Writing

Perspective and Interpretation in Video Game Storytelling

Hallway Mirror by Helen.2006

With the right game, a computer screen can become mirror.

A little over a year ago I became interested with interactive fiction, books or video games that are stories the player creates or manipulates.  As a kid I loved reading Choose Your Own Adventure books, so much so that I asked my first grade teacher if I could create one for a writing project.  She said no.  Recently I discovered that interactive fiction was still alive and kicking, which inspired me to play around with various programs in the hope of developing a game of my own.  My best attempt at creating a Zork-like game unexpectedly turned into an as-of-yet unpublished novella called Nimossany.  The main reason why I’ve been so resistant to publish is because of the story’s perspective.  Second-person present tense is a difficult to write, and equally difficult to read.  If the author can’t convince the reader that the “you” in the story is actually them, then the reader will be lost and bored.  For a long time I considered changing Nimossany‘s perspective to something more typical of prose fiction.  However, three well-written works have convinced me that sticking with second-person is the right move.  The three modern games that I feel have influenced my decision are Depression Quest, Gone Home, and Dear Esther.  Each of the games make use of different storytelling styles to convey some very difficult, hard to digest themes, and present them in a way that makes game play engaging and personal.

Gone Home is a game that I describe as, above all, important.  Important is not a word to be used lightly, and I do so here with deliberation.  The game presents several life stories that the player can piece together by uncovering clues scattered about the rooms of a vacant house.  You play as the older sister returning home after a year abroad, while bits of your younger sister’s journal are read as narration.  Because of this, I initially felt more like a detective solving a mystery than someone exploring their own home.  However, within minutes I was properly immersed, and I had accepted the game’s intended perspective.  When listening to the narration or interacting with objects in the game I did so as the older sister; I was in her shoes.  This affected how I played the game, and, rather than doing what I would do, I did what would make sense for the older sister to do.  The game allows for the characters’ stories to be constructed based on the player’s life experiences, making the game’s takeaway unique to everyone.  While I was able to see something of myself (specifically a new fear I’ve discovered) in the father’s failed writing career, most of my interpretations of the story were viewed through the lens of the main character.  This is something that most novel readers should be used to, and works for the benefit of Gone Home‘s story.  The themes and topics addressed are better presented through the eyes of a family member, rather than forcing the player to inject themselves into the story.  The little sister’s journal entires, the main story of the game, might be ignored or disregarded if the player didn’t feel that they were a member of her life.  For example, if the player was a private investigator, neighbor, or trespasser searching through the empty house, there’s a good chance they may not feel as connected to the stories being told.

Originally I wanted to focus solely on the differences between games like Gone Home and Depression Quest; first-person narration and second-person prose, respectively.  However, I feel that Dear Esther‘s epistolary narration had a very different impact on me, and is worth mentioning.  The game is far more surreal, and leaves many openings for interpretation.  Where playing Gone Home felt like solving several mysteries by uncovering clues, Dear Esther felt like a Rorschach test.  The game is more about observing and experiencing than interacting, which pushes the player to look mostly inward.  I had just gone through a very painful break up when I first played the game, and I was full to bursting with feelings like guilt, loss, and self-loathing.  At the time, I couldn’t make sense of the cryptic narration, so I made up my own story as I went along.  I chose to focus on the metaphor and symbolism in the fantastic landscapes and set pieces, drawing meaning from the game’s presentation.  It wasn’t important to me what story the developers set out to tell, it was how I interpreted the story that mattered.  It was almost like at every turn the game was asking me, “how does this make you feel?”  Unintentionally, I used the game as a mirror in which I was able to see the things that were burdening me as clearly as if they were drawn on my face.  Luckily, according to the developer’s website, the game was about those things, and I didn’t miss the point after all.

Two years ago Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest would have emotionally crippled me.  I probably would have shut down for at least a day after playing it because of the similarities I would have drawn from it.  Every screen of text on my first playthrough contained at least one thing that made me say, “yup, been there done that.”  The game is presented, like the earliest video games, as text on a screen, with a list of choices at the bottom.  The decisions I made during my first playthrough were, unconsciously, decisions I would have made in those situations.  This was primarily because the game is second-person point-of-view.  I was put into the game by reading “you” over and over in a story that, despite a few differences, I could identify with overall.  I was incapable of looking through a lens or mirror because I was in the story, allowing me to empathize with the characters and feel emotionally invested in the plot. The ending I got was atypical of a quest-type story structure, but it was satisfying and realistic; it resembles where I feel I’m at right now.  The power of “you” in Depression Quest is that players have to be injected into the game in order for the game to make an impact.  In order for the game’s point to be absorbed, players have to feel like the story is about them, not someone that they are following.  I hope most people won’t have to deal with depression, and for those people Depression Quest does an exceptional job at putting them in the shoes of someone who is.

When going over the manuscript for Nimossany, my editor said something in passing that hasn’t stopped ringing in my ears since: “he.”  Half of the story is written in second-person narrative with the character description purposefully left out.  It was my intention to allow the reader to insert themselves into the novella’s setting, and experience the events of the story through their own eyes.  In a text-based adventure video game this makes perfect sense, but in a bound book it’s a harder pill to swallow. The fact that my editor said “he” could have been because he saw himself in the story.  On the other hand, it could have been because he assumed that it was a male character because similar stories typically feature a hero, not a heroine.  I admit, I may have written the story from my perspective sometimes, but I constantly strived to shape the plot in a way so that anyone could be in the story.  If I were to cave in and make the whole story third-person narrative, I would be limiting the number of possible meanings, interpretations, and reader-specific outcomes.  By establishing who the “you” character is the story falls into a tired archetype, or becomes a clumsy attempt to break the mold.  I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s better to leave the door open for perspective to shape the story, allow readers to participate in creating the plot rather than passively observe it.

Photo by Helen.2006 used with Creative Commons Attribution License

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One thought on “Perspective and Interpretation in Video Game Storytelling

  1. While I do feel that Dear Esther’s story as told by the narrator is absolutely brilliant, I would certainly agree that the metaphors and stories that you can read into the environment are equally well done.

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