How Does Game Writing Combine With Player Agency?

I’ve spent almost all of my time on this website talking about how brilliant Final Fantasy is (don’t worry, I’ll be discussing the 15th iteration on this week’s podcast) and it often brings about a reminder of story structure that we see most commonly in theatre: defined act and scene breaks, often leaving us without valuable information which the characters possess and we do not. It raises a few interesting questions about using narrative devices in video game writing, primarily how the withholding of information or use of dramatic irony combines with our agency as a player removed from events.

odinsphere-balcony‘I will kiss thy lips; haply some poison yet doth hang on them…’

The game that brought this back to my attention most recently is Odin’s Sphere: Leifthrasir, a remake of Odin’s Sphere, a 2D brawler originally released on the PlayStation 2. The gameplay itself is incredibly fast paced, a sort of 2D dungeon crawler not too dissimilar in design to Rogue Legacy and specifically Dragon’s Crown and Muramasa: Rebirth (the latter two made by the same development team, Vanillaware). Each level consists of multiple combat stages as you battle your way towards a final boss screen, often book-ended with secret areas containing valuable items, resources and vendors – including a street chef who will cook a nice meal to keep you going and level you up. [There’s almost certainly an entire article I could write about the Japanese obsession with eating in games] There are 5 available characters, all with individual skill trees and abilities and an abundance of items to keep you engaged for dozens of hours, but in reality, most the game you mash the attack button repeatedly to make progress – which is actually a whole load of fun in moderation. I recommend checking out (as with any game) Giant Bomb’s Quick Look for Odin Sphere right here if you’re interested in seeing the game in action. Each of these combat stages makes up the majority of a chapter, and usually some form of major story reveal is planted in the final boss stage. Between each of these 15 minute, excitable button mashing festivals is crammed the exposition required to understand what in the world is going on, each of which is broken up into numbered chapter, act and scene breaks. They are remarkably similar in construction to those in traditional drama, including a healthy dose of classic narrative techniques – playing as Gwendolyn you will often walk past characters who are mid conversation and pick up only a hint of the whole thing. The whole story itself begins in media res, during a major battle for the fate of the kingdom where Gwendolyn, the main protagonist, loses her sister at the hands of an enemy knight shrouded in darkness. These techniques achieve the overall goal of making the present time feel like a singular moment in an ongoing and protracted series of conflicts between the kingdoms rather than something new. The characters, such as the burly and offensive General Brigan, have motivations and grudges that are well-established form the off, the context for which is not presented to us.

In games we often experience a kind of multiperspectivity, that is, engaging with a story from many different angles and perspectives, often from the viewpoint of different characters. Odin Sphere’s strict adherence to act and scene breaks with defined endings (rather than fluid, seamless conversations than can be stumbled upon or missed in many open world games) enables the writers to tell us a story with all of the relevant context and meaning without us missing anything necessary. One of the huge issues I take with games that are more free-form in their design is that so much meaningful world-building is hidden away in audio logs and texts that I am likely to never find – by confining the content to a theatrical style performance on one ‘stage’, I am receiving exactly the same information as the rest of the audience (in this case other players of the same game) and can form an opinion based on what is presented directly to me. I am unequivocally biased based on my personal preference for certain types of media (Shakespeare is near and dear to my heart) but the use of this medium in the context of Odin Sphere: Leifthrasir allows for the use of some classic techniques which have been developed over centuries in traditional theatre to convey a story effectively and enjoyably. There is a careful balance to be struck between allowing the player of each game a high amount of ‘agency’ (read: control of the character and freedom to move in the world) and presenting the ideal experience to everyone who buys and plays the game.

Odin Sphere Leifthrasir_20160218211526

If we look at video game storytelling as little more than protracted theatrical performance, it becomes much easier to define certain trends and break them down, and thus, analyse why using them is so successful in conveying a story. One of the most common techniques we encounter in games is an interesting form of dramatic irony which meshes not only with the story we are presented but also with the mechanics we engage with. Not only can we use our prior knowledge of a series to inform our decisions, for example predicting enemy movements or strategies that the character themselves may not be aware of, we can also use extended ‘canon’ experience to read into background or exposition more readily. Take for example the reboot of Tomb Raider which released in 2013 and also Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015): as a prequel, we have extended knowledge of the events in Lara Croft’s life, but the character of Lara herself is written as naive, unknowing and unaware of the imminent danger around her, something we have seen since the very first game released in the 1990s. Games offer us a unique duality then: despite how the character is intended to be portrayed, our agency as the holder of the controller can fundamentally edit that perception and we are left with two distinct character ideals – those scripted by the developer, and those created by our actions.

We can directly compare games that operate in this way, especially use of defined acts and scenes, with those which take more open approach. At the simplest level, we can compare linear story driven games with open world games, the  latter often dividing story beats with long sections of pure gameplay and busywork rather than a driven motivation to provide the most effective storytelling experience. In no sense am I encouraging writers to adopt elaborate verse and prose forms as the playwrights of old used, far from it, or even to restrict the freedom of the player (in fact, I want that to happen more) but I would love to see more games make use of the traditional dramatic techniques in their scripting in an effort to tell stories that are more meaningful and challenging socially and even comedically. How any game combines its gameplay sections with its script delivery is crucial – combining the endless possibilities of player agency while still conveying the correct message is a difficult task to achieve.


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