On Storytelling: Philosophical Narratives

Words: 5347 Approximate Reading Time: 40-45 minutes

Games hold value to people for many different reasons. Some of us enjoy them as a means of socializing. Some of us enjoy them as a form of entertainment. And some of us enjoy them because we enjoy stories. I often fall into this last category. I really care about storytelling in video games.

There is a lot that can be said about storytelling in general, and storytelling in video games in particular. But right now I wanted to focus on a particular topic: the construction of what I’m going to call “philosophical narratives.”

What – you rightly ask – is a philosophical narrative supposed to be? Settling on a good term for this phenomenon has been difficult. But what a philosophical narrative boils down to is providing a story that makes the player think about a deeper issue. I use vague terms right now, but even a “deeper issue” needs to be specified a bit – though I will do that later.

What distinguishes a philosophical narrative from just a narrative that is deep? One of the key ideas out the history of philosophy is a kind of complexity of writing: there are things going on at the surface level that make sense entirely on their own, but there are also a lot of details below that surface level which can raise important questions, even undermining what’s going on with that surface-level reading. So philosophical narratives don’t just need to be deep. They need to be structured in a way that the deepness is something you have to search for.

Just as important is distinguishing a philosophical narrative from a narrative that is simply layered. It is possible, for instance, to have a simple narrative as your “surface,” and then another simple narrative as your “below the surface.” And yet, this layering would not make the narrative philosophical.

If you’d like examples of good philosophical narratives, the best places to go are great works of literature. Indeed, I’ll point to these great works often throughout this essay, because they are a useful way to understand these distinctions. The art of constructing these philosophical narratives is by no means unique to video games, and so it is helpful to look to other forms of storytelling to see what works.

My aim here is going to be to explain why we should care about the construction of philosophical narratives. From there I intend to build out some basic ideas of creating these narratives. I’ll provide some examples of games throughout to help explain some of these ideas in better detail. This will include some spoilers for those games, so do consider yourself warned on that front.

Why Should We Care?

Games are art. Or, if you prefer, games can be art. The exact definition of “art” isn’t going to be my subject here, and if you’d like to know more you’ll just have to do some reading on the philosophy of art. But it will suffice for my purposes to point out that games nowadays have the capacity to evoke thoughts and emotions on the same level as paintings, novels, and films, all of which we recognize as forms of art. Even if many games don’t do this, there are games that do, or at least try to. And that’s all that matters for us here.

Of course, many games are attempting to simply be entertaining, since that is a useful marker of success. A game that is entertaining will sell well, which means more money, which means the ability to keep making games. A game that isn’t entertaining tends to mean the downfall of a developer.

However, games as entertainment and games as an artistic enterprise are not conflicting goals. Or at least they don’t have to be. Conflicts still exist for developers in pursuing these goals, such as time or money constraints, that may prevent them from putting the effort needed into making a game more artistic, rather than just entertaining. On the other hand, a developer might be so focused on making an artistic statement that they forget to, or don’t know how to, or don’t care to, make the game entertaining. But while such examples exist, the two goals can still be aligned.

So why aim for making philosophical narratives in the first place? Because one goal of creating something is not necessarily to have that thing exist for a limited period of time. If you make a game, you’d really like for it to live on for a long time. I don’t mean by this that the game is simply available. A game merely being available doesn’t mean much if people don’t want to play it. So while an obvious question is “will people want to play my game?”, there’s another question that’s worth asking: “will people want to play my game 10 or 20 years from now?”

There are a lot of ways to make a game appealing in the future, but one of those ways is constructing a narrative that can withstand the test of time. And a good way to construct such a narrative is through this philosophical approach. If you look to the literary world, you see novels and stories being written and published all of the time. But the vast majority of those stories, even if they’re popular when first released, end up fading into obscurity after enough time. Only a few books ever survive the aging process and live on when others are replaced.

One frequent element you will find if you look to these long-lived works is that they have this kind of layered narrative that I’m talking about. On the top level, they have an engaging and well-written story that hooks many readers from the get-go. Underneath that, there is some inquiry into a deeper subject that invites the reader to go back and re-read. Because a work won’t really have a chance to live for a long time if all you need to do is read it once. It can still be enjoyable, even deep, but everything can still be gathered on that first reading.

You can hopefully see that I’m aiming here to describe narratives within games that encourage replaying the game. But this isn’t the kind of replayability that most games incorporate, through different endings and choice systems and the like. These systems can encourage players to replay a game, but only for the purpose of essentially collecting a full experience of the game.

