Exploring stories in games and the art of telling tales
Away from home, I have been playing Super Mario World with my son online. I’ve also been giving a lot of Zoom talks. These activities synaptically sparked off each other when after one talk I was asked to explain a throwaway line. I had justified my games’ lack of interest in traditional game narrative frameworks and stated that players ‘are more interested in the why than the what if?’ Whereas most games tout their possibility spaces – the way in which their narratives might open up at the player’s touch – I felt that a good narrative benefited from an inward, not outward, focus. Being fully immersed in Super Mario World, I defended my thought by suggesting that we should approach Story Games in the same way we do Jumping Games. How would the purity of focus of Mario translate into the world of interactive narrative? Narrative not as a wrapper or content, but as the core.
What are Jumping Games? They are games about gravity – a defining feature of our lives as we trudge across floors, climb stairs, use elevators and accidentally drop eggs. The tyranny of gravity! A Jumping Game focuses on our one weapon to oppose gravity – the jump – and allows us to control and wrestle with it with a clarity unattainable to us in our everyday lives. In Super Mario World, the game’s physics, its momentum and control, allow us to dance with gravity; to deeply understand and master its parabolas. It is no accident that Mario’s most special power-ups are those that actually allow us to fly.
If a Jumping Game is about understanding and mastering gravity, what is a Story Game about? Story is about understanding people and mastering our humanity. So a pure story game would allow us to, paraphrasing Ben Affleck in Gone Girl, “Crack open someone’s skull, unspool their brains and ask them what they’re thinking.” This goal perhaps asks us to think differently about how we approach embodiment and the flow of time in a game.
Jumping is movement and is best experienced in motion. But when we try to understand someone, or ourselves, we’re usually looking back – contemplating the sum of our knowledge. A character is defined by all their actions and choices. We feel in the moment, but the understanding of a story comes from a further remove as we think on it. This was the ‘why’ that I felt beat out the ‘what if’. Whereas gravity is best understood in the moment as a series of parabolas perfectly executed, story is best understood with space to contemplate. When someone lies, they often unconsciously do so in the present tense, but true stories are narrated in the past tense. Jumping is a present-tense experience; story plugs into the past. Early text games benefited from the pause of their input prompts; the graphic adventures that followed expected players to walk away from the machine to think on puzzles; and so many of our modern story games are built around analysing the past as we step through its ruins. “Walking in someone’s shoes” is a good way to feel the pressure of gravity on their soles, but a poor way to understand their souls. (Sorry, empathy games.)
The more I think about what interactivity brings to storytelling, the less interested I am in having players act out the protagonist’s choices – often reducing the depth of their humanity to a system less complex than Newton’s laws of motion. I’d rather seek out new tools for players to crack open a character’s skull. Jumping Games let us understand gravity by letting us jump higher, faster and free of mortality. A Story Game should let us move through a story, navigating it in ways that are impossible in real life. In Heaven’s Vault, we do not act as a character, but as the audience prodding the story to better understand it. Just as distance from the present tense is useful, so is distance from the point of view of the protagonist. Overboard! also illustrates a strength of games: the ability to facilitate repetition and scrutiny in a way that is rewarding. We can turn a story over in our hands like a diamond, examining its facets. In Jumping Games we move faster through space; in a pure Story Game we should be able to move through and around the story faster. Embrace being untethered from linear time. Think about how we could jump through a story as Mario jumps through the Mushroom Kingdom. Embrace distance from a protagonist’s point of view. Mario works best in 2D because we can view him from a distance and observe his parabolas – so too it is true that the best way to crack open a brain is from a position where we can see its contents unspooling.
So many of our modern story games are built around analysing the past as we step through its ruins
Sam Barlow is the founder of NYC-based Drowning A Mermaid Productions. He can be found on Twitter at @mrsambarlow