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.

Game Story Analysis - Part 2

This is part 2 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:

Binding of Isaac

Intro: Binding of Isaac is one of those experiences where you don’t really expect much of a narrative, and you’re never confronted with the narrative directly, but it’s hard not to understand the story on at least a basic level. You will always understand that your mother is trying to kill you, and that you’re running through basement tunnels, even if you don’t grasp the metaphors or the depth of the nuance. Because of this, I felt this was a great game to really dive into from a holistic perspective to see what it’s doing, how, and why.

Game: Binding of Isaac is a top-down dungeon crawler. Dungeon Crawlers are all about exploring a space. They attempt to simulate the experience of being an adventurer in a Tolkien-esque dungeon. They generally center around finding some form of artifact as you progress, and these artifacts usually change the way you approach the moment-to-moment gameplay. At their core, however, they are primarily simulating exploration. You move from room to room and are confronted with puzzles, obstacles, and enemies that provide you with a challenge to be overcome before you are allowed to continue deeper into the exploration. Dungeon Crawlers incentivize the player to explore the dungeon in order to find objects that make them better at exploring the dungeon.

The top down camera angle gives players an omniscient view of the world, letting them confront a space with full information about what’s present within that space. Some top-down games will add obscuring fog or black regions that prevent the player from seeing anything that the character couldn’t see in an attempt at making player knowledge represent character knowledge. The purpose of this camera angle is to allow players to react to threats from any direction. While a third-person camera simply simulates senses not otherwise presentable in a visual format, a top-down camera takes that to an extreme and presents the player with god-like omniscience for the space surrounding the character. This allows the player to respond to much more information than would be reasonable in a more character-centric view.

Story: The story of Binding of Isaac is a relatively simple one. A young boy is living under the iron fist of a fundamentalist christian mother who has begun to hear the voice of god telling her to do things. Unfortunately, this voice tells her to kill her own son, and she begins to comply. Isaac finds a hole in the floor and dives in. He crawls through the space under his home and eventually begins to hallucinate as he comes to terms with the situation he is going through. He sees himself crawling through a basement that leads into a dungeon that leads back into his mother’s womb and eventually to heaven or hell itself. What is literally happening to Isaac throughout the course of this game is a bit more open to interpretation. What we do know is that the game ends with Isaac’s mother reaching him, but a random act of God stops her just in time, which sort of implies that Isaac never actually leaves his room. Still, I’m not here to discuss the metaphorical narrative happening here, or my own theories of the specifics, I just want to look at what the game actually states. Isaac’s mother enters his room to kill him, Isaac hallucinates a whole series of events, and then his mother is stopped.

Ludo-Narrative: The ludo-narrative in this game is why I wanted to break it down. It is perhaps the most developed ludo-narrative I’ve ever seen in all of gaming. The environments of the game are all representative of literal or metaphorical spaces within which Isaac finds himself. The enemies in the game are all monstrous versions of Isaac or the things one would find in the dark corners of a room that is not properly taken care of. The artifacts you find lying around the dungeon are all items that one might find in a fundamentalist christian home, and the way they appear tells a story that is not otherwise presented to the player. Through the use of just the items, we understand that Isaac has had pets, but that these pets have all died. We understand that Isaac has a severe set of complexes in regards to his mother, and seems to wear her clothes and makeup as a way of feeling more powerful, which in turn tells us that he sees her as nearly all-powerful. The fact that mother, and her heart, are such prominent bosses tells us the awe with which Isaac sees his mother. The fact that the levels immediately after the fight with mother lead us into heaven or hell tells us that the only thing Isaac sees as more powerful than his mother are God and Satan. Many of the items we get are also symbols of abuse. Isaac tortures himself, in a number of ways, in order to increase the amount of tears he sheds, which then increases his power. His tears are his only weapon against his mother. Some of the torture devices in the game might be used by his mother (we see several sprites of things sticking out of Isaac’s head, implying that he was beaten with them), but others are clearly self-inflicted. Either way, though, the items all tell us a story about Isaac, his life up to this point, and his relationship with his mother. And all of that is done without a single line of dialogue or a cutscene. The only videos we get in this game are before it starts, and then after it ends.

