Stories in games are weird. While any kind of narrative involves a system that has shape and form, in games the complexity of the system goes far beyond a simple linear graph. Player decisions impact the experience depending on the design, content, and numerous other variables. While in a linear narrative it makes more sense to focus on content because of the simplicity of the system, in games it is often easier and more attractive to focus on how things work. A broad term for this kind of story is systems narrative.
This isn’t fresh territory for traditional media. The Wire is one of the more popular and recent examples of a systems narrative, but you could cite Plato’s cave allegory or even a TV commercial if you wanted. The focus is on how things work by examining various agents in a system and how their actions affect other parties. Characters don’t really change in this type of narrative, there is no individual arc. There is McNulty when he is drinking and there is McNulty when he is sober. By the show’s end he is not a different person so much as he has accepted settling down. The story is instead about a place itself and all its complexities. Examples of this in video games abound, everything from Chrono Trigger to Skyrim to S.T.A.L.K.E.R. exemplify the characteristics of system narrative.
The caveat of any systems narrative is that inevitably the audience will care more about the system than they will the content. It’s easiest to see this phenomenon in advertisements. I show you an image of a super model eating a cheeseburger. This super model, let’s assume, represents happiness to you because they are grinning like an idiot. The ad system is “happiness = model = cheeseburger”. After being exposed to the ad numerous times, your brain subconsciously starts simplifying the metaphor until it becomes “happiness = cheeseburger”. The same thing happens when you play a game. On your first time playing an FPS, you are engaged with the content. On your tenth or eleventh, your brain has ironed out the unnecessary information and sees only the system. The content degrades in emotional value with sustained exposure to the system.
These two characteristics, static characters and content degradation, make-up the two forces that any system narrative is composed of. You keep presenting the player with an unfamiliar system and they’ll go back to the content to understand it. One of the genres that exemplified this idea was the adventure game. With its linear system of puzzles being completely hidden from the player, these games force the player to rely almost exclusively on content to grasp the system. The FMV games, in particular for this essay Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within, demonstrate the perks and cons of this design approach.
The game is composed almost entirely of content. You click on a note tacked to the wall. The Gabriel moving animation plays. Then a scene plays of Gabriel walking up to the note and squinting at it. Then the zoom-in of the note appears. You can read it yourself or click on it to hear the actor speak the note aloud. You click exit. A scene plays of Gabriel walking away. Every single action has a scene, every exchange a minute’s pause of seeing the avatar acting it out.
In terms of gameplay, inevitably you get stuck on a puzzle, and you are going back and forth trying to figure out what tiny little thing you were supposed to do. With all the content and such a narrow, linear set of options to proceed, it’s easy to miss something. Suddenly all those transition scenes become agony as you retrace your steps, watching the same scenes over and over. The player sifts through mountains of degraded content for that one pixel to click on that we haven’t seen. I checked for hints on more than one occasion only to find out there was a slip of paper I’d missed or some location I needed to check twice just to proceed.
The problem was that I would often know what I wanted to do, I just hadn’t yet convinced the avatar to do it. At about King’s Quest VI, Sierra introduced the notion of a character not interacting with an object until the character in-game had a clear reason for doing so. This was, presumably, to combat the pick-up-everything mentality of previous games. What it inadvertently created was two distinct sets of knowledge for the player to negotiate. (I owe this observation to wordsmythe, who pointed it out in a Buzz thread.)
For example, Gabriel will refuse to buy a sausage from a vendor for the majority of the game. Suddenly, in Chapter 5, he can’t get enough of the stuff. Gabriel seems to detect this psychically, because I bought the sausage before I knew it had any sort of purpose. The inverse is true for the player’s knowledge and the avatars they inhabit. The game’s big plot twist in Chapter 6 is pretty obvious to anyone who has been paying attention. When you try to get Gabriel to shoot the villain though, you’re not allowed to.
In this way, the game doesn’t really fix content degradation so much as it just dumps gallons of the stuff at you. Even if you have the gist of the story, you still have to maintain the avatar’s knowledge because every detail must be filed away in their in-game minds. Clicking on various things, listening, and combining them with items is the entire game.
Does all of that content tell a better story? Yes and no. The game is trying to be an exciting historical mystery and it does a great job at it. Most of the content consists of various clues and characters debating what’s going on. The characters are generally static, like in most games; Grace is assertive and serious, Gabriel is casual and sarcastic. Grace’s strange jealousy at Gerda is the closest thing to character development that ever happens, and it’s resolved with a few clicks that make it all go away. This isn’t an arc, it’s a system of static characters. The tension develops as you learn more about who does what and why.
The protagonists, whom we are supposed to be relating to, are stuck in the role of constantly reacting to various things we’ve told them to do. A director tells Joanne Takahashi to kneel, look scared, drop a flower on the ground (which is a lake in the game), and then widen her eyes in shock as the ghost of Ludwig II briefly appears. As the player I know something is about to happen because Grace hasn’t rattled off her usual, “I don’t know why I’d do that.” I want to know what will happen next, I’m not wondering if something will happen next. As a consequence, it’s the main protagonists who don’t have any space to develop or even act. I already know what they’re about to do or say, it’s everyone else who is revealing parts of themselves.
It’s for that reason the most interesting character is probably Baron Von Glower and his tragic history of being born with the werewolf curse. Most of the time he is reserved and distant, making him the most fascinating as you try to learn more about him. After being bitten, you discover he tricked Gabriel into killing his fellow werewolf Von Zell after he had gotten out of control. In the last chapter, he sends Gabriel a letter asking him to consider accepting the werewolf curse and joining him. It’s one of the saddest and loneliest things I’ve ever read. And it entirely consisted of me clicking through a 6 page letter in-game.
Like an old Hollywood movie that takes long, luxurious panning shots or focuses on the minute details, the game is in no real rush because it has so much for you to see. Every main character has a long dialog tree that will take ten to twenty minutes to plow through. Some of their answers won’t even be relevant to anything. Museum exhibits are read for clues, long books must be examined, and each detail can matter as you puzzle your way through the game. There is no flow here, no peaking sense of rush or danger. Even the moments where the player is being hunted or chasing the villain are puzzled through violent trial and error. No exploding helicopters are coming.
In modern games, things like the pick-up animation or reading books in-game are almost non-existent. Hold-outs like Bethesda or Bioware’s vast reading materials are rarely required reading. I can’t even remember the last time I saw an arbitrary pick-up animation in a game, whatever animations do play exist to justify time delays for opening chests or looting corpses. Everything serves the design. In Gabriel Knight 2, some things are just there. Characters and locations you only see once or twice come and go. There is always some puzzle it is all connected to in the short-term, but a 10 minute exposition to tip off a player about a basic, obvious puzzle can hardly be called serving the design.
There is nothing quite like Gabriel Knight 2. None of the other FMV games ever came this close to pulling off a serious narrative. It keeps the content from degrading by making its system invisible, thus forcing the player to pay attention to the content. It is only really good for one play-through, but perhaps that’s a reality anyone wishing to make a serious game will have to accept. Despite all the videos and text I had to read in-game, the game kept me coming back to find out what happens next.