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Main Characters– our obsession with them has stifled game stories

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This essay is long, but also cut short because of reddit limitation. It is a compounded version of things I've wrote about in this sub before, but contains stronger arguments, much more detail, and I hope, clarity. Summarized poorly as a TLDR:

I believe character-driven stories do not utilize the medium correctly, and to an extreme, are antithetical to what games are. Instead of just saying that alone, this essay also attempts to establish a framework and language that can be used to describe "ideal" game stories.


In February of 2013,
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at D.I.C.E. Summit, and detailed their correspondence with one another. They talked about storytelling across different platforms, specifically, what games can learn from movies and what movies can learn from games. Today, we tell game stories with powerful, emotional and important characters. Characters inescapable from the overall narrative. We emphasize character interactions, deep and personal journeys. We also chase after an elusive ultimate goal of the most life-like and natural characters, that audiences could mistake it for reality.

This has also brought us some of the most important questions the industry has ever tried to answer — If there can be games meant for a state of play and games meant for story, “What do audiences want from our stories?”, “Why are less than half of audiences even finishing the main story in our games?”, and “Why do audiences dismiss our most ambitious and best efforts at storytelling?”

This was all while exploring the basic question, “What are games?” However, we got distracted with the types of stories games do tell. As a result, borrowing so much from film has sent us down a strange artistic path. A path I want to explore here.

Today, we’re not going to be talking about the methods, mechanics & systems of game storytelling. In other words, this essay isn’t about

& related principles. While that is important, I feel what is most important is to address the different types of stories we tell.

The two types of modern game stories

Whenever new games come out, there is often some stock, aggressive and dismissive “criticisms” for certain titles. “This is a movie game”, “Walking Simulator” and “I want to play my games, not watch them.” Generally, there are dismissive and hand-wavy retorts as well such as “Rose tinted glasses” and “Stop living on nostalgia.” Dismissive commentary like this is annoying, but generally I have no reason to disbelieve that there are people who truly are disinterested in those games. Some of you might be thinking “this is classic gatekeeping for a hobby,” but that isn’t a satisfying way to think about this either.

Broadly speaking, we can observe stories where the main player (or audience) character is the foundation of the entire story. Likewise, we see games that do the opposite, main characters that, while important, take a sort of back-seat to the story. This is in relation to this character’s role within the story. For the way the character represents the audience, there are two additional broad categories: The planned (bespoke) character, and the generic “stock” character. So what we have is “What does this character mean to the story” and “What does this character represent for the audience”. I outline this, because I don’t want to confuse people — as an industry, we’ve already put a tremendous amount of effort in the second question. What we’re going to focus on in this essay, is the character’s role in the story, and what the story is telling the audience. In other words — we’re looking at the difference between character-centric narrative, and world-centric narrative.

I want to quote J.J. Abrams from the video linked in the Introduction.

“If you don’t care about the characters, nothing matters.”

He was talking about how in films, it is an absolute priority for writers, directors & actors to make sure the audience is invested in the characters. There is still a movie to “watch” regardless, but what kind of story can an artist tell in film, if the audience refuses to care about their characters? With that in mind, let us start with a simple question: “If we remove the player character(s) from a game, is there still a narrative to explore?”

Half-Life is a series that isn’t shy about what it learns from film. There is a reason Gabe shared the stage with J.J. Abrams back in 2013. So with all the inspirations from film, some might expect to see the same dismissive comments to Half-Life games as they do The Last of Us, for example. But this isn’t the case, and it can’t simply be “fanboy-ism” for Gabe or Valve.

Similarly, the Metal Gear Solid series is known for its film inspirations, as Hideo Kojima is a massive fan of western films. There are about 71 minutes of cutscenes in MGS 2, and almost 5 hours worth in MGS 3. For how cinematic and character focused the games are, we certainly should be seeing MGS get the same dismissive criticisms, and yet again, we don’t.

What happens to The Last of Us if we remove Joel & Ellie? What about removing Wander from Shadow of the Colossus? In both examples, the characters are integral to the plot of the game. However, there is no literary conflict in the world without Joel & Ellie. Everything in The Last of Us exists to make us care about Joel & Ellie. However, we do not need to care about Wander to experience the conflict & details of Shadow of the Colossus’ world.

