The Power of Personal Narrative

Shivering Isles, an expansion to Bethesda’s open-ended RPG Oblivion, released yesterday. Later this year, we’re going to see Bioware’s Mass Effect in stores and (of course), a little game called Grand Theft Auto IV. All three of these games share one powerful element in common, a key piece of the “Game 3.0” vision Sony’s Phil Harrison mentioned in his GDC keynote: a personal narrative.

While all three titles have a story in which you can participate, the actual telling of that tale is more or less up to you. Mass Effect‘s tale of the return of the Geth is your primary motivation, but you’ll be free to be as bad or good as you want to be within that limitation. You can explore as many planets as you want or blow through the main quest, assaulting it head-on. Likewise, the sandbox nature of the Grand Theft Auto series has long been its selling point; your only limitation is the police force.

This essential freedom central to many upcoming games is widely praised by players. In reality, though, is this freedom really all that great for gaming? Now that it has begun to take its place in popular culture, and attention is finally beginning to be paid to stories in games, will personal narratives help or harm gaming’s path to media acceptance? Is a personal narrative within a game ultimately “better” than a canned story created by the designers? Those are big questions and can be broken down into a number of elements: validity, meaning, emotion and community.


The primary element to consider, if we’re looking at this from an outsider’s perspective, is one of story validity. Is the tale you tell with your character in Grand Theft Auto a “real story” or just “your character doing a bunch of crap”? When compared to the staid prose and carefully-crafted CG of a Japanese RPG or the linear track of a first-person shooter, “I blew up a couple of cars and then had sex with a hooker” seems a bit infantile. If you get right down to it, is open-ended gaming just lazy design? “Here’s a world; go run around and do some stuff” is easier to produce than a carefully crafted experience from beginning to end. Given the cost of modern game development, there’s a lot to be said for cutting corners by leaving what ultimately happens up to the player.

That argument is flawed, though, because both Oblivion and Mass Effect would almost certainly have been easier (and cheaper) to produce if Bethesda and Bioware had focused on the core quest. The sheer number of options available to a player of these open-world RPGs requires significant resources to support. By trimming games down to a core story, developers can offer more for less. By focusing on the AI interactions in Half-Life 2: Episode One, for example, Valve gave the player a great deal of value despite the couple-hour long story. Quantity, as has often been said, is not necessarily superior to quality.

As related in a Kotaku post, Shadow of the Colossus was incorporated into the film Reign Over Me specifically because of its powerful story and imagery. So, certainly from a mass-market point of view, personal narratives are not as valid as pre-structured stories. While the overall experience of playing GTA is a powerful one, moment-to-moment activities will seem to be random or meaningless to the onlooker.

Therein lays the second element: the meaning of the story to the individual player. On this point, I’m going to take the opposing side: Personal narratives hold far more meaning for players than crafted tales. When I compare the story I’ve created by playing Oblivion to the tale of Marcus Feenix in Gears of War, or even the more fully-formed exploits of Sam Fischer, my own narrative wins hands-down. I care far more about my own exploits than the death of Sam’s daughter or Marcus’ shady past. I can’t help it; I find my imaginary self more interesting than a fictional character.

Ownership is another component to this, and I think it’s better to view this as a desire for ownership than selfishness. As much as you might come to like Marcus or Sam, you didn’t create them. Your RPG character, and to some degree your GTA character, are very much who you want them to be. Grand Theft Auto is more of a stretch, of course; in San Andreas we all played as Carl Johnson. But, while every Marcus Feenix shoots Locust, perhaps your Carl Johnson had a hate-on for particular gang members. Or, perhaps your Carl may have only stolen motorcycles and made a point to shoot old ladies whenever he saw them. As invested as many gamers are in their alter egos, it’s only natural that a personally-created avatar will hold the most meaning.

Certainly, this is most evident in massive games. I know some folks able to recite their online exploits with a deep and abiding passion, and that’s very much drawn from a sense of being there. No space marine or super-spy could ever conjure feelings on that level. Isn’t, at the end of the day, the gaming experience really all about what the player draws from the game?

Precisely what is drawn from games is emotion. Whether it’s fear elicited by Resident Evil‘s zombies or laughter prompted by Sam and Max, emotion is what validates a tale and binds us to our characters. That emotion, cited so heavily by Peter Molyneux in his GDC 2007 demo, is the third element we should consider. The qualitative nature of emotion almost demands fence-sitting when it comes to a connection to personal narrative. What’s a tear-jerking experience for one person may be seen as cynical manipulation by a jaded individual. But every good game elicits something out of everyone. They give us something to share with the people around us.

And this community element is the final piece of the puzzle. In my estimation, it’s what pushes the power of personal narrative over the top. Players have much more to talk about in open-ended games. In a traditional FPS, players can commiserate over the challenge of defeating a difficult boss or offer pointers for multiplayer strategies. In an open-ended game, the very warp and weave of the game is open to discussion. The clever ways you used your character to defeat the challenge posed by the game world constitute stories of their own; certainly, a player with a magic-focused character in Oblivion will have a very different tale to tell than a player with a stealth-focused character.

This enhanced and extended feeling of community is the key to the power of personal narrative. Drawing together the emotion and meaning of your exploits within the game and then sharing that experience with the people around you is what makes games such a unique medium, whatever side of the narrative debate you’re on. Ultimately, your narrative becomes part of the game, which is why gaming is the only true interactive experience.

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