2/04/2013

Why Dark Souls have better narrative than Heavy Rain

Lately I have been stumbling upon the topic of narrative in gaming way too often to ignore it any longer. I keep hearing that "Uncharted has a nice story" or that "Story in Skyrim is irrelevant" - well, to be fair, I myself happened to say similar things on several occasions, greatly simplifying the argument. Let's take a closer look at the narrative itself and how its meaning gets confused so often.

Elements of narrative are nothing else than all the means by which the story is being told. Narrative was most probably first defined in literature and, since literature - in vast majority of cases - consists of words, narrative practically equalled everything that was written. Theatre and cinema added new means of narrative - the visuals and sounds. Narrative ceased to be delivered only by words. Games went another step farther. They added gameplay mechanics and player interaction as narrative means. Unfortunately, a lot of people keep thinking in a very outdated way: narrative = words. 

Image insolently stolen from Charlene Chua. Click to go to her blog!
This leads to major misunderstandings. The biggest one is calling a whole bunch of games "story-driven". Since everything in the game (visuals, audio, cutscenes, interface, gameplay mechanisms, lore, notes, etc.) is - whether you like it or not - delivering a story, most of the games are "story-driven". Yes, sure, Q3 Arena matches are probably an exception, but I wouldn't say that Journey or Shadow of the Colossus are less story-driven than Resident Evil or Uncharted just because characters speak less. Don't get me wrong - there are games that we can call story-driven. Those are the games where the core esthetic is the story itself. Where the story plays main role. What I'm saying is it doesn't have to be full of cutscenes, cliffhangers and story twists, or dialogues for that matter.  

Unfortunately, since gamers and journalists rarely stop and think about the story delivered by mechanics or game environment, game developers also often associate the story with cutscenes and dialogues. As a result, linearity of the game gets to be measured by the number of dialogue choices rather than how open the world is. When you are reading a fantasy novel, you get through whole chapters describing how the main character crawls through a dungeon, finding treasures, fighting monsters and avoiding traps. Nobody has any doubts that it is pure narrative and an integral part of the story. Now imagine an identical RPG - you are crawling through the dungeon, fighting and looting, getting hit by an occasional spike trap. You are inside this story! Even better! You are helping to write it! And then what? Then you say to yourself "ok, let's get back to the village and get some story progress". You were progressing a story, dumbass! Why are you depriving yourself of your input in the game's narrative? Cutscene that awaits in the village is pre-defined, standard, generic. What you did was awesome, unique and way more dependent on you. 

And this brings us to the topic of this post. I admit, it was made as an eye-catcher, but I still stand by it. Dark Souls, the game that is rumored to have some decaying remains of a story here and there. In the other corner: Heavy Rain - an interactive movie where our choices and performance in Quick Time Events change the course of the story. When it comes to the story itself, Heavy Rain delivers it straight in your face, it can be digested much easier and is probably presented in a more interesting way. There is no doubt story is what this game is all about. Heavy Rain gives the player a feeling of relevance of his actions and offers a wide variety of ways to reach the goal that isn't even clearly defined and - depending what you do in the game, the end result can differ drastically. However, let's focus on a big picture here. Heavy Rain is based on a limited number of predefined sets of emotions delivered to the player by a series of interactive cutscenes. While in most cases the characters are behaving rationally, there are moments where mechanics - one of the most important means of narrative in games - just can't deliver. Let's even ignore the moments when you want to feed the kid and end up walking around, bashing kitchen cabinets with your head like a retard, trying to get hold of the crappy interface while the camera jumps between angles. Look at the scene where you loose the kid in the crowd. The camera clearly shows you the boy is getting away. Your common sense says "catch the little bastard, put it on a leash and pay". The mechanics say "ooooooopen the waaaaallet... paaaaaaay theeeee veeeeendor" and all this time you are looking at this clumsy piece of shit you are supposed to identify with and realize that there is something terribly wrong in the scene. What you just witnessed was bad narrative. Unfortunately, Heavy Rain is filled with ridiculous moments like this. Luckily, these narrative mishaps don't ruin the story, but make it very hard to stay engaged sometimes.



Let's have a look at Dark Souls now - a heroic story of inhuman struggle in the land of the undead. All actions of yours, even those most repetitive, progress the story. The story of you - the player - taking up the challenge. The story that is never broken by some unfitting, event-based mechanics. Story that depends on your choices, as you can determine your own route and face the challenges in multiple ways. There are no cutscenes in which the hero over- or underachieves compared to the normal gameplay. There are no cutscenes taking control for some higher purpose of "storytelling" and putting words into your hero's mouth. The interactions with NPCs are non-invasive. None of them decides anything for you and you can kill each and every one of them if you desire. As you repeat the same sections of the map over and over, the game tells a story of continuous progress of your skill. When you arrive in Anor Londo you don't need any NPC by your side to say "Praise the Sun!" - you will say it yourself. And most importantly, no matter what happens in the game, you will never have this awkward moment of "why is my character doing or saying something I don't want it to do?". This is exactly what a good narrative is. 

Even this parody strip tells a story of the "storyless" Dark Souls.



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