As an interactive medium, video games can deliver a fundamentally different narrative experience to their users than literature, movies, or TV shows. I’ve always been interested in how video games can use their unique properties to do something new, to present stories which can’t be told in other mediums, or at least can’t be told well. Having recently played through Frictional Games’s excellent sci-fi adventure, Soma, I noticed that a surprising number of video games follow a similar plot structure. Consider the narrative similarities between the following games: Soma, Transistor, Bastion, Gone Home, Bioshock, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and The Swapper.

The most immediate observation might be that these games are all based in post-apocalyptic settings, or at least the aftermath of some sort of disaster in the cases of Gone Home and The Swapper. Taking a step back, on a meta-narrative level, all of the games use environmental storytelling to a large degree. That is, much of their plots and themes are presented through the player’s interaction with, or observation of, the passive gameplay environment. For example, in Bioshock, much of Rapture’s culture and value system is established through billboard advertisements and optional audio recordings. Likewise, in Soma, the player first learns of the extent of the WAU’s power by seeing its biomechanical tendrils physically permeate the PATHOS-II facility.  In contrast, most video games deliver their stories through direct narrative presentations via cutscenes or heavy text dumps, which are not unlike self-contained movies or literature snippets.

Admittedly, the strength of environmental storytelling and the prominence of post-apocalyptic settings in video games are both well-established trends. But what I find uniquely interesting about the above-listed games is that their primary stories are almost entirely unseen.

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What is Bioshock about? Judging by the immediate concerns of the protagonist, and by extension, the player’s actions throughout the game, Bioshock’s plot concerns a man dealing with a bunch of crazy people who impede his ability to escape some underwater ruins. But that’s not what Bioshock is really about, or at least it’s not why anybody likes Bioshock. People love Bioshock because it implies an epic story about numerous factions and dozens of individuals vying for the soul of a great city. Before Rapture fell apart, it was a fountainhead of unbounded ingenuity and dangerous innovation. There were philosophers trying to bring their abstract ideals to life, scientists breaking the known limits of reality, artists creating a beautiful aesthetic landscape, engineers struggling to maintain a city built in an impossible location, populist revolutionaries trying to take the system down, treacherous politicians, illicit smuggling rings, and dangerous love affairs. And yet almost none of those beautifully crafted story elements are directly involved in Bioshock’s plot. That’s not to say they aren’t important or have no impact on the story, but rather they exist as something like lore, only to be accessed through environmental details that spread throughout the entire city. It’s as if 95% of the important things which happen in the game-world of Bioshock occur off-screen, while the remaining 5% constitute the actual plot within the game.

All of the listed games have a similar narrative structure. Soma’s gameplay plot (SPOILERS) follows Simon’s attempts to navigate through the PATHOS-II with Catherine so he can reach the Arc and shoot it into space, but the other 95% of the story concerns a dangerous sentient AI, the development of technology which can create and transfer human consciousness, and the desperate struggles of the isolated crew of the PATHOS-II as they try to figure out what to do after everyone else on earth dies (END SPOILERS). Transistor’s gameplay plot (SPOILERS) follows Red as she runs around the city of Cloudbank with the Transistor in an attempt to find the individuals who caused a cataclysmic event so she can hopefully stop it, but the other 95% of the story concerns the culture and design of a digital city, the process by which a handful of citizens became aware of the insidious nature of their existence, and the implementation of a plan to alter the very fabric of their reality (END SPOILERS).

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To be clear, these games don’t share this property just because they are all post-apocalyptic in some form. The relevant similarity is the fact that the narratives of these games are structured so that the in-game plot focuses on only a very small and relatively insignificant portion of the game-world’s story. Most stories that take place post-apocalypse are primarily interested in portraying how life changes after traditional societal structures fall apart, while the pre-apocalyptic era is considered to be a distant artifact which may be idolized or demonized, but either way is typically left vague. For instance, consider how little attention is paid to the pre-apocalypse era in The Walking Dead (in any of its mediums). The focus in TWD is on how people live in the present post-apocalyptic setting while the pre-apocalypse era is largely ignored or is only referenced to provide a basic background (or contrast) for a character’s skills and personality in the present.

In contrast, the broad narrative focus of all of the listed games is on the pre-apocalypse. The protagonists typically find themselves trapped in the aftermath of some sort of disaster and attempt to escape and/or understand their immediate surroundings so they can figure out what happened to their environment and what it was like beforehand. Or at the very least, even if the protagonist isn’t interested in learning about the past, the games are purposefully designed to steer the player in that direction. Despite the vastly different settings and gameplay genres of games like Gone Home (suburban house in the 1980s, pure exploration), Bioshock (underwater city in the 1950s, FPS) and Bastion (fantasy/sci-fi world, isometric hack-and-slash), all three games follow the same unusual narrative structure.

