Ten Player Motives #9
When I talk about our motives for playing games, I am usually able to identify a clear set of emotions that show the psychological underpinnings of why we are drawn to play that way. This becomes impossible when we talk about the narrative motive, because any and all emotions can be evoked by a narrative! But it would be wrong to suggest that there is not still a clear, if you will, 'psychic shape' to our engagement with narrative. So what is it? Why do we love stories so much?
A short and lazy way of answering this question is to state that stories are the basis of the entire human operating system. We live on a daily basis within our stories - the whole idea of a 'you' as opposed to a 'me' is a framework set up by our need to tell tales about everything. We are the most imaginative beings that we know of, and our inner life consists primarily of telling stories about who we are, as individuals, as cultures, and as a species. This same impulse can be found in our relationship with games because, well, there's no escaping it! Even scientific research is absolutely built upon metaphors. (I mentioned above 'human operating system' - a loaded metaphor if ever there was one!)
But precisely because we live in a world of 'stories everywhere', we need to be careful to understand how games engage with narrative. There is a long standing belief among game developers that stories are something other than games, and that something like Final Fantasy VII is basically an animated movie cut with a combat game and an inventory management game. This interpretation is basically spot on, but it applies just as much to a game like Bioshock, which attempts to place the player right in the heart of a story that could not be adequately be told in another medium.
The danger in coming at this problem this way is that it leads to us thinking that narrative and games are different kinds of things. But if we look at games like The Sims or Nintendogs or the hugely successful Animal Crossing series, we can see that the kinds of explicit narratives that we find in games as well as movies and books aren't the only way stories make their way into our games. There is also the implicit narrative that comes from playing with a virtual doll set - and what is The Sims if not precisely this? Sure, the climax of Animal Crossing - let's say, paying off your final mortgage - is not so much a surprise as a distant goal, but we are still engaging with a fictional world with characters and events that build to a satisfying conclusion. And that's narrative. It was never just about conflict, as Hollywood screenwriters are wont to claim - it was always about uncertainty, and 'when' is just as uncertain as 'what'.
What's fascinating about how the narrative motive expresses itself through games is that we can eliminate all of the overtly 'game-like' aspects of the experience and still end up with a narrative that is not at all like a movie or a book. Dear Esther opened a brand new path here, where other games like What Remains of Edith Finch have followed. The genius of The Chinese Room's ground-breaking ghost story was to see that a game world is a canvas upon which stories are painted just as much in a walking simulator as in a so-called open world game.
Yet there is a problem that the narrative motive faces when we play games that we do not face with other narrative media like film and written stories. Games love to fool the player into believing that they have control and influence in the game world (which they do - but only of a much narrower kind that we tend to recognise). This means that, for instance, killing a character for dramatic effect, as in Final Fantasy VII, works only so much as the player is primarily letting the narrative motive draw them forward. If the player is otherwise motivated, this attempt fails because it does not feel like the player's action, it is something forced upon them.
This is the brilliance of the twist in Bioshock: it takes this essential weakness of game stories and inverts it, turns it into a knowing twist without ever breaking the fourth wall. It reminds us that it is not quite true that stories and games are two different things - it is rather that when we engage with games as stories, we have to understand and accept the strengths and limitations of this specific narrative form. And this is something that every story faces in its own way, regardless of which medium it flows through.
Next week: Agency