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.

Game Story Analysis - Part 1

There is a duality in game narrative that I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around. On the one hand you have a discrete set of actions that are represented in a game as a linear sequence of events happening to a specific person. On the other hand you have the game design itself which is defining which actions that person may take based on its built-in rules and systems. Both of these areas tell a story, and both are equally important to modern games. But how does this work?

I’ve been thinking of this as a game of Senet. The ancient Egyptian game supposedly tells us the story of a person going through life until they die, and are reborn into another life. Each time the game is played, it simulates this experience, and individual actions made during the game represent the moments of the life of different people.

In modern gaming, we rely on discrete narrative laid over the top of this mechanical narrative. We use the rules of Senet to tell the specific story that, say, Ezio Auditore lived. We set up the game so that players will make certain moves at certain times that force them down the path Ezio took. Not literally, of course, but the idea is the same.

So then what is the advantage of telling the story of Ezio Auditore through the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed instead of through the game of Senet? By echoing the choices made by the protagonist, we more accurately simulate their life. If we wanted to tell Ezio’s story through a game of Senet, we would need to supplement our narrative with specific moments of text or video to fill the gaps the mechanics leave behind.

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.

Last of Us

Intro: Last of Us has become a sort of poster child for game storytelling since its release. It also features Naughty Dog’s cinematic approach to its narrative. I would be remiss not to take a deeper look at exactly how this game approaches its story, so let’s start there!

Game: Last of Us is a third-person shooter with survival elements. The simulation is trying to capture the experience of surviving a zombie apocalypse, scrounging for supplies and fighting off bandits. The core mechanic is about finding supplies, and then using those to craft weapons that allow you to fight enemies who then drop more supplies. It’s a relatively standard 3-point-loop system of progression, collecting loot to make you better at collecting more loot. The survival nature of the game simply means that loot supply is a bit more limited than in a collect-a-thon like Diablo or similar. Because this game is simulating a brutal landscape of human violence and emotion, the method for collecting loot is through combat.

Third-person shooter combat is designed to allow the player to interact with the world even in scenarios where the player character is positioned oddly, such as when they are crouched behind a barricade. In real life, a person behind a barricade would have other senses to allow them to understand their surroundings to some degree, so third person shooters simulate these other senses by pulling the camera away from the character’s body. There are other reasons, such as technical limitations for certain movement types, that might lead a developer to choose a third-person camera, but for the sake of discussing the third-person camera as a tool for simulation, its goal is primarily to represent other senses in a visual way.

Shooters, in a more general sense, simulate life and combat through the eyes of a particular character. Even if the game is about a squad or team, you will only be playing as one member of the group at a time, and will usually experience the game entirely from their perspective. Even if you are seeing the game from a third-person perspective, shooters simulate life from this person’s perspective very directly, as you can see in games that will white out the screen for a flashbomb that affects the character the camera is following. The methods for simulating these things are frequently also used in non-combative games, further showing the idea that the simulation a ‘shooter’ is doing is primarily about simulating life, and secondarily about the actual process of shooting.

Story: The story of Last of Us is about Joel, a bitter man who has lost his family as part of the onset of the zombie apocalypse. We follow his journey as he meets Ellie, a girl who may hold the key to curing the disease that caused this apocalypse. Joel travels with her to find someone who can figure out whether this key exists or is usable. As they travel, Joel, who has thus far been a bitter cynic, begins to feel an attachment to Ellie and thinks of her as a new member of his family. This opens old wounds and several points throughout the game he runs away from these feelings, leaving Ellie behind or trying to push her away so that his old wounds can stay sealed. As life tends to do, however, he is continually forced to deal with his feelings and eventually they develop a very close friendship and he finally comes to accept her role in his life.

The narrative here is split up into discrete sections. We start off in Summer, move into Fall, then Winter, and end in Spring. The seasons reflect the emotional tone of each chapter. This structure also reflects the typical three-act-structure commonly found in film. Summer is Act 1, Fall is the lead-up to the big mid-story twist that happens in the form of Joel’s injury, Winter is the low point of the story as we deal with the consequences of that injury, and then Spring is Act 3, the climax and resolution as we finally reach the people who can determine Ellie’s usefulness as a cure.

