Searching for the Story: Getting more out of video game narrative

Over the last week or so, Chad Boeninger, from Library Voice, and I discussed the game Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow for the Sony PSP.  Both Chad and I finished the game this week and spent some time talking about the narrative of this game and other games in the Syphon Filter series.

Without giving anything away (even if the game is over a year old), we both wanted more out of the narrative.  The game's story was written by novel and comic author Greg Rucka .  The game is full of plot twists, terrorists, and covert government agencies which feels right at home for the universe of special ops agent Gabe Logan.  These political / military thrillers are also right at home in the novels of Rucka.  This combination made me excited about the potential of the game's story.  And this anticipation also effected my initial impressions on the story.

The outline of the story itself is really solid and the narrative arc flows well for the game.  My disappointment was in the lack of details and depth portrayed through the cut scenes.  Big events and twists would happen that felt out of the blue.  Alliances shifted and evidence was presented that moved the plot forward but lacked a clear explanation and rationale.  I wanted more from the story because I was so invested in the outcome.

After talking with Chad about the narrative and running theories and story gaps past one another, I realized what I missed.  The key to fully understanding the twists of the story came from the evidence I mentioned above.  Throughout the game you, as Logan, can find hidden evidence files in each level.  Sometimes these are appropriately placed in file cabinets or on computer desks.  Other times they are very "gamey" and hidden on high ledges or out of the way locations.  Regardless of where these files are hidden they hold the key to fully grasping the story.  The player has the option of reading through the files found in each level from the menu screen.  And it wasn't until tonight, when I went back to read through some of the files I found, that the holes in the cut scenes started to fill in.  Unfortunately, I hadn't found all the hidden evidence in each level to get all the details... but it is a game after all and it's encouraging me to come back and replay levels for more detail.

I've always enjoyed the Syphon Filter ever since its start on the PS1 in 1999.  While it never was as revolutionary as Metal Gear Solid, it had a narrative that continued to make sense across six different games.  The intrigue, twists, and action make it a natural fit for anyone who's enjoyed spy novels like Clancy and others.  My initial lack of satisfaction with the narrative was a result of being too caught up in the action and flow of the game.  I wanted to keep moving, take out that sniper, and rescue my partner.  I didn't have time to stop to read a file.  But that is where the narrative gets fleshed out.  And this is where games present a different way to experience a narrative.  A player does not get the full experience simply watching the cut scenes like a movie.  The player needs to be actively looking for, interacting with, and reading the extended narrative to gain the full story experience.  Henry Jenkins talks about embedded narrative where players flesh out the story by interacting with the game world.  Syphon Filter: Logan's Shadow is a great example of this.

What's interesting though, is that I knew the Syphon Filter series on the PSP was a good example of it.  I've used it in multiple presentations talking about how video games are changing the way people interact with stories.  The truth is, I just got too wrapped up in the tension of the narrative that I wanted to keep pushing it forward.  But now I can go back, read through the evidence I found, search for more, and continue to enjoy the depth of the narrative even after my initial playthrough.  

I can no longer say I expected more out of the narrative of the game.  The story Rucka created and the way the game told it expected more out of me.


Kiara said...

I wanted to try this Syphon Filter game you are talking about. Do you think I'd be able to get it as Download Games? From what you have told in your post, I find it nice, that's why I wanted to try.