Game Narrative and Spatial Goals

A while back I talked about one of the issues in video game analysis. Basically, narrative theorists coming from literary or film backgrounds are used to narratives where one set of events are presented to the audience in one consistent way. If you read a book, it’s the same words in the same order every time. If you watch a film, the frames are all arranged the same way. If you play a game, there are wildly different experiences based on the player’s ability. This week, I want to talk about the concept of the goal as a way to start re-thinking narratives in video games. 

If you think about moving around in video game space, you can typically divide it into one of two types of movement: that which is goal-oriented, and that which is not. This is all quite crude, by the way – I’m just starting to explore the idea. Take a look at this map from Shadow of War.


All of those little icons are different events, or little collectibles or something – they’re signs that there’s Something To Do at that location. As a player, then, you can either pick a goal – pick one of the icons to head towards – or you can just kinda fuck around for a bit. I’m not really sure if there are any other options, but let’s leave the possibility open. So you’re either goal-oriented or you’re not. And maybe sometimes you’ve got one main goal, but you’ll make lots of detours along the way. So say you’re heading towards the icon with the exclamation mark in the bottom left hand side of the screen. If you’re coming from the top of the map, there’s a whole bunch of other little shit that you might detour for along the way. So in that sense you’ve got one main goal, and lots of minor side-goals.

This doesn’t just apply to open-world games, either. In Portal, your goal is to get through the door in front of you. You’re goal-oriented in the sense that there’s a door, and you want to be on the other side of it. There’s less room for fucking around, because you’re in a more constrained space, but technically you can still fuck around if you want to. The only difference in something like Portal is that there’s less side-missions.

It’s important to note that when I’m talking about goal-oriented movement, I am focused on movement. There are types of goals that aren’t movement-based – so you might have a logic puzzle, as in Dishonored 2 at the gate to Stilton’s mansion. In that example, the spatial movement-based goal is to get into the mansion, and the non-movement-based goal within that requires you to do a logic puzzle. I’m just talking about goals in terms of movement – places where you need to be. So obviously this sort of approach wouldn’t work for games like Five Nights at Freddy’s, where the premise is that you don’t move. That said, the narrative for Five Nights is actually pretty straightforward – partially because the player doesn’t move. We can tell the story of Five Nights pretty easily: man sits in booth, closes door on killer robots when they come to kill him. That’s basically the whole thing.

Notice that we have to distinguish here between the fictional narrative and the player’s experience. Think about it in terms of the canonical storyline. It’s not canon for the protagonist to die in Five Nights. Your experience of the game will probably include you dying, but those deaths aren’t considered part of the canonical storyline. The ‘true’ narrative involves the protagonist making it to the end alive. There are some minutiae that will be different for different players – to my understanding the robots turn up randomly according to their programming, so you would have them arrive in a different sequence to that experienced by another player. But these are relatively minor fluctuations, especially when you compare it with a game like Shadow of War, where you can do like fifteen different missions at any one time in any order. That narrative timeline is fuuuucked up.

Anyway – so, movement based goals. In most games, you can point to a bunch of compulsory story missions that make up the backbone of the game. This is the absolute least that you have to do to finish a game – so in Shadow of War, for instance, you could just exclusively do story missions and never do a single side-quest. It’d be really fucking hard, but say that’s what you do. The bare minimum. What we can do is sit down and map out the locations you’d have to travel to. We can number them sequentially, and sort out the spatial relationship between them.

So let’s say you’ve got a game set in a tall building. Say there’s one mission set on every floor, and you go all the way up to the tenth floor, and that’s the ten game missions. There are lots of side quests on each floor, collectibles and so on, but in terms of the bare bones of story mission, there’s one on each floor. Spatially, we can say, the narrative has an upwards trajectory. That’s how the narrative is positioned in space. There’s also a bunch of associated spatial connotations. The people at the top of the building are figuratively at the top of the corporation or whatever it is, and so by moving up the building you’re also moving up through the corporation. This also feeds into the pacing and energy of the story – as you move higher, things are always getting more intense, right up until the final explosive finale.

So we’re thinking about the narrative in spatial terms. We’re also thinking about it in terms of goals – in terms of the places where you need to be. So we’re not as worried about the exact sequence of events, because we’ve got these nodes that serve as a structural constraint. We’re ordering the narrative around the spaces that you can or must inhabit rather than around the strict temporal procession of events. We can then make comments about the game based on the way in which you move through the required game spaces. Of course, this isn’t a fully fleshed idea. There’s a great deal of work still to be done. But we have to start somewhere!

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