Months ago, I wrote a post for Purposeful Prose that contained an excerpt from the video game, Braid. I made the point that, in reading that excerpt, there was no bias for or against where it came from, so it could be read as it was.
Evan Skolnik understands that there are people who play video games for their stories. More specifically, he understands that video games can be a vehicle through which people can create stories that resonate. Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques was published in 2014, immediately acknowledging that the audience for video games has rightly expanded over the years. While there is and was still demand for smaller scale games, there's greater potential behind all of that technology.
Braid begins with a simple premise. A character, Tim, wants to rescue a princess. In order to rescue her, he has to travel through a series of worlds, each of which can be entered through a part of his house. He has to fight smaller enemies and solve puzzles, but as each world unfolds, so do Tim's memories and internal experiences. People get more of a sense of what Tim's relationship to this princess looks like. We come to understand that Tim is inherently flawed and has a lot he needs to work through.
In one of the first worlds, he says, "Our world, with its rules of causality, has trained us to be miserly with forgiveness. By forgiving too readily, we can be badly hurt. But if we've learned from a mistake and become better for it, shouldn't we be rewarded for the learning, rather than punished for the mistake?" (Blow, 2009).
This poses a valid and possibly relatable question, and Braid creates space for a lot of similar introspective experiences. Most importantly, video games can be text upon which meaning, for those interacting with that text, can be imposed.
Skolnik emphasizes the importance of this, citing storytelling as the vehicle and tools by which a game's developers come together and hopefully create a cohesive product. This, he states, is what makes the game's writer so important. Furthermore, the better that other team members understand different narrative techniques, the better the story will communicate with the gameplay.
The narrative of a game can overpower a given story whereby interaction with that story can be limited. So, those who enter that kind of a game with the expectation that they will be interacting with a story might be disappointed. Otherwise, if gameplay eclipses the story, the person interacting with the story might not see meaning in what they're playing. It's a delicate balance.
Balance is something that any writer can take from this.
Often, when I'm working with a client, they know the world that they want to create so well, that they spend their chapters mostly verbally sculpting that word. The interactions between those in that world were left diminished by the world itself.
Conversely, I've had clients whose works are solely based on action and interaction. In these cases, there's a lot of missing space and context.
Authors often create complex and detailed plans and world that they know inside and out, and they write those worlds based on what they know, almost forgetting that they want to invite others into the same experience.
Skolnik (2014) says, "It is the goal of this book to provide that common language, and to help give you, your team, and your game the best chance to deliver entertaining, effective, and well-integrated story content."
By, "common language", what he means is the common language of a video game's narrative for those responsible for its creation. Knowing the narrative of a video game as well as an author knows their own world is crucial. The same information isn't simply what an author already knows. It could be what any author needs.
For example, there is a common myth that writing has to be lonely or solitary. A team of developers behind a video game might argue that the creation of a story doesn't have to look like that, that effective communication (as many post-process theorists support) with fellow authors or anyone can help unlock a story's potential. They could argue this because, ideally, they would know from experience.
Skolnik's work has mostly been comprised of "bridg[ing] the gap between gameplay and storytelling" by working with developers directly or speaking at conferences. In his introduction, he directly states that a lot of the examples that he gives come from movies for a few reasons. One is accessibility, because he could assume more people had seen the same movies than played the same games, even among a group of developers. Since this book's intended audience is video game creators, I can understand this approach.
This isn't how I'm going to approach my writing in conversation with this book. I will be using excerpts from different video games, mostly independent, that somehow demonstrate the narrative tools highlighted. While these games might not be as familiar, I hope that my readings can make their stories accessible and will highlight the writing effectively.
Thank you to everyone who has given me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far! Your voices have been heard.
If you would like to follow this discussion of Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know About Narrative Techniques, I encourage you to purchase it through your local independent bookstore. If you do not have easy access to one, this title is also available through Bookshop.org. Any purchase made through Bookshop.org supports small independent bookstores.
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As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Blow, J. (2009) (PC Version) [Video Game]. Number None.
Skolnick, E. (2014). Video Game Storytelling: What Every Developer Needs to Know about Narrative Techniques (Illustrated ed.). Watson-Guptill.