Limitations, Part Three
Narrative Analysis: Advanced Topics
A lack of time and money can limit the potential of a story in different ways; so can manpower and technology. Although these factors can impact stories differently, they all fall under the category of ‘internal constraints’: limitations that come from within. As frustrating as such internal obstacles can be, they’re not the only hurdles creators have to overcome when bringing their stories to the public. They must also face various external constraints, including regulations, censorship, and unforeseen catastrophes. When combined with internal limitations, these outside forces have the power to bring the creative process to a grinding halt, potentially ending a story’s chances of seeing the light of day.
Regulations and Censorship
Games Discussed: Night Trap (Digital Pictures, 1992), Mortal Kombat (Midway, 1992), Manhunt 2 (Rockstar, 2007)
There’s no question that humans love stories, but they don’t love all stories equally. Sometimes, they object to them out of personal preference, but other times, they do so because they feel the story’s content is harmful to society. When enough people find a story’s content objectionable, they may pass laws to restrict others from distributing similar content in the future. Such regulations on speech and creative expression are commonly referred to as censorship. Every country has unique censorship laws, and the different branches of their entertainment industries may also have their own rules. Some branches choose to set their own rules through self-governing regulatory bodies, while others may defer to local or national regulations instead. Regardless of where the regulations come from, creators in every industry should be aware of censorship laws within their region and their field, as those laws will dictate what kinds of content they can have if they want to distribute their work to the public.
For better or worse, censorship has played a role in game design for several decades. In the United States, video game violence became a point of contention after the releases of Night Trap (Digital Pictures, 1992) and Mortal Kombat (Midway, 1992).1 Although the games had very little in common—the former being an interactive movie and the latter a fighting game—both titles depicted violence in a way that concerned parents of the era. One of those parents, Bill Andresen, was so appalled by Mortal Kombat that he showed the game to his boss: then-Senator Joseph Lieberman.2 Lieberman, having already heard about Night Trap’s questionable depictions of sexual violence, brought his concerns to the rest of the United States Senate, and the hearings that followed resulted in the Entertainment Software Ratings Board (commonly referred to as the ESRB).
The ESRB’s voluntary rating system is self-regulated and uses a tiered rating scale that emulates the Motion Picture Association’s ratings for films.3 Some of its international counterparts include Pan-European Gaming Information (PEGI), the Australian Classification Board (ACS), and Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle (USK). In the countries where ratings are self-regulated, game developers do not have to submit their games for ratings, but many major retailers will refuse to sell unrated games. Games with highly restrictive ratings, such as the ESRB’s ‘Adults Only’ (AO) rating, can face similar distribution troubles, as some retailers are unwilling to stock them. As a result, game developers who want to distribute their games widely must keep content restrictions and regulations in mind, or they may find their finished games can never make it to store shelves.
Like the MPA’s infamous ‘X’ rating, the ESRB’s ‘AO’ rating isn’t handed out often, nor are its international equivalents. Since the ‘AO’ rating places such severe limitations on distribution, developers will usually tone down the objectionable content in their games to get a lower rating. Some developers can be caught off-guard by an unexpectedly high rating, however, forcing them to either abandon the game or change its contents at the last minute. This was the case with Manhunt 2 (Rockstar, 2007), a Playstation 2-era stealth game that put players in the role of a mental patient being manipulated by a ruthless assassin. Weeks before Manhunt 2 was scheduled to launch, the British Board of Film Classification (then in charge of rating games in the UK) informed Rockstar that they would not be issuing a rating for the game. In extended comments, the BBFC claimed: “…To issue a certificate would involve a range of unjustifiable risks, to both adults and minors.” 4
The ESRB’s subsequent ‘AO’ rating did little to improve the situation. At the time, neither Sony nor Nintendo allowed ‘AO’ games on their consoles, which meant Manhunt 2 would be strictly limited to personal computers. Rockstar balked at the rating, replying as follows: “We believe all products should be rated to allow the public to make informed choices about the media and art they wish to consume. The stories in modern videogames are as diverse as the stories in books, film and television. The adult consumers who would play this game fully understand that it is fictional interactive entertainment and nothing more.“4 Nevertheless, the ESRB’s rating stood, and Rockstar was forced to remove the objectionable content before the game could appear on consoles and shelves.
