Tuesday, November 12, 2013

How Gameplay and Narrative kill Meaning in "Games"

In many of the posts here I have been discussing how having "unfun" gameplay can greatly enhance the experience. I have also ranted about how too much "fun" can completely destroy the intended experience. What I want to discuss now is how a game's most common ingredients might be detracting from certain kinds of experiences and are in some cases best gotten rid of. These ingredients are Gameplay and Narrative. It is my view that these two features can seriously get in the way when trying to take the interactive medium in new directions.

I also believe that using the word "Game" is holding back progress in certain areas. The reason for not using the word "Game" is that it comes with certain expectations, which I will go through below, and these can work against both user and creator.

This post will also explain a bit about the design and goals for our upcoming game Amnesia. Hopefully it will provide a bit insight into the game and explain some of the concepts and ideas that we are trying to accomplish. In Penumbra we put a lot of focus on the actual emotional experience and in Amnesia, we aim to take that thinking a step further.

To get things started I will first dive into something that lies at the heart of all artistic creations.

In many people's minds, the word "meaning" probably provoke images of some hard-to-grasp piece of art with deeply hidden messages. That is not the sort of meaning I will discuss here though. Instead I am going to define it as the essence of all creations. When one make some sort of creative work there is always something that the creator wants to express with it. This can be to create a certain emotion, explore an idea, describe some events and countless of other things. It is this that I call "meaning". It can be shallow or very deep. It can be very obvious or extremely obscure. No matter its form, it is always there at the core of the work.

Different kinds of medium have different tools for expressing this meaning. When writing a book there are plenty of ways to do so (e.g. style and format) and the same is true for any other medium. When working in a medium a certain type of implementation is most often used because it will best express the intended meaning. This means that two works of fiction, using different implementations, can express the same meaning. For example, take the book Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. This books tells a lengthy story, but its meaning is not the narrative but an explanation and exploration of Objectivism. The important thing here is that the story could be changed but the meaning, the essence of the work, would still be left the same. Further more, compare this with other non-fiction books written about Objectivism where the meaning can be very similar, but the implementation quite different.

Basically, a narrative is a sequence of events and is (mostly) the building block for a story. I am aware that narrative, just like "meaning", does not have an exact definition and will therefore make it more precise in order to avoid confusion. When I say narrative, I mean a sequence of preplanned and connected events that have been laid out by a designer. The sequence can be branching and be told out of order, but it remains a narrative as long as the events have been purposely placed and in some way connect to one another. For many media, narrative plays a very large role. Pretty much all fiction books and movies use a narrative in order to express meaning and the craft of creating a narrative has been analyzed and evolved for a very long time.

Early games used the narrative structure to add more meaning, but mostly it was not connected to the interactive experience. Often the narrative was just inserted in between levels and had little to do with what the game played like. One of the first games that really connected narrative and interaction was Another World, where changes from cut scenes and gameplay where seamless. Also, most action that took place had relevance to the actual story. Since then the biggest step forward came with Half-life where the line between narrative and gameplay blurred to the point where the word "cut-scene" was not really applicable. Now the narrative was expressed without ever taking away the player's control and a great example of this was the opening sequence that told of events normally shown through non-interactive cut-scenes.

Half-life was released over ten years ago and there has not been many improvements since. In fact many games have actually not even started using the type of storytelling found in Another World and are still stuck at the level-to-cut scene-to-level-etc formula (While of course fine for some games, many could use the improvement).

Now yet another word needs to be defined in order to progress. When I say the word "gameplay" I will refer mechanics that have a goal. This means that mechanics on its own is not gameplay, but will become so when a goal is added to the mix. For instance, Mathematics is not a form of gameplay, but when a goal is added, such as solving a magic square, gameplay is created! Since a game can be defined as something that contains gameplay, this is the reason why I said that calling some interactive works "games" can be misleading and counter productive. More on this soon.

