Editorial: Episodic Storytelling and Video Games

The thing that strikes this writer most upon the conclusion of Dragon Age: Origins is how… light… the game feels for such a deep game. Compared with epics of this year and yesteryear, the game feels abbreviated, as if the stopping of a single Blight somehow fails to encompass even the first chapter of a much larger, more expansive world.

Of course, the title of the game gives an indication of why this is so: this is a game about “origins” stories, the beginnings of characters that will soon be thrust into the wider spotlight.

This method of episodic storytelling dovetails quite nicely with the sequel-driven format of many video games. While some critics bemoan this as a “lack of originality” by revisiting characters, locales and themes that have thrilled players in the past, there is an entirely consistent, logical explanation for this.

At one time, storytelling was primarily about what happened, and not about who was doing it. The rise of the modern novel changed the focus of storytelling from grand myths (think Homer, the Greek, not the beer-swilling rube of The Simpsons) to fragmentary, individualized relations of experience from the viewpoint of people (think Dostoevsky, the morose Russian).

Elric of Melnibone
Elric of Melnibone

Our video games have similarly become character-focused. Kratos from God of War or Mario or Link or any number of iconic characters can appear and reappear in various games, and instantly, players will feel a familiarity, a connection. Consider character-driven novels, such as Michael Moorcock’s “Elric” novels or Scott Lynch’s “Gentleman Bastards” series: fans of the characters are more willing to pick up the next Elric adventure without knowing more about the plot than that it contains the Melnibonean sorcerer-king with the soul-stealing blade. Why? Because it is the character of Elric that we are drawn to, not Moorcock’s plotting, excellent though it is.

This article on Game Pro discussing the (in the author’s view) improper use of game-driven storytelling in the television program Heroes is illustrative of someone that fails to appreciate this method.

Anyone that has followed the Heroes “plot” (such as it is) knows that the driving force behind it is the characters and their shifting attitudes and relationships to each other. Those seeking a LOST-esque mythology that means more than any individual character are invariably frustrated with slow plotting and character development of a character-focused show. Heroes creator Tim Kring explains:

You never really know where you’re going–you’re only seeing as far as your headlights all the time, so you can keep readjusting.

This kind of storytelling, a more open-ended approach, has drawbacks: there is a tendency to lose focus and get mired in a dead end narrative. On the other hand, it is much more organic and easier to avoid the Dickensian series of amazing coincidences that make up a more traditional narrative.

What say you? Do episodic games with repeated sequels such as Mass Effect or Gears of War thrill you, or do you prefer more traditionally-narrated games with long and involved story lines that are self-contained?

7 comments

  1. As someone who has read the Ender’s Game series and witnessed first hand the anguish of a story who’s body is racked with terminal sequel-itis I have to side with self-contained stories. though I have read, and enjoyed, edisodic stories.

    truthfully the only literary devices I truly hate would be deus ex machina and melodrama. I hated FFVIIs story.

  2. Ender’s Game is something a bit uncharacteristic; a true literary novel from an author that only occasionally has flashes of brilliance. I read it and Speaker for the Dead in a single sitting, and was amazed by how fresh and vibrant a voice Card had. Then I read Xenocide and the other books in the series and grew more and more disillusioned, much like I did with Herbert’s Dune series. Other Card series like Alvin Maker or the Return to the Earth series also had high-concept moments, but fell flat because Card lacks the literary chops to really elevate them.

    I feel your pain with FFVII; that, to me, was when the games started focusing on technical brilliance and gameplay rather than storytelling. Let’s face it: FFIV and FFVI were by-the-numbers 16-bit RPGs: barely passable graphics, plain animations, although they did have very excellent music.

    A game that uses good storytelling, much like a good novel with an excellent prosity, will be forgiven technical or presentation limitations. This is one of the things I think episodic storytelling can help: by making each game a self-contained part of a larger whole and focusing on immersion within the character, some of the wider world can be left up to the imagination rather than exposed at once.

    Consider Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth stories and novels: Vance will name drop a person, place or historical fact with no explanation at all of what they are. The reason Vance can get away with this is that it tantalizes and teases us with hints of a wider setting, rather than browbeating us into seeing his world through the use of exposition. We know these facts not because we’re told them but because the narrator, in whose point of view we are subsumed, knows them.

    I hate to go back to Dragon Age here, but the hints it gives of a rich and detailed history, dropping names like “Tevinter” and “Andraste” evokes that same kind of thrill. We care about these things not because the game makes us (indeed, they are rather ancillary to the main plot) but because some of our party members are devout of Andraste or tied to the ancient Imperium.

  3. I hate, hate, hate episodic gameplay.
    It stirs in me a PRIMAL REVULSION. I’m not sure why. Probably because I am impatient and I hate having to wait for story resolution. GIVE IT TO ME ALL ON ONE DISC, BASTARDS!

  4. I hate having to wait to find out what happens next on a TV show… Why the hell do people think its a good idea to do this with Video games? Especially when it takes a month between episodes to be released.

  5. @Lusi & Oyashiro – c’mon, don’t hold back. tell us how you really feel.

    @Lane – I like your line of thinking. this may not be the best example since these games have very little story but Fumito Ueda’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus give off that same kinda feeling your talking about. In those games very subtle hints are dropped usually without even using words. I remember the moment of dawning comprehension when I saw the Queen in Ico and noticed that she looked very much like Mono in SotC, who had been sacrificed for having a cursed fate. though I’m not sure if most would call those episodic.

    I would also like to add info dumping to the list of literary devices I hate.

  6. As well you should be for the Last of the Dragon Emperors. Homeboy has a fucking soul-stealing sword. That he wants to get rid of, but can’t, because he’s some sort of genetic defect and is weak without the sustenance it provides.

Comments are closed.