SG Op-Ed: Thinking about Narrative in Strategy Games

By Sean Couture 20 Nov 2017 0

John Carmack was once famously quoted saying “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there but it’s not that important.” Now, in defense of Mr. Carmack, he said that way back in the 90s when gaming’s landscape was a very different thing altogether. Whilst that kind of sentiment has fallen by the wayside in recent years I do believe that we as strategy gamers, base-builders and RTS… ers often overlook how important a game’s narrative can be to our experience. It’s the adhesive that keeps world together and prevents us from stepping back and noticing the cracks and inconsistencies. It’s the thing that helps our imagination fill in the gaps when details or mechanics are left out for design, time or streamlining purposes. So in today’s class we’re going to take a little trip to see all the stories the genre brings us, along with the “hows” and “whys” behind their execution.



The first item on our docket is commonly found in 4X titles, the grand strategy genre and basically anything Paradox Interactive touches. Interweaving narratives draws on the strategy genre’s biggest strengths of player interaction and agency. These games offer players a large breadth of freedom (or at least a convincing illusion of it) and help to flesh out their worlds by providing a narrative. In practice, games like Stellaris, Endless Space and Total Warhammer do this with events and quests to throw a bit of variety into the mix whilst also setting a pace for the game. It’s a well used formula that looks deceptively simple on the surface despite its complexities on the back end of things (there’s a reason Paradox games often tank processors and why Total War’s AI turns sometimes last an eternity).

When used well, though, interweaving stories can grant a game near endless replayability. Games such as the ones I just mentioned above have even spawned the term “story simulator” as a result. The flip side of this is that after a while stories can feel cold and impersonal. Playing as the Byzantines, Abbasid or the Khan of Khans in CK2 all still feel rather similar despite their different cultures, religions and governments. Interweaving narratives can be stretched thin depending on the size of the game world, and how much time has been poured into quests and events and so on. Too much repetition can cause players to become fatigued. World mechanics that are too shallow or don’t have much variety can make players feel like they are doing the same thing over and over, only with different locations, aesthetics and music.

A large portion of titles under the “Tactics” umbrella fit opt for interweaving narratives. XCOM and all those who seek to recreate it’s formula allow players a lot of freedom to approach the game as they see fit, but that come with moderately fixed points in the plot like “terror missions” to serve as pacing and to keep the player on their toes. These games offer less in the way of flavour text and backstory than the 4X and grand strategy titles mentioned above, and instead let the players stories take center stage. Though there is usually some slight nudging from behind the scenes. The shorter or runs sessions that come with these games helps cut down on player fatigue whilst also making player choice more meaningful. In XCOM you can’t just fully research all weapons and armour, instead you must plan ahead knowing fully well that you can only choose a very finite amount of the options available.



Our second category plays out narratives in their more traditional form. The story will remain largely the same regardless of player choice or performance. For the most part fixed narratives in strategy games take a back burner to the gameplay and often simply serve as contextual excuse to ferry players around various locals. They are simpler and often cheaper option that still provides enough context for the sake of immersion. In general, their only draw back is that they can hamstring gameplay in order to serve the story. A prime example of this is when basebuildiers force

Since fixed narratives rely on characters to forward the plot this leads to a question of how to represent player avatars and characters in-game. There are two main approaches, and to illustrate my point we are going to travel back to Relic’s hay day in the mid 2000s. Relic Interactive is the studio responsible for bringing both the Dawn of War and the Company of Heroes series into existence. The former is set in the grimdark future of the 41st millenium where humanity, beset on all side by aliens and enemies, has become an empire of jingoist space evangelists who all speak in Jeremy Irons-esque English accents. The latter is a semi-realistic portrayal of the western front of WW2 from D-Day onwards.


Both games are base builders with similar mechanics, and both have fleshed out campaigns. However, due to its more fantastical setting, Dawn of War makes use of hero units -- many of whom are characters central to the plot. Captain Gabriel Angelos will tag along on missions, dispense justice to xenos, and so and so forth. Company of Heroes, on the other hand, adopts to use what I call “Phantom Characters”, who are individuals that the game tells you are there but only show up in cutscenes or dialogue for the most part. An example of this is during the 4th mission, when Sergeant Conti is shown huddled amongst the rubble of a ruined building in the section of Carentan the player is defending. But when the cinematic ends and you pan over to that building, he’ll be nowhere in sight.

Both methods have their pros and cons. Hero units help players warm to the associated characters, whilst also providing a personal touch to battle that would otherwise be only filled with nameless unit for whom players no attachment. The downside is that hero units can often feel like a burden if they’re too weak. Anyone who remembers Eugen Systems’ Act of War and it’s gloriously bad live-action cutscenes may also remember having to babysit Sergeant Jefferson by just keeping him back most of the time. While he was effective in combat, the risk of him being killed and automatically failing the mission often outweighed any rewards his presence would yield. At the other end of the spectrum, hero units who are simply too powerful can feel game breaking sometimes, removing any sense of player immersion. Basically half the hero units in the still brilliant Star Wars: Empire at War fit that category, and they are one of the big reasons why Empire at War’s ground battles are never remembered as fondly as their space based counterpart.

Act of War2

Now, “phantom characters” of course avoid all of those problems, and their general lack of in-game presence means that they only have one meaningful downside. As much as I enjoyed the campaigns of COH 1&2, both are rather lacking in the department of characterisation. Sergeant Conti and Captain Mackay don’t get near enough screen time to allow the player to familiarise with them. They feel more like walking, talking plot devices than actual people. A game that does “phantom characters” well is 2007’s World in Conflict. Being set in an alternate version of the Cold War where the USSR decided to invade Europe, and then my birth town of Seattle. The game features fast and --almost-- modern combat with high attrition rates among units, so it makes sense characters aren’t represented in-game. In spite of this, the game manages to deliver a fairly believable story (except for the reason behind why no-one fires a nuke). One of the main cast, Captain Michael Bannon, actually gets a full character arc and development. Most film characters don’t even get that nowadays.


In summary

And with that, ladies and gents, we’ve reached the end of the road. I certainly didn’t cover every example out there, and some of what I’ve written is of course up to personal interpretation and opinion. But the bottom line is that in this genre that often seem broad and impersonal, stories made by both us and developers help not only to facilitate gameplay, but also to enhance it. Context is an extremely important tool, as it grounds players in whichever reality the developers have created for them. With gaming as a whole becoming an increasingly mainstream and accepted form of visual media; investors, companies and professionals from other creative outlets (film, TV, radio) are going to jump onboard looking for ways to portray whichever narratives they have in mind. And with the strategy genre as a whole starting to skirt the edge of the RPG genre, we’ll be some of the first fanbases to see those changes in the medium. Hopefully, they’ll be for the better.



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