Consider this: If we remove Gordon Freeman or Snake from their respective games, will everything else in the game’s content fall apart? Would there still be an interesting narrative the audience could headcanon themselves into? There is a bigger picture going on outside of the character’s area of influence. The Last of Us (1 & 2) is one long character study centered on Joel & Ellie. If you remove them, there is nothing left for the audience to explore. There is no conflict.

We can see this hold true in games like Horizon Zero Dawn, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, God of War (2018), Detroit: Become Human, A Way Out, Gone Home & Life Is Strange among many others. Players are routinely dismissive towards these games, and they present some of our most ambitious efforts of storytelling in games.

Game Presentation

If we stop caring about a game’s main characters, is there still story and narrative to get from the experience? This is something we can describe as the author’s presentation. What does a particular piece of media want or expect from the audience? What in the narrative is presented to us that demands our attachment to?

Some games mandate us to care about the main characters. If we don’t, there is no story to follow. The world seems empty, and there is nothing to keep us interested in playing. Most other games are less concerned about us caring about the characters, and if we don’t — it is ok because there is still so much for us to discover in the world to keep our interest.

The interesting thing that this shows us is that games can ignore a staple of storytelling, and the audience can still get a narrative rich experience. There may still always be a game to “play” without any story, and there are games that exist as a state of play alone, such as Tetris or Counter-Strike. However it is noteworthy that J.J. Abrams’ idea about characters does not apply so simply to game stories.

Game Presentation outside of Video games

People may intuitively agree that we watch sports to see the outcome of a match. My city vs your city. My country vs your country. There is a minority of viewers who do watch for a specific athlete, but for most this is a story of the region the team represents. In the Olympics it is not uncommon to see mini-bios on a particular athlete, showing everything they’ve gone through to get to where they are. These are our heroes & their journeys. However, we’re still there for the event. In standard seasonal sports, when a player gets traded to or joins a new team — during the press conference they talk about the legacy of the team, what it means to be playing for “these” fans, and be side-by-side with the other players on the team. We’re setting up for, and are invested in something much bigger than a single hero.

This isn’t a pattern we only see in modern sports or digital games. Board games don’t focus on specific characters. There is no declared narrative importance to the tokens in Monopoly. Pen & Paper games are all about having a living world for the players to explore. Characters are “meant” to die, and it’s no sweat when someone needs to create a new character. It’s all about building the bigger picture, the bigger narrative.

Geography, cultures & landmarks change over time. Just as there are certain consistent properties to the stories we tell about heroes and characters, we can outline properties in stories about geography. Then, the actual story content of a piece of art’s presentation can give us character-centric content or “Character Narrative” & world-centric content or “World Narrative”, among others. This is the language we’re going to explore more of.

Properties of Geographic Stories

We’re going to be using the word “geography” & “geographic” to refer to the following: cultures, landscapes, landmarks, biomes, structures & other geographic spaces.

Geographic stories are the reasons why geography changes and people adapt to, manipulate or fight against those changes. Geographic stories do not always start from the same point in narrative, but they do often fit into a cohesive structure. These stories are at their core, ones of cultures, geography, cities, ceremonies and legends. While we can never be certain if heroes and characters from ancient stories ever existed, geography has a habit of sticking around for several thousand years, leaving behind proof, though the associated stories are often more fanciful than evidence suggests.

Games are littered with geography that evolves over time and tells a story. However, ancient cultures also tell similar stories. Some mythological geography is commonly recognized on name alone, such as Mt. Olympus, Yggdrasil and Asgard, or Camelot. Others are invented or described as real places, such as El Dorado and Atlantis, but are generally accepted as being just as fictitious as the cultural counterparts. However, the story of living and real places are in no short supply — Stonehenge, Easter Island, Uluru and The Great Pyramids to name a few.

The structure of geographic stories can be outlined in 6 stages split across 3 parts. The outline will be presented in a linear pattern with a “start”, but an audience can be introduced to these stories at any point. There are many patterns for geographic stories to take, but a linear one as presented is most common in educational documentaries and academia. It is a basic framework artists can use to re-order and tell different stories.

