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Story and System

February 11, 2009

As a professional game developer, I have spent my life at the intersection of database and narrative trying to weave these two “natural enemies” together. Role playing games (RPGs) were my genre of choice, and I often referred to the process of playing them as one of “walking through a database.” Literally and figuratively, that’s precisely what the player does in these worlds. The interjection of narrative is sometimes complicated, but follows this pattern: Combat -> win -> reward/narrative -> repeat. Role playing games have also been referred to as novels that require you to fight in order to turn the page. Sometimes it is simplified when developers set up a long series of actions with a cutscene reminiscent of film in order to control the direct narrative flow.

The battle between narrative and database stratified the game industry in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Camps were formed between the ludologists, those who saw game as system, and narratologists, those who saw game as narrative, a great flurry of articles ensued, and while the argument has largely left the game studies and game development stage, I suspect each developer could, if asked, tell you precisely where they sit on this fence and the issue of successfully integrating narrative into games  (for further info). Some, like Reiner Knizia or Will Wright, may even abstain, preferring to let simulation or the play of numbers speak for them instead. I see the divide close up when a narrative-heavy student reaches a level of understanding about what’s happening under the hood in games and realizes what they see: engine first, story second. It is nothing short of a transformative experience that takes time to distill, and one that also shows which way I look to see a fence. Others see an engine sitting on a block doing nothing until narrative makes it come alive.

The core narrative of most games is the one that resides in the mind of the player or participant and thus arises emergently from the game itself. This is what Doug Church refers to in his seminal article, “Formal Abstract Design Tools“. There is both game story and player story, the explicit and implicit, and the cost of adding the former forces a dramatic drop in player agency and thus immersion. Naturally, one can become completely absorbed in a passive media (The Sopranos had me for years), but in an interactive medium, the loss of interaction comes with a risk. So, we dole it out in bite-sized pieces: Combat -> win -> reward/narrative -> repeat.

This then, is the absolute line between game writers and game designers and presents the clearest argument I have heard for their division as disciplines to date. While I have written a great deal both in games and out, I consider myself a game designer first. Lee Sheldon can design brilliant games, but is a game writer first. This division is harmonious, synergistic, necessary and important, because it points to two different sets of skills: one in manipulating database and another in manipulating narrative to produce experience. The confusion between the two roles and indeed the need for game writers at all has been apparent at recent game education conferences. Les Manovich describes this well in his article The Database: “the database of choices from which narrative is constructed (the paradigm) is implicit, while the actual narrative (the syntagm) is explicit.”

Narratives in game worlds serve another important purpose, and that is one of digestion. The gigantic Excel databases I build to control items, monsters, spells and the like would be unpalatable, unwieldy messes in the minds of most, but wrapped in a narrative of Dungeons and Dragons, the wall of math and pattern becomes possible adventure. Without a sense of purpose that a narrative provides, one would feel no need to walk through my databases, regardless. Narrative lets us swallow the data, and is itself the first set of rules we learn as a human beings. In saying, “No, you can’t do that. You will hurt your sister,” I am telling a story, but there are rules being conveyed as well. When I say, “turn-based strategy game”, I am chunking rules.

So, we search. The computer brought us a television connected to a database. It set in motion certain paradigm expectations that we still struggle to achieve, and while there have certainly been myriad achievements, they came about as a result of designers and writers working together and struggling against two forces that don’t naturally go well together.

There are two efforts I would be remiss not to mention. The first is Andrew Stern and Michael Mateaus’ “Façade“, a game which created procedural narrative. The second is Jonathan Harris’ “We Feel Fine” which extracts a narrative from the internet, and culls a community from those who never met.

[This article was written and inspired by my recent reading of Les Manovich’s The Database.]

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18 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2009 11:59 am

    Over winter break I was playing through Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2 to try and understand the underlying choices for some of the systems. For example, how if you attack too much with the Soul Reaver you start to die instead of earning some kind of bonus. The exact reason for this was never defined until the end of the game, but what this essentially meant was that the narrative was having an impact on the gameplay, instead of just being Combat > Win > Reward/Narrative > Repeat. Obviously there was that too, but the game’s systems were so closely tied into the narrative that I at least felt as if the story never stopped.

    Then take the next game in the series, Defiance (Blood Omen 2 does not count, but that’s my own personal theory). All the systems that were tied into the narrative were thrown out in exchange for tighter gameplay. Not necessarily a bad thing, considering the gameplay in Soul Reaver 2 was fairly weak, but it followed the Combat > Win > Reward structure more closely than its predecessor.

    Though I feel Defiance was a better game overall, SR2 proved that Narrative and Gameplay Systems do not have to be at ends with each other. They can work in tandem to create very immersive experiences.

  2. February 11, 2009 12:45 pm

    The narrative had no effect. You can tell code stories all day long, and it will not care. The narrative is how you processed it. The game had a de-buff algorithm and a series of if then statements.

