Story Development in Games

Narrative Forms

Humanity is a concept refracted through an infinite prism; the individual threads of light coalescing as a vibrant mosaic. Our differences are intrinsically related to our intimate relationship with telling stories. As Edward O. Wilson phrased it, “We are the sum of the stories stored in our brains”. Today we exchange these via virtual conduits – pictures, messages or video, no matter the medium the motive is the same and has remained the same for thousands if not millions of years. If you were to step back in time roughly three millions years, you would undoubtedly be encountered by scores of our Australopithecus ancestors, huddled in the shade of acacia’s exchanging their experiences. You would not likely understand them – language had not been properly established at this point – but words are only one method of communication.

Most anthropologists are agreed that the earliest form of communication was oral, one particularly significant strain being musical. Unfettered by nuances of a structured language, music retains a primal quality that still is felt even today, despite the diversification of musical disciplines. Music can tell a story, reciprocate and relate from one to another and evoke myriad sentiments whilst relying on the audience’s imagination for visual accompaniment. The medium through which the narrative is told strongly influences its interpretation; visuals provide tangible material thus frees the mind of this obligation. Visual story telling can also claim archaic origins. Man has always felt the urgency to flesh out visual representations of his experiences, no matter how limited his palette – the Lascaux caves in France, hold some of the best preserved cave paintings known to science, estimated to be 17,300 years old. [1]

The first rudimentary steps taken in the development of formal language set in motion a burgeoning fever for storytelling, fact became fiction, fiction begot myth, myth gave rise to legend. It is sobering to imagine the potential magnitude of experiences lost in the past several thousand years, yet those that remain stand testament to our enduring fascination with our experiences. Yet they do not sit idle. Countless tales from antiquity are introduced to new audiences and new mediums – e.g. literature. Homer’s Odyssey is a collaboration of a multitude of myths and fiction, composed originally in the 8th century BC and is still in print today. The key to the longevity of a narrative is the ease at which it can be adapted to other mediums; theatre has witnessed the reproduction of countless tales, from written and verbal sources alike. James Burbage’s Globe Theatre played the main stage for Shakespeare’s career, yet not all of his material is his original works. Shakespeare adapted many narratives from tales already in existence, such as the famous and infinitely varied interpretations of the Arthurian romances. He even fictionalized otherwise factual bases, most notably regarding the exploits of Gaius Julius Caesar, the Roman statesman, general and dictator. [2] [3]

One of the relatively newest mediums to breast the cusp of conventional communication is film. After much toil on the part of pioneer Robert W. Paul and contemporaries, moving images presented itself as a stand-alone media – one with huge versatility. There are few endeavours not covered by film in any form these days, both factual and fictional. The romance of Tristan and Iseult first popularized by French mediaeval poets in the 12th century, based on either Celtic or Persian legend, was no exception; having been translated into books and theatre, in 2006 the tale was reproduced in motion picture variety. [4]

Games are no different in this regard. They are just another means of conveying a story and are the latest method to develop. However, the interactive quality brings an entirely unique opportunity for narrative purposes.

Conventional Production

From the development house Bluebyte, Trine 2’s formula remains entirely unchanged from the original; a multiplayer, story driven experience containing elements of platforming, puzzle solving and adventure. The narrative of Trine 2 is equally similar to the previous instalment. Each of the three playable protagonists are united once again by a plot device known as the Trine – from which the franchise’s name is derived – to unravel a mystery centred around two sisters, battling monsters along the way. This is the typical three-act structure; the beginning is established, the bulk of the game ensues, leading to the eventual conclusion. To further strengthen the importance of the narrative, both still-framed cinematics and cut-scenes are used. The former is narrated by a non-diegetic voice and the latter features the characters themselves speaking.  Set within a three dimensional realm, in a two dimensional format, Trine 2 features multiple locations that the player has to traverse with various conditions and accompanying visual effects. [5]

The narrative is inherently embedded, due to the linear nature of the game and its two dimensional aspect; the overarching plot is the sole motive, with advancement being fulfilled simply by proceeding right. In doing so, occasional cut-scenes will trigger upon a certain threshold being crossed, during which something pertaining to the immediate plot will occur. Furthermore, the AI and playable characters alike will converse sporadically throughout the game, discussing events both in and outside of cut-scenes. The combination of a vibrant aesthetic and light, whimsical music cement an ebullient atmosphere. However, when the narrative engages the subject relating to of the two sisters, these two themes diminish and darker, melancholy versions assert control – echoing the narrative’s emotional direction of regret and anger.

