Willpower: A Narrative Theme in Games
Willpower. Often, the sheer force of will turns a rather simplistic character into a memorable one. A character that pushes the plot forward with their incredible force of personality and drive. Perseverance against insurmountable odds, like bluffing on a Jack-Deuce hand in online poker.
I’m sure we can all name an iconic movie character of that description. John McClane from Die-Hard. Vegeta from Dragon Ball Z. The Major from Hellsing Ultimate. V from V for Vendetta. All these characters share a drive that pushes them above and beyond the average man, no matter what’s thrown in their way. Giving up isn’t in their dictionary, and works to create some incredibly focused and powerful stories.
Video Games, as a medium, has had a long hard journey trying to combine narrative and gameplay without being at the expense of the other. Willpower, as a theme, meshes incredibly well with Video Games, and I can think of no better example than Dark Souls.
For those who don’t know, Dark Souls is a third-person RPG by the Japanese company From software. It’s got a reputation for being incredibly hard, incredibly dense in content, but being very fair mechanically. Its story is also not spelled out for you- rather, if you want to know the secrets that the world around you has to offer, you have to hunt down those secrets yourself.
Maybe you’ll want to know the ancient histories of the Dragons and gods as you roam to the ends of the world to collect their souls, or maybe you’re just happy to have stumbled across another giant monstrosity to kill. Your investment is up to you.
Now, for the purposes of this article, your investment is rather important, so let me sum the main points of the story.
In ancient times, the world was ruled by Dragons. The gods then rose up, and killed the Dragons, and started the Age of Fire. Thousands of years later, the Gods are dying out, so the chief god Gwyn curses humans with undeath and gives them the task of keeping the Age of Fire from dying out.
The way to do so is to increase the power of one’s soul until he can use it to perpetuate the Age of Fire. In gameplay, this translates to being the reason for the player going out and killing really big and powerful monsters to imbue his own soul with theirs in order to fulfill Gwyn’s task.
The reason why I feel the need to explain all this is because Fromsoftware has done something really clever with this story. They have tied arbitrary game mechanics to the story. The player can die over and over because Gwyn cursed humans with undeath.
Killing giant monsters has more purpose to it than just mindless violence. Absorbing souls is the key mechanic for making your character stronger, which again syncs with the established story.
My Main Point
Now let me loop this back around again to Willpower. Dying over and over and over again is part of the narrative. Your character is essentially immortal, according to both the mechanics and the narrative. So can a player possibly lose in such a scenario?
Well, Dark Souls is a really hard game. Some monsters will smash you to pieces over and over again every time you pull your rotted corpse back together to have another go. Here again, is where the story and mechanics sync up amazingly well.
The only way to truly lose in Dark Souls is to give up.
In the story, an undead who gives up becomes mindless and feral, wandering aimlessly forevermore. In real life, you lose when you toss away your controller and switch over to Minecraft.
That’s why Willpower is such a good narrative theme for video games. Basically, if done right, the player and character merge, and it becomes a test of will to succeed.
The character wants to save the princess. The player wants to win.
It’s such an underused concept for games, but it’s one of the best narrative structures that can be used in a skill-based game.
Of course, this won’t work for every game. Some games are not about their narrative, and nor should they be.
Monopoly certainly isn’t a test of wills. Even in terms of video games, sometimes a more relaxing, casual experience is more appropriate, like in Minecraft as I mentioned earlier.
It’s all dependent on the game, and learning how to seamlessly stitch story and games is something that the industry is getting better and better at.