25 June, 2014

Emergent Gameplay: Narrative vs. Mechanics in 2014

I’m in the middle of playing three wildly different games at the moment. Dark Souls, Advance Wars, and 9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors (now shortened to 999 for brevity’s sake) have been the titles I’ve gravitated towards during this summer. I find that all of them offer interesting variations on the potential of video games to provide narratological satisfaction.

Dark Souls is a relentlessly difficult and balanced role-playing game (RPG) much like the classic King’s Field series of games. Another close representation would be the first two games in the Legend of Zelda franchise, which prizes survival and exploration above the modern puzzle-solving form of the current iteration. The fictional expanse of Lordran is less a place for the player to determine the game’s stories than it is for an agent to create stories of their own. The ludic systems of the game are relatively simple when compared to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which has its own deep vocabulary of in-game mechanics and lore that is presented to the player in greater detail than most other games. Dark Souls is narratively bereft, with very brief narrative hooks pushing the game forward as opposed to the overly directed plot of Skyrim. Instead of asking its players to determine what happened to Lordran, Dark Souls asks its players to master its systems in order to progress further. Survival is the imperative to the game, with the potential for progress a driving factor for its storytelling. It’s not about uncovering the game so much as sharing the stories of defeating monsters and massive bosses, tearful accounts of lost in-game currency items (“souls”) due to defeat, or the overwhelming joy that comes from having learned how to master its difficulty curve. Dark Souls uses a relatively limited control scheme to push its players to master a fair and balanced world, and in the process tell stories of their own to a rapturous and shared world of players (who can also invade and affect your own progress, in a move that is equally infuriating and thrilling).

Advance Wars is something totally different, a turn-based strategy game from 2001 for the Game Boy Advance. Its bright colors and cute aesthetics mask a deep game at the core of the experience, which is infinitely rewarding. Using a 10x15 grid-based movement among differing units, the goals are simple:
a) Wipe out the opposing forces, or
b) Capture the enemy headquarters

While simple enough on its own, the strategies used to reach these goals provide their own form of imaginative reward. Because the units themselves are rather inconsequential, toy-like resources that one does not really invest with emotion during the course of play, the quest to achieve these goals becomes something much closer to a fantastic game of Risk. The feeling of being a deeply invested commanding officer of a powerful army allows for an omniscient approach to play, with each ebb and flow of play creating a unique narrative for the player. Indeed, no player will approach each match the same way, and this is Advance Wars’ genius. By masking the infinite depth with a candy-coated visual sensibility, any player can come into the game and create their own compelling stories. It’s a game that prizes the imagination and ingenuity of the player above all, and this is almost entirely due to the simplistic and defined mechanics of the game.

Advance Wars

If Advance Wars and Dark Souls are stories that barely pay lip service to the barest of worlds that prop up their systems, then 999 is an entirely different beast, a ”visual novel” in which the player is an agent dropped into a mystery that must be unraveled within nine hours. While there are branching paths that can be taken to unravel the game’s story, the compelling feature of the game isn’t just the mini-games used to acquire narrative artifacts. Instead, the story at the heart of the game is so compelling on its own that the systems around the game reward players with the experience of reaching the game’s mysteries. Here, the mechanics of 999 are directly responsible for pushing the player forward into the narrative, where the player’s avatar of Junpei becomes a vessel for the agency of the player in solving the riddles of the main plot. This is a compelling device that provides equivalent satisfaction as Advance Wars or Dark Souls in a completely different way. While there is a very limited mechanic available for the player to advance through the programmed narrative with any agency, the script and delivery means that the pleasure of playing the game comes from organically unraveling its sequences and answering its brief logic puzzles.

