Narrative vs narration
For games, is the story less important than the telling?
Gravity's Rainbow! It's not my favourite Thomas Pynchon novel, but it still feels like the definitive Thomas Pynchon novel. It's a mad, mandala-like book, looping ever outwards as it takes in Churchill's adenoids, the V-2 rocket, rogue Mickey Rooney sightings and a neat little poem that introduced me to the word preterite, the meaning of which I have long since forgotten even though I continue to use it in situations where I am unlikely to be challenged. Best of all, there's this crazy, beautiful moment right at the end of the book where the narrator presents a scene of imminent disaster and then steps back, outside of the frame, to tell you: "There is time, if you need the comfort, to touch the person next to you."
Wait. Who's this "you"? Me? Am I suddenly inside the fiction? Are you suddenly outside of it? Either way, what a line! It's a reminder of the supreme strength and flexibility and adventure of prose, an indication that storytelling can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. As someone who plays a lot of video games, I see a question lurking in there too. When games tell stories, they tend to get very excited about narrative. Why don't they get more excited about this stuff - about narration?
It's a distinction that games were born to address. Pardon my moronic disentangling of the storytelling arts, but for the purposes of this argument let's briefly agree that, on a simple level, narrative is what happens and the structure or sequence in which it happens - and that's the kind of thing that, as we're always reminding each other, grinds terribly against player agency. Narration, though, is the whole business of telling the audience what happens. It's the perspective offered on the action, reliable or otherwise. It's freewheeling reportage in the right hands, and it can be plucked from the tyranny of narrative while still providing character, theme, and many of the other things that designers seem to want from narrative in the first place.
This is super hard, I guess, but a handful of games are already doing it. FIFA does it, if you're willing to treat the disjointed ramblings of pundits as narration and a football match itself as a story. (I am.) Call of Juarez: Gunslinger does it too, albeit with a very firm hand on the script so its sudden twists still work as planned. Looking back a bit, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time did it beautifully, if rather sparsely - each premature trip to the exit screen accompanied by an indignant cry of, "That's not how it happened!" from the leading man.
It's two other games, though, that really bring the power of narration to the fore for me. One is recent indie sensation The Stanley Parable. The other is slightly less recent indie sensation Bastion. I love them both, and between them, they show just how rich the telling part of storytelling can be for games.
On the surface, The Stanley Parable would seem to be the tricksiest example, but I think it's actually the most straightforward. Narration is employed to play jokes on the player, to point out, in a disarmingly off-the-cuff manner, how limited agency is, and how nothing in most narrative games is truly either disarming or off-the-cuff. On the surface, you're constantly moving in and out of sync with the game's plummy narrator - going through this door when he tells you to, ignoring that door when you want to mess with him. It's the game that's ultimately messing with you, though: every transgression has been foreseen, every rebellion has already been plotted. Even by hiding in a closet and doing nothing you're playing into the designer's hands, and, rather quickly, a different kind of game mechanic emerges as a result. It's one of the oldest mechanics, too: collection.
There's probably a sad indictment in here somewhere: as the game unfolds and its conceits become clear, you make the subtle switch from, can I genuinely confound the narrator's expectations? to can I find everything the designers have mapped out for me to find instead? Far from being an agent of chaos, the player merely enforces a new kind of order. We seem to need rules to keep us warm.
Bastion tells a far simpler story, but its narration is a lot more thrilling if you ask me. It's not trying to break the fourth wall so jarringly or to engage you in a philosophical debate about your own powerlessness - it's merely trying to keep up with your actions as you play a frantic isometric hack-and-slash. It's commentary, then, which should mean we're back in FIFA territory, but given the range of things you can do in Bastion - given the carnage that erupts in battles, the oaky richness of its fantasy world, and the constant tension provided by the game's questing storyline - the commentary becomes far more satisfying, approaching something that - cripes - actually feels like real storytelling.
Above all else, Bastion's a work of great delicacy and poise. It knows when to comment directly on the action, when to drop in a bit of backstory, and when to resort to non sequiturs, perfectly formed to give its world an additional tangibility. Throughout all this, though, it actually offers the inverse of The Stanley Parable's cleverly soul-sapping tricks. This is narration within a finite space that ultimately starts to celebrate player agency rather than ridicule it.
And to a large degree, it does all this by embracing fallibility. It's there when you fluff a fight instead of acing it, for example. It's there when you screw up a boss encounter or fall, awkwardly, off the edge of the world. It admonishes, chastises, and mocks you when it has to, and it does it all in a way that matches the rugged backwoods vibe of the game itself, in a manner that reinforces the fiction going on around you and makes the interaction between player and game seem like a genuine collaboration. Bastion understands that in a truly dynamic game you can't control every single thing the player's going to do, so why not just react to it instead? This allows character to trump plot - which it often does in good fiction anyway - and serves as a reminder that storytelling can sometimes be a reactionary process after all.
That's an interesting thought in itself. Before books, before films, before the read-only plotting of heavily scripted first-person shooters, maybe storytelling was a little more reactive than it is today. Back around that old campfire that narrative historians are always invoking, a storyteller would gently adapt the tale based on feedback - conscious and unconscious - from the audience. I remember reading that the heroic epithets that end so many of the sentences in Homer poems - the wine dark seas, the hollow ships - were there not merely to add description to the ships or the seas, but to provide options to the performer of the story, allowing them to juggle sentences around as their patchy memory or the particular occasion required while still being able to hit the right number of syllables to make every line work. Beneath the imagery, these little riffs were serving a base mechanical purpose: each epithet would be of a different length, meaning the poet could switch from a hollow ship to a dark-hulled ship depending on what they'd done with the sentence proceeding it.
Campfire stories are interesting things that game designers should perhaps study more often, then. Convivial, freewheeling, reactive to the moods and whims of the listener, a truly great campfire story understands that plots and twists are all very good - but the real pleasure of a narrative lies in the telling.