The Lost Art of Interactive Storytelling (or What Games Today Can Learn from Pikmin 2)
***spoiler warning for Bioshock, Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest and (of course) Pikmin 2***
With the increasing popularity of AAA titles, it seems that the video game industry has been shifting their focus to story driven campaigns. However, I would argue that in recent times the quality of stories experienced in-game has been declining. It seems that the more effort developers put towards incorporating a narrative into their titles, the more they lose touch with what makes storytelling in video games effective; and this ultimately comes down to how they approach it.
Many current titles try to be as cinematic as possible and, as a result, it seems like writers now treat the games as if they were films. This kind of approach is what plagues so many modern campaigns with abrupt cutscenes, mind-numbing exposition and countless pages of lore that players must read up on outside of the game. When a story is presented in this fashion there will always be a degree of separation between it and the actual gameplay, and this is a major loss for players since video games aren’t meant to be experienced passively. The difference between a film and a video game is that while gaming you aren’t watching the plot unfold from a distance. You are meant to be an active part of it. If you don’t feel like your actions have any significant impact on the characters or events around you then eventually you’ll just stop caring about them and lose interest. The best storytelling in games must be interactive in some way. There needs to be some sort of “personal connection”, not just to the player’s character, but to the players themselves.
Unfortunately, this can’t simply be achieved by having a nonlinear story which is affected by the player’s choices at certain points. In fact, I’d argue that the most important determinant here is not the player’s connection to the plot but rather their connection to the characters within the game. Bioshock is a perfect example to explain this. The title has an outstanding backstory and does an incredible job telling it during gameplay through dialogue and discoverable audio clips. Contrarily, the player’s own story, the protagonist’s personal conflict in deciding whether to rescue or harvest the Little Sisters, is pretty forgettable. This is in spite of the fact that that the players themselves are tasked with making the decisions and carrying the burden. Taking a closer look at the player’s relationship with the Little Sisters throughout the game reveals why this might be the case. These little girls come and go very quickly throughout the campaign. You need to decide their fate as soon as you reach them, and if you choose to save them all you get is a generic “thank you, mister” before they run off.
This is the only interaction the player has with these characters until the final cutscene. As I was playing through Bioshock for the first time I rescued all of the Little Sisters because it was the right thing to do, but deep down I honestly couldn’t care less about what happened to them. It should be noted that these decisions are very important to the plot, as they are key in determining its eventual resolution. Therefore, its poor execution ultimately puts the game in danger of leaving a bad taste in players’ mouths. I can attest to that because when my good ending finally came I felt nothing. One could argue that connecting with characters like the Little Sisters is unnecessary, and the sheer presence of a moral decision is enough to qualify as strong interactive storytelling. However, if the characters at stake are never fleshed out to feel like real people then the entire situation comes across as contrived. This exact issue is seen in countless AAA titles: Far Cry 3, Infamous, Dishonoured, just to name a few. At this point, the premise of “choosing inherently right or wrong actions” is essentially a cop out used by developers to justify why players should care about their impact on the game without ever giving them a real reason to.
A similar mistake that many games are guilty of is having side characters form a bond with the protagonist but never with the player. The most recent example I can think of is the character Lilith from Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest. She has some brief dialogue with your avatar at the beginning of the game, revealing to the player that they’ve known each other for a long time and hinting that Lilith has feelings for him/her. Throughout the remainder of the game, there is absolutely no development between the two of them aside from an optional minigame you can play with her in the hub world. In a way, it is as though the game, and the player by extension, forgets about her. That is until one of the last chapters where she appears out of nowhere, sacrificing herself to save your avatar’s life.
While I was able to understand the grief my character must have been going through in that moment I wasn’t able to feel any of it. I didn’t know Lilith, and it never felt like she had a full-fledged role in the plot, so her sudden death didn’t have an impact on me. What’s even worse about this scene is how hard the game tries to force emotions upon the player. A melodramatic soundtrack hits you right in the face, followed by a soliloquy from your grieving avatar that never ends. The longer this part of the story droned on the more disconnected I felt from all of the emotion within it.
