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Narration v. Interpretation
Posted on Sunday, November 1 2009 @ 05:06:18 Eastern

“What the **** was that?”


A month ago a friend and I went to see District 9 at a surprisingly packed cinema. Despite often viewing new releases together, we have totally different tastes in films. He likes traditional Hollywood blockbusters with firm starts, middles and ends. He thinks Die Hard is a cult classic. Conversely, I argue that Children of Men and Reservoir Dogs are true pieces of art. My friend dislikes any form of entertainment that utilises any ambiguity in its plot – hence his above comment on District 9's climax. This article is a short analysis on what different people like in entertainment and how videogames attempt to deal with such varying tastes.


I imagine that the entire comments section will dispute this, but the success of most titles come down to two things: Narration or interpretation. An example of the former would be Call of Duty, with a firmly established story that follows through from start to finish – the Die Hards of videogames. Interpretative titles are like Flower. They allow the player to make their own decisions about what the Hell is going on. A lot of titles fall between these two extremes. To demonstrate I've made something I like to call, 'The What The Fuck Scale'.


I hope mentioning some of those games has caused you to do some nostalgic reinstalls.


Recently films have turned away from their typical 'Easily Understood' side to experiment with different storytelling techniques. Videogames have followed suit in clever attempts to inject a new level of novelty into the industry. It's ironic, considering films have always tried to tell stories but videogames began as an ambiguous entertainment medium and then implemented stories in the late 80s. Now they're moving back into their rawest form. Some developers are even turning around sand saying, 'hey, these ambiguous titles have gained a cult following – we should make our games like that!'


Despite the popularity of is strange new movement, the community is divided. Folks like the guy I saw District 9 with don't like to be confused by stories that fail to explain their endings. Other players rejoice at the lack of proper narratives. Left 4 Dead is a great example of this; there's a lot of exposition hidden away on graffitied safehouse walls and randomised dialogue, but it's all optional. This means you can always keep up with impatient team mates who just want to rush through the campaign, but can go back to these bite-sized, non-linear lore developments. I'd go as far to say that titles which provide all the required information players expect but present it subtly are the most successful at storytelling - games lying between Halo and Everyday Shooter on the scale fit into this category. Shadow of the Colossus is the lead example in this sector; there's clues as to the backstory of the world littered around and are hinted at within the limited interactions between characters. Telling the story never really takes priority over gameplay. Similarly, games that present their story poorly are not regarded highly. Look at World of Warcraft – no one trawls through reams of text to find out a bit of plot in the midst of a fast-paced raid. Fortunately, Wrath of the Lich King tries to put most plot development in solo quests, so players can read at their leisure. But they're still walls of writing instead of bite-sized chunks. Hand-holding narratives are inappropriate in such environments. Storytelling is vital to most modern-day games, but poor presentation can serve as a title's fatal flaw. Some ambiguity can be a good thing.


I predict that the stories in future games will become both more complex and ambiguous. Developers are more willing than ever to trust gamers to figure out stories using their own intuition and creativity. Some people will even argue this new direction, where interpretation overtakes hand-holding narration, brings videogames closer to art. Games will also continue to be by-the-books tales of World War heroes and fantasy worlds. Some won't even tell stories. But plots comprised of intelligent messages, subtle metaphors and less bloody cutscenes are garnering more attention. Halo made videogames acceptable to 19 year-old fratboys. Maybe a popular interpretative title will make videogames acceptable to 50 year-old art elitists. This is really about developers having faith in gamers and hoping we won't just turn up our noses at concepts that don't immediately make sense.

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