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Games that Break the Narrative Mold - Two Left Sticks
Narrative Mold

Games that Break the Narrative Mold

Spoiler Alert: The Stanley Parable, 999, and Undertale all creatively use common game mechanics to catch the player off-guard. Knowing their uses will dampen the effects of the experience.

When Games Break the Mold

Certain stories are told best through a certain medium. Everyone has experienced a movie that failed to capture the book it is based off. Fewer people have read the Star Wars book by George Lucas, which basically recounts the story from the original movie which may be best left to the screen.

In the same vein, some video games tell their stories in truly unique ways. Like other art forms, creators are at their best when they know their medium and the audience who will interact with their work.

Warcraft screenshot

We might enjoy the Resident Evil movies, but they do not give the same satisfaction as the games, where we manage our own inventories. Similar gameplay based longings cannot be fulfilled by movies like Warcraft or Prince of Persia.

Some games’ stories could only fail in any other forms of media, precisely because their narratives are so creatively tied to the mechanics that run them. This demonstrates the malleability of these stories, and the uniqueness of the art form.

Multiple Endings

Few mediums can capture multiple endings. Choose your own Adventure books could, and some murder mystery stories can also pull them off. Video games have started to specialize in multiple endings, some containing dozens. No feeling compares to the dopamine release that comes alongside reaching the exact end the gamer had hoped for. Three titles achieve this experience in completely different ways and leave our heads spinning.

The Stanley Parable: Linear Gameplay

Some of our greatest games challenge us by insisting on a singular path. The Last of Us only has one, beautiful, way forward. Dead Space, though set in a semi-open world, always offers the path forward with the press of a button. In The Stanley Parable, designed by William Pugh, takes this familiar idea and turns it on its head.

The player controls Stanley, an office worker who suddenly realizes that his office is completely empty. He must then trust in the game’s mysterious narrator to lead him through the office building and out to his “life.”

A sight often seen in The Stanley Parable
A sight often seen in The Stanley Parable

The player might be inclined to follow the narrator, though along the way they might note what looks like different paths. For example, the player’s first choice comes in a room with two doors. The narrator says that Stanley goes through the left door, though the player immediately wonders what’s through the right door.

Reimagining Story Branches

The game truly comes into its own once the player abandons the faux linear gameplay that The Stanley Parable sets up. William Pugh knew that developers typically move the narrative in a direction, even if choices branch off to achieve different ends. He played on this aspect of the medium and dropped gamers in something new. Disobeying the narrator hardly leads to new choices that can bring Stanley out of his office.

The endings range from setting off a bomb to going insane and dying. Part of the Parable’s comedic genius comes when the narrator tries to reconcile the disruption of linear gameplay. One scenario portrays the narrator teaching the player — who he realizes is not Stanley — how to make decisions. The player can then choose to follow the narrator’s guidance or break the game, which the narrator will blame completely on the player.

The price of going off the grid.
The price of going off the grid.

The choices, narration, and endings would hold no special meaning if Pugh did not act on a primed audience. Linear gameplay is completely acceptable in the industry, though choices are becoming more welcomed and sometimes expected. With both of these ideas in tension, he created comedically and sometimes philosophically deep art that could be made through no other media.

 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors: Our Mental Limitations

This little-known narrative gem can be found on iOS and near the top of most gaming sites’ top rated Nintendo DS titles. 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors is the first title in a trilogy that leaves participants pondering long after the credits roll.

Designer Kotaro Uchikoshi sets up the story as a narrative mystery, where players can achieve multiple endings. 999’s genius comes in the twist that players cannot imagine since Uchikoshi played on their conceptions of gaming realities.

One of the few rated M DS titles.
One of the few rated M DS titles.

The story revolves around nine characters who have nine hours to solve a mystery involving nine doors. The player controls Junpei, who becomes one of the leaders of the party. Everyone in the group had been kidnapped for unknown reasons and placed in a Titanic-like ship with all of the doors and windows sealed. After realizing that the kidnapper is among them, the characters all must figure out how to escape together with their lives.

As the player starts working through the story, they find clues as to where the characters are and who other persons may be. The player solves puzzles and makes choices that alter the path of the narrative. Most of the story branches end in death, though, so the player must connect dots where Junpei cannot.

