The Structure Of Story

pacman-2I’m going to talk about video games. If you’re Roger Ebert undead, or you’re of a similar mindset, you can tune out now. Video games as an art form are undergoing a renaissance of design and storytelling (iPhone Fart Simulator aside). For the fiction writer, there’s ample opportunity to deconstruct story into its most basic elements and study what’s working, all while battling dragons in a frozen Nordic landscape. Just as you read and critique a novel to understand how the story was shaped, there are some excellent video games that portray a narrative arc in its most essential elements.

It’s easy to argue that the video game as an interactive story has limited potential. With most games, your interaction primarily consists of listed pre-programmed options, or in the case of the first-person shooter, your interaction with the world is limited by the caliber of gun you’re aiming. The modern media consumer has transitioned, and the single greatest impact of our hyper-driven always on society is the shortened attention spa- Oh hey, cupcake wars marathon! It’s painfully apparent that fiction is competing with a number of storytelling methods, from movies and television to video games. As a writer, we should play to the strengths of creative fiction – the ability to weave a mental picture that pulls the reader further into the story. Video games tell stories through user-driven interaction, but still manage to convey compelling characterizations when done well. I’ll be examining the story components of three specific games: Gone Home, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Spec Ops: The Line. Spoiler alert – I’ll be ruining all three if you have any interest in playing them, and playing isn’t required for understanding. This first post will focus on Gone Home.

gonehomeGone Home tells the story of a young woman who returns home from a semester in Paris only to find the new house her parents and little sister have occupied is eerily empty. The story plays out like a first-person puzzle game with few puzzles to solve. You begin on the front porch of a mansion your parents have inherited from your uncle – your crazy cultist uncle who died under strange circumstances. The player navigates through the empty house while a storm rages outside. Story is conveyed through answering machine messages, diary entries, mixed tapes from the younger sister, and newspaper clippings sprinkled around the house. Though the gaming elements of Gone Home could be argued, at two to three hours of content it’s not a terribly long game and there aren’t any enemies to shoot or monsters to fight. The entire game consists of the player navigating a huge empty mansion searching for clues to where her parents and her sister have gone. Examining the storytelling elements reveals an underlying brilliance to Gone Home; having the player (the narrator) stumble on diary-entries of the younger sister proves an excellent method to reveal back story while still pulling the player (or reader) into the experience. The younger sister is in high school, experiencing all the troubles and tribulations of senior year and latent sexuality, eventually ghcassettelatching on to a girl in her class who’s chastised for being a lesbian. The sub-plot devolves quickly into an emotional struggle between conformity and self-discovery as the narrator’s sister finds herself facing a difficult choice: side with the popular kids and make friends, or follow the heart and chase a same-sex relationship. The sister chooses to follow her heart only to have it bruised when the girl she’s interested in joins the army and suppresses her emotional desire. Gone Home proves to be a compelling and engrossing coming-of-age tale set around a vaguely horror-themed haunted mansion, complete with newspaper clippings hinting at a darker history in the old house.

Gone Home achieves something most popular TV shows aim for: making the reader/viewer believe they’re smarter than the storyteller. If you can accomplish this in your fiction, it comes off as brilliant. Case in point: consider your favorite TV show. I’ll use the new modernized Sherlock as an example. sherlockSherlock Holmes is a brilliant detective who solves crimes through observation. In nearly every story, the observations are presented to the viewer with carefully scripted close-up scenes, often with an overlay of text as Sherlock examines the scene. The astute observer is often one step ahead of Sherlock, and it’s not by accident. The best television shows, particularly the mystery and suspense shows like Sherlock, hinge on the viewer being manipulated into believing they’re more intelligent than the protagonist. With Sherlock, the viewer is often shown hints – visual and textual – of clues. Sometimes it takes Sherlock and Watson a few minutes to absorb and digest these clues and take the viewer to the next scene. And more often than not, a careful viewer has derived the outcome and determined the course of action, often before the protagonist has a chance to voice the answer. The next crime is at location x! As a result, the viewer believes they’re more intelligent than Sherlock, and they’re instantly drawn into the story. It’s brilliant storytelling when it works.

When it doesn’t, you have CSI Miami.

Think about how you can achieve this in fiction, regardless of your genre. Good literary fiction leads the reader to a conclusion without beating them over the head, showing them an answer without outright spelling the conclusion. Genre fiction that works best does this very well. Nearly all mystery fiction relies on this element to achieve synchronicity with the reader – start a mystery, lead the reader to the answer, and have the protagonist arrive there half a second later. Regardless of the medium – TV, video game, or literary fiction, you achieve the same result: you make the reader feel as if they’re smarter than your protagonist, and as a result, more involved in your story.

Gone Home is dirt cheap and should appeal to even those who hate video games. It’s an exploration-based simulation that strives to achieve storytelling elements through atmospheric visualization and sound. It achieves this brilliantly by making the player think they’re smarter than the protagonist. At the core, that’s what good storytelling is about.

Don’t insult your readers – show them how smart they are. Trust them to understand. You won’t get it right the first time – that’s what your reading group is for. But when you achieve it, your story will succeed.