Objective and Subjective Storytelling

This is a topic that was brought up in a video series about “Interactive Narrative in Mass Effect 2” by Armando Troisi, Lead Cinematic Designer at BioWare.  He was talking about Role-Playing Games specifically, but I think the topic can be applied to interactive stories as well.  Basically, this is how the player sees their character, but it’s also a little more than that.  Let me first explain the two terms, then I’ll get into a few examples.

Subjective Story

In a subjective story model, you are the avatar.  This means whatever you do the avatar does, whatever the avatar experiences you experience.  Some have called this the “Gordon Freeman Effect.”  Basically, you see through your character’s eyes, you never hear what he says, he does exactly what you tell him to do, and everything that your character feels is actually you feeling it.  This effectively takes all character away from your character, and just makes you that person.  In an RPG this has some side effects, such as temporal distortions, and lots of dialog.

An example of this (not an RPG) is the First Person Shooter Half-Life.  The player plays as Gordon Freeman, a man with no voice and apparently no legs.  Everything that Gordon Freeman experiences, you experience.  Everything that you do, Gordon freeman does.  There are no cut scenes, or points in the game where control is taken from you at all.  You are always Gordon Freeman.

Most RPGs are Subjective.  Most of BioWare’s RPGs, except for Mass Effect, are subjective.

Objective Story

In an objective story, you are not the avatar.  The avatar has his own choice and motivations, which gives him his own character.  The player in an objective story is more like a movie director than a player.  They affect the world, but they aren’t in direct control of their character, even if they only control that one character.  In an objective story, everything is real time, including dialog.

An example of this is, obviously, Mass Effect 1 and 2.  In Mass Effect, Commander Shepard has his (or her) own voice, motivations, and character.  Sometimes Shepard will do something you don’t expect, and other times he’ll do exactly what you want him to do.

Let me take a quick moment to explain the temporal distortions I mentioned earlier.  Basically, this is when the game pauses so that the player can decide what they want to say next, and then when they choose what they say, the game skips their character actually saying it.  Fallout 3 is a good example of this, especially since the whole world around the two characters talking freezes.


So what does all this mean for an interactive storyteller?  How will they change the experience?  How will the player see the world differently depending on whether the interactive story is subjective or objective?  And how does one decide which type of story to use?

These are all good questions, and I hope that I have equally good answers.  First of all, the experience.  Some may have a different opinion then me on this, so I will attempt to explain my views as well as possible so there are no misunderstandings.

Generally, I think that if the story type changes, then the way the player sees their character should change.  In general, and I stress that this is general, if the interactive story is subjective, it should be first person, and if it is objective, it should be third person.

This does not apply all the time, and I will describe when it does not.  I believe that you can have a first person game that is objective, such as Deus Ex or even Crysis, mainly because you can hear your character’s voice in both of these games even though it is first person, and your character has his own motivations and may do things differently than you would.  But then I also think that third person games can be subjective, such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, where you see your character, but he’s you; you never hear his (or her) voice, and the character does exactly what you want.

I see subjective stories as being more immersive, more about the world and the other characters than about the main character.  You are still a character, and you still have motivations, but they’re your motivations, not the motivations of someone else.  Objective stories would be more about all the characters, including your own.  Your character would have a face, a voice, motivations, emotions, fears, hates, friends, enemies…but they would be that character’s, not yours.

I think it comes down to this: in a subjective story, you are an actor; in an objective story, you are the director.  The story type changes the level of interaction you have with the world, but not necessarily with the story.

The decision of whether to use a subjective or objective story in your interactive story is more a design decision.  It could go either way, but what way is better for this particular story?  Would Half-Life still work even if it were a third person game with a lot of cut scenes?

Let me take a moment to talk about cut scenes.  This is a fairly important topic, or at least a topic that a lot of people have very strong opinions on, but I don’t think it warrants a whole post, because I think I can sum up my opinion in a few sentences.  Cut scenes should not be in an interactive story.  Why?  Well, the main reason, and I think this is reason enough, is that it takes away control from the player.  An interactive story should never take away control from the player; they should always be able to do something.  If a form of entertainment has the word interactive in the title, it should never take away that basic right from the player, which is to choose what they want to do at any point in the story.

