Let’s talk about story and characters in gaming. What’s that? The title says I’ll be talking about my expectations for acclaimed visual novel-style game 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors (999 for short)? The thing is, you can’t really have a great game that’s centred on the plot without (stop me if you see where this is going) a good plot. Plenty of games can benefit from really nailing down the story and characters (even some fighting games have a go at non-negligible stories, with varying degrees of success), but if 999 doesn’t really draw me in with the story, it’s hard to see how it could be successful.
But what does ‘a good plot’ actually mean? As I look forward to 999, I find myself hesitant to throw around the term ‘good story and characters’ without picking out more specific (but generalisable) lessons, especially if I’m going to learn to incorporate such qualities in my own games . A disclaimer: I’m not a trained writer (I know you can hardly tell from these posts), so I’m not really qualified to give (nor am I interested in giving) a lecture on general ‘good story writing’. Many tenets of story writing in other media are appropriate here, such as attention to detail, a committed theme, and a lack of waste. At the same time, games which centre on a plot compete with literature, cinema and TV as storytelling media – and all those competitors have a bit of a historical head-start. It makes sense, then, to focus on how a game designer can use the story and characters to set games apart as a unique storytelling device from these media, and set one game apart from others. Moreover, I suspect this will be an ongoing topic in this blog (a single post on everything there is to know about story-writing in games would come out to ridiculous length even for me). Here are just a couple points which tie in to my expectations for 999.
Originality is a great thing, but realistically pretty much everything can be traced back to something else. I expect to see some semi-familiar faces, personalities and themes in 999. Understanding and using this can really help though. While the stories and characters found in games could easily be rehashes of those found in other media, taking inspiration from themes and archetypes seen elsewhere is not all bad. In addition, there is one serious bonus games have over other media when telling a story: the player gets to interact with said characters and story. This is probably the motivation behind the endless number of movie-clone games, but there are ways to retell stories without scene-by-scene duplication. This is hardly a secret, but recurring themes and character archetypes in narratives of any kind come up because they are in some way compelling, and the more they come up the more they can be remixed or refined. In-game storytelling can really shine when themes and archetypes are understood (instead of ignored) and refined (as opposed to copied) while also adding gameplay and ‘audience’ (player) interaction.
For example, I’m an avid follower of the ‘Tales’ series of games, and part of the reason is a connection to the story and characters. The anime-like style of art, character archetypes and story themes may not be unique or novel but they represent a new take on them all, one in which the player gets to take part. Sure, it might not be compelling if you’re not already a fan of anime, but what if instead you’re a fan of more gritty war films? Take your pick between down-to-earth FPS’s like Call of Duty and Battlefield. Alien action films are more your thing? The sci-fi-esque Halo, Resistance and Gears of War are there to draw you in while retaining a relatable modern feel. Fancy yourself a modern day superhero? How about Infamous or Crackdown (not to mention the quite successful re-interpretations of existing superheroes, like Batman: Arkham City)? Can’t put down a good mystery? The likes of Hotel Dusk and Phoenix Wright (and maybe even 999) are probably for you. The list goes on, and all of these games have notable story and characters. They draw on the familiar without flat-out copying it, while at the same time putting the player in the action – something which other media can only dream of accomplishing.
As I just hinted above, 999 looks to be something of an anime-mystery hybrid, which has already got my inner-Sherlock grabbing a taxi to the scene of the crime. No doubt the game’s own versions of Watson, the childhood friend, and the two-faced antagonist will be there to greet me.
Choice of Setting
At least on the surface, 999 looks like it will embrace a present-day setting, and that alone carries some positive expectations for me. As a modern medium for storytelling, games are a great place for modern stories and characters. In this way games can more easily relate to personal experience, and bridge some of the historical gap with other media. While I personally am a fan of fantasy and sci-fi, I know plenty of people who just won’t touch them, and it can sometimes be difficult to find a story-centric game that stays mostly in the here-and-now. However, with the likes of TWEWY ,the examples below, and more which I’m sure you can point out in the comments, this is much less true than, say, five to ten years ago. What I think is really important here is understanding the choice of setting, but I’ll use modern settings to illustrate the point.
The Persona series (speaking from experiences of Persona 4, Devil Survivor 1 & 2, Persona 4 Arena, and some research on Persona 3) is a great example of success in this vein. Even as a fan of fantasy or sci-fi settings, I can appreciate being drawn in by a game that has me ringing up a friend to meet up on a weekend, attending school during the week, and then spending my spare time jumping into a TV to solve a murder mystery (okay, maybe I’m stretching that last one). The quirky Catherine comes to mind as another recent use of a setting in which you have a drink at the local bar with your friends, get in trouble over lunch with the girlfriend, and then dream of manically climbing puzzle blocks while avoiding human-sized sheep doing the same (don’t try telling me you’ve never woken up with a cold sweat in the night from that one).
This lesson hits a personal note as, somewhere between all the JRPGs and D&D I play, I recently realised that my creative default is a medieval or fantasy setting. There’s nothing wrong with such settings, they remain some of my favourites as a consumer, but they are a bit silly as a place to start when designing a game or writing a story. I live in a modern setting (at least in theory), I should probably take advantage of that. Do you have any settings that are your personal defaults, either as a consumer or creator? It’s probably worth acknowledging that, understanding why you prefer one or a couple settings, and figuring out what that setting’s strengths and weaknesses are. Feel free to share what you think in the comments below.
Integration of Story and Game
There is one more key element in games that combines with the story and characters to create unique and interesting storytelling permutations, and that is of course the actual game mechanics themselves. How the characters and story reflect the game mechanics, or vice versa, can really make a game amazing, which would segue nicely into one final point about game narrative. Would, except that I don’t think I can do the subject justice without at least a whole post of its own. Also, I’ll let you in on a (not-so-secret) secret: this is where I think 999 could really shine. It’s a visual novel, but not exactly, so there’s the opportunity for game mechanics to jump in and make this so much more immersive than a book with, albeit gorgeous and plentiful, pictures. With this in mind, I’ll just ask you to bear with me until next time, when I will hopefully dig right in to the topic of integrating story and game mechanics with a brand new example: 999 itself. And if the game proves itself in some other equally noteworthy way (or, Arceus forbid, it disappoints on this front), then I’ll just save this topic for a later post. Consider that an open invitation to poke me to write about this topic if you want to hear more.
While I can hardly say I’ve solved or completely untangled the phrase ‘good story and characters’ as it relates to games, hopefully I’ve provided a few principles and examples worth thinking about (and discussing in the comments) when constructing the narrative of a game. To start off, it’s important to understand the character archetypes and story inspirations of the game in question, how they’ve been refined and remixed from other implementations, and how putting all this into a game (as opposed to a movie, for example) gives them new value. Choice of setting is always important as well. For example, games in modern settings can warrant special attention as they are sometimes underrepresented despite being relatable to a wide audience. Finally, how the actual mechanics of the game integrate with the story is crucial, and we’ll hopefully discuss that more next time. Oh, and did I mention that I’m looking forward to 999?
There should be little doubt that there are many more lessons to be learned about storytelling and characters in games. I can already think of one or two things I’d like to explore given more time and examples, and I’ve not even wrapped this already-long post up. In the meantime, maybe you can help.
What are your thoughts on what makes a ‘good story’ and ‘good characters’ in games? If you’re up for it, challenge yourself to pick out one or two games which appeal to you because of story and characters, then pick them apart a bit in the comments below. What is it you like about them? Is it just that the combination of archetypes, setting and themes hit a sweet spot for you, or is there something about the presentation of it all that could apply to other games? And make sure to join me when I talk about What I Like About 999.