One of the most widespread discussions in games today is the distinction between game narrative and game writing. While they can certainly overlap, they are definitely two separate things: A game’s narrative is the actual story that happens when you play through it, while the game’s text make up all the words you encounter on the way. Games can go pure narrative with no text (Jason Rohrer’s Passage) or incorporate text as a means of conveying a narrative (Bioware’s Anything They’ve Ever Made Ever). I haven’t encountered any pure text games that do away with narrative completely in favor of naked prose, but I’m sure a few exist.
I recently finished Blendo Games’ Thirty Flights of Loving, a barely 10-minute-long, text-free adventure, while simultaneously working through GTA4‘s The Lost and Damned DLC pack since I recently fell into a time warp and emerged in 2009.
Like most experimental, bite-sized games, Thirty Flights of Loving (TFoL)’s ideas are more interesting than their execution. As you meander through the environments, the game jump-cuts you further along in the timeline (or backward, or perhaps sideways) at the developer’s whim. This borrowed film technique feels novel and exciting – you alternate thinking “what’s next?” and “what the hell is going on?” at regular intervals – but the schizophrenic story fails to tie its interesting threads together in a smooth way. It’s easy to blame the almost total lack of any onscreen text or spoken dialog, but the developer crafts enough memorable scenes without them to dissuade that thought. The ending is as opaque as the whole point of the exercise, which may be the developer’s ultimate point. In either case, faults notwithstanding, it remains an interesting experience that bravely breaks convention. I thought it was pretty sweet.
GTA4: The Lost and Damned, on the other hand, is largely the same kind of GTA adventure you’ve come to expect, replete with criminally-inclined characters with ludicrous potty mouths who occasionally antagonize/sympathize with your avatar’s character when the appeal of the story missions reaches diminishing returns and a plot point is required to shake things up. A rudimentary, but effective narrative structure is established from the opening credits and a well-realized opening scene: As the second-in-command of a biker gang, you’re on uneasy footing with the leader returning fresh from a prison stint. Will the leader snap? Will the player lead a mutiny and assume control? Will opportunistic enemy gangs seize on this internal turmoil to make a power play?
It’s largely the same crime drama that Rockstar’s been spinning for years, but like a time-tested recipe, it tastes just as good the 30th time around (Note: I am about 7 hours into the main story). While you don’t really have a say in how things turn out, it’s the little innovations carried over from GTA4 that add authenticity to the story. Being able to call minor characters in-between missions on your cell or email them for candid exchanges, as minor as it seems, goes a surprisingly long way in fleshing out Johnny’s world of miscreants and lunatics.
Lazy game ‘journalists’ love to come up with arbitrary either/or scenarios when evaluating games, and I’m just as guilty. I wish more games took Blendo’s cue and developed interesting stories without the crutch of endless dialog bubbles. I wish more games looked at GTA more critically and strove to really understand how well-crafted characters can make any ‘kill ten rats’ mission seem important.
But more than anything, I want to see more games, like TFoL, break the unspoken rule of game narrative: Treat the player as someone smart enough to get your story without being bopped over the head with it. I may not be smart enough for TFoL, or maybe it’s too clever for its own good, but I appreciate the gesture all the same.