding the space between being told a story and creating a story in which players operate.

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