Conclusion: So is this the best way to tell this story? Isaac sees his mother coming to kill him and immediately understands that he must protect himself. In response, his mind seems to dive into a fantasy realm of monsters that he must fight to become stronger. He explores a variety of different methods to see which would be more successful, the artifact-collection mechanic being the means through which these different possibilities are presented to us. This exploration is both a literal and figurative experience, as Isaac tries to hide in ever-deeper parts of his house and his mind, and the dungeon crawling is a perfect metaphor for this process. The story can be told almost entirely without words in this game. While we DO resort to cutscenes in the beginning and the end of the game, I feel like this is a matter of expediency rather than inability of the game to convey these moments. There’s no reason we couldn’t show Isaac’s Mother hearing god’s voice in the game, or perhaps as part of the menu, however the designers choose to present that moment in video form. This acts much as the text scroll at the beginning of Star Wars, dumping information at us in order to setup the full experience that begins shortly after. Then another bit of story at the end acts as a narrative reward for good play, and gives us a moment to bask in our success before we start another simulation from the beginning. Overall, I would say that yes, this game is perfectly geared towards telling this story. The fact that the entire narrative can be conveyed through gameplay means this is a truly strong game narrative.

Final Fantasy X

Intro: I’m choosing Final Fantasy X because I happen to be playing through it, but this could easily be replaced by any number of other RPG games. FFX simply happens to be one particularly good example among many.

Game: The game of FFX is that of an RPG. An RPG can be defined as a turn-based game centering around character progression. This style of game was created to simulate a game of Dungeons & Dragons, which in turn was created to simulate a fantasy adventure as can be found in any number of novels, but particularly Lord of the Rings. Regardless of what the original intention of this genre of game, let’s take a look at its mechanics to understand what it can and cannot simulate.

Character progression is relatively simple. Progression throughout a game simulates the increase in skill a person develops over a lifetime. Using the RPG system of doing a task in order to level up can handily simulate any progression of skill. Indeed, this system has been used in non-RPG games for years as a way to give players a goal to strive for, both on their own and with friends in social environments. This system is also what’s used when companies “Gamify” non-game tasks, such as working out. This is a great system for simulating progression in its many forms.

The turn-based aspect of this game is handy for allowing the simulation of more than one character at a time. Controlling a team of 3 in active combat is very difficult, so Final Fantasy simply makes the experience controllable through stopping time as each person gets to take an action. This turn-based mechanic effectively simulates the time taken to make a decision in the heat of battle, allowing those without combat training to engage via strategy instead of reflex. The important part, narratively, is that turn-based games simulate a distillation of time as each character has a moment to think through their next action. The menu options presented to the player effectively represent the brain firing synapses. If desired, this interaction could be enhanced by representing the character’s emotional and mental state via UI design. This is already done in the form of particular types of options being removed as status effects are applied.

Story: The story of FFX follows Tidus, our protagonist, as he is thrown through time and comes to meet a group of people adventuring with a Summoner, Yuna, as she learns to control Aeons with the goal of defeating a giant monster known as Sin. Their quest takes them along a series of temples, each of which grant the Summoner a new Aeon they may use in battle. As they progress, we see how Sin has affected the world around them. We see a society clinging to life as best as it can, and an entire religion grown up around the idea of battling Sin. We see the reality of that religion, and how it has changed the lives of those who worship it, as well as those who don’t. We see the relationships our group of heroes build among themselves, and those around them, and how those relationships change the world as well.

As we play through this game we come to find out that all of society is built upon a lie. Sin is an Aeon corrupted by Yu Yevon. Yevon is not the god of this world, but a man who learned to become immortal by forcing his spirit into an Aeon. Aeons are just the souls of the dead trapped in this world, trying to help. The enemies you’ve been fighting are just those same souls lost to anger. This entire series of lies was perpetrated by some of the dead who clung to this world and tried to control it.

