Narrative Analysis: Next Steps
Games Discussed: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo), Final Fantasy X (Square-Enix), Portal (Valve), Five Nights at Freddy’s (Scott Cawthorn)
In plot-driven stories, the central conflict is typically driven by one thing: the protagonist’s goal. Goals can vary wildly from story to story, but at their core, they are all something the protagonist desires to have or achieve. Author Robert McKee expands on this idea in the writing guide ‘Story‘ by saying: “If you could pull your protagonist aside, whisper in his ear, “What do you want?” he would have an answer: “I’d like X today, Y next week, but in the end I want Z.“1 Like the range of wants across genres, each want in McKee’s answer is different, yet they all give the protagonist something to pursue. Without a goal, the protagonist becomes stuck in place, the story’s momentum sticks with them.
Goals are a central component of video games storytelling. According to Evan Skolnick, author of ‘Video Game Storytelling,’ “A game with no challenges, goals, or obstacles can hardly be called a game, any more than a story without conflict can be called a story.“2 Video game stories rely on goals not only to motivate the protagonists but also the players. Both player and protagonist are meant to focus on the same goal, as the protagonist’s goal is often the game’s win-condition. In other words, satisfying the protagonist’s goal will bring the game to its conclusion. The exact nature of the goal can vary with the game’s genre, just as it does in other forms of media. Sprawling adventure stories like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo, 1998) or Final Fantasy X (Square-Enix, 2001) feature protagonists determined to save the world, while more tightly-focused stories such as Portal (Valve, 2008) or Five Nights at Freddy’s (Scott Cawthorn, 2014) have protagonists pursuing basic goals like survival and escape. Though their goals vary wildly, the protagonists in those games always had something to pursue, and those pursuits kept players engaged throughout the entire game.
Wants and Needs
Games Discussed: Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo), Super Mario Sunshine (Nintendo), The Last of Us (Naughty Dog), Chrono Trigger (Square-Enix)
K.M. Weiland, author of ‘Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development,’3 divides a character’s goals into two categories: wants and needs. Wants are external desires that the character is aware of, whereas needs are internal desires that the character may not know about. While wants are not always easy to satisfy, they are generally easy to conceptualize. They are either physical things, like treasure or prizes, or simple concepts like defeating a threat or protecting a loved one. Needs are harder to define, as they involve a character’s emotions. Weiland elaborates on this concept, saying: “The Thing Your Character Needs is usually going to be nothing more than a realization. In some stories, this realization may change nothing about his external life, but it will always transform his perspective of himself and the world around him, leaving him more capable of coping with his remaining external problems.“4 In other words, characters may not know right away what it is they need, but once they find it, it will change them in a way that satisfying their want did not.
Almost every video game protagonist is created with a want in mind, as wants are the external objectives that give players a goal. In the earliest games, these wants were spelled out in side materials like the instruction manual or the packaging. Nowadays, games integrate the protagonist’s external motivations into the story. One example of how the portrayal of characters’ wants has evolved is in the Super Mario series (Nintendo). In the earliest titles, players are thrown into the game with no introductory text, and they must look to the instruction manual for context. The following text is an excerpt from the original Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo, 1985) guide:
“Mario, the hero of the story (maybe) hears about the Mushroom People’s plight and sets out on a quest to free the Mushroom Princess from the evil Koopa and restore the fallen kingdom of the Mushroom People. You are Mario! It’s up to you to save the Mushroom People from the black magic of the Koopa!”
Almost twenty years later, video game storytelling had advanced to the point where Mario’s wants could be laid out explicitly in-game with voiced cutscenes. In Super Mario Sunshine (Nintendo, 2002), the opening scenes show Mario being framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and his goal becomes finding the real criminal and clearing his name. It’s not the most complex goal, but goals don’t have to be complicated to be compelling. Ultimately, all they have to do is give a character a reason to advance the story.
In video game narratives with complex stories and well-rounded characters, the protagonists often have needs dwelling beneath their wants. These needs are typically foreshadowed at the beginning of the game, then expanded on it as the story develops. In the action-adventure game The Last of Us (Naughty Dog, 2013), the protagonist, Joel, needs to move on from the death of his daughter. This need is set up early on after his daughter dies, and he’s shown years later wearing the now-broken watch she gave him in the opening scene. It’s only by pursuing his want, protecting Ellie, that he’s able to realize his need and move on without his daughter. The combination of his wants and needs is what pulls the story forward, playing off of each other and incentivizing players to reach the end.
Unlike wants, needs are not automatically present in every video game narrative. For characters to have needs, they must possess a certain level of emotional development, and not all game characters do. Using the example from the previous section, Nintendo’s Mario shows emotional needs, as his external goal is sufficient to drive the action. This lack of need is common in older games with little room for story development but also occurs in modern games that feature either silent protagonists or protagonists with flat character arcs. These protagonists typically work best in games where the mechanical obstacles are challenging and engaging enough to keep players invested without frequent story development to pull them along, but they also work well in stories with ensemble casts. In the latter case, side characters may have more emotional depth than the protagonists, which allows them to have needs. One game that uses this strategy to great effect is the role-playing game Chrono Trigger (Square-Enix, 1995), which stars a simple protagonist surrounded by a party of more complex characters. Not only do the other party members have wants of their own, but some of them also have needs, such as Frog and Lucca’s need to forgive themselves for their roles in their loved one’s misfortunes. These plotlines provide a counter to the protagonist’s simplicity, keeping players engaged between combat and exploration.
Character goals are an essential component of plot-driven stories in all forms of media. Video games take these narrative goals and weave them into the game’s mechanics, allowing both protagonist and player to pursue the same desire. Whether the protagonist is seeking an external or an internal need, their pursuit keeps the story moving and engages players until the end.
1 Harry N. Abrams. Kindle Edition.McKee, Robert. Story (p. 138). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.
2 Skolnick, Evan. Video Game Storytelling (p. 9). Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale. Kindle Edition.
3 Weiland, K.M.. Creating Character Arcs: The Masterful Author’s Guide to Uniting Story Structure, Plot, and Character Development (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 7) (p. 22). PenForASword Publishing. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage (Five Nights at Freddy’s): Father. Five Nights at Freddy’s – Full Game Walkthrough Gameplay & Ending (No Commentary) (FNAF Horror Game). YouTube, 2018.
** Reference Footage (Super Mario Sunshine): ProsafiaGaming. Super Mario Sunshine HD – Full Game Walkthrough. YouTube, 2020.
*** Reference Footage (The Last of Us): GameCin. The LAST OF US 1 REMASTERED Full Movie All Cutscenes Story [4K-60FPS]. YouTube, 2019.