Rarely does a game title describe so precisely what the game contains as is the case with Stories: The Path of Destinies from 2016. The video game published by Spearhead Games is rich on storytelling content that all takes place via a variety of paths the player must follow to explore the protagonist, Reynardo, and his destinies. Destiny in plural; as we explore several, depending on the choices made throughout gameplay.
Stories can be placed within the category of indie games, as it is relatively quick to complete (avg. of 6 hours) and produced by a small studio in Montreal. This allows for some creative freedom, which clearly shines through in the game. The emphasis is placed on narrative and the storytelling delivery, which is done excellently. The gameplay itself is bland and remains much the same throughout, with little variation in challenge and fighting opposition. As such, this is no major issue because it affords the player to pay more attention to the story without having to worry about getting stuck due to a lack of gameplay or mechanical skills. The mechanics and gameplay suffice in supporting the story.
One thing I discovered while writing my thesis on video game narrative (something I shall elaborate upon in a coming post) was that more often than not, video games deliver their stories in a five-act interest curve similar to that frequently seen in film and novels. This is particularly the case with AAA games. Why? Because it works. It is a way of capturing and sustaining people’s attention through a build-up of tension. Moreover, if it works well it also sells, and we must remember that video game production is a business, and a business that puts a lot of money on the line during production. Indie games however will at times break with this standard form of narrative delivery – something that is always exciting and interesting. Will it work?!
At first I thought Stories was one of these games. Each individual destiny (storyline) is short, 30-45 minutes, and reminded me of a collection of short stories. A groundhog’s day of short stories throwing Reynardo through the same paths time and time again. But looking at the build-up of each story I soon discovered that every one, albeit in a very condensed version, follows the five-act dramatic delivery of narrative. The key word is condensed. This is one of two reasons why this game really “works” despite bland gameplay. The other reason is humour.
What we get to experience in this game on the narrative level is a selection of fairy tales that tell the story of Reynardo following different paths, illustrated very clearly by the book from which the main plot points take their departure. Fairy tales will typically follow something resembling the five-act structure to tell a story that often includes a journey with a lesson towards its conclusion. For every of Reynardo’s tales we learn something new about the world he inhabits. They all include initial exposition, which was in fact also the tutorial of the game where Reynardo finds himself in the possession of the book (the one from which the tales take their departure) and finds himself at the brink of embarking on a mission to help the rebels against a king gone mad (this would account as act 1). Act 2 can lead in a variety of directions depending on player choice, but they all account for the main part of the tale, leading Reynardo towards increasing danger with the suspension building towards a climax. In typical fairy tale fashion the climax, falling action, and denouement (act 3, 4, and 5) are all resolved in very quick succesion. There are no epic boss fights, but instead we are rewarded by the narrator who delivers the tale’s conclusion and lesson in typical (for the game) humorous fashion.
By delivering these short snippets of narrative like fairy tales, Spearhead Games offer an interesting way of telling a five-act narrative in condensed fashion that highlights player choice and the many interesting paths a story can take through the interactivity of a video game.
As way of supporting the emphasis on storytelling, the developers gave the narrator a witty and slightly sarcastic voice. Moreover, some of the comments from the narrator are laden with a meta awareness highlighting the video game as a game, and placing it in the context of other games as well. The most noticeable use of such meta-narrative was seen in The Stanley Parable that bases its entire game on a sarcastic taunting of the player and our feeble attempts to make choices within the game. Stories does not taunt the player as such, but often comments on the bizarre things that Reynaldo does, being controlled by the player, such as destroying a large amount of crates, or running around in circles.
It is worth noting that stories that utilise these sarcastic meta-narrations usually shape their entire storytelling style around that approach. Stories does so, along with The Stanley Parable as mentioned before, and another notable example would be the big film hit Deadpool (2016). There are of course limits to this approach, and it would probably get a bit repetitive in style over the course of a 40 hour AAA game, but it suits shorter games perfectly, and works as a refreshing and different approach. Although I do believe the novelty will quickly wear out if too many games adopt such a style. And so, it works in Stories, I personally appreciate such storytelling a lot, but also hope that they remain few and far between.
Stories: The Path of Destinies shows us how a fairy tale style of storytelling works excellently in the video game medium. It makes the experience very enjoyable and relatively light-hearted, considering the subject matter (the end of the world). I hope to see more experimentation using fairy tales as a foundation for the narrative, and letting that shine through in the way choices are presented. Stories goes to show that video games, even when they borrow heavily from the tropes of other games, are able to deliver captivating stories and deliver a few hours of great entertainment.