Narrative Analysis: Advanced Topics
Whether you’re a lifelong gamer, an avid reader, or a film fanatic, chances are good you’ve come across a prologue. If you’re unsure how to identify one, you can think of a prologue as a special type of opening that plays with time and place to lay the groundwork for the story. They come in different styles, including a selection author James Scott Bell has labeled action hooks, frame stories, and teasers.1 Action hooks open stories with a burst of excitement, while frame stories recontextualize the plot from a future vantage point. Teaser prologues also change the timeline of stories to put important events up front, ‘teasing’ their proper place in the chronology later in the story. These different methods of introducing stories all draw from the same common heritage: the fifth century B.C., when Grecian plays began with visits from deities sent to rattle off exposition.2 Shakespeare later adapted the prologue by giving that exposition to side characters like soldiers and household staff, and the novelists of the nineteenth century further expanded by popularizing the ‘frame story,’ in which the main plot is being relayed by someone in the future.3 While prologues aren’t as popular now as they once were, you can still see them sometimes in movies, books, and plays—and believe it or not, you can also find them in video games.
Video games owe a lot to the media that came before them, so it’s no surprise that they’ve made ample use of the prologue over the years. Action prologues make excellent gameplay tutorials, keeping the player interested in the game while teaching fundamental skills. However, these tutorial openings don’t have to be high-octane thrill rides, as some games with quieter tones demand prologues to match. In such cases, the ‘action’ comes from the gameplay rather than the plot. Frame and teaser prologues aren’t as common as action prologues, but they occasionally appear in story-driven titles. Ultimately, every game has different needs, and some openings fit better than others. Prologues aren’t right for every game, but with proper care and consideration, they can elevate an opening and make it unforgettable.
Different Types of Prologues
Game Discussed: Uncharted 2 (Naughty Dog, 2009), Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (Squaresoft, 1996), Kingdom Hearts 2 (Squaresoft, 2005), Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (Konami, 2001), Final Fantasy Tactics (Squaresoft, 1997), Radical Dreamers (Squaresoft, 1996), Persona 5 (Atlus, 2016), Chrono Cross (Squaresoft, 1999)
Action prologues are the most common type of prologue in modern media. Books, television shows, and movies are all engineered to hook audiences as fast as possible, and nothing hooks audiences quite like a spectacle. In the action prologue, says Scott Bell, “…We start off with some sort of big scene, many times involving death. This sets up the tone and stakes right away.”4 While action prologues can feature the protagonist, not all of them do. Some action prologues will involve different characters and settings that appear wholly unrelated to the main story until a pivotal point that ties everything together. For example, a spy thriller might begin with a tense arms deal in some far-flung corner of the globe, only for the weapon at the center of the transaction to appear at the end of Act 2. Whether the protagonist is involved or not doesn’t matter; all that matters is the scene builds anticipation for the pay-off later on.
Video games have made great use of the action prologue over the years, especially as digital effects blur the line between games and movies. Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series has multiple noteworthy action prologues, with Nathan Drake’s perilous train escape from Uncharted 2 (2009) setting the standard, but this opening style isn’t just for action games. Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars (Squaresoft, 1996) has an extended action prologue that pits Mario against Bowser, only to toss the series convention on its head by introducing a larger threat that forces the two to work together. It’s a clever opening because it eases players into a familiar scenario while teaching them the basics of combat and menu navigation, then flips everything around. Kingdom Hearts 2 (Squaresoft, 2005) also uses an action prologue (a multi-hour one at that!), but it puts the player in the shoes of Roxas, who isn’t the game’s main playable character. It’s arguably a bait-and-switch, and it’s not the first game to do it. Metal Gear Solid 2 (Konami, 2001) is infamous for putting players in control of the familiar Solid Snake for the prologue, only to rip him away and put newcomer Raiden in charge instead. It was a gutsy move that infuriated as many players as it impressed, and the mixed reactions prove that prologues must be handled with care. Time has been kind to MGS2, but not every game can get away with that kind of a rug-pull. If you want to try it in your own writing, think very carefully about what you stand to lose!
As common as the action prologue is, that’s how uncommon the framing prologue is by comparison. The frame prologue still has its uses, however. In Scott Bell’s words, “A [framing] prologue can also give us the view of a character about to look back and tell the story…to set up a feeling that what is about to unfold has consequences that reach into the present and the future.“5 In the 1800s, groundbreaking novels like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness employed multiple layers of framing without any complaint from readers. The trend continued into the mid-twentieth century with high school staples like Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, but they’ve since fallen out of fashion in favor of more grounded, immediate stories. You can still see them if you look for them, though, and they’re not always limited to books. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has slipped frame stories into almost every show he’s worked on, and Academy Award winners like Titanic and American Beauty both famously employ frames to contextualize their stories. Frame prologues may not be as common as they once were, but they still have an important role to play in storytelling.
