On Emergent Storytelling

Article written by:
John Oliver Go
Author: John Oliver GoWebsite: http://dangerousblogforboys.wordpress.com
Oliver has a love-hate romance with video games. So much so that all he writes are loving hate letters about his games - or hateful love letters depending on his mood. But he has a love-love relationship with his cats.

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I love Peter Jackson, particularly at the exhilarating peak of his career when he exploded with King Kong (2005), the very film that he had always wanted to make ever since he started out in Hollywood. It was a beautiful, ambitious, and almost unwieldy film that transcended (perhaps cross-sectioned) genres and set the bar for cinematic visuals that will not be bettered until James Cameron's luscious Avatar almost half a decade later. His storytelling finesse carried heft in the lush and verdant Skull Island as well as a smoky and equally beautiful rendition of Depression-era New York, despite the ruinous nature of a redundant plot quite literally taken from a 1930's monster film. The curious thing about this remake, however, is that it doesn't cater to nostalgia, as perhaps the remake is too old for anyone to remember; and it is likely that most of the people who have seen it are a) film aficionados  or b) dead.

The original purpose of the remake is to create a visually-outstanding adventure for the post-modern film crowd who value creative action and visually-inventive storytelling, and to bring out the inner child of a movie director who has just finished flexing his mature cinematic muscle with, I dunno, 19 Golden Statuettes just a couple of years before. The plot, itself, is just as interested in dinosaurs and giant worms as it is with bigotry and capitalism, told in confidence and breathtaking style. Beyond its genre mash-ups, however, is a love story worth telling framed within society's general alienation of cross-cultural differences. And the magic of this breathless action film is that this core never gets lost even if it seems as if the movies tries so hard to.

King Kong (2005)

Public criticism could perhaps speak of redundant plotting if there is anything to criticize about King Kong. Carl Denham, the film's primary catalyst, stares at the monster's corpse and utters: "It was Beauty killed the Beast". They could perhaps say that it would have been more poignant if Beauty and the Beast has not already been iterated as a period film in the 1940's and even remade into an animated film and then turned into a Broadway musical before this movie was released, but I digress. King Kong is about grandiose storytelling with broad thematic brushstrokes much more than it is about telling a daring, methodical story. It is raw, emotive power. Roger Ebert always said: "It's not what it's about. It's how it's about it." He gave the film a perfect 4 stars.

So how is this, once again, related to video games? Knee deep into production, Peter Jackson wanted to create an official game of the movie, one that could actually share in the film's vision rather than merely merchandise it. He called for a video game idealist who made games in the same way he, himself, makes movies: someone who had a knack for great storytelling despite the material. After all, Mr. Jackson's lauded films were hardly original, mined from the very stories where the fantasy and adventure sub-genres bore their roots upon, and therefore dulled. It is only befitting that video game stories themselves were, in retrospect, always less ambitious than how these stories were presented, especially in a groundbreaking new entertainment medium where narrative possibilities were boundless. And back in 2004, there were a lot of people less ambitious in gameplay storytelling than Michel Ancel.

Michel Ancel is a French video game designer who made a name for himself during the early PlayStation years with the quirky-crazy Rayman platforming games, an atypical series best described as a Nickelodeon-era Super Mario Brothers. If these whimsical cartoonish games brought him to the map, however, what brought him to helm King Kong was his curious and thoughtful action-adventure game Beyond Good and Evil.

But let me get this straight and out of the way first: Beyond Good and Evil is a merely average action-adventure that audiences didn't just warm up to, they never even showed up in the first place. From a mechanical perspective, the entire package is a Frankengame of ideas, borrowing from all popular games during the time yet never bettered any of them. Back in 2003, it mostly resembled The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker wherein you could freely explore an enclosed world, the caveat being Ancel's work showing up subpar in comparison because it told you everywhere you need to go with all collectibles showing up on your map, therefore sapping the excitement of exploration in the first place. It mostly resembled Splinter Cell with its stealth sections, but with obvious enemy patrol patterns and rudimentary (perhaps blocky?) level design meaning all strategy is unwarranted. It mostly resembled Prince of Persia with its acrobatics and free-flowing combat, but with merely basic jumping, crawling, and attacking mapped to single buttons robbing players of any opportunity to show off skill, largely automating the mechanics, and even character animation, to bare-bones simplicity.

