Could The Garden Of Earthly Delights Hold The Key To Storytelling In Video Games?
Watching the prologue to Ori And The Blind Forest earlier today I found myself thinking back over my gaming life. Thirty years ago, the vast majority of games didn’t have anything even closely resembling a story. In the 1980s, games truly were just games. Sim City, Donkey Kong, Defender… While the occasional treat like Maniac Mansion presented a decent narrative, quality story-driven games were scarce.
We’ve come a long way. The oft-debated cutscenes of such games like those of the Final Fantasy series helped to bring a deeper sense of plot to games. From the Red Alert intro to every single cutscene that Hideo Kojima forced into Metal Gear Solid IV, cutscenes crammed a story into a game. But that’s precisely what they did: they crammed and forced stories into games.
Cutscenes gaves us narratives told in the pauses of games. They never really merged gameplay and story, they never made those two divisible elements one. The player wasn’t actively involved with the cutscene, there’s no interactivity there, and therefore, there’s no genuine merger of game and story, there’s merely an interruption of gameplay while the story is told, as though story were the commercial to gaming’s main feature.
With the obvious exception of the text-adventure, all game genres have only ever succeeded at bringing story and gameplay near one another. They haven’t succeeded in merging gameplay and story, at making them one. Rather, every genre approaches story in roughly the same way: stopping the gameplay so the narrative can progress, if only for a short while.
RPGs like Final Fantasy XV still tell their stories through antiquated cutscenes.
RPGs, for instance tell their stories mostly through NPCs. We explore an area (gameplay) and then stop to talk to a non-player character. That NPC then fills us in on the details of the plot, thus allowing the story to continue. Again, story and gameplay are not directly merged, they’re merely crammed into close proximity, and often in an unnatural way. There’s nothing natural, for instance, about a character who is in a rush to save the world stopping to have an in-depth conversation with a character who’s simply standing there.
The same is true for other genres: The gameplay stops to allow the story to continue. In platform games like the upcoming Ori And The Blind Forest, for instance, we play through various platform-style levels, stopping in between to catch up on the story. In most FPSs we play through one level then stop for a cutscene. In fighting games we beat one opponent and then (maybe) see an animation or, again, another cutscene. There’s a clear division: narrative, gameplay, narrative, gameplay…
Ori and The Blind Forest tells a beautiful story, but it doesn’t merge that story with the gameplay
Can gameplay and story be made one?
It’s this seeming impossibility of fusing gameplay with story that prevents games from achieving their storytelling potential. Stories need to be told continuously in order to work. Take novels, for example.
Novels are, of course, the best storytelling medium. In a novel (regardless of what genre you read) story progresses continuously from start to end. This continuity is essential. Ask any writer worth their salt what happens if they drop the tension for a second, if their plot stagnates at any point, if the story ceases to progress, and they’ll tell you that they lose the reader. A novel needs a conflict, a hook, a premise and a crucible in order to hook the reader from start to finish, and those four essential ingredients must be omnipresent throughout. Lose them for one moment and the story is lost.
Or take movies. If an otherwise perfectly decent movie has one scene in which the story is dropped, in which the plot fails to progress, the movie risks losing the viewer. Consider Return Of The Jedi, for instance. An excellent movie, most would attest—not the best Star Wars movie, but still a darned good flick. Watch Return Of The Jedi again and notice what happens when you get to the scene in the Ewok village where Luke, Leia and Han are sitting around with a bunch of Ewok’s listening to C3PO and R2-D2 tell the story of everything that’s happened up to that point. At this scene, the tension drops completely. There’s no conflict, no tension, no plot progression, no character development, nothing. This one scene completely murders the movie. It loses the viewer.
Note that if you’re not a hardcore Star Wars fan you might struggle to even remember the scene mentioned. That simply proves the point though. It’s a forgettable scene precisely because it’s an irrelevant one, and that’s because the story fails to progress.
Return of the Jedi’s Ewok scene completely loses the viewer
So how does this relate to video games? In video games stories are constantly stopping as we go from story to gameplay to story to gameplay. And at the same time, the gameplay is stopping too. Both are interrupted, both lose their momentum. Story and gameplay, in the vast majority of games, aren’t working for one another but against one another, constantly fighting back and forth. The result is that the player is never a hundred percent involved with the game. They’re either actively involved in completing gameplay tasks, or emotionally involved in the story, and rarely if ever both.
There is one intriguing exception to this rule: in competitive play. When we play in a tournament, we become the story. Take, for example, Olivier “Luffy” Hay’s win in Evo2K14 in Ultra Street Fighter IV. For Luffy, the story wasn’t the “story” of the game. He plays Rose, but the story he was involved in wasn’t hers, it was his own, his story of how he’d practiced for so many hours to get good enough to compete, been wished luck by his family, flown from Paris to Las Vegas, gotten hyped up about the tournament, played through numerous matches and then finally made it to the Grand Finals match against Bonchan.
