Mechanical NarrativeMay 3, 2005 · psu · 5 minute read
Two things have stuck in my brain about games lately.
The first is a long thread at The Grumpy Gamer that starts out being about cut scenes in modern games, and quickly meanders off through long and interesting discussions about the nature of narrative and games. A lot of people in thread lament the fact that many modern games are really just linear slogs from cut scene to cut scene.
The second is a snippet from one of the “Making of Halo 2” documentaries that came with the special edition of the game. You see one of the Bungie developers playing Halo and the voiceover describes what he is doing. First he sneaks up behind an enemy and wacks him on the head, then throws a grenade, then cleans up the survivors with the machine gun. Finally, he snipes a few far away enemies to clear the area. The Bungie guy then says “the challenge in the game design is how to string together this same 30 seconds of gameplay over and over again for 10 or 15 hours and keep it interesting.” Putting these two thoughts together made me think about the structure of the games I’ve been playing recently. The thread on the Grumpy Gamer points out that most of the big ticket games these days really are just fairly simple journeys in a straight line through the “plot” of the game. It also made me realize even the best of these narratives are, when compared to other mature narrative forms, fairly infantile and juvenile. Consider:
Knights Of the Old Republic: Main character with mysterious past must travel forward through a series of areas in The Empire and discover her ultimate destiny, be it for good or evil.
Mario and Luigi: Save Princess Peach! Uh oh! Save her again!
Knights of the Old Republic 2: Main character with mysterious past must travel forward through a series of areas in The Empire and discover her ultimate destiny, be it for good or evil.
Halo 2: Bad ass space marine fights a one man war. Between battles, he watches cut scenes.
Jade Empire: Main character with mysterious past must travel forward through a series of areas in The Empire and discover her ultimate destiny, be it for good or evil.
Splinter Cell: Terrorists plan world ending mischief. Sam travels from locale to locale in search of the head terrorist to save the world!
Shadow Hearts: Main character with mysterious past must travel forward through a series of areas in The Empire and discover his ultimate destiny, be it for good or evil.
Of course, I’m not really being fair. It would be just as easy to take five or fix books, or movies, and paint them with a broad snarky brush the way I have done here. In fact, I seem to remember that it’s been said that there are only three plots in all of fiction (or science fiction). But I think the main point stands. Many games follow formulaic narrative structures. The good games are crafted so the specific details of the game situation are interesting enough to keep the player engaged.
Similarly, most games depend on fairly simple and repetitive play mechanics:
Resident Evil 4: Shuffle into an area, shoot the zombies, find the key to the door so you can shuffle into the next area. After some number of areas fight a boss, repeat.
Splinter Cell: Sneak sneak, whack someone over the head, sneak sneak.
Jade Empire: Talk to people to find out where the bad guys are. Fight bad guys. Talk to more people to get side quests. Fight boss. Fly to next area.
Again, the good games craft their gameplay mechanics so that there is some apparent variety, or the core mechanics are so fun that you don’t care if the game is repetitive (e.g. the Halo 2 Bitchslap).
So what is my long-winded point? I think it is that a lot of games combine repetitive game mechanics with enough of a simple narrative to keep the player moving plot point to plot point. The good games distinguish themselves by making the details of the narrative interesting, and by crafting the gameplay to avoid annoyance and repetition. In other words, good games give you something fun to do and then provide you with a little snippet of plot as a Pavlovian reward. This keeps you moving forward in the game.
The Grumpy Gamer generally derides the role of “story” or what I’m calling “plot” in games. But I think that however weak these game narratives are in some absolute sense, people do play games to see the plot play out. So, while many in the gaming community see the cut scene to cut scene structure as annoyingly juvenile at best and as a stifling straightjacket at worst, I think that there are good reasons for games to work this way. When well used, familiar formulas give the player clues about how far along she is in the current area and to some extent in the game as a whole. This sense of pacing and context can be an important factor in keeping the player interested.
This is not to say that this is the only way to make a game interesting. Many interesting games have no plot at all (e.g. tetris). Some of the best online games have almost no structure at all, but playing wth or against other humans keeps you coming back. Counterstrike is the best example of this kind of game that I know of.
But, even given all this, I don’t think we should lament the formulaic structure of the plot heavy single player games. I think we should embrace the ones that work and strive to discover new ways exploit the strengths of the medium in that context. Meanwhile, I’ll be happy to shoot some more aliens to get to the next cut scene.