The Well-Made (Video Game) Plot, Part 1

The Well-Made (Video Game) Plot, Part 1

Why is a game not like a potboiler?

Whodunnits, dunnwhats, and well-made plots.

Actually, this game doesn't figure in this post. Never played it.

A “well-made plot,” in literary circles, is not simply a good plot, but rather a plot that runs on cause and effect, where the world, the characters, and the narrative arc all behave according to believable causality.  In fact, mere causality is not enough.  You could write a novel where event A leads to event B, which leads to event C and so on — all perfectly rational on the small scale — and end up with an event Z which is unrelated in all but the most mechanical of ways to any previous event other than Y.  This would not be a well-made plot.  Well-made plots must be teleological.  They require causality to function on the large scale, where it sometimes goes by the name of fate.  Finally, on a more pragmatic level, the well-made plot also assumes a certain minimum level of incident.  A novel that describes the experience of drinking a single cup of gas station coffee in bone-pulverizing detail could not be said to have a well-made plot, no matter how rationally it is worked out.  Well made plots need to have weighty narrative goals that are teased, built up to, and achieved. (Note here that the narrative goal is not necessarily the same thing as the protagonist’s goal:  heroes of well-made plots can fail, but as long as their failure is a decisive, causally inevitable moment, it can still be a narrative goal.)

Probably the genre most dependent on the well-made plot is is detective novel, or whodunnit. A detective novel that lacks large-scale causality cannot properly be called a detective novel at all, no matter how many people you have running around smoking cigarettes in fedoras.  There used to even be informal rules about this sort of thing, the idea being that a well-made detective story was one where an observant and intelligent reader could potentially solve the mystery as soon as the detective did.  Which means that you can’t have the detective notice something crucial and keep it to him/herself:  the reader needs to be informed!  All of the Encyclopedia Brown stories are well-made in this sense, even if the solutions are sometimes moronic.  (The Sherlock Holmes stories, incidentally, are not well-made.  Sherlock is forever noticing details which Watson, the narrator, is too dim to pick up on, with the result that neither Watson nor the reader gets the crucial clues until Sherlock has already given the game away.  And for a more extreme example, see Harry Stephen Keeler’s The Riddle of the Travelling Skull, for instance.)

Understanding how well-made plots work in detective stories can help us understand how they work in other kinds of stories, too.  In the mystery novel, the well-made plot is generally understood to be “about” answering the question of who committed the crime:  thus, the whodunnit.  But whodunnits are for the most part also howdunnits and whydunnits.  If we don’t learn the killer’s motive and modus operandi, we’re going to find the story unsatisfying.  And ideally, both of these are also going to be subject to the same kind of large-scale causal logic, and to the same “smart readers can work it out on their own” standard of narrative fair play. Those are the questions that occupy the reader of a detective novel:  who, how, why.  Other questions matter less.  What has been done is necessarily known — a murder — and where and when usually are, although all three of these can be destabilized over the course of the work so that we learn M. Body was actually killed in the hall not the conservatory, or that he was never killed at all.  Mysteries focusing on forensic science do tend to focus on when and where the victim was killed, but only in that it might lead us to the killer.  The information is of no use in itself.  A real whendunnit would have to be written from the point of view of, say, an insurance investigator, attempting to prove that the victim died hours after his policy had lapsed, right?

But actually, that’s not true at all!  Whendunnits do exist, they just aren’t detective stories — or aren’t necessarily detective stories, at least.  Rather, they are stories structured as flashbacks:  stories that begin by showing us that a certain important event has taken place, and then walking us through the circumstances leading up to it.  (Whendunnits are always also howdunnits.)  Nimród Antal’s thriller Vacancy was originally structured like this, before the studio cut it into a more linear and less interesting form.  It was supposed to open with a shot of a wrecked car, pulling slowly out to reveal that it had been driven into a hotel lobby.  Pulling out further, we see police milling about, and a number of stretchers with bodybags.  Then we see Kate Beckinsale giving her statement to the investigator — and then we flash back, and she’s riding in the unwrecked car with Luke Wilson.  That right there is a whendunnit.  We know that sometime before this night is over, that car is going into the hotel lobby.  We also know who is involved, at least in a nebulous way.  But we don’t know when or how.  When and how are the most important question with this kind of plot, just like who and how are the most important questions in the classic detective novel.  And both species of plot can be well made. Both have well-defined causal arcs that start out partially obscured and are completely revealed by the end of the story.  The viewer/reader should be able to work out the solution to both ahead of time.  Not always in a very articulate way, to be sure.  There’s no tell-tale clue halfway through Vacancy that points to the car flying through the window precisely twenty minutes before the end of the film.  But when those dominoes start falling into place, the viewer needs to be thinking “Oh okay, I get it, here it comes, here it comes!” or else the plot has utterly failed to function.

Normal plots – ones that aren’t flashback-structured, like the whendunnit, or post-facto, like the whodunnit, tend to be dunnwhats.  We know who will be doing things, because the main characters are established early on — usually even before we start reading.  Pick up a serious respectable novel off the shelves at your local bookstore, and I will wager you dollars to donuts that the synopsis on the jacket has a lengthy description of the main characters.  But we do not know what they will do. (An important variant, of course, is the exposition-of-character novel, in which what we learn is not so much what the character will do but who they really are on a deep psychological level.  Still, this is usually revealed through a series of critically revealing actions, so the label “dunnwhat” can still apply.)  In the well-made version of this, it’s possible to figure out what the characters will do before they actually do it.