An action-adventure nobody knew

Its story, in heavy emphasis, was also downright awkward. Beyond Good and Evil has a very intriguing premise, it presents us with a world where freedom is heavily censored and everything is in under constant surveillance due to an outside threat where aliens are constantly under siege. Towards the beginning of the game, there are hints that perhaps the police that were protecting the world could be working with the aliens to ensure diplomacy while the outsiders reap our resources. The intrigue ends there. As also during the game's beginning, the game shows you that the police, quite frankly and beyond doubt, are collaborators after all. No further plot twists ensue, as the story turns into one of propaganda where you align yourself with a rebel group and take pictures to expose this conceit in a straightforward manner without any hint of pretense or other narrative quandaries whatsoever. It's like the Nietzsche reference has been distilled into a Saturday morning cartoon.

But if you would remember correctly, Peter Jackson perhaps didn't need to look at great game mechanics or even a great story in searching for his video game equivalent. He was looking for someone who could do great storytelling.

Beyond Good and Evil is set in a world that is under heavy surveillance. What I failed to mention is that this world is filled with talking animals, steampunk hovercrafts, and European architecture juxtaposed into a dreamy swamp world where anything can happen. How each of these seemingly random elements form a coherent game world is down to the genius that Ancel has created into something that feels genuinely unique and teeming with imagination, akin to how a Hayao Miyazaki film is believable without being realistic. It's a game about its is-ness. While all the other games of its time sought verisimilitude, this one sought to be a science fiction fairy tale with heart, even if its tale is something that anybody could have written. Perhaps it is difficult to explain in words, but at the center of it all is a most curious lead character who goes by Jade, a non-sexualized female protagonist wearing cargo pants and green lipstick, somehow a revelation after Tifa Lockhart and Lara Croft have shaped what heroines should look like. And ironic as it may sound, you don't embody her nor ogle at her so much as want to be with her, to protect her. She is strong, courageous, and smart without uttering a word. Perhaps she is someone you would much like to know rather than play?

The story the game tells and the world you inhabit is, for lack of a better term, simply warm. Your only family is an endearing uncle (who is, without explanation, a talking pig) who genuinely cares for you, a rarity in today's blockbuster spectacles where your uncle could have a massive "follow" sign above his head for all intents and purposes. There is a poignant sequence in the game where you and he must push together in order to progress through a cave; tired and confused, your uncle finally realizes that this is Jade's game, and that the best he could do moving forward is to merely encourage her to be braver, to be wiser, and to be her usual adventurous self. Just by looking at Jade's silent reactions, you'd realize that this is no Saturday morning cartoon after all. This is a relationship something Pixar could have cooked up and emphasized with smart, simple cooperative play.

Yet I am getting ahead of myself, the true genius of Ancel's game goes back to its one, single innovation in the gameplay space: taking pictures. The game is about propaganda, after all. Once you have aligned yourself with a rag-tag guerilla group existing solely to expose the army being cooperators for the proverbial aliens at the doorstep, you have to sneak into various unassuming military outposts to unravel their schemes of abducting people for their own nefarious ends. These pictures you take are saved, rather than merely used as a gameplay mechanic, and are brought back to the base in the exact shape and form that you took them. And when you do get back to base, it is but sleight-of-hand that you also brought something genuinely yours into the game world despite its linear progression. You soon see these very pictures light up the landscape, in billboards and television sets whilst the otherwise unassuming game characters react emphathically, almost personally, to your actions. Your friends talk to you about those pictures, almost as if the 4th wall is broken with these simple moments. Back in 2003, this was nothing short of revelatory. The pictures you took increasingly get more morbid as you progress, while you also get mortified at what you see inside the alien shipping vats. The crowds see them in exactly the same way too, shocked as you have been just moments before. They grow restless and carry the story forward, and it's all because of you. This is nothing but trickery, of course, but it is in these subtle nudges where Beyond Good and Evil stepped over and above its peers that hugely relied on cinematics both as reward and narrative progress.