While gameplay are at the core of game making, it comes with a lot of baggage and makes certain meanings harder to realize in the medium. The most striking issue is the entire failure mechanism that is used in just about every game. You try a certain task, you fail and then have to repeat it. As described in other posts, this can be especially damaging in horror games, where repeating scenes seriously lessens the experience. This mechanism also impose limits on the player's rate of progress and effectively tells the player: "Either you complete this or you will not proceed!". Other baggage include the notion that gameplay must be fun and the need to constantly pose challenges. What I mean with the last point is that players assume that a game will always keep them occupied with some kind of obstacle to overcome. This leads to very little interactive content that is added for its intrinsic sake alone. Instead a game's interactive content almost always have some connection to the goals of the gameplay.

If gameplay has all this baggage, why is it used? The answer is simply that gameplay provides the same function an exciting story does in a narrative. It is an efficient way of keeping the player/reader hooked and engaged for the duration of the work. Also worth noting is that when a game does not have gameplay that is engaging enough, it almost always falls back on the narrative to keep the player hooked (as is the case in many adventure games).

To make myself clear here: I am not saying that gameplay is a bad thing. I am just saying that gameplay comes with certain issues and when applied to some meanings it leads to problems (such as the meaning to scare, which has been discussed extensively in this blog).

The Problem
Now to the heart of this matter and a discussion on what is wrong with all this. As said above, my main stand point is that having focus on narrative and gameplay is holding back interactive media's potential. It is now time to explain why I think this is so.

The main problem with a narrative is that it forces a linear experience and lessens the user interaction. It pressures that events should unfold, imposes a certain order on things and wants to keep a strict flow (e.g "prologue-middle-ending" and "character arcs") . These things work against the interactivity and freedom of the player. For instance, I have previously discussed how physics is very hard to add since players might mess things up and break the intended order of things set by the narrative.

Despite of this, there is currently a focus in games industry to combine gameplay and narrative. Perfecting this art seems to be some kind of holy grail. However, gameplay will never smoothly be part of a narrative and as noted by Jonathan Blow there is an inherent conflict between the two. Gameplay wants to give the player a challenge and sets up goals that needs to be overcome. A narrative wants to move things forward and is often highly dependent upon time and space. Simplified one can say that gameplay tells players to stay where they are and experiment, narrative presses the player onwards and wants them to obey commands.

This sort of conflict is highly obvious in games. Some examples are: making use of quick time events to fit certain events of the narrative (that does not work with gameplay), providing very linear paths and simplifying the mechanics. The end product is that either you focus on the narrative or you focus on the gameplay, making it impossible to be strong in both. This effectively weakens the amount of meaning that can be put into this combination and is why the market is filled with so many shooters and hack-and-slash games. Other types of meanings are simply not possible to pull off in this system.

Increasing focus on the narrative eventually creates a non-interactive medium. There are some very nice examples of narrative heavy games in Interactive Fiction (such as Photopia), but they all heavily cut down on the ability to control and interact (because of the problems listed above).

Gameplay by itself can also be used to created meaning and has been done so in games such as Gravitation. Again Jonathan Blow describes the problem in the lecture linked to above: when the mechanics are fitted for a certain meaning they might not work as a game and the slightest change will change the meaning. Obviously this approach works for some types of meaning (as in Gravitation), but it is very limited, especially if the game is supposed to engaging as well.

Interactive Experience
I am quite convinced (for reasons stated above) that there is a vast new world to explore if the interaction is in focus, instead of gameplay and narrative. Doing this is probably the only way to get away from having a majority of games that are just based on killing stuff. I am not against games with violence, but I think it is quite sad how overrepresented they are. Just check check the Game of the Year 2009 nominees from Gamespot - only two out of ten nominees did not have violence as the core experience. The two remaining on that list does not evoke much hope though, one of them is a car game and the other Sims 3 (although it was quite original 10 years ago). There really needs to be some change to this!

The first step is to get rid of the idea that a challenge is needed, at least in the way it works in today's games. This is why I said at the start that "game" is a bad word. Not only does it imply gameplay, but it also gives the idea that playing should be about winning. Because of this both user and creator have preconceptions of what a game experience is like. A user picking up a game will assume that there will be obstacles awaiting and the goal will be to overcome them. The creator will also assume that this is what the user wants and we got ourselves an "evil spiral".