In so far as they aspire to a well-made plot, then, all novels are mystery novels.  There should be information scattered in the early part of the narrative that in some way explains the crucial mystery that gets solved at the end, whether that mystery is who’s been murdering guests at the chateau, or whether the main character will find happiness despite stifling social pressures.  This doesn’t mean you can’t have plot twists!  A little uncertainty on the small scale is necessary to keep things interesting.  But if even retrospectively there’s no way for the reader to figure out what has been dunn, well… that’s a problem.  Not necessarily a crippling one, but a problem.  Take the Harry Potter books:  you keep thinking that Dumbledore is playing a deep game, and that when you’re finally privy to his plan — that is, when Dumbledore finally does the important “what” that his character arc has been building towards — everything will make sense.  But this never happens, which retroactively makes both the character and the whole series less satisfying.

15 Comments on “The Well-Made (Video Game) Plot, Part 1”

  1. RDM #

    I expected more discussion of plot-driven games, like Red Dead Redemption, LA Noire, or Uncharted. Maybe in Part 2?


  2. Leigh #

    Awesome. Bonus points for mentioning Encyclopedia Brown.


  3. startingfromzero #

    There are mystery plots that could qualify as “pure howdunnits,” where the detective knows the identity of the murderer, but the murderer has an airtight alibi, so the detective must figure out how they managed to kill someone while they were live on national television/having dinner with the president/in outer space.

    Monk used to do a lot of these, and they crop up on other television shows as well. I think they lend themselves better to an episode of TV; we already know who the killer is, so they’re less suspenseful, which makes it hard to stretch them out for a 300 page novel but you can pretty comfortably fill 40 minutes of airtime. Also, it’s a way to shake up the formula and keep audience’s interest when a show’s on its 60th episode, without totally abandoning a show’s “crime solving” raison d’etre.


  4. Kyu #

    Other “pure howdunnits”: locked-room mysteries (for instance Stephen King’s Holmes pastiche), stories about games (we’re reasonably sure that Bobby Fischer, or Yugi, will prevail, but the drama lies in discovering what method of victory they will use), and several Asimov short stories where we know exactly what happened (when, where, who, why) but not what science-fiction technology was used to accomplish the task.


  5. Maitland #

    “Video games are only ever dunnwhethers, and rather than caring about the characters’ actions, we care about our own skill.”

    “The major constraints we deal with when we play video games — and this should be painfully obvious to anyone who has ever played video games — are the constraints of our own skill. That’s the struggle, and the primary excitement, that we take away from the experience.”

    I feel like you’ve characterized a certain kind of player, rather than the nature of the game itself. I don’t see why, because this media is more interactive than television or books, the player is inherently more concerned with her own skill than the characters or plot. I say this because I *do* become invested in the characters that I play or interact with.

    Two games that immediately jump out as being not particularly skill-driven but (for me) very enjoyable as an interactive narrative are Arkham Asylum and Mass Effect 2.


  6. Brimstone #

    The perfect videogame plot is The Warriors. The film, not the book. We know who are protagonists are. They have a firm goal, lots of enemies, and a time limit. You don’t need anything else.


  7. Josh Millard #

    For films, The Prestige is I think a great example of twin howdunnits in direct opposition.


  8. MechanusSunrise #

    Dunnwhethers frivolous? Has Moby Dick ever been called frivolous? Have the story of Siddhartha Gautama’s enlightenment, the Ramayana, the story of the Fall, or the passion of Jesus been called frivolous? Within your schematics, the only place I could find for these plots is as dunwhethers. Perhaps I have misunderstood your meaning.


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      I think it would be a pretty big mistake to see Moby-Dick as primarily “about” the question of whether or not Ahab will successfully kill the whale. And the rest of the examples you list are religious texts, which generally are considered “serious” for reasons other than their plots.

      But you’re probably right that the serious/frivolous distinction I’m setting up is a little forced. I do think it holds up as a general rule, but I’m happy to concede that there are exceptions.


  9. NemZ #

    “In grand narrative terms, Edgar doesn’t matter.”

    Actually that’s entirely untrue. Edgar is a central figure to the game’s background story (he’s a member and primary funding source for the Returners organization that the whole first half of the game revolves around), his fancy sandcastle’s abilities serve a narrative function three times in the story, he’s a required party member for some sections of the plot, and in the sandboxy second half of the game he’s one of only four characters the plot demands you gather up before taking on Kafka.

    Now if you’d said this about Gogo or Umaro you’d have had a point, but definately not for Edgar.


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      I disagree. Edgar is certainly more important than Umaro and Gogo (and, I would argue, more important than Setzer, Gau, Relm, and a whole bunch of other characters). But that doesn’t necessarily mean he actually matters. In traditional narrative terms — which are not necessarily appropriate for judging games, but they’re what I’m talking about at this point — the game is about Terra finding out who she is, learning the Empire’s evil plan, and thwarting it. Everything else is a picaresque episode (including the whole second half of the game except for the final boss fight). Saying that these parts are unimportant is a little misleading: the game’s plot is a picaresque, so these episodes are arguably the most important things. But if we look for a well-made plot in the game, Edgar (along with a lot of other stuff) becomes window-dressing. Yes, the castle comes back. Do any of its appearances matter? Really? The second one lets you get Edgar as a character again, which is only important if you think he’s important. The third gives you access to another dungeon — completely optional, I think? — which it literally collides with at random. They could just as easily have put the dungeon the bottom of the ocean or on top of a mountain. So yes, the castle serves a mechanical purpose in the plot, moving from B to C and from H to I or whatever, but there’s no sense in which it helps build up to Z. Same with the Returners, I’d say — I don’t think they’re nearly as important to the plot as you do. I can only speak for myself, of course, but I lost track of the fact that my party was supposed to be part of a paramilitary resistance group VERY quickly indeed.


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