WARNING! Due to the nature of the topic that I am writing about, there will be spoilers for the following games; Horizon Zero Dawn, The Elder Scrolls; Oblivion (specifically “the Origin of the Gray Prince” sidequest), the Prince of Persia; Sands of Time, and the Witcher 3
A month has passed since the release of Horizon Zero Dawn and it has gotten much critical praise. And why shouldn’t it? The scenery is absolutely gorgeous, with amazing graphics and colorful palette. The game is genuinely fun to play. To top it features a strong female lead, something that has been severely lacking in video games to date. Yet, one thing that is debatable, and is what prompted this week’s post, is the story. Horizon Zero Dawn’s story is forgettable, and Aloy is more of a vehicle to go through the plot, rather than a dynamic character. Today we will explore the differences between story and plot, what makes a likable character, and how games can have good stories.
Plot and story have often been used interchangeably by people. This is problematic because these words are referring to two very different things and it’s something that writers often confuse. Story refers to a series of connected events, whereas a plot is specific events within a story that have emotional significance. When you break a story into its most important parts, you get the plot. Usually, the plot of a story can be summed up in a few short sentences.
Let’s look at the plot of Horizon Zero Dawn for example. Aloy is an outcast and sets out to understand the mysteries surrounding her birth. She learns about GAIA, an AI that creates machines to repair a broken ecosystem after extensive human exploitation. She learns that she is a clone of a lead scientist, Elizabeth Sobek, who spearheaded the Zero Dawn project which made GAIA. Now Aloy must stop one of GAIA’s protocols named HADES who’s programming calls for the destruction of all biological life.
We see right away, that the plot takes us a lot of places, and is complex. A complicated plot is not necessarily a bad thing, especially with video games. Unlike movies or books, video games have the benefit of player interaction, which can spur the participant’s intrigue. Couple this with a very interesting setting and you have a compelling start.
The story refers to the smaller, individual events that happen, like a laundry list of events. Sometimes called narrative, the story normally focuses on characters, and their interactions with each other or the world. To me, characters and character interaction are the most important part of a story. Having someone to connect to emotionally is what makes a compelling story. The Titanic didn’t become one of the most successful movies because people wanted to see the events that lead to the sinking of the ship. They want to see the love story between Jack and Rose. The story is where the game begins to lose steam, as Aloy is revealed to be a static character. Memorable stories are often the result of a liked, or disliked, character going through what’s known as a “character arc”. We’ve seen this many times over many different forms of media. A character arc is the transforming of a character through the story. The character will start their journey as one type of person but eventually turn into another.
Aloy, unfortunately, does not go through such an arc. Aloy, as a young child, sees a group of younglings her age picking berries with an adult. Wanting to fit in, and not understanding the gravity of her situation, she begins to pick berries with the kids. As she comes up to show the adult her bounty of berries the grown-up turns her back on Aloy and takes the children back to the village. This sets up Aloy’s character she is an outcast who is meant to be shunned by the Nora for, at the time, no apparent reason. While this is a strong start to Aloy as a character, this is unfortunately where she stays in terms of growth. She starts her story strong, independent, and noble, and ends the story strong, independent, and noble. One could argue that she is more understanding of other people’s beliefs while remaining atheist herself. However, this revelation does not change the way that she interacts with other characters, or how she solves the problem at hand. She still resorts to violence in the face of her new-found knowledge, killing cultists left and right. If she just came to the understanding that she should respect people’s beliefs, why does this not extend to the Carja? One possible solution to this would be having Aloy attempting to appeal to the cultists to stop. She doesn’t even have to be successful, she just has to show that a change has occurred within her. Aloy could try to persuade the Carja to call off their attack, to avoid bloodshed. In this example, her story becomes an outsider who looks down on the beliefs of others, to a compassionate and accepting hero who unifies two nations. Instead, we get a big dumb war where she beats up the bad guys because they have different beliefs.
For an example of memorable character, let’s look at the Prince (his name isn’t revealed in the games) from The Prince of Persia; Sands of Time. The Prince finds a dagger that has the power to turn back time. His father’s castle is then ravaged by an evil vizier who wants the dagger for his own nefarious desires. The vizier tricks the Prince into unleashing the sands of time, plunging his kingdom into chaos. People are turned into hostile monsters, and the structure of the castle crumbles and begins to fall. The Prince then goes on a quest to correct his mistakes, and restore his kingdom. This is the plot of The Prince of Persia; Sands of Time, but let’s look into the Prince as a character.
In the beginning of the game, the Prince is brash and arrogant, what you would expect from a stereotypical prince. He starts in a place of superiority, and this is bolstered by the tutorial of the game. You start out invading the kingdom of Maharaja. The Prince takes down dozens of men by himself and performs almost inhuman feats of acrobatics. The Prince feels superior to most people due to his status and abilities. This is proven with character interactions with Farah, a princess of Maharaja who was given to the Prince’s father as an attempt at peace between the two kingdoms. Farah is a skilled archer and will attack foes from far away. She is also key to solving some puzzles in the game and is pivotal to the plot. At first, the Prince is sarcastic and impatient when talking to Farah. When she calls out to say “I’ve got you covered” the Prince will retort with “please don’t, you’re liable to hit me.” While the Prince’s and Farah’s dialog throughout the game remains sarcastic in tone, he eventually warms up to Farah. Through her help, the Prince realizes her as an ally, rather than a defenseless princess. She is capable of things that he cannot do. This is the Prince’s character arc. He starts the story brash and arrogant but develops humility through self-reflection and Farah’s Help.
