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.