Disgaea DS has a fun little bonus for a “new game plus” playthrough. If you finish the main game and then start it again with the same save data, you not only keep whatever loot and levels you had, but you also get your own one-Prinny Greek Chorus commenting on the plot during cutscenes. It adds a fair dose of humor, and even a few nuggets of backstory.
Greek Choruses serve a few different purposes, shifting between exposition and explanation, interpretation and instruction, emphasis and education, even serving as pacing and distraction tools, making the stage play format work. Sometimes they tell us how to react if the script itself isn’t terribly clear. Sometimes they tell us things that aren’t apparent by the acting, like the inner thoughts of characters. They are a significant fudge factor, filling in the gaps in backstory and setting that aren’t always apparent when we are limited in time or technical aspects of a presentation.
Games aren’t plays, and games aren’t movies, but we can still benefit from some Greek Chorus mechanics. Sure, we’re often told as writers (especially in visual media) to “show, don’t tell”, but sometimes it actually is more efficient to tell. Sure, that pensive look on Oedipus’ brow shows the vast emotional range of the actor, but do all the viewers understand what’s firing in his synapses? Do they understand the context and circumstances that moved him to stare dramatically into the middle distance? A Greek Chorus can fill us in.
Perhaps it could be argued that those attending plays and actually paying attention do understand what the characters are thinking. There’s a certain level of interest and extracurricular preparation that avid playgoers indulge in. Perhaps that sort of interest and focus exceeds the modern gamer’s attention span. And yet, we do have examples of lore fans for something like WoW. Sure, it’s one thing to flash your Silmarillon or rattle off Aragorn’s lineage to establish Tolkien geek cred, but waxing philosophic about Malfurion Stormrage is another thing entirely. Some gamers do want to understand the worlds they play in, and certainly the devs have poured a considerable amount of effort into making them interesting and credible.
I believe that a world that has a credible backstory (recent history), a cohesive sense of logical rules for how the world behaves (“you can do magic here, but only if you’re not a Muggle”) and a real sense that it’s lived in (a well-plotted long-term history and a sense of progression from that history), as well as interesting characters, will naturally be a more wondrous place to visit than a ramshackle Potemkin village with a few shooter mechanics. This is especially true in RPG design. The trouble is that players may not always get to see all of this construction.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, since getting lost in a Grand Quest to save the Duchess’ Long Lost Twin Brother who has The Key to the one and only Book of Doom (previously owned by the Big Bad’s mentor, and claimed as a reward for another quest chain) that you need to read to learn the password to the Lair of the Evil Eye (and so on) can be a rather tedious affair. Even so, if devs are writing their stories with a clear understanding of this underlying structure, the slice that actually gets presented can make more sense.
Devs need not hit players over the head with exposition to make their world interesting. Some devs tuck story away in optional tomes found in the game world (Planescape Torment apparently had hundreds of pages’ worth of story tucked away for investigative players), some use cutscenes (that players inevitably want to skip), some just rely on smart writing to pick up enough of the world to be interesting. When the depth of the setting and characters are left for the player to tease out on their own, those who are interested will find it, and those who just want to get on with killing ten rats will be able to do so.
Greek Choruses, or game characters that serve a similar function, can be valuable to making a world work by teasing out some of those details from within the game. Auron is a sort of Greek Chorus for Final Fantasy X. He’s a grizzled warrior who has history with the main romantic pair’s fathers. He’s walked the road Yuna and Tidus find themselves on, and takes several opportunities to wax philosophical about “telling stories”, and how his story is important, but the characters (and players, by proxy), must tell their own story. It’s his memories that serve to flesh out the world of Spira, told as vignettes relevant to the task at hand. (It helps that the story of FFX is a fairly cyclical one, to be fair.)
Auron’s story makes the world more believable, and gives the tasks the heroes undertake more emotional weight. The cyclical nature of the Big Bad, and how Auron dealt with the previous cycle, bear witness to the terror and gravity of the situation, and give the player more reason to push through with the wild plan concocted by Yuna. Her line in the sand, her effort to stop the cycle, makes a lot more sense when you understand what’s really at stake. The story gains more credibility and plausibility when we understand not only the present danger of wolves chewing on our intrepid team, but why we’re bothering with the grand operatic quest to Save The World in the first place.
The Prinny Chorus of Disgaea DS is considerably more tongue-in-cheek, but that’s the nature of the game in the first place. It’s still a great addition to the game, not only adding to the player’s understanding of the nature of Prinnies (a key plot element), but also letting us understand the other characters a little better. It’s notable that it’s a wholly optional aspect of the game, added simply to make the game world and story more entertaining and interesting. It has no direct bearing on the story, no mechanical relevance, and yet, it makes the game better.
Not every game can benefit from a blatant Greek Chorus character or mechanic, but if world and story are important to the game, it’s worth experimenting, trying to find ways to clue in the player to some of the context of the story. They can also stand in as a player avatar of sorts, reacting how a player might when they are only given a mute protagonist or a predefined story to play through. They can be a way to lampshade some of the more notorious oddities in a game story, since humor can go a long way to making dumb things look planned or interesting. They can call attention to Chekov’s Guns or other MacGuffins (or even be MacGuffins). They can bridge the gap between dev intent and player experience.
Presentations can be more persuasive with a Greek Chorus in the wings, or they can at least give the sense that something Important is happening, that You Should Pay Attention To. It’s almost an appeal to authority, where the Greek Chorus is presented as an authority on the game world who can relate to the player, while the protagonists can get on with their own concerns within the story. That need not always mean they are reliable sources of information (in fact, tweaking the expectation that they are trustable can be a fun experiment), but they do help sell the story.
Image shamelessly swiped from this article at Fox News… yeah, they are a bit rabid at times, but that’s the best picture I could find of this particular case of a modern Greek Chorus… which honestly creeps me out a bit. Call it the dark potential of a Greek Chorus; they can and do manipulate the reaction of the audience. Any tool that has power can be misused, standard disclaimer, etc. …
Still, when we (as devs) are trying to present something that we consider important, sometimes it’s nice to have a chorus backing us up. A Greek Chorus, a character or group of characters standing between the player and the dev, is another tool in the box for crafting an interesting narrative and a plausible world to put it in. It’s not always going to be the best tool, but it can be a valuable one.