In a move that is somewhat unusual for a videogame column, I would like to ask you to consider not a game or a development in the gaming industry but a film… and not just any film, but an obscure art house film.
Jaime Rosales’ The Hours of the Day (2003) (a.k.a. Las Horas Del Dia) tells the story of Abel. Abel lives with his mother and operates a decidedly unglamorous clothing shop in a run-down part of town. He has a low-intensity relationship with his girlfriend who wants them to move in together, he has a passive-aggressive relationship with his shop assistant who wants more severance pay than Abel can afford and he has a rather tense friendship with another man who wants him to invest in a marketing project.
Though these relationships dominate Abel’s life, he is distant from all of them; he bickers with his mother, he sabotages his girlfriend’s attempts to find them a flat and he ruins his best friend’s wedding day by casually revealing that the bride once made a pass at him. In all of his dealings, Abel comes across as weirdly detached and disconnected, as though the human world is somehow beyond his comprehension. This disconnection from every-day social reality makes Abel almost impossible to understand. We do not understand why he sabotages his relationships and we certainly do not understand the savage murders that Abel carries out seemingly at random throughout the film. Because Abel’s motivations are so completely impenetrable, it is remarkably difficult to extract anything resembling a human drama from the events depicted in The Hours of the Day. The film does not appear to be a comment upon unhealthy relationships or the absurdity of existence or even a portrait of one man’s descent into madness. It is simply a series of events presented in chronological order. Stuff happens.
The film critic Mark Kermode said of The Hours of the Day that it is :
“A quietly poisonous portrait of everyday madness, shocking in its clinical execution and all the more disturbing for its unflinching dramatic understatement.”
I would argue that the film appears understated because it is not making any statement whatsoever. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that any commentary upon “everyday madness” detected by Kermode in the film is entirely of his own invention. This is not an uncommon phenomenon.
In the 1910s and 1920s, the Russian filmmaker and theorist Lev Kuleshov carried out a series of experiments in film-editing. In these experiments, Kuleshov filmed an actor pulling a somewhat ambiguous facial expression. This footage was then spliced in with footage of a bowl of soul, a dead child and a semi-naked woman. The assembled footage was then shown to audiences who projected three entirely different sets of emotions onto the same facial expressions based upon whether that expression was juxtaposed with the bowl of soup, the dead child or the semi-naked woman.
Kuleshov’s experiments went on to inform many of the montage techniques used to produce films such as Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (1926) but, for our purposes, they demonstrate the human propensity for weaving narratives around naked facts. When we see two images side by side, we cannot experience them as simple images, we have to place them in a cause and effect relationship. We have to tell stories.
This, I would argue, is what lies behind Kermode’s belief that The Hours of the Day constitutes some kind of commentary upon domestic reality. Kermode was confronted by images of a dreary life and images of bloody murder and he inferred a causal link between the two sets of images despite the fact that the film itself makes no explicit claims about Abel’s motivations. This phenomenon is what narrative theorists call ‘Overreading’. As H. Porter Abbott puts it :
“Overreading is a phenomenon that is frequently cued by the masterplots in which our fears and and desires are most engaged. It is what allows some people to flesh out an incident involving inexplicable lights in the night sky with a chain of events involving extraterrestrial beings. It is what allows others to load up a stranger with an unflattering moral character, cued only by the color of his skin. Our minds seem to abhor narrative vacuums. We try to fill them in.” — The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (2008), pp89
One way of engaging with this psychological quirk is by talking about the existence of Emergent Narrative. These would be stories that emerge from raw facticity despite the absence of an author; stories that emerge when we try to describe a series of unconnected events, prompting our poor brains to scramble to fill in the gaps and smooth out the awkward edges; stories that can transform mere happenstance into amusing anecdotes and the brutal meaninglessness of existence into the neatly manicured Grand Plans of organised religion.
So how does all of this relate to videogames? Simple. One of the most disastrous things to ever happen to videogames was the emergence of the belief that being a game designer is a bit like being a film director and that it is the job of a game’s designers to create a story.
Consider the following games :
- Space Invaders (1978)
- Breakout (1976)
- Tetris (1984)
- Pac-Man (1980)
- Civilization (1991)
All of these classic games share a lack of anything so much as approaching an imposed narrative. Their designers presented them to us in their naked form: there were no love interests, there were no societies to rescue, there were no themes, sub-plots, meta-narratives or references to other games in the same series. These were games at their most raw and powerful.
Now consider games such as Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series and Hironobu Sakaguchi’s Final Fantasy series. Both contain some genuinely brilliant and jaw-dropping moments in gaming, but both also include hour upon hour of excruciatingly written, acted and directed cut-scenes that desperately ape old films and manga, only to produce stories that are not only incoherent and dull but also terrifyingly formulaic. Indeed, I recently played my way through the suggestively-titled Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004) and was struck by how pointless and distracting all of Kojima’s plotting really was. Not only did the cut-scenes fail to engage my emotions, they actively spoiled my enjoyment of the game by jolting me out of the deliciously fun sneaking-and-murdering that makes up the bulk of the title’s gameplay.
I think the time has come for game designers to realise that the best way of ensuring that their games tell good stories is for them to refrain from telling a story at all. Just give us the facts; our narrative junkie brains will do the rest. You’re programmers, not Scorsese. Give it a rest.
