It’s been a little while, everyone, but welcome back to another Story Analysis. Today we’ll take a look at a game I found after a Felicia Day recommendation somewhere on the Geek & Sundry network back when it came out: Evoland, a short-story game with some unconventional story-telling I think worthy of analysis.
Released in 2013, Evoland is a game with two layers of story-telling. The first layer is that of a ‘standard’ fantasy adventure game, but this is in fact only part of a second ‘main’ layer: The story of how fantasy adventure games have evolved over years of game development (hence the name).
Evoland from beginning to end…
In a somewhat meta approach, Evoland uses every aspect of the game to tell this evolutionary story, though it leans most heavily on a single game mechanic, which we will talk more about as this analysis goes on. Firstly though, I would like to write a bit about how to start a story, and how it makes Evoland such a unique story story experience, even in gaming.
Whatever medium is being used to tell it, the beginning of a story looks to achieve certain goals. It must set up the world in which the story takes place, set a standard for expectations when it comes to the tone and pacing of a story, and make some promises about what the story’s protagonist is setting out to achieve. How the story-teller manages these expectations, and the extent to which they stick to or break these promises will very often dictate the success of story-telling.
So, if story-telling is about making promises and then sticking to them, then regardless of which structure (three act, the hero’s journey or the dramatic arc as examples) a story is using, there must come a point where a story-teller stops making promises and starts executing them, and this is often the difference between the introduction and the rest of the story.
In serial mediums like books and television, there is often a cleaner cut between the introduction and everything else – one or a couple of episodes or chapters can be used to set up the world, introduce your characters and their goals and set the tone of a story. In films and, particularly, games, which are meant to be a more fluid story-telling experiences, the same line is often much more blurry, which makes making promises and setting expectations a particularly interesting challenge.
Evoland wastes no time at all setting up its premise, immediately introducing the player to the idea of unlocking evolutionary steps by discovering chests in the game world. It’s quick, it’s clean and it runs very smoothly into the rest of the game because the player can easily understand that it’s a repeatable step.
This works well to set the expectation that the game’s focus is indeed on this evolutionary story line, which also acts as a parody of the genre it’s exploring, and as an analyst, it would be easy to say that that’s job done for Shiro Games. However, the step-by-step process of unlocking different fantasy adventure elements also means including unlocking a plot, and that re-introduces some ambiguity into the story-telling.
Unlocking Evoland’s plot sets a very clear expectation about where the game’s focus lies…
Because of the way the game’s main mechanic works, this plot is built element by element and blurs the line between ‘introduction’ and ‘everything else’ far more. Additionally, even if each element is introduced as an example of how fantasy adventure games work, because they are all story-telling elements, each introduces a new promise or expectation.
The game has already established that its focus will be on the evolution of fantasy adventure games, so this begs the question: Should we be ignoring the promises and expectations being made and set by the plot? Should we regard them as unimportant because the game has told us that isn’t the point? Or, because the game is telling us that a plot is so important to this genre, should we expect these story threads to be tied up nicely by the end of the game too?
This is something we’ll revisit after we spend some time evaluating how the primary evolutionary story of Evoland actually works.
We know how a conventional fictional story is told. Characters are put into a world and given a role in a conflict. How they interact with the world, the conflict and each other tells us more about them and progresses the story to a point where the conflict reaches its climax, and in some structures we see how the protagonist begins to reconcile their experiences and their life after the conflict.
Though it could be told in a fictional way, and therefore conventionally, Evoland’s main story is neither, and in fact only works the way it does because it is being told in the medium of a game.
We start by unlocking basic controls, then graphic and audio evolutions, then story-telling and mechanical updates that then make more evolutions available to be unlocked later. Though some of this is managed simply by the player progressing, a lot of it is managed through the player finding chests throughout the game world, a game mechanic in and of itself. Over the course of the game, we then find all of the pieces that make up the fantasy adventure games that so many of us have come to recognise over the years.
And that’s it. While there are characters and they have dialogue, while there is conflict and combat, these are the result of this evolutionary story being driven forward as opposed to being tools to drive the story forward, as they usually are. The fact that the story is told without using any conventional story-telling techniques is what makes the game so interesting a story experience, and also goes some way to prove that non-fictional stories can be just as interesting as fictional ones, if you find the right way to tell them.
The Pitfalls of Unconventional Story-telling
It does have some downsides. While the player is subtly being told about all of the steps forward fantasy adventure games have made over the years, the characters are talking about different things, the player character’s agency is focused elsewhere and, even though the evolutionary story line is the main story line, it stays very much in the background of the game. Being told in such an unconventional manner, it can’t then wrap up conventionally, and instead just… kind of stops, without the player ever being told that they’ve reached the final stage of how the game will look and feel going forward.
