Now and then, I’d like to share some of my thoughts on how stories are told in various mediums, and how it might or might not translate to a prose book form. In keeping with my previous declaration to show my geeky side more often, I thought I’d start off with a video game!
This may shock some of you, but writing fantasy novels doesn’t pay a lot. And it takes a lot of time. As such, the likelihood of me ever having the money and time to buy and play video games frequently enough to justify reviewing them on even a semi-regular basis is nill. The upshot is that when I do get a game, I play it until I have explored every single aspect of it. It is my preferred way to unwind and turn off my brain for a little while.
And yet, frustratingly, my brain has a way of turning itself back on…
Breath of the Wild is the latest installment of the long running and immensely successful Legend of Zelda series from Nintendo. I am proud to say I played the very first Zelda game, and nearly every game that has been released during its more than thirty years as a series. The latest entry, Breath of the Wild, is unquestionably my favorite. If you’re curious to learn about about this astonishingly well-made game that is both a return to form and a surprising departure from tradition, these reviews from Kotaku and Wired do the job nicely. What I want to talk about is its approach to story.
Those totally unfamiliar with video games might be surprised that story is even a thing in games. And it’s true that many games have little-to-no story and are mostly about punching, stabbing, or shooting people/monsters/etc. Those games are fine. I happen to like Splatoon a lot (squid-people squirting each other with colored ink…it’s a thing), and every time the developers attempt to insert some narrative, it makes me wince. Some games are best left to what they’re best at.
Other games, specifically Role Playing Games (RPGs), require no hand-eye coordination and are primarily about strategy and story. People who failed at Super Mario Bros and declared themselves to be “bad” at video games are often surprised the first time they encounter an RPG and realize one can enjoy playing a game without ever having to press a button at just the right moment. Games like Fire Emblems: Awakenings or Bravely Default are a great place to start for those who are curious about this format.
(Yes, I’m only recommending Nintendo games, because I can’t afford more than one console and I can’t not have the console that plays Zelda games. Sorry.)
There are games that try to be both an “action” game and an RPG. Usually they are stronger in one format than the other, but it differs greatly by game. Some of my favorites include Arkham City and Assasin’s Creed III. In general, these “Action RPGS” work by showing a video or “cut scene” where the story plays out on its own for a little while, then the player takes control of the character, beats up some bad guys or rescues someone, then another cut scene to move the story along, and so forth. It’s all fairly controlled, and the player mostly just runs along a firmly established track to the end of the story where they beat the final boss or whatever, one last joyful cutscene, then credits.
But there are some games that aren’t interested in your old fashioned single track narratives. Some of those games offer branching stories that change depending on the choices you make. Others just toss out linear storytelling completely. For the most part, that’s what Breath of the Wild does. Despite the series name,a cheerful yet determined young man named Link is always the protagonist in Zelda games. Sometimes Zelda is a love interest, sometimes not. Sometimes she needs to be saved, sometimes she spends most of the game saving you. Sometimes she is a princess, sometimes a pirate, or a ninja, or even a haunted suit of armor (long story…). The point is, it varies a great deal from game to game.
What never varies in Zelda games is that the evil Ganon (or sometimes Ganondorf) is trying to take over the kingdom of Hyrule, and Link and Zelda need to team up to stop him. In previous Zelda games, you would get some nice cut scenes explaining who is who, what they want and why, and later some character development that fleshes out the story in new and unique ways. But in Breath of the Wild you get only the barest of story from Zelda’s ghostly father. Link has lost his memories and has no idea what has happened or what he/you is/are supposed to do. Ghost dad tells him that Zelda has been using magic to keep Ganon imprisoned for the last hundred years, and she's about to die, so Link needs to get out there and help her already! That’s it. Then he gives you a glider and sends you out into the wide, wild world.
There is no right order to play the game. It’s completely open and you can go or do anything you like, and the story comes to you randomly. Often when you stumble across a certain area, you will see a glowing light on the ground that triggers a memory, filling in a part of the story with a brief cut scene. But the memories are location based, so they don’t appear in any sort of chronological order. In fact, you don’t have to watch them at all if you don’t want. When my son played the game, he couldn’t be bothered with the memories (he was far more interested in the cooking system, which admittedly is quite robust). But for me, the entire game became about hunting down every scrap of story I could find, receiving them in some random order, then trying to fit it all together to make some sense of it. And to my delight, what eventually emerged was a rather sad but ultimately satisfying story about Zelda, who is after all the title character.
There was a moment when the story came together in my head…a feeling of discovery that I would dearly love to give to the reader in my own work. People have tried to put nonlinear storytelling into books before, and it usually ends up more alienating than moving. I’m not sure it’s even possible, given the format of a book (i.e. front to back). Perhaps an e-book might have other options, where you can jump around via links, but the few attempts I’ve seen of that are more reminiscent of old school Choose Your Own Adventure stories which do not give me that feeling of eureka I want so badly to convey.
Perhaps there’s a different way to get at it, one that works better within the prose format but gives the same experience…
I think about it often, and have no answers. Yet.