Warning: This post contains spoilers for both Final Fantasy VII and Bioshock.
It’s not really much of a secret that the majority of video games have, at best, a subpar narrative, and who could blame them? Story has to nestle within gameplay, human emotion in all its intricacies has to be mimicked by way of keyboard and mouse, and to ensure the game is giving enough bang for its buck, it has to be far longer than nearly every other form of entertainment. Once the plot gets heavier than ‘there is a princess, she’s been kidnapped, go save her,’ there’s a million things to account for. Why is the protagonist doing what they’re doing? Is the reasoning justified? Can the player relate? Does the gameplay make the game a reality? Are causes and consequences logical? Is there a good reason for a sequel?
So welcome to Once Upon a game, where every fortnight I will walk you through the successes and failures of narrative in gaming.
I’ll jump into cliche and start at the end, because endings are the most important part of any story. Like an inverse pyramid, all the content has to trickle down into a last paragraph, a finishing line, and a final point. In books such as Shogun, The Beautiful and the Damned or 1984 (or if it makes you more comfortable, in animes like Lelouch of the Rebellion or Desert Punk), the entirety of the story relies of the last words, or the final scene, to justify the existence and meaning of the rest. While the journey up to this point may prove thought-provoking or entertaining, it’s their finales that provide that all-important sense of closure; something that we are programmed to find as human beings.
It’s almost impossible to compare narrative in games to other mediums though, as the level and type of investment that goes into gaming is so alien. You are not simply viewing the character/s in question. You are them, controlling their movements, who they talk to, when they get somewhere, what they look like, how they behave and what their moral codes are. Even in the simplest of games, like the original Mario, you could jump on all the koopas, turning Mario into a man bent on vengeance, or bypass them; Mario’s intentions now firmly fixed on one objective: get to the princess. Your interactions with the game and the character define that character in some way, no matter how you justify it in your own head. You control their motives but not how they are perceived.
Because the character in the game and the player are two sides of the same coin, truly great endings must satisfactorily summarise the story and justify the players investment. While it might make me sound like a fanboy, one of the best game endings occurred in Final Fantasy VII. I’ll wait for you to watch the video above. Done? Good! Now, the reason why this is a great ending is because both player and character are united in their inability to stop the events unfolding, ie, to stop the meteor from crashing into earth. This shared circumstance blurs the line between the two parties, every hour of levelling up becoming synonymous with Cloud’s struggles, empathy burning as you watch what you fought for about to be destroyed. To neatly seal the story, instead of seeing a direct ending where the planet survives and everyone stands around high-fiving and patting each other’s butts, it cuts to a scene showing that Midgar had remained untouched, and the planet was no worse off. Your fight was worthwhile, and that the work of both yourself and your character meant that the planet could continue without either presence being needed.
It may seem a little bit meta, but that’s why gaming will inevitably become the best way to tell stories. The separation between protagonist and observer is skewed to a point where it’s impossible to see where one begins and one ends.
Funnily enough, one of the most disappointing game endings is in one of the best structured and told stories in gaming history – Bioshock. I don’t mean the final boss battle (which didn’t help), but that the main strength and focus of the story was, at the end, completely disregarded. You played through Bioshock as a mute blindly taking orders, cast strictly into the role you take every time you play a game. You, the mute, blindly following the games prompts. The insane, beautiful twist that you didn’t really have any other choice but to obey worked on so many different levels. Levels that cannot be achieved by any other medium.
As you beat Fontaine, your previous actions concerning the Little Sisters dictates whether you go to the surface to raise twenty prepubescent girls or take over the world. Before this point, you have no idea what your character is like. He has no free will and was created around a week or so before the ‘crash’. If he took control, there is absolutely no way of logically figuring out what he would do. If you saved the girls, your benevolence doesn’t necessarily translate to his. As an empty shell, the only input he’s ever experienced has been yours, so any action he performs without you are a complete mystery and unjustified.
In saving them, our shell takes the Little Sisters to the surface where they grow up, marry and stay by your hospital bed as you die. Leaving aside the fact that he had to somehow look after a host of girls with no work experience and what we’d have to assume was a tragically underdeveloped mind, why did he do that? What did he know about the surface? Did he think they would be able to adjust to the surface? How did he know the surface was safe? Why did he make the decision? What was his plan if it failed? How was he capable of making such a plan? As a blank slate, the character made complete sense, but as an independent figure you have no indication as to his motivations or if he’s capable of having any.
The thing about endings is that, while they don’t have to answer every question, they should provide an easy logical step between what happened and why it has ended in this way. For me, the ending of Bioshock was like dropping a pen and seeing it float to the roof – I just didn’t know how it got there. The other thing about endings is that they can be preposterously hard to think of, and let’s be honest, most times writers will just go with whatever comes to mind.