Monday, May 21, 2012

Using Narratives as Game and Play Mechanics

I typically hold to a 'stories are not games' and 'games are not stories' rhetoric, however there is a grey area in the discussion of narration and game design. Recently I was reading some blogs and articles about games and narratives. I was a bit disappointed because if we analyzed these current discussions, I think that we would find very little progress in the general knowledge concerning narratives in video games and what this means to the game’s design. The typical discourse ranges from narratives are essential to video games, video games are narratives, and video games don’t need narratives. The purpose of this post is to examine the narrative from a game design perspective. In this post I specifically focus on two types of narrative game and play mechanics.

For the most part narratives and games are treated as two separate entities in game design theory, which is not strange because both games and narratives are both trans-medial. Meaning that they can be experienced in various forms of media. For narratives this means: books, films, verbal storytelling, etc. And for games this means: physical activity, computers, board and card games, etc. Typically a game's narrative has no relationship to the game's play expect for attempting to give the overall game-play experience more depth. For example, if you were to skip through the narrative of these games the game could still be completed. Often these game-play experiences feel disjointed which is caused by the conflict between game and narrative. One such pitfall occurs when narrative takes away the control from the player, which is the essential aspect of all games (e.g. even if it is only rolling dice for a random result), especially when the narrative takes away interesting choices from the player. Furthermore, cut-scenes should be a moment for the narrative to elaborate on changes due to the player’s actions or build the context in which the game action is taking place. Lastly, I think that one of biggest pitfalls is when the narrative animation is more exciting than the game action...

Only if the player could find this kind of action in-game...

There are however examples of games where understanding the narrative is essential to finishing the game. Like the genre called "text adventures", which included games like Adventure and Zork. Similarly there are books that allow the reader to “choose your own adventure” like Fighting Fantasy. Currently video games like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Heavy Rain, and Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit) are examples of modern games that use narratives as game mechanics.

Zork is an old school text adventure game
When is a narrative a game and play mechanic? The primary way narrative can be used as a game mechanic is by creating critical choices through multiple choice, which can be used as a puzzle (e.g. riddles) or it can influence player properties (e.g. Mass Effect’s Rogue vs. Paragon).

The narrative game and play mechanic challenges the player's ability to comprehend the narrative. Unlike traditional narratives where the reader/viewer is never asked if he/she is able to follow the story line to continue. The play mechanics can be adjusted to make a narrative game mechanic more challenging by time pressure, providing goals (e.g. dilemmas, changing the narrative outcome), and frequency in which the player is confronted with narrative (e.g. critical choices) choices.

Making decisions in Mass Effect

The other kind of game mechanic that a narrative can be is a reward, and while this is not much of a surprise, narratives are most often used exactly for this reason (though i wonder how many designers or writers really understand it from this perspective). The play mechanic aspect of this game mechanic can be adjusted to offer the narrative in various forms of reward schedules (e.g. random, timed, paced, etc.) and provide a context for the ultimate game goal (e.g. finishing the game). In other words a narrative can be used exactly how other rewards are designed into a game. I believe the reward of a narrative is especially strong if it is able to provide the proper cliffhangers at each point it is introduced.

I am sure that there are more ways in which elements of a narrative can become game mechanics. My conclusion is that designers and writers could become more aware of this phenomenon and take advantage of how games and narrative are blended. Furthermore, I hope this can help solve the conflict between designers and writers who see video games as either narrative or game-play.