In the early 1920s a Soviet filmmaker named Dziga Vertov denounced classical Hollywood narrative as "impotent." He believed motion pictures should sever their formal ties to theater and literature (which he saw as mindless immersion) and develop a language all its own - one that leverages the unique powers of film to do more than simply make audiences forget they are watching a film.
We can see the impact of Vertov's ideas on cinéma vérité in the 1960s and in the work of other non-representational styles of filmmaking. But if we look broadly at the history of motion pictures, it's fair to say his ideas have been largely ignored. Most mainstream Hollywood films released today don't stray far from the filmmaking D.W. Griffith perfected nearly 100 years ago - a model Noël Burch called the "institutional model of representation":
- Characters are depicted realistically, with a progressive character arc.
- Stories are told linearly with a clear dramatic arc.
- Every effort is made preserve spatial and temporal continuity (i.e. "invisible style")
Fast forward, and the narrative debate continues, but now the locus is video games. I've often been struck when I hear designers and critics talk about authored narrative, non-linear design, and emergent gameplay that we're essentially having the same conversations filmmakers and theorists like Eisenstein, Vertov, Bazin, and Burch explored throughout the early to mid-20th century.
It's not exactly the same, of course. Direct player control and interactivity add a dimension Vertov could never have imagined. To his credit, though, Vertov (and especially Kuleshov who followed in his footsteps) understood that a viewer constructs meaning by processing a series of juxtaposed images on his own, and their observations presage some of the possibilities inherent in games.
What we're talking about is how games can best provide a meaningful narrative experience for players, which is a different and more interesting question than simply "how can games tell stories?"
The important distinction between those two questions recently became clearer to me when I played two new games released last month: Etrian Odyssey III and Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.
Contrast these quotes from reviewers about Etrian Odyssey III...
- "There's little to no story in Etrian Odyssey III..." --Destructoid
- "Bare-bones storyline provides little impetus." --Gamespot
- "You command a group of explorers...which is about as deep as the story goes." --GameZone
...with these quotes about Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep:
- "...bold storytelling approach..." --Game Informer
- "...one of the most ambitious storytelling devices yet." --IGN
- "The ambitious storytelling works unexpectedly well." --Level Magazine
Such reactions left me scratching my head because my own experience of story and engagement with these games were quite the opposite. KH:BbS struck me as a muddled mess of storytelling and stylistic incongruities - a narrative filled with characters for whom I felt no attachment. EO3, on the other hand, had me on the edge of my seat for many hours, deeply invested in the lives of its characters, driven to explore its world, and immersed in the fiction of both.
I guess it depends on how you define "story."
If we examine why we care about stories and characters, it's mostly about investment. Emotional attachment, empathy, feeling connected, caring about outcomes. These two RPGs present very different methods of hooking the player and eliciting concern and attachment. One succeeds because it leverages the player's motivated, explorative, self-driven experience; the other fails because it relies on a hackneyed, disjointed "epic" plotting (told in 3 separate plot-lines via cutscenes) with incongruous settings and 2-dimensional characters.
One succeeds because its formal systems directly feed the player's connection to the world and characters; the other fails because its formal systems bear no discernible relationship to the stories the game wants to tell.
You will hear people describe EO3 as an "old-school" RPG; a hardcore throwback dungeon crawler for the roguelike set. KH:BbS, on the other hand, is a stylish action-based RPG with big production values and all the Square-Enix trimmings. It's a full-scale Kingdom Hearts game squeezed onto a handheld system, which is seen by some as a kind of miracle.
I won't dispute these characterizations. EO3 isn't a game for everyone, and I don't presume that if it's not your cup of tea, you're less of a gamer than me (although I do hope you'll give it a try). I understand this sort of game has seen its day.
But I think it's worth considering how a game like EO3 integrates all its elements so effectively. Atlus promoted EO3 with the tagline, "In Etrian Odyssey III, there are as many stories as there are players," and that's an accurate claim. You form a guild and investigate rumors of a sunken city in the Yggdrasil labyrinth. Depending on how you play and what you choose to focus on, you may or may not uncover what happened.
Forming different parties creates different narratives and different outcomes. If you bring a Farmer with you, he'll wish to pursue different objectives than the Arbalist, and you'll encounter different things. We talk a lot about "choice" in games and making choices "meaningful." This game delivers on both. Halfway through EO3, decisions that once felt merely strategic begin to feel more personal than that. The stakes grow higher. It's possible to grow close to your characters in this game, even though they never say a word.
Yes, EO3 is old-school. You draw your own maps on the DS' lower screen, and you explore dungeons with foes that will shred you if you're not prepared. Speaking with townspeople will offer valuable gameplay hints, but aside from these interactions, you're on your own.
More interesting than the fact that you must draw your own maps is the question of why you must draw them. The answer is simple: investment. You care about EO3's environments not simply because they're the places you fight monsters and find treasures. You care because you uncover them, square by square, as you go: locating shortcuts and hidden passages; mapping the world to gain advantage over your foes. It sounds difficult, but it isn't. Cartography in EO3 couldn't be simpler. Draw a good map, and you'll survive or even thrive; draw bad maps, and you're dead.
You build your characters from distinct classes, each specializing in specific abilities. You must spend your skill points wisely. If you aren't careful, you can waste them. Why does the game handle skill points in this way? Once again, investment.
EO3 doesn't try to keep your attention by doling out backstory and plot twists. You're glued to your characters because they're your babies - evolving works-in-progress that you must wisely and patiently help along if they are to reach their full potentials. It's not paint-by-numbers. Classes can be played differently depending on how you spend your skill points. It's in your hands. There is no single right choice, but you can make plenty of wrong ones. Sort of like life.
The stories that emerge from EO3 are inevitably personal, harrowing, even thrilling. I can think of no better example of what this looks like than Jeremy Parish's beautiful essay on playing Etrian Odyssey. Here's a snippet, but I urge you to take the time to read the whole thing. Read it and then see if you think "there's little to no story in Etrian Odyssey III."
The essence of the game is found in the tension between the dungeon, which must be mapped, and the player’s guild, which must be defined. At the outset of the journey, you’re given the digital equivalent of thirty sheets of graph paper, 20 character slots, and a wish for good luck... EO does not deign to hold your hand, nor does it want you to win. Yet neither does it want you to lose. It’s entirely neutral, a labyrinth riddled with hazards that demand the player’s guild to excel and strategize and really think about how it wants to develop. Failure is met with decisive defeat and daunting setbacks. Success is its own reward.
In Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, the player travels through familiar Disney-themed locales, battling the Darkness and triggering cutscenes to advance the plot. One alternates from action battle sequences to walking about Cinderella's Castle listening to Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo. If it sounds like I'm trivializing the game and its story...well, I guess I am. Here's a typical sequence from the game. See for yourself.
It's worth thinking about how we might translate EO3's design values into future games in other genres. Etrian Odyssey III can't match KH:BbS's visuals, high production values, or familiar characters; but as a vehicle for delivering a richly satisfying personalized story, it leaves Mickey, Maleficent, and Cinderella in the dust. Etrian Odyssey III has been broadly characterized as a backward looking RPG, but if you want to see regressive design in a modern package, I say you're looking at the wrong game.