Now I have always believed that narrative is not a vital component in videogames but for some people, narrative can be the driving force of a game. I would argue however that games are not the best platform to deliver a narrative experience and that to properly execute a meaningful story in a videogame, it is highly recommended that its serious themes are accompanied with comic relief.
People play videogames to be rewarded and while a serious narrative can be engaging to some, it can become quite overbearing for others to the point that it can become tedious. Unlike movies, videogames are built around not only their narrative but also the gameplay. As such the narrative often takes a backseat in most cases. However it is important to remember that the narrative serves as a rewarding element and if you choose to cater to players desiring this rewarding element, you need to understand the value of humor because players do not play videogames for the narrative, the narrative acts as a reward to the player.
As such the narrative needs to be concise, it needs to be brief but most importantly, it needs to be enjoyable. If a game’s narrative focuses too much on its serious themes, the story can quickly become convoluted, this is because narrative that is too serious will often fail to grab the attention of readers due to the fact that there is no shift in tone, making the story feel repetitive. Because of this, impatient readers will be unable to take in all the information, thus missing out important details which leads to them becoming lost in the narrative and this leads to them becoming bored very quickly.
There is a fine line between writing for a videogame and writing a book. Both require a completely different approach. As books are written with the intent of connecting readers to an imaginary world, it is important to go into as much detail as possible to describe each scenario in order to paint a clear picture in the minds of the reader.
In most cases, it is also important for a book to remain consistent in its theme as a believable world is a lot easier to connect with. For this reason, the inclusion of humor in some cases would be out of the question because humor is not the primary focus of the narrative nor is it a critical component of the narrative. A book that revolves around comedy specifically would serve a completely different purpose however, such books do not focus on connectivity, rather they focus on amusing the reader, as such these books would require a completely different approach entirely, much like a different style of game would.
One thing that both books and movies have in common is that their stories are a strictly linear experience where nothing can be hidden from the reader, as such there aren’t as many methods to conveying a story in books and graphic novels as there are in videogames. I would argue however that this limitation is what brings the best out of books as in order for them to stand out, they need to be well written or else they will fade into obscurity.
Since games are illustrated and have interactive elements that allow players to have more control over their experience, they do not need to rely on descriptive writing and often encourage players to discover the story for themselves through interaction, hence why talking to non playable characters in towns has become a commodity in RPG’s. This means that a varied style of narrative is plausible and in most cases critical as there is a lot more room for content. However videogames have another role to fill, engaging the player. To do this requires a strong, varied narrative that can be picked up quickly without players having to invest too much time into it beforehand.
The reason why many gamers consider character development to be critical to providing a strong narrative is simply due to the fact that videogame narrative needs to play out at a much faster pace than that of a book. While I have always disputed the importance of character development in videogame stories, I can easily argue that character development isn’t as important in books, in fact you could also argue that it’s not even needed.
The difference between reading a book and reading text off a screen might not seem like much on the surface but when you consider the people consuming the medium in which the text is written for, you will realize that they are both completely different. Books attract a fairly niché audience, usually introverted people looking to connect themselves to a world where they can take a backseat. Videogames on the other hand attract all kinds of different people, not all are patient enough to play through a long, detailed narrative and as such, videogame narrative should be catered with these people in mind as focusing on a niche would actually be a bad idea. Why is this? Because you aren’t writing a book, you’re making a game and games are meant to be played. The gameplay is a big factor and cannot be ignored, by catering your narrative to a wide audience, you can instead focus your gameplay on a specific niche. See what I’m getting at?
This is where my theory comes in. While it is not wrong for games to be serious or comical, too much of it can make for a very stale narrative. Unlike books where there is room for detail so that players can connect themselves to the story easier, in videogames there is not. This is because narrative is broken into chunks that are separated by the gameplay. These chunks serve as a reward for the player, the carrot on the stick you could say. As such the reward needs to be valuable. In a book, you aren’t reading to be rewarded and the narrative is not broken up, so you keep reading on.
Because of this games need to break up each individual chunk of narrative in a way that prevents it from getting stale so that players want to see more. Humor is a great way to spice things up and keep things varied so that the player can easily become engaged in the narrative. In fact I would argue that Humor is often critical in videogame storytelling, at least to some degree.