The Twist

Seemingly as the player begins to resolve some difficulties in the mystery, they are hit with a mind-bending twist. The multiple ending gameplay mechanic turns out to have a unique narrative purpose. Junpei, through the intense struggles of the narrative and the more supernatural aspects of the game, learns to access parallel realities to reimagine the clues he obtained before death in previous play-throughs.

Everyone involved is surprised.
Everyone involved is surprised.

The player is stunned as they realize that the narrative has been building to that reveal. Other characters in the game are also stunned, as they learn that part of the purpose of the kidnappings were to unlock a psychic potential in Junpei.

As the player reflects on the story, they may begin to see all of the clues that led to this reveal. The mystery that drives the narrative has purpose, but partially serves as a distraction for the deeper supernatural enigma. The most subversive red herring that 999 employs is the multiple-ending mechanic that gamers had become familiar with.

Cognitive and Emotional Connections

Breaking all of these barriers down in turn serves to strengthen the player’s connection to Junpei, as their knowledge becomes more in sync. Part of the power that Uchikoshi manufactures comes in the final act of the game, where the player, Junpei, and the other characters are all attached and breaking “new ground” where knowledge is shared and the riddles start to fall apart. That final act would have been powerless if 999 did not work from a continual harvest of clues in the first sections.

9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors creates emotional connections between players and characters by setting up false barriers common in video games. Especially amidst multiple endings, players know what the characters do not.

999 Ending

Uchikoshi used that assumption to manipulate the mechanic into an unforgettable twist. It then served to strengthen bonds between the gamer and protagonists, propelling participants into emotions that could have only been supplied through a video game.

Undertale: Picking up the Lingo

This entire article could have easily been devoted to Undertale, a genuine masterpiece in gaming. While the narrative’s setting follows a linear style, the player can alter the environment and ending based off their decisions.

In Undertale, the player names their character, who awakens in an underground land filled with monsters. The monsters turn out to be a mix of caring, dangerous, and comedic characters who help or hinder the protagonist’s path to meet Asgore, the king of the land. Asgore plans on killing any humans that come underground, though his minions do not easily recognize humans.

HP does in fact stand for “hit points.”

Toby Fox pulls gamers in with running jokes and excellent characters. The plot then unfolds to reveal a hidden depth that breaks through some of the monotony inherent in video gaming. Part of the decision making revolves around an understanding of the gaming vocabulary that Undertale presents.

For example, the protagonist can gain EXP to raise their LV. Fox plays on the gamer’s assumptions about RPGS, and allows you to go through the game attacking monsters and raising both EXP and LV. The player might view the “fight” commands as inconsequential; they may be use to knocking out Pokemon or killing monsters in droves in other RPGS.

Hidden Depths

As the player becomes more invested, they find depth around every turn. Boss fights reveal hidden struggles of individuals, quirky jokes explain humanity, and the true lingo comes into the light.

Near the end of the game, the wise character named Sans acts outside the bounds of the gaming reality, defying the earlier assumptions. He explains that EXP does not mean “experience;” instead it stands for Execution Points. LV actually alludes to the protagonist’s Level of Violence.

Sans describes what happens when you “raise your LV”

The lingo is only one example that brings the narrative to an emotional head. As they reflect on the monsters that have died at their hand, players may also realize other aspects of gameplay with a deeper meaning.

What is a SOUL? What does it mean to have “determination?” Toby Fox opens the player up to these questions with humor and wit and leaves them inspired. The path the protagonist chooses demonstrates the internal power of humanity, which could not have been as emotionally fulfilling through any other medium.

Undertale constantly demonstrates that the surface is not the entire story. The lingo familiar to gamers is only one example of the game’s ability to invite the player into deeper exploration.

The Art of Gaming

Games that break the mold recognize the experience of their players. They ask how the players understand and enjoy their titles. They can laugh along with the audience, or blow their minds. Bring them close to hear an important message or a unique story. When they tell a story that only a game can, true art emerges.

Jared Randall
Video games have always been a part of my life, starting with handheld arcade-like games and moving through N64 and Gamecube, up to PS4 and 3DS. My top five video games in no order consist of: Ocarina of Time, Last of Us, Resident Evil 4, Undertale, and Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors. A hobby of mine is exploring religious and theological themes in video games. Someday soon, I will be kicking your ass in Gwent over a livestream.

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