These philosophical narratives, on the other hand, encourage replaying a game by asking the player to rethink their experience in the first place, essentially giving the player a new experience, even when the game remains the same. This helps the game to stick in a player’s mind. A game that is enjoyed can be remembered for a while, but those memories fade over time, especially if the game is only played once. A game that encourages these kinds of replays is going to be much more memorable on its own, and is also likely to be refreshed as the player revisits it every now and then.

So the value of these philosophical narratives is to allow a game to live beyond its given shelf life. While there may be little financial value in this, insofar as a developer wants to give their game an artistic value, and wants that creation to live on for as long as possible, using these narratives provides a stronger opportunity to meet that goal.

Constructing Philosophical Narratives

If you’re on board with the idea that it’s worth creating these philosophical narratives, then what remains is to more carefully explain what they are. Unfortunately, there is still some haziness in the details here, because there are so many types of narratives that are possible, and so no single method is going to work for every story, or for a given developer. But it is still possible to pull out some broader lessons.

As you continue forward, keep in mind that philosophical narratives are layered in a way that there is a surface-level story and a deeper story underneath that surface. In what follows, I’ll be focusing on the qualities of that deeper, hidden story. The surface story can, to some extent, be whatever is desired or needed by the developer, and so while it is still important to make that story good, it will be subject to the basic rules of good writing and storytelling.

Substance

I mentioned earlier on that a philosophical narrative has to be deep, but not just any kind of “deep.” There are plenty of games out there that ask big questions, and yet would not fall into the category of being philosophical. Which doesn’t mean that those stories are bad, or the questions worthless.

The kinds of topics that we need for a properly philosophical narrative, though, are what we would call questions or statements on the “human condition.” This is a very broad category of topics, and a very non-exhaustive list would include things like religion and its role in society, politics, morality and what it means to be a good person, the relationship between human beings and nature, and the relationship between human beings and technology. There are a lot of other topics.

But key to a philosophical narrative is that it has to be a fairly big topic. So when I mention morality and being good, as an example, it’s about more than analyzing a single moral choice or just offering moral choices in general. These things can allow players to ask questions, but the questions end up being either too narrow or too shallow in scope.

One way of capturing this “bigness” is by covering multiple related topics at once. Ambition is the name of the game here: what commonly sets philosophical narratives apart is their willingness to tackle the really big and tough questions. Sometimes even a topic that might seem narrow at first glance – say for example, love – can be expanded if you’re willing to open it up and explore it in richer detail.

If you’d like a sort of rule of thumb: think about the kinds of problems that humans would have been dealing with for thousands of years, and are very likely to be dealing with thousands of years into the future. These are the kinds of topics you want to be looking at and incorporating.

I mentioned before the value of reading great works of literature, and I want to repeat it here. These works often withstand the test of time because there is something underneath their storylines that can capture the imagination of readers. So look to these works for inspiration: Homer (war, love, traveling, culture, religion, death), Shakespeare (love, justice, friendship), and Melville (the fear of the unknown, conflicting with nature, vengeance) are all authors to look to. And many, many others besides that. Read them and analyze them. Talk about them with friends. Get used to asking questions about what they’re trying to say about humanity and human nature. As you build this skill, you’ll start to see how they subtly address these broad topics, and hopefully you’ll be able to incorporate these kinds of ideas into your own work.

Presentation

It’s not enough to just have these deep philosophical topics, though. There is also a line that needs to be carefully walked regarding how that topic is presented.

The central problems are that this theme can be presented in such a secretive fashion that almost no one realizes the theme is there, or it is so clear that there is no thought required to see it. The narrative doesn’t suffer in either case, as it can still be good. But the game loses its staying power: it either won’t be replayed because no one realizes there’s something worth seeing, or it won’t be replayed because everyone saw it the first time around.

Imagine three basic possibilities:

  1. The philosophical theme, even if it is rich and done well, might be so hard to spot that only a few people really get what’s going on. In this case, the game can still be enjoyable (recall that there is a surface-level story going on that players are experiencing). But that enjoyment is largely going to be contained to a particular time period, just like with so many other games. Once the game has made its initial break, it loses its appeal as other new games come out that grab attention. There’s a fair chance that the game may live on for a few players as a kind of cult classic, which is nice, but may not necessarily be the aim of putting in this work.
  2. The theme is presented in such a form that it takes some amount of work to see, but is sufficiently hinted at that players are left with the feeling that they might be missing something, encouraging them to go back to areas or replay the game to find the details that point to this theme.
  3. The theme is so obvious in its presentation that just about every player can clearly see what it is without needing to put in much thought. Questions can still be sparked in the player’s mind, but the ultimate appeal of the game is going to in its entertainment value, rather than its treatment of the subject. The consequence here is going to be that the game is going to face the same fate as many other games: it will be enjoyed now, but forgotten as time marches forward.

