Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 6, 2013
“The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door…”
This is the shortest complete story I know, written by Fredrick Brown, although he later elaborated upon it in his short story, “Knock,” but his point was that those two sentences formed a complete story. And he was writing for a magazine that paid by the word, so writing two-word stories probably wouldn’t pay the bills.
There’s a quote frequently attributed to Alfred Hitchcock, “There is nothing more frightening than a closed door.” This is almost an axiom in horror writing (too often ignored in modern gore-fest horror movies) that implied horror is more potent than fully revealed horror. Whenever I think of the quote, I think of an experience I had playing the original Ultima Underworld. As I approached a locked door, something on the other side evidently heard me and started beating on the door, trying to break it down. I heard the sounds, and electrical-sounding noise and the pounding of the door.
I fled. Really. The urge to flee was stronger than my trained response to SAVE THE GAME NOW BEFORE SOMETHING BAD HAPPENS. I did what minimal preparations I could to meet my fate, but I felt a really real fear about approaching that door. I had to prepare emotionally like I rarely do for a boss fight. There’s some deep programming from ancient ancestors who knew they were not at the top of the food chain, could not allow themselves the luxury of feeling ‘safe,’ and who knew that something that was trying THAT hard to engage you made it the predator and you the prey. It was just a video game, but that instinct was still there.
I unlocked the door. And found… a mongbat. A stupid mongbat! That was it! I think that was the first one I’d encountered in Ultima Underworld, so at least it was an exciting new encounter. But I’d gotten all worked up over a frickin’ winged monkey. The battle that followed wasn’t trivial – a mongbat was indeed a reasonably challenging foe. But it was hardly worthy of my expectations and fear. But by that point, I don’t think anything could have burst out from that door that could have been anything but a let-down.
I had no idea what to expect – the closed door was the horror. And the knock at the door – or in this case, the pounding at the door of an unknown creature – was the story. The story I told myself in my mind, subconsciously, was more powerful than anything that could be on the screen.
I’ve recently been considering this element when it comes to narrative in games. I came across a quote I can’t find right now about rock music, where one critic noted that the song lyrics were most evocative and powerful when their meaning was incomprehensible. The poetic, stream-of-consciousness organization of the lyrics (often drug-induced, I’m sure) captures a mood and feeling that invites the listener to insert themselves into the song, to invest themselves and their own life situation to provide the meaning. Naturally, then, the songs were powerful because they were magically tailored to the listener, speaking to their situation.
In Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics,” he addresses this principle with comic artwork – the more abstract art allows the reader to “fill in the blanks” with his or her imagination, to hold the comic as a mirror to their own lives. This isn’t just a power of abstract artwork. I was rather surprised last year when I went to the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay in Paris at the power of the art and sculpture there. I’m not much of an art critic or afficianado – I’ve got enough training and experience to recognize (sometimes) when it “works” for me or not, or actually go into some technical details with artists. But I’m not often moved by artwork. I was kinda bombarded with it that day. I usually didn’t know much about many of the people, events, or stories being depicted. But they were worth more than several thousand words to me. My own imagination and experience provided the rest.
I’ve written many times about the inherent conflict between narrative and gameplay. We have to sacrifice the principles of (linear) narrative for the sake of good gameplay, or sacrifice gameplay (often locking out interaction completely to tell stories in cutscenes) for the sake of providing solid narrative. The two don’t work well together, and in an interactive medium – like real-life experiences – good narrative often comes from reorganizing and editing of events after the fact.
But that’s linear storytelling. As Chris Crawford once pointed out in a talk I attended many years ago, it’s quite possible to assemble a story from a series of vignettes or one-sentence events that combine to modify the context. In other words, complex stories can be formed of simple atoms (his example was the sentence, “He kissed her.”) that can be endlessly reused. At the time, Crawford’s efforts were focused more on having the computer tell the story interactively with the player.
But might we find ourselves able to construct more powerful narratives if we let the designer and the player take care of the creative heavy lifting? Let the designer imply connections, let the player form and breathe life to those connections, and let the computer just do it’s thing to provide the tools and mechanics to facilitate this?
Don’t worry – I’m not getting all artsy-fartsy and experimental for the next installment of Frayed Knights. I’m just kinda circling around a handful of concepts for how to think about non-linear storytelling. On a budget. After all, if a closed door is more frightening than anything else in the world, isn’t it a waste of time and money for indies to create what might lurk behind it? Well, yes, but for the fact that this focus makes opening the door the single most important thing a player wants to do when that unexpected knock (or pounding) is heard. We just need better ideas of letting the player’s imagination fill in what might be lacking on the screen or in the dialog.
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