The Evolution of Video Game Narrative- Part 2

So, last week I talked about the large gap between the game design and writing that often exists in modern video games. This week I’m going to look at some examples of how gameplay and narrative can interrelate in games, and look at what games can do to overcome the conflict between these two components
 

Making the Connection

One way of looking at the gameplay-narrative problem is that if gameplay is the key component at the centre of every game then perhaps gameplay can be the way video games tell stories. All other storytelling mediums have learned how to use the core tools at their disposal to enhance their narratives; music writers know which sequences of notes make the listener feel which emotions, film and TV makers have learned to better evoke the emotions in their scenes through cinematography, maybe video games just have to work out how to utilise the game part of themselves correctly. After all we know that gameplay has the ability to foster unique emotions in us, it can make us feel triumph, disappointment, struggle, a sense of power, and many other feelings in a way that no other entertainment medium can.

A few months ago I was delighted to discover that I wasn’t the only one who held these beliefs about video games. Most people who know the name Jonathan Blow know him as the father of acclaimed indie game Braid, however Blow is much more than just the creator of a headache-inducing puzzle-platformer, he’s also a respected expert on video games and game design in general. I find Blow’s view of modern video game narratives rather cynical, but listening to him speak it’s obvious that within his mind gameplay and narrative are inextricably intertwined components of video games.

Lack of Connection

 Narrative pioneer Jonathan Blow.

Blow highlights examples of disconnect between narrative and gameplay impacting the experience negatively even in games that have been very highly praised for their narrative, such as Bioshock and Half-Life 2. I can’t say my examples of this are as eye-opening as Blow’s but to avoid copy-pasting all of his work I am refraining from using his specific examples in this section.

One common conflict between gameplay and narrative Blow has highlighted is when a game is jarringly halted so that an AI character can engage in a conversation with the protagonist. This kind of practise is common in games and while developers seem to be getting a little better at dealing with it, I’m sure you can think of a handful of scenarios in which you’ve been annoyed by an AI character halting the gameplay to deliver a short speech to advance the plot. In these situations the narrative tells you that the AI character is your best friend, they’re your comrade in arms or your chirpy, loveable sidekick, but the gameplay pushes you in the other direction, making you annoyed at the character for interrupting the flow of the game and keeping you from playing.

Warning: Spoilers for the ending of Borderlands follow.


Connecting Effectively

These are examples that show how conflicts between narrative and gameplay can be damaging to the experience, but if we wish to see both sides of the coin here then we need highly recognisable examples of gameplay and narrative being excellently linked. Sadly those aren’t in huge supply, but that’s not to say there aren’t some great examples out there, and once again Blow stands out as best source of these examples. I must admit that I’m not entirely sure of the origin of the example I’m about to give. I believe the following is my adaptation of Blow quoting an online forum user, however, despite hours of digging I just couldn’t find the original source for this. It was far too good to be excluded from this blog though.

More than just a metal box.

Anyone who’s played Portal will undoubtedly remember Testchamber 17, the home of the much beloved Weighted Companion Cube. A large part of the initial joke of the testchamber comes from the ridiculous premise that you might actually treat the large metal box you’re provided with as a friend, but as the testchamber wears on most find themselves developing an actual attachment to this inanimate object. The cube is the key tool in the level and your means of overcoming all obstacles and so the cube becomes an important part of the game world for you. This ultimately means that the last laugh is on the player because when it finally comes to incinerating the cube, a scene which on the surface would appear to be nothing more than a silly joke, most feel a genuine reluctance to part with the cube. This kind of attachment to an inanimate object was something that was fostered in a unique way via the game.

This link between gameplay and narrative also shines through in Blow’s own work. The story of Braid begins by telling players about the separation of the protagonist from his wife and how he wishes he could turn back time and undo his mistakes. Any other entertainment medium could have told us how the character felt but Braid used the gameplay to try and make us feel what it would be like to reverse time and erase our errors. Another of my favourite examples from Braid is later in the game and involves the protagonist’s wedding ring. The game tells us that the ring makes the protagonist feel as though time is slowing when he gets close to it, but you can’t experience that feeling for yourself until you can use the ring as an item in-game that really can slow down time. On the surface Braid is a regular puzzle-platformer but it takes the gameplay and utilises it in such a way that it becomes a metaphor for the emotions of the story. Perhaps it is this kind of symbolic gameplay-narrative link could be essential in creating many games in the future.

