From the guiding omniscient voice that describes the effects of your character’s actions in Divinity: Original Sin to the embellished plot recaps that Dandelion delivers in The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the games we love are often linked to the ancient storytelling art of narration. Although works of literature and cinema extensively probe the use of narration, this same critical understanding is rarely afforded for video games, a medium primed to utilise narration in compelling ways without generally meeting that potential.
In Voice of Cards: The Isle Dragon Roars, Square Enix’s recently released card-themed RPG, the narrator is a “game master,” emulating the style of narration required for traditional tabletop roleplaying games, which also serves as one of the game’s most unique aesthetic features: the narrator not only tells the story but also voices every character and interjects with their own advice and retorts to your actions. It’s one of the most robust and charming forms of narration I’ve seen in an RPG, and it got me thinking about the history of narration in games and wondering why it isn’t incorporated more often as a means to aid storytelling.
Once Upon A Time
When it comes to telling engaging stories in video games, having a narrator is undoubtedly far less common than it was several decades ago. If you think back to the days of text-based adventure games on early consoles, this type of game relied very heavily on the existence of some form of omniscient narration. This was partly inspired by the “game master” narrator tabletop roleplaying and partly due to the lack of graphical prowess in the available technology. This ensured that on-screen text was really the only way to tell a narrative that was both detailed and immersive: you could spend your limited amount of pixels on moving a square through a hallway, or you could use the same amount of pixels to display some letters on screen, forming words and eventually, narration. If you were trying to tell a story, which would you choose?
The RPG genre specifically has a long history with different types of narration. One fundamental type is the kind that merely communicates player actions in lieu of the ability to show them — think of what happens when you look in an empty chest in Trails In The Sky or when you faint in any Pokémon game: a small but not insignificant sentence tells us what happens next. In games where we have characters exchanging dialogue, the strings of text that describe those events between are effectively a basic form of narration. Of course, this isn’t exactly the kind of narration I’d necessarily need to advocate for more of, though this type holds a functional purpose in a variety of games, I’m more interested in the kind of narration that has a significant presence in the game’s aesthetic or narrative.
If you’ve played the indie classic Darkest Dungeon, you’ll already be familiar with narration as a means of establishing tone. Almost any significant action you take in the game is accompanied by moody narration letting you know the grim outcome. The particular style and gravitas of the voice used for narration can go a long way in affecting the player’s perception of the game as a whole, especially when the narration has such an undeniable presence in the moment-to-moment gameplay.
The recent “disaster-detective” RPG Disco Elysium understands the importance of gravitas in narration and also offers an inventive approach to the concept of narration in games as a whole. The various aspects of the protagonist’s personality (which also function as the player’s skills/attributes) each have their own distinct way of interpreting the world around them, with different modes of speech and mannerisms to match each trait. These are filtered through the single voice of the game’s narrator in the Final Cut edition to great effect. For example, your character’s logic will pop up and narrate your circumstances with a brief and curt rationale, while your conceptualisation will render it with a verbose and colourful analogy. I do not believe it’s an overstatement to say that the narration of Disco Elysium — particularly the attention to detail in characterising each personality — is fundamental to the game’s success, even without the voice acting. The narration of Disco Elysium is the framework that links its mechanics, story, and themes in a Gordian knot of dense flavour text, and it’d be a much different game without this approach. Disco Elysium is a recent standout example where the clever use of narration enhances the overall experience.
As well as establishing tone and linking mechanics with story, narration can set expectations about a story by re-contextualising events through additional insight and highlighting the importance of certain events through the use of dramatic irony. A good example of narration that does all of these things is the small but poignant amount of narration in Final Fantasy XIV Heavensward, where the words that open and close each major chapter are identified as belonging to the memoirs of key secondary character Count Edmont De Fortemps. Edmont’s position as the narrator is one that ultimately makes a lot of sense given their involvement in Ishgardian society and the events of the Heavensward story. This serves to give the narration more dramatic weight, as the player’s understanding of both the character and the narration help to inform each other throughout the story. Edmont’s words have more impact as you experience the events alongside him, and the narration has more emotional connotations when we can see the human life that these narrations came from.