Ludo-Narrative: The gameplay of Last of Us uses a number of small moments to convey its story through mechanic. Last of Us is one of the few games I’ve run into that has a full mechanical arc of progression, as we start the game being the only combatant, but eventually Joel learns to trust in Ellie and we begin to rely more and more on her as a gameplay element. The same progression is true for how story is conveyed through the gameplay, as we start the game interacting only with simple, discrete systems, but later begin to get moments built into the gameplay that convey more of the story. Famously, there is a scene at the start of Spring where Ellie doesn’t respond to the expected input as a way of conveying her mental state, and throwing a wrench into our expectations. There is also the usual elements of environmental storytelling, as we see various other survivors’ stories play out through notes left behind, blood left on the walls, or their belongings piled into specific places with specific things. We see nurseries setup in a sewer, we see a school full of zombies, etc. Nearly every set piece in the game is designed to show us how human life has been upended by this apocalypse. The combat is setup to tell us how brutal this world has become. Animations and tactics are designed to showcase that brutality, and some of the take-downs are truly horrifying in their violence. Aside from conveying the tone, however, the combat is rarely used for narrative. At its height is the sequence at the end of Winter where you have to hide in a restaurant and sneak up on a crazy person to stab him with a knife several times. However, this sequence doesn’t really change the gameplay to convey its story, it just relies a bit more heavily on stealth than the average combat. The game introduces new weaponry throughout the game as a way of keeping interest up, but the choices you make never change, it’s just a matter of which gun you’re using to kill the same enemies. Chest-high-wall placement becomes more hazardous, and enemy count does increase, but it’s the usual linear progression you find in most games. Even the time when you take control over Ellie doesn’t change the gameplay beyond making your movement a little bit lighter and faster, which is never required or emphasized in any way.

Conclusion: So let’s take a look at all of these systems and piece them back together. The story of Last of Us is the central pillar around which the rest of the game is supported, so let’s start there. Last of Us is about a man who’s life was destroyed when the world was destroyed. He travels in order to find a cure for the world, and ends up finding a cure for his own trauma. Ideally, telling a story about trauma and the aftermath of global destruction would be done in a way that lets the player explore both the physical and emotional trauma. In this case, the shooter aspect allows us to follow this specific character through life as he perceives it, which is exactly what is ideal. The survival mechanics force us into combat situations in order to get more supplies that will help us survive combat situations we can’t avoid. This is a perfect simulation of the life of a person living in a zombie apocalypse film, and it allows us to explore the world around us as a metaphorical representation of the internal struggle Joel is experiencing. With that said, the gameplay is only minimally used to tell the story. We get a few sparse moments where Ellie’s AI responses will change to show us how she is being affected by the story, and a few sparse moments where Joel’s gameplay changes as a direct result of what’s happening around him (such as when he gets injured half way through the game). However, the gameplay and narrative elements of even this game are generally quite separate. We get gameplay moments and story moments, and the two are largely disparate.

The genres chosen to convey this story are chosen well. The third-person shooter is a great vessel for simulating the experience of surviving a zombie apocalypse, and for telling the story of a character dealing with emotional trauma and interpersonal relationships. The gameplay design of emphasizing combat by creating a collection loop emphasizes the foraging lifestyle Joel would be living, and also presents us with an opportunity to have to share supplies among you and your allies (though this is never taken advantage of). The combat is also well setup to enable you to decide whether or not you have the supplies to engage, creating a risk/reward system that would further convey the story (also not taken advantage of). All of these elements would be a great vehicle for showing us an increase in trust and companionship through gameplay systems, but the game simply never capitalizes on them. We see our trust of Ellie develop in her being allowed to participate in combat, but we never actively participate in that trust as a player. The game simply tells us that these story elements are different now, so Ellie will shoot stuff too. Which is a great start, don’t get me wrong, but the systems could definitely be used more. Fortunately, all the base choices made to convey the story are perfect for this simulation, the only thing missing is some refinement of presentation. Hopefully we’ll see more of that in the sequel.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Mechanical Storytelling

I recently wrote an article series with a premise of evaluating video game characters’ personality as it is presented in the game and mapping that personality onto a Meyers-Briggs profile. The purpose of that series was not to map characters onto internet memes, but to explore the ways a game conveys character traits through methods other than cinematic sequences. I believe that using video in games is as strong a disconnect as using text in film. Not to say that text doesn’t work in film, but you don’t go to a theatre to read a book. With this series, I endeavored to take a look at other options.

I mean. It works.

In this article I would like to expand on some of the things I’ve learned while doing this article series, and in the time since. I will start with the root at the Meyers-Briggs structure I chose, and then move beyond that framework as I carry each thought to completion.

