Narrative in Video Games: Interactive Stories

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From Donkey Kong to the recent The Last of Us: Part II, we explore the art of storytelling (and participation) in the stories of the medium.

Let’s assume a story. One that takes us to a fantastic world where landscapes such as forests or towns may be familiar, but are inhabited by monsters. The protagonist ventures among them, doubting whether they will be dangerous or hostile. Sometimes he runs away; others, fight. Along the way he also makes friends with someone. Now suppose that this trip is not narrated in a book, a comic or a movie, but in a video game and that, therefore, the controller creates an invisible thread between our actions and those of the protagonist. Would history change? Even in a predefined story, where every major event is painstakingly orchestrated by the creators, having that kind of control favors both immersion and connection with the protagonist. Although of course, being an interactive medium, it also opens up new possibilities that others do not have. That of giving us the role of co-author to influence and change, to a greater or lesser extent, the future of the narrative.

It is a subject that has been dealt with since almost the dawn of the medium, and that will continue to be dealt with over the decades because the stories and the ways of telling them will not go anywhere. On the contrary, they will continue to evolve at the same time that the medium evolves, still young if we compare it with the others mentioned above, but with a potential already operating at full capacity for some generations. So today, that we are officially in a new console generation (PlayStation 5 was released yesterday and Xbox Series X has been with us for a little over a week), we are going to take the opportunity to reintroduce some general notions, remember its evolution and delve into some samples popular of recent times. A history of stories, worth the redundancy, and its abilities to connect with the players.

Gorillas and princesses: Narrative as motivation

It is paradoxical to think that much of this goes back to Shigeru Miyamoto, a creative hyper-focused on the playable facet and in charge – along with his collaborators – of establishing many mechanical bases for platforms, adventures and the medium in general, both in 2D and 3D. Now it is difficult to think of him as someone concerned with the arguments, and some of his disagreements with other Nintendo employees are even famous when it comes to limiting that facet or linking it more directly to playable functions, but it was this utilitarianism that gave origin to one of the first emblematic stories of the medium. Initially conceived as an adaptation of Popeye, when left without a license, Donkey Kong was rethought as the conflict between a carpenter and his pet, the homonymous gorilla who kidnapped his girlfriend and climbed buildings in a slightly camouflaged reference to King Kong.

Needless to say, this premise is now practically the most basic thing a video game can aspire to – sports cars aside, and even there there are exceptions – but in an era defined by arcade games like Pong, Space Invaders, Pac-Man or Defender, Donkey Kong he shifted the objective from the mere accumulation of points towards the resolution of a narrative conflict: to rescue Pauline. In time, Pauline would be relieved by Peach, and Peach by Zelda. And although Miyamoto has been watching for years as his pupils direct new installments of the sagas he created in the 1980s, Breath of the Wild still uses this simple triangle to build an adventure of epic scale, where the player can embark on the resolution of many other small narrative arcs, but where sooner or later you need to return to the center of the map to solve the one starring Link, Zelda and Ganon.


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