A better part of my studies was on story structure and screenplays. It was my favorite class. I still go back to those notes today. And, I've recently endeavored to play through the Master Chief Collection on the Xbox One. I had only every played Halo 1 before this. Playing through had jump started my mind on the structure of story telling and how it plays a part in games.
Basic Story Structure
First, some base level knowledge. Let's start with the basic structure of a story. The mono-myth. Or the more popularized title, "The Hero's Journey". Any story worth its salt follows this structure. Whether intentionally, or unintentionally. It's a good barometer to tell a well-structured story from an ill-structured story.
Not every story, movie, TV Show, etc. has every element in it. But every good one has the core of the structure. Dan Harmon has created an excellent simplification that he uses when writing Community episodes. Or rather now, Rick and Morty.
I like his. It's the core of any good story. If you were to find an image of a white board in one of his writers rooms, you will see it filled with these circles as they break the story for each episode. It's basic. You see the character in their normal environment. Something occurs, an event, big or small, and now they desire something. To get it, they must enter an unfamiliar situation, adapt to it, get what they want, pay for it (not monetarily, or even physically. Most of the time, this is an emotional price. Just like any growth). Then return home (or to the familiar) having changed.
This isn't to say that each story should have the exact same look, feel, pace, and beats. This isn't a template. It's a structure. Think of architecture. There are various looks to buildings, sizes of buildings, and types of buildings. They can range from a simple house, to the tallest sky scrapper. But each building still has to follow the laws of physics. You can't design a building any way you want. You have to make sure the core is sturdy, and sustainable. That same goes for story structure.
No two stories are the same, but there are basic tenants that all stories share. The Hero's Journey is just the start of that structure. It's the foundation each good story is built on. This explains the crux. What does your main character want, and how is she going to get it?
Story and the Video Game
How does this relate to games? Well first lets acknowledge that a game is not a movie, a book, or a comic/graphic novel. So what constitutes as good pacing, length, and sequencing will not be the same. Much like how a book is not a movie, and vice a versa. Each medium has its strengths and weaknesses. What may work well in a book, fails in a movie. What works in a movie, fails in a game. So there are differences. Structure though, is still important. It just doesn't look the same. Kind of like the buildings I mentioned earlier.
I was recently turned on to a YouTube channel called Good Blood Games. It's run by a guy named Javed. He has an analysis on the game The Last of Us. It's superb. He begins by talking about the difference between the film medium, and the game medium. He describes film as a passive experience (which I agree and disagree. A post for another time. Though I get what he means in this instance). You are the viewer. A game is an active experience. You are not just viewing, you're participating, and even choosing how to react in certain events in the game. So while a film only needs character motivation, a game needs both character and player motivation. Both of those things need to work in tandem.
Example. Andy Samberg in the movie Hot Rod wants to raise money so his step dad can get a heart transplant. Then, Andy can prove himself a man by beating the every living crap out of his step dad. Character motivation.
Player motivation is our motivation. It answers the question "Why am I playing this game?" Traditionally in games the player motivation was simply "beat the high score" or "reach the goal". (Think of Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong). Now that story is integrated into gameplay, there needs to be more. Hence objectives. (Defuse the bomb. Rescue the Hostages. ECT.) Character motivation has to coincide with player motivation. We have to share in the character motivation, and want to accomplish the goals set before the character we are playing as.
This is also where empathy comes in. It is irrelevant whether I like the hero or not in a film, or a game. It doesn't matter if my value system is in line with his value system. What matters is empathy. Can I at the very least share the feelings of this person. Can I understand his point of view? There are a few ways to build empathy for a character. Examples: they are very good at what they do; they suffer a grave injustice; they make you laugh.
Think of Dexter. He's a serial killer. I do not abide by that value system. I do not kill. I do not agree. I derive no pleasure in the activity. Most of us don't. But I do empathize with Dexter. He is a very good at killing people. Absurdly good. And quite cleanly about it as well. More over he only kills very bad people. Like other killers, child molesters, serial rapists. You know, scum. While I disagree with his value system, I am empathetic to his cause. We also get a glimpse into his inner monologue. He understands that this overwhelming desire makes him a monster. He battles with it even. It's his inner darkness. Something we can all relate to. So while I do not agree, I get it. I am with him on the journey. The writers have crafted empathy.