When thinking of a game that exemplifies how to effectively approach interactive storytelling, Pikmin 2 is probably the last game that would come to mind. This cute, unimposing real-time strategy for the GameCube doesn’t really seem like it would make that big of an emotional connection with players. Nonetheless, beneath its simple appearance lies writing that is surprisingly deep, thoughtful, clever, poignant, and brilliantly integrated into in-game mechanics. Ultimately, it comes down to these mechanics effectively getting the player to know the characters as well as feeling like their actions have a significant impact on them.
Before, you read any further, keep in mind that Pikmin 2’s story is best experienced through a blind playthrough. If by this point I’ve somehow managed to convince you that the game is worthwhile then, by all means, stop reading now and go play it for yourself. If you understandably aren’t sold on it yet please be mindful that there will be spoilers.
The plot of Pikmin 2 begins immediately after the end of the first game. With the help of native Pikmin, Captain Olimar is able to recover all the missing parts of his spaceship and escape the distant planet that he crashed on.
After returning safely to his home planet Olimar is met by his boss, the president of an intergalactic freight company. Olimar is informed that while he was gone a huge payload was allegedly stolen, sending the company into severe debt. The person responsible for this blunder was a rookie employee named Louie, who also meets Olimar upon his return. During the president’s sob story the analysis software on a nearby freight ship detects an artifact brought back from the distant planet, something Olimar was planning on giving his son as a souvenir. It is discovered that this item could sell for a very high price. With this revelation, the president promptly sends Olimar back to the distant planet to collect more of these artifacts and pay off the debt. For good measure, he sends Louie along with him. Once on the planet again, Olimar and Louie reunite with the Pikmin. The team begins to explore the planet, staying quite occupied between searching for treasures and fending off ferocious native creatures.
The bulk of the gameplay from here on out revolves around collecting these “treasures”, as the president calls them. Surprisingly, this mechanic is effectively used as a way to connect the player to the characters. This is all thanks to one brilliant detail the writers added into the game’s scenario. It is shown early on that this distant planet is, in fact, Earth and these alien treasures are real-life everyday objects ranging from a Duracell battery to a can of Connétable sardines. The artifact Olimar brought home was a San Pellegrino bottle cap.
It is also worth noting that, relative to us, Louie and Olimar are roughly two centimeters tall and so the ferocious Earth creatures they end up defending themselves from are just insects. This feature to the story instantly allows players to connect with the characters by simply providing a common ground with which their two perspectives can be compared. Olimar gives each artifact an original name, such as “time capsule” for a locket or “alien billboard” for a shoe polish lid, and keeps a journal that shares his theories as to what the objects are. The idea that something so mundane for us can spark so much curiosity in someone like Olimar is conveyed exceptionally well in these short logs and, as a result, players can to relate to him by seeing things through his own eyes. The logs also serve as a way of fledging out the kind of person Olimar is and the kind of life he has had. In a journal entry about a queen chess piece they found it is hinted that his mother has passed away, with him commenting “it looks a lot like a present I gave my mom for Mother’s Day. I miss her… sometimes”. It’s little human details like these that make players care about these characters, and what happens to them throughout the events of the game.
Another set of mechanics that are vital to Pikmin 2’s interactive storytelling is the end of day cycle and mail system. The way it works is that Louie and Olimar are given from sunrise until sundown to search for treasure, approximately thirteen minutes in real time, after which they need to round up their Pikmin and return to the safety of outer space for the night. The game keeps a running tally of how many days you’ve been on earth and, at the end of each day, Olimar and Louie receive mail from their home planet. It is usually from the president, who either praises or berates you for the rate at which you have been paying off the debt. Yet beyond a simple reward or penalty, these messages act as chapters to the president’s own story during the time Olimar and Louie are on earth. If your progress begins to slow the president shares how he is frantically dealing with calls from the debt collectors. As time goes on he goes into hiding, in one instance living under a bridge until being evicted by the government offices. Eventually, the president is even captured and on the brink of being killed by the debt collectors.