  3. David Queener permalink
    February 11, 2009 8:09 pm

    I’m confused by the “Combat -> win -> reward/narrative -> repeat”, simply because I don’t see how those things couldn’t be more combined… I’m thinking something blatantly along the lines of the duel between Westley and Inigo on The Princess Bride, a combat scene with a narrative. Just imagine a sword fight in a third person over the shoulder, or Diablo style isometric game where periodically the opponent would jump back in a defensive pose and say a bit of dialog, and as an overlay, you would see optional responses, along with the key you could press to respond with them.

    The gameplay could then easily be swayed by your responses, “Die scum!”, assuming he is a generic villian, would tell him nothing of your own skill, and thus he would fight you in a default manner, and possibly die. Something a little more genial such as “I’m only getting warmed up” would give the battle an air of a fair competition, allowing the dialog to branch further. Commentary about fighting styles, or fighting sportsmanlike may earn his favor, but nonetheless make him fight harder. If you impressed him and were winning by a strong margin, he would flee, with the chance of becoming an NPC at a later time who may approach you as a hireling perhaps, making a more difficult fight a bit easier. If earn his favor, but he defeats you, he leaves you unconscious, sparing your life, you come to later on, all the more humbled, and may encounter him at a later date, perhaps willing to train you “beyond your abilities” e.g, beyond a skills max value.

    Diablo did not blend dialog and combat, but they were a bit more closely linked, at least in the original game, namely the personalities, because they weren’t just monsters, of Gharbad the Weak, and Snotspill.

    To speak much more simply, if dialog trees can be delivered in town, and impact a stat on an npc, why can’t they be delivered in the dungeon, and impact a stat on a monster (perhaps to the point of changing its alignment…)? The stories I recall from games, are the ones I take part in, not the ones I merely receive (unless they’re amazing, and… they rarely are, for mere reception, I stick to books and film).

    • February 11, 2009 9:24 pm

      @David, the piece I referenced (The Database) sort of sets the whole stage for it. What you’re discussing here is inputting data into the combat algorithm. If A, then B. If X, then Y. This is still within the database structure. What I am referring to are largely events where one must get past something, and having done that, the game advances the narrative while completely stopping interaction (cutscenes and the like). Also, bear in mind that your character responses like “Die scum!” are really just bits entered into a state machine to produce an outcome. The database doesn’t care about the narrative – it cares about the input of that narrative and how that affects its state. Programs read this as “if this, then that.” They could care less what the narrative is. As you note, we can branch narratives, and some games have done this exceptionally well (Facade comes to mind). These, then, effectively create a narrative database.

  4. February 12, 2009 9:04 am

    I think it is a mistake to think of these in isolation; call it a database, business logic or crunch; call it narrative, story, context or fluff … the two, when tightly interwoven, become more than the sum of their parts… this I think is one of David’s points.

    • February 12, 2009 11:29 am

      Absolutely, I agree that they are stronger together, and in games are harmonious and even reliant upon one another, particularly for the sake of the player who would have no interest or no comprehension otherwise. This relationship is intended in my article, and the need for both, too (me and Lee Sheldon for instance). What is important, I guess, is to make the case for both writers and designers in a game world, something that is in danger (see Lee’s article).

  5. February 12, 2009 6:04 pm

    “The narrative is how you processed it.”
    And that’s all that matters in this case. If you can package the code in narrative (or other “fluff” – like uber graphics, or whatever) so that’s how the player percieves it – that’s their reality. In games, perception trumps reality every time. Otherwise you don’t have a “game” you have a spreadsheet.

    Honestly, aren’t all computer games, and possibly ALL games, just spreadsheets with fancy window dressing? But that’s not how they’re experienced.

    I would think as a designer, your “big job” is to provide such a “pretty package” (which includes narrative as one of the tools at your disposal) that the player doesn’t even notice “the guts” of the game.

    Of course there are games without an explicit narrative – it’s just one of the tools out there to provide context. Players will provide their own narrative for this kind of game. You can’t stop imagination.

  6. February 12, 2009 6:17 pm

    @Marchosias – Yes, that’s how we want the player to perceive it. The challenge is in creating it, and that’s when we also need to see it from the other side. In this framework, it is a challenge to integrate story into games, particularly in MMOs for a variety of reasons.

  7. February 12, 2009 9:23 pm

    To add a point in general here – I do not mean to downplay the importance of narrative at all. Indeed, without it, I think 98% fewer players would desire to wade through the databases that I create. Narrative provides the reward that keeps us moving forward, that makes us want to continue the adventure.

  8. February 12, 2009 11:27 pm

    I think the point here is not the player perception, but rather the need for the designer to acknowledge that under all the narrative and all the fluff, it’s all just bytes and algorithms on a disc. The player doesn’t have to realize this (in fact, part of the struggle is to make sure that they don’t) but the designer must know it always.