Overall, this game is about control. It’s about those who seek to control the world at all costs, those who give up control to help others, and those who refuse to give up control at the expense of others. The story follows Tidus, a living dream created by the spirits of the dead in much the same way as Aeons are created. We see through his journey that the world has been lost to those who will not give in to their own fates, even as it is saved by those who have.

Ludo-Narrative: Final Fantasy X tells its story primarily through cutscenes and scripted events. Control is constantly removed from the player so that a sequence of specific events can play out as they watch. There are, however, moments during the gameplay that conveys the story. Early in the game Sin Spawn are raining from the sky and you are forced into a series of fights, enemies being replaced as you kill them, emulating the rain of monsters. This type of fight is repeated a couple of times throughout the rest of the game as well.

The only other way that the game tries to convey its story through gameplay is with the inclusion of scenario-specific actions in the combat. In certain fights we get a “Talk” command or some other specific command that lets us interact with the environment. This is a good idea, but is never really used as a necessary part of the narrative.

Conclusion: So we have a story that speaks of control and sacrifice. About the people who willingly give themselves to help others, and about the people who refuse to give up control no matter how much it costs the people around them. Logically, you would want to represent this control and loss in your gameplay mechanics. Final Fantasy X does not. FFX’s game design is about progression. You and your party adventure forth into the world in order to get better at adventuring. You fight endless hordes of monsters in the process, collect loot, etc. The problem is that the story isn’t catered to this game design. Over and over again the game resorts to telling its story through cutscenes because there’s simply no way to convey the right information with the standard Final Fantasy formula. The story is about control, but the game never lets go of its control. The game is, ironically, committing the same mistakes that it condemns its own character, Maester Seymour, for committing. The game refuses to relinquish its own ideas of how the world should work in the face of the reality of its own systems.

But the question we need to ask is: CAN this game design tell this story? Turn-based RPGs are about progression over time, the whole system is designed around simulating a Tolkien adventure. Given this reality, could the story of Tidus and Yuna be told through this gameplay, even in an ideal situation?

I believe it could. Yuna’s quest for aeons is a perfect throughline that could tie this whole experience together. You would adventure together to find these Aeons as part of the progression mechanic. However, we would also need a new facet of the system that would allow the player to give up control in some way. Tidus’s story is all about realizing that you aren’t needed for the world to live and thrive. It’s about accepting death. About accepting that everyone has a time that they must allow themselves to be removed from the situation. Perhaps battles could be set to auto, and this relinquishment of control would be the ultimate solution to some of the bosses. Perhaps there could be times where you choose to remove a character from the battle in exchange for a powerful buff in their place. The Aeons could be acknowledged as the spirits of the dead, and the player be asked to let them help at times. The character arcs would also then be changed so that different character personalities approach this situation in different ways. Wakka may not like letting go of control, so it might take a while to unlock his ability to do so. I’ve not devoted the time to figuring out what mechanical systems would best convey this story, that isn’t really the point of my writing this article. The point here is that the current gameplay mechanics do not reflect the narrative. There is a complete ludo-narrative dissonance present in that the story’s theme runs entirely counter to the options the gameplay provides. But this ludo-narrative dissonance comes less from the inability of the gameplay to simulate this type of story, and much more from the inexperience of the industry as a whole. I simply don’t believe it was possible to have seen all of this as a games designer in the late 90s, early 2000s.

The RPG genre is one of the most versatile game genres around, capable of telling just about any story you could want to tell. So long as your story centers around some kind of progression, RPG systems will echo that perfectly. So long as your story features multiple characters, a turn-based game will give players the time they need to understand any metaphor you need to represent for the story. The UI can be altered to represent any mental conflict your character may be experiencing, and dialogue can be added over the top of even the most intense combat, if needed. Honestly, I believe that the only reason we’ve seen such a diminishment of the genre’s popularity stems from the fact that we haven’t yet learned to take advantage of these capabilities. Most of our RPG stories don’t think to use their RPG systems to help convey their story, they just use the mechanics they’ve seen in Final Fantasy and other popular JRPGs, and immitate those without further thought. Once the industry has pulled away from the genre for enough time, I believe we’ll come back to it with a vengeance.