Games are often touted by their proponents as being a medium that opens up narrative doors that were previously inaccessible. Unlike literature or film, games offer players ways to interact with stories, characters and settings that take us from passive observers to active participants.
However, in games as in anything else, the concept doesn’t always live up to the execution. Over the years, we’ve developed a mainstay of narrative tropes and delivery methods. Some of these are efficient and successful, while others are crutches developers lean on. Here are some of the most overused narrative conventions that games would do well to give the boot.
I get it. World-building is hard. Game writers create vast, sprawling universes with deep, rich backgrounds and histories, and it’s hard to cram all that nuance into a 10-hour linear game. Somewhere along the way, someone decided that audiologs were a good solution to the problem of narrative delivery. The problem with audiologs is that they’re often situated within games that strive for realism, or at least narrative believability. But when was the last time you sat down—especially in a crisis situation such as the violent revolt tearing down an underwater utopia—and took time to a) record a statement clearly outlining the history of events leading up to your current situation, and b) carefully hide said recording in a toilet, trash can, wall safe or other stealthy cache just waiting for a nameless wanderer to stumble upon?
Audiologs are lazy storytelling. They’re the game equivalent of showing and not telling. It’s a way for writers to cram in as much exposition as they want without having to fit the information into the narrative in a way that makes sense. Audiologs are perhaps number one on my personal list of greatest videogame narrative sins because they’re a not-so-subtle admission that the writer couldn’t figure out any other way to convey that information to players.
2. Unreliable narrators
We’ve seen this before. You navigate your way through a videogame, digesting bits of plot and interacting with characters, only to find that at the end, nothing was as it seemed. Either the protagonist was an amnesiac (Amnesia), mentally ill (Silent Hill) or even senile (Ether One). Don’t get me wrong—the unreliable narrator trope is a great way to frame certain stories. But in videogames, it tends to get used cheaply, like an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist. By throwing the revelation that your character has been flawed from the start and nothing is real, developers can justify completely turning a narrative and hours of plot and characterization on its head on a dime.
3. Silent protagonists
Like most tropes that end up criminally overused, the idea of the silent protagonist was born out of an interesting idea. After all, providing players with a tabula rasa onto which they can project their own identities, thoughts and even dialogue seems like a great way to increase engagement with a game and help players feel like they’re even more a part of the story.
This may work for narratively simplistic games like Half-Life—by all accounts the principal champion of silent protagonist games—but it’s easy for writers to overlook the fact that stories with narrative depth and complexity rely on characters. Silent protagonists are, by definition, non-characters. By leaving the nature of their interactions with the fictional world’s inhabitants up to the imagination of players, developers are sacrificing narrative precision and essential characterization. It’s the equivalent of trying to field a football team without a quarterback—you’re missing an essential part of what makes the whole thing work.
4. Piecemeal narrative
One of the chief problems when writing a story for a videogame—especially a multi-hour, big-budget game—is how to take a finite amount of plot and stretch it across dozens of hours of game. One solution, especially in the horror and suspense genre, is to break the story up into tiny chunks and feed it to players over a protracted period, punctuating hours of action or puzzle-solving with the next link in the narrative chain.
Granted, this trope certainly can work. Games like Gone Home, for instance, which are pure, liquid narrative, are at their core about the process of uncovering the story. In such examples, the act of playing the game and the act of unraveling the narrative are one and the same. But all too often this method gets leaned on to a game’s detriment. The Talos Principle, a game that is by all rights about solving puzzles, offers its narrative (such as it is) in drips and dribbles across a variety of delivery methods, from audiologs to information terminals. But there is a fundamental disconnect between how the players solve the puzzles and the narrative slowly being revealed to them. In this light, the puzzles become little more than interactions intended to pad out the narrative, while the plot and its presentation become the sole reward for continuing the game.
Every fiction writer knows the maxim “show don’t tell.” In other words, paint a picture that lets your readers see what’s happening rather than explaining it to them second-hand. In games, this is one step removed to “do don’t show.” The interactivity of games is their greatest strength, and any sequence that takes away from that to present players with what’s effectively a short film is a missed opportunity.
There are so many ways to establish character and setting within a game without even a single line of dialogue. Level design, the types of interactions and controls available to players and even subtle background elements can all come together to tell the story of a fictional place or present a character’s background or insight into their mindset. Some games have abandoned cinematic cutscenes for the “scripted sequence,” which are basically cutscenes that allow the player to walk around. While this is a step in the right direction, developers and writers could benefit greatly from turning away from dialogue and expository narrative and instead investing more in visual storytelling.
Patrick Lindsey is a Boston-based game critic and occasional developer. He writes his bios in the third person because that’s what everyone else does. He reluctantly claims responsibility for what you will find on Twitter @HanFreakinSolo.