  9. February 13, 2009 8:40 am

    Let me ask this. Because you’re all primarily interested in electronic games, aren’t you taking a “programmer’s perspective” here when you say games are essentially tables and algorithms? Isn’t this a limitation of the medium, particularly dating back to the time when video games were necessarily one-person activities? Though I have been a programmer, I come at games from the perspective of psychology (and sometimes history). Top-class players of games with more than one side, more than one player, “play the players”, not the rules system. (David Sirlin’s outstanding book “Playing to Win” on playing video fighting games is full of the psychology of play–but he’s talking about a two-player game, not a one-player-and-computer game. http://www.sirlin.net/ptw) In the real world, psychology is dominant: Napoleon said something like “in war, the psychological is to the physical as three is to one”. Generals “play the other generals”. History itself is a tale of how groups of people, and sometimes individuals, coped with problems–both story and psychology.

    It isn’t necessarily the story that creates interest in the bare rules (tables, algorithms), it’s how the rules affect the players and how players can manipulate the rules that creates interest–in multi-player games, at least. In terms of MDA, it’s the dynamics that draw in and maintain interest of many players, not the mechanics or the story (which is often tacked-on). When you say a game is just tables and algorithms, aren’t you in effect saying it’s just mechanics?

    (As an aside, perhaps one reason why so many video games are played once or twice and then set aside, rather than played again and again over many years as is the case with the best boardgames (no, I don’t mean Monopoly!), is that they’re too much mechanics and not enough dynamics?)

  10. February 13, 2009 10:26 am

    @Lewis – In this case, I don’t agree. Tables and algorithms are at their best in wargames and non-digital RPGs. As you note, the mechanics are the algorithms of the non-digital world, and it relies on the mind as digital games often rely on the computer.

  11. February 15, 2009 8:07 pm

    Hi Brathwaite (or should I use the handle ‘bbrathwaite’?),

    Do you think it’s essentially illusionism to have it that you have to fight to turn the page? That it merely gives the illusion you affect the narrative by giving you some fightey busy work to do to turn a page?

    I remember years back, I’m not sure if it was made, but a Xena game was supposed to give you the option in combat of either going for lethal or non lethal attacks. Non lethal meant a harder fight – but, I would say, with the obvious moral position that you did not murder to meet your ends.

    In terms of finishing the game and just strictly looking at that element, would you say that does give you more control over the narrative than mere page turning? At the end you have decided when you would or would not kill and why?

    I mean for yourself as a player – obviously the database don’t care. But for yourself, would you say that you have written your own narrative (written your own little story) rather than just turned the pages of someone elses story?

  12. February 21, 2009 1:37 am

    Aww, really hoping for an answer *cue sad music and walking off, like a sad charlie chaplin…*

  13. February 21, 2009 9:41 am

    @Callan – Yes, it’s been a busy week. Sorry for missing the answer. To get to that, though… “Do you think it’s essentially illusionism to have it that you have to fight to turn the page? That it merely gives the illusion you affect the narrative by giving you some fightey busy work to do to turn a page?” Yes, I do think it’s an illusion. For a moment, let’s not consider emergent story – the stuff is entirely made by the player like how you and your friend killed some boss and you very nearly were toasted on the spot. All stories in games are designed ahead of time. Take something like Wizardry 8 – I think I had 5 or 6 beginnings in there and there were also many multiple endings. WIthin that collection, there were loads of different possible paths that you could travel down. However, every one of those was determined in advance by me. That is not to say there is not reward in that, though. I still remember how great it felt to read Lonesome Dove. It was an amazing adventure, and I never left the chair (except to carry on life… it was a long book).

    With the Xena example you mention, there are really two things there – character development and story telling. We develop characters through the mask of a story, and through that story we can see both their motivation and their reward. In choosing to give them the power over how they will advance – lethal or non-lethal – I would see it as just a different of combat engine, but still a database underneath. Numbers fight, one wins, and we put a fiction on that one that’s palatable.

    In every game, there is by necessity a player written narrative. My story in Wizardry 1 is way bigger than the designers’ story. The experience we have provides us that.

  14. February 21, 2009 4:14 pm

    Thanks for the reply! Hope it’s not too busy!

    Well yes, in every game there is a player written narrative. But when that player written narrative pretty much matches the narrative the designer had in mind, it’s kind of…I dunno, how would you put it?

    My point with the Xena example is that the player written narrative could sharply different from the sort of narrative the author of the game might have in mind (ie, the narrative the author would write if they played the game themselves).

    A game where you can play and yet not simply ape the authors narrative (And I mean do so without ignoring the games reward structure – play that fits the reward structure of the game, but doesn’t ape the authors narrative…if you get what I mean)

    Of course the next step would be if you could challenge the authors ideas and potentially change their mind on matters, to some degree, through gameplay. But I think that may only be genuinely available through table top roleplay.

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