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The rise of narratives in videogames

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The fledging years of the cinema – from the late 19th century to the early 20th century – saw the creation of wonderful films of ‘spectacle’. Many of these were short films, without a strong grounding in narrative. Instead, their energy was located in the force of the image. The films of the Lumière brothers (The Arrival of the Mail Train), and Georges Méliès (A Trip to the Moon), are great examples of the earliest voyages to the cinematic planet. As the form began to take shape, the concept of narrative emerged as a key ingredient in the recipe of filmmaking. Films weren’t to be a mere assemblage of images, but a kind of narrative art that worked in tandem with the primacy of the image.

Videogames are undergoing a similar transformation now. Like Adam Jensen, the technologically ‘augmented’ hero of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the constituent parts of videogames have changed. In a sense, games have been augmented, just as Jensen has, by the emergence and use of rich, human narrative arcs. As any gamephile (a term that’ll hopefully catch on) would be aware, complex narratives have long been lacking in the videogame medium.

In the beginning, videogames were predicated on a fun, appealing premise: perhaps to not let a digital ‘pong’ ball past you, or to vanquish as many aliens with a laser gun as possible. The array of arcade games that materialised in the 70s and 80s, like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, held true to this trend. The games were certainly entertaining, holding voracious youths in their grips until the early hours. But on reflection, there was something missing from them.

Still classic though....

The composition of games didn’t really change when the Atari and Fairchild Channel F invaded homes. Though instead of packing out arcades, youths wallowed in their lounge rooms playing games like Crash Bandicoot, Super Mario and GoldenEye 007. They were played on console gaming systems: the Gamecube, the Xbox, the PlayStation and more. These games, at best, featured slender narrative justifications for the action on the screen. We were motivated to play them to achieve objectives, rather than to reach satisfying narrative conclusions.

Slowly but surely, this is changing. Games are shedding their one-dimensional skin to utilise the narrative space within its form. And while there are still plenty of games that don’t take advantage of the full potential of game narratives to provide a valuable screen experience (think Fifa 18, Little Big Planet, Payday: The Heist), there’s an ever-increasing number that warrant events, action and character motivations by way of a convincing, fascinating story. This of course has reshaped the properties and experience of games. They feel closer to challenging the screen supremacy of the cinematic realm than ever before.

Red Dead Redemption trailer

Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption was the game that opened my eyes to the possibilities of the videogame narrative. For this reason, it’s stuck with me ever since, like John Marston’s revolver, which is always by his side. The game opens with John Marston as an ex-gunslinger, living in the declining days of the Wild West. Marston has abandoned his wayward life until the US Government one day comes knocking: they tell him to hunt down his old gang. Marston’s hands are tied – the government have abducted his wife Abigail and son Jack. They won’t be released until the gang are behind bars or in the ground.

This is all revealed, more or less, in the prologue. It provides a fortified narrative base from which complications inevitably arise. Marston’s journey on horseback across the Wild West is hardly along one straight gravel road; it involves crossroads, detours and riding roughshod over enemies and former friends. This becomes immediately clear after he tracks down Bill Williamson at his new fort in New Austin. Williamson doesn’t take too kindly to Marston’s intentions, ordering one of his men to gun down Marston. They leave him for dead at the foot of the fort, until two benevolent ranchers – Bonnie McFarlane and Amos – help nurse him back to health at their farm. The occurrence reorders Marston’s plans, and he doesn’t end up facing Williamson again until the end of the game. The central plot point – that Marston must incapacitate his old gang – provides Red Dead Redemption an inalienable purpose and loose structure so characters’ actions and motivations are well-established. However, its sharp twists and turns of the narrative that save it from feeling rigid and formulaic. Aside from engrossing and entertaining us, the volatility of the narrative ascribes the Wild West, Marston and the other characters its complex nature. If the opening plot point is the black-and-white sketch, the unpredictability of events is the colouring in of that sketch. These narrative elements compound to render Red Dead Redemption one of the best explorations of the western genre in the 21st century.

The Last of Us trailer

Another ‘genre’ game – Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us – showcases the indispensable nature of narrative in contemporary gaming. The protagonist, Joel, navigates a cataclysmic world overrun by mutants roaming graffitied buildings and twisted school buses. Like Red Dead Redemption, the groundwork is laid early: the prologue reveals that Joel’s daughter, Sarah, was killed while he was escaping the clutches of a violent militia. Years later, working as a smuggler, Joel and his team come across a young girl who looks strikingly similar to Sarah. Her name is Ellie, and she’s infected. Most unusually, she exhibits no symptoms of mutation.

The narrative of the game is predicated on Joel and Ellie’s fraught but close relationship. At first, Joel is apprehensive about taking her with him. The pain of losing his daughter makes him guarded, but Joel eventually becomes fond of Ellie’s foul-mouthed resilience. While zombies and greedy opportunists emerge that demand to be vanquished at various parts of the narrative, the focus is always unswervingly on these two characters. And when it becomes clear Ellie’s immunity could provide a cure to the infection, the psychological tension that’s been building the entire game hits a boiling point: will Joel be prepared to lose her in order to save humanity from itself? The ingenious narrative structure of The Last of Us elevates it to the gaming equivalent of McCarthy’s The Road, or Cuarón’s Children of Men.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

The creatives of Deus Ex: Human Revolution were intimately aware of the important place of narrative within videogames. After all, the game is a prequel to the universally heralded Deus Ex. In my experience, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is the most narrative-focused game I’ve played. Adam Jensen is a security officer for Sarif Industries, a company which is a world leader in augmentation (of human tissue) development. The company is attacked by well-trained ideologues before it can announce a new form of augmentation. Jensen is fatally wounded. He’s only saved by Sarif augmenting him with untried technologies. Jensen then sets off to investigate the persons and motives behind the attack, which provides the narrative foundation of the game.

The creatives of the game were also apparently profoundly familiar with the noir narrative structure. Deus Ex bears a twisted, sophisticated narrative – just as any game dealing with the uncertainties of a corporatised future should. As you delve further into the world of 2027, things become far more ambiguous than first expected. Was the squad that ambushed Sarif Industries self-directed? Were they ordered to obliterate the company? Or were they the puppets of a greater, more insidious global movment? These are narrative questions that take some time to be answered. But when it comes time for the reveal – like in Polanski’s Chinatown or Chandler’s The Big Sleep – you are enthralled, shocked and provoked all at the same time. No doubt it’s great fun stepping into Jensen’s hulky leather boots, but that’s only a secondary reason to play Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The main one is to experience an intelligently-woven narrative that thrives in subverting our expectations and firing off a warning shot about the future of our own world.

Games have always possessed the capacity to accommodate rich and complex narrative arcs. It’s marvellous to see that complex narratives are fast becoming a staple of videogame production. The main implication of this is that violence won’t just be displayed gratuitously, but rather with purpose and justification. Marston exacts bloody vengeance on his old gang to save his family; Joel shoots at everything alien in his surrounds to protect Ellie from harm. And Jensen covertly immobilises henchmen – of militias and corporations – who stand in his way to discovering the truth. It opens up the possibility for games to have psychological, emotional or even intellectual resonance. Playing games won’t just be about frantic button-mashing. They can be something more.

The honeymoon for the gaming medium is over. It’s matured. We should all strap ourselves in for a prosperous gaming future.

- Nick Bugeja