Framed narratives have been in existence for thousands of years; in the art of video games, they’ve seen infrequent use but seem to be coming more into style of late. The concept is simple: a story within a story, like The Canterbury Tales or The Princess Bride. BioWare devoted a large part of their marketing campaign to the fact that Dragon Age 2 would rely on a framed narrative, which ended up being a failed experiment. Revisiting the Enhanced Edition of The Witcher 2 however, got me thinking about how to do framed narratives correctly in games, how to avoid overly cinematic presentations, and use the interactivity of this medium to great effect.
It’s such a jarring transition that even the main character asks why the hell the interrogators asked about her.I bit hard on the marketing of Dragon Age 2. To me, “framed narrative” was something fresh in the contemporary gaming landscape, even more so because they promised that the narrator wouldn’t be entirely reliable. The idea that what I played may not be what actually happened blew my mind. Since then, however, it’s become clear to me that framing devices have to be used judiciously when translated into an interactive medium. Many games already have a pseudo-framed structure in the dichotomy between game levels and (typically) non-interactive cutscenes. Adding an explicit narrator to the mix complicates the story, so there has to be a payoff, otherwise the transition from level to level can be more jarring than a traditional cutscene.
Hawke’s story starts ten years in the past, as told to a Templar Inquisitor by a former companion of hers. It’s an interesting premise but it quickly becomes clear BioWare arrived at this idea to justify the scope of the game rather than needing it to actually tell the story. One of the transitions skips right over a section of Hawke’s life I would have loved to play through: when she has to work for a mercenary to establish herself in Kirkwall. I resented the narrator skipping over this tale. The closest the “unreliable” narrator gets to affecting the story is at the beginning, when the player is forced to play a section over because he misremembered it. Conceptually this was a fantastic idea but the poorly tuned gameplay makes the sequence a slog to get through. The framing device didn’t help Dragon Age 2 tell a different kind of story; instead, it was just another RPG – and a middling one at that.
An even worse example of a framed narrative is Battlefield 3. People laugh when I try criticizing the game’s campaign, citing the multiplayer as the only reason to play it, but Bad Company 2 had a great one. In Battlefield 3, the main player character is being interrogated by two CIA agents as if he’s the enemy. Is he? It’s a premise Treyarch used to great effect in Call of Duty: Black Ops because the interrogation subject was pretty much insane, so the story didn’t need to make sense. The story here is just as confusing but by using a serious, even solemn, tone the plot holes become glaring. The framing device completely collapses when the interrogators ask about a jet pilot, I’m thrown into a bad rendition of Modern Warfare’s AC-130 level, and then I’m back to the main game. It’s such a jarring transition that even the main character asks why the hell the interrogators asked about her. DICE had to have an aerial level and that was the way they’d force it into the game.
If Battlefield 3 had been told from the present tense, I could have accepted the jet level as an interesting diversion. Told from a framed narrative, levels that don’t make sense or feel unnecessary collapse the entire story. The reverse was the case in Dragon Age 2. I resented the game for skipping over sequences that sounded quite interesting – more interesting, in fact, than the game I actually played.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings starts its story with a framing device. Geralt has been captured and is being interrogated about the events of the day that has just now ended. Over the course of the conversation, players complete the day in three separate gameplay sections. The framing element is filled with dialogue choices that add flavor to each subsequent playthrough but a more important difference between this and Dragon Age 2 and Battlefield 3 is that the three sections of the day can be played in any order. Play the last section and your interrogator will subtly turn the conversation back to the previous part of the day. There’s a particularly huge choice in the first section; the result of which comes up in conversation and makes a rather large impact once the interrogation finishes and the game proper starts. It’s a short experience, about two hours, but I’ve played it four times now and each time feels like I’m getting a slightly different story, not sitting through a bunch of passive cutscenes.
It’s still a traditional approach to framed narrative, just gameified. Sitting through cutscenes, even interactive ones, is not why I play games. But can the framing device be completely interactive? Yes.
Halo 3: ODST tells a very different kind of story compared to traditional game narratives. You start as the Rookie, waking up at night in a city overrun by the Covenant, but you dropped during the day. What the hell happened? You move around a mostly deserted city, skirting around Covenant patrols, trying to find clues concerning the fate of your squad members. As you find each clue, the game puts you in that squad member’s shoes during the critical events of the day.
It’s a premise Treyarch used to great effect in Call of Duty: Black Ops because the interrogation subject was pretty much insane, so the story didn’t need to make sense.The night and day levels of New Mombasa are quite different in tone and pacing. The story of the Rookie by himself at night frames the events of the day. Because the night levels aren’t cutscenes, it’s not obviously a framed narrative, but that’s precisely why it works so well. It also works to great effect as a pacing device, alternating between a somber night with solo combat and frenetic daytime with squad-intensive combat. Not everyone cared for the pacing but as a longtime fan of the franchise I loved how it told a different kind of story.
If developers want to use framed narrative, at least give me something akin to Witcher 2’s prologue. If they want to be daring, tell me a story like ODST. Games aren’t cinema and they shouldn’t use framed narrative the way movies do.