In a future post I will talk more about what an interactive story should have in it and what it shouldn’t have in it, but in this post I wanted to explain subjective and objective stories in preparation for some future posts that I’m planning.  I hope that you all enjoyed this little discussion on story types, and feel free to leave a comment if you have a comment to leave.


5 thoughts on “Objective and Subjective Storytelling

  1. Hello.

    Interesting blog you have here.

    Interactive storytelling is really taking flight these days, becoming almost a buzzword, but unfortunately, without any real backbone. Although I haven’t read your entire blog, this last post you’ve written does try to make sense of this new way of making stories in respect to the player-avatar relationship, but doesn’t quite touch what is important in a logical manner.

    Firstly, what is right, and what you’ve mentioned, is that the above relationship is defined by how much “character” an avatar has. The thing is that type of control (or lack of, in the case of a character heavy avatar) can’t be piled up with the word objective, for the simple reason because isn’t objective. Objective is a term that is used in writing because it clearly defines the clarity of the PoV in respect to the protagonist, while in a game that isn’t the case, because the term expects the same level of precision, which by your example (Mass Effect 2) isn’t constant. In essence, ME2 sometimes is more subjective, other times is more objective. That doesn’t seem a good way to classify things.

    Instead, we should focus on the “character” bit. It’s quite clear that certain games have strong characters as the player’s avatars, like Longest Journey’s, while games like HL don’t give a buffer between the player and the world. But how do we classify this?

    Well, IMHO, a simple solution, that proves itself in many games, is this:

    1. The player is a guiding spirit that controls the main character’s actions to a limited degree (Limited Control): Longest Journey;

    2. The avatar becomes a character through the player’s actions (Behavioral Control): Mass Effect;

    3. The player is the avatar, and there’s no character in between to act as a emotional buffer (Total Control): Half-Life;

    This way, we tied a story-centric concept (character) to an interaction-centric concept (choice).

  2. Also, as another counter argument to the Objective-Subjective classification would be the main character from Longest Journey: yes, she is a strong character, with her own context, that includes desires, dreams, wants, whatever, but the player always is aware of what she thinks. In an Objective PoV, at least in classical stories, that is clearly not the case. And it makes sense: that is why objective, we look at the character through a camera, we’re not residing in their minds.

    Sry for the double post, but I couldn’t find an edit button.

    • Thank you for taking the time to post your comments! I see what you are saying, and it is a very good point. I have been thinking that it would be best to find some sort of mix between objective and subjective stories, or how much control the player has over the character. I think it mainly depends on the interactive story you are designing. I will talk about this more when I write about designing interactive stories, but I’m still learning and thinking of new things, so this blog is sort of my place to bounce ideas off other people (such as yourself).

      Anyways, back to control, your three categories of control are pretty accurate, but I don’t think that a designer should limit themselves to just those three categories. It’s the prerogative of the designer to mix different techniques and come up with something perfect for their particular story. In the future I hope to write about deciding how much control to give the player, because I think it’s a good thing to decide before you get too far into designing an interactive story. That might be what you were aiming for, and if it is, then we’re on the same page. If not, well, feel free to post more comments.

      Thanks again for your comments, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the blog! Come back soon.

    • Yes, I can see some potential imprecision in the words “objective” and “subjective”. From a literature standpoint, the two are discrete values — either a story is objective or subjective. By their very definitions, there can’t really be a mix of the two.

      In other contexts, however, objective and subjective can mean different things. For example, in journalism, a good journalist (in the traditional sense) strives to write as objective an article as possible. It is understood that it is impossible to be _completely_ objective (thus, every article is technically subjective), but one can get “more objective” or “less objective”. In this sense, objective and subjective are not discrete values; rather, they define the extremes of a range of possible values. In interactive storytelling, “objective vs. subjective” (or “more control vs. less control” or whatever terms you want to use for the concept) should certainly be a range.

      Thus, I see your point that, in a pure sense, the words objective and subjective are insufficient for the purpose. This could lead to some potential confusion. Your terms of “limited control”, “behavioral control”, and “total control” don’t enumerate all the possibilities either, but they’re probably a step in the right direction because they emphasize a defining variable (level of control over the avatar). I don’t know if there are any more precise (and, ideally, concise) terms that could be used, but I guess these will do for a start.

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