Beware of Spoilers for:
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger
Narrative in gaming can take many forms. The standard of text boxes and dialog has shifted to cut scene-based exposition, but there are many other ways for a game to tell a story. One of my personal favorites is what I’ve titled “The Storyteller”. In Call of Juarez: Gunslinger and Bastion, your actions in the game world are mirrored by an overarching narration which oftentimes adapts to the actions you take within the game. The narrator might be the character you play, as in Gunslinger, or someone distinct from the player, as in Bastion. The storyteller narrative style lends itself very well to the interactive nature of the medium: as you progress through the game, the story unfolds itself in a natural, straightforward manner. This style also lends itself to comedic moments of narration as players, deliberately or not, fail a challenge or fall off a cliff.
The two games I have cited do take rather different approaches to their narrative, beyond the previously mentioned distinction of who the narrator is in relation to the character. Gunslinger predicates its tale on the oldest opener in the book – a guy walks into a bar. The protagonist and player character, Silas Greaves, meanders into a saloon where he regales the patrons with wild tales of his run-ins with the most famous faces of the old west, such as Billy the Kid and Jesse James. On top of this foundation, Gunslinger adds the element of the unreliable narrator, as Silas is taken to overexaggerating his stories. This leads to excellent examples of story informing gameplay, as levels and objectives shift in response to Silas adjusting his story after being called out on a particularly grievous falsehood.
In contrast, a secondary character narrates unfolding story of Bastion. As you, the Kid, traverse the world to rebuild the Bastion, old man Rucks with his sumptuously gravelly voice relates the account as you progress through the game. Additionally, he comments on the history of the ruined lands, on the ashen statues which were once people, on the liveliness that once dwelt in these devastated areas, adding a layer of poignancy to the story, culminating with the emotional finale.
The conclusion of Bastion is one final decision between two choices, after which the story ends, leaving the player to imagine what consequences their decision had. In my mind, the correct ending is to abandon the Bastion and move on with the survivors. I feel it is implied that rewinding the clock will only result in a reoccurrence of the Calamity which destroyed the world before the beginning of the game. This dual ending adds a layer of ambiguity, one which demands discussion and imagination, similar to the ending of Inception. Gunslinger similarly ends in a split decision, but it is more accurately a final moral choice in a game which has not had moral choice up to that point and morality in games is an entirely separate discussion. Regardless, the Gunslinger choices results in the firm endings of either choosing revenge of forgiveness, although you could technically consider the revenge ending as unlocking the final boss.
I personally favor this method of narrative because it allows the story to flow and intermingle naturally with the gameplay, unlike cut scenes or text boxes which cause interruptions. One negative aspect of this style is that the narrated game can often minimize having players freely interact with characters in the world. Bastion does allow you to talk to a handful of people and make some decisions which impact the narrative in meaningful ways; I suppose criticizing a game about an apocalypse for having too few people is an unfruitful endeavor. Gunslinger does not have any NPC interaction that I remember. The game could have been elevated to true excellence if there had been more options to modify the narration through player actions.
The best example of player action influencing narrative in the storyteller-style game I can think of is The Stanley Parable, but that game deserves a much more in depth look as it deals heavily with meta-narrative in a brilliant and engaging way. There are many games which have similar narrative structures, such as, a game from the same studio as Bastion, but I cannot speak about games I have not played. Let me know about your favorite narrated epic and your thoughts on this narrative style.