The Best Game Stories Are Told in the Past Tense
by Malte Skarupke
I just finished playing Analogue: A Hate Story, and it is a great game. While playing it I noticed a few patterns of game stories that I can’t find collected anywhere, so I’ll do that here then.
The main one is that the best game stories are told in the past tense. Meaning most or all of the story has taken place before the player starts playing. Bioshock does this, Portal does it, Gone Home, To the Moon and Analogue also do it. It’s easy to come up with counter examples that also have a good story (just look at Christine Love’s previous game: don’t take it personally babe, it just ain’t your story) but it’s interesting that this pattern should prove so successful in an interactive medium.
The games aren’t completely passive, the player has to do something after all. So most of these games make the player be an active participant in the story at some point, but it’s usually late enough that the outcome of the story is already obvious. As a player you can’t change what happens in Bioshock because everything has already gone to shit and you can’t reason with these people. From my list above, Gone Home is the only game where it doesn’t matter for the story whether the player is playing or not. (I actually consider this the biggest flaw in that game because there is no motivation for the player other than curiosity) In all the other games you are at least responsible for bringing the story to the closure that it would be lacking without you.
So why is this pattern so successful? It turns out that it smartly avoids at least three of the flaws that game story telling usually has:
1. It fixes the “I wouldn’t have done that” problem of forward stories. In most games there is a disconnect between what the character is doing and what I would have done. For example near the ending of Half Life 2 where you step into the cage in the citadel. That is just a stupid thing to do at that point and I wouldn’t have done that. Or all the half-assed motivations that modern games give you for having to do missions. For example early in Far Cry 3 when the doctor tells you that you have to run and collect a mushroom from an incredibly dangerous cave. My response to that and to many other quest givers in games would have been “uh no, you don’t sound reasonable. Let’s calm down for a few minutes and please explain yourself. And please explain why any of the five more reasonable alternatives that I could come up with right now wouldn’t work.”
2. It lessens the ludonarrative dissonance. Bioshock has a story about plausible characters while you are only ever interacting with insane characters. This allows the game to have a good story while the main mode of interaction is shooting. Bioshock obviously still has a large ludonarrative dissonance but it’s much less of a problem than it is in Bioshock: Infinite. In that game, as in most shooters, the disconnect between you being a murdering psychopath and the positive treatment that you get from other characters is enormous.
3. It can make the characters not seem so completely unbelievable. When my character gets hurt or traumatized, he or she always recovers immediately and goes straight back into the action. The aforementioned Far Cry 3 or the last Tomb Raider games are especially bad examples of this. The reason for this is clear: The game has to progress, and the progress has to come from the player. If you tried to make present-tense stories even slightly more plausible, they would be slow and boring to play. (The Last of Us actually solves this somewhat by allowing large amounts of time to pass when the player is not playing, which allows the characters to adjust. But that goes against the philosophy that others, like Valve and Irrational have where you try to interrupt the player as little as possible) All of this is not a problem in past-tense stories, because you can write traumatic events, and the player character is plausibly only as affected as the player is.
Setting the story in the past can also make it more fun. So here’s another pattern: All these games have in common that they show you the end of the story, the beginning of the story and then you have to figure out step by step how everything happened. Analogue nests this pattern several times in the story structure.
Above is a picture from a story block in Analogue. You have to uncover the items in this block one by one, but the piece at the beginning and the piece at the end are available first, and it is not clear how the story got from that beginning to that end. This is a pattern that you can see in a lot of media, but I think it works best in games. If the game does this well, you will understand the important plot point before the game actually shows it to you. Then you get three reactions at once: revelation, “oh that’s what must have happened,” shock “I can’t believe that happened,” and triumph “I figured it out.”And that last one, the moment of triumph can be stronger in games than it is in other media because you actually participated in uncovering the clues. The game still has to tell you what the plot point is, but only to confirm that your theory was right.
And it turns out that trying to fit the pieces together is fun gameplay. Even if it’s gameplay that’s only going on in the player’s head.
Other benefits of setting stories in the past are that it is easier and cheaper. Which can be a good thing because then you can write more story and throw bad parts away without feeling bad about wasting money.
I actually want to expand that first pattern a little more because another game by Christine Love shows how you can get the same benefits with only a little more work: The aforementioned don’t take it personally babe, it just ain’t your story. As the title suggest, much of the story in that game isn’t about you. You have some participation, but often you are an observer. This can give you all the same benefits as a past tense story and all you need is a plausible reason for why the player cares about the story, but can’t directly interact with it. In don’t take it personally babe, the reason for that is that you are a teacher and the story is about your students. You obviously care about what happens to your students, but as a teacher you aren’t supposed to get too involved in students’ private affairs. That trick may be a little bit more difficult to pull off though if the main character is a murdering psychopath, so I think the shooter genre should stick to the Bioshock 1 formula.
That being said once you realize that game stories can be better if the player is not responsible for developing the story, ideas quickly come. For example you could go in the direction of Dota-likes and build a game where your character is simply helping your side to win. This could be great for open world games. Or you could make an AI-co-op game like Bioshock Infinite or The Last of Us, but the player plays the assisting character. If you apply that idea to those two games, you’d end up with game ideas that sound a lot like they come from Peter Molydeux, but they could be awesome. (“You are locked up in a tower, but a crazy killer is trying to help you escape. You can sing and dance and have to find ammunition and money for your likeable rescuer to help him destroy the entire city.”) Or you can just write a story like Dreamfall, where things are happening around you and you can’t really change anything. (If that sentence sounds negative, let it be known that Dreamfall is one of my favourite games)
I don’t want to suggest though that all games need detachment. Clearly you can write good stories in which the player is actually driving the story. I think all you have to do is either offer lots of choice (Baldur’s Gate, The Walking Dead) or you simply have to be brilliant. (The Last of Us) But why make it so difficult for yourselves?
It kind of squanders the opportunities of doing narrative in a video game. You end up with a standard linear narrative, of the sort which might be better expressed with other mediums.
That being said, it is probably one of the best ways to bundle a compelling plot with a video game, which I have absolutely no problem with. And you can still do a bunch of game-specific things within this framework (like you mentioned, Portal and Bioshock).
I have a hunch that the trick is to just not think about plot. You don’t need plot. What you need are characters and settings.