While some games get away without having much humor such as Warcraft 3, they still have the occasional quirky moment that keeps players on their toes when consuming the narrative.
Other games such as Grandia 2 have a great balance of both humor and serious moments that make for a very memorable experience.
While I won’t deny that Warcraft 3 has a far better story than Grandia 2, I would argue that as a game, Grandia 2’s narrative is far more complimentary than that of Warcraft 3’s and I’m not knocking Warcraft 3’s narrative, rather I am comparing the two in terms of videogame storytelling. I can’t imagine Grandia 2 ever getting a series of books or a movie like the Warcraft series has but as a game, the narrative does its job really well. In fact I would argue that Grandia 2 is the greatest example of a strong videogame narrative. It’s very easy to get into and the characters are easy to learn and identify, whereas in Warcraft 3, the characters require a time investment for the player to get to know and appreciate them, much like in a book.
This is where Grandia 2 succeeds where Warcraft 3 fails. I absolutely adore the Warcraft series’ storytelling as I love reading the books and watching the cutscenes so I won’t deny that its narrative is a valuable experience. However I would argue that Grandia 2’s cutscenes reward players with more value than the cutscenes of Warcraft 3. Understanding this is vital when writing a videogame narrative.
Now that you understand the differences, what about humor? How does humor make Grandia 2 stand out so well? That’s simple, the humor brings out the character’s personality. When the player first meets Ryudo, the game makes it very clear as to what type of character the player is going to be experiencing through its use of humor. Ryudo is a gruff mercenary with one hell of a bad attitude, you can tell that this is the case through his snarky one-liners which are not only humorous to read but they characterize Ryudo really well.
Ryudo is a very serious, no-nonsense type of character and doesn’t take kindly to other people holding him back, he is very principle driven and has expectations of other people requiring them to live by his principles in order for them to earn his approval. The game doesn’t tell you this however, instead you find out through the many implications found within his witty comebacks. By reading into Ryudo’s humorous statements, you can easily define his character. In fact you could argue that Ryudo is written so well that he doesn’t need any character development whatsoever, he could have remained the same type of character for the entire game and still be entertaining.
Of course Ryudo does change over the course of the game which is fine and all but I’m making a point here. Character development is not the important thing, what is important is writing characters in a subtle manner so the player does not have to waste time listening to the writer’s explanation of the character, this is basic common sense in all kinds of writing but the way Ryudo is written through humor really makes him stand out as a character, it not only gives him personality but it also gives the player a few laughs. This kills two birds with one stone which is very important when writing a narrative in a videogame.
My advice would be to read into who the character is and what the character is most likely to come into conflict with, now bend the conflict in a way that is designed to be humorous and there you have it. The beauty of having lots of different personalities is that they clash and when they do they can be expressed in all kinds of different ways but humor is an expression a lot of games seem to undervalue. I believe it is a very valuable form of expression that needs to be explored more.
However I want to talk about another problem. Games which are humorous for the sake of being humorous. Now I know we all have different tastes in humor here but games which try too hard to be funny just aren’t engaging to me. A lot of people see the Devil May Cry series as being a series built on humorous storytelling, they would be wrong.
Dante is a very serious character to the point that he can be made into a humorous character. The point is that the funniest characters are typically the more serious ones and humorous narrative requires a serious space to have any lasting appeal. On the surface, Grandia 2 is nothing more than a giant cheeseball but Grandia 2 actually has a very serious narrative with a lot of very serious themes and a strong message that it is trying to deliver to the player. Rather than coating it in melodrama however, the game builds a bright, colourful and comical atmosphere to accompany these moments which creates a strong contrast that ultimately brings a very varied and engaging narrative that can easily be picked up on by just about anyone. It is for this reason that I strongly recommend Grandia 2 to just about anyone who enjoys JRPG’s.
However, games such as Disgaea and Borderlands fail to deliver to me the same experience, despite being “humorous”. As I was unable to take the game seriously I was also unable to take the humor seriously. This was the problem with these games for me, it’s just not engaging enough for me to even invest my time into the humor. These games feel extremely hollow and it is because of this that they fail to engage me. I pray that developers in the future can understand the value of humor and seriousness in a videogame’s narrative and how they can be blended together to make for a highly engaging experience for the player so that perhaps one day we can experience another game that can match the experience of Grandia 2.