Thursday, October 10, 2019

Area-Focused Narrative

In my last article, I described the three act structure in video games by tearing out the linearity of the classic structure and including another dimension to it, reflecting the players’ ability to choose and approach game moments in any way they like. 

In this article I’m going to look at each “Act” and how that pizza chart format can be used to chart the individual elements within, allowing greater flexibility to design regardless of your overall structure. 

When we look at a Metroidvania title, we see an open world to progress through and at various points in our linear progression we see abilities that allow us to move through the world in a new way, giving us access to more of the map. 

A Zelda title is much the same, except that we are given access to most of the world from the start, and what we unlock is the ability to go into specific spaces called “dungeons” that offer a more curated experience. 

Holistically, Metroid and Zelda pacing structures are the same, you have an open possibility space that you explore until you are blocked, and then you search for a new ability to unblock yourself. The story in these games uses each dungeon as a narrative note, and the time before and after that dungeon act as the lead up to and the transition between those beats, preparing or expanding on story moments with NPC comments, environmental changes, etc. Each game will use the open space differently, so let’s look at an example:

This is Link’s Awakening. Each dungeon is housed in an area that you gain access to by completing subsequent dungeons. As you explore, you unlock more and more of the world, and find more dungeons. What we also see in this chart is a demonstration of pacing, in that the area associated with Dungeon 1 is just the starting village and a small area south of that. Dungeon 2 expands that slightly, but mostly reinforces our knowledge of the same space we learned in the first section. Dungeon 3, however, is a huge expansion, giving us access to roughly half the remaining map. Dungeons 4 and 5 have us exploring that massive open space, and increasing its size even more. Dungeons 6, 7, and 8 all isolate us into much smaller areas of the game, acknowledging that by now we’ve explored and are ready to spend more time in the now-much-longer dungeon areas. What happens in these open world spaces varies from dungeon to dungeon, most of the earlier ones simply let you explore spaces and talk to the people who live there, while later dungeons tend to have you go to a specific place to reveal some hidden treasure that had been under your nose all along. 

So to map an example of this onto that pizza chart I mentioned last time, here’s the lead up into the first dungeon:

Link’s Awakening is a very linear game as a whole, so there’s not a lot of open exploration in its collectibles (though it does offer quite a number of side objectives you can do in any order, and plenty of time/incentive to explore). However, imagine if you could get the sword at any time in this sequence. Imagine also, if the Toadstool, Magic Powder, and Tarin quests were all unrelated to each other and you could tackle them in any order; or if the Key could be obtained at any time after you had done those prerequisite tasks. This entire area before Dungeon 1 is a miniature open world game, a microcosm of the game as a whole. In this case that microcosm is as linear as the game as a whole, but we see a loosening of the reins in more modern titles. Breath of the Wild was a great crystallization of this concept, even if its dungeons weren’t quite as narratively developed as those in Link’s Awakening.

This structure exists well outside the Zelda formula as well. In Super Metroid, Norfair acts as a specific story moment in its entirety. The world around you has become dangerous and full of fire and that conveys a strong sense of tone. The Ghost Ship acts as a strong, linear experience almost like a Zelda dungeon. Maridia is full of water and walls that must be blasted open, which provides us with a particular feeling as we explore, and is home to the first Metroids we see in this game. While Super Metroid is light on story, you get a solid feeling for each area, because the tone is presented as you play, and the narrative information you need to know is simply present in the world you explore, or forced in front of you in the form of a boss. If you wanted, you could even include more specific ‘dungeon’ sequences in a Metroidvania game, highlighting more specific narrative moments with a space catered to telling that story.

Now that we’ve discussed some examples, let’s break down what defines this structure. 

I’d say the core is an “overworld” with a general theme. In my previous article I defined this as an Act, but here I’ve broken that down into just a story beat. Either approach is valid, and you can easily chart both, having a structure laid out for the entire Act One, and then having a sub chart within that to define the story surrounding the first few dungeons that happen during that act. As an example, let’s say you’re making a fantasy game, and everything that happens in the first hour of the game is about the Evil Lord Sorkk’naal, King of All Orcs, planning an invasion of the nearby kingdom. The kingdom you start in, and any spaces you travel through around that kingdom, will all be talking about that invasion, it’s the most important thing happening right now. Even if you leave the kingdom where this is happening, all quests ideally reinforce the theme of the orc invasion, or give us a new perspective on it. If we know the physical space we have access to, we’re able to control where and how the story is told. This could also include something like a hub world. Mario 64 isolates its levels from the overworld, but there are characters throughout the hub world who convey information as you progress, and the castle subtly changes as you come to open new doors and find new spaces. I use the example of Mario 64 here, because even non-narrative games can adapt this structure to keep the world feeling coherent even if a full story isn’t really the point. 

After you define the overworld, now define the linear “dungeons” that expand on specific concepts. These “dungeons” could be literal areas that you explore that are specifically about a particular idea, or they could just be quests that you go on which help to expand this aspect of the story. Control gives us a quest that leads us to a specific area for a specific purpose and as we approach that area we get a reinforcement of the area’s events, be that sentient mold or piles of clocks. You are always given the quest when you’re somewhere else, giving you motivation to explore for a while before you go to the linear sequence. By the time you reach the linear quest moment, you’ve been prepared, and you’re ready for linear curation. Control has a few discrete “dungeons” throughout the game, where you’ll go down a particular hallway and reality will bend and leave you in an isolated space full of puzzles or battles, but most of its story happens in spaces that start off as linear sequences and eventually just become spaces you travel through in metroidvania fashion. The concept of “dungeons” is less about an isolated space away from the regular gameplay, and more about the linear, curated sequence that’s paced very specifically. 

No, really. Control does SUCH an amazing job of this. Go play it if you haven’t.

Ok, you say, that’s all great and everything, but how do I use this structure in a production? Well, I’m glad you asked. Start by breaking your story into chunks. Most people will have an Act One, Act Two, Act Three, and that’s a solid place to start. Have a specific narrative purpose to each of those. Act One: “The orc army is attacking”. Act Two “The army has attacked and now we must fight back”. Act Three: “We’ve won, but at what cost”. Once those over-arching elements are defined, carry them down into the smaller elements within them. Any quest in Act One should be all about the impending attack. Maybe you scout for information, maybe you sabotage them, maybe you convert some of their troops to your side or negotiate for peace. Whatever happens within a story sequence should mirror the overall theme of that sequence. When it’s time to move onto the next Act, discard the quests from Act One. Do this by making it obvious that you can’t go back, once the orc army has attacked, there’s no point in scouting anymore, right? But you can have quests that span multiple acts, Mrs Poppowitz’s pet cat needs to be saved, and it doesn’t matter if the orcs have attacked or not, the poor thing is still just going to be stuck up in that tree. These sorts of quests don’t need to relate to the specific themes of an act, but should certainly expand the story as a whole or serve some functional purpose (fun is a valid purpose, btw). As long as most of what a player experiences in the game pushes the story forward, having a sprinkle of world-building quests available will rarely be a bad thing for your players.