The Future of Narrative

There are more examples of these kinds of gameplay-narrative connections, but I think you get the idea. Personally when I began to think about this concept I felt a little unsettled, because if this relationship between gameplay and narrative is to be part of the core philosophy of future games development, then that means that all games up until now that have had any kind of involved story will be made somewhat redundant. I want to emphasise again though that I’m not trying to say that every video game out there has poor narrative, there are a lot of games which I’ve loved the characters, world, and plot of, however, the idea of games in the future executing their stories in the same way that games like Portal and Braid have been able too does sound like a very exciting prospect. Being an area in which the industry has so little experience it’s hard to imagine where games really go from here if they are to take on the challenge of linking narrative and gameplay so strongly, but if it’s the logical future for the medium (which I believe it is) then you can be sure designers and writers will find ways to do it.

 What next for the industry?

It’s unlikely to just be a case of developers figuring out how to make that link though, we’ll probably also need to see a considerable change in the “core” games consumer base before the industry can adopt this practise on a significant scale. While there’s certainly a large audience for story-oriented games, currently the main demographic of “core gamers” are average young males, the action movie crowd. As we see more people becoming part of the “core” consumer base who want stories different from what the average action movie offers then we’re going to see publishers funding games that will have to find a way to express narrative beyond stories of war and young adventurers chosen to fight off evil forces.

With this world of integrated plots and gameplay seeming so far off you could conclude that it’s something we’re never going to witness but I believe that wouldn’t be a sensible conclusion to draw. Every entertainment medium before now has continued to diversify and evolve since its birth, there’s no reason to assume that just because there are hurdles for video games to overcome, the evolution of this one aspect of video games is going to grind to a halt. I believe that as video games truly embrace narrative as a key part of the experience this interplay of gameplay and story will be essential, and I can’t wait to see it happen. Good luck, have Batchief.

-Gamer_152

18 Comments
19 Comments
Posted by Gamer_152

So, last week I talked about the large gap between the game design and writing that often exists in modern video games. This week I’m going to look at some examples of how gameplay and narrative can interrelate in games, and look at what games can do to overcome the conflict between these two components
 

Making the Connection

One way of looking at the gameplay-narrative problem is that if gameplay is the key component at the centre of every game then perhaps gameplay can be the way video games tell stories. All other storytelling mediums have learned how to use the core tools at their disposal to enhance their narratives; music writers know which sequences of notes make the listener feel which emotions, film and TV makers have learned to better evoke the emotions in their scenes through cinematography, maybe video games just have to work out how to utilise the game part of themselves correctly. After all we know that gameplay has the ability to foster unique emotions in us, it can make us feel triumph, disappointment, struggle, a sense of power, and many other feelings in a way that no other entertainment medium can.

A few months ago I was delighted to discover that I wasn’t the only one who held these beliefs about video games. Most people who know the name Jonathan Blow know him as the father of acclaimed indie game Braid, however Blow is much more than just the creator of a headache-inducing puzzle-platformer, he’s also a respected expert on video games and game design in general. I find Blow’s view of modern video game narratives rather cynical, but listening to him speak it’s obvious that within his mind gameplay and narrative are inextricably intertwined components of video games.

Lack of Connection

 Narrative pioneer Jonathan Blow.

Blow highlights examples of disconnect between narrative and gameplay impacting the experience negatively even in games that have been very highly praised for their narrative, such as Bioshock and Half-Life 2. I can’t say my examples of this are as eye-opening as Blow’s but to avoid copy-pasting all of his work I am refraining from using his specific examples in this section.

One common conflict between gameplay and narrative Blow has highlighted is when a game is jarringly halted so that an AI character can engage in a conversation with the protagonist. This kind of practise is common in games and while developers seem to be getting a little better at dealing with it, I’m sure you can think of a handful of scenarios in which you’ve been annoyed by an AI character halting the gameplay to deliver a short speech to advance the plot. In these situations the narrative tells you that the AI character is your best friend, they’re your comrade in arms or your chirpy, loveable sidekick, but the gameplay pushes you in the other direction, making you annoyed at the character for interrupting the flow of the game and keeping you from playing.

Warning: Spoilers for the ending of Borderlands follow.


Connecting Effectively

These are examples that show how conflicts between narrative and gameplay can be damaging to the experience, but if we wish to see both sides of the coin here then we need highly recognisable examples of gameplay and narrative being excellently linked. Sadly those aren’t in huge supply, but that’s not to say there aren’t some great examples out there, and once again Blow stands out as best source of these examples. I must admit that I’m not entirely sure of the origin of the example I’m about to give. I believe the following is my adaptation of Blow quoting an online forum user, however, despite hours of digging I just couldn’t find the original source for this. It was far too good to be excluded from this blog though.