The Propaganda mechanics at play

While you are just standing there, taking in the wondrous game world, you are also quite literally changing it with every click of the camera, with every upload to the in-game broadcasting network. Walk past the bustling in-game market and you might just see a newscaster speaking of this hero named Jade and showing the world your photographs. The people nearby gossip about you as you smirk and slither by. This is narrative illusion at its stealthiest, and quite makes Jade, and you as well, the center of the story that you shaped. Never mind the game's diluted take on politics, what you have established in this single game mechanic is more than enough for the player to tell her personal story in it. And with this, the story itself doesn't matter, because you've unassumingly created a different, more personal one yourself. Because, after all, aren't video games supposed to be about you?

This is what Peter Jackson saw in Michel Ancel, and perhaps what he saw in himself as well: that great storytellers don't need great stories at all. They just have to play to the vividness of their creativity and, most importantly, to the strengths of their medium to engage their specific audiences.

It perhaps gets more interesting still, with regards to video games. What we see here is a dichotomy between the narrative that the game presents, and the narrative that the player is telling within its confines. Why is Beyond Good and Evil such a very beautiful and interesting experience despite its lack of cinematic ambition, let alone finesse? I touched on this with an admittedly convoluted essay on ludonarrative dissonance over a year ago, and I believe it is a problem that has been plaguing narrative games since their very inception. To put things simply, in the popular debate of this topic, why is the presented narrative about Nathan Drake the charming adventurer, while the player narrative is about Nathan Drake the psychopathic Michael Bay movie? What I would like to tackle this time, however, is that perhaps both of these narratives could already co-exist if we look at them from a non-cinematic perspective. After all, a video game must not be tested against the rules of film, even if the former freely borrows from the latter in its bid to create its own unique narrative space.

I'd like to give two primary examples on this matter. Just last week, we were treated to the latest video game iterations of the two most iconic females in modern video games: Sarah Kerrigan and Lara Croft. The former being known as the primary villain of the real-time strategy game Starcraft and is known to nobody but your gamer dorm mate, and the latter needing no introduction whatsoever. Let's begin with discussing the latter: the new Tomb Raider prequel.

A heroine desexualized

Lara Croft is known by you and your grandmother as boobs with guns... And that she raids tombs. The creators fizzled out and wanted to reinvent her not just as someone different, not just someone beautiful or empowered, but merely as a goddamned someone to begin with. With the traditional way of looking at video games, that is their objective with regards to the authored narrative. If seen alongside the narrative dichotomy, they failed admirably. Her first kill was something that every video game critic tackled as something truly horrifying, that it must be traumatizing to kill someone, even if it was to be your potential rapist (equally horrible yet elegantly presented via a traditional cinematic) but was ultimately muddled by the fact that you're chasing extra experience points through gleeful head shots all over again during the next game section. You're only ever reminded of the fact that Tomb Raider is about Lara's descent into homicidal adventurer during the succeeding cut scenes; and a rather empowering sequence around the halfway point where your in-game Lara, traipsing through a burning pagoda, finally breaks down and screams at her adversaries in a bid to intimidate them and rescue your best friend... by way of shotgun, as you have always been. In the very next sequence, one of your closest friends dies - and the next 10 minutes is melodrama that gets more jarring by the second. Lara just killed a hundred people, and yet she can't handle the death of this one? She is no monster, but she is definitely not human either. But despite this, why is the new Tomb Raider game such an intense and engaging experience? Why doesn't this disparity matter to the player?

Now let's spin this around another way. What if the authored narrative isn't at odds with the player-driven one; what if the authored narrative is subservient to it? It, I believe, perhaps makes more sense this way.

Ask yourself, what is Tomb Raider, the game, all about? Tomb Raider, the authored story, is about Lara's evolution into the strong, independent, and sexy woman that we have come to fantasize all these years. In this framework, Tomb Raider, the game, is about a teenage boy's wet dream involving twin pistols and extravagant somersaults, not to mention mass murder. The new game sets aside the former, but still gleefully turns Lara Croft into, of all things, a virulent video game caricature of death and destruction. The cargo pants could only go so far. But let's turn this around. If we started with the player-driven narrative first, could the authored narrative be interpreted any differently?

