It’s not the plot, it’s how you put everything together.
I have heaps upon heaps of unfinished stories in my cupboards. Some of them are only ever a scene, an idea laid out. Some others, I’ve tried to stretch. I gave the characters goals to work on, a mystery to solve, a world they can explore. But at the end of the day, they all end up being stretches. All the stories you’ve read with all their grand plot, they seem effortless, but I’m sure they aren’t. I don’t know how anybody manage to finish writing any story at all. It’s like pulling life out of thin air.
Most of my failure, I attribute to my inability to plot, to make a story. I can set the stage, can set the actor, but can’t decide on what they’re going to do, what all these interesting mechanics are going to do to them.
Maybe I ought to try doing narrative games?
I’ve only recently had a chance to try out The Lion’s Song, an episodic, narrative-based, adventure game by Mipumi Games. Every episode is self-contained, with a small overarching narrative. Episode 1, the only one I’ve tried, is available for free. It’s short and charming and I very much like it, but if you break it down, it doesn’t really have an interesting plot going on.
(I guess I should say, spoiler warning for the first episode, but there’s not a lot happening that can be spoiled.)
Episode 1, titled Silence, tells the story of Wilma, a composer, as she tries to fight writer’s block (composer’s block?). Her composition is due to play soon, and she’s got nothing to play. In the mean time, she’s in love with her professor, a middle-aged man who seems completely oblivious to her feelings. He suggested that she takes a retreat to a cabin up in the mountains, away from the bustles of Vienna, to get her mind running again.
So, she went, and by rotten luck, the days she spent there was going to be rain, thunder, and more rain. More noise, not the quiet that she needed. The only thing that would break this monotony would be the phone calls from Leos, a man in Germany, who was really trying to call her niece but got the wrong number. They would talk mostly about things of no consequence.
The story ends at the end of the week, as Wilma finishes her composition and left the cabin to successfully play her piece in the concert. And that is all the story to it.
Handled the wrong way, this will be an awfully boring story. Wilma achieves her goal (well, one of them), with not a lot of fuss. The phone calls with Leos have little bearing to the plot. Arthur is nothing much but a figurehead for our main character to think about. But with the help of visual, sound, and a bit of interaction, The Lion’s Song Episode 1 manages to make a story entirely about writer’s block into, well, something very much about writer’s block, but one that you can enjoy sitting through to the end. There’s every chance for its ending to leave me with questions marks, asking ‘Is that it?’, but instead I just smiled.
For most parts of the game, there’s a minimum of background music. Instead, the game relies more on ambient sounds. The swooshing of the wind, the blares of thunder, the pattering of rain. One part of the game has Wilma dealing with all these noises. She can’t focus with all these sounds, so she tries to block them out. Your job is just to find these source, and once you do, the sound will be gradually muted. The order brought on this cacophony represents Wilma’s state of mind. As the sound became manageable, you start to hear music, which Wilma will, happily, take note and write into her composition. It’s a warm feeling, of helping her get her things together.
While you’re not dealing with Wilma’s anxieties, or chatting with Leos, you can click and explore the few things in the cabin, which might occasionally bring some inspiration for the composition. It could be a book, or the pattering of rain outside, and each time you find one, there’ll be little melodies playing in the background. It’s a small thing, but effective, and I’d say similar to my own experience. It’s the little things that can inspire you, the distant chatters of birds or the movement of light, and usually it’s less because you’re looking for them; they just find you.
The phone calls with Leos, plot-wise, is a weak addition. It doesn’t add anything, doesn’t even change Wilma’s opinion about anything, or at least from what I’m seeing in her thoughts. But in play, it’s a great distraction for the player from the casual monotony of the rain and the cabin and the little noises of Wilma’s anxiety. Wilma might not think much about him, but the player certainly will. Leos has his own things going on, and he’s a friendly, cheerful guy, the sort you’ll let talk about himself all day.
The Lion’s Song Episode 1 ends in an underwhelming scene, of Wilma playing her new piece. It would be a disappointingly bare climax in a non-interactive model, but for the player, at the very least, it’s a charming one. You’re the one who helped her write it, after all. And apparently, the developers wrote that the ending piece actually have separate versions that play depending on how much inspirations you’ve found, so for the more musically-inclined, it might even mean more than just “Wilma successfully wrote and played her piece”.
All in all, I’d say The Lion’s Song seems like it’s less a story told in a game, or a game that tells a story, and more an entire experience; a story that can only be told as game. One of those cases where all the elements blend together to tell a united message. It’s wonderful.