PartsStagesPoint of Action
I. Significance1. PotentialCeremony / Boon / Resources / Shelter
2. ValuationProsperity / Greed / Exploitation
II. Struggle3. ConflictMissing Piece / War / Balance / Alignment
4. ConstructionFormation / Building / Rebuilding / Repurposing
III. Operation5. UseCultivation / Ritual / Fertility / Protection / Intimidation
6. NeglectOverlook / Desecrate / Misuse / Abandon / Sabotage


Significance is often the first part to be introduced to audiences and is where something is discovered or it’s value is assessed. The first stage, potential deals with the questions of what something may have been used for — such a ceremonies, cultivation or shelter. The second stage is an understanding of it’s value, and if it gets overlooked or if it may be of use to the story’s characters.

For the first people who began building Stonehenge, significance is why they chose to start building it in that specific location. It could have been anywhere, but the culture determined that location was inseparable from their purpose. Likewise, when it was first “rediscovered” as a natural wonder, we wanted to understand its significance, and what it was. So significance plays a role in the creation of something, and it’s later discovered by an “audience” in an attempt to understand it.

Geography’s potential can be ceremonial, like it is believed to be for Stonehenge, or it can offer a boon like in mythologies and fantasy. It can be a place of fertility, food and abundance, or a place to shelter from weather & predators. In the stories of El Dorado, Spanish conquistadors placed high value on the gold that local cultures used for their ceremonies. Gold was not of monetary importance to the people, however, the conquistadors also overlooked the rare platinum in the area, believing it to be worthless. This example of greed, corruption and misplaced valuation, creating the myth of El Dorado.


The second part deals with the conflicts associated with the point of interest. The third overall stage is conflict, where characters fight for ownership, or endure hardships to gather materials. Maybe it is warred over, or a great effort must be expended in gathering resources to restore & understand it. Fourth stage, we deal with construction, where the area is being formed either by man, nature or god.

In fantasy, it is not uncommon to have a structure or altar which, while significant, is locked. Conflict is in what is needed to unlock it. Sometimes we see struggles related to balance and alignment of mystical or magical forces, or to gather resources necessary for construction. For a more direct form of conflict, geography of great power or strategic importance is often the stage for war.


Lastly, we delve into day-to-day operative usage of a space. In the fifth stage, active use, we see agriculture. We have celebrations or death rituals. We see mystical or magical healing properties & resources. We see cultures that know the value, and do whatever they can to protect it. However, we also see times when people forget the value of the land, and it falls in to deep neglect, the sixth stage.

Many real-world places fall into neglect until they eventually become protected relics of our history. It’s not uncommon in fantasy for characters to “rediscover” significance during this stage, often leading the story back to valuation, conflict or construction.

Less than 50% main story “completion” rates

One of the greatest missteps in game’s discourse is believing it makes sense to measure an audience’s “complete” experience by the rate said audiences obtain certain linear achievements or trophies. Yes, less than 50% of audiences finish the “main story” in games, but this is an unhelpful and misunderstood measurement. It intuitively means audiences usually only want to spend time in the world that has been crafted. But, just so we’re clear, let us address a few things.

The 50% rate applies after you factor out people who only buy a game that is part of a sale or bundle. It also considers people who own a game, and begin playing it for a short period of time only to learn the game doesn’t perform (considering FPS, controls or graphics, optimizations & errors) to their satisfaction. Furthermore, when considering the argument of time investment, we can look to long form content like a mini-series. We can show data that more people finish watching a season of a show, compared to those who started. The factors are obvious, but the take away is that we would be distressed to learn 50% or less finish watching a mini-series or trilogy of films. I mean.. binging shows did become a thing for a reason. Are we just going to pretend people don’t have time for games? What people don’t have time or patience for, is dedicating themselves to a story with poor presentation.

There are specific mediums of art that are best suited for certain presentations. Emotion is the primary presentation factor for music. Musicians want to connect with their audience, and tell emotional stories. While music can be about or inspired by people (Hamilton) or places, it is intuitive that if the audience does not care about the harmonies, sounds, tones or rhythms, then the author’s presentation is lost. Likewise, paintings utilize symbols, be it iconography, shapes, colors and forms, in a way that is meant to draw the audience in. Have a “conversation” with the artist. Question the symbols, and discover the intent of the artist. If you ignore the symbols, then you’re just staring at beautiful scenes, people and places without grasping the story or meaning.

