Story as Character in Narrative Driven Games

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vallian88

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I am not a literary major, and these ideas may have more codified terms that I am unaware of, feel free to correct my understanding. I have some spoilers as well, read at your own risk.

You may have heard the literary idea of "Setting as Character". I believe this means giving the setting of a story an identity, an arc, and ways to interact with a narrative beyond being a passive participant.

I have recently been considering the idea of Story as Character in a similar way. I think a story could be viewed with its own identity, arc and actions. This immediately frames our discussion as metanarrative/metatextual.

A story could fall into a literary trope, perhaps a simple love story, and in that way be understood as having its own identity. A love story has particular characteristics, the couple, the element preventing their union, the happy ending of love blooming, etc.

A story usually has an arc: setting, inciting incident, rising action, climax, resolution, etc. The story as a whole is all these elements and a typical character arc is just this on an individual scale.

A story could have actions. This is what we might call fate and/or deus ex machina. I think a story can be an active participant in its own telling, where the events are not mere chance but because the story has its own purpose/desires/intentions. At this point I think Story and Author are very intertwined, because it may really be the author's purpose/desires/intentions that drive the events. Like a well written character, however, I think a story can have its own personality that leads the author into unexpected circumstances. This idea, of a story having actions, is where I think video games have an opportunity to explore:

I am reminded of Doki Doki Literature Club, that presents itself as a dating sim. The story, to be expected is of romance growing and resolving. The Game becomes a terrifying actor that denies happy endings because of its own (or the antagonist's) insecurity.

In the book House of Leaves, the minotaur haunting anyone related to the house is the story trying to destroy itself, which will lead to the readers destruction.

Movies also take advantage of this idea:

In Stranger than Fiction, Will Farrell's character is antagonized by the very story in which he is a character.

The book in The Neverending Story is another world that draws readers into it, making them part of the story.

I think more games can have the story or better yet, the game itself be an actor in the narrative.

I'm mostly curious if anyone has other examples of game, books, movies like this.

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LapsarianGiraff

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I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, I do think that stories themselves, through a combination of the author's decisions, the characters, choices, setting, arcs, and overall voice, have a soul and character of their own. It's honestly what I try to figure out the most any time I sit down to write an essay about a movie, book, or game.

On the other, I believe that this character emanates naturally from the author's choices for the story, not necessarily as a character asserting itself over the rest of the narrative. Because the thing is, most stories, especially more personal ones, ie outside of games, aren't about plots, but are about characters in conflict. Most stories are (hopefully) driven by the choices of the characters, and the characters are (hopefully) driven by clear motivations, even if those evolve over time. Any time that a story takes a sharp left turn, regardless of the desires of the characters, or in direct conflict with the desires of the characters, because that's what the writer needs to happen to say what they want, unless expertly done (think the ending of Magnolia), comes off really poorly. A "deus ex machina" as you pointed out, is a good example of this. But the more common term I heard in writing classes in university was "the hand of the writer" -- as in, for that moment, it is utterly transparent that you, the writer, the god of this world, is willing this to happen outside of what the characters or world would naturally do.

However, on the third hand (yes, I have three hands, [not really,]) you have pointed out more meta stories where the story itself is a character. But usually this has to be the entire conceit of the story from the jump, and this approach also paints the narrative into a lot of tricky corners a more traditional story wouldn't encounter. And more often than not, even these meta-constructions still end up in the purview of traditional character-based stories because the world turns out to be an extension of a character. Even you mention Doki Doki Literature Club, as the story itself just being an extension of the antagonist's insecurity. Or think of Inception, this seemingly out of control dream world that is seemingly its own character, (it literally blocks our protagonists with a train,) but is really an extension of Cobbs' deteriorating mental state and his obsession with his dead wife. Or, Adaptation, a screenplay all about writing a screenplay, where the story itself blends into seemingly normal proceedings on a dime, is just Charlie Kaufman's own ennui about being utterly unable to write an adaptation of this novel about orchids.

Finally, on a completely separate note I didn't see come up in your OP, "art games" or "art films" that rely heavily on abstraction and imagery to convey their story, could be considered as fitting in your "story as character" idea since the images seem to come apropos of nothing but themselves, unbidden but for the author's will. That gets a little tricky though because we start getting into "Death of the Author" type conversations, since abstract images are intentionally able to be interpreted in lots of ways, so is it the Viewer that's the character?

So, while it can be handy for utilitarian reasons to think of the story as a character for some meta stories, even a lot of these still play by the rules of more traditional character-based narratives. The part I do agree with, and find much more helpful, is finding the story's character after the fact as the audience, because since the author is technically the sole God of a world, you can learn a lot about an author's view by weighing the semiotics of the story they made.

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Topcyclist

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@vallian88: In games I guess skies of arcadia's setting in the clouds was its own story. Though im not sure i understand your question. XD.

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Blackout62

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So, you're thinking of stories that have a narration with, let's say personality, and agency to change the narrative from some layer above the normal characters but not necessarily past the fourth wall.

