By Mento 3 Comments
We got that anachronic, son.
By which I mean, we have a number of games these days that, joining various other examples from other mediums, are testing the limits of anachronic storytelling devices. Anachronic, from what I've been able to ascertain from online dictionaries while checking to see if "achronological" is a word, is when a story is told out of chronological order. There's numerous reasons why an author might want to go this route: maybe they want to build around a twist that happens fairly early in the tale, and reshuffling the events of the story allows them to put that twist closer towards the end where it'll have the most punch; you want to start on an exciting "heroes in peril" hook, in media res, before rewinding the clock to see how our heroes got into this fine mess to begin with; or it's just a cool and/or memorable way to mess with the viewers, stealthily prodding them to be more focused in the story you're telling in order to suss out the puzzle behind the atypical narrative.
In video games, though, there are some unique opportunities for this format that wouldn't be applicable to any other storytelling medium, largely because the player would be dictating the order of the events they wish to see to some extent. Or, as we'll see, this order isn't so much defined by their conscious choices as determined by external factors that nonetheless allow the player to feel like they're in control. It's a powerful illusion, to hand off one's narrative flow to the player while maintaining just enough editorial control to guide it in the desired fashion. In these cases, you can't stop the player from discovering the big twists early, but you can convince them to keep digging in order to give those twists a lot of necessary context.
I'm going to explore how three games in particular play around with anachronic storytelling, including the recently released Her Story. I'll throw in a few broader/borderline examples of video gaming's penchant for anachronic storytelling as well, if only to demonstrate how prevalent this format can be and how much further down the rabbit hole it is possible to go with the three headline games.
Anachronic storytelling is actually a more widespread facet of video game narratives than you might expect, and the following bulletpoint list is a testament to that. These are all common enough cases of anachronic storytelling, so common in fact that I'm going to briefly go through them all and move onto the three more distinctive takes on the idea.
- In Media Res: A Latin phrase that means "in the middle of things", referring to how stories begin halfway through the story and backtrack a little. So common a storytelling device that it's scarcely worth the bother describing it in more detail, or digging up the hundreds of video games that employ it (my personal favorite is Final Fantasy Tactics, because of that "abilitease" opening fight). It is, however, the most frequent case of a story using an anachronic narrative.
- Anachronic Series: Just any video game series that goes backwards and forwards in time a lot with its sequels (or prequels, as the case may be). Metal Gear Solid in particular has a lot of fun with this idea, dropping back to the 20th century every so often to see how Pops is getting on before jumping back to the near-present to join his identical clone son mid-box concealment. Kojima likes to believe that going back to the era of Big Boss is necessary to understand the circumstances of what's happening in the modern day, such as why everyone's alway trying to create "Outer Heaven", but I suspect it's because he thinks its cool. Dunno why I'd have that impression of the guy... (Mento Gear Solid 4: Puns of the Patriots, coming soon!) The Metroid and Tomb Raider franchises are two other examples, going back to fill in the backstories of their respective heroines (maladroitly in the case of Metroid).
- Legend of Zelda: Similar to the above, but only in you believe in that specific interpretation of the Legend of Zelda as a series of identical heroes called Link and identical princesses called Zelda being reborn every so many generations, and that the series drops into random points in Hyrule's history where another Link is fighting Ganon. Myself, I prefer to think of it as separate retellings of the same legend from different narrators, each adding their own elements and ideas of what Hyrule might've looked like. They'd all have to be "told" several hundred years after the games' events originally occurred to account for the huge discrepencies between each version, and of course you'd have to except direct sequels like The Phantom Hourglass or The Adventure of Link. It's a working theory for now, but one I prefer to trying to explain why Kakariko Village jumped halfway across Hyrule between Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time to be closer to the mountains instead of the forest.
- Dead or Alive 5: I'm only mentioning this because while I'm aware its story mode jumps around in time, I have absolutely no idea how it makes sense to use that format or if it's even supposed to make sense. I haven't played the game or any of its enhanced rereleases myself (I've lived vicariously through Jeff's retelling of the saga of Fame Douglas and his fighting tournament enough times, though), so I wouldn't be equipped to deconstruct it regardless.
(Though I've avoided explicit spoilers for the most part, you may wish to skip this one until you've had a chance to play the game. It's one of those cases where consuming any information, no matter how carefully it avoids specific events in the game, might end up detracting from the overall experience. Also, shout outs to @omghisam for gifting me this one. Duder's got mad deep pockets, I'm guessing.)
