Narrative Analysis: Next Steps
When a writer wants to keep an audience’s attention, one of the most important weapons in their arsenal is tension. Tension is a type of conflict that arises when either the audience, the characters, or both have unanswered questions. These questions can be as general as “How will the story end?” or as specific as “How will the protagonist escape from the villain’s trap in scene five of act three?” Regardless of their scope, these unknowns get the characters moving forward, holding the audience’s attention.
Tension powers stories across all forms of narrative media, including video games. In most modern games, gameplay alone is not enough to compel players to complete the game. They need a story to keep them engaged, and that story should have unanswered questions. Whether the player is searching for a missing princess or uncovering a government conspiracy, both they and their character should be looking for answers. By withholding those answers until crucial moments, game designers can ensure the players are excited to progress the story. Developers must be careful not to withhold too much information, however, as too many unknowns can lead to directionless characters and bored audiences. The key is to balance who knows what by employing the three types of information gaps: mystery, suspense, and dramatic irony.
Game Discussed: Prototype (Activision, 2009)
The first type of information gap, mystery, occurs when the characters know more than the audience. Author Robert McKee elaborates on this definition by elaborating on the audience’s emotions, saying: “Mystery means gaining interest through curiosity alone. We create but then conceal expositional facts, particularly facts in the Backstory.”1 While mystery has a dedicated genre, writers can utilize mystery in any interest to pique the audience’s curiosity. Something as simple as an unexplained scar can leave the audience intrigued, even though the character who has the scar is liable to know how they got it. As long as the audience believes the origin of the scar is important, they’ll want to know where it came from, and they’ll be willing to wait for the character to reveal it on their own terms.
Prototype (Activision, 2009), an open-world action-adventure game set in a virus-plagued Manhattan, uses mystery to raise tension throughout the story. When players first take control of the protagonist, Alex Mercer, it’s been eighteen days since he woke up in the morgue with the virus that’s been tearing through the city. After a brief introductory sequence, Alex meets an unknown accomplice on a rooftop and begins relating the events of the previous two-and-a-half weeks of his life. Because he relates the events in sequential order, he holds back key pieces of information until the end, including the identity of the person who released the virus. As a result, the audience can enjoy puzzling out the attacker’s identity themselves, even though the character they’re playing already knows it.
Game Discussed: Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996)
The second type of information gap, suspense, occurs when both the characters and the audience are missing critical information. In McKee’s words, “Characters and audience move shoulder to shoulder through the telling, sharing the same knowledge. As the characters discover expositional fact, the audience discovers it.”2 Suspense brings the audience and the characters closer together, as they share the same curiosity and anticipation. This connection ensures the audience will stay invested in the character’s progress, because the character’s goals align with their own.
The popular survival-horror title Resident Evil (Capcom, 1996) relies heavily on suspense to keep both the players and the characters guessing what will happen next. In Resident Evil, players control either Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield, two elite agents who have been tasked with tracking a missing unit. Regardless of which character players choose, their search takes them to a dilapidated mansion in the middle of the woods, where they must uncover the secrets of the house while avoiding bloodthirsty zombies. The house itself is an enigma to both the players and the characters, as are the zombies plaguing the grounds. Later developments only compound the suspense, including a late-game reveal of a traitor in the agency’s midst. When the traitor finally reveals himself, the player and their character get the news simultaneously. The timing of the reveal allows the player to connect with the character through their shared surprise—or lack thereof, given their suspicions.
Game Discussed: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (2004)
Mystery, suspense, and dramatic irony all have their strengths and weaknesses. By balancing these different types of information gaps between scenes, writers can create and maintain tension throughout their stories. In doing so, they give their characters something to work toward and their audience a reason to stick around until the end.
1 McKee, Robert. Story (p. 346). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.
1 McKee, Robert. Story (p. 349). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.
1 McKee, Robert. Story (p. 350). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage (Prototype): Gamer’s Little Playground. Prototype Game Movie (All Cutscenes) 1080p HD. YouTube, 2015.
** Reference Footage (Resident Evil): Gamer’s Little Playground. Resident Evil HD Remaster All Custscenes (Game Movie) 1080p HD. YouTube, 2015.
*** Reference Footage (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater): ALEX. Metal Gear Solid 3 (MGS3) Movie HD 60fps PS3 All Cutscenes with Secrets. YouTube, 2015.