For Part 1, including a my thoughts on narrative-driven games and a potted history of their development, look here.
In the last part of this article, I looked at the development of narrative driven games, meaning games where immersive drama and narrative drive the story at least as much as as the game play elements. As I mentioned, as game play can be somewhat repetitive in nature, it can be hard to get the round peg of plot fit into the square hole of gaming controls. As the plot of the game is usually developed after the basic game play ideas, the plots often have to accommodate and fit around literally hours of running, leaping, looting and (all too commonly) gunning down thousands upon thousands of enemies. As a result, gaming narratives find it hard to escape from the back seat of pulp action B-movie sensibilities and it’s really very hard to care what happens in such a shallow genre of storytelling.
Shakespeare probably wouldn’t have fared as well if he’d been forced to tell his stories in between rounds of the Monopoly board or thirty second bursts of N64’s Goldeneye (note to self: idea for an Edinborough Fringe One Man Show entitled “The Merry Wives of Walther PPK” – needs work…..).
This issue, which games have to overcome was famously described as “ludonarrative dissonance” (in relation to a review of the game Bioshock) where the game play elements contradict with the the overall narrative. This clash can be alienating and disrupting whether it’s being forced to do things you don’t want to (gunning down civilians in Call of Duty or being forced to play as a crass idiot sexist in Red Dead Redemption) or more frequently playing through sequences that make it difficult to believe the plot (I loved the game Mafia but arguing that your character was a good guy who never really did anything wrong didn’t really fly in the face of that level on the rooftops where you’re forced to gun down hundreds of police officers).
Nevertheless, I’d like to focus on three recent and very different games that bucked the trend and managed to integrate their game play and plot elements into a whole, allowing them to tell the sort of stories that this kind of technology always promised to be able to tell and do so in a way that would be difficult for television or film to replicate.
I’m going to start in this part with a left field choice from a small games development company – Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.
Now, if you have any prior knowledge of this game, you may well be thinking, “What?”
Yeah, so I’m talking about a narrative driven game and the first example I choose is a game where there are no understandable lines of dialogue at all. Go figure.
AS IF IT NEEDS TO BE SAID, IF YOU INTEND ON PLAYING THIS GAME, DO NOT READ THE ARTICLE
Brothers has the most explanatory title ever in that the game is concerned with your control of two brothers. What the title doesn’t fill out is that the brothers live in a fantasy style Tolkeinesque world and must leave their farmstead to travel to a distant land to find a rare plant that the local healer can use to cure their ailing father of a terminal disease. What the title also doesn’t tell you is that you will be controlling both brothers simultaneously.
What we have here then is a very different kind of game. Whereas most games have very simple controls, the challenge is to perform these simple tasks fast and accurately. For example, it’s not hard to fire a gun in Arma III but it’s considerably more difficult to hit a moving target at range. In this game, even basic control is much more challenging in that each half of the controller is dedicated to one of the brothers and to control both of them at the same time requires the dexterity to do something different with each hand and adjust based on feedback from the screen. It’s very achievable and the game does not rush you but requires much more concentration than most third person games.
I am sure that this game-play and puzzle solving mechanic of moving the brothers simultaneously was the driving idea for the game and not the plot but in this case the entire concept weaves plot and control together into an enmeshed whole, which as I was describing earlier is about as rare as diamonds (for the purposes of that metaphor, ignore this whole cartel thing).
The thing is that the whole point of the game consists of these siblings who have to work together and rely on each other’s strengths and weaknesses and cooperate for the good of their father. All the while that these siblings have to cooperate, so do the two sides of your brain that are pushing your fingers around each thumb stick. If you can control both siblings in harmony, you can traverse this great mountainous wilderness. If you can’t, then the brothers are stuck. In other words, the game controls are a constant reminder of who the characters are and what they need to do to succeed.
