BACKSTORY


As readers of the Ottawa Citizen know, IF games are all about characters with amnesia, who have to discover who they are and how they got there. You may have laughed at Zachary Houle then, but the more IF I play, the more I think he may have been right after all. I see more and more games with no story, only "backstory". The game consists of piecing together what has gone before, and possibly performing a few anticlimactic actions to round it all off. Reviewers even speak of "the backstory" as if it's the most important aspect of any game, right up there with mazes and hunger puzzles. It's an outrage.

I am increasingly convinced that backstory is the bane of IF. IF should be about storytelling, not backstorytelling. What is less interactive than backstory? It has all already happened before the game has started; I can't affect any of it, nor can I hope that my character can affect any of it. It's less interactive even than static fiction. When I'm reading a novel or listening to a story, I'm there as the action is unfolding. When I'm uncovering backstory, I am a distant and passive spectator, and no amount of playing with machinery or dancing to get the next infodump can disguise that fact.

We all know why authors resort to backstory instead of story: it leaves them in complete control of the narrative. And indeed, it's a healthy impulse to keep the narrative safely out of the player's hands: once players start choosing a story for themselves, they inevitably choose wrong. But the trick is not to resort to backstory, but to let the player participate in the story while at the same time keeping author control. No doubt authors avoid this for fear of "tying the player to a chair and shouting a story at them"; but as a player I can assure you that this fate is far more pleasant than being forced to jump through hoops for a few crumbs of backstory.

I can't help but feel that an excess of backstory is a sign that something has gone wrong at the design stage. Is backstory always necessary? If you have a story to tell, why not just tell it? Often, backstory can be ditched altogether in favour of simple things like setting and background. The player doesn't always need to know the long sequence of events that led up to the starting situation; often it's better just to give the starting situation.

I can't think of a narrative I like that is heavily dependent on backstory. Indeed, the word originally comes from the world of TV serials, and seems to be most comfortable in that domain, where dripfed expositions keep the advertisers happy, and writers can mine an extensive backstory for 26 episodes a season. 'Backstory' also finds a lot of use in world-building/sci-fi/Tolkienesque genres, where nerds frequently put ten times more effort into the background than into the story itself. But even in Tolkien, backstory is fairly optional: one can quite comfortably glaze over the histories of the elves and dwarves, and enjoy the action as it's happening. If Lord of the Rings had consisted mostly of Frodo recovering lost pages of The Silmarillion, then no one would ever have read it. And no doubt the world would be a better place.


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