Video games need more “Call Me Ishmael”. That quote is one of the most famous opening lines in all of literature. Sure, its popularity is owed largely to being the first sentence in Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. But that introduction is also memorable because you’re learning about an important character from the very second you start reading.
Earlier this year, Max Payne 3 did the same trick, letting players know about Max’s nihilistic wit and gallows humour before they ever fired a bullet or did a slo-mo dodge. If you never played a Max Payne game before, you still knew for the most part what kind of game you were getting in terms of mechanics. But the journey was about who you were playing as, which wasn’t neccessarily something you could learn about just from shooting dudes.
I was reading an issue of Mark Waid’s excellent run of Marvel Comics’ Daredevil when I stopped to think about how great first-person narration is as a storytelling tool. One that games should use more of.
Look, let’s acknowledge that games unfurl their experiences in different ways than books or other media. Games can deliver story through interaction rather than scripting. But, the ones that want to tell tales have a great under-used tool in voiceover narration. Most video games struggle with telling you about their characters.
They stop the thing you’ve shown up to do — solve tricky puzzles, shoot lots of alien invaders, explore vast landscapes — to roll out a cutscene where you finally get to see emotions play out on the front of a character’s face. That’s usually where you get to hear about what’s motivating a hero or a party member. And these moments usually bring the play of a game to a dead stop. No wonder people skip through them.
That’s why the narration of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time or Bastion (which, granted, isn’t first-person) works so wonderfully. You can still be bounding around a crumbling castle or hacking away at a random enemy while getting fed information about the protagonist and the world. Even Metroid: Other M — controversial as its version of Samus Aran was for some people — let you into that character’s head in a way by virtue of narration that previous games hadn’t. In fact, I’ve found that narration heightens the action with a personality-driven filter. I cared more about getting Max past a wave of enemies than, say, Master Chief because I’d had his voice and his pain ringing through my head before the shots rang out.
First-person narration gets used a lot in detective fiction and its very existence imparts a subliminal knowledge that the lead character makes it through OK. You’re hearing the tale told after the smoke clears. Where that might rob some of the tension from the proceedings in a book or movie, you’re the one that has to navigate to resolution in a video game. That character’s voice becomes a catalyst for closure.
So, more narration, please. After all, if I’m going to spend 10, 20, 100 hours with a character, I better feel like I know him or her.