Interactive spaces are best served when they are presenting a story about geography. This is also not to say that all games need to be about a cataclysmic, world changing event. They can be smaller in scope, and about a very specific section of the world or a culture. Shadow of the Colossus has a smaller scope than big budget games, but it is how the space is utilized to tell that world narrative which resonates with audiences.

In film, we’re used to referring to the world as “the background.” Characters are in the foreground, and lead the audience through the story. It’s their actions, or actions done to them that paces the narrative, and moves us from scene-to-scene. Consider, though, what would Star Wars be without Tatooine or the Death Star? It’s still good to have strong settings that are interesting, but the characters are the presentation of the film. Likewise, we should still want strong and interesting characters in games. What I’m proposing is that we flip film’s foreground/background, and allow characters to be less important (have less influence over the experience) than the areas we’re meant to be exploring.

I mentioned in the introduction that I would avoid systems related to storytelling in games, but I believe this is worth bringing up now. A game can be a world narrative, but deliver that story in a way inconsistent with the activity of playing the game. For example, if a game is constantly interrupting our interactions to show us cutscenes, this would be similar to stopping a song part-way through to recite a passage from a play. If a film stops during the climax scenes and holds on a still image of a painting, it is inconsistent with what we intuitively expect from film. There are many examples, but The Witcher games garner criticism in this way.

It is not enough to simply tell world narratives in games — we should also look to not take away the player’s interactivity. We should look to avoid classic cutscenes and QTEs that are shoved in and create a confused sense of pace. There are many systems like these that signal to the audience that we’re in for a character narrative, even if that isn’t the case. It is not uncommon for games to get dismissive criticisms, because the way in which a story is delivered looks and acts like a character narrative.

So if a game actively fights us and pushes us away from exploring the world, it may make sense people would stop playing the game immediately, never to return.. never getting that linear “completion” achievement. For others, they simply enjoy being in the world more than the characters of the main story. The audience’s narrative “completion” comes from being satisfied with an awareness of the “rules” that govern the world. Who is at war with who? What does a particular geographic symbol mean? Less than 50% is not a scary metric. It is not something we should seek to “improve” because the fundamental flaw is this concept itself. Discovery & non-passive experiences is what games are. Quantifying linear achievements is not a good way to measure, not only how satisfied the audience is, but whether or not the audience has come to understand and appreciate the world that the author(s) have crafted.


I want to talk how we can use these concepts in practice. Before that though, it might be worth revisiting terminology used above and give unambiguous definitions for each.



Related to literary “style” — or the way an author tells the story.

Presentation concerns primarily the artist and what variety of story they want the audience to experience. Likewise, we can see “presentation” as an expectation from the audience for a specific type of content. It also helps outline the pace of content, and the primary focus the audience has for the story.

What comes first, the artist or the musician? Does an artist gravitate to music so they can create the art that expresses themselves? Or do they start with playing music, and learn to be an artist and conform to it’s presentation later? There is a specific reason we work within, and (or) choose to use a particular medium or platform. That is the presentation of the platform itself, utilizing & conforming to it’s rules, systems, methods & materials for expressing ourselves.

Presentation is a description of the types of stories, ideas and emotions that a specific platform expresses.

  • Music presents the pure emotions and philosophy at the core of “characters”.
  • Film presents character studies and social, economic & political conflict, as it pertains to perspective characters.
  • Games (or Interactive media) present worlds, entire cultures & their conflicts, and how this influences or impacts the characters.

Geographic Stories & Arcs

Primarily a set of properties shared between world-centric stories. While there is much more that contributes to these arcs, here we outline a template of common tropes for how geography (structures, cities, areas, land and more) are warred over, change over time, are influenced by events and influence others.

Geographic stories are like a pendulum in its cyclical nature, swinging back and forth between stages. Furthermore, the audience is likely to be introduced to the story at any stage in the cycle (or the point of “discovery”), rather than often starting from a fixed point. Do we already know about this ‘thing’, and are they in the midst of restoring it? Or maybe we’re introduced during a period of peace, and the people have forgotten the significance of the ‘thing’. While telling these stories linearly is common in documentaries, we often jump back and forth between stages in specific patterns to tell more interactive stories.