Something that helps the narrative impact is the world in which the characters have to travel. As mentioned, this is a beautifully rendered fantasy world full of impossibly mountainous terrain. The path the brothers travel on is linear but rather than wanting for choice, the path is full of incredibly memorable and impressive locations such as barbarian temples, giant castles, mad inventor’s shops, sleepy villages, troll mines, ice sheets and forests full of wolves. The inventiveness and excellence of execution in these details helps to distract from the few occasions where puzzles are repetitive (mostly leaping from handhold to handhold on the side of things). The frozen castle siege and the giant’s battlefield are particular highlights. It’s always surprising in the well trodden roads of fantasy that you see anything like this that you don’t remember ever seeing before. Most of the time, the camera hangs overhead as the brothers wind around underneath, but occasionally the game plants benches where the brothers can sit and swing the camera to a more lateral angle, showing the views the game designers are justly proud of.
So, having a wonderfully imagined world helps, but as I mentioned with the great Fallout series, a great world to explore does not a great story make.
Brothers is a very linear game but it is the touches here and there which help the plot to shine through. As with most games where you control pre-designed characters it can be hard to show who these characters are and what they are like without lengthy cut sequences. Brothers, by and large, integrates this kind of character exploration into the game itself. When you encounter something on the road, be it a person, animal, device, pond or monster and have the option of interacting with it, each brother will act in a certain way. The older brother is more focused, serious, polite and thoughtful. The younger brother is like all younger brothers – a playful nuisance charming to some and irritating to others. Some of these interactions are necessary but many are not and are just ways of getting to explore the characters.
Another way the narrative is woven in depends entirely on the type of plot the game has. The game is trying to tell a very simple story which is easy to understand (as mentioned, all of the dialogue is in a made up language) and draws at basic human points of reference that we all understand. These characters are very different from each other but are linked by blood and have to work together and keep each other safe. They venture out from their parochial home into a dangerous and sometimes dark world with incredibly cruel scenes. Brothers is not a children’s game and plays around frequently with adult imagery – people being hanged or sacrificed or other scenes of blood. In short, the story it is trying to tell is like a Brothers Grimm fairy story – an old fashioned folk tale with the nasty edges left on which sometimes seem way too gruesome or mean spirited or frightening for children of the age that the Brothers in this story are. These stories are about the nasty world that lies out there beyond the front door which we all have to prepare to face as we grow older.
This game is about loss.
Yes, it’s a colourful fantasy world but it’s not a feel good activity.
As the game progresses, the younger brother has to rely on the older brother, most notably because he can’t swim and isn’t as strong. In one near-drowning scene, the younger brother plays through a near-drowning sequence in which he imagines his (dead) mother speaking to him and imagines he is fighting with his brother who is actually trying to resuscitate him. As the journey continues, the young brother has to learn to focus as, though they help many others in need along their quest, they need to get the root that will save their father. As they near the final hurdle, it is the more mature brother that loses focus and does so through that common element of coming of age stories – love and sexual awakening. Whilst the younger brother uses his new found maturity and tries to restore his the other’s fastidiousness, the older brother is tricked by an evil shape shifter and mortally wounded.
But let’s not forget that each side of the controller has been controlling each brother simultaneously.
So now the younger brother must continue and complete the quest alone. Just one side of the controller. Just one thumb stick. The signature mechanic of the game is broken and the unused thumb lies limply there as you control the brother you have left.
Once again, the basic control mechanics of the game exactly underpin and underline the narrative emotions perfectly in a way that almost no other games do. Yes, it sad in a first person shooter when Sniper Wolf or Maria dies but those are just cut scenes in a first person shooter that doesn’t give you any reason to continue that emotion into the next level of oncoming faceless enemies. Brothers forces you to play through that kind of loss in a way that is just heart breaking and in doing so avoids the conflict of game play devices and storytelling that is so common.
Brothers is a game for a limited audience (not you guys, I’ve totally spoiled it for you if you didn’t see that rude ALLCAPS message I left). It won’t satisfy the typical gamer for its lack of action but it isn’t casual enough to reach out to the general audience. However, it’s a great example of what games can be when you achieve synergy in message and medium.
In the next part of the article, I’ll switch from this small time game to one of the biggest games of the year, full of action and well entrenched within its genre which is still probably one of the all time best narrative driven games.
Hope that you’ll make it there and not fall down an incredibly deep crevasse or anything.