I have been doing a lot of research into the finer points of video game narrative, plot, and story. From what I have read so far, there seems to be an overarching theme concerning narrative. Gameplay does NOT equal narrative and vice versa. This seemingly goes without saying. Gameplay, by definition, implies interaction of some kind. Narrative, on the other hand, inherently means the logical progression of events from the beginning to the end. One is a tool, the other a map. So why do I bring this up?
Seeing how stories in video games have evolved in such a short span of time, I’m wondering why our idea of the relationship between story and gameplay have remained quite rigid; gameplay allows for freedom while narrative is restrictive. Trying to take either too far in the opposite direction detracts from what makes it great; restrictive gameplay frustrates the player and open stories are labor-intensive and can lead to plots that are too convoluted or too broad. Is this just the limit of games as a whole? Too much story makes it a glorified movie we cannot control. Too little story resigns player motivation to little more than “I’m bored and this game will take away that boredom, for now.”
So what can game writers do? What is the perfect balance, the silver bullet that allows for player freedom but provides enough story to keep the player engaged for hours on end? In short, I don’t know that there is a silver bullet. Writing and game design are forms of art like any other. Subjectivity reigns supreme and each combination of game and story must be flexible enough to supplement one another as opposed to hindering each other.
My current game narrative obsession is the beautiful blood gem From Software released in early 2015: Bloodborne. It was my introduction into the infamous Souls series (Demon Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls 2, chronologically) and I have since played through the games. I am now working my way through the Bloodborne: The Old Hunters DLC slowly but surely, savoring every drop of lore that is begrudgingly revealed to me.
This is why I bring up Bloodborne, though what I have to say can be applied to the Souls series as well.
From Software has done something of which other video game development companies should take note. Their developers have taken to utilizing the negative space of gameplay and filling it with narrative.
Note: When I use the term positive and negative space, I’m referring to the following:
In the positive space (the white space) you can see the image of a vase. The negative space around the vase (the black space) reveals the image of two people facing one another. Similarly, gameplay is the vase while narrative elements are the faces.
The story is visible from the beginning of the game. Objectives are clear and the entire game can be played with the player’s freedom shaping the narrative of the player’s story. The game is enjoyable this way and can be the source of hours of entertainment. The image in the positive space is clear.
However, there is also another story for those who turn their eye to the negative space. Lore is revealed to the player primarily when the player would not be engaged in demanding forms of gameplay. The story is told in the environment as the player slowly creeps through the gothic streets of an abandoned Victorian city trying to spy the next ambush. It is told by the sparse number of non-playable characters (NPCs), any of whom can be killed accidentally or intentionally. It is told especially by the descriptions of the various items the player will acquire on their journey. To learn the significance of each item, the player must find a safe place and read the description. In many cases, most items have two short paragraphs of description: the first divulges the gameplay uses of the item and the second reveals elements of the world’s lore. To proceed with the mainly gameplay-driven experience, the player can choose to read only the first paragraph. One example is a seemingly innocuous item: the Pungent Blood Cocktail.
The use of the item is clear from the first paragraph: throw the cocktail at a specific area to attract enemies to that area.
But if the player reads the second paragraph, linger on the image of the bloody cocktail, questions may crop up. Why would a town make more blood than booze? Why would the latter be more intoxicating to people? This question leads to numerous others. Suddenly, a whole new game has opened up: a game of discovery. Now, in addition to the hack-and-slash gameplay elements obvious in the game, the player is also a detective, hunting for clues, rifling through scarce dialogue, and paying far more attention to the environment and character designs of the game. There is a new objective: uncover the hidden narrative that exists in the negative space of the game. Suddenly the narrative is the goal and discovery is the gameplay.
This is the next step in game narrative. Letting players use their freedom to integrate the joy of discovery and the narrative aspects of the game. By presenting the bulk of narrative in the negative spaces of the gameplay, two main things are possible.
- The world of the game can be made infinitely more detailed and complex. This makes the world seem more realistic which, in turn, increases player engagement.
- The players can engage with a game within a game. Lore becomes another piece of the gameplay because it is something else to interact with. It is an item to be discovered and pieced together; a collectible that depends on what the player notices and interprets.
The negative aspect of all this: the risk that players will not take the time to interact with this form of storytelling, or worse, fail to identify it entirely. Narrative design choices such as these require extensive planning and attention to detail. With all the work that is going into creating such an experience, I can imagine most development teams would want to be assured that work would be noticed. This is a reasonable concern, but an unnecessary one. In this day and age of Let’s Plays and other forms of video game discussion, word will spread about the secrets hidden in the game, much like what happened with Bloodborne. There are legions of fans who are brought together by the challenge of finding all the secrets the game has to offer.
I hope more games experiment with this form of negative space storytelling. I can see plenty of ways in which this method can be used in creative ways.