So the key takeaways:

  • Define the ‘overworld’ where your story beat is happening.
  • Fill that ‘overworld’ with things that move its specific story forward.
  • Use neighboring spaces as transitions from beat to beat.
  • Break up the ‘overworld’ with specific, curated ‘dungeon’ sequences.

And that’s that! Hopefully this has in some way illuminated a dark corner of your mind. If not, I apologize and will try to do better next time. Until then, thanks for reading!

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Nonlinear Story Structure in Games

To interact is to have choices, but so much of our storytelling in games prevents choice. How do we tell the story of Joel, zombie survivor, without robbing players of their agency? Yet if they can choose to do anything at any time, how can we expect them to experience someone else’s story and not just create a new one of your own? Should we just let all games be story-generators like Minecraft? These questions have inspired several years of research on my part, and in this article I’m going to be discussing a narrative structure I have observed that helps to get closer to the answer.

In this article I’m going to take a look at conventional wisdom accepted in other media, and adapt that knowledge to games. I’m going to use examples from a few different games, and I’m going to invent a quick story to use as an example of my observed structure.

Part 1. What Is Choice? 

Choice is basically this diagram. You start off at A, and you can then move to B, C, or D. This is the foundation of Choose Your Own Adventure stories, and most interactive narrative. You can use this structure with any number of choices, so long as it’s greater than one. The result of this choice can then become the start of a new choice, on and on into forever. This is called Branching Narrative.

One of the common structures we see in interactive fiction is the ‘diamond’. It’s when two branches split and then come back together. This is usually a structure that we see when a choice has no real consequence. So you start at A and then you choose B, C, or D, but no matter which choice you’ve made you always end up back at E.

Generally, this structure is frustrating for players. It’s the illusion of choice, but it’s something that’s far easier to manage in a production setting, so it’s kind of where we end up much of the time, simply due to ease of production.

Part 2. The Three Act Structure

With those structures in mind, I want to go off on a tangent and discuss the idea of the 3 Act Structure. I’ll offer a link here for anyone unfamiliar. Each act in the 3 act structure serves a specific purpose. Act 1 sets everything up, Act 2 develops everything, Act 3 resolves everything. Within each of those acts are a number of events. Those events will convey what happens in the story. Some stories will present their events in reverse, while others may change the layout of the acts. Some stories simply don’t adhere to the 3 Act Structure and instead follow the Shakespearean default of the 5 Act Structure, which you can read about here. For the purposes of this article, all approaches are equally valid, so long as each act contains a sequence of information-rich events.

Here is a visual example of the 3 Act Structure. Pretty standard stuff, aside from some of my labelling, which I’ll get in to later. The takeaway here is that the story has a beginning, middle, and end and within each of those are a series of events. Now, keep all that in mind as I go off on one more tangent. Bear with me.

Part 3. Campfires In The Dark

A few years ago I heard this concept at a GDC talk (which I would link, but I can’t find it. If you know it, please link me) which referred to storytelling in games as campfires in the night. The concept is that your game is a dark forest. Everything is black and murky and you can’t tell where a player will be at any given time, but you’ve specifically lit a number of campfires to help you see. Because you know where those campfires are, you can interact with them and reasonably expect people to see whatever you do there, as they are attracted to the light. In other words, while you can’t know where a player will be at a given time, you can create cities out in the wastes, quest giving NPCs, environmental story moments, or any number of other elements. Knowing that these elements exist, and will attract the attention of the player, you can use them as framework to build your story. If you would like, I was able to find an article that summarizes the concept, which you can read here.

Part 4. Tying It Together

An excellent example of this campfire narrative concept is Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. You start off on a plateau, but once you complete this beginning sequence, you’re given free reign of the world. Out in the world you find a series of memories located in various points of interest (‘campfires’), each of which gives you a new piece of the overarching story. Once you’ve visited all the ‘campfires’, you can visit the castle and begin an ending sequence that wraps up the rest of the game. In Breath of the Wild, you start off in a single, limited space before being given a series of choices. Once you’ve made those choices, you are funneled back into a single, limited space.

Hey wait, that’s that choice chart from the beginning of this sprawling diatribe of an article.

In Breath of the Wild, however, those middle choices aren’t multiple choice answers on a test, you can pick any or all of them. In fact, the game is setup with an expectation that you will do exactly that. By allowing you to choose all of these options, you no longer feel like your autonomy has been robbed from you when you are forced to choose E at the end. Instead, the “B, C, and D” choice becomes a free-form section where you can do whatever you like. This contrasts nicely with A and E, allowing those two sections to convey the linear story information, while B, C, and D give you non-linear pieces of the puzzle. Each of these sections now becomes its own unique part of the overall structure. A introduces the world, B,C, and D expand on that narrative, and E closes out the narrative. Wait a second, that’s that OTHER chart from earlier in the article, isn’t it?

A now becomes Act 1, then you pass through the first Gate to B, C, and D in Act 2. Then on to E, which is Act 3.

Part 5. Pizza Break

The introductory plateau of Breath of the Wild serves as the game’s first act, teaching you the mechanics and introducing the world and characters. Act 2 lets go of the reigns, allowing you to freely explore as you see fit. At any time you can choose to go to the Castle, which funnels you into a linear space that allows the game to control the intensity of your experience, and therefore ramp up into a climax.

All of this still basically follows the 3 Act Structure chart I’ve given above, but the addition of choice into Act 2 changes things. Given that all the individual ‘Events’ listed in the chart don’t really need to be in any kind of order, why not find a new way to represent this information?

I give you the ever-elegant narrative pizza diagram. You start off in a discretely linear area, open up into a world full of options, and then funnel back into a discretely linear area to wrap everything up. It works quite well!

But what happens if you need more than one Castle and more than one Plateau? What if your story isn’t just one big open space book-ended by linear spaces? Think about your average open world, usually there’s a back and forth in and out of linear spaces.