Force Majure - Oppressive Forces
Games Discussed: Resident Evil: Village (Capcom, 2021), Monster Hunter Rise (Capcom, 2021)
Anyone who’s ever had the dubious pleasure of reading a contract has probably encountered the term ‘force majeure,’ which translates from French to mean ‘superior or overwhelming force.’5 In contracts, ‘force majeure’ refers to extraordinary, unforeseen events that could not have been prevented or mitigated by anyone party to the contract. Although the exact definition differs from place to place, the idea remains the same: sometimes, unpredictable and terrible things happen, and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. Such sudden catastrophes can occur at any time or in any place, and when they do, they can have a serious impact on industries of all types—including the entertainment industry. An unpredictable storm can destroy a major film set6; a fire can level a local warehouse full of books;7 an act of war can shut down a city’s theater district8. These are just a sample of the forces at work every day in every corner of the world, and no one person or business can be expected to prepare for all of them. Their best chance is to work within the rest of their limitations, leaving them in the best position to recover if and when tragedy strikes.
Like the rest of the world, the video game industry has suffered from its fair share of unpredictable events. The most high-profile extraordinary event has been the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which cast wide ripples across every sector. In the games industry, nationwide quarantines sent office workers back to their homes, which meant developers had to learn how to perform collaborative tasks work in isolation. Companies that didn’t already have the infrastructure set up for remote work had to push back their launch dates, and teams that were already experiencing issues found their troubles exacerbated by the sudden changes. Two noteworthy titles impacted by the pandemic were Resident Evil: Village and Monster Hunter Rise, both released by Capcom in 2021. Both games saw their developments wholly suspended for a month,9,10 and both saw delays and cuts in some form. While Resident Evil: Village met its original release date, the planned multiplayer, Re:Verse, was pushed back and is now due to launch on October 28th, 2022. Meanwhile, Monster Hunter Rise had its release delayed, and the game fans ultimately received was deemed incomplete due to a lack of an ending.11 Both Village and Rise have since announced additional content for their games, and their positive sales have proven their developers were able to overcome the effects of COVID-19 on the development process.
Game developers face limitations every day. Whether internal or external, these obstacles can force creators to change how they tell their stories, make their games, and present them to the public. While no one can prepare for every crisis, the developers who are most likely to succeed are the ones who recognize the forces working against them and know their limitations. That way, if the worst happens, they’re in the best position to overcome setbacks and succeed.
One of the earliest known structures, Three-Act Structure divides stories into beginning, middle, and ending.
Narrative Analysis: Subplots and Side Stories
Subplots and side stories add depth to narratives by expanding the world while emphasizing themes and playing with tone.
StoryScan: Final Fantasy XIV and Subplots
Final Fantasy XIV’s Dark Knight job quest-line adds depth to the main narrative by developing the characters, the setting, and the themes.
1 “United States Senate Hearings on Video Games.” Wikipedia, 2022.
2 Crossley, Bob. “Mortal Kombat: Violent Game that Changed Video Games Industry.” BBC, 2004.
3 “Ratings Guide.” ESRB, 2022.
4 Martin, Matt. “Rockstar ‘Disappointed’ at Manhunt 2 Ban.” GamesIndustry.Biz, 2007.
5 “Force Majeure.” Merriam-Webster, 2022.
6 Ellard, Sean. “Star Wars: How A Storm Wrecked Phantom Menace’s Podracers.” CBR, 2020.
7 Jost, Ashley. “‘Did you Know Our Warehouse is Burning Down?’ St. Louis Publisher, Authors Reeling.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2017.
8 Dilella, Frank. “COVID-19 Shutdown Isn’t the First Time Broadway’s Lights Have Gone Dark.” NY1 Spectrum News, 2021.
9 Baird, Scott. “Monster Hunter Rise was Delayed By A Month Due to COVID.” TheGamer, 2020.
10 Decleene, Megan. “Resident Evil Village Developer Video Reveals Impact of COVID-19 and Team’s Internal Struggles.” TheGamer, 2021.
11 Nerium. “Monster Hunter Rise is Missing an Ending at Launch.” Fanbyte, 2021.