It’s just you versus the world

I’ve been thinking a great deal about what I said in the last post. I’ve been thinking that, while I still agree with what I said, there is a way to look at this problem that might both be easier and the best solution to the complex issue of trying to balance enabling the player while, simultaneously, giving them escalating challenges. Basically: no villain. Before I get to my reasons though, let me walk you through how I got there.

It started with this comment by Motoki:

“I wonder to if the idea of a villain or any antagonist at all is even necessary and that maybe non-linear gaming experiences could be freed up by not being tied down to defeating a big bad in the end.”

My gut reaction was to write the following: “You are very wrong!” However, I took some time to really think about the problem of trying to map the story framework to games and was brought right back to position I have made several times before: games aren’t stories. [See “Whose story is it anyway?” and, of course, “Games aren’t Stories” for a listing of many of the problems.]

See, if we want to talk about stories in passive mediums like books and movies, then, yes, we absolutely need an antagonist. The protagonist must be in conflict with something. Even if the conflict is only Man v. Self, it must exist. It is this primary, protagonist v. antagonist (as well as many others in longer works), conflict that makes up a story.

This will also work in video games, but we have to be careful in what layer we are talking about. From the player (top-level) perspective, they are always fighting against the game as they inch toward mastery. Every action they take builds toward — or away — from that goal. The central conflict on the top layer of looking at the experience is always Player v. Mechanics.

From the character perspective, this gets a great deal messier. If we want to consider the player as only having temporary control over the character (i.e. role-playing), then the antagonist can exist in conflict with the character while not being in conflict with the player herself. The player, via the character, might defeat the villain in the end, but the story was, in this case, always about the character. This is the case for nearly all of the games on the market right now. The player just happens to have control, nearly coincidentally, in order to ‘play’ through certain more exciting incidents in the story of the character.

To return to the quote for a moment, yes, we will need an antagonist, but only in the sense that the character is fighting towards a goal against some enemy. As the character gains in skills, knowledge or even abilities, they come closer and closer to being a match for the ultimate test of the character’s prowess: the final fight against the villain. Again, seemingly coincidental (i.e. designed this way), the player also gains a greater mastery of these same skills or abilities as the character gains them in order that she be tested by the mechanics as the player’s progress (fabula) and game story (sujet) collide in this deciding battle.

Via this method, we have the character following the classic three act structure with the fight between the protagonist and antagonist as the moment of climax followed by, depending on the game, either some cut-scene dénouement or the ability to interact with those who remain after the battle. This is a very linear structure and it works quite well for linear storytelling in passive mediums and even for stories where the player is of little importance to the story of the game.

“The other thing is, I wonder if a game really even needs to have an end at all? Of course, you want resolution to individual quest lines and good stories and dialog for the quests helps too, but does a game need an actual end? I have seen plenty of people claim to have played the Elder Scrolls games for hundreds of hours and never got to the end.” (emphasis added)

There it is, the little secret that is the root of all the trouble in trying to take this same story framework and graphing it to open-world games. You either end up, as I mentioned in the other post, with dual — dueling? — canons of what happens to the player and what happens for the character or you have players more invested in the world of the game than the actual story (sujet).

Let me make it clear here that I am not making the case that one of these interpretations is better than the other. If a player decides to invest more time, as I have, in collecting herbs and talking to NPCs than doing all the fighting, that is their — and my — right. If, on the other hand, players go from point to point in a quest to complete “the story”, they can do that too. Neither is invalid. What I more concerned about is the game (read: developers) making the case that all the time I spend in doing something was not important to the game story. If the character is defined through the actions I have her take, and then the game tells me that actually, no, something else happened, I am then not in control at all and my choices have no meaning.

If I am to be the deciding factor for all actions for this character, as most open-world would have you believe, then I must have the choice, then, of choosing what “the story” is too — and when, or if, it ends. I should not be forced to choose between exploring the world, defining (i.e. performing) my identity, or completing the game. If this is the case, as I’ve tried to make the case from writing about my playing in Oblivion in the past, then I am forced into playing a role (the hero/heroine) and I am not actually free to be as “open” as many games would have you believe.

Does a video game need a villain? No. Does a video games need an antagonist? That depends. Does you game have a story? Because, if it does, you need both a protagonist and an antagonist (as well as a point of view for the reader). And conflict. And plot. However, keep in mind that there exists two on-going stories, that which the reader creates from the text and that which the game is trying to tell. If you are the developer, you have to make the decision about which you will support and which you will limit. Interpretations are endless, expressions are limited.