So here’s our graduated pizza chart. Each Larger circle represents an act, within which are various events (aka “campfires”). Each larger circle could have as many “campfires” as you like, and can be split into sub circles as you see fit (much as Act 2 is usually split in the 3 Act Structure chart). The campfires represent optional information. You can sit at these campfires, soak them in for a while, but you’re free to go at any time. Gates are non-optional. Gates are the critical information your story needs to make sense. Gates are also the critical events of your story, the events that change the world. Each act of a story asks a narrative question, and while campfires help you answer those questions, the gates change what’s being asked. Once you pass through a gate you can’t go back, just as you can no longer quest for an answer you already know.

Part 6. Let’s Write A Story

Here we’ll write up a quick concept and fill out this generic chart with specifics.

Let’s say we have a kingdom in peril because it’s just lost its prince to the evil dragon who lives nearby. A brave knight has to go off to rescue the fop of a prince. The story starts with the brave knight as she deals with family troubles. We setup the conflict between her and her parents, we show how desperately she wants to go off on an adventure and prove herself. Then she discovers that OH NO! The prince has been stolen away! This is her chance, she must go! As she’s on the road she discovers an army preparing to go to war against the dragon to save the prince, but they can’t figure out how to take down the beast! If only someone could find a way! So our hero goes off and talks to a bunch of people who each know a little about slaying dragons, and she hears rumors of a magic ring, but it’s held in the treasure trove of the very dragon we’re trying to slay! An army would never make it out alive if they approached, the only way to get the ring is for one brave soul to sneak in under cover of darkness! Our hero approaches the dragon horde, but she discovers something more than the ring. The prince is being held in perfect comfort, and the dragon is gentle beast who is trying to stabilize the kingdom by keeping the fop of a prince from rising to the throne! He’s not such a bad beasty after all! But oh no! The army is still massing at the base of the mountain, preparing to strike. The attack launches in just three days! There must be some way to prevent this, some way to defend against them without killing her own people in the process! Oh, what a quandary! In the end our hero must figure what sort of knight she wants to be and find a way out of this mess! She decides to talk to the army, but that will never work as it is now, so she first sneaks into camp and kidnaps the general of the army. She uses the chaos as her moment, gathering those who will listen to her story about a peaceful dragon who wants nothing more than happiness for the kingdom. The army fractures, half of their blood is up and they want a fight, the other half knows the prince is an idiot and is willing to take any excuse to find a new leader. Without leadership, the army dissolves into factions and splinters against itself. Too busy to coordinate an assault against a massive dragon, the army retreats for now, long enough to begin diplomatic relations between the king and the dragon properly. The day is saved.

So let’s take a look at that mapped to our Breath of the Wild pizza graph

The intro establishes our hero. We see a cutscene, or whatever, to establish who we are and what we’re doing. Then it’s off and into the city for a little free range gameplay.

During this section we want to establish rumors of a dragon nearby, that the prince is missing, how the kingdom is responding to all of this, and how all of this is affecting our family life. All of this information sets the tone, but none of it is actually essential. What IS essential knowledge, however, is the first dragon sighting and a confirmation that the prince has been stolen. So while the campfire events help sell the story, the first Gate sets the stakes. No going back from there.

Act 2 is all about the enemy. In the first half, the dragon is the enemy. All your optional quests are about how to slay a giant dragon and earn glory for your kingdom, or how to make it on your own in the wilds. At some point you’ll move towards the dragon’s lair, and it’s time to hear about the ring that kills dragons. You’ll try to claim the ring and end up claiming the knowledge that things are not what they seem. This new knowledge changes the very foundation of your being, and changes the answer to the “who is the enemy” question. You’re against your own army!

Now your quests become about seeing the world for what it really is. You learn about dragons, you find out that man is the true monster after all, etc. etc. etc. Also in Act 2 I put a quest about the state of the kingdom, because it’d probably be nice to get a general status update from back home at some point during all this, but that quest can be done regardless of what you’re doing in the rest of Act 2. Just a little bonus info if you want it, ya know? But at some point your exploration and your questioning must come to an end and you must hear the proclamation: The army attacks in 3 days. OH NO!

Act 3 is then about who we want to be as a hero. Do we want to fight our own people? How can we protect the dragon? Does our army have a weakness we can exploit? There has to be some way to talk to them. Then you get the brilliant idea to kidnap the general and use the confusion to speak to the army at large, without a unified front they’ll be weaker. And so you move from Act 3 into the resolution, which wraps up the game as a whole. Roll credits!

Obviously, this story is super loose and awful, but hopefully you can get the idea of how this structure works in a more linear game.

Part 7. ...And In Conclusion

This structure is loosely present in nearly every interactive game I’ve studied. I didn’t first see this in an open world adventure, like the one I describe in part 6, but rather in a roguelike. Games like Dead Cells and Spelunky will progress from a single space where you shop or upgrade skills, and then out into an open world section. That open world section will be home to new information about the story/world, but you’ll always then move into another linear section. This pattern of expand and contract is prevalent all throughout roguelikes, and while it won’t often be acts of a story, the larger circles on my chart map directly to the levels in these games. Building a story for these games would be relatively simple.

Even linear games can be charted to this graph, they just chart as a series of gates and sub gates one after another. The less linear a game, the more campfires you find floating in the act circles until you get to the Breath of the Wild example.

This whole thing just functions as an added dimension to the 3 Act Structure, making it very easy to adapt to any production. I’ve personally used this on a number of prototypes that have never actually seen the light of day (getting a team to ship something with no money is hard, yo), but my career is still in development, so hopefully you can apply it to your own work. I’d love to hear about it if you do.

