The Stakes of Our Stories



There's a reason why I call my site and blog "Purposeful Prose." Every part of every text I work with carries purpose, and a part of my role is to help those parts to make the most of that purpose. Even if the purpose is escapism and mindlessness with few intricacies, there is a purpose to the writing.


In Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques, Evan Skolnik focuses on telling fiction stories in video games and in his first section, he focuses on conflict.


While Skolnik's advice is valuable for storytellers, he does a lot of teaching by example in this section. More simply, the examples given do more of the work in the chapter than the observations. The examples or sources also have the capacity to overshadow those observations.


It's fair to say that in order for a video game to resonate, there must be some form of overarching unresolved conflict for a player to interact with. "At this core level, stories and games are in blissful agreement. The driving force behind both experiences is the core conflict of a character wanting something, but needing to overcome challenges in order to get it" (Skolnik, 2014).


The way he words "stories and games are in blissful agreement" does take away from the interconnectedness he appears to want to establish between the two. Through acknowledgement that at "this core level" there is agreement shows that there are ways in which that agreement doesn't exist. He does not elaborate on this here.


However, he does use this to segway into the "want/but" pattern by which he describes the conflict of certain games through one-sentence summaries. He gives a list of popular games and uses this model to illustrate their conflict.


The following sentence is used to describe Portal (2007):


"Chell wants to escape the dilapidated Aperture Science facility, but a deranged AI is holding her captive and forcing her to solve bizarre, deadly puzzles" (Skolnik, 2014).


We understand the nature of this model and, through the given list of games, we understand that not all of these conflicts have to look the same. They come with different challenges, and we have different reasons to care about the given characters. This model for Portal works, but it would be helpful to have more information about why this model works. Portal is mostly concerned with puzzles, but breaks up the monotony of constant puzzles with a compelling story about a science facility. Without the conflict, the game would be mostly puzzles and the gameplay wouldn't serve a purpose. There wouldn't be as much of a reason for all of the puzzles.


Throughout the game, the AI is relied upon to tell the story. We rely on the AI and, at the same time, it is the source of all of the character's problems.


The "want/but" model works for Portal because it introduces its premise, gives an idea of how the player will interact with the story, and presents the stakes.


Coming up with a similar sentence for a book can aid in the planning process as an engaging text will need to address conflicts and will need to have goals to work towards.


For those who are looking for a starting point in planning, this can be a useful tool. An author might take one of their main characters and create a "want/but" sentence for them. Otherwise, if an author is blocked in that respect, but is inspired by another author, creating a "want/but" sentence for other characters they enjoy might be a helpful exercise.


ForWild Seed by Octavia Butler: The immortal Anyanwu wants to protect the societies she inhabits and wants to inflict as little destruction as possible while doing so, but her powers sometimes necessitate some level of destruction.


While this isn't a perfect summary of what happens in the story, I'm only seeking to capture the nature of one of the conflicts that the story is built around and what Anyanwu is battling with.


Most stories have several varied conflicts that drive a person's motivation to interact with that story whether they are reading it, watching it, and/or playing it. In order for there to be a compelling conflict, there must be compelling stakes. For Anyanwu, the stakes are her own livelihood, her sense of self, and the lives of those around her to name a few.


Stakes don't have to be as broad as the fate of the world, but interesting stories can still be developed with those stakes in mind (another area in which Skolnik and I differ). In my search for games that have interesting stories, I was recommended Blasphemous. While this is a different story entirely from Wild Seed, the stakes vary in similar ways as they concern the interiority of the player character and the livelihoods of those that they surround themselves with.


In Blasphemous, The Penitent One wants to fulfill their ultimate penance, but needs to battle the faith that has been integral their life, specifically the torture that others are experiencing at the hands of an aspect of that faith.


Skolnik ends his chapter by stating that the scope of the conflict should only be made as large as it needs to be to carry out the story and no larger. Conflict can come in a multitude of forms, but the takeaway of a given conflict will usually be the meaning imposed on it by its reader. When I make my "want/but" statements, they purposefully betray my own reading of the conflict. It's narrow enough in scope to impose meaning upon, but broad enough that the impact can be carried through a compelling story.


Overall, this section presents very solid advice and observations on the construction of effective conflict in narratives, but uses more examples to the detriment of analysis of those examples. Thus, the examples become less important to an audience who does not already know those games or the importance of those games to the author.

 

Thank you so much to everyone who has given me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far and to the wonderful person who recommended I look into the story and writing of Blasphemous.


If you have any suggestions for me, you can become a member so that I see yours first! Members of Purposeful Prose can interact with my posts and make use of my forum.


If you would like to follow along with this discussion, you can purchase Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques at your local independent bookstore or at Bookshop.org. Proceeds from this site do go to local independent bookstores.


As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Sources:


Butler, O. E. (1999). Wild seed. New York: Warner Books.


Skolnick, E. (2014). Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques (Illustrated ed.). Watson-Guptill.


The Game Kitchen (2019) (Nintendo Switch) [Video Game]. Team17.


Valve (2007) (Windows Version) [Video Game]. Valve Corporation.

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