Friday, June 21, 2013
Narrative Approaches to Explore
by Tobie Abad
Sometimes, running a game chronologically can be boring. If you've been gaming for quite a number of years, you might find yourself hungry to explore narrative approaches which take a different stride. Here are some approaches to consider, with accompanying references you can view to get a feel for how they can be like, which you might find enjoyable to explore with your own gaming troupe.
I. Flashback Reveals
In television shows like Lost and the movie Memento, secrets and explanations in the narrative are revealed by flashbacks which expand on and explore the reasons behind certain character's actions. In such games, characters might do something which others find oddly inappropriate or unexpected of a character's established moral views and later through a flashback sequence reveal the reason for the action.
II. Generational Narrative
In such a story, the narrative is not limited to merely the lifespans of the characters involved, but extend beyond them, to show how far reaching the theme explored goes. The animated movie rendition of the classic tale Beowulf explores this as the story moves from father to son, as does the tremendously ambitious adaptation of the book Cloud Atlas, which spans far more than just a single generational step. The videogame Phantasy Star explored this as well, with characters being the children of their earlier characters. And lastly, although in a way which I would have to cite as the wrong way to do a table top game, the game Infinity Blade wraps itself around this concept to explain away its infinite game play.
III. Everything Is Connected
While Generational leaps across timelines, in this one, it simply leaps across characters. The actions of a character directly affect the decisions of a second character, and its repercussions affect a third, forcing a fourth to take a new direction... This might require much more planning to link up the actions of the players, and can be very impressive if done right. These don't necessarily need railroading to work. Just a careful orchestration of making sure things are interconnected to one or another in subtle ways. Movies like Crash and Six Degrees of Separation explored this nice interconnectedness of things.
IV. Multiple Chances
On the other hand, maybe you can run a game which explores the many ways an issue could have been tackled and the repercussions surrounding each one. Maybe this can be an extended substory taking place over a small number of sessions, with each session exploring the question, "What if I did ____ instead?" The need for either magic realism, some destiny/fate device or perhaps just some pseudo scientific jargon might be necessary to make this work in a game. Check out movies like Sliding Doors and the very well-written Run Lola Run for inspirations in this direction.
V. Player Perspective Is Not Necessarily Character Perspective
In the bag of big reveals, you can explore a game where the players don't actually grasp things as clearly as their characters do. Maybe the players aren't quite perceiving things the way the characters actually understand things, and will have to slowly uncover the truth behind the events that are transpiring. Or maybe the characters know, but the big reveal is handed to the players in segments, keeping things interesting and intriguing. Consider movies like Identity and Sixth Sense as possible inspirations. Or maybe it can be just a matter of perspective, with players thinking they were human soldiers all this time, only to learn they are actually semi-intelligent rats that have been trained to use military grade hardware.
VI. Player Perspective Is Character Experience
On the other end of the spectrum, you can make sure the players experience things as the characters as much as possible. I've embraced this approach in my Lacuna games, with the telling line, "Memory Loss is common" as a reason why some things don't seem to make sense even if discussion suggest the players are supposed to be familiar with them already. In such games, the characters lack of grasping the events around them is integral to the player experience as well. Movies like Cube and Dark City explore this trope, as does the recent movie Source Code. With many using flashbacks to later explore what the player and character starts to recall. The old movie Nick of Time also explores this without using an Amnesia angle, forcing the player to react in real time to the events, even if they don't quite grasp why they are happening.
VII. We Tell the Story of Another's Tale
One last suggestion is to have the players not be the very starts of the story. Instead, they are the one's narrating the events of a story they know of. Sort of like a story within a story, players are gathered to narrate the events of what they know, and from that narrative, reveal the events, twists, and secrets which they were witness to. The movie Usual Suspects nicely does this, as does the movie Life of Pi. Each narrated scene, which may or may not be a flashback, can be run as a game session with one player having the overall control of explaining some key narrative elements. Maybe this "narrator" can be a rotating role which a player takes in each game scene, or session, allowing all the players to have a chance to set the stage.
Clearly there are many directions to explore and in no way is this list exhaustive.
But try something new and see how much new horizons of fun await you!