Alessandro Cutuli

what is the true innovative contribution of video games to narratology?

▲ Sequentiality is the default order of most storylines because it’s the filter of the unconditioned human perception. That’s why linear narrative structures don’t matter here. When art is artifice and mimicry – and it always is in narrative, fight me – the chronological approach is applicable to all its declensions. So I wouldn’t say that AAA “cinematic” story-driven games like the Uncharted saga (Naughty Dog, 2007) thoroughly take advantage of the narrative possibilities of the medium. Quite the opposite, it’s knee-jerk reproduction, like early cinema imitating theatre.

❝ In most narrative media the bits of the story can be rearranged and intertwined into a nonsuccessive plot – nonlinear if you prefer. For instance, editing gives rhythm to a film, syntax gives it to a text, and layout to a comic book – different rulesets, same purpose (I know, allow me some degree of oversimplification). The same logic also applies to video games, of course. However, no matter what, the fruition is always curated, ready-made, authored. You are experiencing a series of events organised by someone else: a director’s cut (do not be fooled by marketing ploys).

◼ Now, think about multiple-choice plotlines. Aren’t branching narrative structures just (bi-, tri-, etc.)forked linear structures? Take The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings (CD Projekt Red, 2011) or every single Telltale Games title: in the end what you experience is but one of many a bunch of parallel plotlines (yeah, it’s the multiverse thingie all over again). Even so, this type of narrative structure is more flexible than the others, mostly because it offers the best illusion of choice in the business. Aside from that, it’s nothing revolutionary – gamebooks have been there before.

● Gameplay, or rather interactivity, is the signature feature of video games, right? It’s then reasonable to (try to) transfer this quality to their stories as well. After all, interactive narration is perfectly suited for this medium. The concept is: to progress the plot, an input from the user is required, and different inputs lead to different outcomes; the player is not just a spectator but a contributor. It’s an extent of freedom that few narrative art forms can afford (outside of the experimental niche), even though it is still controlled and usually confined to predetermined story bits (and rightfully so).

In short: agency is what matters. Not necessarily in determining the outcomes of the storylines, but in choosing when to make something happen. A bit like the emoji paragraphs above, which can be read in any order without altering the flow of the article.

If in other narrative media the “unconventional” is limited to the arrangement of time – e.g. events/scenes in Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) are presented in a nonlinear order, rather than sequentially – video games can extend it to the arrangement of action. Some titles already took this path: in Outer Wilds (Mobius Digital, 2019) and Return of the Obra Dinn (Lucas Pope, 2018) you can piece together the mysteries of the story in whichever order you want. Even better, in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017) and Elden Ring (From Software, 2022) the plot is scattered around a wide open world where you can freely plan your itinerary. Of course there is a catch: the freedom of choice is never absolute, the game still tries to guide you by placing figurative (sometimes literal) walls like advanced puzzles and high level enemies – you know the drill. But here we are allowed to enter the realm of pure speculation and imagine this open/loose narrative structure at its full potential. So let’s think of a video game where the story chapters are prearranged in front of the user, and where they can be their own narrator, and where even their choices – from the “reading order” to their very actions – matter. In this imaginary game the narrative is multidimensional and reactive, but still circumscribed and somewhat staged: a sandbox narrative. The truth is that there’s already a medium capable of such an achievement: tabletop role-playing games (TTRPG). Because they are limited only by the imagination of those around the table and managed by a game master who can constantly adapt, improvise and shift the direction of the story, TTRPGs represent the true innovative, unbounded narrative structure. Despite the immense task and the unreal amount of resources needed, video games yearn and should keep striving to develop their form of sandbox narrative – a liminal approach between the curated and the emergent experience.