Narrative Analysis: Advanced Topics
Imagine you’re watching your favorite show, and one of the characters is drinking a cup of coffee. After they set their drink down, the camera shifts away to focus on someone else, but when it comes back, the coffee is gone! It’s a minor detail, totally unimportant to the story, but you can’t help but notice it anyway. Why? Because the missing coffee violates the internal consistency of the imaginary world: the story’s continuity.
In storytelling, continuity is the term used to describe narrative consistency between shots, sentences, or scenes. Like setup and payoff, continuity represents a promise to the audience: if a story element is introduced, that element should remain consistent until an outside force changes it. This concept applies to background details, like wardrobe and setting, but it’s also essential to maintain consistency in major elements like plot points and character backstories. For an audience to understand a story, they need to trust that the information they’re being given is accurate, and they can’t do that if the story’s facts keep changing. For example, imagine a movie where the main character gives different people different answers when they ask where he went to college. Savvy viewers might take this as a sign that the main character is a habitual liar, so they’ll feel cheated if it turns out the different answers were just errors in the script—errors that suggest a lack of care, as well as a lack of respect for the audiences’ time.
While video games aren’t as prone to the continuity errors you see in movies and television, continuity still plays an essential role in video game storytelling. Players expect that plotlines will be resolved, backstories will be consistent, and settings details will remain constant unless expressly changed. Any deviations in continuity will raise questions in the players’ minds. If the answers turn out to be “a lack of foresight” or “a lack of care,” the players will be less likely to play future titles from the developer and publisher. Like movie viewers and book readers, game players want to make sense of the games they’re playing, and they can only do that if the information they receive is accurate and consistent. Although clever writers can play with continuity to create various compelling effects, such continuity changes must be undertaken with a deft hand, both within single stories and between connected works in a series. Otherwise, players will feel betrayed by the narrative, and they won’t be as trusting of the next game that comes their way.
Continuity in Individual Stories
Game Discussed: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo, 1998), Final Fantasy VII (Square-Enix, 1997)
Coffee cups don’t often go missing on the virtual sets of video games, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to juggle continuity in video games. The vibrant, sprawling open worlds players have come to enjoy are as rich with details as exploration-driven dungeon crawlers, and the details players discover need to come together in a way that makes sense. Game stories that depend on twists are also especially vulnerable to continuity errors, as players will scrutinize the stories more closely to predict the twist ahead of time. Even the most straightforward game stories must be internally consistent to make sense, however, and telling a simple story doesn’t let writers off the continuity hook. For example, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo, 1998) establishes early on that the children of the forest, the Kokiri, never age. Although the protagonist, Link, believes himself to be one of the Kokiri, he soon learns he’s actually a Hylian—a pseudo-human who will age normally. This information quickly proves to be more than just interesting trivia about the different races of Hyrule, as Link ages seven years when he’s trapped in a dimension outside Hyrule. When he emerges, he’s an adult, but his Kokiri friends aren’t; they’ve stayed the same age, maintaining the continuity from the earliest parts of the game. Either the Kokiri aging or Link staying young would have been a massive continuity error that would permanently betray a player’s trust. Fortunately, Ocarina of Time’s continuity errors are few and far between (the most memorable being a costuming bug in the Gerudo Prison), and the ones that do exist were put there for a good reason.
When a story’s internal consistency changes without explanation or payoff, it’s deemed a continuity error. But what happens when writers play with a story’s internal consistency on purpose? Believe it or not, there are some good reasons to play with continuity within a single story. Time travel stories like Ocarina of Time are chock full of intentional continuity errors, as causal loops and alternate timelines create all sorts of interesting snarls in consistency. Time travel isn’t the only reason to play with continuity, however. Even in realistic settings, conflicting accounts of an event can lend a degree of realism to a scene, as human memories are notoriously imperfect, and shifting sights and sounds can heighten a sense of unreality.
Final Fantasy VII (Square-Enix, 1997) uses both of these concepts to great effect with its repeated flashbacks to the Nibelheim Incident, in which the soldier Cloud Strife allegedly threw his colleague, Sephiroth, into a powerful chemical reactor. Reports of this incident differ based on who’s telling the story, however, and Cloud’s troubled mental state make him hard to trust. His retellings—and his memories—are rife with so many continuity errors that even his closest friends stop believing in him. Had his stories been free from continuity errors, his friends might have been more trusting, but the players would have missed out on the heightened sense of unreality that helped them experience Cloud’s struggle first-hand. Games that play with continuity in a similar fashion can force players to ask important questions about the mental states of the characters they’re controlling, as well as the nature of their reality.
