Bastion and Narrative Voice

If you’ve been into The Writing Center here at MSU, you’ll hear us talk an awful lot about “voice.” How do you create a unique voice? How do you maintain it? Why in the world does it matter?

The short answer is that the voice you use changes the way you connect with your audience.

Sometimes it’s something as simple as the difference between saying, “I saw some kinda eagle the other day” to your friends, or, “I suddenly spotted a majestic winged creature approximately forty-eight hours ago,” in a paper to a writing instructor you’re trying to impress with your eloquence (this usually doesn’t actually work, for the record). In a newspaper, it shows up as “A red-tailed hawk was observed Monday afternoon.”

All say the same things, but differently, and to different people. They sound different, because those lines have the same information with different goals. The first is about starting conversation, the second about sounding cool, the third about impartially relaying information.

The point? The voice you use in writing has to correspond with the purpose you’re trying to achieve. Perhaps the best recent example of this is a game called Bastion.

Bastion uses a (now famous) narrative voice to set the entire tone of the game. This also has a great deal to do with the discussion of digital video (particularly the combination of text, audio and video) we had while talking about Skrillex Quest some time ago.

The best way to illustrate the sheer impact of narrative voice is to show some of the game’s imagery first.

The goal in this screen is to take your guy in the middle and break all the stuff around you with your big sledgehammer.

So, lush, vibrant worlds full of color and things to explore, right? What do you think this game sounds like?

You may be surprised.

Oh, what? So this is actually a game with a dark theme about rebuilding a ruined world? Is that what you thought when you were looking at palm trees, or did you think this was going to be a happy game?

Still think it sounds happy? Does that narrator sound happy?

The tone of the images you see changes drastically when you hear the announcer’s voice  and the music, which is why we talk about how important sound is in video (see again: Skrillex Quest).

“But so what,” you ask? “That narrator guy was really cool and all, but I can’t voiceover my paper.”

Well, that’s true. But what can you use from that? Listen to not just the way that narrator speaks, but the way he says things.

Take the very first line of that trailer. “The dead… they ain’t gotta worry ’bout this mess. Our world… she’s done.”

Here’s that exact same line, without any of the stuff that makes it interesting: “Many people died because the world has been destroyed.”

This is the difference between good storytelling and boring exposition. What kind of guy do you think that narrator is? You can think of him as a character? An old guy, weathered and weary from a lifetime of travels, maybe telling you a story at a campfire or something. Maybe you think of him differently than I do, but you can still get a sense of the kind of guy he is just from the way he talks to you.

And who is he talking to? Yes, he’s talking to you watching the video, obviously, but who else? What is his purpose for taking this voice? Is this the way this guy would present information to the police or his parents (theoretically)?

Probably not. But it does change the way you experience a scene like this:

These same questions apply to your writing. When you present your information, are you using language that gives your writing — or you, its writer — character? Is it interesting to you? Does it sound like you’re the one writing it? Who are you talking to with it?

Depending on what you’re writing, you may not want too much character in your writing. Fields like journalism and the sciences tend to prefer more facts and less personality in their writing.

But if you’re working on some creative writing work, or something in the range between WRA 100-200, it is critically important to have a handle on what your “voice” is doing.

Of course, if you’re not sure, I think I know of a place that employs over 80 writing consultants, any one of which can help you figure that out. And yes, I am among them, so come in and let’s talk it out.

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