This might be where the approach falls down, because, fictional or otherwise, if you are telling a story there is an expectation to give your story a satisfying ending. The story just ending with no feeling of resolution or catharsis is rarely seen as satisfying, particularly when it has been established that this is the story the game is choosing to focus on. Does that make it strange that this is the approach Evoland took to ending this story line? Is this approach better than ending the story line in a more traditional manner, which would have broken the promise the game made at the beginning of the game by throwing away the conventions of fiction all together? I can only answer these questions for myself, which would make this a review instead of an analysis, but it does bear thinking about if you play the game yourself, and moving forward in this article as we examine what it means for the end of the game.
Shifts In Focus
As the game evolves towards its final form, there is less to discover and unlock and the focus seems to naturally shift from its primary story line towards the fantasy adventure plot that the game uses to show part of the evolution of the genre.
This kind of focus shift comes with an inherent risk. That is, that not enough work has been done before the shift to make the audience care about the “secondary” story that takes the spotlight after the shift. In this case, the secondary story is definitely our hero’s adventure to quell the evil emanating from the in-game world’s Mana Tree before it can spread and destroy everything. There are some attempts to build an emotional connection with this story, mainly through our hero’s relationship with the secondary protagonist, who I named Kaeris.
This is where the story-telling ambiguity I mentioned earlier becomes potentially problematic. Because the game is using the plot as a tool to tell us about the evolution of the genre, it’s hard to know whether these early attempts to connect us to Kaeris and her conflict, which our hero decides to help her with because of his own moral compass (and because of a very clever design trick), are deliberately placed to connect us to this plot, or simply to tell us that this is what fantasy adventures are like to play, and as such it’s difficult to say whether Evoland effectively shifts the focus from one story to the other.
If it is deliberate, then the game’s story might come to contradict itself. Its early promises were that the focus would lie in the evolutionary storyline, and if the player understands that then they are also allowed to limit their emotional response to the plot because they understand it ultimately isn’t the point of the story-telling experience. Only if the player doesn’t catch the game’s point does the emotional response to our hero’s personal story mean something, but that also means the story the game’s designers wanted to tell hasn’t connected.
What if it is not deliberate? That must then lead us to believe that the attempts to elicit an emotional response by connecting the player to the characters and their goals is just another tool to teach us about the evolution of fantasy adventures. Ultimately, that means, the emotional response to the story itself is irrelevant, because the game wants to focus on the emotional response to the evolutionary storyline instead. As previously discussed though, that emotional response is hard to come by, as we’re lacking the conventional tools to emotionally connect us to that story because of the way it’s been told.
Either way, it runs a great risk of leaving the end of the game feeling rather flat, and whether or not you find it satisfying may well depend on your ability to take the game’s tagline – “A short story of adventure video games evolution” – at face-value. This isn’t an easy task when you consider we’ve been conditioned over the course of thousands of years to expect certain things when we hear the word story.
Conclusion: Coming Full Circle
Isn’t foreshadowing fun?
Setting expectations for a story is hard, and I don’t know whether Evoland does a good-enough job in that task to be an all-around hit. Going into this analysis, I knew the game made the creators’ vision very clear, but the more I’ve delved into it, the less sure I am that they stuck to their vision. I’m not even sure they could stick to it, otherwise they might not have had enough of a game to make viable sales on the modern market. That simply comes with the risk of breaking the number one rule of story-telling: Stick to your promises.
Regardless, Evoland is a great example of telling a story in a very different way, and through the course of writing this analysis has, for me, become a good exercise in story-telling as a craft rather than an art-form. It’s also a fantastic example to other video games of how far you can stretch game mechanics to work as stand-alone story-telling tools, something that of course makes games unique as a medium!
This isn’t meant to be a review, but to dispel any illusions, I will say I enjoyed playing it, and I loved that I finally finished the ending (which takes a platforming approach to gaming which I’ve always been bad at) in order to write this piece. I know Evoland II exists, and I’d be curious to see whether it takes the same premise but adds more scope and handles the execution any differently. I may well revisit the franchise some time in the future to do some more deconstruction.
In the meantime, here’s a teaser for the next Story Analysis!
It’s not going to follow straight away, as I have no idea what the scope of the game is, but I’ve got plenty to write about in the meantime, starting next week with a piece on genre as a story-telling tool in gaming.
See you then 🙂