Obviously, #2 is the ideal that is being aimed at. But there aren’t exactly hard and fast rules for how to hit this mark.

The only real pieces of advice that can be given are, firstly, to try to find ways to keep the philosophical narrative properly layered. That is, when you have this deep philosophical theme underlying the surface narrative, you want to make sure that the theme doesn’t stick out too much. You want players to put in at least some effort to figure out what’s going on. When they have to put in some effort, they feel more engaged and involved with the game itself, and gives the feeling that they have mixed some portion of their lives with the game. The stronger that mixture, the stronger the appeal of the game to the player.

The second piece of advice is to try and always step back and think about how players are likely to experience these things. It’s a very common question that gets asked in many different jobs, and in all cases it is easy to run into the problem where ideas make sense within the head of the author. Some of the elements of game development, such as having teams or having other people play through portions of the game, can help to catch these things, but even those procedures won’t perfectly capture whether players will be able to spot these themes once the game is actually completed. So finding ways to look at these narratives through fresh eyes is invaluable.

To try to give a couple of examples about presentation, look to the recent Deus Ex games (i.e. Human Revolution and Mankind Divided) or SOMA. All of these games are dealing with heavy material in some form. Deus Ex, with its focus on cybernetic augmentations and the use of those augmentations to control people, raises questions about what it means to be human. Which is a fairly easy theme to go with for that setting. Meanwhile, SOMA is dedicated to investigating issues of personal identity, that is, what it means to be “you.”

In both cases, the themes are certainly sufficiently substantive to count as philosophical. We can even say that their treatment of these subjects is fairly good.[1] But they end up making these themes fairly obvious. Deus Ex essentially gives players choices about how to end the game, allowing the main character to “choose” whether augmentations continue to be developed or if they are carefully regulated to prevent things from getting out of hand (although these choices are a bit hollow). SOMA takes the player through a science facility that forces the main character to come to the realization that they are actually a recording of a person downloaded into a robotic body. The game then continually has the main character get into discussions with a guide character about personhood, bringing this theme directly to the mind of the player.

While these games have good material to work with, and we can say they are good or interesting games in their own right, they don’t quite hit the marks we need. Since they work so hard to make their philosophical themes clear for players, those questions might spark something in a player’s mind, but there is only so much time before the game fades from memory. And since the game is so clearly understood, what is the point of revisiting it?

Philosophy

Even if you have a nice deep subject and make the effort to present it in a proper form to engage players, there is still one last element that is important. And that is how the subject matter is actually treated.

The idea behind philosophy as a whole is that it is not merely about finding a series of answers to questions, but also constantly searching and investigating things. So good analysis – especially for those who don’t practice philosophy for a living – is something that is more about raising questions and getting others to think deeply about these questions, than it is about telling people what to think.

So when you’re treating a given topic, you might have a lot of ideas about the subject. But you want to be careful that you don’t present your ideas in such a way that you’re necessarily offering a “correct” answer. Not because you want to avoid having an “agenda,” but because you want to present the subject with such richness that it can show a lot of different alternatives.

The objective here is to show a your philosophical topic from multiple viewpoints. Not necessarily in the sense that you have to have different characters present competing ideas and make arguments. This goes back to the previous point about presentation and not shoving the topic into the player’s face. But nevertheless you want to make it appear as though there is a variety of ways to look at an issue, and that these different ways feel viable. It is even possible to have a kind of “preferred” answer, so long as the other possibilities don’t end up being ignored or waved away.

It’s tough to describe this component. Often authors will use characters as allegorical representations of ideas. That way rather than having the character directly talk about some particular philosophy, the actual philosophy can be shown through the character’s behavior. This in turn allows for “normal” character dialogue and development, rather than having to shoehorn in complex statements in order to explain something to the player.

As a consequence, the interaction of the characters within the narrative can help illustrate how all of these ideas fit together or conflict. So if two characters represent different philosophies of life, and they get into an argument, they can argue about something other than their philosophies, and yet that argument serves as a stand-in for those philosophies. Players can then make choices on their own about which character they might agree with and why, all without the player needing to be fully aware of what’s going on underneath the surface (so that the game can be enjoyed on its own terms without thinking about these complex philosophical issues).

