The Plot Thickens! – Narrative Architecture in Rusty Lake: Roots

Henry Jenkins, in “Game Design as Narrative Architecture,” considers the relationship between games and story.  He examines the tension in the scholarly community between those who wish to privilege the mechanics of games in their studies, the Ludologists, and those who focus on the storytelling aspect, the Narratologists.  Jenkins proposes a middle ground, one that asserts that many games tell stories while acknowledging that they tell them in ways unique to the medium.  Rusty Lake: Roots, is a highly narrative driven game, and I believe it departs from Jenkins’s characterization of typical video game storytelling in its clearly linear and unchangeable narrative progression.  In doing so, however, it may limit the freedom and exploration players come to associate with games.

Rusty Lake: Roots, is an epic family drama, spanning across generations.  Each level contains its own narrative, telling the story of a key moment in the family’s history.  These stories range from birth to death, marriage to betrayal, conspiracy to rescue.  Jenkins characterizes traditional video game storytelling as episodic.  He explains that “Each episode…can become compelling on its own terms without contributing significantly to the plot development and often, the episodes could have been reordered without significantly impacting our experiences as a whole (7).  Rusty Lake: Roots somewhat defies this description of video games.  The narrative of the game, while occurring in individual episodes, has a clear arc and could not easily be reordered without losing a great deal of coherence.  For example, in one early episode, Albert throws Emma’s baby into a well.  In a subsequent level, Emma hangs herself due to the heartbreak of losing her child. Several levels later, the player finds herself in that well helping the now-grown child, Frank, to escape.  In another level, Frank kills Albert.  This sub-plot is but one of several narratives that follow a more traditional literary plot structure.

This clear narrative structure is due in large part to the family tree structure by which the game is organized.  After each level, the player returns to the tree and a branch grows, displaying a new level to play that quite literally stems from the previous one.  The narratives, therefore, follow a clear chain of cause-and-effect, as I identified earlier with the Frank narrative.  While this structured approach to storytelling allows for a fascinating, easy-to-follow narrative, it certainly constrains players’ freedom.  Jenkins identifies this concern, explaining that too much plotting can detract from the exploratory nature of games.  Rusty Lake: Roots falls into this trap.  Players can solve the puzzle on each level, but ultimately have little to no control over the outcome of the narrative.  The choices the player makes have no impact on the story, which may be frustrating to players who prefer freedom within a game world.

The game’s family tree displays how each narrative episode progresses from the last

Rusty Lake: Roots is not a traditional game.  Everything, from its graphics (stylized two dimensional drawings), to its mechanics (simple pointing and clicking), to its structure (a clear narrative progression with little player agency), departs from the usual big-budget video game conventions.  However, as an indie game, Rusty Lake: Roots is able to take risks and experiment with storytelling.  The result is a rich, sprawling story worthy of a Gothic novel enacted in a video game.