The first thing I noticed during my research, was that the four categories were not equal. Perceiving/Judging was always very easy to map, in every game I played. So why was that? These two traits are defined by a person’s desire to make plans and act on those plans, or to simply go with the flow more freely. In video games this basically translates to whether or not a character is making quests for themselves. If a character is following a discrete list of things to accomplish, you can assume their mind to be a place that desires structure. Nearly all games use missions or quests, as well, which explains why it was always so easy to map. Quest markers and quest lists directly reflect whether a character is Perceiving or Judging. Given this, we can now say that a game’s quest log is a direct reflection of one part of the protagonist’s mind. If that’s true, how else could we extrapolate from this simple premise? Perhaps a quest is assigned to us because of a thought from the player character. Maybe the character sees something that reminds them they should go pick up something from the nearby market. Maybe along the way they remember an additional thing they need to pick up, and another quest is added to the first. Rather than thinking of our quest markers as arbitrary guiding hands made by the designer to get the player to go where they are supposed to go, we should think of them as a visual representation of thought. This will allow us to seamlessly align player character intention with player movement.

Expanding on this idea, we could also use quest markers to show a change in a characters’ state. If the character is disoriented, the quest marker could be unstable, moving wildly on its own. If the character has gotten lost, perhaps the marker becomes more vague somehow. If the character knows that they have a specific task that they are supposed to be doing, but that they do not want to do, perhaps the marker stays where it is, very clearly, but is scratched out or in some other way obscured by the character’s own mind telling them not to go there. The options are many, but the lesson is simple:

Quest markers are a tool that can show a character’s thoughts and goals.

This is still kinda awful, but let's save the baby from the bath water, shall we?

On the other end of the spectrum, it was always very difficult to discern a character’s emotional state through gameplay. If I wanted to know whether a character was Thinking/Feeling I would have to look at their reactions within a cutscene or scripted moment, rather than their actions within the gameplay. So why is that? Is there no way to convey emotion or thought during gameplay? Well, there definitely is, but it goes against the easy power fantasy writing we have in games. Bioshock Infinite features a protagonist who goes around wantonly murdering everyone in his path. Why? Why does Booker DeWitt need to kill so many people? Well, the answer is simple: he doesn’t. Based on his goals, and his backstory, he shouldn’t want to kill anyone at all. He’s lived that life and is tired of being that guy, he wants to do something else. He clearly states his weariness, and desire to be reborn, throughout this game. Now, it would make sense if he were to backslide into violence during extreme situations. Perhaps the easy path of the game would involve lots of violence, while the more difficult (and rewarding) path would be non-violent. The player could then choose which route to take, as they go along this journey with Booker. The gameplay could then be designed to force a particular violent/non-violent choice at key moments, telling us which choices Booker DeWitt would definitely make on his own. By creating those key moments as character development moments, the rest of the gameplay becomes the struggle. At any given time, Booker (the player) could give in to his baser instincts, or hold on to his ideals, and so this is reflected in the gameplay. At key moments, choice will be removed from the player as Booker decides with certainty that in X situation he will definitely choose Y. This would make the entire game reflect his mind, and would tell us who Booker DeWitt wants to be, even as he struggles. Making this into a proper character arc would require slowly forcing Booker into more situations that align with his less violent tendencies. In other words, the player starts the game with many options, but is slowly restricted to fewer options over time. This can easily become problematic, but if the story is strong enough the player will accept the design. Handle with care.

This observation also highlights another that I made while doing this research. Gameplay represents choice made by the protagonist. Samus decides which items to bring with her on each mission. Whether it’s discussed, or even acknowledged, does not matter. Action speaks louder than words, and we see Samus start each of her missions without her weaponry that was acquired from the last mission. That tells us something about Samus. Would Booker DeWitt choose the same weapons to begin his missions? Would the Knight from Hollow Knight? No, Probably not. Samus brings only the essentials on each new mission. We may not know the reason, but we see the choice. This may have been a design decision, but it also represents a part of our character’s mind.

So where else do we see this type of choice? How about: if your gameplay is in the style of Metroid, and you wander through until you pick up a weapon that freezes enemies, why does your character pick up that weapon? In the game it’s because the level and gameplay designers put that freeze weapon there for the player to use, but in real life Samus is on an alien planet. She could go down any number of weird side caves. What we see in the final game is a recording of her actions, and a representation of her possible actions. If Samus did not go down that ice weapon cave, that cave would not be in the game. If she MAY have gone down that cave, then that weapon could be presented as optional. If that weapon is essential to beating the game, that means she definitely DID go down this particular cave. This is true whether or not the designer is aware of it. Whether the designer knows they’re representing choices their protagonist made, or if they just think they have a cool gameplay mechanic they want to introduce, it still says the same things about the character. You can adjust your story to match the gameplay, or you can adjust the gameplay to match the story. Ideally they would inform each other, each providing new nuggets to be used by the other as the game develops into its final form.

Either way, your gameplay reflects your character’s choices.

