Blogs of the Round Table: Denouement

Denouement, besides being one of the rare words to not return pornography on page 12 of a Google Image search (although that status may have been lost by the time of your reading this, so proceed with caution), is also one of the many things that video games do poorly.  This month’s topic for Blogs of the Round Table is also probably the worst one for me to write a post about, especially as my first entry into the discussion.  To quote the website:

This is the closest I could get to a fitting image

This is the closest I could get to a fitting image

How can the denouement be incorporated into gameplay? In literary forms, it is most often the events that take place after the plot’s climax that form your lasting opinion of the story. A well constructed denouement acts almost as a payoff, where protagonists and antagonists alike realize and adjust to the consequences of their actions. Serial media often ignored the denouement in favor of the cliffhanger, in order to entice viewers to return. Television has further diluted the denouement by turning it into a quick resolution that tidily fits into the time after the final commercial break.

But the denouement is most neglected in video games where it is often relegated to a short congratulatory cut scene, or at most–a slide show of consequences. This month’s topic challenges you to explore how the denouement can be expressed as gameplay.

I really should be doing schoolwork right now…

How the denouement is factored into game design is highly dependent on the type of game we are working with.  For our purposes there are three big categories of games, those for which story is a major factor (“Story Games” from here on out, e.g. Final Fantasy, Elder Scrolls, Fallout), those for which story is there to support the gameplay (“Action Games” for lack of a better term, e.g. Halo, Gears of War, Command & Conquer), and those for which story is either non-existent, or a purely emergent part of gameplay (“Crunch Games”, e.g. sports games, Civilization, Total War).

Currently, we mostly see denouement in the story games, for the obvious reason that they are trying to tell a story, and thus conforming to traditional story-telling techniques.  More often than not, however, we see a cutscene at the end, or an opening up of a freeform world which is left relatively unchanged from prior to the climax.  In a book or a film, the denouement is where we see the plot resolved, where the characters get their rewards, and where we see the world as affected by the events of the story.  Limiting the big payoff to a non-interactive cutscene or freedom to roam the countryside takes away a lot of the emotional impact of the denouement.

Implementing denouement into gameplay for a story game should be relatively easy.  Most story games have some sort of conversation system.  Gameplay does not really need to be affected in any way to bring denouement into the picture, simply change the gameworld as appropriate (raze cities, bring magic back to the Mystical Forest of Lor Leliel, bring the guards back from the front lines to the cities, whatever), and make sure that NPCs can describe or comment on the changes substantially.  The reason this is not done very effectively now is because it involves creation of content, which is already difficult enough with today’s graphics systems.  If the story calls for a town to be destroyed, nobody wants to pay an artist to create a new, destroyed version of the town, as well as the writer to rescript several dozen dialogue trees to take into account the change.  In this case, either the story would be rewritten, the changes would be made much less drastic in game than portrayed in the story, or the game will simply end in a cut scene.  Really, there’s not much that can be done to improve the denouement of a story game that is not being done already on a much cheaper scale.

“Action Games” (and I will use the term in quotes to distinguish from the recognized genre) are a different beast.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t play Halo for the deep and involving story (actually I don’t play Halo at all, but that’s another post).  Short of implementing new gameplay mechanics, there really isn’t much option for expanding the story beyond the thrilling conclusion.  Once you destroy Halo (I’m speculating here, I assume this is how the first game ends), there’s not much else for you to do gameplay-wise.  I suppose one could walk around the mothership or start training new recruits, but very few people are going to want to keep playing if the game becomes “talk to the officers, they will congratulate you and let you know how Earth is doing.”  For “action games,” cutscenes are appropriate.

Crunch games are another beast entirely.  I use the term here mainly to refer to turn-based-strategy games and sports games, although I’m sure there are other types of game in the category.  Take for example the Madden games.  The biggest draw to these games for me has always been the Franchise mode.  There is no overarching story here, other than “you are coaching a football team,” but through gameplay, wins and losses, trades and recruits, the player builds the story of his coach.  Similarly, for TBS games, there is very little story to begin with, but the player creates the story of his empire through victories on the battlefield (or techs researched, city improvements, what have you).  With sports games, there is no real denouement possible beyond “you have retired, and now you are a sportscaster” or “you have died.”

For a strategy game, however, I often find that the game ends as things become interesting.  Once I build my perfect empire, what happens next?  With my enemies crushed or allied to me, what do I do with my military?  Do I maintain the troops, but use them as a purely defensive force?  Do I occasionally send forces in to keep the other countries in check?  What kind of economy does my country support now that I am the only global superpower?  What exactly does a “space race” victory entail?  For large scale 4X games like this, there is a lot of unexplored territory for what happens next.  Perhaps it is beyond the scope of a game like Civilization or Rome: Total War to portray not only the rise, but the fall of a glorious empire.  A game where great powers arise and then stagnate from the inside before falling to outside invasion, or descend into civil war, would be extremely satisfying to the history buff in me, and would bring closure to a game which would normally end with total conquest and immediate victory.

I don’t know of any video games that do this successfully, but if one exists, it could be my favorite video game of all time except for Portal.

Please visit the Blog of the Round Table’s main hall for links to the rest of this month’s entries.

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