5 Video Game Storytelling Techniques That Make No Sense

"Everyone I have ever loved is on the other side... also some people I totally hung out with for a few hours"
"Everyone I have ever loved is on the other side... also some people I totally hung out with for a few hours"
Beyond: Two Souls

I’ve been on a gaming bender since the election, descending into virtual worlds, looking for the meaning our own clearly lacks. Mainlining multiple titles directly into my veins has gotten me sort of examining storytelling tropes that have become sort of prevalent and which we accept without question even though they’re really bizarre on close examination. Let’s poke ‘em with a stick.

5. Expecting Us to Deeply Care About People You Barely Know
My example for this is Beyond: Two Souls, which I recently replayed. In the course of play, I failed to save Walter, a homeless man the lead character meets in a shelter, and Paul, a Navajo man who takes you in briefly and whom you help fight off a ghost attack. Upon getting to the end, you are given a brief glimpse of your loved ones in the afterlife waiting, and Walter and Paul are there.

What’s weird about this and other games that pull this trope (Walking Dead series, I’m looking at you) is that you never spend more than a single day with any of these people from the game’s perspective. Life-altering personal interactions are compressed into hours or even minutes in a way that would be unbelievable in a book or film.

Part of that is the weird nature of time in games. Games will often have 30 hours of play, longer than a season of a television show, but those hours are usually broken into real-time chunks, whereas in a book or movie, they’d move along more evenly. Still, it’s weird to have these intense but fleeting serial relationships. Speaking of time…

5 Video Game Storytelling Techniques That Make No SenseEXPAND
Half-Life 2

4. Ed Wood Day/Night Schedules
Half-Life 2 is probably the best example of this, with the scene switching from day to night and back to day at an almost dream-like speed. Again, it has to do with the way game time is different from time in most other mediums.

Some games, mostly RPGs, have day/night schedules that can be counted on to give a realistic feeling of temporal movement, but games that are framed more like movies, such as most third-person shooters, tend to sacrifice this in the name of a controlled backdrop. A night lasts as long as the night needs to last, and daylight happens because now it’s time for day. It doesn’t matter if it feels like you’ve spent 12 hours from the character’s point of view; time is static and interchangeable at the whim of the designer.

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Bioshock

3. Justifying Player Death as Meaningful
Mechanically, most games are about obstacle elimination in a created space. You gun down enemies for a win state, or they gun down you for a fail state. That’s the basics of the majority of games.

However, since the fail state is a normal, mechanical part of the experience, it tends to make death feel meaningless. Sometimes games go to great lengths to contrive a way around this. Bioshock has vita-chambers, which reconstruct you after death. There follows this long explanation about how they work, why they don’t resurrect enemies, and why when a prominent character dies, he isn’t automatically revived.

The question is…why? Why bother? Players understand the concept of fail state, and trying to fit in a reason why your avatar reboots from a saved position is kind of pointless. I prefer the Limbo model, in which every player death is a cruel reminder of the terrible place you’re in, and your success may or may not have followed your many painful failures.

I'm still going with soul stealing here...EXPAND
I'm still going with soul stealing here...
Ni no Kuni

2. Everyone Trusts You
I’m an avid RPG gamer who worships at the altar of Inconsequentia, Goddess of Pointless Side-Quests. Over the past year I’ve replayed Final Fantasies IX and XII and Xenoblade Chronicles, and I’m about to re-start Ni no Kuni.

In the course of play, I have heard more confessions than a Catholic priest. Random strangers will bare their souls to you for no reason, begging your help. Sometimes this is done through a video game version of Craigslist, with FFXII’s Hunt Boards being a good example. Then you get something like Ni no Kuni, in which some strange wizard boy continuously asks strangers if he can borrow some of their bloody soul!

Heck, I remember even playing The Hobbit awhile back and striking deals with goblins in the mines to complete quests. Even Tolkien’s evil races are keen to hand out experience points and loot to a random enemy who will bring them a loaf of bread or whatever that game asked me to do before randomly deleting my save files.

5 Video Game Storytelling Techniques That Make No Sense
Anatomy

1. Being Stuck in the ’80s and ’90s
My other passion is indie games and art games. Gone Home, Life is Strange, Anatomy, Oxenfree, Firewatch, and I just finished Among the Sleep. A lot of these games have something in common; they’re partially late-20th-century period pieces.

This is done so that things like tape recorders can be regular found objects that don’t feel out of place. Life is Strange is a modern tell, but its protagonist intentionally uses the archaic medium of a Polaroid camera to serve the same function. Why she couldn’t time-travel with pictures saved on her phone, I don’t know.

It seems like games have this weird reticence to incorporate modern communication methods, preferring to discover tapes in drawers or use an old FM radio rather than, say, graffiti encouraging you to text a number for a clue. Ironically, the death of physical medium has made creating found objects in a modern game a lot harder, so we let the clock stick back in the past before most of the devices we actually play these games on were created.

None of this is bad, but all of it is a little strange and fairly unique to gaming as a medium. It makes you wonder where we’ll go from here.


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