Games are a recording of possibilities, not a recording of just the final choice

The most difficult part of the Meyers-Briggs to map was consistently Intuitive/Sensing. This is an expression of a person’s inclination towards using information as it is presented to them, or taking that information and extrapolating based on outside knowledge or intuition.  If Judging/Perceiving is defined as whether or not we are getting quest markers, Intuitive/Sensing is the type of quest our character accepts. A sensing personality will process information directly, they will take a missing princess to mean simply that the princess is missing. An Intuitive person will extrapolate, and may take a missing princess to mean that she must have been taken to another nearby castle. One may choose a quest to search the area, while another may choose to search nearby kingdoms. If we want to convey a personality, we must choose which quests we present to our characters and how they approach those quests.

What I noticed, however, was that this was often taken to an extreme. Rather than simply assigning us a quest and then allowing us to approach it however we like, as is seen in most open world games, linear games often merely give us a corridor to walk. We proceed ‘on rails’ from where we get the quest to where we complete the quest. The space in between should be the perfect place to explore how a character thinks and responds to information, but instead we get cinematic camera angles and conveniently-placed barricades.

So let’s take the missing princess example. Our quest is this: “Find The Missing Princess”. We are then given control of our character and told to complete the mission. How do we do that? If we are a Sensing personality, we will approach the world around us with eyes on concrete details. Perhaps we are a ranger who tracks footsteps, so the gameplay mechanic is to look around the world in Monster Hunter fashion, until we find prints that look suspicious. If we are an Intuitive personality, we will approach the world with an eye on patterns, so we may go about interviewing people to discover some pattern happening in the world, and maybe we hear about a group of bandits who were in town a few days ago, acting weird. Either way, the whole sequence should be set up to allow exploration of the thought. How is your character feeling about all this? Represent that as you explore the space. Let their anxiety or confidence show through the world around them, or the people around them. Make the level so that we see not just one moment, but a handful of moments that all show us not just that our ranger tracks footprints, but how they go about the task. Sure, they’re looking for sensory information by tracking footprints, but how locked are they to that method? Do they also see patterns in where the footprints are located? Do they find one set of prints and follow that trail all the way to the princess, never looking anywhere else?

What quest they accept will tell us part of their personality, and how they approach that quest tells us the rest.

but how does that make you feel...?

For my last observation, we have something I noticed unrelated to the Meyers-Briggs focus of the articles, but very much in line with the mechanical storytelling that I was studying through the lens of Meyers-Briggs. That observation is this: gameplay never gets an arc. In film or books, it’s critical that a character have a story arc. It’s also critical that side characters have story arcs, and that the world around them has an arc as well. If the character is changing and the world is not, the story will feel very flat. In games we have a new element of interaction layered on top of the rest of those things, but that element never seems to change. At least not in a way that reinforces the story.

Think of James Bond. In every Bond movie, the stakes are set and we are introduced to the situation that Bond must face. Then Bond is given a set of tools to use and enters the fray. As the movies progress, he uses up those options until he’s left to confront the ultimate enemy with his wits. James Bond never faces the villain with his suped-up car or his exploding robot watch or whatever, because those films are all about being suave and adaptable. Bond’s arc always must show how he is a capable spy with and without his fancy toys. Bond films are not known for their complexity, and this is about the simplest non-linear arc you can get, so why don’t we see this in games? Gameplay always progresses in a linear fashion, forever moving forward. Players get stronger and more versatile over time. Imagine a Bond movie where he only ever gets more and more powerful as the story goes along. Rather than meeting Q at the start, Q would appear every 15 minutes to hand Bond a new weapon. By the end of the film there would be no tension unless the final fight was with some gigantic monster, which is exactly what most final bosses are in gaming. This works well, but is a bit juvenile. Why not adjust our structure, now that we’ve grown up? Instead of giving us a new weapon every level, why not use the big weapons as a crutch to get us started? While we’re learning the complex mechanics, we have simple mechanics to keep us moving forward. Then as the game progresses, we stop getting ammo for the big crazy gun and instead start getting a lot of bubble gum and tooth picks to MacGuyver our way through the rest. You’ll have to handle this carefully, as it’s important to teach players the skills they’re going to actually use, rather than tutorializing them on guns and then ending with a game all about basket weaving. Still, if story arcs are so important in film, surely we should be trying to use this in games as well.

And of course I’m not saying that these arcs aren’t used at all. Many games will add tension by limiting ammo drops or health packs. But very rarely do we see gameplay develop in any direction but up over the full course of the game.

And that about does it for my observations while doing this series of research. Hopefully reading my thoughts has helped to kick some new ones into your own brain. Feel free to comment below with what you agree/disagree with about my conclusions.

Oh, and if you'd like to read the research articles, you can find them here, here, here, and here.

Until next time!