Narrative Analysis: Next Steps
Games Discussed: The Grand Theft Auto series (Rockstar)
Often mentioned yet rarely defined, tone is the emotional expression of a story’s theme. In more narrow terms, it can also be defined as “an author’s attitude toward their subject matter.“1 Just as humans can experience a nearly infinite range of emotions, so too can stories feature an extensive range of tones. Narratives with simple, uplifting themes like “Good will always triumph over evil” are often told with positive tones, whereas more complex themes like “The ends justify the means” may boast darker, more negative tones. While it’s possible to juxtapose tone and theme—a lighthearted message delivered with heavy emotion, or vice versa—most writers strive to match the tone of a piece to the emotion the theme makes them feel.
There are a variety of ways to convey the tone of a piece, but the options are heavily dependent on the medium. While prose writers are limited to what they can do with text, screenwriters have the flexibility of audio-visual cues. Video games, as another audio-visual form of media, can rely on music and graphic design to amplify the story’s tone. The tone should still come from the theme, however, and not the other way around. According to narrative designers Robert Denton Bryant and Keith Giglio, games of all types benefit from following this rule. “Even if you want to set your game in “reality,” you have to decide on the tone you want, based on your theme. The Grand Theft Auto games are set in a present-day “realistic” world, but one that is stylized by the cynical behavior of its populace and by the darkly satirical outlook of its creators.“2 By tying those cynical behaviors to the pursuit of money, status, and the American dream—all themes in the GTA series—the creators added an emotional core to the narratives that they could build on with the audio-visual design. While most games won’t share those same themes, the best will develop their emotions through the same pattern: first theme, then tone.
Games Discussed: EarthBound (Nintendo, 1995), the Metal Gear Solid series (Konami), Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001)
Most writers strive to make their works tonally consistent, which means their stories have a limited emotional range. Breezy action movies keep things light by skimming over the deaths of background characters; passionate romances do the same by imagining a world without domestic squabbles. Conversely, horror stories will often add an element of menace to even the most benign encounters so that the audience remains in the state of fear they expect from the genre. Stories aimed at children are often uniquely consistent in tone, as children don’t have the same emotional range as adults. That isn’t to say they have no range, however; it all depends upon the theme and what the creator is attempting to say. Depending upon the theme, moments that may seem tonally inconsistent at first can turn out to be spot-on when viewed as part of a whole.
One video game that uses tonal inconsistency to drive home its theme is EarthBound (Nintendo, 1995), the cult classic role-playing game for the Super Nintendo. In EarthBound, players take on the role of Ness, a heroic young teen dedicated to saving the world from an alien invasion. With its bright, simple graphics and melody-driven soundtrack, EarthBound is a decidedly upbeat title. Its friendship-focused theme is equally optimistic, suggesting that friends can overcome anything by working together. The mood is not always upbeat, however. As the story reaches its climax, the encounters become downright terrifying. At first glance, this swing from ‘fun with friends in sunny suburbia’ to ‘screaming into the void on a bed of pulsating entrails’ seems violently unnecessary, but it works within the framework of the theme. If EarthBound’s thesis is that friends can overcome any obstacle by working together, it’s not only fair to define ‘any obstacle’ in extreme terms, but necessary. If friendship can save the world from such a terrifying threat, it really can do anything.
Stories with more complex, open-ended themes have room for a greater degree of tonal inconsistency. Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid series (Konami) is famous for its wild tonal swings, shifting from comedy and tragedy and back again, sometimes within the same scene. The reason the Metal Gear series can pull off such drastic swings is that its themes cover a broad emotional range. Questions like “Why do soldiers fight?” and “Who really benefits from war?” have no shortage of answers; some of them are deeply tragic, while others are patently absurd. This range of answers gives Kojima the necessary latitude to explore a variety of emotions, which leads to games where characters who urinate themselves and babble about anime can wax philosophic about finding love on the battlefield. It’s a bizarre dichotomy, yet it works because it fits the story’s themes.
Not every tonally inconsistent game is attempting to make a point about its theme. Some games use tonal inconsistency sparingly for laughs. A common way games have played with tone in the past is through hidden endings that aren’t considered part of the story’s ‘canon.’ The so-called ‘Dog Ending’ of Silent Hill 2 (Konami, 2001) is a stand-out example of this phenomenon. Silent Hill 2 is a survival horror that uses graphic violence and sexual imagery to explore one man’s complex relationship with his late wife—which is why it’s so surprising when skilled players unlock the ending that reveals a crafty Shiba Inu at a control panel was behind the haunting events of the game. While this scene doesn’t have the right tone to work as the actual ending, it’s perfect as a comedy option for players who want a reason to repeat the game.
There are many ways to play with tone, but ultimately, the most successful stories are the ones that connect their tone to their theme. Even the simplest themes can be expressed through a range of emotions, however, and tonal shifts can be an effective way to convey those themes properly. Both writers and readers can learn to define a story’s tone by first picking the theme, then considering the emotions it might evoke. Once they know those emotions, the tone should fall right into place.
1 Masterclass Staff. “What is Tone in Literature?” Masterclass, 2020.
2 Bryant, Robert Denton; Giglio, Keith. Slay the Dragon: Writing Great Video Games (p. 174). Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage (Grand Theft Auto): GTA Series Videos. GTA 4 – Full Game Walkthrough in 4k. YouTube, 2021.
** Reference Footage (EarthBound): Snowcone Guy. Earthbound Playthrough [No Commentary] [1440p]. YouTube, 2018.
*** Reference Footage (Metal Gear Solid): Shirrako. Metal Gear Solid Twin Snakes HD – Walkthrough Part 1 – DARPA Chief [4K 60fps]. YouTube, 2015.
**** Reference Footage (Silent Hill 2): hXc Hector. Silent Hill 2 HD Collection – Dog Ending. YouTube, 2012.