Tag Archives: storytelling

Cloaks and Daggers – Catharsis Through Digital Storytelling

Catharsis: the act or process of releasing a strong emotion; especially by expressing it in an art form

Sometimes you just need to feel something…anything really.

Sorrow.

Joy.

Happiness.

Rage.

So, sometimes I just put in a game…

——————–

I didn’t know how long we had been traveling together.  We had met in the desert, and though we said very little to each other, we both agreed that the company was nice.  Most of the world had fallen into ruin, and rumor was that there weren’t many of us left.  I guess that is why we stuck together.

Maybe we just didn’t want to be lonely…

We had kept heading towards the mountain; remembering the legends of the hope that resided on its distant peak.  He never had to say he was going there too.  Of course he was going there, where else was there left for any of us to go?  That question seemed to haunt us both.  Neither of us had a good answer, and so we had chosen to continue traveling despite our reservations.

Fear hadn’t gotten the best of us yet…

The desert was only the beginning.  From there, an abandoned tower gave us a moment of respite and reflection, but that was short lived as best.  Our pilgrimage took us through a cavern of beasts such as the eye had never seen; both terrifying and awe inspiring all the same.  Yet, still we travelled on and still we watched over each other.  Many a moment came when one of us might have died and left this world were it not for the other.  Through the silence and the stoic looks, something had developed between us.

A bond, perhaps? Brotherhood, then?

It is a dangerous thing to allow yourself to have such thoughts; it breeds recklessness.

For many different reasons…

As we reached the snow line, we had stumbled upon the ruins of a fallen city.  It had seemed that the ancients had hoped to live in the light of the mountain, but the mountain had rejected them for their arrogance.  My fellow traveller decided to step ahead, to scout the area and determine our next move.  He disappeared into the snow, as I continued to search through the rubble; hoping to find some new piece of information about who we were and where we were going.  He was always the more adventurous type, but I was fine with that.  It was what made us work.

When I looked back up, I saw him coming back towards me, smiling as best one could being covered in snow.  I guess, for that same reason, he wasn’t able to see the look of horror on my face as I saw what was coming behind him.  One of the creatures that we had thought we had left behind in the caverns was rising overhead.

I screamed.

I screamed over and over again.  I called out his name.  Tried to warn him in any way I could, but through the harsh wind of the snow storm I knew nothing I could do would get through.  All I had to do was get him to turn around, to see what was coming up behind him, and I know we would make it.  We had made it through worse things, there was no way we weren’t going to get through this…So I kept screaming, trying to reach out to him.

Until, still with a smile on his face, the beast took him…

Tears filled my eyes.  I felt myself still screaming, but I no longer heard anything coming out.  Regardless of my own safety, I ran out, hoping that something was left, that he was left.  It was a stupid thing to do.  There were more creatures in waiting, and where I thought there was just one, there were now five.  I didn’t want to move, but I knew I had to.  I saw an opening in the ruins, a safe haven, and so I ran.  I heard the monsters behind me, heard their ominous howl and heard in it their desire to destroy all who came near.  Nonetheless, I made it to the entrance and I stopped…and allowed myself to weep.

There was no hope on this mountain…

—————-

What makes certain games magical are the stories that come out of them, and the emotions that it can draw out of the player. This is one of my stories that grew out of my experience with Journey on the PS3. What makes the game so intriguing is that though there is a small narrative thread that goes through the whole game; the majority of the story is pieced together and created by the player during one’s play through.  Everything that happened, the emotions I felt, were all because of my actions and how I responded to the world I was given.

Journey and games like it don’t have an atypical narrative; they have one that you help create along the way via the player’s interaction within the world.  It is in that creation that the story becomes all the more personal to the player and more memorable in the telling. This type of process is more commonly called “emergent gameplay,” or “player driven storytelling.”

Unlike other forms of entertainment, games don’t have to abide by a strict narrative construction.  Whereas films and novels have a set series of events that always play out the same way for the characters, many games give the player the ability to shape their own story and have it play out differently in each subsequent playthrough.  It is the experience and the player’s feelings that become the story in many of these cases. More simply put, the story/gameplay emerges out of the player’s actions.

Note: The game is actually about survival + NSW Language

Games like Rust and Day Z have no discernible story of their own outside of what the player base creates for them. The “story” of those games are the personal tales of the players and how they interacted with others while in that world. Of course, for every game of this nature there is a Last of Us or Bioshock: Infinite that has a very specific story to tell, and proceeds to follow a standard narrative path.  This is not a bad thing. It shows the depth and breadth of gaming as a medium for different styles of storytelling.

Even in a game with a more directed narrative, a genuine emotional catharsis can be achieved, if done well. The Last of Us is a fantastic example of this in the AAA space; and Thomas Was Alone shines in the indie arena. In one game it is the story of loss, redemption, and questionable morality; and the other is about small geometric cubes, friendship, and the nature of truth and sacrifice. Despite their differing styles and mechanics, by the end of both I had felt emotionally drained and had shed tears on multiple occasions.

To paraphrase Neil Gaiman, just because something isn’t “real” doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful.  Games can have the ability to reach into us and draw out emotions and responses that other mediums cannot; because we help craft the story.  By making the choices our own, by creating our stories within the world that has been handed to us or acting out or part in the greater narrative; we invest in the moment and engage in a way that no other form of entertainment can match.

