Holiday hiatus

Backstory blues


Backstory ain't easy. Ask any writer. It's not hard to concoct a character's past. Outlining events leading up to a story is no problem. The hard part is plugging it in. How do you convey that information to your audience without pouring a bucket of exposition on their heads?

We've struggled with this problem for centuries in the theater. Sophocles used a Chorus to fill us in. Shakespeare relied on characters like the bloody captain in Macbeth, whose sole function was to describe (in vivid iambic pentameter) events that occurred offstage. In drawing-room comedies the "butler on the phone" technique conveniently delivered who/what/where/when to the audience within minutes of the curtain rising.

Film's native ability to manipulate time and space makes it a natural backtory delivery device, and many films (e.g. Memento, Inception) have creatively repurposed their expository elements as core storytelling. And as we've seen, when a filmmaker runs out of ideas, he can always fall back on the trusty (crusty?) flashback sequence.

Video games struggle with backstory. It's a problem of both conception and execution. Narrative games self-limit their facility for storytelling, partly because we relentlessly cling to recycled power fantasy tropes; and partly because we so often restrict our imaginations to interchangeable protagonists. Maybe serious gamers can discern meaningful differences among Master Chief, Marcus Fenix, Kratos, Tychus Findlay, and a dozen other hulking monotonic badasses, but those differences don't matter much in the long run.

But wait, you say. Kratos is a demigod, the son of Zeus; Tychus Findlay is a cigar-chomping marine with a shady past. They're totally different! Heck, Tychus isn't even the hero of Starcraft. Jim Raynor is the regular-guy protagonist we're supposed to care about in that game. He's nothing at all like Kratos!

And this is where so many video games fall down. Our knowledge of these characters is meant to be informed by rich backstories that delineate them in our imaginations. But this information is delivered so clumsily that we routinely dismiss it with a groan and a sigh.

Our connection to these characters stems from our interactive bond with them, and that's a good thing. But too often that unique relationship is seen as a free pass for storytelling artists (writers, actors, etc.) to produce unimaginative amateurish work. If a modern high-tech game is meant to be situated within a broad narrative arc, why rely on a rust-bucket backhoe to deliver it?

Stilted dialogue lumbering under the weight of heavy exposition, delivered via Film School 101 cinematics, makes for bad storytelling. Players demand skippable cutscenes, but not always because they want to resume shooting things. Sometimes they just want to stop the pain.


Our experiences with multi-installment franchises like Starcraft and Metroid complicate things. In the recent cases of Jim Raynor and Samus Aran (Metroid: Other M) their cinematic presentations defy our understanding of them, built through personal experiences from previous games. 

Starcraft II's bulked-up gotta-explain-everything Raynor and Metroid: OM's oddly submissive Samus feel incongruous to many players, and their writers do them no favors. Samus' ponderous dear-diary entries function like a backstory escape hatch, enabling Metroid OM's writers to dodge writing convincing drama inside the game itself. Raynor's jokey tough-guy banter fails to mask backstory-dumps and other storytelling crutches. For example, here's a stilted attempt at relationship building through tension and conflict.

Distracting your audience from an expositional deluge doesn't work either, but that hasn't stopped Hideo Kojima (and others) from trying. Kojima has employed an arsenal of tricks over the years, including most recently a little girl who cooks eggs, flashy in-game briefing videos, and user-controlled camera angles. None of these have managed to conceal the fact that we're getting fifteen minutes of passively-received backstory.

I don't mean to pick on Kojima, but he fares no better when he tries to embed backstory into gameplay. This dialogue sequence occurs as Snake makes his way to a mission objective:

[A bird's eye view of a large forest is shown. The camera slowly pans down to show a camouflaged Old Snake among the brush.]

Snake: Colonel, how deeply are they involved in all of this?

Campbell: The Patriots, you mean? Seizing control of the world's ID systems, and then using them to manipulate the economy and information flow... For the Patriots, that's the ultimate prize. You might say the Patriots are the embodiment of the war economy.

Snake: Everything that Solidus feared five years ago... It's all come to pass.

[Flashbacks of Solidus Snake appear as Snake slowly rises to his hands and knees and cautiously begins moving forward.]

Solidus Snake: The Patriots are trying to protect their power, their own interests... by controlling the digital flow of information.

Campbell: Now with the media and global opinion under complete control, not even the UN can stand up to them.

Snake: Then Liquid's insurrection is against them?

Campbell: Exactly. It would seem as though Liquid has taken up Big Boss's cause. An age of persistent, universal warfare. A world where mercenaries are free from domination. In a  sense, the "Outer Heaven" Big Boss envisioned is already a living reality.

[Snake lies back down on the ground and begins doing an inchworm crawl.]

Snake: You mean the PMCs and their war business.

Campbell: Right now, Liquid is a slave to the Patriots, forced to fight their proxy wars for them.

Snake: He must be dying to break free of their spell.

Campbell: Beneath the surface, a new cold war is brewing between Liquid and the Patriots over who will survive.

Snake: And no matter who wins, the world has no future. Until we stop Liquid and destroy the System, we'll never be free.

Campbell: ...Snake, what we call "peace" is an equilibrium kept in check by the war economy. Destroying the System means wiping out the information society... The end of modern civilization. Like it or not, we may have no choice but to protect the System.

We often encourage writers to "show, don't tell." Many gifted writers have violated this rule with positive results, but Kojima isn't one of them. The above passage is bad writing by any definition.

Fortunately, not every game fumbles the backstory ball. In my next post I'll discuss a few games that handle exposition more elegantly, and I'll propose some ideas for how games might continue to evolve in this regard. As always, your thoughts are most welcome.