Instead of having every challenge as a performance test, one can let the user just experience it. For example, navigating through dark tunnels can be creepy even if failure is not possible. All other media works this way and I do not see how the addition of interaction changes it. Just think about all of the horror games that does not have any player death in them and still manage to be scary (as discussed here). Just like when reading a book or watching a movie, there is a form of role playing going on and interactive works can use this as well.

Another way of overcoming the need of challenges is to have learning as a goal (discussed in a recent Gamastura article). An extreme example of this would be a "game" where players could skip a level at any time but was required to reach a certain degree of understanding in order to grasp later levels. Note that this would be far from what is expected of a game and I think many users would be very confused by the approach. This is another example why I think the word "game" simple does not fit (and is even greatly misleading!) for some interactive works.

As for skipping narrative, this does not mean that games cannot have stories. Instead it means that we need to rethink how stories are told. Many (sometimes most!) events in a narrative are there in order to express some kind of meaning. For instance, in a story about polar explorers some events might be needed in order to show how hostile and unforgiving the land at the poles are. In an interactive work, this can be accomplished through interaction with the environment, thus making these parts of the narrative unnecessary. What I am trying to get at here is that instead of replicating what is described in written form or shown on film, the focus should be on the meaning and how it is best expressed in an interactive format. I am convinced that goals like "creating a cinematic experience" are dead ends in terms of evolving the interactive medium.

Of course there is a still room for a narrative, but trying to copy the way it works in non-interactive media is wrong. The experience should be adjusted according to how the user interacts, instead of trying to control the user's interaction in accordance to the narrative.

I am not saying that gameplay and narrative should be skipped altogether. In some types of interactive works it might even be best to focus on them! But in order to be able to explore other kinds of meanings in the interactive medium, they cannot always be in focus. It is also important that we let go of some of the preconceptions that exist, both when "playing" and creating an interactive work. If not, we will miss out on a lot of rich and valuable experiences!

Some "games" like Everyday the same dream, Fatale and Dear Esther have begun experimenting with this sort of thinking, but I believe they are just barely scratching the surface of what is possible. This is especially true when it comes to using the power of interactivity, which the work listed are quite sparse with. Also, most works of this type have a certain avant-garde feel to them and I think it possible, and quite necessary, to use this way of thinking to create more mainstream works as well.

Our efforts
The above not only outlines a direction in which I think that "games" should evolve. It also describes a lot of the thinking we have had when designing Amnesia. As our project have progressed, we have moved more and more away from gameplay and narrative, instead focusing on the meaning we want to express. This does not mean that Amnesia will be absent of both gameplay and narrative though. It just means that they have been far from the focus during development. The goal (and meaning) with Amnesia is to create a disturbing atmosphere and expose players to concepts about the nature of human evil. All of the game's design has been built around enhancing these things.

Gameplay wise, we have never really thought about how we want to challenge the player, instead it has been all about creating a certain atmosphere and evoking emotions. No puzzle have been thrown in just to drag out on the playtime or just to pose an extra challenge. We have been very careful to make sure that puzzles have relevance to the story and the feelings we want to convey. The is also true for other gameplay elements, for instance how enemy encounters are handled.

There is a narrative in Amnesia (two separate actually), but instead of making an effort to have certain events at certain times, we have left it up to the player to explore and experience the story. In Penumbra we tried to make sure that the player could not miss certain plot elements, but we are taking a more "relaxed" attitude with this in Amnesia. The game is meant to be explored at a gentle pace and for the clues found to be carefully considered. We think this approach is more interesting instead of just spoon feeding all important information to the player. A vital aspect of the game is for the player to take a stance against things that are revealed and this is deeply connected with the way the game is played.

We are not suggesting that Amnesia is going to be a giant leap in the evolution of the interactive media, but believe that this way of thinking is a step the right direction. It remains to be seen if the finished game will benefit from it, but at least we are giving it a try!

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