More than just a metal box.

Anyone who’s played Portal will undoubtedly remember Testchamber 17, the home of the much beloved Weighted Companion Cube. A large part of the initial joke of the testchamber comes from the ridiculous premise that you might actually treat the large metal box you’re provided with as a friend, but as the testchamber wears on most find themselves developing an actual attachment to this inanimate object. The cube is the key tool in the level and your means of overcoming all obstacles and so the cube becomes an important part of the game world for you. This ultimately means that the last laugh is on the player because when it finally comes to incinerating the cube, a scene which on the surface would appear to be nothing more than a silly joke, most feel a genuine reluctance to part with the cube. This kind of attachment to an inanimate object was something that was fostered in a unique way via the game.

This link between gameplay and narrative also shines through in Blow’s own work. The story of Braid begins by telling players about the separation of the protagonist from his wife and how he wishes he could turn back time and undo his mistakes. Any other entertainment medium could have told us how the character felt but Braid used the gameplay to try and make us feel what it would be like to reverse time and erase our errors. Another of my favourite examples from Braid is later in the game and involves the protagonist’s wedding ring. The game tells us that the ring makes the protagonist feel as though time is slowing when he gets close to it, but you can’t experience that feeling for yourself until you can use the ring as an item in-game that really can slow down time. On the surface Braid is a regular puzzle-platformer but it takes the gameplay and utilises it in such a way that it becomes a metaphor for the emotions of the story. Perhaps it is this kind of symbolic gameplay-narrative link could be essential in creating many games in the future.

The Future of Narrative

There are more examples of these kinds of gameplay-narrative connections, but I think you get the idea. Personally when I began to think about this concept I felt a little unsettled, because if this relationship between gameplay and narrative is to be part of the core philosophy of future games development, then that means that all games up until now that have had any kind of involved story will be made somewhat redundant. I want to emphasise again though that I’m not trying to say that every video game out there has poor narrative, there are a lot of games which I’ve loved the characters, world, and plot of, however, the idea of games in the future executing their stories in the same way that games like Portal and Braid have been able too does sound like a very exciting prospect. Being an area in which the industry has so little experience it’s hard to imagine where games really go from here if they are to take on the challenge of linking narrative and gameplay so strongly, but if it’s the logical future for the medium (which I believe it is) then you can be sure designers and writers will find ways to do it.

 What next for the industry?

It’s unlikely to just be a case of developers figuring out how to make that link though, we’ll probably also need to see a considerable change in the “core” games consumer base before the industry can adopt this practise on a significant scale. While there’s certainly a large audience for story-oriented games, currently the main demographic of “core gamers” are average young males, the action movie crowd. As we see more people becoming part of the “core” consumer base who want stories different from what the average action movie offers then we’re going to see publishers funding games that will have to find a way to express narrative beyond stories of war and young adventurers chosen to fight off evil forces.

With this world of integrated plots and gameplay seeming so far off you could conclude that it’s something we’re never going to witness but I believe that wouldn’t be a sensible conclusion to draw. Every entertainment medium before now has continued to diversify and evolve since its birth, there’s no reason to assume that just because there are hurdles for video games to overcome, the evolution of this one aspect of video games is going to grind to a halt. I believe that as video games truly embrace narrative as a key part of the experience this interplay of gameplay and story will be essential, and I can’t wait to see it happen. Good luck, have Batchief.

-Gamer_152

Moderator
Posted by Video_Game_King
Posted by HandsomeDead

Admittedly, Borderlands stands out because of the loot aspect but Is a narrative that ends on disappointment really a bad thing? Both Modern Warfare games, particularly the first, have done that with fantastic effect. The idea that you have to be the hero holds back a lot of potentially interesting situations.

Posted by Gamer_152
@Video_Game_King: lolwut.
 
@HandsomeDead: Well the Borderlands example was about a conflict between gameplay and narrative, but in general I think writers and designers should be careful about disappointment in games. The Modern Warfare endings aren't examples of the kind of narrative-gameplay link I'm talking about in this blog but in general I thought they were good, they were more about disappointment in the morality of another character than just general disappointment though. Disappointment itself implies that expectations of the quality of something were not met and so unless they're doing some weird artsy thing I don't think that's an emotion that the people creating games should be trying to make too fundamental to the player's experience.
Moderator
Posted by Video_Game_King
@Gamer_152: 
 
You ever play Fragile Dreams? I'd pretty much recommend it.
Posted by MarkWahlberg

One thing I don't think people think about (or maybe they do?) is that a lot of people playing games now are still going to want to play them 20 years from now. That means there will be a 40-50 year old demographic, which companies are gonna want to market to. And what 40 year old's want out of games is not gonna be what they're making now. I have no idea what that's gonna be like, but I'm interested to see how that turns out. Hopefully we won't have to wait 20 years for those types of games, though....

