Narratology–the study of narrative–is historically limited to discussion of told stories, simply because its early figureheads tended to be concerned with the written word (and later, the spoken word). This may seem obvious, but it isn’t–these told stories are defined by occurring in the past. In fact, in Gerald Prince’s first edition of his Dictionary of Narratology, he claimed that a performance viewed on a theatre cannot be a narrative because “these events, rather than being recounted, occur directly on the stage” (1987, page 58, quoted in Ryan’s Avatars of Story). In other words, narratives require a narrator, one who tells a story (that which has already happened, not that which is currently happening) using language (not visuals or music). While there are other positions in narratology, more friendly to the idea that video games can have narratives, I’d like to discuss three games in the context of their narrator (or storytelling device): Assassin’s Creed, Bastion, and Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time.
Bastion has the most typical narrator out of the games discussed: a character, not involved in most of the action, that narrates both your current actions (your weapon load-out, your choice as to which path to take) as well as the events that lead up to the world-destroying Calamity. It’s not surprising that the first words you hear the narrator–Rucks, the old man at the campsite–say are “Proper story’s supposed to start at the beginning. Ain’t so simple with this one.” And so you are dropped, in medias res (or as close as can be, given the game begins with you in your bed), into a fractured world. While the narrator discusses your actions in the present tense (“He gets up,” etc.) However, the narration also, in the first half of the game, guides your behaviour: “Ground forms up under his feet. He don’t stop to wonder why,” i.e., you’re supposed to keep on moving. You thus become the pawn of a real-time storyteller, even though you have freedom of choice (of weapons, of a few key actions in the plot) throughout the game. As L.B. Jeffries notes, however, Ruck’s unreliability as a narrator eventually becomes uncomfortable:
What started as kind of background mirror begins to become more intriguing as it distorts and ceases to reflect the player’s motivations. Rucks reminds us repeatedly of the importance of rebuilding the Bastion and collecting the various shards. The creepiness begins to set in as he explains how the various creatures are just setting up their own homes, but that it won’t matter because the Bastion will help everyone. By the half-way point, Ruck’s commentary begins to diverge from the player’s perspective. He is telling us things about ourselves based on our actions, but they do not necessarily represent how the player feels.
So Rucks is narrating a false present: one that doesn’t actually exist because the player (or, at least, Jeffries and I) cannot/will not/does not agree with Rucks’ ethical perspective. So the hero’s journey is being constructed by a narrator as you, the hero, attempt to divorce yourself from the ever-present Rucks (which is impossible, as he known exactly what you’re doing at any moment). You can’t even try to remove yourself from the game–if you do, Rucks says “And then he falls to his death. Nah, I’m just foolin’.”
This, in turn, reminds me of the narration in the Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time. You, the Prince, are narrating a story of a possible future to a bewildered princess (Farah), after having rewound time to prevent her death. If you die, you are rewarded with that famous phrase–”No no, that’s not the way it happened. Shall I start again?” Unlike in Bastion, the Prince in an unreliable narrator in an entirely different way: you are meant to agree with him, even though he ends the story by lying (claiming the ‘fantastic story’ is false, making himself seem more dashing than he might otherwise). You become the embodiment of an unfurling narrative, straddling the past and the present. Prince, and other ‘strict’ narratologists, might be confounded when attempting to decide in the game is a narrative or a non-narrative.
Assassin’s Creed, and especially Assassin’s Creed: Revelations also toys with the narration of an unfurling. eternally-present past. You, Desmond Miles, are replaying the lives of your ancestors. You strive to live as they live–if you kill a civilian, you are chided with “Ezio [or Altaïr] did not kill civilians”; if you perform a mission as perfectly as Ezio did, you are rewarded with bonus ‘sync’, for more accurately conforming to the narrative of Ezio’s life. At multiple points in the story, characters–I won’t discuss who, for fear of spoiling the (silly and convoluted) plot–address themselves directly to Desmond, via the ancestor whose life he is inhabiting. In other words, even the narrative (wherein Desmond is a narrator for Ezio’s life, and Ezio’s life is a narrator of Desmond’s actions) isn’t “true” narration as defined by Prince: it is eternally oriented towards the present, towards the player (as Desmond). Even the puzzle-y, optional Desmond sequences in Revelations fall into some sort of perpetual present: Desmond is partially narrating his past (the farm, his escape, his capture), but also re-experiencing it.
In Bastion, you do ‘re-live’ anything: everything is perpetually present, which is appropriate given the broken, temporary nature of the world the Kid inhabits. However, the Prince of Persia and Assassin‘s creed games bend the nature of the past/present divide, to–I feel–great emotional effect (although far better done by the Prince of Persia‘s simple, groundbreaking story). The narrative, here, is performed (as in theatre), and yet is told of the past. Performativity as narration: what a brilliant subversion of everything we expected from the ever-present nature of games (beginning with Mario and “Your Princess is in another castle).