At its peak, narration in video games can be a charming feature that adds to the overall sense of immersion. At its worst, narration can also come across as clunky, exposition-heavy, and stilt the immersion through repeated interruptions that attack willing suspension of disbelief. Certainly, incorporating narration into a game in a way that is both meaningful and not too intrusive is an interesting challenge.
Lending A Voice
Voice of Cards, as the title would suggest, literally provides a “voice” for all its cards with a strangely comforting full suite of voice-acted narration to guide the player through its world. As a microcosmic example for the potential of narration in video game stories, Voice of Cards highlights the use of narration as a means of not only establishing tone and ironically commenting upon the events of the story but also rendering the narrator themselves as a separate, unseen, and influential presence as the director of the whole experience. It also manages to do this so that it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the story, a fault that can often befall narration with a more all-encompassing style.
This is showcased best by the narrator’s personal interjections: when they’re not voicing the dialogue of the game’s individual characters or describing the actions and settings of the story in typical narration, they sometimes chime in with comments on the decisions you should or shouldn’t make in gameplay, your prowess (or lack thereof) in combat, and more. The script is often commendably reserved in this area, but the performance by Todd Haberkorn is what really sells it.
There’s plenty of meta-humour and quips espoused by the Voice of Cards narrator that acknowledge the fictional borders of the game world and their status as game master, but this often goes beyond just a simple joke. When you consider the artificial sense of tangibility evoked by the game’s commitment to the tabletop game aesthetic and the virtual table it takes place on, it becomes readily apparent that It’s not just a critical textural detail, it’s the most important detail that the game has to offer. Without the narrator/game master, Voice of Cards would be a hollow attempt at evoking the tabletop game experience.
If you’ve played the game, imagine Voice of Cards without its narration or on-screen subtitles to convey this narration. If the game master’s incidental dialogue were plucked from the game, Voice of Cards would exist in a contextless void of… well, mostly cards. The ‘voice’ in Voice of Cards is essential for bringing the various static board game components to life, in the same way that the narration of the multiple skills in Disco Elysium is essential for constructing that game’s identity. Beyond this, Voice of Cards’ game master is a reliable machine of context. It’s reminiscent of most experiences I’ve had playing Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder with friends, complete with a sincere GM that is at their best when they’re giving out only what you need to know, in that sweet spot between the abundance and scarcity of information.
The crowning achievement of Voice of Cards’ game master (and probably Voice of Cards generally), however, is that the narration wasn’t annoying by the end of the experience. In fact, it’s the aspect of the game that charmed me the most and sold me on the idea of not just a Voice of Cards sequel, but the idea that more games in general should adopt this approach to narration, which gracefully acknowledges the world’s fictionality while simultaneously building the world up again through the spoken word.
Playing The Role
Beyond some of the associations with the tabletop origins of the genre, I believe RPGs have a particular level of compatibility with narration as a storytelling device. RPGs ultimately benefit from delivering concise context to the player. Effective narration can achieve this in a way that is both direct and occasionally suitably whimsical, depending on the setting. Narrating the gameplay allows for the necessary context to show through while controlling the flow of information.
As suggested before, Voice of Cards’ narration is at its best in the sweet spot between the abundance and scarcity of information. This isn’t exactly a hard and fast rule that can broadly apply to all video game narration, but it’s certainly something that I think is relevant to the idea of compatibility of narration and certain video game genres. In RPGs, it’s ideal to have just enough information about the world and the characters to make the player feel like they are inhabiting a role within that world. It’s rare for RPGs to deliver zero context, but it’s not uncommon for them to deliver far too much without saying anything of value.
With narration, especially the kind usually delivered in grandiose voiceover alongside gameplay, writers are invited to consider what needs to be said versus what can be said. While an optional lore document won’t necessarily slow the player down, being subjected to long-winded narration certainly can if it’s the kind that pervades the whole game. Given that narration is intended to frame a story, the decision to include it in a game often takes this pervasive form, meaning the writing decisions surrounding it usually have higher stakes.
Although poorly considered narration can weaken a game, well-considered narration — as in the case of Voice of Cards — can uplift a game on a fundamental level. It’s something I’d love to see more games earnestly attempt: when it works, the results can be truly captivating.