Edited by Conker

Excellent read. I just started playing Uncharted 2 now (I know, I'm late) and  I have to say, the game blends gameplay and narrative fairly well. In fact, this  is the first game in a long time where I actually CARE about the characters, and I think that, while the cut scenes do contribute, a large part of it is the pitter patter that goes on between Nathan Drake and whoever happens to be with him. It reveals more about the personality of both the protagonist and the AI sidekicks.

Posted by Hailinel

however Blow is much more than just the creator of a headache-inducing puzzle-platformer, he’s also a respected expert on video games and game design in general.

 
lolwut.
 
Not trying to be a dick, but I really don't see how Jonathan Blow can really be considered a pioneer.  Yes, he created Braid, but what about Braid's narrative and presentation is so trail-blazing?  I have a feeling you're giving him credit where it isn't due.
Online
Posted by Gamer_152
@Video_Game_King: I know of it but I haven't played it, my budget for games is rather tight. Thanks for the recommendation though.
 
@MarkWahlberg: True, as time goes on we're going to see more older people playing games, meaning a wider demographic of games consumers. Like you I want to see the video games consumer base expanding as quickly as possible. Sadly, many people seem to be much happier with the idea of just sitting around and waiting than trying to dispel stigmas about games or welcome in a new audience.
 
@Conker: Thank you. I'm interested by your mention of Uncharted 2 but you must remember that conversation during gameplay isn't a direct link between narrative and game mechanics, it's still conveying narrative through aesthetics.

@Hailinel: I think Blow's a respected figure. He's given a number of lectures on issues such as narrative in games and the psychological effects of video games, and has influenced many indie developers through hosting the GDC experimental game workshop and developing for the indie game jam. If I go into too much detail about why I think Braid is important I think I'd just be repeating myself but basically it's the way that the gameplay acts as a metaphor for the narrative that makes it so unique and effective in my mind.
Moderator
Posted by Aetheldod

I don't know if these games fit , but in the Ace Combat games (Belkan War , 4 & 5) what they did with the radio banter during missions makes you feel that your actions are affecting the course of the war , especially as how little by little your plane is being identified by the enemy .... its an awesome feeling one of the reasons I like those games a lot.

Posted by armaan8014
@Video_Game_King said:
"
 This time, he's relevant.
Also, Violinist of Hameln, to some extent. "
No! It's here too!
Posted by LackingSaint

The Original Silent HIll series, particularly Silent Hill 2, I find are damn masterclasses in expressing narrative through gameplay and environment. I'd definitely recommend picking them all up if you haven't already. Good read also, although I will say I didn't hold Jonathon Blow in as high regard as some others.

Posted by Gamer_152
@Aetheldod: Interesting, although personally flight games have never really been my thing.
 
@armaan8014: It's everywhere, you're just not looking hard enough.
 
@LackingSaint: I've only seen bits and pieces of the SIlent Hill games, I'll have to see if I can go back and play one start-to-finish some time because they have always seemed very interesting. Thanks for the tip.
Moderator
Posted by RagingLion

I followed you as soon as I read the title of this blog and now having got round to reading both of the articles on this theme I feel completely validated in having done so.  I very much like reading thoughtful comments on games and you're right at the top, as far as I'm concerned, of the GB users I've come across so far.  I've read quite a lot of similar stuff on these same topics already but this was very readable and I thought your thoughts made sense and were clearly explained.
 
I completely agree with you about this stuff.  I too am very excited to see how games as a whole might progress to create games that function with a narrative and gameplay that complement each other more completely and we're probably barely scratching the surface at present.  There's room for a wide spectrum of interactive experiences and I don't mind having some games equate to the interactive movie side of things, for example, because I get some enjoyment out of those but even there creating greater synergy between narrative and gameplay would help a great deal.
 
