Narrative Analysis: Next Steps
In modern storytelling, most basic plots are structured around three concepts: goals, stakes, and urgency.1 The first concept, the goal, is the easiest to understand: it’s what the protagonist wants. The second concept, the stakes, builds off the goal by defining the consequences of success or failure. The third and final concept, urgency, takes the goal and adds a deadline, forcing the protagonist to act quickly. This time constraint adds an element of tension because it limits a protagonist’s options. Without enough time to plan properly, they may make poor choices or rely on untrustworthy tools and allies, both of which can become obstacles on their journey. The tighter the timeline gets, the harder the challenge seems, and the higher the tension goes. When implemented properly, the element of urgency will keep audiences invested until the very end, when they can find out if the protagonist achieves his goal or not.
According to screenwriter Carson Reeves, author of ‘Scriptshadow Secrets,’ the best way to create a sense of urgency is to implement what’s known as a ‘time bomb.’ In his words, the way to implement a time bomb is to “…impose a time limit on your character’s pursuit. If the goal isn’t achieved by a certain time – BOOM – your hero loses everything.”2 When explaining time bombs, Carson divides them into two categories: specific and general. They each have their strengths and weaknesses, but both have the ability to enhance a story’s sense of urgency.
Specific Time Bombs
Games Discussed: Pikmin (Nintendo), Deus Ex (Ion Storm)
Specific time bombs are exact deadlines that characters must meet to succeed.3 One of the most common expressions of this concept is the literal time bomb, a device set to explode at either a prescheduled time or at the end of a countdown. Although the mechanism is different, the results are the same: characters know exactly when the bomb will go off, and their goal is to diffuse it before it explodes. Other common examples of the specific time bomb include scheduled events (i.e., weddings, presentations, vacations) and timed competitions (races, league sports), along with the effects of predictable medications and drugs (poisons, cures, and mind-altering substances). Ultimately, any outcome set to occur at a given time counts as a specific time bomb.
Video games frequently employ specific time bombs to create narrative tension. Some games also implement narrative time bombs as mechanical obstacles, forcing players to feel the same urgency as their character. The real-time strategy game Pikmin (Nintendo, 2001) uses this fusion of narrative and gameplay to great effect, creating tension for both the character. In Pikmin, players control Captain Olimar, a tiny astronaut who crashes on a planet with a poisonous atmosphere. To escape the planet and return home, players must find all of the broken pieces of Olimar’s ship and repair the vessel. Unfortunately, Olimar can only survive on the planet for thirty days before his life support system fails, leaving him at the mercy of the poisoned air. With an in-game clock counting down both the minutes and the days, both Olimar and the player controlling him must move quickly to stay alive. This ticking clock keeps players invested in Olimar’s success, which in turn drives them to complete the game.
Video games that use specific time bombs in their stories don’t always choose to connect them to their gameplay mechanics. Sometimes, this is done to decrease the game’s difficulty, as timed missions may be too hard for the target audience. Other times, it’s done to encourage players to explore the game at their own pace, without additional mechanical pressure. Both of these reasons are valid, but separating narrative time bombs from gameplay has the downside of potentially creating ludonarrative dissonance. According to game developer Clint Hawking, who first coined the phrase on his blog, ludonarrative dissonance occurs when “…the narrative and ludic elements of the work [are in] opposition.”4 The most commonly cited example of ludonarrative dissonance is the trope of a ‘likable’ protagonist who kills countless people during gameplay, but the specific time bomb is another frequent offender.
When a specific time bomb is disconnected from the gameplay, players will be told they must complete a task in a set amount of time, only to discover that the time constraint doesn’t apply to their actions. An example of this disconnect occurs in the cyberpunk action-RPG Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000), in which players control an anti-terrorist agent named J.C. Denton. About halfway through the game, Denton’s employers inform him that they’ve triggered a switch inside him that will kill him remotely in twenty-four hours. In a straightforward narrative, this would compel Denton to seek out the person who can disable the switch as soon as possible, but players have the freedom to delay as long as they like with no repercussions. No matter how long players take to get the kill switch disabled, they always pull it off before the deadline. As a result, the gameplay and the narrative are at odds, creating ludonarrative dissonance.
General Time Bombs
Game Discussed: Banjo-Kazooie (Rare)
The second type of time bomb is the general time bomb: a time constraint without a set time or date.5 General time bombs are most often seen in stories where the threat is undoubtedly real yet difficult to predict. Examples of this kind of threat include treasure hunts, disappearances, and unpredictable diseases. In each situation, there is a clear negative outcome (losing the treasure, losing the person) and a positive outcome (finding the treasure/person/cure). While it’s never clear exactly when the negative outcome will occur, the odds of failure increase exponentially with each passing moment. In some ways, general time bombs can be even tenser than specific time bombs because the characters don’t know how much time they have. This forces them to act as if every minute is the last they have, and their deadline becomes ‘as soon as possible.’
Just like specific time bombs, general time bombs play an important role in video game narratives. Their open-ended nature makes them better suited for games geared around exploration, as they create a sense of urgency while still allowing players to play at their own speed. One game with a particularly creative use of the general time bomb is the 3-D platformer Banjo-Kazooie (Rare, 1998). In Banjo-Kazooie, players take the role of Banjo, a bear whose sister, Tooty, has been kidnapped by Gruntilda, the witch. Gruntilda has a machine that will steal Tooty’s beauty, making Gruntilda attractive and Tooty hideous. It’s Banjo’s job to reach Gruntilda’s lair before she can activate the machine, but players have ample time to find the game’s many collectibles before the time bomb goes off. In reality, the only way players will ever see the machine in action is by getting a game over, which triggers a cutscene that shows Gruntilda activating the device. Even though there’s no timer on the gameplay, the threat of failure is enough to keep players going, especially once they’ve seen the results.
There are other ways to add urgency to narratives, but the ticking time bomb is a tried and true strategy that writers have used since the earliest stories. Game writers are no exception, as they rely on both specific and general time bombs to keep players invested in the narratives. Whether these time bombs connect with the mechanics or not, they provide a deadline for the protagonists, giving both them and the players a reason to pursue their goals without delay.
1-3 Reeves, Carson. Scriptshadow Secrets (500 Screenwriting Secrets Hidden Inside 50 Great Movies). Kindle Edition.
4 Hocking, Clint. “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock.” Click Nothing, 2007.
5 Reeves, Carson. Scriptshadow Secrets (500 Screenwriting Secrets Hidden Inside 50 Great Movies). Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage (Pikmin): ModernXP. “Pikmin – Complete 100% Walkthrough – All Ship Parts – 9 Day Run (Longplay).” YouTube, 2019.
** Reference Footage (Deus Ex): Video Game Movies. “Deus Ex – Cinematic Playthrough – Final Cut.” YouTube, 2018.
*** Reference Footage (Banjo Kazooie): SUPERSKRAT. “(HD) Banjo-Kazooie Playthrough – NO COMMENTARY – All 100 Jiggies Collected.” YouTube, 2018.