I was recently on a message board discussing the nature of narrative in games.
I can’t remember what game was being discussed, but I mentioned off-hand that in my eyes, narrative, in any media, plays second (or third) fiddle to every other facet. In a video game I’m more invested in the world building. How does it feel to be there? Books, for me, are similar; what happens cover to cover is almost irrelevant in contrast to the sensation of existing in it’s fictional world. By the same token, I never really cared what happened to Rust in True Detective, I just wanted to hear the sound of his whiskers popping as he rubs his jaw.
Haruki Murakami, a favorite author of mine, and a pioneer in the genre of magical realism, tells stories that are often serpentine and nonsensical. His characters go places and do things, just as in every narrative, but those plot beats are always subservient to building and enriching the fictional world in which they exist. Sure, Toru Okada in the beginning of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle goes down a strange overgrown alleyway to a house that is not normally accessible, finding a dry well and the titular wind-up bird, but this doesn’t exactly kickstart our plot, from point A to B, rather it creates a sort of aesthetic bed in which the reader lays. The vague mystery of finding an overgrown alleyway, spiders and dew clinging to webs, with the unearthly ticking of the wind-up bird ringing in your ears doesn’t have a direct causality, but pushes the reader into a psychological state adjacent to that with which we are familiar. It shifts the understanding of what is real. It makes curling up at the bottom of a well and receiving lost memories of fighting through the tundras of Manchuria seem like a normal thing to do.
This is not to say that narrative isn’t the fundamental core of entertainment and art, though. Narrative–what drives us from place to place–is what makes a game, book, or film four-dimensional. It adds the element of time into the equation. What separates a film from a painting, for example, is time–if removed, we just have a single still frame. The same is true of literature. We always have Things Happening, not just a description of a place. Even still media, like painting and sculpture, are implicitly narrative, despite being static, even at their most abstract. Video games are no different.
Dark Souls, with its pseudo-archaeological and nonlinear sense of storytelling, plays the same ballgame as Haruki Murakami.
Its “plot” isn’t purposefully obfuscated simply for the sake of being obtuse (though many might argue the opposite) but because it exists more as flavor, a taste. If I really wanted to, I could dig up articles about the legacy of the Healing Church in Bloodborne, but I just want what I’m given–an aesthetic gestalt sensation. I want the sound, shape, smell and sight of the Healing Church. In author Redgrave’s 100+ page tome that picks through Bloodborne’s most granular details (which can be read here) he describes the creator of the Souls’ franchise, Hidetaka Miyazaki:
“Hidetaka Miyazaki, the genius behind the Souls franchise, grew up in poverty in the city of Shizuoka. Unable to afford any means of entertaining himself, Miyazaki would spend most of his childhood reading books found in his local library. He was fascinated with western tales of fiction, but his English was not fluent enough to understand every single word. Many times he would read a story and find that he couldn’t understand half of it, and so he would connect the words he could find and fill in the blanks, forming a story of his own that used the pieces that had been laid out before him.”
Because of his background, the stories Miyazaki tells aren’t stories in the traditional sense. They are a mirror of the half-understood Western tales he read in his youth. The plot, as it were, only exists as a means for the reader to fill in the gaps themselves. It exists, much like the overgrown alleyway of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, as a tool to breath life into the world in which it’s set.
I’m inclined to believe this manner of narrative construction plays to the strengths of human memory.
We remember the world around us in snapshots. We remember tastes, smells, feelings, and sights. Our memory doesn’t function like a video recorder–it couldn’t. Each “file” would take up too much room. How often is it, when remembering watching a movie, or playing a video game, that what is recalled is purely visual, rather than a timeline of what happened? I beat Dishonored 2 just six months ago and my memories are lush with still frames of ruined buildings, of perching atop towers, of bloatfly nests. If you asked me what happened in the plot of Dishonored 2 I would shake my head vigorously. And isn’t that the most important part? How it felt to play that game? How it felt to smell your lover’s hair as you ran your fingers through it? The feeling of the cotton sheets as your parent climbs into bed with you after you had a nightmare?
“Plot” as it relates to our own memory is disconnected from the memories themselves. As you sit with your friends, beer in hand, and tell a personal story, you aren’t sharing memories, but a facsimile of a past account. One that lacks the sensation of being and doing. It’s a rough hewn structure meant to function as allegory for the original occurrence.
In Ian Bogost’s recent piece for The Atlantic, “Video Games are Better Without Stories” he posits just that. The claim is made that not only have video games been historically poor at storytelling, going as far as to condemn Fullbright’s Gone Home as “the video game equivalent of young-adult fiction” (which is a bizarre condemnation, YA fiction is a perfectly valid genre, of which many readers are actually adults) but to suggest that video games as a medium shouldn’t bother. That games like the recently released “walking simulator” What Remains of Edith Finch are stories better told through other mediums, like film. I’ll leave the argument of why Bogost’s assertion is false (and perhaps a bit callous) to others.
My assertion is that it’s sort of irrelevant.
Stories were first created by humans to pass down information, to warn future generations that fire can hurt you and that animals migrate. Stories, or more accurately, the plot of a story, does the same thing now, but because we already know that fire hurts you, they are designed to reveal and explore more complicated facets of the human condition.
As storytelling has evolved, the manner with which we tell stories has grown too. The Brothers Karamazov isn’t just about the lessons it teaches through allegory, but about living in it’s world. It’s so rich in texture that the “story” isn’t just about greed and familial dispute, it’s about the feeling of your muddied woolen coat against your skin, about the wind breaking through it, of the particles of dust stuck to your face, the sensation of grief and greed, and what that does to the human body. The reason the novel is 1200 pages long, rather than two sentences, is because it’s simply not enough to just reduce the content to the plot itself.
If we look at all of the greatest stories we as a species hold dear, the plot itself is very much secondary. It’s about how the story is told. That’s why you actually have to read the book or watch the movie, or in this case, play the game. Otherwise why bother making art? Especially in 2017 when all of the knowledge our species has ever accumulated is accessible to (nearly) any human within seconds, how the story is told is more important than ever. And that is precisely what video games are good at–creating worlds to live in: the “how” of a story.
I have zero recollection of the plot in Dishonored 2, just like True Detective. But that doesn’t matter to me. What matters is the posture of Matthew McConaughey’s hand as he smokes his cigarette to the bone. How the smoke sticks to his lips. What matters is the low, golden light filtering through the shattered window of the derelict house in which Corvo hides, hands sooten in front of him. The plot of both pieces was simply the carriage needed to see that smoke, to see that light.