Bloodox Way, Dunwall: Day 23, Month of Rain
Residence is a family home, covered in a thin layer of dust. Victim is half-fallen off a chair at the empty dining table. On the table: one tin of whale meat, one bottle of hemlock essence, one drained glass, and one book, marked ‘Mother’s Journal’.
The body is so contorted it has to be moved to even see it’s a woman – Mother, presumably. There are spatters of dark red on her face and clothing, a large single smear at the waist of her trousers. The blood doesn’t look to be hers.
The diary fills in the rest:
“Morris is sick and so are the children … The flies have set in … It took a while, but I got Morris into one of the bags. At least his face is covered.”
In the corner, huddled on stained mattresses, are three tightly swaddled bodies – one large, two small.
“It has settled in that they are lost to me, all of them … page missing … I have the fever now.”
The dead are often easily brushed past in games. In your average shooter or RPG, you dispatch so many enemies that their bodies – if they don’t fade quickly away -become meaningless, except as a repository of loot or a signpost of where you’ve already been. But placed carefully, a single corpse can be worth hours of beautifully-rendered cutscenes and snappy dialogue.
For something so simple, these bodies are surprisingly versatile tools. They can be used for horror, or to establish an approaching enemy as a powerful threat. They can be used to trick the player into believing they’re not the centre of this simulated world.
A single corpse can be worth hours of beautifully-rendered cutscenes and snappy dialogue
It starts to get really interesting, though, when particular games, such as the Elder Scrolls and Bioshock series or Dishonored – from which the above example is lifted – use the bodies to tell their own self-contained story.
As the player, you walk into a room, and a quick glance around yields the component parts of a mystery: a body or three, a few suggestive props, maybe a diary, whether it’s written or recorded on an audiolog. Suddenly, whoever you were playing as, you’re the detective.
Constructing these kinds of scenes, according to Ed Stern, Lead Writer at Splash Damage – the UK-based developer which made its name with the Enemy Territory games, and is currently working on a follow-up to 2011’s Brink – is “a bit like being the writer on an episode of CSI. Also the production designer, set dresser and camera operator.”
“The titular Crime Scene Investigators need a crime scene to investigate. You need clues for them to frown at and piece together, so they can arrive at the actual crime and perpetrator themselves.”
In the example above, the journal just ends. It’s not a huge leap to pull the final pieces together – the defeated tone of the final diary entry, the poisonous hemlock, the empty glass – and work out what happened, but it’s more satisfying than being told outright.
6th September, 1960: Fort Frolic, Rapture
What appear to be three plaster cast statues sit around a dinner table. A daughter looks sheepishly at her empty plate, forever. Mother’s arms are tied behind her back. Father is at the head of the table in his rabbit mask.
It’s at this point – his slashed wrists are outstretched and bleeding onto the whitewashed table – that it becomes clear what they are. Not statues at all.
It’s a crime scene, and the perpetrator is in plain sight – Sander Cohen, Rapture’s very own Joseph Goebbels, who addresses you throughout via speakers and audiologs. It’s not the first example of his handiwork you’ve encountered, nor will it be the last.
This scene, taken from BioShock, comes in the middle of a level which pushes the idea to its logical extreme. From the moment you enter Fort Frolic, you’re faced with these grotesque statues, and Cohen happily owns up to them. They’re his “masterpiece”, he announces. There’s no whodunnit in the above scene, only the more troubling question of why.
“Obviously, you might not want to make the story a mystery,” says Stern. “It may just be general mood you’re trying to communicate, rather than the specific identity of the killer, but it’s the same principle. You’re implying story by the way you’ve built the world.”
You’re implying story by the way you’ve built the world
In the best examples, the world is used to guide the player’s eye, by making the most of architecture or lighting In Dishonored, the corpse of the mother is framed by the window you climb through, making her the first thing you notice. In BioShock, the bodies are obscured by the corner of a wall, meaning you have to scan from left to right, with each family member picked out in highlights and a dark patch in the middle of the table, leading finally to the only blood present in the scene, underlining that these are not statues.