Character & World Narrative

Character & World Narrative is shorthand for their respective versions of presentation in narrative practice. It’s the resulting content or experience from the audience’s perspective. These two types of narratives can be telling the same story with the same or similar plots, but what the audience is experiencing is primarily through the activities or either characters or the world. Presentation and these different types of narrative is how we “adapt” a story from one medium or platform to another.

World narrative is an experience where the audience’s attention & story’s pace is guided by events in the world.

It’s important to reiterate that the correct understanding of the above terms is that Character & World Narrative can not exist at the same time. Characters & World events can not be pacing an audience’s experience in concert — they can however, be used one after another in the same piece of content. Humans are not very skilled at focusing on two disparate complex sets of stimulus at once. Until we do become skilled at that, either characters or a world will singularly hold the audience’s attention.

World Narrative in practice

Setting up world narrative & the audience’s character

When writing — imagine your story doesn’t have a main perspective character. Will major events happen in the experience regardless? Will there be conflict and change without an audience? After we have the basic plot for our world which invokes emotions, aspirations and ideals, we will move on to conceptualizing the audience’s character. We can isolate two broad groups for these characters, the “stock” character and the “planned” (bespoke) character. I do not want to enforce this idea that audience characters need to be generic & silent — we can absolutely have written characters with a backstory. However, if the story is not indifferent to that character, then the audience’s experience is subject to this entire essay’s analysis.

I would further classify four different “roles” these characters can have in the overall story. Observer, Hero, Antihero and Architect (influences events, but doesn’t take center stage). Interactive media presents us the possibility of easily switching the audience between Antagonist and Protagonist perspectives. While playing with that fluidity is interesting, I do not think it is essential to world narrative. However, whatever “side of the argument” the author wants the audience to participate in, I do think it’s essential we keep in mind the four roles. It’s unwise to create experiences where one of these roles is favored or forced on the audience. We should expect to see all four be possible from the first steps the player takes.

A critical misunderstanding here, is that this forces us to create four or more written narratives. However, this would still be viewing games as character narrative. Imagine, instead, you’re “planning” a season of the NBA. You decide which teams win and which teams lose. You decide rivalries and upsets. The audience’s character is anyone of a player on a team, a manager, a coach or a spectator. Generally, with a blueprint of how the season is going to go, there isn’t more effort in expressing all the paths to the final. There is more work for the creators though, but it comes from the effort required in re-tooling the way our brains naturally see narrative as being only character-centric. You’re writing the story of the world, and the characters simply participate.

What is it that non-player characters tell the audience

— In regards to supporting and non-essential characters —

NPCs should generally, always be hinting to the player to go out into the world. They should rarely know the player character’s name, and they should nearly never treat the character like a celebrity. We should see NPCs invested in their own interests, and will likely not know much about everything. These “rules” is how you create parody and critique of games — where NPCs treating the player like a celebrity is a joke, and an analysis of storytelling in games. It is disconcerting when these “rules” are broken unintentionally. Because it results in hilarity, when comedy wasn’t intended by the authors.

When a single NPC tells the audience everything they need to know, we get the distinct impression we’re in a character-narrative. “This person is evil. They did this thing and they are over here. This is what you need to do.” Why does this character know so much? Is it a mission briefing, or was it convenient to dump information from a single character? Instead, when the audience learns that NPCs care about the world they are in, not only does it lead us out to explore that world, but it also enforces the idea that this world is bigger than the characters.

How players express their character

Interactions should always be framed by how, not only the world is changing what the NPCs say and do, but also what the player can do. The “dialogue tree” system does not offer us better ways to express our characters. It isn’t necessarily the existence of the common “3 options” approach, it is that there is nothing actually being expressed.

In an artistic space where audiences ignore characters, it is strange to connect audience expression with character-to-character interactions. It is even more strange because it isn’t effective at communicating what each decision actually means. When first starting out a new game, it is expected audiences will take time to understand the game. Allowing the player to make changes in the world and see results, however minor, is an extremely effective method at introducing the audience to the world. Transitioning small changes having minor effects to bigger decisions having massive effects is substantially easier than attempting to communicate these changes through dialogue options.

