Three Indie games, three ways of handling story

Last week I wrote on storytelling in MMORPGs and why I think there should be less telling going on in this genre in particular. Judging from the passionate discussions this topic sparked in my comment section as much as on other blogs (such as over at Nils, Bhagpuss, Rowan, Tesh,  Soresu or Eri), it’s  become apparent that many of us feel strongly about this subject and how MMOs should deal with it. It’s probably a fair guess too that most of us actually want stories, so the games we play need to allow and in some cases (such as lore) prepare for them. Interestingly enough, the debates also showed a wide consensus insofar as that many of today’s MMORPGs (which feature heavy exposition) fail in this regard and don’t sufficiently challenge player imagination. I find this rather noteworthy.

On the weekend I’ve played through another indie game, called Proteus. I hadn’t heard about this title previously and went into the whole experience, a term which certainly applies here, unbiased and without expectations. It so happens that Proteus is another antithesis to how story is delivered in many of today’s games, making a perfect addition to a follow-up I’ve been meaning to write on indie games which handle story a little differently. If you find yourself generally curious about different narrative approaches in videogames and are looking to delve further into this subject, I can highly recommend playing these and I will attempt to summarize for you in which way each game tackles story and includes the player in the narrative process (if at all).

Before I get to this though, it’s important to briefly cover my bases as far as definitions go. There is always some wiggling room for interpretation in terminology, but generally when I refer to lore, story or story-telling, my meaning is this:

  • Lore: lore is the unspoken framework of the world. It’s its past and history and is (or should be ) all around you. In the real world lore shows itself via culture, language, architecture, art etc. The same applies to plausible virtual worlds. There is much more to lore than reading books or hearing a story told by elders.
  • Story/Narrative: while a story can be “told” (or narrated), the most engaging stories are the ones that are not explained but developed, discovered, unearthed and experienced step by step. Story happens inside the recipient’s mind and can be achieved in many different ways, to different effect. In games, the player should be part of an experience rather than just a reader.
  • Story-telling: the most direct way to communicate story is via spelling it out for someone, in written or spoken text. This applies to random stories as much as lore and is rarely the best way (and certainly the least engaging or immersive way) to include the player (=/ players are not “audience”).

 
With that out of the way, let’s continue with the way each of the games below handles story. I vow to keep this on a conceptual level and to steer clear of big, bad spoilers as much as possible.

A) “Journey”

journey

Journey is a game of no words, featuring incidental but non-verbal player interaction. While the player is set on an unknown (but essentially linear) path through a visually stunning, limited open world of soft pastels, the only rough guidance comes in the form of paintings on ancient ruin walls, occasional riddles/triggers or NPC presence. Gameplay mechanics are limited to few commands. The player is an errant wanderer, the goal is unclear.

How story is created in Journey: Journey is all about lore. While linear in essence, the game offers more or less opportunities to marvel at details found in the environment and speculate on what appear to be remnants of ancient civilization. Between “zones”, the player’s journey is recapped in form of animated mural artwork. There is a beautiful conclusion (or interpretation) to Journey although it is as much a beginning as an end.

Do I feel like a part of Journey’s story? – Yes. Do I feel as if I am driving the narrative? – Yes.

B) “Dear Esther”

esther

Without intending to make a quality statement, Dear Esther is a title I would call more book than game. It’s visualized story-telling in which the player gets to travel strange landscapes of the mind or memory, with narrated monologues by someone else (or maybe not). The player’s path is therefore limited and gameplay in the traditional sense is virtually non-existent. The vistas you travel are tied to the information given as the story moves along.

How story is created in Dear Esther: despite being narrated, Dear Esther presents the player with more questions than answers. The story is hard to follow, text consists of non-expository, ambiguous and often unclear snippets which need to be puzzled together and leave much room for interpretation. While Dear Esther is all about the narration, it leaves much guesswork to the player. The conclusion is a riddle in itself, leaving the player wondering how much of a part he truly had in what’s been told.

Do I feel like a part of Dear Esther’s story? – I’m still figuring this one out. Do I feel as if I am driving the narrative? – Not really.

