01
Jun
09

The Nature of Narrative: The Longest Journey

Narrative in games, for a while now, seems to be closely following the Hollywood action blockbuster model. Levels serve as the action heavy sequences that are punctuated by chunks of exposition served up in cut-scenes. It’s no surprise that the rise of gaming is now compared next to the rise of the film industry. In an effort to legitimise the medium the question has turned to when the games industry will produce something akin to the movie classics. When will we have our Citizen Kane? When will we create a story to rival the Godfather?

It seems that these questions, indeed these comparisons, only miss the very thing games need in order to be taken seriously as a mature medium: A proper narrative delivered in a way that would only be effective as a game. I recently played through Funcom’s classic adventure game The Longest Journey and its follow-up Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. Paradoxically, despite the exposition heavy nature of the games, I was struck by various moments that advanced the story and the user experience through ways entirely unique to gaming.

It’s strange but the moment that has stuck with me in the time since playing The Longest Journey, the moment that resonated strongest, was of such little consequence to the overall story that it’s almost trivial. Towards the end of the game you are tasked with uniting the warring species of the Maerum and the Alatien. In order to gain audience with the leader of the Alatien you have to complete an obligatory puzzle to prove you are indeed the prophetic figure you claim to be. Instead of the puzzle involving runes, an ancient stone dais or a mixture of disparate items, to which I had grown accustomed throughout the course of the game, I was asked to learn the four stories from which the Alatien based their culture. What struck me was the nature in which they told these stories. Each Alatien I spoke to began with this sentence:

This is my tale and I tell it to you in my own words, as it was told to me by my teacher, in her words.

It was only later when I spoke to The Teller, the Alatien’s leader, that the import of this sentence became apparent. She explains how the Alatiens tell their stories in their own words from generation to generation and, while the stories will change over the ages, this is a necessity or they will cease to have meaning to those that tell them. It was an excellent piece of back-story into the philosophy of the race that was only driven home through the nature of the puzzle forcing interaction with their culture.

The Alatiens

Dreamfall, while being a less successful ‘game’, still contained moments of interactivity that heightened the player’s emotional attachment to the story in a way that couldn’t be aped in other media. This is most notable when Zoë discovers Faith’s room. At first her descriptions at the items around the room are dry and clinical, simply stating what she can see. After learning of the nature of Jiva’s testing on Faith leading to her eventual death it is possible to go back into the room and hear Zoë’s thoughts on the same items delivered in a much more personal and heartfelt way. Her sadness at the pictures on the wall and the bed that Faith spent most of her short life serve to tell the player more about Zoë’s character rather than just imparting simple information, and it’s the contrast with the earlier visit that provides the emotional heart of the section.

Faith's Room

Finally there are those stories that are intimately tied to the players personal experience with a game. The Longest Journey shouldn’t feature here as it’s a tightly scripted adventure game, and yet…

The nature of puzzles in The Longest Journey work like this: April will pick up an item and carry it around until she magically divines that she will have no use for it any more, at which point it disappears. One, rather ridiculous puzzle, involves a rubber duck, a clothes line and a clamp. After it was done, all the items disappeared with the exception of the duck, suggesting that it would be used for a puzzle later in the game. Any point where I found myself stuck for what to do next I would try the rubber duck in the hope that I would finally be done with the stupid thing. I never was, it was a bug that kept it in my inventory long past the point it ceased to be useful. It may be a bit of a stretch to suggest a glitch as an example of emergent narrative, except whenever you inflated the duck air would leak out of a small hole in it. After I tried the duck on whichever puzzle had currently stopped me in my tracks I would be rewarded with a minute or so of the sound of deflating air, amplifying the feeling of failure at being able to see the path I was meant to take. By the end I had very strong feelings about that bloody duck.

I Named Him Moby Dick

A 10 year old adventure game is hardly the only example of narrative strengthened by interactivity; it’s not even the best example. Instead it was just the most recent case of something I played that gave me hope that the future of the industry doesn’t lie in over-produced ‘cinematic’ cut-scenes that often do nothing more than remove the player from the attachment that can build from the tactile nature of games.

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