Does the Double-Narrative Structure Work in Video Games?

By Rich Shivener in Unraveling Yarns
Monday, July 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm
house-of-leaves-cover.jpg
Can video games have three narratives?
Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves is the most gripping book I've read in the last year, and it's something I should have read in 2000, when it first hit book stores. The Rich Shivener then, just a teenager, wasn't ready for a tome like this. I barely am now. Maybe that's why I enjoy it so much. Each chapter leaves me with more questions about the key characters -- Johnny Truant, Zampanò, and the Navidson family. It haunts me. It challenges me.

A rare case, it's a book that affects three narratives, all with their unique conflicts, character developments, diversions and resolutions. Readers are compelled to follow a story within a story within a story, or perhaps three stories connected by the mystique of the central characters. I still struggle to explain the book's structure and level of interactivity. I hazard to give away what's at play there.

Some recent video games, like House of Leaves, unpack multiple narratives, aiming to flesh out such characters as Spider-Man, Desmond Miles of Assassin's Creed and Captain Alex Mason, the central character in Call of Duty: Black Ops.

We can examine them with what I'll call the House of Leaves lens. Drinks are welcome. 

Black Ops delivers a solid narrative, which, one could argue, is split into two. The primary narrative centers on Mason remembering -- and reliving -- his days as a covert soldier in the 1960s. The auxiliary one -- much weaker than the former -- depicts Mason strapped to a chair in an interrogation room, replete with shock treatments and anonymous voices, trying to remember his days in the special forces. The narratives reach their shared resolution when, as is projected early in the game, Mason and his handler, Special Agent Jason Hudson, thwart the Soviet General Nikita Dragovich.



If we look closely, Black Ops shorthands the narrative concerning Mason's interrogation. Over and over, the game depicts the central character in the room, minutes later flashing back to one of his missions. It becomes predictable, this flashback method, with the interrogation scenes functioning as interludes. Put differently, Mason, save for his escape, does nothing more than growl at his captors. The interactivity here is minimal, the scenes hardly change, and thus, the narrative suffers.



Assassin's Creed also covers two narratives with one unraveling in an Abstergo Corporation lab, where Desmond Miles is captured, and the other resolving in reconstructed realities of his ancestor, the assassin Altaïr. Unlike Black Ops, it offers many opportunities to gain a firm understanding of both narratives. As a player controlling Desmond, you can explore the lab, talk with the scientists, even browse a computer that offers clues into Abstergo's machinations; Altaïr can assassinate characters, search for secrets and, if he's foolish, desynchronize back to the present. Like House of Leaves, Assassin's Creed invites you to consider how one narrative and its characters are tied to the companion narrative. How do they inform each other? Do they? Such questions are worth exploring, and their answers aren't always easy to find.



These questions are worth putting to the upcoming game Spider-Man: Edge of Time, slated for a fall release. As the trailers show, it centers on Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2099, depicting their struggle against altered realities. As press releases have indicated, their actions, explored in separate timelines, affect each other: "The game features all-new 'cause-and-effect' gameplay, where players will see how the immediate and sometimes unexpected effects of their actions as one Spider-Man changes the timeline of the other Spider-Man."  

Judging by the previews, I suspect that title will have its own House of Leaves, albeit one that's more accessible and less mysterious than the eponymous book. Like Assassin's Creed, it's reinforcing the idea that the double-narrative structure can make a compelling work, one with more weight and longevity than a single, linear narrative.

Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Shivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.
 
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