September 21, 2012 by rcthames
The distinction between plot and story is important in analyzing movies, books, and television series. Yet, in video games, this distinction may be less prevalent, plot and story often seeming to be one and the same. For many games, the plot that comes across in the act of playing the game is the sole focus, with few gaps and little reflection provoked for the gaps that are present. Players of Super Mario Bros. are not prompted to consider Mario’s life leading up to the events presented in the game beyond some apparent relationship with Princess Peach and some apparent antagonism with Bowser. The past history of the Mushroom Kingdom or its denizens has little bearing on the story of the game. However, some video games have evoked story beyond their explicitly presented plots. In this paper, I will argue that utilizing (or choosing not to utilize) this story in the gaps can have important implications in terms of character attachment, consistency, and story immersion. To make my argument, I will offer a brief comparison of Fallout III and Fallout: New Vegas—two games set in the same general story world, using the same engine, but with wildly divergent approaches to the distinction between plot and story when it comes to the player’s character.
Both Fallout games are set in an alternate history post-apocalyptic future of the U.S., where the Cold War and the 50’s culture of its heyday never ended. Yet that is the extent of their similarity in terms of narrative. Fallout: New Vegas treats its player character like many video games do—with only the character’s actions as they relate to the plot emphasized and little space given to the gaps of how that character came to be who he or she is beyond that. To the player, the opening cinematic reveals that you are a courier, and not much else beyond that you were carrying something important, which was taken when you were captured, and then your captors shot you in the head. The plot reveals that you were rescued by a robot and taken to a nearby town to be fixed up by the town doctor. There are some gaps emphasized to be sure, yet these gaps are not part of some story-world outside the presented plot, but rather the driving force of that plot: Who shot you? Why? What were you carrying? Answers to all these questions will be revealed in the plot as the game progresses on a quest for revenge and recovery of the stolen item. The game allows you to establish your character through a kind of psychology test the doctor performs. The significance of this test to the gameplay is minimal. It suggests which skills you are most trained in, but allows you to select your own regardless. In terms of narrative, it allows you to establish something about the character but does not necessarily evoke reflection on the life the character has led up to this point. The experiences of the character and those of the player are closely matched. Indeed, some conversations in the game even seem to indicate some slight amnesia, such that the life of the character before the player takes over (before the plot as explicitly presented) is all the more uncertain.
The minimal distinction between plot and story has a couple of implications for a game such as this. By focusing on the present action and tying the character’s story/experience to the player’s, the game invites two approaches on the part of the player. The player may choose to immerse his or herself in the world, “What would I do in this situation?,” or may choose a playful approach, given the fluidity of the character, trying out many different decisions and personality expressions (or simply one that is not his or her own). However, since there is little to prompt the player to construct a story-world beyond what is presented in the plot, narrative motivation rests entirely on the gameplay and the plot’s narrative developments. If the character’s spouse or parent had been killed in the attack, no matter how few details were given as to what that spouse or parent was like, the player might be prompted to construct some sort of picture of this person. Narrative drive would then incorporate that construction, which might have more emotional resonance.
I take Fallout 3 as a counter-example. After a video explaining the setting, Fallout 3 begins with the character’s birth. As the player, you are given choices of gender, name, and future appearance (diegetically explained by a genetic predictor) as the character’s parents interact over the newborn. There are a series of cuts to various ages in which the player can engage in interactions with the character’s father, peers, and prominent members of the radiation-protected vault where the character starts his or her journey. These segments presented in the plot certainly encourage a growing conception of who the character is, but just as important are the gaps—the implicit story-world not seen. Hints in the conversations, as well as a stream of mixed audio voices during each of the transitions, prompt to player to imagine beyond what is shown. The character’s mother died in childbirth, something repeatedly referenced, which prompts the player to imagine what it is like growing up without a mother. The interactions with each of the other characters are sample interactions that prompt a story construction of other interactions that presumably happened in the years between. While there is still a degree of fluidity to the avatar in this game, there are a set of circumstances that establish the character, and the player’s choices in the growing up sequences might prompt some urge for consistency of character action and personality. The avatar in a game such as this does not allow for the same degree of a “what I would do in this situation” approach. While certainly not requiring it, by prompting players to construct a story in the gaps, Fallout 3 encourages role-play in the traditional sense rather than “playing as myself in this situation.” It also has the potential to create some emotional valence beyond what is carried by the plot.