I love Jon Blow's thoughts on things and what he's trying to do with his games.  That guy has given some of the most amazing, eye-opening and inspiring talks I've heard though he certainly doesn't apologise for being forthright  and quite hard-nosed  with his views.  Jason Rohrer's games certainly fall into this category although maybe his work doesn't quite count for this argument since any narrative in his games comes purely from the mechanics - in a way there is no narrative (in the traditional sense), though really there is.  There's probably lots of games to mention as being good examples of the gameplay/narrative mix but I'd certainly recommend checking out the small indie game Opera Omnia off the top of my head if you want to check something that definitely explores this space.  I wrote a blog entry about it a while ago if you're interested and that hopefully covers why it's an interesting game, even if you don't play it.

Posted by Gamer_152
@RagingLion: That's genuinely excellent to hear. I've greatly enjoyed Jonathan Blow's talks as well and I have to say the things he says stand up. I've recently been playing one of Jason Rohrer's games and that's been very enjoyable, but I'll also check out Opera Omnia, thanks for the tip.
Moderator
Edited by just_nonplussed

Blow is spot-on about most of the things he says, even if he always sounds so miserable and a bit disparaging of other games (beside his own). I went to a sort of lecture once where he was talking about implementing a motif of clarity in the mind of the player when making Braid, and also trying to do it in the upcoming, The Witness. I totally agree that the best way to go is to create game logic that makes sense so the player is not confused - the narrative should then come naturally from those solid rules. Let's be honest though, most designers won't do this...Because they don't think it matters as much as the gameplay being fun.
 
Nintendo should also be referenced, as they always create very solid worlds that make internal sense.
 
I think to improve game design (i.e story design), developers need to be more open-minded and think in terms of 'the whole' not just the parts. They need to care more, but so do the players. Gamers need to care about what they're consuming and take an active approach to consumption. New audiences also need to be exploited - not just 16-25 year old guys.

Posted by Gamer_152
@just_nonplussed: You went to a Jonathan Blow lecture? Wow, that's pretty amazing. I'm not sure I agree entirely with your idea on how gameplay and narrative should be created, I certainly think it's a viable route but I think there's still a lot of experimentation to be done when it comes to linking the two. I agree that most designers will think fun gameplay is more important than good story and you know what? I think they're right. Gameplay is what's at the core of a video game experience and I think in the large majority of cases making sure the gameplay is good is what should take priority. It needn't be a choice though, I think the examples I've provided like Braid and Portal are games where the gameplay and the narrative not only work with each other but are great in their own right, no compromise of one is made for the sake of the other. Still can't quite say I get your thing about Nintendo's stories but oh, well.
 
You know I think a lot of good development teams do think about the whole and not just the parts pretty well but I think it's this specific merging of narrative and gameplay that many need to be aware of. Can't say I exactly understand what you mean about games consumers and active consumption, could you elaborate? Oh and the whole demographics with the industry panders too is a huge issue in itself which I might write about another time but basically we're a long way off from being able to make games that speak to a lot of people outside of the typical demographic and publishers aren't going to green light that stuff because they know it won't sell, we're heading in a promising direction but it's gonna be a case of the gaming population expanding a little, developers diversifying a little, the population expanding a little more, and so on. If you are interested in this stuff I have another blog on it here.
Moderator
Edited by just_nonplussed
@Gamer_152 said:


Can't say I exactly understand what you mean about games consumers and active consumption, could you elaborate? Oh and the whole demographics with the industry panders too is a huge issue in itself which I might write about another time but basically we're a long way off from being able to make games that speak to a lot of people outside of the typical demographic and publishers aren't going to green light that stuff because they know it won't sell, we're heading in a promising direction but it's gonna be a case of the gaming population expanding a little, developers diversifying a little, the population expanding a little more, and so on. If you are interested in this stuff I have another blog on it here.

 
Basically, if players aren't consciously engaged in playing (Or watching a movie or listening to music, or anything) then meaning is not being transmitted (It's all happening on the subconscious, emotional level), and if meaning is not transmitted there is no evolution of the medium because there is no useful comparative dialogue between people to evolve the way we experience games and playing. A good example is gamers saying games are fun but not trying to understand why and not sharing this with others. This stifles progression in our understanding of the medium.
Posted by Gamer_152
@just_nonplussed: I certainly agree that it would be beneficial to the medium if players thought more about the games they played and conversed about them, but this isn't just an issue of them putting in effort to do so, it's also about them understanding games which is a different problem. I also wouldn't go as far to say that they need to do it, I believe as long as people aren't directly hurting others they should be allowed to consume their entertainment however they wish, be that in a thoughtful manner or a relaxed one, who are we to say that they should go out of their way for our own gain?
Moderator