Frame prologues occasionally crop up in video games, though their uses are far more limited than the action prologue. One game that employs a clever use of the frame is Final Fantasy Tactics (Squaresoft, 1997), a game that revisits fictional historical events from a new vantage point. According to the prologue text, the governing church has been telling people lies about their former king, Delita, and the truth can be found in the recently-unearthed Durai papers. The game’s events are said to be a retelling of those from the documents, and it’s the player’s job to unravel this forgotten chapter of Ivalice’s history. A lesser-known example of a framing prologue occurs in Radical Dreamers (Squaresoft, 1996), the Satellavision visual novel sequel to Chrono Trigger. In Radical Dreamers, the game’s events are written out in a diary, and the story begins when someone finds the diary and starts to read. It’s an old-fashioned prologue right out of any nineteenth-century novel, which is perhaps why it’s best served for visual novels and other story-driven games.
Scott Bell’s final type of prologue is the teaser prologue: the opening that takes place later in the story’s chronology and hints at events to come. “It’s like a preview of a coming attraction,”6 says Scott Bell, and it’s most common in the kind of mysteries and thrillers that set up clues for the audience to follow. That isn’t to say the teaser prologue is a recent invention, however. It actually dates back to some of our earliest stories, including Homer’s Iliad and Horace’s Poetics. Modern uses of the teaser prologue include Breaking Bad’s season-length teaser openers early on in the show’s run, the drunken backtracking comedy The Hangover, and the famous interrogations in The Usual Suspects. The opening of The Usual Suspects is especially unique because it isn’t just a teaser prologue; it’s also an action prologue and a framing prologue, proving that the lines between the categories aren’t as stark as they first appear.
Video games use the teaser prologue almost as often as the action prologue, and they’re not shy about mixing their opening styles, either. It’s more rare to find a game that uses a teaser prologue without some framing or action to add additional spice. Persona 5 (Atlus, 2016) begins with a thrilling casino heist that doubles as an action prologue and a teaser prologue. It also sets up a frame story when the protagonist is thrown in jail. Meanwhile, Chrono Cross (Squaresoft, 1999) employs the diary conceit from Radical Dreamers (though the diary’s author is different), then adds a teaser scene that doubles as an action tutorial. Uncharted 2’s action opening is also a teaser, as it previews a later portion of the game, and Final Fantasy Tactics’ frame opening is quickly followed by a teaser from the second act. Indeed, it would be quicker to list games that use teaser prologues without establishing a frame or introducing action, but teasers usually employ one of those two elements by design. After all, if you’re not teasing something exciting, then what’s the point of teasing at all?
Prologues fall in and out of fashion with time, but they’ll always serve a purpose in storytelling. Whether you’re adding early action, introducing a frame, or hinting at future events, prologues can be a great way to hook the audience early without making major changes to a script. They’re especially useful in video games, as they’re the perfect playing ground for tutorials. Just make sure that when you introduce prologues in your own works, you’re doing it for a reason. Otherwise, audiences might feel cheated when you switch to the story you wanted to tell all along.
Different ways to dispense must-know information without losing the audience’s attention.
StoryScan: Persona 5 and Structure
Persona 5 has all the elements of a strong story, but a bloated third act keeps it from reaching its full potential.
StoryScan: Final Fantasy Tactics and Character
Final Fantasy Tactics uses a Corruption Arc to show what happens when a character compromises his integrity in pursuit of his goals.
1 Bell, James Scott. Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure (pp. 61-62). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Yorke, John. Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story (p. 152). Harry N. Abrams. Kindle Edition.
3 Yorke, John. Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story (p. 152). Harry N. Abrams. Kindle Edition.
4 Bell, James Scott. Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure (p. 62). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
5 Bell, James Scott. Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure (p. 63). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
6 Bell, James Scott. Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure (p. 64). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage: PJWillow. Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions – All Cutscenes and Dialogue – Part 1. YouTube, 2016.
** Reference Footage (Kingdom Hearts 2): FefnirIRL. “Kingdom Hearts 2 Cinematic Playthrough Part One.” YouTube, 2021.
*** Reference Footage (Uncharted 2): Gamer’s Little Playground. “UNCHARTED 2: Among Thieves All Cutscenes (Nathan Drake Collection) Game Movie 1080p 60FPS.” YouTube, 2015.
**** Reference Footage: Roanfox. Chrono Cross AI Upscale Gameplay (The TRUE HD remaster). YouTube, 2020.