Framing device plot tumors

So there’s a pattern in fiction that I haven’t seen discussed or found a name for. It is, in short, when a framing device becomes a plot tumor.

There’s a specific kind of framing device I have in mind - more than the simple in medias res of, say, a tale told in flashback, this is when the frame story has an unusual premise which exists to enable and string together certain kinds of inner stories. For example, the Assassin’s Creed games (at least the first several - I fell off the franchise after Ezio and maybe this has changed since then) are technically near-future sci-fi where technology enables people to relive their ancestors' memories and secret societies use this to hunt down powerful artifacts from a precursor civilization. This allows each individual game to focus mainly on adventures taking place centuries in the past, connected by the common thread of the present-day hidden power struggle over the artifacts.

I think there’s a conflict with this sort of setup that is really hard to escape. There’s a very real sense in which the frame story only exists for the benefit of the inner stories - yet the stakes of the frame story are almost always going to be higher and more unusual than those of the inner stories. For the storyteller (and for some portion of the audience) this can cause the frame story to be more intriguing, which can easily create a trend where early installments have just enough frame story to carry the inner story and later installments spend more and more time and focus on the frame story.

I have one example I want to talk about which is not a game and which you probably haven’t heard of, so please bear with me and we’ll be back to famous game franchises shortly.

There’s a Canadian TV show called Being Erica. It’s about a young woman (Erica) who regrets many of her life choices who meets a mysterious “therapist” (Dr. Tom) who grants her the ability to return the moment of each regret and change her decision. At first, the way this setup is used is… well, I’m just going to quote the Wikipedia description of the show’s premise, because it sums it up really well:

Each time she faces a problem in the present, Dr. Tom sends her back to revisit a related regret. The situation is rarely as simple as it first appears: in nearly every case, the event she was seeking to avoid by acting differently still occurs, and she must instead seek out new information to uncover the event’s real meaning, which gives her new insight into how to handle her problem in the present. It quickly becomes apparent the therapy’s true purpose is not to let Erica erase her regrets, but to help her improve her future by learning from past mistakes and making different decisions in the present.

The first episodes each deal with one current problem and associated regret and carry a clear lesson or moral. They present no explanation for Dr. Tom’s nature or abilities, and the mechanics of the time travel are kept vague and ambiguous - which feels to me like the clearly correct storytelling choice, because those things don’t matter. The point of the show is the series of life lessons; Dr. Tom’s time travel therapy is just what enables those lessons.

But then things change. Later episodes spend less time with Erica revisiting her own past to learn life lessons. Two other things start getting more attention: one is the supporting cast of Erica’s coworkers and family, which started as a source of present-day challenges that triggered the need for the time travel lessons but increasingly just become a standard character-driven drama. The other is the mechanics of the time travel therapy setup. Dr. Tom’s nature and history come into focus along with other “therapists” and patients - but these turn out to be a very poor source of worldbuilding. They were only created to enable the stuff that actually mattered, and the closer you look at them the less sense they make, on top of distracting from what the show had originally been good at.

Presumably the show’s creators found these aspects of the frame story interesting, given the choice to spend more and more time on them, and I assume a significant chunk of the audience enjoyed them as well given that the show lasted four seasons and was never cancelled. To me, it felt like a really degenerate example of the “framing device plot tumor” pattern - a show with an interesting, well-executed hook essentially traded it for two half-hooks, one of which was not interesting and the other of which was not well-executed.

There are other franchises where the pattern makes more sense to follow, even if it frustrates me personally. One of those is Kingdom Hearts. (I told you we’d be back to famous game franchises before long!) The way I remember it, the first Kingdom Hearts was a lighthearted romp through a series of Disney worlds with a sprinkling of Final Fantasy and a narrative about “heartless” and darkness and light tying everything together. The original characters and story were simple and archetypal, which feels to me like the clearly correct storytelling choice, because those things don’t matter. The point of the game is the greatest-hits tour through Disney properties.

I also remember seeing the secret special cinematic you get if you 100% the game and which teases the sequel. As I recall, it features two mysterious figures in cloaks whose identity is unclear (but who are definitely Kingdom Hearts characters rather than Disney or Final Fantasy ones) having a cryptic conversation about darkness and light and so on (definitely Kingdom Hearts plot elements rather than Disney or Final Fantasy ones).

My friend who’d enjoyed the game as much as I had was excited by this teaser and eager to see where followups would go. I was not. I found it to be an off-putting warning that the franchise was going to be too in love with its own lore and OCs, which were not what I was there for. And that is 100% what happened - when I played Kingdom Hearts II, there was still a lot of Disney but the light/dark/heartless/nobody/Organization XIII story had grown in focus and complexity and all the following side games promised to spend even more time digging into increasingly deep non-Disney lore, so I didn’t bother with any of them. For me, the thing that I’d shown up for had been swallowed by the frame story that enabled it. But I have to acknowledge that this is pretty clearly a case of me just not being in the audience for later Kingdom Hearts games rather than them not having an audience. I can’t get into the Kingdom Hearts lore, but a lot of people can. It’s hard to argue that the franchise’s change in emphasis was a mistake, even if it became something I didn’t like.

What has me thinking about this pattern is that I’ve seen it again, this time with the To the Moon series.

The premise of To the Moon has commonalities with both Assassin’s Creed and Being Erica. It’s near-future sci-fi where technology can rewrite the memories of the dying, letting them die happy because they believe they’ve fulfilled their life’s greatest wish. This setup enables games where you play as technicians using the memory machine to learn about a client’s life and regrets in order to grant them a satisfying catharsis and resolution. The memory machine is essential in that without it the games' stories couldn’t happen at all, but the part of the story that matters is what that frame enables - the mysteries of each client’s life and their deeply human tales of friendship and love and yearning and failure and success. That’s the part that brought me to tears while playing and which rattled around my skull for days afterward and sometimes changed how I approached parts of my own life.

At least, that’s how it was for the first two major installments, To the Moon and Finding Paradise. And to me, that’s how it should have stayed. But an increasing amount of focus has been paid to the frame story - the details of the lives of the technicians and aspects of the memory technology - and to me, the third major installment Imposter Syndrome is where the balance has shifted too far and the frame has taken over.

You do still spend a lot of the game learning about a character’s life, their conflicting desires, their choices and their regrets. But while that was the heart of the game in TtM and FP, here it feels almost perfunctory. Here it’s a barely-interactive sequence with so little exploration that it could have just been a movie - all the parts of the game with exploration and interactivity are outside of this in the frame story. And learning about this person’s life is made even more of a slog by the fact that it doesn’t feed into the burning questions you have at this point - in previous games, the narrative focused your attention on mysteries about the client and in this one, well, I can’t be specific without spoilers but the main questions you are likely to have do not center on the person whose life you are witnessing.

In other words - in the previous games, everything that happened in the inner story or the frame story was part of advancing the inner story. In this one, everything that happens in the inner story or the frame story is part of advancing the frame story.

I think this is the biggest single reason that unlike the previous games, I found that Impostor Factory’s story didn’t coalesce into a clear focus. It never shocked me. It never brought me to tears. It rattles around my skull after playing it, but mostly because I’m trying to figure out why I didn’t like it as much as the previous ones. (And also because I’m trying to untangle some of the game’s side questions, but unlike previous games where the answers were details of the characters and their lives, here the answers are bits of frame story lore or are explicitly pure coincidence.)

It seems like Kan Gao may have intended Impostor Factory to be a sort of side entry in the series - hence him calling it “Episode X” instead of “Episode 3”. I’m hoping this is the case and the next game will be more similar to To the Moon and leave the spotlight on the inner story. If not, I might be done with this series.