Context is King

Actions may be important, but they are always ambiguous. The meaning of an action depends on its context. Simple example: When the Bad Guy kills a Good Guy who wants to stop them, we disapprove. But when the Good Guy kills a Bad Guy, we consider that the right thing to do. The action is essentially the same (Guy killing other Guy because they stand against them), but the context changes.

I didn't fully realise the potential of this kind of obvious concept until I played Dragon Age 2. Please excuse my spoilering.

Dragon Age 2 differs from its prequel Dragon Age: Origins (henceforth DA2 and DA:O) mainly in terms of potential narrative volume. DA2 is very … well … straightforward whereas DA:O is fifty times as long and complex. Or it feels like it, at least. So I was rather disappointed by DA2 when I played it for the first time. Especially in the endgame. In the course of the game, you have to decide between two fractions – templars or mages – and you have to kill the leaders of either. Which means that the endgame has to be the same, no matter what choice you make.

But something was … off. So I bravely ventured into a second play-through and thought of the most unlikely character. One that just wouldn't really make sense in the narrative as I had experienced it. And then something beautiful happened: The narrative system moved. Just a tiny bit. It turned just about half a degree to match my character and sucked me in like a giant octopus. And it did that although the action was literally the same.

The difference could be found in the context: My character wasn't boring, but contradictory and thus: interesting. Thus, the action had a different meaning inscribed into it. And only meaningful action is good action.

There is a word for putting action into context. It's framing the action.

By the way: The very same thing happens in SpecOps: The Line. The actions you perform are the very same like in every other shooter, but it is framed in a very different way. Have a look at the analysis by Extra Credits. Or the one by Errant Signal. (Seriously. Watch them. They are very educational.)

So what does all of this imply for the aspiring storyteller? It means that action alone doesn't cut it. It's the characters, the social and historical backgrounds and relation(ship)s of the fictional world that give perspective and thus meaning to the action.

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