Obligatory Past Post Countdown:
Player Paced Dialogue Delivery [link]
Character Paced Non-verbal Dialogue Delivery [link]
Character Paced Verbose Dialogue Delivery [link]
Character Paced Short-Form Dialogue Delivery [link]
Stepping away from the focus on “what” is said, it’s still important to talk about the setting of the delivery. For all of the previous articles, we’ve only talked about dialogue and plot points delivered through extremely disruptive cutscenes. I don’t mean disruptive in the sense that it causes the player to drop the controller out of frustration, but disruptive in that it shifts your agency from playing to watching for a short while. The player stops “playing” the game and starts “watching” the game for a short or extended amount of time. This doesn’t necessarily cause a distraction for the player, but it does give an idea to the pacing of the game for the player. If the cutscenes feel long and troublesome, it can quickly demotivate the player from wanting to continue playing the game. So today, let’s focus on the two major pacing types used in gaming.
Game Time -> Story Time -> Game Time (Please be patient, we had story writers work hard on this)
This is probably the more obvious case of disruptive storytelling that I mentioned earlier and is accomplished in various ways. Metal Gear Solid has both cutscenes and read/spoken codecs where talking heads unleash wave after wave of technobabble and ret-conned history, enough to fill up a few encyclopedias. Other games do something similar, where dialogue boxes appear, the player sits there spamming the A-button and waiting for page after page of text to scroll by and absorbing as much as possible. This “read the story” approach gets mitigated slightly with the more contemporary version of watching a piece of action and dialogue ping-ponging between characters and at least gives us more than one form of expression and conveyance instead of just the “reading story now please” format from other games. But having dialogue be read or further being acted for the player is time consuming to develop, so a precedence is built for what information is important and what is not. If it feels like more effort is given to convey a piece of information, then it’s more likely that this information is important. The problem with this is that it ultimately devalues the information being conveyed by scenes using less modes of conveyence. It not only removes your agency from the game but also removes your attention because it triggers a mechanism inside yourself to let you know that this information isn’t important so your attention now diverts from the game making it less likely that it will return to the game because the game needs to recapture and reestablish a connection with the player.
Game Time ~= Story Time (Hold on, I can have my cake and play with it too!)
Another approach is to intermingle the story while allowing the player to keep playing. A different approach because it doesn’t take full control away from the player, but allows the player to continue playing the game while a conversation is occurring in the background; this tends to mean that the gameplay is in a milder format to allow for some of the information get absorbed. Games like Infamous, Bioshock, Uncharted and more recently Transistor are more famous for this approach in story telling because it allows the player to stay engaged with the game, allowing interaction with the environment but having relaxed gameplay, and not disrupting the whole experience to get some dialogue across.
Infamous relaxes their gameplay be having sections where the player has to travel from an area to another and fills the void with dialogue and banter between its main characters.
Uncharted and The Last of Us relaxes their gameplay by having their characters slow to a creeping pace so that the player can’t force their way through a conversation before it finishes by accidentally exploring their way out of a dialogue-area.
Bioshock relaxes their gameplay by having little to no encounters with the residence of Rapture or the Big Daddies that crawled its corridors allowing for uninterrupted conversations with the various actors and actresses from each section of the underwater districts. Bioshock was a bit different in that a lot of the suspense and tension came from the atmosphere, lighting and sound design, and less from the jump scares that occurred less frequently as the game progressed. This meant that focusing on audio diaries and conversations became easy to make work with the flow of the game, with a few exceptions here and there.
Transistor on the otherhand lets most of its story be delivered by the talented Logan Cunningham, who also narrates the entirety of Bastion as well. Transistor and Bastion take a similar approach to Infamous in that it doesn’t pull the player away from the action completely by changing the pace of the game as a “storytime” signifier but instead overlays the action, whether watered down or not, while information is being conveyed to the player. However, the main character as well as the player in Infamous discover all information about the events occurring in the game through communication amongst each other, but in Transistor and Bastion is more conversational and less omnipotent than Infamous in the sense that the side-characters giving the main character information in Infamous happen to have important information at the “right time” to progress the story instead of discovering the information for yourself.
The story in both Transistor and Bastion is almost exclusively self-discovery either focused on the present or the past. The narrator in Bastion conveys all of his information in the past tense, telling the story of how “The Kid” and his friends dealt with the Calamity but never delivering more information than what the player had and delivering that information when it was important but not necessarily necessary for the story. It is probably one of the strongest examples of Non-diegetic narration (narration told from “outside” the scope of the storyworld) in that even though the narrator has a complete knowledge of the world beforehand, he never reveals more than is needed for the player to understand the shared knowledge of the actors within the gamespace which allows for surprises in story to occur in synergy with the surprises from the main character’s perspective.
Transistor approached the story by finding information by self-discovery, interacting with the environment, and figuring out the events of the world based off of building off of past information. This approach is more engaging to the player because it requires only a base knowledge of the world and building the player’s understanding of that world comes from the pieces that the player interacts with. Opposite of Bastion, this is a strong example of Diegetic Narration (narration told from “inside” the scope of the storyworld) where much like Bastion the player, the narrator and the main character are never wholely confused about the situations occurring throughout the game and both uncover their revelations at similar instances in time. The writing in both is always leaving the player just in the dark but only a few pieces of information needed to let the lights turn on and illuminate the story a bit more, receding the darkness a bit further until the whole picture can be lit as the ending of each game is reached.