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.