C) “Proteus”

proteus

Proteus is both a game of very limited gameplay as well as minimalistic graphics, putting emphasis on music and sound effects. Cast away on a strange small island, the player gets to move around freely in an attempt to map and explore the natural habitat, including few mysterious ruins scattered across the place. Acknowledgement of player existence is given through sound effects and some NPC reactions. Other than that, there is nothing to be “learned”, no particular path to be taken nor any other action possible in order to “move things forward”. Proteus is literally about (patiently) experiencing the flow of time and its impact on the environment.

How story is created in Proteus: as there’s neither narration nor lore worth mentioning, Proteus is an extreme example of leaving gaps in story. The experience is literally about being there and biding one’s time. While player action or presence seems insignificant, there is still change happening in the world which can be detected and interpreted. Ultimately, Proteus delivers a conclusion similar to Journey’s although much more timidly so. Story in this game is whatever you choose to tell yourself.

Do I feel like a part of Proteus’ story? – No. Do I feel as if I am driving the narrative? – No.

My personal conclusion

Of the three games, Proteus proved to be my greatest challenge. It’s bewildering to “play” a game which hardly acknowledges your presence and generally offers no way of participation. The same could be said for Dear Esther, yet there purpose gets clear from the beginning and the game still offers the player a weak sense of driving chapters forward, if not the actual story. Proteus on the other hand comes with a sense of open world and seems to follow its own timer; while the world changes around you, there’s a feeling of helplessness or lack of understanding that I personally found unnerving. To me it felt like shouting into a well with no echo. I had a very hard time engaging myself where there was so little to engage yourself with (and the island is too small to explore for a long time). I cannot say that I found any story worth telling despite there being a final “conclusion”.

No doubt there are players who would disagree with me on Proteus and whose experiences differs greatly. Maybe players who also dig the musical aspect of the game which I found annoying after a while. This is the interesting part though: the way we experience games tells much about ourselves. Proteus strained my patience and frustrated my impulses for activity. It showed that just wandering a world influenced by time is not enough for me and won’t satisfy my wish for story in games. To be fair, the game is stripped of almost everything. At the very least it could do with some more lore but that’s my opinion.

That experience also confirmed I need some traditional gameplay and means of interaction to enjoy myself; in Proteus, the concept of the “player” is reduced to a point where I found it difficult to feel emotion or attachment (can there be such a thing if the “self” is removed?). This is not just due to the lack of visible avatar (which is the case in Dear Esther too); the game makes a point of how unimportant you are as an entity. You might as well be a hovering, maneuverable camera taking wildlife shots. No thanks – but it sure was an experience.

Journey remains my favorite for overall accomplishment and story – although I would pay for more games coming forward and expanding on Dear Esther’s concept. Journey achieves a stunning balance between player inclusion and leaving gaps, showing story rather than telling it. It features enough gameplay to retain a sense of driving things forward while the player remains a wonderer, wanderer and puzzler within a much greater tale. It’s the game I therefore also found the most immersive and the only one I have replayed. Unfortunately Journey remains PS3-only (worth borrowing the console if you don’t own it!). Both Dear Esther and Proteus can be acquired on Steam.

I recommend all of them if you’re looking to blow your narrative mind sometime and also to test the limits of your very personal notions of what constitutes game. You never know what you may discover.

6 comments

  1. Thanks for the mention!

    I love Journey. I wish the PS3 had a screenshot function. If someone were to use my wandering as a narrative journal, it would be a very different one from the journey my daughter took. Even my wife laughed at me a little (genially) as I just kind of footled around, intentionally avoiding the clearer hints of what direction to go in. It really was all about my journey. The overarching world is definitely linear, but there is a lot of wiggle room, and oddments to find if you go exploring. I think of it as a sort of “bounded chaos”, where there are clear milestones and boundaries, but there’s room to experiment a bit.

    As for Dear Esther, I went into it knowing it was more of a “walkthrough novel” than a game. I’m OK with that though, since again, it’s bounded, but I can meander as I please within those bounds, and there’s no time pressure. There’s a path, but I can just look around. It almost feels like a hike with a narrator, and that’s exactly the sort of relaxing experience I need sometimes.

