Why video game storytelling is missing a trick (also, a review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami)

I recently finished reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Japanese bizarro-author Haruki Murakami. It’s a beast of a book, more than 600 pages long (initially released in three installments in Japan) and deeper than the deepest well. And also weird. Very, very weird.

Toru Okada’s life is a bit dull, but he likes it that way. With a wife, a cat, and a few cold beers in the fridge, there’s not much else he could hope for. He doesn’t work. He used to be a lawyer’s assistant, but he gave that up, and now he’s taking some time off while his high-flying wife brings in the pennies from her magazine editor job. Like all the best oddball fiction, it’s the normality with which The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle begins (with Okada cooking spaghetti in the opening pages) that make the shift towards strangeness feel all the more significant.

Half-Life’s the obvious example of a game that attempts this sort of shift from normal to very-much-not-normal, but it still happens in a sudden moment. I’m struggling to think of any games that dare to make that transition a slow-burning one, in which new elements begin to creep in and destroy all semblance of normality that came before. Pathologic, maybe? But then that was pretty weird right from the start. It’s the first of a couple of tricks I think games miss, and which The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle got me thinking about.

So onwards. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is, most importantly, a character story. Not an intricate and reflective look at the complexity of our personalities, perhaps, but at least an observation of a selection of people, how they live their lives, where they’ve come from and where they’re heading.

When Okada’s cat, and then wife, both disappear, he finds himself caught up in a strange tale involving two psychic sisters, a man who fought in the war, and a teenage neighbour called May Kasahara who, at one point in the novel, appears to try to murder him. Kasahara in particular is a triumph of a character; where others are detailed and rich in personality, but sometimes a little oddball-by-numbers, Kasahra’s jovial voice and endearingly strange mannerisms make her a constant joy to read.

The book also isn’t afraid to draw at length from the history of conflict in Manchuria, and tells some particularly grizzly wartime tales in amongst the strangeness in the present day. These flashback-esque sequences (presented in the form of letters, or simply intoned at length by an old man recalling the memories) are chilling in their portrayal of events in north-eastern China and Mongolia in the 1940s, and form a great deal of the story’s most compelling passages. In the end they have little bearing on anything, but they add such depth to the fiction and its characters.

And it’s the time Okada spends with these people – the ways in which his life becomes intertwined with theirs, with all that entails – that really drives the story onwards. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle isn’t a plot-focused book. There is a central story, loosely speaking, but it plays second fiddle to the reams of secondary narratives that spring up around individual characters. I feel compelled to come back to May Kasahara again, because it is her unlikely friendship with Okada that made the final pages resonate for so long after I finished reading, despite a completely understated climax to the main tale.

I want to make games about¬†people. Games spend a lot of time worrying about the big epic storylines, the guns and the baddies, the race for good to triumph over evil (or sometimes vice versa). They make good games, because there’s a reason for you to engage with them: there’s something at stake, and you have the chance to make things right. That’s powerful.

But I don’t think we should always patronise players by assuming they¬†need that big something at stake. Sometimes, perhaps we could trust in the quality of our character writing to make people invest. If that puzzle needs solving because doing so will allow you to find out more about what makes the likes of May Kasahara tick, then is that any less valid than a puzzle that needs solving to save the world? Will people care any less?

If the writing’s good, I genuinely believe the answer is ‘no’. And I certainly hope we can experiment more with this sort of thing. It’s certainly what I tried to look at when conceptualising Richard & Alice, and I think Raze did a damn fine job of bringing those characters more to life than I ever could have. And it can work! Games primarily about characters, rather than stories, do exist, and they are good. Let’s make more of them.


2 comments on “Why video game storytelling is missing a trick (also, a review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami)

  1. Martyn Zachary on said:

    I wholeheartedly agree with this.

    I additionally think there’s a second aspect of what can be called, for instance, ‘character,’ that is often misunderstood by games writers and designers. In my mind, -characters-, playable or non-playable, need not be avatar-like, likable, or even identifiable; just, well, humanly enough, or enoughly human, to create a sense of interest, and intrigue.

    At this juncture, so much of the casts in games are really just the sorry end result, or the by-product, of the constraints set by the more common forms, goals, and ‘skins’ of the medium. Goals like accessibility. Popularity. Simplicity.

    Should we remain in literary territory, aren’t Nabokov’s Humbert, or Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, or, say, Mann’s Aschenbach some of the most interesting people we’ve met? And the strangest, most multifaceted, and anomalous, and curious people we’ve met?

    That’s where so much untapped potential exists – in seeing other, -different- people. Forget being ‘cool’, being ‘heroic’, being ‘moral’. Just be understandable, well-defined, and interesting enough, and people -will- get it.

    It’s just that – out of fear, or the drive to succeed, and cater to a large audience – it feels as though everyone’s far too focused, in games, on giving us the possibility to ‘be’ ourselves, to avatarize, to virtualize, that -other- people, unreal people, foreign people, different people, who could be so much more interesting than our own selves, are so very much neglected in games writing today.

  2. Onilspath on said:

    I agree with you that games have so much more potential to go outside of standards. I read WUBC last year and agree that is about characters but also what I call “flow” of the story and playing with the mind of the reader. Reading your post remind me when I played Final Fantasy 8 after long time out of gaming (transition to a job career took me out of fun for a while). It was so different to me having an elaborated game plot and characters.

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