Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Videogame Meta-narratives

Alright, so I just got done with Assassin's Creed, and while jumping across the rooftops of Damascus and stabbing people in the throat is great fun, what I found really interesting is the story.

Spoilers Follow for Assassin's Creed and Bioshock

The story in Assassin's Creed is about a guy wandering through the 12th century holy land and killing lots of bad guys. This is where about 90% of the game takes place. The frame story, on the other hand, takes place in the modern day; a twenty-five year old shut-in is reliving the genetic memories of his ancestor. While frame stories aren't at all uncommon in literature (Canterbury Tales, Arabian Nights, Frankenstein) or movies (The Usual Suspects, The Princess Bride) or television (How I Met Your Mother), you don't see them much in videogames.

This is a real shame, because having a narrative frame adds a lot to the interactivity. Videogames have never been real big on immersion for two reasons; first, the user-interface gets in the way, and second, the player is in at least partial control. Adding a frame narrative can solve some of those problems. So in Assassin's Creed, the reason you have a UI is that Desmond needs a UI to pilot the memory program. If you see a glitch, or something that's unrealistic, you can justify it as a side effect of the memory-reliving machine. This is used a few times in the second game, where the instruction manual or other characters talk about flaws in their memory-reliving machine that were fixed this time. For example, in the first game it was impossible to swim, which is chalked up to being a bug. The dialog sometimes shifts into full-blown Italian (the sequel takes place in Italy) which is again an "unintended" effect of the translation software.

Penning in a meta-narrative is a very post-modern thing to do. It's not enough to just present the story, there's a real need to present the story in such a way that we acknowledge that it's a story. Everything has to be done with a wink and a nod, because irony is hip now, and the worst thing that you can do is be earnest about your story. If done well, the effect can be great, as it allows a deeper immersion. All of the artifacts of story-telling - small casts, synchronicity, production constraints, symbolism - are present because it's a story, so is it really so implausible that our lead character is named Hiro Protagonist, or that it turns out that a series of coincidences have led to the killer being the main character's long lost father? Metanarratives excuse inherent artificiality with a wink and a nod.

Ubisoft must like this conceit, because they've used it twice; Prince of Persia basically takes the form of the Prince recounting his adventure to someone. In a similar way to Assassin's Creed, you're playing through a memory. Only this time, story you're playing through is a story. When you die in Prince of Persia, you hear the Prince say, "No no, that's not how it happened, let me start over." and you reappear at the last checkpoint. From a narrative standpoint, I think this is better than having your previous progress undone and reset to an arbitary place without comment or explanation.

(Incidentally, I think that this is one of the funniest parts of Prince of Persia, because it means that - depending on how you play - he's one of the worst story-tellers of all time. "And then I swung from a post and fell into a pit of spikes. Wait, that's not how it happened," or "And I was fighting this huge sand monster and he stabbed me through the heart. Wait, that's not how it happened.")

There's another game I played recently, Bioshock, that does something similar. Huge Spoilers Follow. In Bioshock, you're playing a faceless character with no past, similar to many other shooters. Narratively, shooters use this as a way to get the player to associate more closely with the character - it's also one of the reasons that cutscenes have started to be phased out. This started around the introduction of Half Life, because of the greater sense of immersion it allows. Sometimes the player will be forced to watch as something happens, but they'll still be able to move around and be in full control the whole time.

So in Bioshock, you follow the directions of a guy named Atlas, who's trying to get you to kill a guy named Andrew Ryan. There's an Art Deco asthetic, banter about Objectivist philosophy, and some creepy moments. So you finally get to the end of the game and meet Andrew Ryan, and it's revealed to you that you've been under mind control the whole time. The entire linear path of the game was only followed by you because someone was saying code phrases to control you. Then Andrew Ryan tells you to kill him, which you do (in a cutscene) and you gain back your free will through applied science and go to kill the real bad guy (or maybe just the worse guy).

This was all very startling, because as the player you've been doing these things and following these orders because that's what the game wants you to do; if you try to disobey orders, nothing really happens because the game isn't designed for that. Bioshock is completely linear; there's no choice in what events will happen, or in what order they'll happen. In other words, it's sort of the perfect meta-narrative, because it calls attention to the narrative constraints and at the same time justifies them. I would like to see more of this, because it's the sort of thing that helps videogames develop as a medium.

On the other hand, if you're sticking to a meta-narrative, you have to be careful about how you use it. In Bioshock, the last third of the game is somewhat of a letdown, because the game doesn't really change once you have free will. You're still following a voice on a radio down linear levels. And in Assassin's Creed, even when you step out of the Animus, and the UI disappears, Desmond is being controlled from the third person perspective.

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