To put it simpler; the more we put in, the more we get out.

So like I said…

…sometimes you just need to feel something.

To have a good cry.

To work out some anger.

To remember why we should care about others.

No matter what it is, try a game next time. You’d be surprised what you might get out of it.

As the kids say, “enjoy the feels,” everyone.

Suggested Play: Journey, The Unfinished Swan, Thomas was Alone, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Dear Esther, and Gone Home

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Trust Me, I am not a Fungi or Why The Last of Us is My Game of the Year

BIG GIANT-SERIOUSLY DON’T READ THIS SPOILER WARNING FOR THE LAST OF US

I killed a man yesterday…and I am okay with it.

What’s more concerning is that I felt righteous in my act of violence.

But let’s backtrack a bit shall we?

TLoU1

The Last of Us is a Playstation 3 exclusive from Naughty Dog, makers of Uncharted, Jak and Daxter, and the original Crash Bandicoot. The game takes place in a near future setting where cordyceps have ravaged the planet by mutating and infecting humanity and society, as we know it, is struggling to survive. It’s not a happy place, and Joel, our main character, is not a happy person.

We meet him at the beginning of the outbreak, living in Austin with his daughter and his brother living nearby. Within minutes of starting the game, we see Austin crumble, his daughter shot, and time jump ahead years and years into the future…

…with him staring at an empty bottle.

Yeah, Joel is not in a good place.

TLoU2

Nonetheless, the game continues and through a series of events you end up traveling with Ellie. She’s a young girl who never knew the world before things went to hell, has a mouth like a sailor, and a secret of her own. She’s immune to the infection. Thus the real thrust of the adventure kicks in; you are to take Ellie cross country to the base of “The Fireflies;” a resistance group still working on a cure.

Suffice it to say, you both make it, but not unscathed. Joel wakes up in a room surrounded by guards, and is told in no certain terms that he cannot see Ellie. The reason being, she is being prepped for surgery to remove her brain to find out what causes her immunity. They tell me I can do nothing about it. They’re wrong.

I kill the first guard without thinking; after he tells me where Ellie is…

I snap the necks of a couple of guards who see me as I continue to get closer…

and once the alarms sound, I make sure no one is left to tell where I went…

…because NOTHING is going to stand between me and that girl.

TLoU3

I finally get to the operating room, where two nurses and the surgeon await. I shoot one of the nurses to prove I am not joking around, hoping that they will get the picture, but the Doc pulls a scalpel on me. So I drop him and the other remaining nurse, and take Ellie away from there.

I killed those men and didn’t bat an eye. I felt righteous in my vengeance, and I KNEW I was doing the “right” thing. That’s what it felt like, at least. After all this time, I couldn’t let them lay a hand on this little girl that I had come to love and care for. Hell itself could not stop me in that moment.

Yet; let’s look at this objectively…

-I murdered the only people left looking for a cure to the infection

-I killed one of the last brain surgeons on the planet

-Any hope humanity may have had, is now gone because of my actions

I am not the “good guy.” I am most definitely the “villain.”   ….and I am okay with that.

————————————————————————

TLoU6

This is not the first time that a “protagonist” turns out to be something “other,” in any art form. One only has to look to The Road (a big inspiration for the game) and stories like Watchmen to see the trope used in similar ways. Yet, what makes The Last of Us so amazing and worth the discussion is that it puts the actions in the hands of the player.

In other media, we see the drama play out, and we are merely observers to the actions.  We see the characters rationalize their behavior, and we follow along. Yet, in a game-space it is the player that acts and rationalizes the actions that he/she must take. The greatest games have narratives that ensure that the player rationalizes those actions.

Nothing could be worse for game’s narrative than ludonarrative dissonance. In other words, for there to be a disconnect between player actions and narrative direction. It is jarring and can take the player out of the moment; to the detriment of the game. An easy example of this is Grand Theft Auto IV‘s Niko Belic, who bemoans his life of violence; but continues to commit heinous acts. Because there is a perceived gap between the Niko that the player sees and the Niko the player controls, there is less investment in the proceedings.

GTAIV

What The Last of Us does so incredibly well is not only remove that dissonance, but have such a strong narrative and emotional component that by the time end game occurs there is no question of what needs to be done. For hours and hours of gameplay, TLoU actively builds the player’s relationship with Ellie. There are optional conversations with her, comics you can pick up for her, and small personal moments that draw you into this relationship.

It is a credit to the creators and writers that by the end of the game, you not only want to protect Ellie, but are willing to kill for her. A few games go that far and are that successful with their stories; but none have ever staked the future of humanity on them.

TLoU5

In a world full of terribly tragic things, gore, and violence; Ellie gives Joel and the player hope. You see people die all around you, you kill just to survive, and one little girl and her book of bad jokes is the only thing that makes this place a little brighter.

The true horror of The Last of Us isn’t the violence, but rather the fact that it is a world that makes good men do bad things…

…it makes the player do BAD things.

TLoU4

This is something that only this type of art form can do. The player is complicit in the actions of the character, rationalizes those actions, and completes them. That’s not something that can be done in books or movies, and is one of the reasons this story is so powerful for so many.

As gaming continues to “grow up,” we’ll continue to see more mature and different types of stories come out of that growth. The Last of Us isn’t a flash in the pan, but the vanguard of a new type of storytelling. It is definitely something to experience on your own, and something to look forward to in the future…

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