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Narrative mode and thematic statements

A video slideshow covering narrative mode and theme.
In this final section on narrative for video game character design, we will discuss narrative mood and, crucially, the importance of theme to characterisation and storytelling in games. Let’s first look at narrative mode, which can be described in terms of three elements. Firstly, the narrative point of view can be considered the perspective from which story is being told. Think in terms of prose and the different points of view that may be used. First person, for instance– I or we. Second person is you. And the third person– he, she, they. Next we can say the narrative voice, which is the way in which your story is narrated.
For instance, a subjective voice will reveal a character’s inner thoughts while objective voice will not. The former is fairly common for many novels and the latter for films. But the type of narrative voice used is not strictly tied to any particular media form. You may also consider an omniscient voice, in which the narrator has oversight of many events and characters, properly used in narratives that have an ensemble cast. Lastly, narrative time concerns whether we are working with past, present, or future tense. All of this may seem appropriate to novels, films, and television, but how exactly does this impact our understanding of game character design?
Well, first of all, we can make a connection between point of view in a literary sense and camera selection in video games. We even use the same terminology here. First person cameras are used for first person games, for example the Dishonored series, while third person cameras allow us to follow and observe the character directly, as in the Assassin’s Creed games. Many of games allow for mixtures of camera selection, alternating between a first and third person, However, in all of these games, we could argue that the player takes on the role of the character, i.e. we are the character to some degree.
And therefore, there really is a distinction between first and third person in terms of point of view and first and third person in terms of camera. This use of the same technology can lead to some confusion. We may define a game as being first for third person. And by that, we mean the camera is used in this manner. But applying literary understanding of narrative point of view, we really are addressing the characters, not the game as a whole. A better way of understanding narrative point of view and also narrative voice in game characters is by linking it to the agency as a player rather than to the camera. This may seem strange.
But consider this– we are really concerned with whether the player regards that character as I or as he, she, or they. When the character is running or jumping, does the player conceive this as I am running and jumping or she is running and jumping? This is a much more useful way of considering point of view.
A first person character can be shown from any camera view, as a first person character is one that allows for a higher degree of player agency or control and that does not act autonomously, Where game characters have some autonomy, for example, if they perform and they speak within cut scenes or make significant decisions that you cannot affect, this is much more similar to third person point of view. I.e. They are doing this. He said something. She made this decision, et cetera. It’s not truly third person as a player obviously controls a character within game play. But this is a much better way of conceiving of first and third person point of view in playable characters.
If we take this further, we can observe that narrative voice allows a player to establish a particular kind of relationship with the game character. For instance, subjective voice is often used in a functional sense, providing the player with clues by having the character offer suggestions as part of their audible thought processes. This exposure of character thoughts can also provide emotional context, fleshing out the character’s personality more. A downside to subjective voice is a separation between player and character. You see the character less as an extension of themselves in the game world and more as a virtual actor for which they exercise some control.
Narrative time is an interesting factor to consider. Fundamentally, all game play takes place in the present, regardless of when that present is. A player makes choices in a moment and sees outcomes of those choices play out in the present tense. Even if you’re transported via flashback into the past of the character, if you’re still engaged with game play, this is still the present tense. I am jumping, he is running, et cetera. It is only via narrative exposition or cut scene that we can really consider narrative time that is past or future.
This conundrum around narrative time is one of the arguments we can make regarding the difficulty of considering video games as a narrative form equivalent to that of linear media, such as films or novels. The emphasis in direct player involvement in storytelling means that game stories can never be narrated or told in the same way that stories unfold in other media forms, as a player will always be locked into a present tense when they exercise their control over characters. At the same time, it makes for interesting choices around storytelling and interactive characters while allowing players to take control of characters in different time periods, including moving back into and acting in the past.
Moving on from narrative mode, let us conclude this section by considering what I’d argue is the most important aspect of any compelling narrative. It’s theme or themes. In essence, the theme is the message or comment that a game seeks to pass on. And the characters ought to play some role in importing or conveying that message. Often, we consider the theme to get a single word, such as love or power. But this is an oversimplification of what we really want. We might use these words to help us understand how characters might fulfil their roles, how they might act, or what kind of game play they might use. But it doesn’t really tell us anything of true value.
We’re going to take this further into a more specific idea, such as love endures or power corrupts. With this, we get closer to the heart of what it is we want our characters to communicate through their explicit actions and behaviours or for the abilities you alllow players to access and control. However, while these two odd phrases offer more detail, we still do little to communicate a specific meaning or moral. But what we really want is to define a thematic statement. This takes the high concept of the core thing and makes it much more overt. One way of understanding a thematic statement is by considering what Robert McKee calls the controlling idea.
McKee stated that a controlling idea may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end. In this sense, a control idea ought to comprise two components– a value and a cause. That value is a central notion, positive or negative, that is conveyed by the narrative. Here, love fades can be considered the value. But without a cause, it is not yet a thematic statement. The cause is the reason why the characters have come to experience the value. To turn love fades into a thematic statement, we need to suggest a reason for love to fade.
So love fades when lovers put career before family, or love fades when lovers want different things. These are true thematic statements or controlling ideas. They will tell us much more about not only what will happen to the characters, but what message their actions and fate must communicate to the player. So let’s finish by considering why theme or a thematic statement really is so important. We know that when we look back on the history of video games, we can easily pick up on basic character back stories, use of archetypes, variation on plot structures, and indeed creative use of narrative mode. But in more recent years, there’s been a push to use theme to tell meaningful stories and convey complex messages.
Many video games today embed thematic statements into their narrative design. As a result, video game characters are designed to reflect and embody these themes. Of the studios doing the most work in this area, Naughty Dog stands out as a key player. Let’s see their 2013 game The Last of Us as an example. What thematic statements might we extract from this work? Well, we might suggest that as it focuses on the collapse of society and the struggle for survival in a violent world, the core thematic statement might be in order to survive, we must become the monster. Playing as Joel, the player is forced to act out many violent acts.
And yet, Joel is still presented as a rounded and emotionally complex character, as a father who lost his daughter in the violence. On a more personal level, you can suggest systematic statement of to overcome the grief of personal loss, a new meaning to life must be discovered. These thematic statements inform the relationship Joel has, particularly with the character Ellie, but also the game play actions that are performed.
In summary, narrative mode helps us to understand and interpret the balance between authorial control and player agency within a video game character. In other words, to what extent is the character behaving in an autonomous manner controlled by the game designer or writer’s choices or to what extent does the character submit entirely to player decision making and actions. This can be considered in terms of narrative point of view, narrative voice, and narrative time. And the theme, or more correctly the thematic statement, helps us to establish what the overall message of a video game narrative might be and in turn, what choices a character may be presented with, what actions they can perform, and what consequences they face.

As we close this section on narrative and video game characters, we will discuss two final considerations that impact on the design and reception of video game characters: the narrative mode, and the value of thematic statements.

After watching this video, can you contribute some of your own examples of games that you think contained a strong thematic statement? How did this impact on character design and reception?

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Video Game Design and Development: Video Game Character Design

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