Hi all. I’m interested in the ability of games to tell deep and engaging stories, and how we can tell stories with games in ways that are completely different from traditional forms. So I’ve lately been trying to steep myself in games which do this.
One such game is Judith, by Terry Cavanagh and Stephen Lavelle, which was just released today. I’ve decided to do something of an analysis of the game. I strongly suggest that you play the game before reading this: it’s a very short play, and requires no hand-eye coordination. It runs on Windows, OS-X, and Linux (with Wine).
[spoiler]Judith has an unusual narrative structure for a video game. In fact, it’s a bit confusing at first: the switch to a different perspective character is a bit jarring, and there’s no explicit communication that it’s happening. But I think this is a well-crafted confusion. It happens several times, and there are some cues - some text color changes, and there’s a fading effect, but the first or second time you see this shift it’s not clear what those cues mean. It’s an interesting decision on the part of the developers that all the dialog is unadorned: there is no “I say,” “She says,” around the dialogue, and the only indication that someone different is speaking is that the color of the text changes - there is never an explicit indication of which color represents which person; we just figure that out from context. Anyway, it soon becomes clear that you’re controlling two different characters - an adulterous man on a tryst with his adulterous lover in an abandoned house, and a woman who lived in that house with her husband long ago (the latter seeming to be a reference to Blue Beard).
This game doesn’t really have any choices in it, although it may seem it does at first. All doors but one are always locked, and the one unlocked door is always the only way to progress the plot. At first the game looks open and there is some sense of confusion - we don’t know who these characters are, we don’t know what exactly we should be doing, and we don’t know why we’re switching perspectives. But after a couple of these perspective switches, we know exactly what to do; we know the rhythm of the narrative. We’re consistently switching back and forth between the present man and the past woman. Every day the woman wakes up, explores her husband’s secret dungeons, and goes to bed. Between each of these days, our present man makes progress in the search for his lover.
Both of these plots end in reaching the same room, but one is chilling and another is a great relief. The woman (who at this point I felt was far too naive, but I was still sympathetic) learns her husband’s final and terrible secret, while the man is reunited with his lover. One moment we’re horrified, but the next we’re relieved.
This game shows that something with very limited player agency and with effectively no choice can still present an intriguing experience. But why does this need to be a game, if it’s linear? Why not just make an animated movie? Well, let’s see.
First, the simple fact that we’re controlling the characters may increase our sympathy with them. It’s certainly not true that simply controlling a character makes us sympathetic to him, as many games with horrible protagonists have shown us, but that’s not to say that our interest in that character won’t be increased at all by our controlling them. I am the man looking for his lover, I am the woman learning her husband’s horrible secrets. When I learned about the prisoner for the first time, for a moment I reacted: jesus, what should I do? This is too much for me! And so I “ran” (that is, very purposefully pressed my arrow keys) out of the dungeon, momentarily relieved to have the door close.
I think another reason that this works so well as a game may lie in another idea which I’ve been trying to crystallize lately. It has to do with explicitly limiting player agency. This comes up in a very interesting way when we, as the woman, approach the dagger in the husband’s armory. For every interaction in the game, there is a simple sentence which appears when the action is possible; most often it’s something like “Open Door” or “Take Necklace”. But when we approach the dagger, the action text is “Take dagger and kill the prisoner”. I had an interesting reaction to this when I saw it – at first, some sort of surprise. Then I thought, well, what else would I do with the dagger? I wasn’t even thinking about killing the prisoner as I approached the dagger; it was just an item in the room and I wanted to approach it, examine it, take it, and see what I could do with it. When we interact with the dagger, our character automatically walks down the hall to the prisoner and kills him, in what I suppose should be called a cutscene. Why did the developers do it this way? Why not just allow us to take the dagger, and if we choose (even if there is no actual choice in order to advance the plot), walk down the hall and have the option to “Kill prisoner with dagger”? I’m not really sure; maybe they just decided that the player might not realize that they should be killing the prisoner with it. Perhaps the message is: This is What Happens. There is nothing else you can do; you must accept what needs to be done and you must deal with the consequences. What’s happening here is that the author is limiting our agency. He’s preventing us from carrying out the actions we want to do at a fine-grained level, and instead giving us a simple option. I think limiting agency can be a very important part of developing immersive games, but the way it’s used here is even more interesting, as if it’s actually reinforcing a thematic point. Or maybe it was a completely arbitrary decision. Regardless, I think that this is something unique to games. It may seem like it’s just taking this particular game closer to the experience of the movie, but the interesting thing is that it’s happening in the context of greater agency, and so it’s possible to reduce this agency in certain parts of the game, and if it’s done with finesse, it can help to get a point across or at least evoke some interesting emotion in the player.[/spoiler]
So how is this relevant to IF? How can we give these properties to our games, and what will and won’t work in the context of our genre? How can we make linear IF that doesn’t feel claustrophobic and overly limiting?
I could go on and try to answer those questions, but I’ve been writing for long enough, so I think I’ll just end with that.