There's Ursula K. Le Guin's short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" where the narrator keeps adding complexity to the seeming utopia of Omelas to try and satisfy the reader.

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sparky_buzzsaw

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That's what's appealing about magical realism. The story bends to the writer's needs. In games this is probably best exemplified by What Remains of Edith Finch.

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Blackout62

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#6  Edited By Blackout62

@sparky_buzzsaw: That's not really what magical realism is. Magical realism is a genre built on adding supernatural elements to mundane settings and treating them as average. Kentucky Route Zero is gaming's most prominent example of magical realism and in it we have robots and giant eagles go uncommented on in a setting of normal post-Great Recession Kentucky.

OP is thinking more in the neighorhood of metanarrative.

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sparky_buzzsaw

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EstrogenEcstasy

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Interesting thoughts, thanks for sharing.

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Hizang

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Yeah interesting, good write up.

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Kemuri07

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I sort of wish that this was something FF7-Remake did. A lot of the discourse surrounding that game annoyed me because it tried to built the game up as this commentary about the nature of "remakes," despite the fact that a large majority of FF7-R is merely a remixed version of the original game. It felt like this discourse was putting too much effort in a game made simply to make a "cinematic universe" over a single game.

But it makes me think, and possible leads to your point, what would happen if rather than the meet-cute that occurs between Cloud and Arieth in FF7-R, that instead Arieth informs Cloud she knows who he is, knows what will happen to the both of them, and knows what Sephiroth intends to do. This changes the dynamic of the game in a significant way as you have characters who are aware of the story of FF7 and have to decide do they stay the path or do they wander off into a new future. I undestand that the ending of Remake kinda implies that, but it's too coy and too buys making a cliffhanger to really deal with any of this stuff. And honestly, I don't expect Squenix to do anything like that since these games are dependent on selling people their nostalgia.

But I like this idea because it creates this meta-narrative between expectations of the audience and the agency of its character. The "hand of the author" becomes more transparent as Cloud and co' are forced to follow the story of Final Fantasy VII, ingame because it's what Sephiroth wants, but outside its' what "we" want.

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stealydan

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@sparky_buzzsaw: That's not really what magical realism is. Magical realism is a genre built on adding supernatural elements to mundane settings and treating them as average. Kentucky Route Zero is gaming's most prominent example of magical realism and in it we have robots and giant eagles go uncommented on in a setting of normal post-Great Recession Kentucky.

OP is thinking more in the neighorhood of metanarrative.

Does the Witcher's conjunction of spheres idea (magic being introduced to a typical medieval setting via dimensional merger) count as magical realism? Or is that just a fun way to explain why the world has typical fantasy tropes, where most other fantasy just takes for granted the fact that magic and elves and such exist?

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Kemuri07

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Example of Magical Realism: Like Water For Chocolate. A book/movie that largely takes place in the real world, but puts random elements that could never happen in the real world.

See also: La La Land.

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Blackout62

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@stealydan said:

@blackout62 said:

@sparky_buzzsaw: That's not really what magical realism is. Magical realism is a genre built on adding supernatural elements to mundane settings and treating them as average. Kentucky Route Zero is gaming's most prominent example of magical realism and in it we have robots and giant eagles go uncommented on in a setting of normal post-Great Recession Kentucky.

OP is thinking more in the neighorhood of metanarrative.

Does the Witcher's conjunction of spheres idea (magic being introduced to a typical medieval setting via dimensional merger) count as magical realism? Or is that just a fun way to explain why the world has typical fantasy tropes, where most other fantasy just takes for granted the fact that magic and elves and such exist?

No. A major part of magical realism is a setting that is or close to the real life contemporary. The juxtaposition is in things the reader would find normal in their lives with things that supernaturally aren't. Elves are where magical realism is off the table.

The post above me is on the money with Like Water For Chocolate (don't know where they're going with the La La Land example) though it's probably important to understand that the genre exists beyond the classic Marquez style lengthy Latin American family epics.

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Topcyclist

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@kemuri07: Wow, couldn't disagree more. You got a weird take given the games were prior released being hailed as stupid and unnessacerry and just fanservice retellings of an already rote story yadda yadda platitudes apathy jadedness from fans etc. Then they released a game that felt similar enough for fans, then strayed enough to be even interesting to nonfans who otherwise hated the stories and games like Jeff. They somehow threaded the impossible needle and people still hated them for the game being changed.

The games spoiler definitely tell you they are doing an endgame-like thing as this is a timeline where their trying to undo a ton of things given you know who hints that she knows without being so obvious as hinting it in the first meeting. Even if she doesn't I think your ideas on fixing it would turn too many people off. Sure it would be brave to challenge expectations but you don't fool around with that in a big million-dollar franchise. Kinda off topic but it confuses me why people want media that's general market to appeal to niche taste and be so subversive to their community's expectations. Sure its doing the things you expect but you can only go so far with such a moneymaker without taking risk no investor would be happy with. There's plenty of games with smaller budgets that do the subversive ideas people overlook.

That said I may have misunderstood your points so just call this a silly rant. XD.