Continuity Within a Series
Game Discussed: Crash Bandicoot (Naughty Dog, 1996), Prey (Arkane Studios, 2017), Prey (Human Head Games, 2006), Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001), Street Fighter (Capcom, Ongoing Series), Soul Calibur (Bandai-Namco, Ongoing Series)
Continuity within a single story is important, but what about within a larger series? If you’re playing a game series where every game is said to be on the same timeline, you’re going to expect that the information you learned in one game remains consistent to the next. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, game developers have to remove characters’ learned skills and abilities from one game to the next to keep subsequent games from being too easy; other times, developers have to remove or alter some aspect of the story due to logistical concerns. Changing social mores can be a driving force behind sweeping story changes, as can executive pressure or voice actor availability. For example, in the original Crash Bandicoot (Naughty Dog, 1996), Crash had a girlfriend, Tawna, but Tawna was abruptly sidelined when executives deemed her to be ‘too sexy’ for a child-friendly game.1 When developers fail to acknowledge such sweeping continuity changes, it’s considered an error or a plot-hole, but some developers may choose to officially recognize the change. This act is known as a retroactive continuity change, commonly referred to as a retcon. Retcons give storytellers the freedom to fix problems with past stories, but too many retcons can chip away at audience trust, just like continuity errors.
Just like in stand-alone stories, connected stories in a series can use changes in continuity to their advantage. Reboots commonly reset the continuity of a series to bring back lost audience members and lure in new ones: an incredibly tempting prospect when even the most well-informed players can no longer follow the story’s progression. Arkane Studio’s Prey (2017) is a rare example of a stand-alone reboot, in which the developers took the premise from an earlier game with the same name (Prey, Human Head Games, 2006) and completely reimagined the story. Although both games feature protagonists who use strange powers to explore spaceships, the narratives couldn’t have less in common. However, the reboot proved to be a successful gambit, as Prey (2017) was met with critical acclaim, proving that continuity is only as important as the experience surrounding it.
Another common way developers can use continuity changes to their advantage is with the alternate ending. Unlike most movies or books, video games are interactive, meaning player choices can dictate the story’s progression. This often leads to multiple endings, including ones that vary wildly from each other. While multiple endings give players a sense of ownership over the stories they play, these differing routes can create a problem for developers who want to continue the story later. In stories that delight in ambiguity, like Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001), it’s not that important to clarify which ending is the ‘real’ one, but more straightforward stories require straightforward timelines. Being forced to choose an ending isn’t always a bad thing; sometimes, putting multiple endings into the world gives developers time to gauge player reactions, and those reactions can dictate the direction of the following games. Fighting games are great examples of this phenomenon, as they tend to have dozens of characters who each have their own playable storylines. In a series like Street Fighter (Capcom), where character goals don’t always overlap, it’s possible to weave together multiple endings into one ‘master’ ending, but in a series like Soul Calibur, where every character is trying to find the same weapon that only one person can wield, developers have to choose which ending dictates the starting point of the next game. This strategy isn’t likely to work in a tightly-plotted series with lots of moving parts, but in a light, straightforward narrative, picking and choosing your true endings from one game to the next is as good a plan as any.
Maintaining internal consistency in a narrative is no easy task, but there are few things audiences hate more than being punished for paying attention. Glitches in continuity aren’t always a bad thing, however, and they’re sometimes necessary to guarantee the survival of a series. Writers who wish to play with continuity in their stories should consider why they want to do it and whether or not they’d feel cheated if they saw the same change in another work. Those who get it right can earn fans’ loyalty for ages, but those who do it wrong may find they’ve lost their audiences’ trust permanently.
Full Game Study:
Ocarina of Time
Ocarina of Time’s flawless integration of plot, character, and theme made it an instant classic that has endured for decades.
StoryScan: Final Fantasy VII and Opening
Final Fantasy VII’s memorable opening succeeds by weaving in character, setting, theme, and conflict.
Narrative Analysis: Setup and Payoff
Using foreshadowing to plant questions, then answering them at the opportune time.
1 “Tawna.” Crash Bandicoot Wiki, 2022. https://crashbandicoot.fandom.com/wiki/Tawna
* Reference Footage (Ocarina of Time): ZorZelda. “Zelda Ocarina of Time 3D 100% Walkthrough 1080p HD.” YouTube, 2017.
** Reference Footage (Final Fantasy VII): Lacry. Final Fantasy 7 Full Walkthrough Gameplay – No Commentary. YouTube, 2021.
*** Reference Footage (Crash Bandicoot): Prosafia Gaming. “Evolution of Tawna in Crash Bandicoot Games (1996-2020).” YouTube, 2020.
**** Reference Footage (Soul Calibur III): xTimelessGaming. “Soul Calibur 3 – All Endings 1080p HD.” YouTube, 2018.