I have just recently learned a delightful term that seems to cause a dilemma in video game narrative. Info dumping (tee-hee) tends to occur when a story requires a massive amount of information be provided to the reader/viewer/player, and the media presents this data in a very wordy (read: boooorrringgg) fashion. Think of when a book opens with an entire chapter of background information to establish a setting, or when a movie has a pile of text for the viewer to read in order to understand a character’s motivation or previous actions. These infodumps are often obtrusive and break the flow of a story.
So the dilemma of information dumping rears its boring head. Many developers want to tell a story without breaking player immersion. While a book or a film has complete control over where the focus of the viewer/reader is directed, video games are an interactive medium, and thus different techniques must be implemented.
There are several ways that developers have tried to provide narrative detail without dumping information on the player. In many triple-A action titles, cutscenes will be utilized to keep the story moving while seamlessly providing key plot details and events. But even the most beautiful and heartwrenching cinematics remove control from the player, which in extreme cases (looking at you, Metal Gear Solid 4), turns much of the experience into a movie that you occaisionally get to play.
In most role-playing games, narrative details are given to the player in the form of non-player character interactions. Skyrim (as with most Bethesda games) is rife with townsfolk, royalty, and even ancient dieties who are eager to recount all the minutia of their tales. While the lore of Tamriel is fascinating, and worthy of discussion, clicking through dialogue trees and reading screen after screen of text can get old very quickly. Why would I want to waste my time learning key story points from some bard when there are dragons flying about, practically begging to be battled?
Now, think back to your childhood, and all the stories you were told before bed. As you heard nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and classic legends, your mind naturally conjured images to compliment each bedtime story. The necessary background information and key plot points were spoken to you, while your mind supplied the appearances of each of the characters and settings of the story. By including a narrator to fill you in on the history and motivations of the main character without interrupting gameplay, Bastion succeeds in tapping into that nostalgic part of each player that yearns to hear a great story.
From the outset of Bastion, the player is given control of a nameless young man, with no opening cinematic or wordy instruction booklet to provide a rhyme or reason as to the hero’s motivations. The Kid, as the hero is referred to, simply wakes up on a floating piece of architecture, gets to his feet, and thus the game begins. But before the player even has time to wonder what sort of a world he has entered, a gruff old man’s voice takes over, telling the story of the Kid’s journey to the Bastion, the last refuge for his people in case of emergency. There is no pause in gameplay, no dialogue trees for the player to click through; just an old bard, telling a story to the player while he/she controls the action.
The narrator’s monologue follows the actions of the Kid as he journeys to restore the Bastion, and find out what shattered the world he once knew. With each new weapon or power acquired by the player, a short history of the item is recounted. When the Kid meets other survivors, the sense of hope and camaraderie is strengthened by the narrator’s discourse. Even when the game provides the player with a survival mode to prove their skills, the narrator divulges more history of the inhabitants of Bastion during the melee. An entire history of two distinct cultures, a catastrophic event, and a young man’s journey to right the world are given to the player, and all while the core action and gameplay go uninterrupted.
The addition of a narrator to Bastion was a brilliant move for Supergiant Games, but there is a slight risk to be considered. Being told a deep and interesting story works well for films and books, but a video game should have some sense of player choice (outside of the tired, old “be good or be evil” option of so many other games). Bastion provides the player with points in the game where the decisions he/she makes will directly affect the story’s ending. This option allows the player to take control of making dramatic changes to the story, instead of just serving as an audience to the changes in the tale. Once again, Bastion serves as a great blend of storytelling with an interactive medium.
And don’t worry: no matter which path player takes, the narrator will continue to regale him/her with the outcome of the Kid’s choices, right until the end credits roll.