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Storytelling

 

 

Enhancing the interactivity

 

 

Contrary to movies and books, games offer to players the opportunity to act: they are the driving force behind the action and the sequence of events. This is the reason why I think that any adventure game should seriously consider the choices of the player and give him the illusion that he personally controls the events.


Several games - such as Heavy Rain and the Mass Effect series - include scenario junctions: every choice the player makes can indeed alter the sequence of events leading for an extreme example to the death of a character. Although scenario junctions success in emotionally involving the player on one hand, additional scenes imply on the other hand a more expensive production, can quickly become very complex and make the Quality Assurance more difficult to carry out. Heavy Rain includes for example 50 chapters leading to 22 different endings. 

 

 

 

I prefer for my part another approach which consists in providing to the player many ways to accomplish his objective while fully mastering the scenario through bottlenecks. In this way, the player creates his personal experience directly through the gameplay and the dialogues - not during cutscenes. This approach is all the more interesting that it is entirely compatible with systemic gameplays that I fervently defend. An excellent example of this kind of game is the Hitman series. Here a mission example.

 

 

 

Promoting details over long cut-scenes

 

 

Players like to be active - especially the nowadays audience which is a way more casual than ten years ago. Watching a beautiful cut-scene is a great reward but it mustn't go on and on like the 40-minute cut-scenes in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Indeed, I think that perfecting shorter cut-scenes with a better stage-play and creating richer environments thanks to more life events and action dialogues are both a cheaper and better way to create a strong atmosphere without neglecting the scenario. In addition, it perfectly suits the "open-level approach" I talked about in the previous section.

 

 

 

Left 4 Dead perfectly completes that. The game immediately dives the player into the in the hearth of the action. The gameplay is very simple to any player who already has an experience in FPS and the game only displays specific tips at the right time. The scenario itself is more complex that it looks like but remains discreet. Indeed, the players only know they embody survivors during a zombie outbreak but they can find a lot of additional pieces of information spread in the whole environment.

 

 

 

 

 

Another example. The Last of Us' developer Naughty Dog successfully transcribed the evolution of the relationship between Joel and Ellie directly during action scenes - notably thanks to the characters progressive animations. During the first hours of the game, Ellie is quite suspicious: she keeps to herself, folds her arms, looks away... Then, she gradually falls in with Joel: exploring the places by herself, looking at Joel in the eyes, smiling... See the documentary Grounded for further information. 

 

 

Using the psychological anthropology

  

 

The psychological anthropology is an interdisciplinary subfield of anthropology focusing on ways in which humans' development and enculturation within a particular cultural group - with its own history, language, practices and conceptual categories - shape processes of human cognition, emotion, perception, motivation, and mental health.

 

In other words, the psychological anthropology analyzes the mechanisms of the collective unconscious and tries to define the approach of each culture regarding a wide range of themes. Thus, I am convinced that this field can be used in video games to better anticipate the player reactions and to encourage the emergence of specific feelings.

 

You can find below an introduction about "images" and a first study case about monsters.

 

 
  The term "image" comes from the Latin word "imago" which refers to funeral masks painted during the first centuries of the Christian era. Images as studied in psychological anthropology are not strictly physical representations of either persons or places. It can have an infinite number of forms: family photographs, furniture, stamp collections, jewels, musical instruments...

These images are described as relics - or artificial images contrary to natural ones which are the immaterial results of an inner process triggered by striking memories. In fact, the artificial images only play as intermediaries to remind the natural ones / the past experiences. No matter the kind of object, it refers to a relationship that only an initiated person can decipher.


A portrait from
the 
Faiyoum Basin

 
 

A person sometimes transfers his image to his close relations. The most common example deals with collections: stamps, statuettes, rocks... Indeed, offering collectibles often becomes some kind of game / ritual. It is likely that the relations moreover get steeped in this spiral by definitely binding the collectibles to the collector.

 

It is important to note that an image never dies out: it remains latent as any unconscious mechanism. Although collections generally end in storage rooms like photographs fade, the collector always keeps the natural image deep down within himself. It can rise again while facing a similar relic, even several decades later.

 

These two characteristics actively participate in the development of the collective unconscious while applied to a larger and deeper scale. It is notably due to the propagation over centuries and the assimilation since the early childhood of tales, proverbs, religious teaching and any cultural elements.

 

That is how tales like Little Red Riding Hood or Three Little Pigs have matched the wolves to the archetype of the predator in the Western culture. Yet, wolves only attack the man at extremely rare occasions. It is even venerated as protectors in other cultures, especially in Japan.

 


Wolves in the Western culture
 


Wolves in the Asian culture
(picture from 
Princess Mononoke)

 

Contrary to the example here-above, most of civilizations share the same images - especially in ancients ones where religions hold a primordial position. There are the collective images we should take in consideration.

