by Joseph Arciresi
1912, coast of Maine. You are sitting in a rowboat being pulled along in a storm. Two people, a gentleman and a lady, are sitting in front of you in yellow raincoats. The man complains about having to row. The woman turns briefly to you and hands you a box. In it are several objects. Of note, a pistol and a photo of a girl. On the back of the photo, the words “Bring to New York unharmed” are written.
Sound familiar? These are the first few moments of Irrational Games’ title, BioShock Infinite.
This situation (that is, ‘waking up’ in an unknown location, or opening one’s eyes to a scenario, already in progress) is a fairly common one in video games. From the get-go, the player is immersed in a situation with little, or no context, and must extrapolate who they are and what they must do. Certainly, most games have some sort of overarching narrative, but what sets video games apart from other media is that the minute details of the assembled reality are often left for the player to infer on their own. The player, through exploration of their environment, can have different interpretations of a story.
In her text “The Poetry of Created Space,” Lana Polansky discusses the concept of Narrative Architecture, in which the created spaces of the game are considered to be as (if not more) important that characterization through plot or dialogue. It allows an active learning about a game via its environment rather than simply having it dictated via cut scene or conversation. In a way, this is the most complex option because it engages the player, allows them to supply all the nuance and subtlety themselves, which in turn turns the game into a unique experience for that particular player.
In The Fullbright Company’s game, Gone Home, the player immediately perceives the front porch of a house. There are packed bags in front of them, with the name ‘Kaitlin Greenbriar’ written on the tags. A note addressed to ‘Katie’ attached to the front door tells the player not to try to look for the note’s author, signed as ‘Sam’. In the first 30 seconds of the game, there are already a number of inferences that can be made, but that are not, and never are, overtly stated. It is left up to the player to decide who Sam is, what the relationship between the two is (there is a reference to ‘Mom and Dad’ on the note, suggesting a sibling, gender unknown), or even whether or not to find out why Sam left or simply ignore it altogether, as the note requests.
The player is free to do and think whatever they wish about the scenario. The game’s rules do not prevent or penalize the player one way or the other, nor does it directly reward them. The player’s ‘reward’ is their own satisfaction at having been able to draw their own conclusions from the provided material. This is where the concept of Narrative Architecture really shines. Depending on the player’s ability to find clues, they may miss or overlook a piece of information. This in turn, will change how they understand the story, which may lead to a different interpretation altogether. In this way, a focus on ‘active storytelling’ is often the most satisfying and personally rewarding to the player, because they are involved on all levels, simultaneously: as audience, actor, and playwright.