Meta-Media

There are many ways that a player can learn more about the world his character inhabits. That’s maybe 60% of the fun of any storytelling endeavor. I mean, maybe I’m exaggerating. Compelling characters really do carry a story, even if they world is a blank backdrop on which to paint your own. But especially in sci-fi/fantasy does the careful crafting of an intricate world really get to shine.

Several games utilize the good ol’ “character is amnesic, doesn’t remember anything, needs everything explained” premise. It’s effective because it relates really well to the player and gives NPCs a reason to spell out the world for you. It has its drawbacks in that, yeah, really… how likely is an amnesic guy to wake up and immediately start kicking ass and chewing bubble gum?

So the first cousin to the amnesic premise is the use of a stranger in a strange land. Some disaster or something happened in your world, or you’re in a transport ship gone awry, or you’re somehow special so a maleficent queen or whatever pulled you into this new world and so, logically, everyone needs to explain everything to you. Its like if a butt-kicking ten-year-old got pulled out of soccer practice and dropped in Manhattan. “Where does this line go?” He’d ask. “Who are those people?” He’d wonder. “How the heck do I get home?!” He’d beg, exasperated, tired and dirty. Like little Bobby there, characters playing an alien or foreigner have a pass to ask all the questions they can of a helpful bystander.

For The Lotus War, and many before it, we’ve chosen to do neither. To gain an authentic feel, you jump into the world as not just an established inhabitant, but one of its prime. You’re strong, well-trained, smart… it only makes sense that you know the world. Yes, there are still NPCs to ask questions of, especially in regards to specific quests, but we hope that much more information will be inferred through conversation, behaviors, and books.

Books – or its younger, smarter brother the hologram – are incredible assets to world-building in a video game when going with a character model like ours. Fallout and WoW are just two of the series that make extensive use of in-game books. KOTOR utilizes holograms. Portal used audio recordings.

The great thing about in-game media is that if the player really wants to understand and immerse himself in the world, he can take his time and read/watch/listen. If, on the other hand, he can be satisfied with magic=bad and elves=enemies without knowing why and just wants to power through, he can do that too.

Again a benefit of video game storytelling is exposed: it’s interactive, and players can choose to what extent. I’d love to read Moby Dick again now that I’m older, wiser, and more likely to absorb it. But I don’t necessarily want to read twenty pages of boat descriptions before the plot’s advanced. If Moby Dick were an RPG, though, all those asides, all those long, drawn out rants would be optional conversations or books for the hardcore player who wants total immersion.

What do you think? Does making your level of immersion optional add to or detract from storytelling? (Ie, empowers the audience but weakens the author?) Do you like being a stranger in a strange land, or inhabiting an established character for a while?

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