Let's jump headlong into one of the game's more inspired moments around halfway through the game. Lara needs to get to the top of a radio tower (in an uncharted island, no less; but this is beyond the point) and the game asks you to sneak through a beautifully-constructed mountain base in the middle of a stormy, stormy night. The set is exhilarating from a gameplay perspective. You set a campfire right outside the base, away from prying eyes. After she's done writing on her journal, she reluctantly treads forward. Lara shivers as she crouches through parked jeeps with nary a light but from the moon and the occasional flickering lamp by the wall. You get a glimpse of the faint silhouette of the radio tower beyond the amber-lit bunker. Set your sights down and you see two guards in front of you, and begin to devise a scheme in your head as to how to woo them away from each other and pick them off one-by-one. In what is perhaps a rare occasion of luck, one guard goes inside the base, perhaps to talk to his friend upstairs, or to let one out; but it doesn't matter. The guard left behind, however, is still being lit by another of his comrades with a torchlight upstairs, who begins to stir the device towards a potentially less boring scenario. Once the light is out, Lara reaches for an arrow and twitches her makeshift bow and misses it on purpose, tapping a nearby wall. The unsuspecting guard gets curious and walks toward the sound. Lara then breathes heavily as she sneaks behind the guard slowly, and before he could move, she tries to choke her with her bow. The guard struggles to no avail as Lara's grip grows more and more furious with every tap of a button.

Telling your own story

Lara continues to traverse inward and sees the shadow of a guard by a makeshift fire; above the shadow is the flickering light of another she must take care of. She flamboyantly looks for holes in the half-destroyed bunker to move up and closer to the radio tower. There's a broken ladder here where you could jump into God knows where. Another guard by the roof deck and you push him over the cliff with nary a thought. She is now almost in a panic, knee-deep behind enemy lines - alone. She grabs her pickaxe and stealthily moves onward, not knowing how many more of her enemies would want to kill her. As she approaches, lady luck seemed to get the best of her, as when she is seen, the alarms are raised. Her survival instincts trigger into some sort of hyper-awareness. There is an abandoned building beside her to take cover, a mountain pass in front should she need to fight back with immediacy, and the bunker behind her if she can't go any further. Lara rummages through her tools. She has her bow, a WWII-era pistol, two grenades and her pickaxe. She begins to ask herself what would have happened if she never got caught, and she could have sneaked through towards the tower, which is entirely plausible, perhaps. But right now, in this very moment, it is up to you how this story goes.

The radio tower, in this regard, is one giant McGuffin to press you into situations of emergent gameplay across wonderful vistas and thoughtful scenarios. In Tomb Raider, you have so many tools at your disposal that if you repeat any sequence, you’d likely get a different, harrowing experience. If this were a movie, we’d skip all this bullshit you have to do and have Lara simply get on with her radio broadcasting in one fell swoop to further the next plot point. But this isn’t a movie; and in video games, this kind of bullshit you have to do is the story.

This is no mean-spirited criticism of video games. Structure-wise, the primary difference between movies and games is editing. The best movie scenes are those that both move the story forward and let you learn about the characters in a meaningful way. With editing, all of the non-essential stuff remains in the cutting room floor: the scenes of prolonged fight sequences, of traversing through mountain ranges for hours on end. This kind of narrative perhaps don't have a place in video games, especially when the player frames the action, and not the director. As the camera is handed to the player, editing isn't even in the repertoire of the medium. In Tomb Raider, for example, the most interesting game segments are never the cinematics. It's always the game scenarios where you are left with myriads of possibilities to tell your own story: stories of how you got through this firefight with nothing but your pickaxe, of how you found this ancient artifact after traversing through a wolf-infested cave, or in simply lighting torches in a cave and discovering beauty amidst a long-forgotten land. This is the story that Tomb Raider - the narrative - is not interested in; but Tomb Raider - the game - is perhaps all about.

In this framework, the overarching narrative of Tomb Raider, and all narrative games in general, should be seen as context, not content. The authored narrative about the Sun Goddess, about rescuing your friends, the cult civilization, are there to provide texture, and not substance, to the story that the player co-authors within this game world. This player-driven narrative, however, is in contrast both open and teeming with possibilities that the authored narrative simply can't match. The game is perhaps about a shipwreck into a strange, new world where the developers' imaginations are let loose in a flurry of Japanese architecture, lush foliage, and mystical caves. The story arc is but a foundation, but never the highlight.