It all works together to create a sense of drama for the player. The illusion of motion without actually changing anything. After all, these are moments frozen in time – and in the case of Fort Frolic’s victims, literally so – just waiting to be found by the player.
Tirdas, 12th Day Of Last Seed: Frostflow Lighthouse, Skyrim
Dead horse outside residence a bad omen. Inside, it gets worse. A woman’s body splayed out on the bloodstained floor, a Falmer axe lying next to her. Murder weapon, or attempt at self-defence?
There’s also a diary, which introduces yet another family: Romati, whose body this is; Mani and Sudi, the children; and Habd, author of the diary. One day Habd came home to a monstrous creature ransacking his home, Romati dead, and the kids missing.
An objective pings up on the screen: “Find the source of the murders in Frostflow Lighthouse”.
A trail of blood leads down the stairs and to the cellar, revealing a monstrous Chaurus, alive this time, and a hole in the wall. Going through it leads into Frostflow Abyss, where battles with Chaurus and Falmer await.
Following the path leads to the rest of the family, one by one: Mani first, placed ceremonially on a raised rock, his grave marked by two shovels and a small fire. Sudi, trapped behind a gate, clutching two notes and a knife close to her chest. One note is bloodstained, but it’s possible to pick out phrases: “captured … others led off … all we heard were the screams … I think know why Father gave me this dagger.” Finally Habd himself, just a skull, literally in the belly of the beast – the body of a defeated Chaurus Reaper.
There’s another ping: quest completed, mystery solved.
It’s all a bit of an anticlimax, frankly. Our first real whodunnit, and the culprit turned out to be a few giant bugs.
But what’s really interesting about the case of Frostflow Lighthouse in Skyrim is how it takes this simple story, and spreads it out over a full dungeon. The setup here isn’t too dissimilar to the other two – a domestic scene, disrupted by tragedy – but rather than two or three minutes, the experience lasts for twenty or thirty.
The idea of players telling themselves stories is deep in the DNA of games
With pieces of the mystery being fed to you so slowly, there’s time to chew over red herrings: the fact that Romati’s corpse was stripped of clothes; the mentions of Mani’s dissatisfaction with his family and home; the apparent human farms set up by the Falmer.
These red herrings suggest stories much darker, and more interesting, than the answer finally presented by the game – but in a way that’s exactly the point.
“You’re reverse-engineering a narrative crime scene for [players] to then re-reverse-engineer it,” says Stern. “But instead of what actually happened being told through flashback reenactment, it all takes place in the player’s mind.”
This is where the magic happens. The idea of players telling themselves stories is deep in the DNA of games, stretching all the way back to pen-and-paper RPGs. Having to link up these frozen moments turns the story into an interactive process.
Deep in the southernmost part of Skyrim, you can find the ruins of a house. It’s clearly burnt down, leaving only blackened masonry. Inside, there’s a cluster of candles, arranged in a rough circle, and a charred corpse, with one hand outstretched to… a Scroll of Conjure Flame Atronach. A spell to summon a fire demon. Ah.
It’s the simplest thing in the world, just a bit of scenery and two carefully-chosen props, but it feels thematically rich – a man reaching beyond our mortal ken, the Elder Scrolls games’ answer to Icarus, Prometheus, Frankenstein.
Because this method of storytelling makes you an active reader, rather than a passive viewer, it not only forces you to think, but fits much more naturally into games than any cutscene. After all, these stories are themselves a sort of game.
In the case of Frostflow, the mystery is actually integrated with the action of playing. But even if the player is only required to look around a room, the game is presenting them with a puzzle. Not in the traditional gaming sense of the word, maybe, but the formula remains: examine, put the pieces together, solve, and get rewarded. The solution might be reached without touching the keyboard or controller, and the rewards might be purely narrative, but it requires the player to make the same mental leap.
That leap makes us write our own stories, and in doing so it flips the player’s default role on its head: not taking away life, but creating it. Bringing the dead back to life.