And for now, that’s all I’ve got. Hopefully you found something useful here. If you disagree with any of my assertions, or think I’m a fool for not going far enough with some aspect of this whole thing, let me know in the comments.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Gameplay Ramps in Spiderman PS4

I’ve spent several years now, studying how storytelling works in games and how the story and the gameplay align when they’re done well. But what happens when a game delivers on every promise it makes and does so with a level of polish that is objectively excellent, yet still doesn’t align its story and gameplay? Spiderman PS4 has been one of the most fascinating games for me to play in quite a long time, and I wanted to take some time and discuss what makes it so interesting for me. I write this as a fan, but as a fan trying to understand the game on a deeper level such that future titles can learn. In this article, I want to break down the introductory sequence of Spiderman. I believe the entire game can be summed up simply by looking at the first half-hour where Insomniac Games sets up the story by having you take down an introductory villain, and in covering only the tutorial, I can do this without any major spoilers or ruining the game for anyone (though I WILL be mentioning some villains by name, I won’t be spoiling anything the trailers/promo art doesn’t already). So first off, what IS the tutorial sequence that I’m referring to? Well, it’s a battle against Wilson Fisk. Fisk is running a crime syndicate that Spiderman is finally going to take down after a long history of failing to do so. This nicely sets up a story that’s about trying to be a hero and how even our successes can cause hardships that we don’t realize immediately. It’s honestly quite a nice story, and the introduction is written excellently. However, just because it’s written excellently doesn’t mean that it works together with its gameplay, so let’s break these two things down. The game starts with a panning shot showing us Parker’s life in his room and the villains he’s already dealt with. This tell us roughly where we are in the life of Spiderman. We see his room and his gadgets and get a strong feel for the character, then the suit comes on and it’s out the window! Nice, minimal set up and right into the gameplay! Great! Then we get our hands on Spidey as he’s swinging through the city. We get this fantastic sequence where we get to learn how to swing while the story is told to us over a radio as we move towards a checkpoint. We learn about quest markers, about how the game will tell us story, and generally how the game will flow while travelling the streets. Then we get a cutscene about the cops fighting some thugs and are introduced to combat. We fight a small group of generic thugs in an open space with little obstruction, allowing us to understand combat in the same way that we’ve just learned movement through the swinging section. After that, it’s off to Fisk tower for the first actual mission. You walk into the lobby of Fisk tower and take out a bunch of guards, then another cutscene and you go into the elevator for a wall crawl up the building and into a vent. Out into a second lobby and to a balcony with more enemies. You make your way into a server room where you’ve got a timer on a screen counting down until the server wipes and you lose the evidence against Fisk that you’ve come here to find. Fisk comes on screen to taunt you, and then you’re fighting more guys in hotel lobbies until reinforcements arrive and it’s hero time as you walk through a firey room to help save survivors. You save them, crawl into another vent, then down and into another lobby, but this time with rocket launcher troops! Defeat them, walk down a hallway, fight some more enemies, and then it’s Fisk’s office and a final showdown. Fisk hides behind a glass wall and opens some turrets up to kill you. You dodge them, web them, then hurl them into Fisks’s glass wall. You fight Fisk until you deal enough damage and he grabs you and starts hurling you through walls. Then it’s part two of the fight, this time with minions! You fight Fisk for a while until he pins you down and punches you both through a hole in the floor. You fight a pitched battle through the air as you fall until you reach the lobby you started in, where you web him up and leave him for the cops to handle. There’s a cutscene where Fisk starts screaming and taunting Spidey, and then the tutorial is over and we’re back into the city but now with freedom to do as we please. All in all, this is an exciting and tense narrative introduction. It’s using a technique where you begin a story with an exciting series of events in order to hook your audience into engaging early on. It’s a solid narrative trick that honestly works as well in games as it does in film or books.  

Here is a chart where I loosely plot out the intensity of the various scenes within the game. As you might expect, it’s a pretty standard ramp up in excitement as the narrative becomes more and more complex through character action and interaction, most of which is conveyed through dialogue. But what happens when we leave off the narrative fluff? What is the GAME telling us? Well, let’s walk through the mechanics. We get a nice introduction to the game at the very beginning. I have nothing to say about the intro cutscenes or the first swinging section. Those work great to introduce us to the basics of the game and story! We get a very brief introduction to combat, first, fighting a small group of enemies as our first dip into fighting. After that combat intro, we walk into the Fisk Tower lobby and it’s our first mission, and our first full combat arena. We fight a set of basic enemies that gives us a nice test of our skill we’ve just learned outside, but this time we’re doing it in a more involved space. This is probably what we’re going to actually be seeing in the real game, while that fight outside was probably just a blank slate tutorial to get us used to the mechanics. Great! That’s exactly what we needed here, we’ve officially graduated from the basics and are being trusted to do more advanced things. Then control is taken away from us, we watch a short cutscene, and we’re placed in front of an empty elevator and told to walk up the walls, which requires that we hold a button and press forward. We reach the top, press triangle, and enter a set of vents. This is just us pressing forward again, this time without holding down a button. We exit the vents and go out into the lobby where it’s another combat arena, except… no, actually, there’s no except. It’s just another combat arena, equally as complex as the last. We once again fight a group of enemies, which lets us practice our combat a little more, and they toss in a tutorial pop-up that stops the fight to tell us about a new interaction. The focus bar gives us another layer of information to juggle, but this combat encounter isn’t particularly designed to show it off. We simply learn by the game pausing in the middle of combat until we read some text, and then we return to fighting another pile of the same baddies we’ve been fighting. We fight and then we get a pop up telling us to go to a vent. We go to the vent, press forward for a while, see an open grate where we learn we can web a baddie into a vent with us to subdue them, and then it’s more vent crawling via pressing forward. At the end of that we get a timed combat sequence, which does a fine job of acting as a final exam for our fighting skills, really. Control is taken away for a cutscene, and then…. Another fight? This time it’s a ramp down from the timed combat, as it’s just another wave of guys for us to beat up. We leave, zip upstairs and…. Yet another generic combat encounter. After that combat, we go upstairs, we walk around an empty corridor for a while and then press Square during a quick time event. Then we walk some more until a blip pops up to show us that there’s another vent. Which we enter and press forward for a while until we get to the end with no new mechanics covered. Once we leave that vent, we enter another lobby and this time there’s a new enemy: rocket launcher troops! We get a simple ramping combat scenario, 1 enemy, 2 enemies…. No wait, that’s 3 enemies, but one of them is behind us? So we go from 1 rocket enemy to 3 rocket enemies, one of which is hidden, so that’s a huge difficulty spike here. Then it’s another hallway with yet another generic enemy encounter. We get a tutorial about dodging off walls, but the space isn’t really catered to doing that more than maybe once or twice just to see how it works. Walk through this space and it’s outside into another lobby, but this time it’s shield enemies we’re introduced to! We get an open combat space to explore this fight, thankfully, and then it’s right onto Fisk’s office. At which point it’s immediate panic as a set of turrets pop out and try to destroy us. We have to dodge and use all of our abilities that we’ve learned to survive them and destroy Fisk’s glass wall. Then we fight Fisk himself. He tests our dodge skills, primarily, but in a much less intense way than the turrets just did. He’s basically just a long loop of dodging, spamming web shots, and then zipping over for a quick flurry of punches. If we hadn’t just been fighting so many generic enemies, this might be a test of our knowledge of general combat, but given we’ve already been tested on these exact mechanics so many times, I’m not really sure what the goal of this fight would be. That said, the second half of his fight, where you have to deal with a bunch of generic enemies AND a boss is sufficiently more difficult and interesting than previous combat encounters, and I’m not sure this second half would work without learning Fisk’s moves alone (I would argue that this means this fight needs to be redesigned, but that’s another conversation entirely). After this fight, you press a few more buttons in a timed sequence, and then Fisk tower is over. So here’s a chart of this ramp:
I kept all generic combat encounters at the same level, and I consider that the baseline for everything else in the game, so I’ve denoted that with a line across the graph at that mark. Above that line, Server Room 1, the lobby fight with a rocket launcher, and the first fight with Fisk represent particularly difficult moments in the gameplay, which also introduce at least one new mechanic, so I would consider them roughly equally difficult, which I denoted in the chart. The Triple rocket fight and the turret fight are moments of panic which introduce surprise mechanics that you can’t anticipate before being confronted with them. I denoted these two as the next mark up in intensity. Then the second half of Fisk’s fight, with minions included, marks the climax of this sequence, testing everything that’s come before in an overwhelming environment. Also note that I marked all Quick-Time Events on the same level as the original combat introduction. In this game QTEs are handled with long sequences of action held on screen while you’re asked to press a single button or move a cursor to a spot on the screen before pressing a button. These aren’t frantic moments where you must react with speed, at least no more so than basic combat in an open environment where enemies are highly visible, so I marked those two as being similar levels of intensity. The QTEs also do not vary significantly in their difficulty. At best, it could be notable that the Fisk QTE at the end is longer than others, but the interactive parts are highly spread out to give a very relaxed pacing for the player. The last observation I want to make note of, specifically, is the vent sequences. Walking is about the simplest interaction in any game, so I set those at the bottom of the chart. However, we can’t just include these without noting that you’ve gotta travel in space. There’s simply no way to create a game where you don’t have dead space between important locations. With that said, I acknowledge that these moments are breaths between more significant events, as is present in the written story. However, I want to draw your attention to the fact that there are multiple moments in the story where things ramp down in intensity so the viewer can take a breath and digest what they’ve just seen. Lobby Fight 1 is an intense story moment, followed by an elevator sequence that ramps down a little bit before building again as voices convey story to us. But in the narrative, there is always something new to focus on. We take breaths, but the story keeps building. The game mechanic equivalent of these breaths would be to introduce us to semi-passive mechanics. We could get little tips about how to recover from damage, or be given obstacles that let us explore movement in a space. With all that said, let’s compare those two charts:

