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Revenge in Videogame Stories

Question_mark_1Does anyone actually care about revenge plots in videogames?
They're plugging Red Faction: Guerrilla on TV at the moment and the advertisement makes reference to the revenge aspect of the plot ("your brother is killed"). I could not be more bored with this narrative approach. Fable II has the same motive, and for me it was by far the least interesting (and most inevitable) part of the story.

In years of interviewing and studying game players, I've never found anyone who cared about revenge plots (other kinds of stories have elicited a response, however). It strikes me that the revenge story serves solely as a narrative justification for the player to deploy unlimited violence – much as it does in Hollywood.

Don't we deserve a narrative justification for our game actions beyond “someone we're telling you that you are supposed to care about has just been killed ”?

Please share your thoughts in the comments!


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Or maybe no justification should be given at all? No explicit justification, anyway. Give me a world with complex characters that I'll come to care about, let me know the bad guys too, to some degree, and let characters good and bad have secrets that may reveal themselves over the course of the game. I'll make up my own mind about who to help and how to go about it. Classic case of showing rather than telling.

My favorite narrative device these days are the games where you don't really know much to begin with, and gradually learn about your environment as you play. The story of the world is not really focused on you, but your character is disruptive in a way that the story gradually becomes about you, and you have a growing influence over other characters as the game goes on. (I'm mostly referencing Bioshock here.) I think that aligning the player's education of the world with his avatar's helps create immersion and a more entertaining and possibly more meaningful game.

Final Fantasy X did that [the 'tell you about the world as you go bit, that is...] ... many people found it annoying. or at least, found the character who was the one finding out about it annoying. heh.

revenge as a starting point... i really couldn't care less about.

now, if they build up a really good, likable character, in the game, who you actually DO care about rather than just arbitrarily being told you should, then kill Them, it's a bit more viable. you actually kinda, care. [final fantasy VII did this a bit with Areis/Areith. (why couldn't they just spell it 'earth' to go with 'cloud' and have done? yeesh.)]

which still doesn't mean that unrestrained violence against anyone but the individual(s) actually responsible makes any sense. that said, I'm not sure it needs to for that sort of game.

so, no. can't say i care about revenge plots either.

I think betrayal makes a better revenge plot. In order for the player to care about revenge, they have to want revenge. Which means it can't be at the beginning of a game, with characters we don't care about. It's not my sister who died, just an annoying 3d model (in Fable II).

Let me develop a relationship first. Make the character necessary to my success in the game, and someone I genuinely want around. Then kill them. Or have them betray me (in a non-predictable way). Then I'll care about revenge.

There's a big difference, I think, between character and player motivations. The key as a game storyteller is to bring them into alignment, despite the basic differences between the two. Then you can have strong, emotional storytelling

I don't care about revenge plots, but I typically don't care about plot in games at all. As a child and teen, for years I would try to appreciate video game stories and pay close attention to the cutscenes/dialog, hoping that by the end of the game, something profound would have happened and made reading them worth my time. But there are only a few games that have ever inspired me to care about the characters (Final Fantasy 6 being the most notable). A couple of years ago, I started skipping cutscenes... But, that's also when I started to play more and more retro/indie/simpler games, where storyline is less important.

I doubt I will ever care about storyline in games. I generally play games for the dexterity challenge, or occasionally logistical puzzle solving.

If I want a good story, I'll read a book.

This is a really good point. I think the use of revenge in game plots definitely is a holdover from movies, and it's effective in movies largely because they can establish an emotional tone so quickly. You show some actors' faces looking happy for thirty seconds and you've got the audience feeling happy for them through sheer use of mirror neurons. If the faces suddenly turn sad, sympathy is automatic.

But as Joe Tortuga pointed out, feeling for your avatar isn't the same thing as feeling for a character. You can show a sad face in a cutscene, but when the cutscene's over, I don't think players connect those emotions to the body they control in a straightfoward way.

I definitely agree with just Scott; if I want a good story I'll go read a book. I'm having to force myself to read the quest text and watch the cutscenes in my current MMO so that I actually know what is going on. I have been more and more preferring puzzle games, games with little plot, because usually I am looking for compelling gameplay. I haven't quite got to the point of ignoring any game that has a well developed theme; but the number of simple games or bejewelled clones I've seen that try to spin it a different way using only theme are pushing me closer to this decision.

I guess too many games just try to tack on a story without putting much effort into the integration, and it shows and puts me off stories in games as a whole.

Interesting comments here...

I will note that the majority of players do care about story in videogames, or at least state that a good story can improve their enjoyment of a game. The players who aren't interested in stories in game spaces are a real minority.

I agree with Joe that betrayal is a better motivator in a game than "pre-fab" revenge... but even this can be hard to make play. I find so often that the circumstances that dictate the format of a videogame dictate how the story must go - which makes storytelling in videogames extremely difficult to take into new places.

