Video game narrative is a tool that, when properly used, can make a dull boring message turn into an immersive and meaningful experience.
ONCE UPON A….
So, if I may be cliche; all great stories start with one single sentence. The very first page of a book has to do A LOT of legwork in order to hook the reader in and keep them interested long enough to drag them down into the depths of its briny ink. As an author, I tend to struggle with that first sentence quite a bit, but once I do manage to get there; everything else comes together.
The obvious question here is how do you make that ‘sentence magic’ happen within the confines of the pixels of a video-game? There is something to be said about how a game trailer is probably the closest equivalent to a book’s ‘first sentence’ as you can get with a video-game, but I find myself not always drawn in by trailers for anything; including movies. So, for me, the actual ‘first sentence’ of a video-game’s narrative starts somewhere between the title screen and the first few moments of the opening cut-scene (that is if the game doesn’t have a cold open that is).
My current project Freyr is a narrative conscious story that I feel brings to light my way of writing pretty well. There isn’t much to it yet, as it is still in its early stages of development, but I think I can talk about the opening dialogue and cut-scene as a fairly accurate example of the idea I’m trying to convey here.
The title-screen has some extra plans that haven’t been implemented yet, but from the very start I was thinking about showing and not telling through every inch of space I was given. Before the player is even promoted to press any key to continue, the screen is immediately dark and the sound of ringing( the kind usually followed after an explosion ) can be heard as the MC’s silhouetted model flashes on screen surrounded by a much brighter circle and then darkness around that. This moment fades and a musical cue starts to dial itself up before the title slowly creeps into view.
This is when the player is prompted to press any key to continue.
Already, the player has been introduced to the MC shrouded in darkness with a very specific and distinct sound; before the title screen music is even allowed to be played or the title is even shown. This opening is of course subject to change, but I kind of hope it gets what I’m talking about across.
Your ‘first sentence’ in a video game story can be just about anything, but don’t make it into words. Don’t make it into a scrolling block of text ( although these are completely valid ways to open a story, considering video-games are a visual medium, one can do so much more with them).
Sound is a big deal. Use it. I’m not particularly talking about a horror scream though. Some games do that but, honestly, an early jump-scare in the beginning to set the mood can be a little underwhelming. I have a lot to say about horror games though, so that would be a whole other article. In this case I’m talking far more about how you can set a mood.
For example, a more somber video game narrative (with story being the focus) could open with characters talking, no visuals; and then their voices can slowly start to fade out as the music takes over and the title screens rolls in (maybe even on a shot of something picturesque) or the characters continuing their conversation in silence, the music overwhelming their voices.
There are a lot of ways to do this. It is mainly just setting the tone without having to TELL the player the tone. When you’re making a video game, you are using a medium that is visual, meaning, if you’re using methods meant for books, you’re kind of cutting your ability to tell your story off at the kneecaps.
Now, there ARE games who use opening dialogue right after their title screen that are incredibly effective. The king of which (in my humble opinion) is Silent Hill 2. I know some of you are tired of people talking about this game, but it is a classic for a reason. The opening dialogue of Mary’s Letter is fantastic at setting the tone, as the camera stays mostly static save for soft fog rolling across the scene. It tells & shows you a lot in under seven minutes.
With all that said, you’re welcome to also write the beginning of your narrative however you want. The way people tell stories ( even if they are the same ones ) tends to be very different from one another. How you might write the next Silent Hill would differ greatly from how I would write it. I think that’s really important and I also think that’s why indie games are such a great opportunity to really dig into how stories can come to life. I’m an author first and a game developer second so the way I view games is generally through the mindset of someone who writes a lot; but I also am an artist and know how important visuals can be to really convey a feeling.
This is a shorter way of saying the descriptions in my books can be VERY long winded at times, because visuals are important to me. So in order to translate that style into a visual medium, everything has to be shown in order for it to work, otherwise people would be reading screens of text for several hours. Which only a few of us are into. So, best to spare everyone else.
Regardless. Video-games are great. Video-games with great stories are even greater.
And they all begin with a sentence.