How does this relate to games?
Let's take a look at Halo: Combat Evolved.
We start out with our ship The Pillar of Autumn fleeing Covenant Attack. Master Chief is awakened from cryosleep, and when we stand next to fellow soldiers, we see how tall and big this super solder is. He towers above everyone else. If we want to look at an NPC who is talking to us, we literally have to look down. The man is a giant.
We are then immediately thrown into the fight against the Covenant. This is normal for Chief. This is his every day. He was born for this. He was bred for this. He was built for this, and this alone. This step one in the Hamon Circle/Hero's Journey. It is his Zone of comfort.
As we are fighting to get off the ship we are given the ship board AI, Cortana, and told to protect her at all costs. This moves us into step 2, The Call to Adventure. Very quickly we also are given the character motivation for the majority of the game. Protect Cortana. She cannot fall into enemy hands. The order to abandon ship is given, and we are tasked with protecting Cortana and, hopefully, getting her home. Cortana then becomes the player motivation for us, the player. She is the one giving us objectives, and tasks to complete as the Chief.
We are also endeared to Cortana and kind of to Master Chief during this. During gameplay we see how awesome Chief is as a super soldier with how often he ends up turning the tide of a battle for a group of soldiers battling the covenant. He's very good at what he does. We also see that he cares for his comrades. He's an excellent soldier. Empathy is being built so that not only are we rooting for him to win, it also feels good to play as Master Chief. We are the good guy, saving the day, and nothing can stop us.
It's from here that we move into the unknown and adept to it. Steps 3 and 4. In order to survive, Chief lands on Halo. Which we soon find out is a potential super weapon that the Covenant wants to use against humanity. Chief's duty now moves from protecting Cortana to protecting the human race. As the journey progresses, Cortana discovers that Halo isn't just a weapon, but a prison for a parasitic race known as the Flood. And that the ring is capable destroying all life with in a 25,000 light year radius. Bad News Bears.
That moment is step 5. Chief gets what he was after. He was trying to get to the control room of Halo before the Covenant to prevent them from using it, and maybe using it himself against his enemies. He gets what he had wanted. But it's not what he had expected. His goal now has to change, and he has to fight his way back up the circle to the familiar, and spare the universe from this monstrous apocalypse.
Obviously the Chief is able to save the day, destroy the ring, and escape with Cortana. It's a very happy ending. Even though there are very few survivors from the Pillar of Autumn. There is one glaring problem with the story though.
There's no step 6 or Step 8. He doesn't pay a heavy price, and Chief doesn't change. He simply returns home. Chief's character is barely explored beyond "Guy who kills aliens, really, really well." We have moments where we see that he is brave, and loyal. But beyond that, he's an empty husk. A power trip fantasy for us, the player, to feel big and important and special. He's the biggest dick in a dick measuring contest, and it makes us hard.
But there is nothing really interesting about Master Chief in this game. He was impervious to change. His worldview really isn't shifted. He isn't confronted with a choice that makes him question everything he's believed in. Chief simply goes from point A to point B to Point C to escape. He saves the day, but it cost him nothing, and nothing of his world view and life is challenged as a result. Rather, it's just reinforced. Violence solves everything. Even when you need the neural chip from your dead commander's flood infested head. Chief's status quo in life is never challenged.
But something does happen that I don't know is possible to accomplish in a film vs a game. There is a character arc for our other main character. We change. That's because of the relationship with Cortana that is formed. The plus side of Chief being an empty husk is that it does make it easier for us the player to put ourselves as him. And having Cortana in constant communication with us, endears us to her. She's not talking to Chief, she's talking to us. And this is a character who is developed. she has a personality, an attitude, a spark of life to her. And it's not in any information we are given about her, and her past. It's portrayed through the tone of voice in the voice acting. Through the little bits of snarkyness that comes through with her comments. She's given life. There's even moments when she puts herself at risk to save humanity. She risks it all. She goes on a journey from being a simple ship board A.I. to becoming almost human.
If we weren't actively participating in the journey through Halo, we wouldn't be as endeared to Cortana. If we were just the viewer she would have been a simple plot device, rather than our guardian. She would have been pure exposition, rather than our battle buddy. Because I am Master Chief, it's not just him who loves Cortana, but I love Cortana. With out that, the best part of the story of Halo is taken from us.