Two of our Digital History class readings this week focused on narrative strategies within video games. The first article by Roger Travis used one of the Halo games to explore the way in which the Epic format is used within video game story telling. The second article, by Trevor Owens, looked at how the publisher Ubisoft, Prince of Persia and Assassin’s Creed, integrates narrative into their games. Both of these articles make some interesting points about how videogames can allow us to interact with narratives and how many of these techniques can be extended to historical pursuits. Now that a couple of years have past since these articles were posted I though it might be interesting to reflect on how a couple more recent video games fit in with these ideas.
First off lets consider Travis’s description of the Epic. Travis points out that epics have a number of general features. Most obviously they consist of people performing heroic tasks or actions beyond the scope of the common man. From a narrative perspective these stories generally end in the same place that they began. Making them a form of cyclical story telling adapted easily to short tales that lead into new stories that take up where their predecessors left off. Travis also makes one other important point, these story may end by resetting the statuesque, so to speak, but the ending is always slightly different that the beginning in that some experiences have been had on the way to the ending, which inform and change it form the beginning in some way.
Now take the game Rouge Legacy. I would argue that this game does something interesting in that instead of just using the Epic format as the basis for its narrative it uses the Epic format as the driving mechanic behind its gameplay. In Legacy the player embarks on a quest to rid his ancestral castle of all sorts of monsters and ghouls. The game can be described as a classic 2D action platformer. Already it is possible to see the connection to the Epic format, a lone hero enters a castle and is faced by all manner of super human challenges until they are able to clear the final challenge and restore the castle to its former status. So far this does not differ much from Halo or most other video games following this style of narrative structure.
The interesting part of Legacy is that you will fail on your 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and in my case 30th attempts to clear the castle. Unlike in Halo, or many other games, once you die in Legacy you do not begin again from your last save point as if your death never happened. Each death is the end of a characters story, which will make up a small section of you family story. Each characters story starts at the same point and the end goal remains the same. The interesting mechanic of the game is that once a character dies the money they collected in their effort to clear the castle is left to the next in their lineage. In this way, through each successive step along the family tree the player becomes more and more powerful until they are able to accomplish the goal.
In Legacy the designers have found a way to utilize the format of the Epic in a way that would not be possible in another medium. Video games can be seen as a way to interact or participate with traditional storytelling but to me this is just the first step of how digital mediums could allow us to explore ideas in new ways. Playing an epic is a way that digital mediums can enhance the experience of a story but games like Legacy show we can use digital mediums to go past enhancement and explore alternate applications of old ideas.
I have already run much longer than I had thought for this post but I would still like to present one more question about narrative and video games using the work of Owens. In his article on Ubisoft titles, Owens explores how games are beginning to break away form linear forms of narrative and offer a more interesting and communal way of experiencing their game worlds. Games like Assassin’s Creed are set in historical worlds that allow the players to arrive at story point form a variety of directions and experience the past in a way specific to how they interact with the world. The idea of shared authority in narrative and nonlinear experience is something that I see video games playing a large role in as they are taken more seriously as a way to learn about the past.
At the same time I think linear story telling still has a few tricks up its sleeves and things left to teach us. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger was a recent game that followed a very linear progression, in which the player acts out the past of a bounty hunter as he recounts a number or stories to patrons in a saloon. The interesting twist is that the narrator of the game is unreliable and as such the environment and challenges are constantly changing as the narrator is called into question by his listeners or remembers some missed detail. The unreliable narrator is by no means a new concept, it has been present in literature and film for sometime, but it is one that I do not personally remember seeing used as often in video games. Having this type of narration forces player to question the story they are being told in much the same way that historians try to be analytical of the sources they use.
If you are still with me at this point I commend your commitment to seeing this through. My intention with this post was try point out that which many before me have also done. Digital tools allow us to transform and reuse older ideas and hopefully give us some new perspective. The most valuable of these transformations are those that really take into consideration the digital format in which they are being presented and how that can be used in ways that other formats could not.