Yesterday, I blitzed through the recent FMV-focused, Sam Barlow-penned Her Story in a few hours not only because I tend to approach every game this way but because I wanted all the various video snippets, their facts, their subtextual clues and their overt confessions to percolate in one big morass of information that my unconscious mind could sort out as I was sleeping. That's a rare and precious thing with video game stories.
The game centers around several hours of old archived footage of a series of police interviews taken over a number of days. The game tells you nothing of who the woman in the video is, why she is being interviewed, what might have happened to get the police involved. You don't even know anyone's names until you come across them. The only means of finding the clips is by using keywords; the data is organized so that each video is linked to every word spoken in that particular clip. The default is "MURDER" which, honestly, might be giving away too much information early on. It's possible to enter in any common word associated with the case - "blood", "death", "police", "house" - and receive enough important proper nouns, like the name of the victim, to move on from there. However, the writer of the game has no way of knowing just where the player might go first: there's no "preferred keywords" that the game proffers, beyond the default "murder", and the player might come across one or more of the truly incriminating video clips almost immediately depending on where their mind is at. The story does have one defense against the player finding the more incriminating clips, which occur in the later interviews: every search term can spit back anywhere between zero and a hundred clips, but you'll only see the first five chronologically. Inputting a common English word like "the" or "and" will result in too many search items. In this sense, you're less likely to find one of the clips from the later interviews unless you're being a little more specific with your search terms. Even so, it's still surprisingly easy to stumble on one or more of Her Story's big twists within a few minutes of playing.
That's where the game's primary storytelling focus comes in useful: context. Even if you're watching some major turning point in the police detective's case unfold, you might need to go back to earlier clips for the necessary context leading up to that moment. Visiting older clips will also allow you to see them in a new light, with the information you've gleaned since then. Skipping right to the denouement, as it were, is small potatoes when it comes to putting together the bigger picture: you need to see a good portion of the overall clips to get a decent idea of what's actually going on, whether it regards the psychology and personality of the woman in the video or the exact events and circumstances leading up to the murder the case is focused upon.
In this regard, Barlow has found a way to tell a story that is not only anachronically delivered to the player by the player - a level of narrative freedom usually only reserved for games where the player determines the story's outcome via a series of choices, rather than stories that have already been written in stone - but has also found a way to mitigate the deleterious affects of skipping ahead to the end and learning too much too quickly. The nature of the clips you're watching, and why you're watching them, become the most important factors in the end.
With the first Forbidden Siren game (known simply as "Siren" in the US and Japan), Silent Hill creator Keiichiro Toyama clearly wanted to get even more obtuse and take even more power away from the player. Continuing to define the tenets of Japanese Survival Horror, long after Resident Evil had evolved into more overtly action fare, the Siren games followed spiritual predecessor Clock Tower in creating scenarios where the villains were invincible, omnipresent and too terrifying to deal with face-to-face.
However, more so than that, it tells a fractured story from many vantage points, and while each individual character in the story is confused and vulnerable, the player can slowly piece together the overall plot from the trajectories for each of the playable characters and what they independently discover. Once again the player is privy to more information than the in-game characters receive, but this in turn does nothing to alleviate the dangers and horrors of playing the game.
Siren begins with the disruption of a sacrificial ritual that drops the entire rural village of Hanuda into a netherworld dimension as a result. This netherworld is completely surrounded by red water, every dead person returns to life as a "Shibito" - a wandering corpse with just enough sentience to give anyone who gets near them the heebie-jeebies - and to the outside world the village appears to vanish under a landslide. Every character who happens to be in Hanuda for one reason or another - and there's an unusual number of outsiders - suddenly finds themselves trapped in a world of nightmares and confusion.
The player, while playing as a number of "key" characters, eventually discovers exactly what happened to Hanuda and why it happened, collecting useful bits of information about the folklore and legends about the village and talking to the characters central to this recurring ritual to appease whatever supernatural being was ultimately responsible. For the vast majority of the "less vital" playable characters, however? They get very few answers. Most are driven insane or are butchered by the Shibito, unable to process the horrors around them without the context the player is receiving elsewhere. It's fascinating to jump around from character to character, forwards and backwards through time, either slowly gathering vital information as one of the major story characters or simply surviving as one of the others who are out of the loop and terrified out of their minds. It's so effective because you aren't just treating secondary characters as monster food or Jason bait; each has their own distinct personalities and reasons for being in Hanuda, and the time they spend in the spotlight is more than enough for players to understand their respective plights and sympathize with them, though most are still highly unlikely to survive the ordeal with their humanity intact. One of the best slow-burn moments is how it slowly dawns on the player that the reason every playable character can "sightjack" the Shibito - to see through their eyes, which informs the player of their patrol routes and thus how best to avoid these invincible muttering zombies - is because they're all in the process of transforming into Shibito themselves and joining some great (and awful) eldritch hivemind.