Now. My charts are pretty subjective. I chose the story ramp marks somewhat arbitrarily in relation to each other, but I did precisely the same thing with the game mechanic marks. The server room scene, narratively, is a big first reveal of our enemy and a moment we’ve built into by explaining the situation and increasing the intensity with visuals, sound, etc. It resolves with us learning that Fisk is going to escape if we don’t get to him soon, which is slightly less exciting than the moments before, but is still pretty objectively more exciting than any moment before that mini climax it follows. The story continuously builds in that same way, and it never dials back down at any point. The game design, however, is not as well ramped. We repeatedly revisit the same combat scenarios that we’ve seen before, or moments where we aren’t required to do anything except hold a joystick or press a single button. My chart is, admittedly, imperfect. I’d rather not try to decide an objective distance for how much more intense a given moment may be, and I’ve opted for matching the narrative markers instead. That is to say that Fisk Fight 2 is quite a lot higher on the graph than the turrets in Fisk Office, but the vertical distance is less important than the fact that one is higher than the other. I’d rather not quibble about HOW much more intense a given scene may be, I’m more concerned with a somewhat-objective statement that one is more intense than another. So, looking at the chart here, we see quite a lot of disconnect between the narrative intensity and the game design intensity. The most egregious example of this disconnect is the final scene. Fisk and Spiderman are locked in a climactic battle as they fall through the ground and into various structural elements of the building as Fisk’s fists break through everything in an attempt to take out Spiderman. Meanwhile, the player is…. Just watching… This is the climactic scene, and we aren’t participating. Sure, the game designers throw us a bone and let us press a couple buttons, but it doesn’t really matter. We’re just watching. The story is at its absolute peak, while the gameplay has dropped to the simplest of all possible interactions. Ok, so let’s walk through this sequence one last time, but with thoughts in mind for how to approach editing it to keep the gameplay and story more aligned. The game starts you off with an introduction to the movement mechanics. After that you’re given a group of 6 or so enemies to practice combat against. That 6-or-so group immediately becomes the standard, and all future fights generally feature waves of 6-or-so with various environmental obstacles, and the weapons the enemies are holding, to differentiate. This is setting up the rest of the game, where this size of group is easy to toss on top a building, or spawn in any random street. Adding weapons to those groups helps ramp up intensity over the course of the entire game. However, this tutorial section doesn’t feature those things yet. 6 enemies is a manageable introductory fight, given the game mechanics here, but we introduce the standard fight in the very first combat. We don’t build up to this standard, we just jump right into it. Once there, you can’t really go back down, and you can’t ramp too much higher without out-pacing what’s available in the overworld. So we see this same group over and over again, and this repetition works in place of a tutorial. By repeatedly exposing players to the same enemies, we teach them to deal with those enemies. Once we establish this standard, we can build on top of it with expanded mechanics (such as shields or rockets). And this is exactly what we see in the game. Unfortunately, that’s not echoed in the narrative. The narrative builds slowly over time, with little moments of ramping down to help people digest what they’ve just learned. There’s never a narrative moment where we reset back to a standard set of stakes. The stakes are always rising. So why did this disconnect happen? Well, that’s fairly simple: We haven’t, as an industry, decided that we SHOULD be tracking this. In film, it’s a foregone conclusion that a story should ramp up over time, leading to a climax, and then ramping down quickly afterwards. We’ve even established smaller ramps up and down over the course of the main ramp. This is done because thousands of years of stories have told us that this is generally what people enjoy the most. Games have been used to teach for thousands of years, but they aren’t usually used to directly tell stories. Instead, we’ve got to figure all this out as we go right now, and not every studio agrees on the process for that just yet. But we can learn by looking at other media. The principles of good storytelling have been proven that “arcs” are incredibly important. You want your story to follow an arc, you want your character development to follow an arc, you want your intensity to follow an arc. We’ve got charts for days that break down exactly how this works in other storytelling mediums.

