A little over a year ago, I wrote a post called “What’s in a Story? The Importance of Narrative Fiction” where I talked about, what else, the importance of fiction. I decided I wanted to write a second part to it, specifically talking about what makes a story entertaining or engrossing to people.
The most obvious thing right out of the gate is characters. Everyone loves a good character in a story, whether they’re good or bad. Sometimes, we find that we may enjoy the villain’s side of things more than the hero’s. This was definitely true of the first season of the Netflix show Daredevil. This is not the say that the hero, Matthew Murdock, was any kind of slouch in the proceedings. He had a very nice bit of conflict throughout the season where he was constantly confronting himself about how far he was willing to go. But in the end, Wilson Fisk (the villain) stole the show for me. I won’t spoil anything for those who haven’t seen the show yet, but Fisk’s backstory is incredibly disturbing, depressing, and gripping. He’s one of those villains that actually has a noble goal, but the means he is using to get there are very much a problem. Without the conflicting nature of Fisk I doubt the show would have been nearly as engrossing of an experience for me. It’s one of those strange experiences where you actually understand where the villain is coming from, which isn’t something we often get from modern superhero fare.
This is what characters can do for a story. They inject it with life. They give it a lasting impact, make it stay on your mind for a long time after its inevitable conclusion. This is a big part of the reason why movies like Interstellar stay with me for so long, because the characters in it are so well written. They give the world they reside in a certain believable quality that it otherwise wouldn’t have. They are the people who you follow through the story, beginning to end.
But characters aren’t the only thing that can engage you in a story. It’s the obvious thing to turn to when talking about books or movies, because they are by their nature scripted and focused. But what about video games? Games can have great characters and story on par with movies (just check out the Uncharted video game franchise for an example of an action movie turned video game), but there is also a sense of agency that the player of these games has. He can choose where to go and what to do to a certain extent, depending on how the game itself is designed. Some games, like Myst, take advantage of this agency, driving the player to explore and discover the story on their own. But what makes the story of these types of games engrossing? What makes them tick? The answer lies in the setting.
Setting can have a major impact on any story, be it in a game, book, or movie. But it can have special significance in a game, being that the interactive nature of the medium often immerses you in it in a way that books and movies can’t touch. In a book, you imagine the setting in your mind. In a movie, you follow the setting as the director and writer have envisioned it. In a game, you decide what places to explore and what is important. Of course, the game developer has to design the setting, so in essence you are still seeing exactly what the person who created it wanted you to see, but the little details the designer may not have found important might speak to you in a way that they didn’t anticipate.
Let’s look, for example, at Dark Fall: The Journal (I know, again right). I’ve spoken about this game many a time on this blog, but here I want to call it out for a very specific reason. Dark Fall has a strong sense of setting. In the game itself, you interact with no physical characters (a ghostly voice belonging to a child guides you for the first few minutes, but you never see him of course). You play as the brother of Pete Crowhurst, an architect redeveloping the old Dowerton train station and hotel. After receiving a cryptic and alarming message on your answering machine, you travel to the station to find out what’s happening. When you arrive, you find nothing and no one. But you are not alone…
In Dark Fall‘s case, your character is merely a shell, a way to interact with the world and its characters. The people in this game are no Walter White. They won’t regale you with a gritty story of succumbing to greed and slowly transforming into a monster. They’re just ordinary people who lived their lives. But the way the game presents their stories is what makes it so interesting.
Take, for example, this letter you find in one of the hotel rooms:
If you are unable to see the picture for some reason, I will transcribe it for you:
Whats going on? You told me no one would know I was in this room! Someone tried the door a while back, I didn’t open it, course.
Then bout half hour ago someone knocked and whispered my name, it aint you, I would know your voice anytime.
If your mam finds out I’m in here she’ll blow her top! She’ll tell me dad too, and then we’ll really be done for.
I’ll wait for a bit, and then leave this note in the storeroom. Hopefully you’ll find it, before who ever it is finds me!
P.S. Bring us some more beer, love.”
It’s bits like this that made the game for me, these little snapshots of people’s lives that have been left sitting there. Considering you never physically interact with any of these people (they did disappear after all), the little touches are what makes the game so interesting. The style of writing clearly belies Thomas’ out of country origins, and his subdued manner hints at the idea that Betty is the dominant one in the relationship.
But what I like more than all of that is this little bit: “I’ll wait for a bit, and then leave this note in the storeroom”. Well, it appears the note never got there…
A little does indeed go a long way, especially where horror/ghost stories are concerned. Dark Fall is effective not because it throws the ghostly nature of things directly into your face, but because of the feeling that these people were just going about their everyday lives, having fun and dealing with personal issues when suddenly they just up and vanished. It’s the sense of a life interrupted.
I may have only talked about setting and characters when it comes to making a story tick, but they are by no means the be all end all. There are plenty of ways to make a story engrossing. You can even make a story that has no dialogue entertaining, like the movie Apocalypto (I have admittedly never watched it, but the lack of dialogue was one of its bigger selling points). It all really comes down to knowing what is important in the type of story you are trying to tell. If it’s a horror story, setting can often be more important than character. If it’s a gritty crime story, characters are going to be the driving force. It’s easy to say that a good story is one that’s believable, but harder to say what makes that story believable.
And in the end, it’s all about getting the reader/audience/player to be willing to suspend their disbelief, if just for a short period of time.
Well that’s all I’ve got for this week. Tune in next Wednesday for another post and as always, have a wonderful week everybody!
Also, don’t you just hate it when someone writes a sequel to something out of the blue? Yeah…*eyes dart back and forth suspiciously*…me too……