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This is quite a strange way to tell a story. Most plots about huge, ongoing events (like the apocalypse) either focus on the big picture or one small component, but rarely both. Consider how Independence Day and Signs both deal with the subject of an alien invasion. ID follows the US government and a few key individuals who eventually lead the effort to stop the global invasion, while the story only hints at the experiences of ordinary people caught in the attacks (ie. the experiences of Will Smith’s character’s wife). On the other hand, Signs follows a single family’s ordeal during an alien incursion while only hinting at the broader picture via the occasional news bulletin or errant rumor.

But the pattern we see in these games is for the bulk of the plot to take place after the event, but for much of the game’s narrative focus to center on the event itself and/or the time before the event. The result can admittedly be disjointed since the entire narrative has already temporally occurred and often the player is immediately inundated with its scope and effects before he has a firm grasp on what actually happened. Hence as the player controls the protagonist through his plot, the player also slowly gains a better understanding of prior events through environmental storytelling. For example, think of the confusion at the start of Dark Souls and Bloodborne which slowly gives way to an admittedly vague, but still coherent picture as to the state of affairs of each game’s universe.

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Why have video games arrived at such an odd narrative structure? The short answer is that developers have been progressively adapting game mechanics and narrative structures to achieve better integration between the two.

By this point it seems that most innovative modern developers have figured out that the traditional “gameplay-cutscene-gameplay” (GCG) formula for video game story telling is not an optimal way to convey a narrative through an interactive medium. But as disjointed as the traditional method may be, it does provide a certain level of storytelling flexibility. All a video game writer has to do is conceive of a couple of cutscenes to tell the story and then string them together with mechanical-intensive gameplay sections. Even though the incongruity between any given cutscene and its bookended gameplay segments can be jarring (think Niko Bellic mourning over his haunted past after murdering a bunch of pedestrians with his car for no reason in Grand Theft Auto IV), that disconnect actually enables video game writers to tackle pretty much any narrative topic precisely because it had no mechanical bounds.

As soon as a developer steps outside of the comfort of the traditional GCG formula, game design becomes quite daunting. How can developers construct mechanics for enough portions of a story to make a video game which feels integrated with the entire narrative?

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For example, take Independence Day again. It’s easy to see how a video game could be made from the movie based on the GCG formula. The player could control some pilot in the American air force and every mission could consist of the pilot dogfighting a bunch of alien ships with a variety of objectives, like destroying an enemy mother ship, protecting a military base, etc. To make a coherent story out of that set up, the developers would just need to book end each flight mission with a cutscene or two showing the invasion’s progression and maybe how the player-character was personally effected by it. It turns out, this theoretical set up isn’t too far removed from the real ID game.

Now imagine that instead of using the GCG formula, a developer wanted to tell the entire story of ID with mechanical interactivity at every possible level. There would still be dogfighting for Will Smith’s character, but there would also have to be gameplay for every other major character in the story, at least including the president, Jeff Goldblum, Randy Quaid, Will Smith’s wife, etc, to give the player a full narrative scope of the alien invasion. Maybe the president could command the US military like in a Total War game, Jeff Goldblum could do hacking mini-games, Randy Quid could have a group-survival management simulation, Will Smith’s wife could have first person escape sequence, etc. And all of this would have to fit together into a single coherent game. This isn’t necessarily impossible, but I can’t imagine a version of this game which didn’t feel stretched thin and disjointed as the developer would have to divide its resources over so many different mechanical aspects.

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In response to this problem, developers have opted for the narrative structure described earlier in this piece. Rather than try to figure out how to systematize the massive array of activity which occurs within a complicated story (like the fall of Rapture in Bioshock, the destruction of Celondia in Bastion, the year-long turmoil in Kaitlin Greenbriar’s family in Gone Home, etc.), developers focus their mechanical systems on a relatively simple story which is only tangentially related to the more complicated story (like Jack’s escape from Rapture, the Kid’s attempt to build the Bastion, Kaitlin returning home after a trip, etc.). Then they use the environments within their simpler story to tell the larger story, thereby replacing the complicated array of mechanics which would be needed to tell the larger story with simpler environmental exploration mechanics.

This is a great trend. It reveals that developers are really trying to make the most out of video game storytelling by adapting story structures to the interactive nature of video games as an artistic medium. And based on the high quality of Soma, Transistor, Bastion, Gone Home, Bioshock, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture (the weak link of the bunch), Dark Souls, Bloodborne, and The Swapper, developers have been remarkably successful in their attempts to integrate narrative structures and mechanics.