The most effective way to allow players to express themselves, is to plan around the idea of effecting change in the surroundings. What is interesting though, it is not necessary to have many of these state changes. One change, planned out to its fullest is enough to inspire unique experiences in a broad range of audiences. This is the advantage of planning branching stories around how the environment influences characters, instead of character-to-character. As creators, we can limit or expand the story as development resources change.

World Narrative in Multiplayer

I’m going to specifically target MMOs, because there is a critical failure going on in MMO storytelling. The smoke and mirrors of MMO storytelling is to keep things vague, but still directly reference a planned end result. Players craft, in their heads, their own reasons for saving the kingdom, but they have no option to not save the kingdom, even if it directly conflicts with their character.

This is the folly of setting up character narrative in multiplayer games. How can every player, actively participating in the world and running around you, all be “the single most important hero and irreplaceable”? How can we justify to players that every crafted hero or god, knows each player’s name and thanks them directly, calling attention to how important they are? How many times can NPC-1 thank Player-A (and Player-B.. and Player-C…) for saving NPC-2 from a hole they fell in, before it becomes inherently adversarial to a crafted world?

How grand and vast a world feels is directly related to how important the audience feels. As importance increases, the world shrinks. If an NPC King is talking directly to a player, addressing them by name, knowing their face and all their accomplishments the world shrinks to a microscopic spec. When there is nothing left that the player has to overcome, the narrative begins a never-ending and draining arms race to constantly up the ante. It’s the players who just started out — who the NPC characters don’t yet know, that the world is vast and limitless. The goal is a noble one, though — to make the audience feel .. special or important.

However, there is nothing more unique and special than entering an active world PvP battle, only to have the other players on your side relieved you showed up, echoing out “Oh damn, J.Doe is here.. They are ridiculously strong! We’ll win for sure.” This, without any hint of hesitation, has more impact and importance than having an NPC ruler/hero say “I believe in you J.Doe!” It doesn’t matter if it’s Thrall or Y’shtola, the way other players react to you is what makes things special.

To the world, the audience’s character needs to be a foot soldier. A simple adventurer. Or a lowly artisan. A player’s sense of value comes from their interactions with other players. In this way, crafted world narratives will make the players feel like there is so much more to see and do. The world will be larger, for longer. Yes, eventually some narrative creep of needing to raise the stakes will likely and inadvertently need to happen. However with care, precision and planning, players ought to be able to enjoy a decade or more of world narrative without ever feeling like they’ve become too big for the world.

There is no better test case for world narrative than the MMO. Because, and again, it would be a critical misunderstanding that world narrative calls for millions of independent well written paths of story. Instead, people are telling their character’s story the way they want, and are instead reacting to the shared experience of a geographic story with the other players. A single event can be seen uniquely by 1 million players, and it is the only thing the writers have control over. Why then, should we expect to care about controlling the finite experience after the event?

Linear & Character Stories

So far I’ve talked about the stories we tell as artists, but mostly through examples of adventure epics, “RPGs” and “non-linear” stories. However, another misunderstanding here is that world narratives need to be non-linear, and that we won’t see in-depth, intimate or emotional characters and their stories. What is important to remember, is that we are who we are, often because of where we live. The more an audience connects with geography, the easier to make connections with characters.

There are emotions that are inseparably linked to places we’ve been and things we’ve experienced. Nostalgia, safety, opportunities and family. How important is it to you, that you are living where you are? What about living where you want to be? What does this place tell us about you? Can you express why you want to be somewhere, so an audience will develop a deeper understanding of you? Interactive stories utilize the world to tell us more about our characters than deep dialogue trees ever could.

Why is a character’s stage in Street Fighter important to them? What does that stage tell us about the character? With care we can even elaborate on that, and allow the world to tell a story, and not just be “themed” for that character. What does it mean for one of those characters to fight another specific character in a specific place? It doesn’t matter if it’s a personal story, an adventure, RPG or fighting game — world narrative is present everywhere.

In mythology we sometimes assign symbols or personifications for geography like Caves, Gardens, Forests, Mountains, Lakes, Swamps, Oceans & Cities. A lake is calming. A garden is full of life and creation. A volcano is fierce, angry or passionate. A mountain tough, imposing and filled with unknown resources. Paintings, literature, theater, music, film — the entire hundreds and thousands of years of artistic expression has built on each other, adding more and more to the stack of symbolism and beauty. There are many ways we can develop interactive systems to add to that stack, and assist in telling powerful, important and emotional stories.