Case in point: there is an old, Japanese village towards the beginning of the game that serves nothing in terms of the story that the developers wanted to tell, but I bet where most players would most spend their time in. It has so many secrets, so many relics and so many paths to traverse in so many different and exciting ways - that maybe it is more interesting to tell the story of how you hung-glided your way through the village mountain passes and rappelled through seemingly bottomless pits in search for hidden treasure than in how you progressed through the shipwreck to save your friends and get off the island.You don't think of this ridiculous yarn spinned on Lost while playing Tomb Raider. If this were a movie, then go right ahead. In video games, it is perhaps legitimately arguable that the authored story is the bullshit, a McGuffin that serves to give urgency and context to the proceedings... and that the storytelling is happening while you are doing the adventuring that may or may not even serve the overarching story in the first place. This, my dear readers, is the conceit of emergent storytelling.

I'd like to give a final point to this unwieldy essay, and perhaps even more significant to how weshould view storytelling in video games. The latest Starcraft game, Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm is a real-time strategy game where you essentially play god. For the uninitiated, you basically manage a base, create an army, and destroy an opposing god who is also doing the same thing. The exciting thing here is that you are both doing these at the same time, with little to no idea of what the other is doing unless you devise this into your overall strategy. You could even do this with up to eight players, ensuring a very dynamic battlefield where anything can happen.

To be fair, there is an authored narrative to Starcraft, and one that centers around general playfulness of gameplay storytelling than it is about telling a genuinely good yarn. As Sarah Kerrigan, the leader of the zerg race, a procedurally-evolving alien species (think Ridley Scott's Alien on steroids), you are tasked with various scenarios over an overarching tale on revenge and nonsense. During a truly satisfying gameplay sequence, you are tasked with destroying the base of a powerful human general in a reverse-alamo mission that emphasizes the helplessness of the humans amidst the alien swarm. You don't think about the story other than the one you are creating as you relentlessly assault the human base while their soldiers escalate in panic towards their inevitable doom. This is the kind of storytelling that video games live and breathe.

Kerrigan is the crux of the story, but the storytelling isn't happening here

In multiplayer, however, things get more profound. Other games don't even think about narrative in multiplayer other than cooperative campaign scenarios which are, for all intents and purposes, traditional single players retrofitted to accommodate two people. While other games move towards just killing each other for leaderboards in team deathmatch however, Starcraft's intricate multiplayer is about people telling one cohesive story, akin to round-robin campfire storytelling where you honestly wouldn't know what happens next. Each storyteller dictating what the other would do. Every game begins with an opening rife with gambles: "Should I sneak past the enemy and hide a barracks behind enemy lines to surprise them when they least expect it, or should I hunker down and make sure my base is well defended for an early siege?" It escalates in conflict towards the middle: "My enemy is building nothing but tanks where my foot soldiers have no chance of surmising. It's time to build a Starport and bring out my aerial fighters." And it finally builds to a dramatic conclusion where all strategies finally merge into an epic battle: "It's my giant battle cruisers against his disgusting spike-spewing hydralisks. I have no more resources to build any more soldiers. It's all or nothing now." In a 4 vs. 4 play, it's also about rescuing your teammates and branching strategies to surmise the other team doing the same; it sometimes even feels heroic while playing. This is the reason why so many people actually enjoy watching Starcraft just as much as they play them, because playing through it is harrowing narrative at its cusp and is simply not possible in film or other media. This is the finest proof yet that authored narratives are not needed in exacting engaging stories in video games.

Note on above: A typical narrated Starcraft 2 Game

It is only fitting that we are perhaps seeing video games as not just vehicles for escapist entertainment commonly relegated to action movies that they so freely borrow from. At least in the iterative, mainstream games such as Beyond Good and Evil, Tomb Raider, and Starcraft, alongside almost all traditional storytelling games, we undoubtedly still see the ludonarrative problem where what we consider the cinematic story clashes with the gameplay mechanics, instantly making these products pseudo-parodies of themselves. But this is perhaps beyond the point. The point is that we are still striving for why video games are so engaging, of what emotions they handle well: such as exploration, panic, and lateral thinking. These may or may not be at odds with what movies, television shows, and even novels handle well in the emotive space. After all, video games are still young and haven't actually figured out how to evoke emotions in the best way it can. Sometimes, I dream of games letting go of cinematics altogether to pursue the stuff that it does well, to forge storytelling in ways that only video game interaction can do. As King Kong before it, what movies do best is what filmmakers should strive for. In turn, video game creators should also do the same.

After all, the medium is the message, isn't it?

 

   

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