And while we’re all closely following those charts for our narrative as we write it and present it all visually, when it comes to mechanical storytelling we’re all just wandering blindly through the dark. There have, however, been some few examples of games that tell stories in a way that is universally agree upon to be quite stellar. The games, like Shadow of the Colossus, that everyone always talks about and brings up as being the best around. In those games, the narrative and mechanical ramps are 100% matched, and I believe that we can elevate all games by trying to match those arcs together. In Spiderman, we find an example of a game that is by all measures excellent, but which somewhat consistently gets the review of “Spiderman is at its best when you’re roaming the city”. This means that the story sequences don’t quite engage as well as the city segments, and my education in film techniques tells me that pacing is likely the reason why. What we show our players makes no difference. We can tell them that they’re fighting Wilson Fisk, but if the gameplay doesn’t represent that, it means nothing. If we show them an epic battle that they aren’t participating in, we can’t expect them to remain as engaged as when they ARE participating. Our goal, then, must be to consider our game mechanics in the same way as we consider our narrative. We must keep the gameplay as exciting as the story happening on screen at all costs. So how do we accomplish this? How do we marry player action with the actions happening on screen without having to rewrite everything or redesign the entire game? Well, let’s walk through the mechanics first, and then see what changes in the story.
Intro to combat: Nintendo has an established formula we can look to for introducing mechanics. You start off with introducing that mechanic in a safe space. So for our combat here, perhaps we only have one enemy in an isolated situation for us to first learn how to punch. Expansion to combat: The second combat would then follow with a slightly more complex variation on the last combat, so perhaps this time it’s a group fight. In order to keep a steady build at a sustainable rate, let’s make this 3 basic enemies. Twist to combat: Nintendo’s third mark on its mechanical ramp is to add in a twist. So let’s introduce more complicated terrain. While the first two fights would be in a simple environment, perhaps there’s a hidden enemy or three during this combat, or multiple waves of enemies. After you’ve finished a three-point ramp of mechanics, it’s time to reset. At this point, we take a breath and introduce simpler mechanics. We can teach players about vertical movement through the elevator sequence here, teaching them how to navigate in a new direction. Intro 2: Now that players are learned in how our combat works, this is the time to introduce the next level of difficulty: The standard combat. Here we give them a complex environment to battle in, with a standard assortment of entry-level enemies. Expansion 2: This time we’ve got an even more complicated combat scenario. Perhaps this is in the upper floors and there’s a gap in the middle that the player must learn to navigate around while being shot. Twist 2: This is right around the server room sequence, so the twist here could be the timed combat found there. We’ve officially mastered basic combat scenarios, if we can complete them under a set time limit! Whew! That was intense. Let’s rescue some civilians for a while. Here, we can learn how to recover health lost from the fire we keep running into, and how to dodge along walls and do some more advanced parkour. This could also be a good time to introduce stealth combat. Intro 3: Once we’ve learned these new techniques, it’s time to put them to the test! Let’s introduce rockets that the players must dodge and recover health from. Expansion 3: Let’s take that rocket enemy and put him into a standard combat encounter. OH! And what’s this shield enemy?! Twist 3: Ok, now there’s rocket launchers you can’t see, and several groups of enemies you must navigate between while being fired upon, some of which are holding shields! INSANITY! But we can handle it by now. A final denouement as we approach Fisk’s office. We got a basic introduction to combat, we learned that sometimes the space we fight in can be really complex and require us to travel it at high speeds, and then we learned that enemies can be given weapons, making them far more deadly, and that those weapons can both hurt us and interrupt our flow. With all that under our belt, it’s time for the boss. We enter Fisk’s office and he taunts us before unleashing deadly turrets on us. We must dodge the turret fire, and then throw them at Fisk to destroy them. Now it’s time for Fisk himself. Fisk acts like a regular enemy, except he hits super hard, and barely flinches when you punch him, putting the player much more on the defensive than they have been thus far. In order to keep excitement up above the previous sequence, Fisk should also continue summoning turrets throughout the fight, forcing the player to deal with those WHILE fighting Fisk (we’d want them to be simpler than they are in the game currently), making this second part of the fight an expansion on the previous section. The twist here comes when Fisk’s minions arrive and make us juggle between fighting regular enemies, turrets, AND a boss all at the same time. Combat ends when you use your webs to throw a turret at Fisk, knocking a hole in the floor, queueing a cinematic showing Fisk as he falls through the tower, where Spiderman swoops in and saves him by tying him up before he hits the lobby we started in, wrapping the whole sequence up nicely. And that’s that. We’ve got a slow ramp up in our combat that echoes the slow ramp up in the narrative. Obviously, this would require reworking the level design for this to work, but I think the only narrative change here would be that the first sequence would have to be a more stealthy entrance into Fisk Tower, because it’s a bit unrealistic to think that you’re gunna walk in the front door and be greeted by only a single guard. The last cutscene would also be a bit different, as we knock Fisk through the floor in this version, rather than fighting him all the way down (obviously this doesn’t have to be written in this way. The important part here is just that the player be the one to actually finish the fight with Fisk, rather than having it happen after control has been taken away, so that the narrative and mechanical ramps remain in sync). And, of course, there are any number of ways to approach all this. The specifics of what I’m suggesting here are really not at all important, and will have to bend to the enjoyment of playtesters, and the will of investors, IP holders, and various other forms of management, as they do in every large production. I won’t pretend to know, from the outside, what will and won’t work in the trenches. I only claim to know that as an objective observer, these are the solutions I would offer. The critique of the Fisk sequence also applies throughout the rest of the game. Several other boss fights are mechanically much simpler than the gameplay leading up to them. Several story sequences are almost painfully simple compared to the gameplay immediately before and after them. A number of entire missions, such as those when you play other characters, are simpler than even the first introduction to movement discussed here in this article. While the open world of Spiderman has a consistent ramp that works fantastically, the game design within the storytelling segments of the game are mechanically all over the place. Just as a great film will play all its various elements off of each other, a great game must do the same. Story and Gameplay are not opposing forces, they are one in the same. We must learn to use them together. It’s a complex task, not easily accomplished, but the pursuit of this will push us all forward. And as a last note, I would just like to thank anyone at Insomniac who might be reading this. Spiderman is an excellent game, the craftsmanship of which really shines through. Well done! And thanks for reading, all. Until next time.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Game Story Analysis - Part 3

This is part 3 of an article series in which I am analyzing story-based games. In this article series I want to break down a group of games that are known for their storytelling. I’m going to analyze their systems and define what those systems tell us, what sort of simulation we can run by looking solely at the systems available. Once I’ve defined the systems of the game, I’m going to look at the narrative of that game. I’m going to look at the specific events that happen to our characters and how those characters respond, and ultimately resolve the situation. Then I’m going to look at how the specific story moments are reinforced through the system. How do they use the gameplay systems to convey the events of the story, as it unfolds. Finally, I’m going to then take a look at whether the systemic story and the written story are equal partners, or if the written story could be told through other genres or systems.