These games represent a handful of ludic options we’ve seen emerge within the video game industry over the past thirty years. And I must confess, I find this ludic-based approach to enjoying interactive art to be a new experience for me as a fan of video games. My time in the academic culture of gaming has led me to this point, where I would have previously disregarded this form of the medium. From a younger age, I preferred more narratively driven games over the explicitly play-oriented form. I was innately frustrated with solely play-oriented games, preferring the limited space operatics of StarFox over the emergent narratives of Tie Fighter or Elite. A good year of my gaming life was spent uncovering every hear t piece in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past before I finally deigned to beat the Dark World’s Ganon because I wanted to feel like I’d completed every bit of story potential. As late as last year, I was still preferring the BioShocks, Uncharteds and RockSteady’s Batman: Arkham series because of their marriage of narrative with gameplay. But I see now that these series are uneasy compromises, forcing the narrative into the game mechanics as opposed to letting the mechanics dictate the narrative of play. Every one of these games, no matter how well-written or programmed they are, are overly deterministic narratological devices that force the player to compromise their emergent stories in service of the programmer’s intended story payoff. That does not mean they are not rewarding video games, but they may represent the end point of this specific form of gaming. Then again, perhaps not. AAA gaming continues to thrive on the confluence of open-world sandbox spectacle combined with narratively limited scripting options, such as the Assassin’s Creed and Watch_Dogs games.

9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors

I’ve been reading many of Tevis Thompson’s insightful blogs into this matter, particularly his discussion of the subjective form of criticism necessary for the evolution of the medium and his appraisal of the higher points of the mobile medium for the rather chaotic enforcement of said stories. Indeed, it is in this space that many of my preferred experiences have been located as of late. I can share stories about a deliberate Candy Crush Saga addiction with understanding friends who normally remain outside of the somewhat insular group of ”hardcore” gamers. I can fall into hysterics over the Mad Libs-esque madness of a co-op game of SpaceTeam. I can share my achievements in the surely new-classic Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP social media features. And I can be drawn into the hypnotic realm of Terry Cavanaugh’s tightly controlled masterpiece Super Hexagon, which is two years old but is perhaps the closest I have ever seen another video game reach into the potential for Tetris Attack’s classic formula of play. Students of mine have lost themselves into Super Hexagon the way my sister and I spent all of our teen years playing Tetris Attack together, only to move into my college dorm room and create new stories with my college roommate at the time.

It’s therefore interesting how my time spent playing Dark Souls is much closer to this ideal of Homeric storytelling when it shares the same RPG mechanics as other forms of games. Many of my colleagues and fellow players have shared their own stories of jumping into Lordran, and all of our experiences in defeating the undead denizens of its cities are different and equally compelling because of this. Our differences in play styles allow for our ludic stories to become truly individualized, which is a huge departure from the shared story of 999. Even with its allowance for different narrative choices, the story still reaches the programmer’s designed choices. But this Netflix-styled binge playing only helps its case as another valid experience, with the limited ludological input only helping players when they share the shock of another unexpected twist in the game’s compelling plot. This is closer to the Breaking Bad form of narrative, where the pleasure of playing/viewing is prompted by a desire to see where the story concludes. Not many games can boast of 999’s marriage of ludic storytelling with this mysterious drive to complete the story. Even my favorite game of 2012 – Arkane Studios’ Dishonored – is remembered less for its story and more for its aesthetic and variety of player choices. There, I saw my interest in pursuing Corvo’s story to its end was less important than telling my friends how I had managed to unlock all of the potential playthroughs in the Masquerade Ball or unexpectedly learning that two NPCs were married to each other, a lesson that affected my play style and made me consider how my potential targets were connected. The potential for ludic emergence meant that the threadbare plot was shoved aside in favor of mechanically interesting engagement.

My point of sharing this isn’t to say that one style of video game is better than another. Ultimately, the aesthetic and critical point of view one takes towards a piece of interactive entertainment should be very subjective, with an eye towards understanding how well a game accomplishes its intended goal, be it the Hollywood adventure storytelling of Uncharted, the proliferation of player choice in Deus Ex, the atmospherics and narrative upheaval of the Shock series, or the mastery of the classic Japanese RPG formula in Dragon Quest. But in appreciating emergent storytelling through video games, we come one step closer to seeing how video games represent a newer step for Homeric storytelling, and how this can only be a good thing. Indeed, as long as the mechanics of video games allow us to master them, the stories that emerge from our experiences will be the driving unification of our culture. 

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