Throughout these series of messages, his character is shown to develop as well. He goes from complaining about the debt collectors not letting him work in his office at a leisurely pace to trying to make the most out of the hardships he faces on the run. His demands for you to work faster slowly transition into pleas. This all culminates to the president coming off as a very real person, whose life is directly being affected by your own actions. Everything you do in the game seems that much more significant with his presence.
Mail received from people besides the president, while not impacted by you directly, also help to reinforce a genuine feeling of significance to your actions. Olimar’s wife and kids occasionally fill him in on what’s happening back home. This adds another layer of motivation to completing your objective: it’s not just a matter of getting the president out of hot water but also making sure Olimar gets back home safely to his family as soon as possible. An even more poignant moment occurs during the second half of the game after the debt is repaid. While rocketing back to his planet Olimar realizes that some treasure still remained in the areas he and Louie were scavenging. He also realizes that in the rush to get back home he left Louie stranded on Earth all alone. Upon hearing the news, the president declares that Olimar will return to Earth a third time with him in order to scout the remaining artifacts and become filthy rich… and also to find Louie. During the days on Earth that follow, you begin to receive mail from a completely new person. It’s from Louie’s grandmother. Her first message goes “Louie, we suddenly stopped hearing from you! Everything OK? If things get tough, you can always come home” and her later ones are in a similar tone. I found it amazing how despite not contributing to Louie’s abandonment in any way, just by being privy to the situation like Olimar was caused an immense amount of guilt to wash over me. Like the president’s messages, this mail from Louie’s grandmother kept me as a player motivated to complete the game and find Louie as quickly as possible.
The final way that Pikmin 2 effectively gets players emotionally involved in the game’s events is through the way they designed interaction with Pikmin. At any given point in time you have a hoard of Pikmin by your side, which you can either leave idle or organize to carry treasure and fight creatures.
However, your Pikmin are not invincible. Many hazards exist that could kill them in a matter of seconds, from drowning to being caught in the hungry jaws of insects to being left behind at the end of the day. What I always found so amazing about the player’s relationship with the Pikmin is how irrational it is. Pikmin, when viewed on their own, have no real unique traits about them. Their character model is a direct clone of any of their partners and they travel in such large groups that it is impossible to keep track of any single one. Furthermore, the player is readily able to sprout new Pikmin if others are lost during the campaign. They are non-individualistic and expendable, yet while playing I found myself doing everything I could to keep the ones I had safe. I believe this comes down to the fact the game’s developers did all they could to put as much personality into the limited AI of the Pikmin. When Pikmin are carrying an artifact they’ll chant to keep in sync, when left idle some will yawn and sit down, occasionally one will trip then run to catch up with the group and when in a full group they might start humming a tune. It is little things like this that turn Pikmin from a tool that the player uses to characters that the player feels for, and which is why watching them perish is so hard. The game treats the death of a Pikmin fairly passively. The Pikmin go out with a whimper and everything else in the game keeps moving forward as if nothing has happened. When discussing Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest earlier on I mentioned that the game puts such an over-the-top focus on emotion which ultimately drains the player of their own. Pikmin 2 appears to do the exact opposite: it simply presents the results of the player’s actions and leaves it up to them to respond emotionally. Furthermore, unlike Bioshock, the way the player treats their Pikmin has absolutely no impact on the outcome of the game. Therefore, the player has no motive to keep their Pikmin safe besides just caring about them. The game interactively forms a bond between the player and their team of Pikmin, which ultimately makes their interactions throughout the game seem all the more significant.
Before I finish off I’d like to clarify that these mechanics seen in Pikmin 2 are not the only way to make players feel more involved in a video game’s story. Pikmin 2’s approach is not a stencil that can be applied to any genre of game. What is important here is that Pikmin 2 knew the significance of connecting players to the characters and making players’ actions seem impactful to the story through them. Furthermore, the developers really understood the kind of game they were making and therefore were able to found ingenious ways of incorporating their narrative into the key mechanics that players interact with. This is the kind of design I want to see more developers doing, one that doesn’t treat the story as an add-on to meaningless gameplay but one that adds meaning to the gameplay through the story.