In The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins wins a magic ring in a riddle contest. The ring allows the wearer to become invisible, and Bilbo uses that ability to escape from some goblins and later to protect himself during a battle.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins inherits the ring and is tasked with taking it to be destroyed. Along the way, he’s compelled to use it to escape a bar fight, and he uses it again to protect himself from an attack by the Nazgul, alerting them to his presence and causing him to be near-fatally injured in the process.
I’ve played tons of games that do the former — Bilbo completes a quest to win a Ring of Invisibility. I can’t think of a single game I’ve played that did a good job of the latter — the player gets a new ability, but using that ability actually works to advance the narrative.
Even my trusty examples of good storytelling through game mechanics are no help to me here: there are games that use the mechanics to develop the mood or meaning of the story (like Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and segments of BioShock), and there are games that use side effects of the player’s actions to advance the plot (like Portal and Portal 2, and The Secret of Monkey Island). But I’m coming up short trying to think of examples that take advantage of the rules — the player’s established abilities — to alter the plot.
I’m going to describe why I think that is, and how it may be possible to do it.
With 5 Power Comes 5 Responsibility
A couple of disclaimers: First, the title for this section is a quote from Doug Tabacco during a game of Ascension, and it’s one of those cases where I immediately started trying to think of a way to appropriate it as if I’d come up with it. Second: I’m not an authority on role-playing games. My only experience with tabletop RPGs is a couple of standalone sessions over the years, and my first exposure to computer RPGs didn’t come until Diablo was released. So any claims I make about the history of RPGs is pure outsider’s speculation based on a glance at Wikipedia.
But my very high-level guess at how fantasy RPGs developed goes like this: Dungeons & Dragons came out of a miniatures-based tabletop war game combined with a Lord of the Rings-inspired fantasy setting. The tactical combat portion of the game is still heavily rooted in the rules of the war game, and those rules bled into the storytelling aspect of the game. Dice rolls were now used to represent more abstracted narrative events like being able to unlock treasure chests or to persuade characters to do something.
Presumably, without all the rules, systems, and dice rolls in effect, a session of “pure” role-playing could quickly deteriorate into either Calvinball or Axe Cop. I still hear complaints, from people far more versed in tabletop RPGs than I am, that one system descends too far into dice-rolling and tactical combat at the expense of actual role-playing, or that another system is too free-form to have any direction.
As the tabletop RPGs got translated into computer games, they understandably took better advantage of the number-crunching than they did of the free-form storytelling. Some concepts were already entrenched as staples of RPGs just from years of the tabletop games, while others got more emphasized because computers are simply better at handling them.
By the time someone like me gets exposed to the “rules” of magic in fiction, it’s after it’s been represented by dozens of game systems, and it’s already been codified into a rigid system of numbers. Spells cost x amount of mana to cost (or they can only be cast x times per day), and each does y amount of damage of type z. Those are the rules, and the rules are what make it a game.
It’s become so codified, in fact, that the times I’ve been exposed to other descriptions of magic in fiction — even when they haven’t been done that well — have been revelatory. Magical, even. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke presents it in a way that makes it sound wondrous even after I’d played dozens of games that let me cast fireballs and summon magical creatures. It describes magic as weird, dangerous, and exotic.
Even Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s clumsy magic-as-drug-addiction storyline was filled with moments unlike anything that I’d seen in a game — magic battles where the witches don’t have to ready spells into assigned slots, or wait the requisite cooldown time to maximize damage per second. For that matter, even the silly magic battle in The Sword in the Stone was based more on wit than on rules.
Obviously, the difference is that a narrative has built-in limitations on what the characters can and can’t do. An open-ended gaming system needs to enforce those limitations because we’re trying to build a society here.
But when a game is introducing a developer-designed narrative anyway, why not use narrative-based limitations instead of (or in addition to) abstracted, system-based ones? Narratives have to have rules to be satisfying as stories; a novel can no more make its protagonist infallible and invincible than a game can.
Buffy’s magic “rules” were based both on familiar systems — magicians had to be powerful enough to cast certain spells, and certain spells required reagents and rituals — and on narrative limitations — each use of magic was addictive, and using it too much would consume the caster and turn her evil. The “rules” in Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell were even more complex and narrative-based. Strange’s use of magic attracted the attention of the faeries and put his family in danger. There’s a real since that using magic is simultaneously wonderful and awful.
Meanwhile, Underneath Monkey Island…
I’ve said it before, but if I could choose one moment that made me want to work in video games, it was the first “Meanwhile” cut-scene in The Secret of Monkey Island. After Guybrush accomplishes one of his three trials, the game cuts to a distant scene of LeChuck reacting to the news. It was the moment that made me realize that it is possible to do storytelling with a video game, and here was an example of a game that was combining the “language” of cinematic presentation with the rules of a puzzle game. I was being given new narrative information based on my actions within the game.