Examples

To help make all of this discussion a bit more concrete, I figured it would be useful to look to a couple of examples of games that do what I’m talking about. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any game that really fits these criteria.

So instead, I will look at a couple of games that I think could be proposed as candidates for “philosophical narratives,” and explain how they fall short.

The Last of Us

The first game that came to mind is The Last of Us. I have certainly talked about this game on several previous occasions, but I revisit it here because it still serves as a useful example for storytelling in general and for this specific topic of philosophical narratives.

The Last of Us, to give a very basic synopsis, follows two characters living in what is effectively a zombie outbreak (while the creatures aren’t zombies, they serve the same basic function that zombies might serve in other games, so I use the term for the sake of simplicity). Joel is a middle-aged man who lost his daughter during the initial outbreak, and during his years surviving afterwards has mostly avoided other people, with only a few people he was willing to trust with anything. His partner is the teenager Ellie, a girl who is immune to the particular cause of the outbreak. The story follows them as Joel attempts to get Ellie to a group that wishes to use Ellie to create a vaccine that can prevent the outbreak from spreading further. As the game begins, Joel and Ellie don’t much care for each other and are only together because they have to be. But as the game goes on, they both start to feel a sense of camaraderie, to the point that they effectively take on a father/daughter relationship.

The Last of Us has a lot of narrative themes: loss, survival, isolation, trust, and so on. All of these themes help to give the story a broader scope than a more simplistic narrative.

But there are two particular themes that jump out as “philosophical.” That is, themes that try to ask questions about human nature, human life, or something similar.

The first is the broader theme about trying to survive “out in the wild.” If you’re familiar with the history of philosophy, you might have heard of the idea of a “state of nature,” where people interact without any authority that can tell them what to do (or what not to do). In other words, an anarchic place, usually depicted as chaotic. Often post-apocalyptic games are attempting, consciously or unconsciously, to capture how people would behave when thrust into a world where they can only rely on themselves to keep them safe.

This theme would be sufficiently deep to make The Last of Us a philosophical narrative, but it isn’t sufficiently explored. Since so much of the game focuses more on the relationship between Joel and Ellie and their journey through the U.S. to reach their destination, there isn’t much opportunity to explore these kinds of issues. You only get small snippets, but even those don’t help very much. You encounter groups of other people who are often attacking travelers, but these groups actually serve more as a hindrance to the question, rather than as an invitation. Meanwhile, you see signs of people trying to form communities, but these often fall apart due to the outbreak (giving the player an opportunity to face enemies), meaning that they don’t do much to help pose the questions about human interaction in this “natural” state.

So the result is that the questions get raised, but in such a shallow manner that they don’t quite rise to the level needed to constitute a philosophical narrative.

The second theme is much deeper. At the final sequence of the game, Joel finally succeeds in getting Ellie to their destination. However, it is revealed to him that in order to do the research to create the vaccine, the group needs to remove Ellie’s brain, which means she’ll end up dead. Since Ellie at this point is like a daughter to Joel, he is unwilling to let her die.

This leads to a sequence where you control Joel shooting his way through a hospital, nearly wiping out the group in order to save Ellie. It is rather gripping on its own terms.

The game presents this all to the player through the story and gameplay, and raises an important question for the player: is Joel right to kill all of these people, and potentially endanger many others, in order to save someone he cares about? You could frame this as “the needs of the many versus the needs of the few,” though even that doesn’t quite capture what’s going on. The presentation of this question definitely fits with what I’m talking about. It doesn’t directly ask the question to the player, but it is also a question that is going to be asked by players. It might not be quite as subtle as I’m talking about, but by putting players into the very uncomfortable position of killing people who are essentially trying to help others (i.e. what we might think of as the “good guys”), it better helps players to really think about this question.

So then why doesn’t it count as a philosophical narrative? The problem is that this theme is too narrow. It’s a deep question, but focused on a very specific topic. The particular question being asked is a bit too isolated to Joel’s situation. You can imagine yourself in his shoes and wonder what you might do in his position, but it doesn’t necessarily lead us to any broader ideas about right and wrong or morality more generally. It’s definitely an interesting question to ask. And it’s ultimately done very well. But it just falls a bit short.

In summation, The Last of Us sort of toes the line. It gets very close to having a philosophical narrative. But the two themes don’t quite cross that line in different ways.

NieR

As a slight contrast, I thought I’d bring up a couple of games that are a bit closer to what I’m trying to describe. These are NieR and NieR: Automata, both Japanese games. The two games have interesting methods for telling their respective stories more generally, focused primarily on retelling the same story through different perspectives.