 

 

 

 
 

The theme of "monsters" is shared by almost all the civilizations. The classical definition refers to hybrid creatures stuck between two worlds. Here some examples from the Greek culture:

 
 
   

Cerberus: a three-headed dog, son of a Titan and a woman half-human half-serpent. It guards the entrance of the underworld on the banks of the Styx. Venomous snakes coils around his neck. It represents the absence of expiation: mortals must face the acts done in the past, the present and the future (hence the three heads).

 
   

Gorgons whom the most famous deals with the beautiful Medusa transformed in a monster by the envious Athena. These creatures have snakes for hair and can turn anyone who looks at them to stone. It represents the powerlessness of mortals facing Gods. In Ancient Greece, a lot of people used to wear gorgonians (amulets showing a Gorgon head) to protect themselves from curses and evil spirits.

 
   

The Minotaur: a blood-thirsty creature with the head of a bull on a body of a man. It borned from a white bull sent by Poseidon and King Minos' wife. In reality, the Minotaur might be King Minos' himself and woumd represent the consequences of yielding to one's primal pulsions (we supposed that Minos was suffering from schizophrenia or raped his wife; hence the born of the Minotaur).

 
 

Classical monsters are repulsive, hostile, primal (in contrast with the modern society), have several arms, sticky tentacles, large glassy eyes... They are frightening - especially for children who have many nightmares until 6 years old. Thus, nightmares are an important part of the cerebral maturation process. It allows the child to exteriorize the anxiety he can't express by other means. the fact that most of the monsters are anthropomorphic - i.e. look like humans - greatly participates in this process by binding the child's anxiety to himself.

 

Using monsters in video games is an excellent way to create an instant challenge: the player faces it without the need of any explanation as a defensive reaction. It can also make the player jumping or create an insane / disturbing atmosphere like the Silent Hill series. This however only works in the short term: facing monsters becomes a routine and the game tension considerably decreases once the player has overcome his fear. Likewise, the player unconscious matches the monsters to the player anxiety and generates satisfaction / relief while defeating it. The best example that comes to my mind is Doom 3 which gradually becomes a classical FPS where the player can easily guess where next enemies will spawn - breaking the surprise effect and psychologically getting him ready for the fight.

 

Let's now study the modern definition of the term - i.e. the image nowadays people have. You can see below results from a street interview carried out in 2005 by the social studies department of the Pierre Mendes France University. The question asked was: "What do you consider as monstrous?".

 

 

 

Results from the street interview

 

 

The people who were questioned often answer "Outlaws" (Human / Real) which includes all kinds of criminals from juvenile deliquents to serial killes. Serial killers are always described by medias and victims' families as "monsters", "aliens " or "predators". People don't choose these words randomly. Indeed, binding the image of monsters to criminals sentenced for dark or barbaric acts is a perfect way to differentiate ourselves from something we can't understand and at the same to define our own identity (for further information about this self-defining process, see also the Valladolid debate or the trial scene in Planet of the Apes if you prefer sci-fi).

 

The Last of Us is an excellent example to both support this differentiation process and to show that classical and modern monsters can work together in a same story.

 

The two protagonists - Joel and Ellie - mainly encounter Infected during the first hours of the game. The Infected get more and more monstrous to keep the player under pressure: Runners, Stalkers, Clickers and then Bloaters. To prevent him getting bored, the story gradually focuses on the relations between survivors. The more it progresses, the more the opponents look like Joel who is himself “a brutal survivor having lost everything he valued in life and with few moral lines left to cross”.The game then takes a darker turn, fuzzing the difference between humans and monsters and making the player wondering what he would do in situations like that.

 

The story finally reaches its climax during the Chapter 9 “Lakeside Resort” when Ellie meets a group of survivors leaded by a character named David - Joel is supposed to be dead at this moment. It turns out that David and his group are terrifying cannibals. The soldiers and the raiders that Joel and Ellie previously met were acting as groups without any leader or personality. At the contrary, the player gets intimate with David when Ellie fights beside him and shares her fire camp. He so becomes more than a simple opponent and embodies the perfect archetype of the shadow as Joseph Campbell described it - i.e. the darkest side of the protagonist pushed to the extreme. David also acts as a catalyst: by facing him, the player facing the whole group of cannibals, absolves Joel’s past behavior and confirms that he is still “human”. This is - in my humble opinion - the best part of the game.

 

 

The dramatic structure of The Last of Us as I felt it (click to enlarge)

 

 

To summarize, classical monsters are a perfect way to create an instant challenge:they are frightening, hostile and the player naturally fights it as a defensive reaction and as a part of an unconscious process of self-defining. At the contrary, humans embody better villains and have a deeper impact on the player if they are correctly introduced and own genuine identities. Sure, humans are individually less frightening than classical monsters but they refer to the cruelty of the real life, the fear to get involved in such events and force the player to face his own dark side.