For whatever reason, instead of building on that as video game storytelling got more sophisticated, the technique became an evolutionary dead end. Showing me what was happening elsewhere in the world gave the sense that I was only seeing a part of a much bigger story, but in most games I’ve played since, the action never once leaves the vicinity of my player character.
More significantly, the scenes in Monkey Island had a rudimentary sense of cause and effect. My actions were making LeChuck nervous, and my actions were raising the tension towards the inevitable showdown. But over time, games dropped that cause and effect in order to tell only tangentially related stories. Completing objectives trigger a cut-scene which is at best a “reward” for finishing a section of the game, or more often just an excuse for the developer to impose more passive storytelling on me.
When a game inserts narrative in unexpected places, it can be powerful. Obviously, peeking behind the walls of the test chambers in Portal is one of the best examples. And one of the best moments in Portal 2 comes when the player steps on an aerial faith plate to start solving a puzzle, and she unexpectedly re-encounters Wheatley. Each is satisfying because it advances the narrative not with a disconnected cut-scene, but as a direct result of something the player is doing.
But neither of those moments, or for that matter the “Meanwhile” cut-scenes in Monkey Island, actually affect the player’s narrative. The player can’t really do anything about them, and the player doesn’t leave with any immediately useful information. They’re terrific at setting tone and mood and at giving context, but aren’t really using the narrative as a gameplay mechanic.
One of my favorite moments in Sam and Max: The Penal Zone is a short scene that plays out the first time (chronologically) you use Max’s teleportation power. It was there mainly as an homage to the opening of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, and to make good on one of Steve Purcell’s ideas from an early brainstorming session: “Sam & Max teleport to another dimension where they’re surrounded by skeletons with scythes.” It also did a little bit of narrative development, of course: to reinforce the idea that Max’s powers were creepy and dangerous, and abusing them could end badly; and to foreshadow the flaming Max heads from the end of the game. I like it a lot, but it would’ve been even better if it had actually done something to advance the story: giving some significant clue for a later puzzle, or replacing some of the tons of expository dialogue that Superball and the alien brain have to deliver.
I Want You To Think About What You Just Did
So how about developing a game where the player’s abilities affect and advance the narrative? It could exploit the thrill of those moments of discovery — I did something that caused this real change to the story — as well as provide a more interesting and less abstracted limiting factor to keep the player’s abilities in check.
I can use this magic ring to make myself invisible. Each time I wear it, I can see what the villain is plotting. But each time I wear it, am I alerting powerful villains to my presence? And each time I wear it, what is the cost to my soul or my sanity?
I can cast this magic spell without worrying about its mana cost, but I have to be concerned about its narrative cost. Will using it too often cause me to go insane? Is it worth the risk, because I’ll get a vision of something happening elsewhere in the world, a danger that I’m going to encounter later? Does it make the villain aware of where I am and what I’m doing, even though I’m nowhere near powerful enough to fight him yet? Does it make the villain jealous of my power and cause him to put innocents at risk? Does it frighten the townspeople, to the point where they don’t simply respond with a canned “hey, cut it out!” response, but actually stop dealing with me? Does casting the spell somehow drain the life of the person who taught the spell to me, forcing me to consider the consequences of using it?
I can inject myself with this DNA-altering cocktail that, somehow, allows me to conjure a swarm of bees to attack my enemies. But is using it actually turning me into one of the demented former humans that I’m fighting? Does it do anything to help me understand them? Does it inadvertently reveal a secret passage that I hadn’t seen before? Does it wound me every time I use it? Does it make the lumbering, unstoppable guards of the city attack me immediately?
More simply: what if the “cake is a lie” room in Portal had been accessible only by creating a portal? What if Wheatley’s reappearance in Portal 2 had him shouting out a piece of information that was necessary to solve the subsequent puzzle? What if destroying the security cameras in both games actually made a difference in how the story played out, instead of just providing an achievement?
The thing I’m most looking forward to in Bioshock Infinite is seeing how the “tears” play out. The preview video shows them being used as a game mechanic, and also as a bit of world-building spectacle (with the glimpse of the alternate universe movie theater). I’m curious how far, if at all, they’ll be used to affect the narrative. It seems to have so many of the qualities I’m thinking of — a powerful “magic” with unpredictable side effects and a definite cost/risk associated with it. Will it be systemized to the point of taking all the wonder out of it, or will it be reduced to a simple “press A button here to trigger cut-scene”?
Or can it finally break the game out of the first-person shooter mold as significantly as the original BioShock tried to, and present a story where the player’s actions have genuine consequences and genuinely advance the story?