This is part 5 of an ongoing series on the techniques that game designers employ to tell stories in video games. If you haven’t read the earlier posts, you might want to do that first.

II. Exploration (continued)

If my last post was fairly heavy on theory, it’s because I want to make sure that I’m not reinventing the wheel. This blog exists in a space somewhere between academia and more general games commentary on the web. I aspire to the level of a blog like The Brainy Gamer, with more frequent posts and a community of intelligent commenters. Clearly I’m not there yet, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s because I’ve failed to fully engage with other people who are interested in the same things I am.

When I studied books or movies in high school and college, I had guides to help me along—teachers to probe with questions and critics who provided their insights and analysis in written form. Perhaps more importantly, I had friends who would gladly engage in a conversation on Kazan’s use of framing in On The Waterfront or the symbolism of fire in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (to quote my high school film teacher, “Sex!”). With gaming, I have no immediate community of fellow travelers. The conversations that I do engage in are often one-sided, and are scattered across a landscape that includes formal academic work, recorded conference presentations, blogs, podcasts, and magazines. There are fewer “seminal works,” at least as of yet, and more small a-ha moments that combine and connect in ways that aren’t always obvious. I have to be careful when writing about ideas that I feel to be my own, but which draw from countless other voices that echo constantly in my mind.

It often takes a long time to track ideas to their sources. I also often wonder whether the posts that I most enjoy writing—those in which I apply my own ideas to reality, offering examples of how actual games that I have played have employed various narrative techniques—are worth the time. Does the world really need another post about how Half-Life 2 has a story better than most video games? Maybe not, but I need to write those posts, because they force me to sift through the emotional impressions created by games. Those impressions come out of the ways that we read games. The whole impetus behind this series of posts was my frustration at our lack of a common language to describe the multifarious elements of gaming literacy, so that process—breaking down and intellectualizing (hopefully) the experience of play as it relates to narrative—is critical.

Fallout 3

Fallout 3 is one of the largest and most self-directed games I have ever played. The world—a postapocalyptic Washington D.C. known in-game as “The Capitol Wasteland”—is so large that the game feels quite desolate for long stretches, despite in fact being filled with hundreds of unique and detailed locations. The game begins with a fairly standard tutorial and character creation sequence, disguised as a series of vignettes illustrating the player character’s childhood. Following this mandatory sequence, the player is thrust into the wider world, and the true scope and scale of The Capitol Wasteland begins to come into focus.  

The Fallout 3 world map. Each colored square represents a major location.

Fallout 3‘s central embedded authored narrative tasks the player character with finding his or her father, a saintly doctor with a mysterious past. At first, I tried to follow this thread. I stumbled through a blighted landscape, asking everyone I met if they knew where my father was. Some offered clues, but many didn’t care about my personal troubles; they were more concerned with survival. After a few ambushes by cannibalistic gangs of raiders and giant green super mutants, I decided that I didn’t care much myself. After all, the old guy had left me to my own devices. Those devices quickly grew to include a veritable armory of rickety weapons, ranging from golf clubs ancient B.B. rifles to nifty ray guns.

I began to focus on quotidian concerns like scrounging food and making sure I my equipment could stand up to the next run-in with a wild dog or malfunctioning robot. My immediate environment became more important. I started making calculations about risk and reward: “That barn ahead is still standing. It might have useful equipment in it. But I’m out of medical supplies, and my best gun is broken. Maybe I’ll head back to town.”

Each ruined corporate office or makeshift fortress had a story to tell. Sometimes these were pre-baked—audio recordings a la BioShock, or text files on computers that reminded me of Marathon—but these expository narratives paled in comparison to more dynamic interactive mini-narratives. Seeing a well-equipped band of super mutants behind a makeshift barricade, I decided to wait for nightfall and snipe the lookouts; afterwards, I freed their captives and looted their stores of ammunition.

Sometimes these self-told tales were intertwined with quest lines written by the game’s developers, as when the would-be author of a guide to a “wasteland survival guide” asked me to investigate an abandoned town in the middle of a minefield. I expected to have to step lightly, but I was terrified to realize that someone was sniping at me from the cover of a destroyed building. The bullets whizzed by and I lost my head, running straight into a series of landmines. My leg was blown off at the knee in spectacularly gory fashion. I reloaded an earlier save, muttering to myself about the impoliteness of shooting at strangers, and embarked upon my revenge.

Half-Life 2

I replayed the seminal FPS Half-Life 2 earlier this year, and found myself marveling once again at the feeling of total immersion I felt in a world, and a series of events, that would have seemed trite, even dull, on the page. What was it about this game, with its hastily sketched alien invasion and its tabula rasa protagonist, that made it come alive? Why did I accept its reality so completely, to the point where I would turn aside from the obvious path forward in order to see everything the spaces around me had to offer?

A surgically mutilated human slave, as seen late in Half-Life 2.

It’s difficult, in describing the experience of playing Half-Life 2, to separate the identity of the player from the identity of the game’s protagonist, Gordon Freeman. Freeman’s dorky-intense mug, framed by Elvis Costello glasses and a grad-school goatee, may be an iconic image for many modern gamers, but you wouldn’t know it from playing the games he stars in. Both Half-Life games take pains to establish the absolute unity of Freeman and the player, and their primary tool is restricting the player’s physical window on the world: your view is Gordon’s view. You will never see something he is not looking at. You will never see him, because you are him (although there may be a mirror at some point, I can’t recall). Gordon will never speak, because the words that developer Valve Software would have to put in his mouth would not be your words. Prior to the original Half-Life, first-person games often moved to third-person perspective during non-interactive cutscenes which moved the plot forward. Valve refused to alter the player perspective or to take control away from the player; except in sequences where Freeman is himself helpless, you can always continue to move and look around during Half-Life 2 “cutscenes.”

