On Storytelling: Narrative across Media

Words: 1772 Approximate Reading Time: 10-15 minutes

I’m going to talk about a problem in video game narratives. The degree of this problem differs from series to series, so I am less interested in drawing out universal rules, and more about exploring a broad topic.

The topic is when stories get told across different forms of media.

By this I mean two things. Firstly, in the standard sense of stories being told in a variety of formats. So a game’s story is told using games, books, movies, and so on. Secondly, in the sense of how a game’s story is told across different game formats. So if Game #1 is only accessible to computer players, and Game #2 only accessible to console players.

I distinguish this second form because while it involves storytelling entirely contained in video games, it still potentially runs into some similar problems as communicating a story using different media types. Because our starting point is how an audience engages with stories, and when a game’s story is spread across multiple sources, how that story can be accessed is important.

I bring this all up because the problems of telling stories across media influence the stories we get. When there are limitations placed on these stories, that impacts what stories get told, how they interact with later story elements, and how we process story elements.

Media and Information Loss

So let’s talk about Kingdom Hearts.

That name might invoke a wide variety of feelings. Maybe you grew up with the series as a kid and enjoyed it. Maybe you absolutely hated its storyline and the sometimes odd aesthetic jumps from Disney-themed to Final Fantasy-themed worlds and characters. Whatever your personal feelings on the franchise, it is a useful example of the issue I want to raise.

Kingdom Hearts’ storyline was told over the course of a variety of games. You have your main entries (Kingdom Hearts I, II, and III), a variety of side entries (Dream Drop Distance, Chain of Memories, Birth By Sleep, among others). This isn’t surprising. It was not only a game series into which a lot of money was poured by some big investors (meaning they want to milk it for everything they can get from it), but it was also quite successful (meaning that there’s something worth sustaining to milk).

Now one component of creating a video game franchise over a long period of time is that games get sold across different consoles. Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II were both sold on the Playstation 2. Kingdom Hearts III on the last generation of consoles (Xbox One, Playstation 4, etc.). This fact is something that we just kind of expect and live with as part of gaming: as time passes, developers make games aimed towards later console generations or more powerful PC hardware, which means that players need to spend to keep up.

Various side entries were sold on portable consoles such as the Game Boy Advance, 3DS, and Playstation Portable, as well as some mobile games. This facet of development is not that surprising either. Handheld and mobile gaming is pretty lucrative, and so making games for that market can be a good way to tap into players that might not otherwise own traditional consoles.

Okay, so these two elements are so far so standard. Why do I bring this franchise up, especially in the context of storytelling?

The problem comes in when a lot of the “main” story is being told across all of these different games. When the narrative stretches from a Playstation 2 game, to a Game Boy Advance game, to a mobile game, back to Playstation 2, then to Playstation Portable, etc., etc.

The more different consoles you throw into the mix – specifically exclusive console releases – the harder you make it for any players to keep up with the story.

This leads to a fundamental problem with storytelling that then has to be addressed. That addressing in turn creates new issues.

So the fundamental problem we’re dealing with is information loss. In order for the audience to follow along with a story, they need information. If a story is going to be told across multiple entries – books, movies, games, etc. – then that information needs to be retained and transferred by the audience across those entries.

Which means that if you can’t play a game at all because you don’t own the console…the information isn’t being retained.

Now if the information isn’t necessary for understanding the story, that would be fine. As a counter-example, let’s look at the Halo series. While it also has a storyline told across a variety of games as well as books, the “main story” is fairly self-contained, and does not require knowledge of the books. The books can help an audience get more information, but without being needed. You’ll get references to events that are described in books, but understanding those references isn’t required for you as audience member to follow along.

Not so with Kingdom Hearts. Many of the story elements are conveyed in both the main and side entries. Characters are introduced or killed off, major plot events occur, and so on.

So what do you do as a developer and writer with this problem? Not everyone who plays the main entries will play the side entries. Especially so if the side entries are on consoles those players may not even own.

To address this problem, you need to do one or both of two things. Firstly, you would need to provide a recap to players. This is a common solution both for players who missed out on a side entry, or who missed out on an earlier entry. God of War: Ragnarok, for example, has a story recap for the previous game that you can select. Just create a short video with the important information, and then let your players watch that video if they need to.

The problem with recaps is that they are poor substitutes for the actual story experience. They can catch a player up on important elements, but usually these recaps will either miss something, or fire so much information so rapidly that the player is going to have trouble processing it all. If you’re doing a recap because the player needs it, then something has probably already gone wrong. This means the story within the game isn’t or can’t adequately explain itself.

Secondly, you could write the story of your side games such that they don’t have too much impact on the overall storyline. Where things are simple, so that players don’t miss out on much and a recap doesn’t have to be long.

Great!…except now the story is going to be so simplistic that it’s rather dull. Perhaps not enough to really sustain its own game. This solution means that your side entries aren’t worth playing. It solves the problem for the main entries, only to render the side entries pointless.

These problems are separate from telling a story across multiple console generations. A game series that stretches from the Playstation to the Playstation 2 or the Xbox 360 to the Xbox One is going to tell a story where players are less likely to miss parts of the story. Even though there will likely be some dropoff – sometimes players have to skip a console generation for one reason or another – it is at least a reasonable assumption that a fan of a game series will eventually be able to follow from one generation to the next.

The real solution is to do two things. Firstly, each game in a series needs to be isolated and a question needs to be asked: does the story here stand on its own? If a player can pick up the game and understand who the characters are, what their motivations are, who the bad guys are, what the main quest is, and all of that, with relatively little problem, then you have a strong story.

It’s okay that a story can’t fully stand on its own. Sequels will always run into that problem. But this is where the second part of the solution comes in: we ask whether the audience has the information they need, told in a “natural” manner. Meaning that a recap shouldn’t be needed (the option can always exist), but rather whatever the player needs to know is presented through character dialogue, cutscenes, and all the normal tools of storytelling. If the player is being caught up, then all that catching up can feel natural to the player. Rather than a firehose of information leaving players feeling like they’re studying for an exam.

Perhaps we could point to the Witcher series as a useful corollary. The series itself is incredibly story-heavy, based on a series of novels, and everything takes place within an established world. The first game was released on the PC exclusively, then the second game expanded to consoles, and then the third game maintained that expanded release. And yet, there is no need to read the books to understand what’s going on in the first game – all of the information you feel you need is given to you as you need it or as you decide to search for it. Nor is it necessary to play the first game to play the second. The events that occur in the first game are strictly relevant, but only show up in small, isolated chunks. A sidequest here or there will reference prior events. Likewise, the third game can also be played on its own – the game catches you up on the basics of what you need to know about important events, and then those events become relevant in small parts. The main stories of each game are otherwise sufficiently isolated.

Concluding Remarks

It may seem weird to use a single video game franchise for this purpose. After all, Kingdom Hearts could just be chalked up as an anomaly.

But there’s a good reason to suspect that these kinds of problems are going to become more likely, not less. Not necessarily that games may be sold exclusively across a variety of consoles, as Kingdom Hearts was. But instead the attempt to interweave various other forms of media. Books and television and movies and so on. We’ve already seen quite a number of game franchises branch out in these ways, to better and worse results. But as our media becomes more and more integrated like this, we should expect to see stories told in this way – important plot elements distributed across different entries. And the principles that are laid down for how to juggle all of those elements are going to become important.

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