For the sake of courtesy, I’m going to note now that there will be spoilers. I’ll do my best to avoid spoiling specific details, but some of these games can’t be adequately discussed without specifics.

So let's continue:

Nier: Automata

Intro: Nier: Automata came out as a surprisingly strong narrative title. It uses unconventional techniques to convey its narrative, and is one of the most study-worthy titles to have been released in recent years. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Game: The gameplay of Nier: Automata is a third person action title. Third person action is pretty much the same thing as a third person shooter, except it doesn’t strictly rely on shooting. In this case, its combat focuses on melee combat with swords. The third-person camera has the same purpose as was mentioned in Last of Us, allowing the player to simulate the senses a person would have at their disposal. Unlike Last of Us, however, Nier doesn’t use those systems for hiding, but rather for dealing with swarms of enemies all at once. The pulled-back camera gives the player a heightened ability to see those enemies, and deal with them effectively.

Nier: Automata is also an RPG game that uses typical RPG progression systems to simulate the experience of becoming more powerful over time. You find a variety of weapons scattered throughout the world, and you can increase the stats of those weapons at your own discretion at the cost of other items you find throughout the world. This creates the loop of growing more powerful for the sake of being better at growing more powerful. On top of this weapon progression system, your character will also level up, and you can customize your character with a large number of additional abilities that can be easily swapped out at any time.

One notable thing this game includes is a combat system that includes elements of Bullet Hell. A Bullet Hell system is one that floods a field with projectiles that the player must navigate at penalty of death or injury. These systems exist to force the player to learn to move themselves in very precise ways. Usually a bullet hell game will simplify player attack to simply be an emission of bullets directly in front of their player character (usually a space ship), such that they can focus on precise movement. These games overwhelm the player and then ask them to learn how to ignore extraneous information and focus only on what they must.

Story: The story of Nier: Automata is about a robot uprising happening on earth. Alien robots invaded the earth a long time in the past, forcing humanity to relocate to the moon in order to survive. Humanity has continued sending armies to the earth in an attempt to win back the planet. The story here is split into two distinct sections. The first section follows characters 2B and 9S as they are exploring reports about rogue robots acting strangely on the planet’s surface. They investigate these reports and come to find some giant robots that seem to be corrupting those around them, somehow. They meet two humanoid robots who appear to be the source of the corruption, and do battle against these. In the process of killing these, 9S is infected with a virus and is killed by 2B so that a backup version could be restored from his old data. This whole sequence is the first part of the game, and is presented as if it were a full three-act story structure complete from start to finish. You play this first part twice, once as 2B and once as 9S, before starting a third play-through that then starts part two. Part two follows 9S and a new character, A2. This section of the game deals in the aftermath of the logic virus in the first part of the game, unleashed by the humanoid robots you defeated earlier. This logic virus begins spread to all the other robots, and then eventually to the YoRHa androids as well, calling into question the difference between the two races of machine beings. 9S explores this virus to find its roots, and eventually finds the roots in the YoRHa service that he has been fighting for. It turns out that 2B was created as an assassination robot to kill 9S each time he discovers the truth, and A2 is revealed as an early copy of 2B. This realization, and the presence of the logic virus infecting his system, causes 9S to go insane and he and A2 do battle. Players are then given the ability to choose between two endings. Each of the endings gives a slightly different take on the possibilities present.

Ludo-Narrative: Alright, strap in, this section is gunna be DENSE. Let’s start at the end. I just mentioned that each of the endings gives a slightly different take on the possibilities present. That’s because each playthrough represents a new attempt by the androids to accomplish their mission. It’s directly stated by the game that each play through of the game is a new attempt by the respective androids to resolve this situation, and that this exact same series of events has played out countless times. 2A exists solely to murder 9S each time he discovers the truth. So each ending is, therefore, simply the end of a particular cycle. You can always reload because there’s always going to be another version of 9S succumbing to the same events, and there’s always going to be another 2A doing the same. Over and over again through time. One would assume that it would take some time between each of these events, due to the other robots interacting with the androids, but still. Time dilation as a metaphor is almost ubiquitous in games (I mean. How many day/night systems are there that cycle through over an hour or two?), so this isn’t too difficult to explain away as a mechanical concession. What’s interesting is that the true final ending actually resolves this situation. It allows you to literally fight the systems of the game that are replicating these events. You fight the credits as a metaphor for fighting the game itself, the game itself being the system that keeps loading in this new saves, these new instances of the same war over and over again. You fight that system and ultimately, with the help of other players, prevail against it. At that point you have the ability to wipe out your save game entirely, ending the vicious cycle of death and rebirth and allowing the earth to finally heal. And I grant you that the fact that you can always put the game back in and start over might defeat this metaphor slightly, but I’ll take a bit of uncanny valley here as a concession to otherwise continuing the game’s narrative metaphor running through every single other aspect of the game. Even with that questionably broken metaphor, that still means the entire process of playing the game, even from the moment of launching the application, is a part of the ludo-narrative built into this title. Quite the impressive feat!

Beyond the mind-games from above, the game still manages to use its ludo-narrative effectively on every other level as well. From the start our entire GUI, health bar included, is a chip installed into your android. At any time you may remove all of these chips in favor of others. The entire interface acts as the androids’ viewpoint, warping in time with their own perception. As 9S becomes corrupted, so does the player interface and control scheme. When 2B is injured, or even blinded, those changes are reflected in how she controls. There are several sequences where player control is altered for the sake of conveying a particular feeling the androids are experiencing. Some of the game design in these segments gets a little questionable, but the narrative effectiveness of them is pretty inarguable. The player has no choice but to feel the way the androids feel as they struggle to keep moving despite their own failing bodies. The game also includes a hacking interface that is unique to 9S, which allows player participation even in the sections of the game not directly related to the characters. These moments would have been conveyed by a cutscene in most games, a simple video showing the protagonist interfacing with a computer and expository dialogue being exchanged throughout. The hacking moments are almost entirely narrative, but they are presented in a way that maintains player control, never robbing player input for the sake of story. There ARE moments where players lose control, but they are always quite brief. The game strongly favors keeping the player in control, and overlaying their actions with verbal dialogue spoken as they play. Several of the ship flight sections are clearly designed simply to keep the player engaged while dialogue happens, but still this feels more engaging than simply watching a video every few minutes.