What The Hours of the Day demonstrates is that a skilled director can use a set of narrative techniques to stimulate his audience’s brains into generating a narrative of their own. This is also evident in films such as Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963), where a lack of dialogue combines with suggestive imagery to force the audience to project motives and themes onto the film in order to fill in the gaps. In fact, these techniques are so well established in art house cinema that some directors are even able to deconstruct them by deploying them inside a narrative that actually makes no sense whatsoever. Indeed, watching Emmanuel Carrere’s La Moustache (2005) is a fantastic experience in cognitive dissonance, as one is aware that – on one level – that the film doesn’tt make sense, but that awareness does not stop one from trying – on another level – to make sense of it all anyway.
The human urge to weave events into a narrative shape is something that has always underpinned the table-top roleplaying hobby. From the earliest days of Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs were little more than combat systems allowing your character to navigate his or her way through a series of tactical challenges. However, even though early D&D published adventures were frequently little more than floor-plans and combat stats, great human stories would emerge organically from play: perhaps two players would fall into a degree of rivalry and this rivalry would result in their characters betraying each other; perhaps a player might have his character snap at someone in the local tavern, resulting in the character being stabbed and the entire session drifting off into an extended side-bar in which the characters wage war on the local community [You evidently played D&D with far more interesting people than I did, J. – Ed.].
Indeed, this tendency of tabletop RPG sessions to spiral off away from the story the GM had planned to tell is what provides many RPG-related comics – such as Jolly Blackburn’s Knights of the Dinner Table, John Kovalic’s Dork Tower and Mehdi Sammi’s Les Irrecuperables – with their principle thematic drives.
The idea of Emergent Narrative is quite closely related to the concept of Emergent Gameplay, wherein complex situations emerge from the interactions between simple game mechanics. My favourite example of emergent gameplay is apocryphal (or soI suspect, given that the game in question did not actually contain any inheritance mechanics) but, according to the relevant Wikipedia page, the game-designer Peter Molyneux once told a story about a piece of emergent gameplay that turned up during the play-testing of his game Fable (2004) :
“He says he watched a 15-year old playtester chat up a woman in town who happened to be the mayor’s daughter. He brought her gifts and flowers, talked to her all the time, started hugging and kissing her… and eventually they married and moved in together. Molyneux says he was delighted that a player was exploring this part of the game. Then the playtester talked to the Mayor and asked him to follow him. He took the mayor out to the woods, got him behind a tree … and killed him! “Why did you do that!?” Molyneux asked. “I figured the mayor was rich, and he’d give all his money to his only daughter,” answered the tester. Of course, now the daughter had lots of money, but didn’t want to share any of it. So the playtester killed her, too. (Then he moved into the mayor’s house!)”
This is a relatively simple example of what can happen if you design a game and then leave the players to create their own stories, but Molyneux’s tale of greed, jealousy, murder and social climbing – while eerily reminiscent of the plot of Stendhal’s classic novel The Red and The Black (1830) – is incredibly basic when compared to some of the narratives to emerge from Bay 12 Games’ indie freeware darling Dwarf Fortress.
Sitting down to play Dwarf Fortress is an intimidating experience. Before you even start to play properly you are asked to set up your expedition and select the area in which you will establish your base-camp; the plethora of options and the myriad factors determining how those options will affect play is so overwhelming that it is easy to find oneself not only paralysed by indecision but actively locked out of the game. Dwarf Fortress does not give you an easy tutorial level or anything approaching an explanatory narrative, it just tells you to get on with it.
Aside from the fact that many people do manage to play their way through Dwarf Fortress, what is most exciting about the game is the quality of the stories that it seems to generate. Consider for example, this thread, or this website, or this website. Or this one, or maybe this one. All of these contain stories that have emerged entirely organically from the Dwarf Fortress experience: stories that exist without cut-scenes, without stilted dialogue developed by third-rate voice actors and without code monkeys pretending to be Fellini. Not only do these narratives emerge naturally from play, they emerge beautifully formed and filled with tragedy, comedy and the sparkle of verisimilitude that systematically seems to evade the likes of Hideo Kojima. Nor is Dwarf Fortress alone in its capacity for generating Emergent Narratives. How about Football Manager? or The Sims? or Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast?
What is most extraordinary about the human brain’s capacity for generating narratives is that pretty much all of the above stories are streets ahead of the type of narrative you find in your average over-produced AAA title. In fact, the disparity is such that one is almost tempted to speculate as to whether some Darwinian or ergonomic force is at work here, guaranteeing that the people best suited to manage teams of programmers are also those with the least developed narrative centres of the brain… or whether perhaps working in teams under intense pressure kills humans’ natural capacity for story-telling. Either way, I suggest a change of tack.
Instead of trying to be Martin Scorsese, video game designers should follow the examples set by Jaime Rosales and Emmanuel Carrere in focusing their efforts, not on telling stories, but on mastering the cues that provoke their audience into telling stories for themselves. Video games are supposed to be an interactive medium, and their narratives should reflect this by flowing from a combination of good design and engaged audience brains, and not from the minds of the design team. Anything to save us from yet another diabolical cut-scene…
Jonathan McCalmont is a recovering academic with a background in philosophy and political science. He lives in London, UK where he teaches and writes about books and films for a number of different venues. Like Howard Beale in Network, he is as mad as hell and he’s not going to take this any more.
Jonathan recently launched Fruitless Recursion – “an online journal devoted to discussing works of criticism and non-fiction relating to the SF, Fantasy and Horror genres.” If you liked the column above, you’ll love it.
[ The fractal in the Blasphemous Geometries header image is a public domain image lifted from Zyzstar. ]