Arguably, these games get the closest to what I’m trying to describe in terms of philosophical narratives. Important to note is that my aim here is to try to look at the themes lurking under the surface. So if you’ve played the games, you might have disliked it’s surface-level narrative, or the gameplay, or the setting, or the art style, or other things. Our focus for right now, though, is simply on what’s going on beneath the surface.

NieR focuses on a man watching over his little sister/daughter (there are two versions of the game, one featuring a younger male as the protagonist and the other featuring an older male, hence the different relationships). Over the course of the game the protagonist is attempting to take care of this girl and find a cure for her sickness, known as the Black Scrawl. This journey involves befriending other characters, killing weird human-like creatures called Shades that are attacking innocent villagers, and just generally engaging in an adventure.

However, after a certain point the game “ends,” and sends you backwards with two important differences.

  1. The various major plot points are given some additional context, usually a cutscene about what happened before you enter the scene. These cutscenes show how the monsters you’re killing are often innocent, or at least more complicated in their motivations.
  2. The various boss Shades, which before were just making noises, now have subtitled dialogue which helps to accentuate their motivations.

The obvious idea here is that from the perspective of the creatures you’re fighting, you’re actually the monster.

A major reveal of the plot is that the Shades you’re fighting are, in fact, humans. Specifically, human souls. It’s a really complicated backstory, but the premise is that for important reasons human beings had to split apart their bodies and souls, keeping the souls in a kind of stasis for a while. However, when it was time for the souls to return, the empty bodies ended up basically taking on new personalities, meaning the souls couldn’t get back in. So the souls went crazy, and started wandering the world as these Shades. If this all sounds a bit stupid, that’s fine. My aim here isn’t to analyze the surface-level narrative. I am, admittedly, trying to provide a very short summary, which may make it all sound more stupid.

So the premise of what’s going on is that you’re asked whether what the protagonist is doing is right: strictly speaking, you’re killing humans, but that killing can itself feel justified through self-defense. Of course, to justify that, it needs to be asked whether the personalities of the soulless bodies are actually “people.”

This last part is where things get a bit confusing from a philosophical perspective. Because while the game is kind of inviting the player to ask “well what makes someone a person,” there’s not really any tools to arrive at any conclusion other than “the bodies are people who deserve to live too.”

So all that’s left is the question of morality: is the protagonist a monster for killing so many Shades? Often the various boss fights are the result of complex backgrounds that the protagonist is thrust into without full information, leaving the player to ask if there’s even any possibility for judgment: perhaps no one is truly right or wrong. Ultimately this method of storytelling stretches all the way back to Homer’s Iiliad, showing multiple perspectives of the same conflict. But while the question is interesting, it doesn’t leave quite as much room for questioning as it really needs. You can discuss this stuff, but it’s hard to really arrive at anything other than the conclusions I just gave you.

Ultimately, NieR falls short because it seems to have played all of its cards at the point of the reveal. There’s a lot of material that would be worth investigating even further, but it gets hard to dig into it when so much time is spent on the buildup and then the surprising twist afterwards.

I think the sequel, Automata, gets a bit closer, raising questions about what it means to be human in a broader manner and giving players something to actually chew on. However, this essay is already getting quite long, so rather than analyzing it, I will leave what I’ve said here as sufficient for illustrating the basic points I am trying to make.

Concluding Remarks

Constructing philosophical narratives isn’t easy. The point here isn’t to suggest that every game from now on attempt to incorporate these kinds of narratives and become deeper. There’s still value to games that are just fun for the sake of being fun.

The objective is simply to highlight some of the elements that go into making these narratives. As I mentioned before, there is also a value in trying to make narratives deeper in this way, as a method of helping the game stick in the minds of players for a longer period of time.

We are reaching the point where games can start to be considered “classics” in the same sense that we might think of classic films or novels. While the timeline is much shorter for video games, if we try to think about whether a given game that comes out might still be played one or two decades from now, a key element is going to be its narrative quality. Mere entertainment can get sales, but if you want to think about a game as a work of art that will live (instead of simply existing) for a long time, it’s good to incorporate these philosophical narratives.


[1] I happen to think Deus Ex’s treatment isn’t all that interesting, in part because it treats the material in a shallow manner. Since so much of the plot revolves more around the threat of shadowy organizations using augmentations to control people, there’s not much opportunity to confront the actual issue of “are we still human when we use these augmentations to upgrade ourselves?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: