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Week 1 - Digital Narrative Analysis


This week, the analysis will be focused on how the digital narrative affects story-telling, and to what extent it affects in the example of a particular videogame – ‘Until Dawn’.

Story elements are very present in Until Dawn. The player is immediately given the information of location and events leading up to the main story, and each progression is marked by a new “chapter”. The game is set in the winter of 2015, and follows the story of 8 protagonists. Taking place in a winter lodge of Blackwood Mountain in Canada, the Prologue reveals the tragedy of a prank gone horribly wrong. This sets up Act 1, where the same characters are brought into the same environment, only a year after the events of the prologue. The antagonists shift in the story, from the psycho serial killer in Act 1-2, to the monstrous wendigos in Act 2-3. In terms of actors, the in-game characters are modeledafter real-life actors and are motion-captured, placing the acting in a traditional sense.

Actor Jordan Fisher, motion-capturing Matthew Taylor (link 1)

However, the post-processing of the filming transforms it into a non-linear story to show how both can merge together to create a digital narrative without losing the “realness” of film.

Matt in Until Dawn (link 1)

It is evident that this game follows a clear three-act structure, and is detailed below:

The tension-building is accelerated through "quick time events", where the player is forced to make fast decisions under time constraints or suffer consequences. With this decision-making mechanic, the game effectively uses the digital medium to make the experience participatory, allowing users to change the work depending on their choice in-game.

'Butterfly Effect' - Even the smallest decision can have major consequences (link 2).

The game uses programmed rules to change the sequential events in the future, and also changes bars on each character traits. After the entire play-through, the game displays a chapter select menu and the player may revisit each episode to collect totems and replay any bad decisions made. However, it is not completely modular, as the story is partially linear and changing the sequence of the media files will render the story unrecognisable.

When the PlayStation is connected online, the game shows global stats, and displays the percentage of people choosing next to the options in quick-time-events (link 2). Programming this into the game sway the potential outcome of decision-making, utilising the digital narrative in this aspect of gameplay.

Being a PlayStation4 exclusive game grants the ability of using the motion sensor on the PS4 controller. Certain gameplay mechanics require the player to keep completely still while holding the controller to hide from the wendigos.

Don't move! Quick-time-event utilises PS4 motion-controller (link 3).

The game is traditional in the sense that it relies on events and characters to drive the story, and uses very established character tropes - the ex girlfriend character (Emily), the jock (Mike), the nerd (Chris). The story-telling stays close to the typical 80’s slasher horror, and takes place in yet another typical survival horror in the winter cabin.

The outcome of the story however, is non-traditional. Although it follows movie tropes, the player is able to change how they act because they are able to “make smart decisions where film characters would have made stupid ones.” (link 4, Forbes 2015). For example, Emily gets bitten by a wendigo in the woods, and the group is worried she may become one herself. You play as the dumb jock character, choosing between shooting or not shooting potentially-infected Emily. The game later reveals that injuries do not cause infections. Not shooting her would force the character to make the smarter decisions, and cause the trope of “dumb jock” to evolve. This example shows how a player-initiated decision can shape character development in this non-linear story - something that authors of linear story narratives have complete control over.

The game is designed to be played multiple times, where the central game mechanics revolve around player choices and result in “hundreds of endings (link 5)”. This makes every experience different. However, the game still follows a partial linear narrative. This is because many decisions in the game only creates small differences in the relationships between the character and doesn’t change the direction of the story in the whole. Yelling at Emily earlier in the game will cause her to be more hostile towards you, but it does not change the role she plays in driving the story. Regardless of choices, the story will always progress in the same general direction. The game is full of “options that don't really influence the game in any meaningful way”.

With increasing popularity of the "interactive movie game" genre due to games like Heavy Rain and The Last of Us, it is no surprise that Until Dawn leans towards a film with limited interactivity, rather than a game with a story narrative focus. There are elements of participatory, programmability and variability to a certain extent, but it is not a modular experience.

References:

  • link 1 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkiXZx4BIHw

  • link 2 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxJWlNTiMYc

  • link 3 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgwQA-t1e8o

  • link 4 - https://www.forbes.com/sites/insertcoin/2015/09/04/the-until-dawn-ending-that-fixes-the-problem-with-every-horror-movie/

  • link 5 - https://www.destructoid.com/until-dawn-has-hundreds-of-endings-and-thousands-of-branches-279599.phtml


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