How do you narrate a videogame? The question is itself misleading: the concept of narration suggests a story, and although most video games have one, it rarely exhausts their content. If that were the case, the game in question would be a movie. Apropos of videogames as thrilling as movies, these days, with the release of The Last of Us Part II, the balance between ludicity and narrativity, a balance that some call ludonarrative dissonance, hangs decidedly in favour of the latter. The attention paid to the story and the morality it communicates seems to prevail over gameplay and its ethics. The Last of Us Part II as Schindler’s List, then? Maybe. It doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. The point, much more trivial, is that the story is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for a video game.
Okay, what’s left then? Graphics, sound effects, etc., but mostly action. If that’s the case, we’ll have to come up with a way to narrate what’s not a narration. We’ll have to make a story out of the gameplay. We’ll have to detail the logic and rhythm of the player’s gestures, rather than a character’s turmoils; the practical outcome of a decision, rather than the drama caused by a mistake; the effectiveness of a tactic, rather than the unraveling of a plot. This mechanistic point of view will not necessarily be less engaging than the narrative one, because mechanics also provokes emotions, perhaps more similar to those of an athlete than those of a spectator.
Let’s consider a platformer like Super Mario Bros. Ours will be the story of a path whose beauty has to do with the obstacles it conceals and the ruses necessary to overcome them, with the frustration of a reiterated failure, and finally with the joy of triumph. Perhaps more than beauty we should talk about elegance, as programmers and engineers do, that is, a conciseness, a degree of synthesis and economy of means that seems logical and pleasant to us. An elegance that lies in the path but also in the player’s approach. It is the elegance of a choreography more or less explicitly suggested by an environment that nevertheless concedes a certain amount of manoeuvring to those who inhabit it. Stefano Gualeni and Daniel Vella explain it well: “[…] the player can articulate a personal project within the gameworld that can deviate from the instrumental approach implicitly suggested by the game itself (and that invites to accumulate resources and optimize behaviors, rewarding the player accordingly).”
Unless one intends to fill the pages of a massive tome, it is not convenient to extend the chronicle of this kind of parkour to the duration of an entire video game. So we’ll limit ourselves to a short sequence, very short actually: a little bit more than a minute long. The game chosen for the experiment is Ori and the Blind Forest, metroidvania developed by Moon Studios and published in 2015 by Microsoft. Not that Ori is lacking a plot, on the contrary: the game’s story is a vivid and moving one. But it is complemented by a compelling gameplay. Anyway, let’s give some narrative clues to be able to imagine the scene.
Ori, a nimble glowing animal similar to a cat or rabbit who would have learned to walk on two legs, has just restored the water elements contained inside Ginso, an imposing underground tree. It would be the time to rejoice but, as in the most classic of action movies, we have to evacuate the area before the free waters submerge everything and everyone. In order not to be subdued by the impetuously rising flood, we have to climb the tree and quickly reach the surface. As for the context, that will be enough. Let us begin.