The Elder Scrolls; Oblivion and The Witcher 3 are both open world RPGs that allow for players to have a hand in the outcome of stories within the game. Both of these games are successful in telling compelling stories, despite players having a say in how they unfold. The way they do this is through their use of sidequests. In The Elder Scrolls; Oblivion there is a side quest called “The Origin of the Gray Prince.” This is one of my favorite side quests and sticks with me as one that stands out as having a good, but tragic, story. In the Imperial city, there is an arena that allows players to fight against NPCs in a gladiatorial style match to the death. As you progress through the arena, you eventually learn of a half-orc named The Gray Prince. He is a fierce and deadly fighter who has calmed the lives of many on the sands of the colosseum. But when you talk to him for the first time, he is not a gruff muscle headed orc that the other NPCs built him up to be. The Gray Prince, whose name is Agronak gro-Malog, is very polite and well mannered. He calls you friend, and even confides in you for help. He seeks to prove his nobility and asks you to go to Crowhaven to find a journal. When you reach the location, you find that it is overrun with vampires, and further investigation reveals that Agronak is the son of a vampire. When this is revealed to the Gray Prince, he becomes horrified of his origin. Furthermore, challenging him to a match will put you both in the arena together, where he asks you to kill him. This story doesn’t have a happy ending, but it is an example of a compelling character arc. Agronak goes from a polite considerate person to a depressed mess. We empathize with him because of his polite demeanor, despite his reputation, and we care about his plight.
What we have discussed, so far, have been the storytelling methods in linear works. In the Prince of Persia; Sands of Time you do not control the Prince’s dialog. It is a linear story in the same way that a movie or a book is a linear story. The Prince will come to the same realization every time, and the plot will play out the same through multiple playthroughs. The Gray Princes story stays the same each time as well. While you can choose to not continue the mission, this leaves an unsatisfying conclusion to the quest. But again, games have that advantage of player interaction. Players have the ability to choose the outcome or order of the plot in some games. How can you balance player interactions with a compelling character arc? Can a character that is made independent of the story even have a character arc? one game that finds a balance is The Witcher 3.
The Witcher 3 tells stories in the form of side quests. One such quest follows the Bloody Baron, also known as Baron Philip Strenger. Geralt is tasked by the Bloody Baron to find his wife and child who have gone missing. Starting out as a typical mission, you investigate the Baron’s room. You see signs of a struggle and assume that there was a fight before they disappeared. When asked about this, the Baron reveals that he was drunk that night and doesn’t remember. Upon further discussion, after a small ugly doll is found, he reveals that he made that doll for his daughter himself. He confides in Geralt, stating his love for his family, and how he spoils his daughter. Eventually, however, it is revealed that the Baron was physically abusive, and is prone to drink. In the incident before his wife’s absence, we learn that she was pregnant, and during this stupor, he beat the poor woman enough to cause a miscarriage. We later learn that she actually gave up her unborn child to a coven of witches. However, by this point in the story, the baron has gone through his character arc. The Baron is remorseful of this and explains to Geralt how their marriage got to this point. In the final stretch of the quest, Geralt is presented with a choice which comes down to absolving the Baron. If the player chooses to side with the Baron, then they tell him where the wife and daughter reside. If they feel that the Baron can not be forgiven, then they can stop his involvement in the quest.
These side quests provide an interesting character arc for both the Gray Prince and the Bloody Baron. Both go through a dramatic change that causes them to transform into a different person. Moreover, the player participates in their journey, which further works towards creating memorable stories. Interestingly enough, Horizon Zero Dawn does contain a story within itself which follows this same structure. In this game, there is a character named Erend who has a character arc. When Erend introduces himself to Aloy, he’s a bit cocky. He even admits near the end of the game that their first interaction was him trying to make a pass at her. During the game, Erend’s sister is found dead with her face smashed in. He spirals into a depressed state where he lashes out at those around him. It is presumed that the shadow Carja are at fault. We later find out that his sister is not dead, and is in fact being held in an Oseram camp. After an invasion of an Oseram camp, we help Erend finds his sister, tortured to near death. Erend gets to talk to his weakened sister one last time before she passes. With a newly found determination, Erend becomes a more respectful person, and a strong ally to Aloy. Erend starts the story as a brash flirt, evolves into a depressed drunk, and finishes a respectful, humble soldier. To quote him “When we met, I thought I was a big shot talking to a pretty girl hidden away in the middle of nowhere. Now I see that I was just lucky to get a minute of your time”
Stories and characters have a lasting impact on players. Their journey and transformation cement the characters in our minds. In order to have a memorable characters, you need this change, otherwise, they risk coming off as flat, static, and boring