The entirety of gameplay involves a healthy mix of the previously mentioned genres. Puzzle elements are subtlety interspersed with platforming whilst frequently having to defeat various creatures. As the game progresses, the difficulty generally scales accordingly with new varieties of both puzzle and combat based challenges being presented depending upon the current location – e.g. goblins are predominately encountered in the temperate forests whilst later when crossing beaches Mermen will appear. Similarly, the environment is reflected physically; leaves will whip past the characters, and snow settles on their shoulders in the tundra should they remain still long enough.

The characters themselves are unique in both appearance and mechanics. Additionally, their correlation to fantasy based archetypes is an intentional part of the design. Amadeus, the wizard wears a star-spangled set of robes complete with crooked, pointed hat. This conventional appearance is married by his personality; quick of wit, short of patience. His ability to summon and move objects with telekinesis means he’s an important character for tackling puzzles. The knight, namely Pontius, is predictably the opposite of Amadeus. Whereas Amadeus is thin, Pontius is plump. Amadeus is weak in combat, whilst Pontius is proficient – wielding a sword and shield, wearing a full suit of plate-mail. Generally, Pontius’ temperament tends to be mellow, even jolly occasionally. His primary use is to deal with the majority of enemies, being able to swing his sword and block attacks and projectiles with his shield. Lastly, the thief who is, unsurprisingly, female – whilst this could be said to be inclusion, a cynical mind might pick up on the undertones behind this design choice. Typically, in romanticized fiction, thieves are depicted in tight, figure-revealing attire and behave in a subversive, almost flirtatious manner. The thief in Trine is no different. Conforming to the stereotype, she wears skin-tight leathers, with long hair flowing out from under a drawn hood. In discussions with the other characters, her prerogative tends towards material gain, particularly for herself. Furthermore, her character speaks in sultry, rich tones.

A dominant theme throughout the entire franchise can be identified in almost all the design aspects. This was epitomized in the original game where a leather-bound book acted as the primary means for narrative progression in the cinematics. Stylized vines crawl across the margins of the yellowed parchment whilst the stills themselves feature a subtle art style reminiscent of depictions from classic novels such as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Each individual symptomatic representation of this aesthetic – from the archetypal characters to the choice of music – is symbolic of the overall impression; i.e. Trine one and two are designed to be facsimiles of a mediaeval romance.

Game narratives do not necessarily have to be written. In some instances the narrative is merely a description of a temporal progression. The original Age of Empires and its expansion – released respectively in 1997 and 1998 – is a real time strategy game, established in a window of time between the stone-age and the classical era. The player controls a selected civilization, guiding its civic progression and militarist endeavours against a variable number of AI civilizations. The level of control available to the player extended as far as individual entities; being able to direct movement, the gathering of resources, attack orders and the construction and destruction of buildings. The fundamental narrative is dictated by emergent events; a player may choose to attack another civilization, yet whether or not the assault is successful is not canon, nor even is the vocation to attack in the first place. The narrative is almost entirely within the player’s control. [6]

Aside from the main, endless game mode, there exists a campaign mode wherein some semblance of a conventional plot takes place. Several individual campaign lines exist, each with between five and ten unique, chronological scenarios and are unlocked progressively. The bare bones of a narrative are outlined at the beginning of every scenario by means of a cinematic, followed by a body of text. Past that point, the flesh and blood of the narrative structure is once again entirely organic.

There exists little customization in Age of Empires. The civilizations are categorized according to permanent set of building aesthetics from a selection of five. Within this, each civilization has access to a different mix of technologies, buildings and military units – this feature can be disabled in the repeatable game mode. However, what technologies are researched, which buildings are placed and what units are recruited is entirely up to the player.

One final archetypical narrative style exists, namely the monomyth or hero’s journey. The definition for this is loose but generally involves a protagonist of relatively ordinary origins being transported either physically or metaphorically to an extraordinary scenario. Therein encountering and overcoming an antagonistic force upon which something materialistic or symbolic in nature is received, before their eventually return to the original setting. Not often utilized in interactive media, it is more commonly found in literature and film – e.g. the biblical story of Moses or The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe series by C.S. Lewis. The latter happened to also be made into a film and later, a game for various console and handheld systems – in which, the monomyth narrative is still present. [7]

Bibliography

[1] http://life.time.com/culture/lascaux-early-color-photos-of-the-famous-cave-paintings-france-1947/?iid=lb-gal-viewagn#1

[2] http://www.biography.com/people/homer-9342775

[3] http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/about-us/history-of-the-globe/original-globe

[4] http://www.timelessmyths.com/arthurian/tristan.html

[5] http://trine2.com/site/

[6] http://uk.ign.com/games/age-of-empires-collectors-edition/pc-10398

[7] http://changingminds.org/disciplines/storytelling/plots/hero_journey/hero_journey.htm

Original Publication: 2014

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