In the match Luffy plays as Rose, Bonchan as Sagat. They’re playing characters, but their stories are their own. Their story is played out in every single gameplay action that occurs. Rose and Luffy, and Bonchan and Sagat, essentially become one during the match, at least, that is what is happening in their (the player’s) minds. Doubtlessly that match was the highlight of Bonchan and Luffy’s gaming lives, a highlight brought about because for that one match they felt one with the game, they were completely and utterly engrossed in it both emotionally and objectively.
Games reach their peak when gameplay and story are brought together
Games reach their height when story and gameplay are made one. Sadly, while we’re constantly jumping from game to story to game, we’re never going to experience that state of oneness that Luffy and other tournament players do. And this won’t change until game developers find a way to genuinely merge gameplay and story.
What, then, is the solution? Is it possible for gameplay and story to ever truly become one? Some games have come close. The Last Of Us presented an amazing story and an amazing game, but still relied on cutscenes and thus severed action from narrative. Dark Dreams Don’t Die is also worthy of note, “Swery’s” work truly innovating the way we play games and leading the player to a high state of involvement with the story. And some exceptional older games like Final Fantasy 7 have created a genuine emotional involvement. Meanwhile, Journey and Limbo provided a different kind of story, but don’t really count as narrative or plot driven games. But in all these examples there’s still a severance between gameplay and story.
Journey and Limbo are highlights of storytelling in games
Journey and Limbo both present an extremely interesting take on story in games. Neither use words, either verbal or written, which is to their benefit because games aren’t about words. The moment we have to stop and read, we’ve stopped, and therefore, inherently, we’ve cut ourselves off from the gameplay.
In some ways it seems bizarre to suggest that the best way to tell a story in games is without words. We’ve become so accustomed to the fact that stories are told either through the written word, as in books, or the spoken words, as in movies and plays, but games are neither. Games are far more akin to an artist’s way of telling the story. Take Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden Of Earthly Delights, for example. Wherever the eye falls in the painting something active is happening on the canvas. In this way the viewer is told their own story. They voluntarily move their eyes (though there is some artistic guidance) and where their eyes fall they see a new element of the story. Such a painting is (though it may never have been called so before) an interactive story, because the voluntary eye movements of the viewer is producing the story told. So it must be with games; the voluntary actions of the gamer must directly tell the story.
Limbo and Journey have gone part way in doing precisely this as they both present a story that is both told and interpreted by the player, but unlike The Garden of Earthly Delights, they don’t present a whole story or a definitive meaning, they’re abstract and open to interpretation. The Garden Of Earthly Delights tells a very clear meaning about sin and judgment.
It may very well come down to such a masterful work of art as Bosch’s now 500+ year old painting to inspire gaming to find its true storytelling potential. To those unfamiliar with the painting the question might arise: How does a painting tell a story?
Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (click for full size)
In this day and age we’ve become so attached to the idea that a story is a linear thing, that it require a beginning and middle and an end and that the plot must lead us logically from one point to another. Page one must lead to page to and so on till the end. But no story theorist worth their salt would ever state that a story must be linear or ever that it must have a clear sense of progression. In a book, yes, because for a book to be interpreted it must be read one word at a time. In a movie, also yes, because a movie is a sequence of events that are defined by time. But those are limitations of the medium, not of stories themselves.
So what does a story need?
- A premise: a central idea or argument that is being presented. Without a premise we’re left with an unrelated bunch of events.
- A conflict: there must be some sense of two elements in opposition. This doesn’t have to be a physical confrontation like in Star Wars, a mental, societal, emotional or other conflict is equally as good (such as Bronte’s Jane Eyre and its societal struggle).
- Characters: Without characters there is no human element (even if the characters are animals, they are still ascribed humanistic qualities)
- Events: Something must happen. Regardless of when or what, some event must take place.
- And that is all.
Returning to The Garden Of Earthly Delights we can see that all these elements are in place, even without a sense of time or progression. We have a premise: man is punished for sins. We have characters: the people in the picture. And we have conflict: desire to sin against punishment thereof. There is no temporal progression, being a painting, and no clear progression as the viewer can look where they like when they like, but nevertheless there is a clear story, and that story is led by interactivity, the viewer choosing where to look and when. Essentially, we have an interactive story created in 1503. We also have an example of where storytelling in games can go.
Because the entire canvas of The Garden Of Earthly Delights tells the same story, no matter what order we choose to look at the painting’s events in or how we choose to “interact” with the painting we end up with the same story. It’s the freedom of interactivity provided by Journey and Limbo, but given a clear and definite story. The viewer can “interact” however they like, while having the same story told to them. And that is how a video game should tell its story, if we’re to reach the dizzying heights of storytelling of which we are capable.