Even though Siren's disjointed and anachronical narrative can be off-putting to newcomers in its abstruseness and lack of story cohesion, it's essential for setting the atmosphere and revealing the right information to the player at the right time. It uses anachronical storytelling in almost the exact opposite way Her Story does: the game's director is full control of the narrative flow, and going back and forth through time as different characters is necessary for delivering information in an order of the director's choosing. Even so, there are many bonus objectives that open up other parts of the story, and it's down to the player whether they choose to pursue these supplemental chapters or not.
I'd be remiss in not pointing out that Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem does something very similar, moving forwards and backwards through time to depict the adventures of various heroes who have no idea what's going on individually, but allow protagonist Alex Roivas to piece together the full story from their disparate tales. Then you run into anachronistic issues like how characters in the past will acquire spells learned by characters from the future, as well as seeing their statues inside the Tome of Eternal Darkness despite the fact that they won't be born for another few hundred years, but then the game actually has an excuse for it and it's essentially eldritch Elder God magic. Gah, that's how they explain away everything in Lovecraftian fiction: "Cthulhu did it."
I've often spoken of the bizarre genius of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, and how many of its ideas are wasted on a Zelda game, for as absurd a statement as that might sound. I simply mean that, in terms of player expectations, a new Legend of Zelda always brings with it some very specific assumptions pertaining to how the game will operate and what the player will be required to do. When you toy with those expectations, it leads to a lot of dissatisfaction and blowback, which is partly why the Zelda series has been in a sorry state of stagnation for so long. Every time Nintendo tries something different with Zelda, the resulting feedback is negative; yet every time they produce a cookie-cutter sequel, the reception is never a whole lot better. I can certainly appreciate their frustration.
But with Majora's Mask, there were a number of extenuating circumstances. The tone of the game is considerably darker and stranger, playing against the more optimistic and colorful Ocarina of Time; this is only exacerbated further by the otherwise extremely similar nature of the two games, from the polygonal graphics to the way they controlled. If Majora's Mask was going to borrow a lot of Ocarina of Time's assets, it needed some way to distinguish itself, and it opted to do so with a macabre tale of death and rebirth and some uncommon gimmickry. Majora's Mask is the Bogus Journey to Ocarina's Excellent Adventure, is how I've always put it, and some will always tell you that Bogus Journey/Majora's Mask is an abject failure due to how weird and off-message it is compared to its predecessor. I've always claimed differently, for Bogus Journey and Majora's Mask both.
Because Majora's Mask simply retells the events of a three day period over and over, the player can discover many little sub-plots happening around Termina (the self-contained world of Majora's Mask). Frequently, they'll discover one of these sub-plots midway through its telling or as it's about to conclude unhappily, due to coming across it late in the game's three day cycle. By paying attention to the conclusion of one of these side-quests, the player can go back in time and find out how it begins, and in the process figure out just how and when to turn the story around and let it end happily, or as happily as the imminent end of the world via scary moon can allow. Like in the final act of the movie Groundhog Day, a particularly benevolent player can spend some time popping around the world to fix everyone's problems before resolving the circumstances causing the time loop and finally letting the world move on.
It's easy to let one's vitriol of the game's pervasive sense of crushing despair, the tedium of collecting masks and the scheduling micromanagement hell of always being in the right place at the right time get in the way of appreciating just what a distinctive and important game Majora's Mask really is. I'll be the first to admit that it isn't the perfect Zelda experience. However, I am and will always be very thankful that it exists and, just like how every weird experimental art game that didn't quite pan out manages to enrich the world of video games as a whole, Majora's Mask serves to enrich the entire Zelda series with its uniqueness.
Anyway, that's should be enough examples of anachronic storytelling for you all to mull over. Be sure to tell me in the comments of any other prominent examples, or that "anachronic storytelling" isn't actually a real statement, or that my butt is stupid. All (most) feedback is welcome.