These extreme choices—a mute protagonist, no division between reader knowledge and character knowledge—would be awkward in most media, and the truth is that they are sometimes awkward in the Half-Life games as well. In particular, deliberately creating a protagonist who has no personality feels crude and primitive—like solving an attitude problem with a lobotomy. Valve intersperses quiet moments, moments of perceived or actual safety, between the frequent mad scrambles, physics puzzles and heated firefights. In these moments, characters will speak to Gordon, bringing him up to speed on the plot (exposition) or simply reacting to his presence (character development and establishing relationships, so often ignored in games). To use another mental health analogy, Gordon’s failure to respond feels autistic, practically inhuman. It’s a sharp reminder that gaming is a young medium, akin to film when films were still essentially recorded stage plays. But Valve’s approach is undeniably effective, in that it allows Half-Life 2 to tell its story in a subtler, more player-directed manner than would otherwise be the case. Because Gordon never speaks, the player’s own reaction to the things that she has seen become canon fiction within the game world; if the player is horrified by the degradation of humanity, then Gordon is quietly horrified. If the player is angry, then Gordon is a determined avenger who minces no words. Players primarily concerned with shooting aliens will have no trouble imagining Gordon as a man of action.

All of this identification reinforces the player’s acceptance of the game world as her world, and this in turn encourages the exploration that Valve rewards so effectively. Half-Life 2 opens, like its predecessor, with Gordon Freeman on a train. It’s a conscious reference to a sequence that was much-remarked upon in Half-Life, and it’s only the first clue that Valve has looked seriously at what worked and what did not in their earlier game. Although I do argue that Half-Life 2 employs exploratory narrative, the game is very linear at times—practically a cattle chute. Half-Life 2 begins with a brief, cryptic speech that exhorts Gordon to “wake up and smell the ashes,” whereupon the player gains control of Gordon on board a nearly empty passenger train. As the train arrives at a station, the player shuffles out alongside two nervous men. Everyone wears what looks like a prison uniform. Despair is in the air—characters make passing comments about missing loved ones and drugs in the water. At this point, neither Gordon nor the player know what is happening. Large screens broadcast hopeful messages from a professorial man who welcomes viewers to City 17—”one of our finest remaining urban centers.” Policemen with strange, full-face masks menace the broken bystanders. There are several small opportunities at rebellion, and disobedience is met with a beating from an electrified baton.

Just before he boards another train, an old friend appears and pulls Freeman aside; only much later in the game does the player visit the destination of that train, and realize how literal the cattle chute comparison really is. Although things do open up later on, particularly during a chapter that has Gordon driving along the coastline of a drained ocean, Half-Life 2 never becomes an open experience in the manner of a Fallout game. The game does tell stories through exploration, but that exploration is limited to small spaces and specific details: hidden refuges where scared people hide, or where they died, discovered by the Orwellian Combine; newspaper articles that offer clues to what happened to this ravaged world; graffiti that seems to lay out the case for resistance.

Rebellion propaganda referencing evolution vs. assimilation.

More common are the details that the game puts in front of the player by default, but which it is up to her to “read” or to ignore:

  • The Combine subjugates alien races through surgery and genetic modification, turning them into mere tools. Many enemies and even some enemy vehicles are previous victims of what human collaborator Dr. Breen terms their “beneficence.”
  • Combine technologies are designed only for purposes of control and exploitation: weapons, trains, cameras, video screens, brain surgery, mineral extractors. This suggests that the player is correct to reject arguments in favor of appeasement and submission.
  • Humanity is very close to extinction. The Combine prevent human reproduction, and the entire world is occupied. Most of the characters Freeman encounters are American, but the actual location of City 17 appears to be somewhere in Eastern Europe. Human buildings are all falling apart, and there are relatively few human beings left in such a large city.

Newspapers offering the only clues to the history of the world since the original Half Life. NPCs in the game don’t realize that Gordon Freeman was not present for these events, and so do not explain them.

Not everyone agrees with me that Valve’s narrative is outstanding. This writer argues that the Combine mechanical wall, which crushes and consumes all in its path, is a wasted image; I think it’s powerful and relatively clear as it stands, and Valve’s refusal to script a traditionally over-explained sci-fi narrative is a mature, restrained decision. Exploration vs. linearity? Not necessarily. Linearity, in either plot or environmental design, is not incompatible with exploratory narrative. I think that the player’s own sense of exploration and discovery is more important than the objective game design.An air of mystery and a sense of history—of things having happened before the player character’s emergence on the scene—can go a long way in this regard.

Dear Esther

Witness Dear Esther, an odd and utterly enthralling single-player mod for Valve’s Source Engine. Dear Esther is nearly undefinable: it’s not quite a horror game, but it’s scary. It’s not exactly a game, although there is interaction. It’s an evocative short story that takes the shape of a video game, relying on a combination of exploratory and expository (audio) narrative. There’s no physical gating in Dear Esther, not that I recall, but the environmental design and narrative drive demand that the player move forward, up to the summit of the island and the conclusion of the tale.

Myst

Myst is a similar case, although one that, as it features both strict gating and a larger environment, is arguably both more and less linear. Although Myst relies on cinematic and textual exposition to explain the details of its plot, these details only become prominent fairly late in the player’s experience of the narrative. Prior to that, the “story” of Myst is the story of the player’s exploration of the world, and her discovery of its many secrets. Those secrets provide few answers, more often instead raising new questions about the nature of the game’s world(s). The result is a recurring narrative feedback loop of exploration and discovery, fed by a combination of the player’s curiosity and her satisfaction at solving the game’s perplexing puzzles.