Trophies And Narrative

Many trophy lists find themselves butting heads with their games’ stories, but that doesn’t need to be the case. Since narrative advancement and story-based trophies are both used as rewards for progressing through the game, they find themselves scrambling to fulfill the same purpose, and often end up undermining one another. However, when structured carefully, a game’s trophy list can compliment the narrative, just like it compliments the rest of the game.

Games frequently treat narrative advancement as a reward. Often, this advancement comes in the form of cutscenes, brief asides where the story progresses with little to no input from the player. While they serve many purposes, their usage as rewards is most apparent in the way that they’re worked into a game’s structure. You’ll find them spread throughout the game as best serves the narrative, introducing characters and locations, establishing goals for the player, but the most narratively significant tend to come at the ends of levels or particularly challenging segments, like boss fights. This structure suggests that narrative progression is being treated similarly to explicit rewards like currency or experience points.

Similar structures can be found across all kinds of games. Take Gone Home as an example. Gone Home forgoes cutscenes altogether, but uses the player’s investment in the narrative to encourage her to investigate dark hallways or a creepy basement to find the next note from the narrator. You’ll even find this structure in games with relatively simple narratives, like Super Mario Bros., which ends levels with brief asides, even if it’s something as simple as Mario entering a pipe or finding out the princess is in another castle.

Trophies frequently overlap with a game’s narrative reward structure. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since trophies are, by definition, also rewards for engaging with the game. The most clear-cut example of this is when trophies are awarded for hitting particular story beats, but there are some hidden cases of it as well. Any trophy that will certainly be earned in the process of finishing the game would fall under this category. Take Fallout 4’s Commonwealth Citizen trophy, earned for reaching level 10. It doesn’t necessarily reward the player for progressing through the main quest line, but, since the experience gained for completing quests over the course of the game is more than enough to put a player above level 10, there’s still overlap. That doesn’t make it bad (it does a particularly good job of rewarding the player for interacting with the game without being tied to any specific play style), but it’s important to keep in mind when assessing the list as a whole.

Some overlap between story and trophy rewards can be a good thing. Trophies tied directly to story beats can serve several purposes. They often help players gauge their own progress through a game, and can provide useful statistics. For example, we can see that, as of this writing, 84% of Tales of Graces F players registered on PSNProfiles have completed Chapter 1, meaning that 16% lost interest before even getting that far. By comparing this to similar trophies over the course of the game, we can roughly map the points where players are most likely to stop playing. There’s also an argument to be made that, by the end of the game, players should have some percentage of the trophy list unlocked as a reward for their efforts, and story-related trophies are a straightforward way to ensure that happens.

There are two main styles of problem that affect trophies tied directly to a game’s narrative, the first of which stems from poor implementation. At their best, story-based trophies work like chapter breaks in a novel. They can quietly underscore important moments or provide a quick respite from a high-tension situation. If done just right, a quick reminder that it’s all just a game can even be used to the narrative’s advantage. Poorly implemented narrative trophies have the opposite effect. Consider a trophy that unlocks before, or even during, a cutscene. Beyond being distracting, the trophy popping relieves tension from the story prematurely. On a literal level, trophies often indicate that the gameplay portion of that chapter is over, so the player can relax. More problematic, though, is the implication that the chapter as a whole is over too. There is a feeling of completion that comes with unlocking a trophy, a sense that the goal has been achieved, and that can make anything that happens after it pops feel less important, story beats included.

The other kind of issue arrises when a trophy list skews too heavily toward story-based trophies. No matter how well-implemented they are, a list largely composed of narrative trophies isn’t very exciting. A trophy list should support its game, but should also provide some value of its own. If a player will get most or all of a game’s trophies just by playing through the game’s core storyline, then the list isn’t bringing much to the table. This is where being aware of implicitly story-related trophies becomes particularly important. A list might look like it has a fair mix of narrative and non-narrative trophies, but if all those trophies fall onto the critical path to the end of the game, then they probably aren’t living up to their full potential. This isn’t to say that a platinum trophy should demand multiple playthroughs, just that it should encourage players to somehow go beyond what’s required by the core narrative.

The best way to avoid these problems is to limit the amount that trophies and narrative overlap, and instead let each system shine in the areas where it is strongest. Trophies tend to do a good job of rewarding players for engaging with side systems, like finding collectables or looking for secret dungeons. This is an area where narrative often struggles, since systems like this rarely fit nicely into a larger story — finding all 50 hidden pirate skulls isn’t generally considered a compelling plot point. On the other hand, narrative progression is excellent at driving a player through lengthy games. Only the most devoted trophy hunters are going to play through a 100 hour Japanese Role-Playing Game solely for a platinum, but strong stories or casts of characters have been driving the genre on for years.

In games with a relatively even balance between gameplay and narrative focus, a bit of thought given to these strengths and weaknesses can go a long way. I’ve written before about how Bioshock generally does a good job of both balancing its story and gameplay trophies. I don’t expect all games to start giving their lists that kind of attention, but I do believe that a little time spent considering which systems could benefit most from a little meta game highlighting could help both the lists and the games to which they’re attached.

Games with such a strong narrative focus that there aren’t other obvious places where trophies can be added face a much more difficult design problem. They don’t have the luxury of dropping trophies entirely, but they can opt to make a boring list and own it. This isn’t always a bad thing. In some cases, I would even argue it’s the right call to make. Many story-based games just don’t have room to accommodate non-narrative trophies, and are better off without them. The developer/publisher Telltale Games, for example, tends to take this route. Telltale’s games often shine when played once and only once. Any trophies that don’t unlock naturally over a single session would encourage multiple playthroughs, thus putting the game in an unfavorable light. A list like this elects to add value by choosing to do no harm, even if it doesn’t do much active good either. It’s a strong choice, if not the most exciting.

On the other hand, there are games that subtly embed trophy-friendly systems into their existing narrative structures, like Life is Strange’s Collectable Mode, which solves the Telltale problem of not wanting to encourage replays by allowing players to revisit parts of each chapter without narrative repercussions. These games rarely have the most polished lists, but their experimental nature makes them very interesting.

At the end of the day, every game is going to need to find its own balance between trophies and narrative. There are arguments for letting the two overlap to some degree, but understanding that degree and keeping it within an acceptable range can be the difference between a list that supports the narrative and one that actively undermines it. This will be easier for some games than others, but every developer owes it to themselves to take the time to ensure that they, at the very least, aren’t undoing their own work.