(How many times have you fought your way to the McGuffin only to have the bad guys appear in a cut scene and take it from you? This is an obvious solution to the problem of making a narrative to go with a videogame structure, but it gets old fast).

For me, even in Hollywood the revenge motivation has become stale... The killing of the parent/spouse/sibling/offspring begins to feel inevitable. Why let yourself become emotionally attached to a character you know is going to be sacrificed to the plot? But then, I appreciate the average movie watcher does not approach stories with the same detachment I am showing here! :)

The thing is, I will let myself get very swept up in a movie plot - provided the characters and the story are allowed to develop naturally. I'm struggling to think of a case of a revenge story doing this, although I'm sure there must be one.

As for Shaan's idea "I'll make up my own mind about who to help and how to go about it" - the trouble with this is that allowing for multiple actions and paths to support this kind of player agency in the plot is very expensive indeed, and hard to do well. Some other aspect of the narrative space has to be constrained in order to allow for the player to have sufficient agency.

As ever with narrative design, it's challenging to make stories that work well when the constraints of videogame structure get in the way! It can be done, but most games don't even try.

Thanks for the comments everyone!

But the real story in a game is not about why you play, but what happens as a consequence of the things you do. At least this is my informal view on game story.

The player will not care for a cause from a dictated story, the player will care for the resulting state changes. However the dictated story has value to the player by strengthening the symbolism of the players action which is an important part of the experience.

The revenge story might work better if you turn it around on the player?

Oskar: While many players enjoy the implicit narrative that emerges from player actions, it's a shocking truth of the industry as a whole that the mass market players (in general) are more comfortable being *told* a story than creating one - hence the popularity of the Japanese RPG format.

I suspect that to create one's own narrative requires more imagination and talent than to simply play in someone else's. But then, The Sims - which is all implicit narrative - does seem to contradict this claim.

I'm curious, though: how would one "turn the revenge story around on the player?"

Best wishes!

The Sims is unusual, though, in that it is essentially playing with dolls - in a large and increasingly complex doll's house, but it's still a recognisable world. Playing with dolls is something that most children appear to be able to do; perhaps the familiar space makes up for the lack of explicit narrative?

(As an aside, I loathe The Sims in much the same way that I loathe soap operas - why on earth would I want to look into others' lives in that way? This may mean that my comments on the subject are somewhat biased!)

I'll make a try and see if I can describe what I am after with the idea of turning the story around on the player.

But first yes, I also like a good narrative story told through a game production. What I see in these stories is clearly well associated with the game context but from my way of looking at it it is not the game system which communicates this story. The line is blurred tho, often the story is stimuli and feedback packaged in a big chunk of data. As stimuli and feedback it is integraded with the game system but often the emotional response to these stories is delivered with the craftsmanship which comes from other art forms. A game of chess also tells its plyer a story but this story is much tighter connected to the game pieces, state and system.

Now back to the revenge story.

As you started with the revenge story has a good purpose: "a narrative justification for the player to deploy unlimited violence".

The more interesting way of turning this around which I imagine is to make the game seek revenge on the player. Perhaps start the story with a player who is stuck in some kind of puzzle, to solve the puzzle the player has to commit a dastardly act against the game. The game may connect the victim of the dastardly act to a network of agents who now have a metaphorical cause to bring unlimited violence down on the player. What can the player do to win this game? Maybe this could be an interesting lesson that could be learned about resolving conflicts?

I might have seen tendencies of this type of storytelling in some games a long time ago but I can't remember anyone sticking to it. I believe it easily becomes boring or repulsive to the player so the actual structure might need to be hidden behind a more conventional metaphore.

Anyway, did this make any kind of sense?

Peter: "Playing with dolls is something that most children appear to be able to do; perhaps the familiar space makes up for the lack of explicit narrative?"

Yes, I'm convinced of this. Dollplay (or "action figure play" since boys are not permitted to like dolls! :p) is so universal that it's easy for players to connect to it. I tried to do something like this with Ghost Master, but of course the stories being told their in implicit narrative were hauntings! :)

Oskar: yes, I see what you are getting at now. I think this kind of story would work well as a videogame "short story" - but of course, we don't really make these. There's too much work involved in building the resources, I suppose. Perhaps as the tools improve and it becomes easier to produce videogames and videogame narratives it might get easier.

Thanks for the detailed explanation!

We see it in online games sometimes. A guild leader in WoW who is headhunting the other guilds is statistically likely to bring unlimited social violence down on himself by other agents in the game, namely the other guild leaders and their loyal followers.

This is often a very interesting time for the involved players but it is also destructive and tends to make some players quit, at least temporarily.

And thanks for the reply! :-)

Oskar: isn't this kind of dynamic narrative situation supposed to be what MMORPGs are good at delivering? ;)

Take care!

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