    I haven’t tried Proteus. I might need to rectify that. I’d suggest that Shadow of the Colossus is in a similar vein, where you have some clear tasks and story beats, but you can just pick a direction and go… thataway. The Elder Scrolls games have a similar feel (which is why shoehorning the IP into a bog standard MMO is a travesty… but I digress a bit).

    Anyway, I do think that Journey and Dear Esther hit some sweet spots, and I’m glad to see that sort of world in gaming. Sometimes I want a *game*, like Puzzle Quest, sometimes I want a *cinematic RPG* sort of thing, like a Kingdom Hearts or Final Fantasy, and sometimes I just want to meander, like in Journey or Minecraft. Most importantly, though, it’s those games where I’m free to wander that I have the most memorable experiences in a lot of the time, simply because I’m the author of what happens.

    1. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts on Proteus. :) I think comparing it to SotC would be way too generous, hehe….there is stuff to do in SotC and as you say, some clear tasks and pieces of story. Proteus has none of that. It’s rather surreal. I have a lot of imagination to go around but there’s such a thing as too little for me, too.

      I would definitely love to see more games à la both Journey and Esther. The latter can still be improved on and why not make it a much longer story? I love books, so I’m all up for that. It’s just a pity that while both these games garnered much attention and prices, in the end they weren’t commercially successful. so seeing more such titles come along seems unlikely. =/

  2. Nice article! I tried Dear Esther, and got completely lost and, frankly, bored with it very quickly. Perhaps there was some “trigger” event that would have propelled me to keep going, but I never really found it.

    Since I am largely a PC games, I never got to play/try Journey. My suspicion is, however, that I would not have gotten to the end. If one were to draw a spectrum, with “no narrative/story” on the one end, and a fully scripted “story game” (SWTOR?) on the other, I would lean toward the latter as something that I enjoy. Perhpas it my game conditioning that I prefer to have some action while I am “spoon fed” the story.

    Having said the above, however, I am really turned off by games that don’t get me involved in the characters and a reason to do something to help them. So pure action games just don’t cut it for me.

    1. I can’t remember a particular trigger event in DE, so you probably didn’t miss out on that one. ;) Journey is wonderful and unlike the other two games, it has gameplay in a traditional sense, so who knows – maybe you would’ve made it!
      I understand not being into this type of games though. my partner is a big PC gamer himself and favors games à la Farcry or Borderlands (where there is also more open world freedom but clear story and dialogue).

  3. Thanks for the mention and for continuing this series of posts. You are dissecting the subject rather well.

    Like Adaram, I am not much of a console-type, so it is unlikely I will check out Journey, but I have played my share of these free-exploration games, relying on beautiful visuals, music and sporadic clues – all the way back to Myst, in fact. My record with them is mixed. Like you, I appreciate it when a game respects my ability to connect the dots and infer from subtle context (in the MMO sphere, The Secret World won me over completely with this) but if nothing emerges beyond a certain point, I grow impatient for action, and for some meaning to my wandering.

    Having unimpeded agency in any kind of world is unnatural, and inevitably results in a kind of deserted island feeling. Soothing, but also melancholy. Real freedom requires something to work with, parameters that can be exceeded and boundaries that can be crossed.

    On the other hand, I am generally not too worried about being taken along for an over-scripted, passive ride, because I’m a chronic customiser. If there is any way to bring some whimsy to the situation, I will usually find it. In the worst case, it ends up being an interactive book – Yes, No to your questions – which can be an acceptable experience if the story is interesting enough.

    1. “Real freedom requires something to work with, parameters that can be exceeded and boundaries that can be crossed.”

      That’s a very good point. to experience freedom at its fullest, there must be boundaries one can cross, little secrets and workarounds one can discover. I like the freedoms I have in Skyrim, also in terms of interacting with the environment, but they’re still confined within a context. If anything goes in a game, then well…we’re arriving at something that resembles Minecraft. and that one is very popular but popular with a very specific bracket of players.

      I never got into Myst (if I remember correctly there were some scientific puzzles involved that frustrated me greatly) but a friend of mine was a die-hard fan at the time it came out. fun times :) thanks for your comment!

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