How can you tell your story in an interactive medium, where anyone in the audience can feel what it’s like to be somewhere, to care about that place and shape their mind? Do players have favorite characters? Yes… but you know what you find more in players? Those who have favorite areas. While Abrams’ quote works for the presentation of character narrative in films, it is essential that the audience cares about exploring where they are in order for artists to be most effective.

Places can tell stories about a character’s psychology and emotions. Do we have a good idea what people on Easter Island were thinking and feeling? What their conflicts and hardships were? It isn’t mandatory that the audience understands this after playing, but having the freedom to be capable of understanding it is.

World Narrative Recap

  • Conflict is never centered completely on the player’s character.
  • The story is indifferent to the “main” perspective character(s). The character’s story is a product of this primary story.
  • Allow the player to subject themselves to conflicts & interject in events.
  • Remember, plan for: Hero, Antihero, Observer & Architect roles
  • NPCs likely talk about the world, events and history. They are not exposition dumps or quest logs.
  • The world is what influences the characters. The easier it is for a player character to influence the world, the smaller that world is.
  • Players feel important because of these experiences —significant characters don’t need to reassure players that they are important.
  • World narrative is not dependent on the game being non-linear, open world or emergent.
  • A Geographic story has significance, struggles & is operative.
  • Geography is symbolic, has history & personality.

The end of this story

There is a misconception that simply because film and video games exist at the same time, with the same or similar technology, that they are equally as mature. They are not. At this time in the history of film, most of the groundbreaking innovations had happened more than 20 years prior. Film knew what it was, while we still argue over “can games be art”, “should games just be things to play with no story” and “is VR a meme, or gaming in its purest form?”, while also pushing academics out who try to apply any kind of academic theory to understand games.

It is natural for us to think of ourselves as heroes. We’re the main character of our own story. Because of that, it is also natural to frame our stories through the lens of characters and their interactions. However, while we may not be here one day, the world will. At least for a while longer —and our stories persist in the world. It is far more interesting, to construct our stories from the perspective of that world, than ourselves. I hesitate to compare game audiences to archaeologists, because that misrepresents all the potential kinds of stories we can get out of games. If it helps with understanding though, I won’t dismiss it.

It isn’t enough for games to have great atmosphere and world building — the world itself should be the story. We should also be able to discern between Character and World narratives, and recognize why a game’s presentation comes up short. This is what was so frustrating with Final Fantasy VII Remake (as of 2021). I’m not going to argue that FF7r isn’t fun to play, or gripe about it’s length. While most agree it’s a good game, many fans felt the game was lacking something.

It isn’t just that parts of the story were changed — plot changes can be welcome, to keep things fresh. However, the original FF7, was, without a doubt a world narrative by the standards of 1997. The only character that cared about who Cloud is, was Tifa. To the world, both Tifa and Cloud are inconsequential. Cloud is a … small character in the grand scheme. Sephiroth & Shinra are going to be doing the things they want to do regardless of whatever Cloud is doing. To the world and the antagonists, the most important character is Aerith — and she dies pretty early in the game. The story could care less about Cloud and his party, and therefore the world seems huge and imposing.

Contrast that with a fully realized Midgar in FF7r. Cloud has become the most important character and Midgar itself is just a stage for Cloud & Sephiroth. Based on elevating “protagonists” to hero status, it is likely that Aerith will not die this time, but fans are merely speculating that at this point. Not only is the game centered on Midgar, but even the city’s scale and scope feels like it has shrunk compared to how important our protagonists have become.

Final Fantasy VII always had cutscenes and character interactions, but in becoming a character narrative, that is all that is left. I’m not going to say the original FF7 was a perfect example of world narrative. It doesn’t hit all of the marks, but again, for 1997 that can be expected. What I am saying is, here we have an example of what happens when we lose the point and presentation of a game. Is FF7r a good game? Sure… something is still there to play, but losing the identity of the world… the experience became a hollow fan service of Tifa vs Aerith internet wars. Development of world narrative started well before the original FF7, and instead of continuing to develop that idea we’ve resorted to simply copying film’s presentation.

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