Conclusion: Nier Automata is one of those experiences that left me with strongly mixed feelings. I don’t understand the bullet hell mechanics at all. Mechanically bullet hell is about getting players to move in particular ways in order to deal with overwhelming information. If there had been a plague of tiny robots that the player needed to dodge in order to save the earth, I may have understood the bullet hell as a build up to that moment. As it is, it feels like an extraneous system. The combat isn’t particular geared towards it, and the game designers seemed to only include it because it was in the first game, never quite capitalizing on its functions in any significant way. The bosses where you are tasked with dodging bullets are, to me, among the best moments in the entire game. I really wished I could have seen more of this, but only if the entire experience had been tweaked to make it work. There were definitely times during the boss fights where you are being asked to play bullet hell while the game has just robbed you of your movement as part of the story, and these moments just feel bad. There are other moments where you’ll be fighting one enemy and another will unleash a stream of bullets you can’t possibly see coming. They designed the health so that each bullet is balanced for these sloppy interactions, but that just makes the whole bullet hell aspect feel unnecessary. And at no point does the bullet hell aspect get used by the narrative. Ship combat is used by the narrative, and including that into the base gameplay is a good idea, but it’s just never quite tied in with the rest.

On the one hand, the narrative is one of the most complex and interesting stories ever told in games, and it’s told in a way that could only ever have been done as a game. It’s a truly fascinating weave of narrative structure. On the other hand, the combat design is clunky and sloppily integrated. The enemies seem to be placed with barely any thought to how they will interact with each other, and the systems present in the combat feel the same.

It felt, to me, like this was probably a result of two different companies working on two different parts of the game. Hopefully we’ll get a third game in the series (or a spiritual successor) which will refine these systems into a shiny pearl, because I truly believe that there is something worthwhile in this combat! And any excuse I can give to see another game with such a complex narrative, I will give in a heartbeat.

Super Mario Brothers 3

Intro: Ok, ok, so I know I said I was looking at narrative-heavy games, but bear with me on this one. SMB3 famously begins with an opening curtain, much like one you would find at a stage play. Because of this, speculation arose about the entire game being a theatre production, which was later confirmed to be the intention by Miyamoto. So let’s dive into this game with that in mind.

Game: Mario is, obviously, a platformer. Platformers are simulating travel from one space into another. Metroidvanias will take this and make the experience non-linear, but for your average Mario title, you are simply moving from one space to another, overcoming obstacles along the way. Progression happens, in these games, through the inclusion of ever-more-complex movement being required.

Story: Mario is always the same cliche’d story. A dragon has stolen away the princess, and our hero must rescue her. Mario 3 is no different. Mario travels from castle to castle trying to find his princess, each time finding Toad in her place, directing him to the next furthest castle away from his starting point. Eventually Mario finds the proper castle, does battle with the dragon, Bowser, and rescues the princess.

Ludo-Narrative: The ludo-narrative in Mario is pretty nonexistent, right? None of the mechanics of a Mario game reflect the story, the story is simply a wrapper around the juicy center that is the gameplay. But Super Mario Bros 3 does something interesting, nonetheless. Every background in the game is presented as if it were crafted by hand and placed on a stage. Each stage then takes the 2D perspective and makes the player a member of the audience watching as Mario traverses the space. The 2D camera angle now becomes the relatively two-dimensional view one gets while sitting in front of a stage play. The backgrounds being made as if they were set dressing means that the whole game becomes a sort of moving panorama. Making Mario work as a stage play would be difficult, but it’s plausible to make a moving panorama that’s intricate enough to simulate at least a part of a Mario level. Luckily, due to the nature of a video game, this difficulty doesn’t translate and the game pulls it off effortlessly.

The rest of the gameplay systems of Mario don’t really reflect anything in particular, in terms of this stage play storytelling concept. Fire flowers and invincibility stars, various enemies, etc. all just exist as elements that are on the stage, not any specific metaphorical representation of any part of the story. They don’t take away from this design, however, which is the much more important part. They simply exist as props relevant to the play unfolding on stage.

Conclusion: So let’s take a look at these systems and this story and discuss what we can learn from this. The game’s camera, and that curtain animation at the start of the game, turn the entire thing into a stage play. The backgrounds all reinforce this idea, and nothing of the mechanics take away from this idea. The scrolling would be difficult to replicate in real life, but that’s ok, we all understand that this stage play experience COULD work.

For the Mario simulation, this gives us relatively minimal benefit. Either Bowser has partnered up with Mario once again to make a stage play (you know, instead of for kart racing or tennis or whatever), or this is a play about the story of Mario. Neither of those really means much in the overall lore of the Mushroom Kingdom. But what if this wasn’t about the Mushroom Kingdom? What if we took Shakespeare and turned it into a similar simulation? Could Romeo and Juliet be presented as a platformer as well? If we really look at the way a stage play is presented, the elements can all be easily visually presented in the same way as Mario 3, and especially easily with modern technology. The trick would mostly come from trying to emulate the story elements of Romeo and Juliet (or literally any other play) without it just being a bunch of people walking onto the stage and talking. But what if, instead, we looked at The Odyssey? A story that’s much more catered to story through action, but that’s still been made into a stage production many times. By putting a curtain in front of Mario 3, Nintendo showed us that a stage play can be a video game. They showed us that a stage narrative could be presented as a 2D platformer, and we can extrapolate that knowledge to teach us how to present many more types of narrative.

Mario 3 is a pretty simple example of this idea, of course, but it teaches us a lesson. Games can tell stories in ways that most games simply don’t. It’s not a limitation of the medium, but a limitation in our own minds. If we seek a better understanding of what it is that these simulations are simulating, we can use that knowledge to tell our stories. If we can tell our stories through better means, we can learn to express ourselves, as people, in a way that we’ve never done before. This, to me, is the ultimate goal of video games.

And that's all for this series.

Thanks for reading.