To choose a Mage.

Games are full of choices, moments where players have the ability to select between two mutually or at least partially exclusive options. They can also frequently present possibilities that are closer to The Magician’s Choice, an illusion of choice if not a choice itself. Both ways of determining future actions have their place, for the moment I want to consider the former, the selection of one of multiple possible actions through an act of decision based on an understanding of the potential consequences.

Such choices can occur across multiple layers, the aesthetic, “Do I wear the green robes or the red robes?”, the narrative “Do I select the aggressive dialogue line or the neutral dialogue line?”, or the mechanical “Do I upgrade Inferno or Cone of Cold?” When considering these choices it makes sense to examine their consequences within the layer in which they occur, if there is no mechanical or narrative difference between wearing green or red robes then it follows that the only criteria that needs to be considered when making that decisions are aesthetic concerns.

Obviously this is not always the case, to blur the separation between these layers choices in the aesthetic and narrative layer are frequently tied to underlying mechanical choices, ensuring that all actions in some way have a mechanical consequence. So the choice between the red robes and the green robes isn’t simply an aesthetic one, the red robes may provide a bonus to Fire Resistance, while the green robes increase Critical Hit chance; the aggressive dialogue line may lead to a fight, while the neutral line offers a new side quest.

Continued progress in a game is linked inextricably to choices made on the mechanical layer, be they clearly defined mechanical choices, or those contextualised as aesthetic or narrative choices. These choices do not necessary need to be complex systemic decisions, nor do they need to have long term consequences, choosing to fire the Shotgun over the Rocket Launcher is still a mechanical choice even if it is a fairly superficial one. With this in mind it is logical to conclude that during play actions taken are determined primarily by their mechanical impact rather than aesthetic or narrative considerations. Examined logically why would anybody make a choice that gave them a mechanical disadvantage? Even when a narrative choice is presented the consequences in a mechanical sense are often indicated, though not always explicitly. Consider Dragon Age II though I may choose to side with the apostate mage Anders in an argument, I am aware that increasing his approval or disapproval has direct mechanical benefits, his abilities will improve in different ways if he becomes a trusted friend or a bitter rival. This is a mechanical choice contextualised by narrative presentation.

Where the interconnectedness of choices across multiple layers becomes noteworthy is when choices are made in one layer that have detrimental effects in the others, specifically when choices are made in the aesthetic or narrative layer that have mechanical consequences. Logically players should never make choices that have detrimental mechanical consequences, it makes no sense to make a game difficult for yourself when that is not your intent. Things are rarely that straightforward, player behaviour, as with all human behaviour, is only rarely logical.

Anders has a tendency to take an absolutist view of the world. A perspective that can lead him to acts just as extreme as those of the Templars he opposes.

Let’s return to Anders and events that occurred during Dragon Age II. Since I had met him the relationship between the player character Hawke, and Anders had been a pleasant one. There were minor disagreements yes, but a lot of flirting and as a healer Anders had a vital mechanical role in my party. However certain events transpired in Act II, that led me to make a series of decisions that resulted in Anders leaving, for as it turned almost the entire rest of the game. I understood the consequences of making such a choice, and yet I made that decision not based on the mechanical consequences, but the narrative ones. I was no longer comfortable with Anders in my party, or more specifically I felt that regardless of my personal opinion, Hawke now considered him a risk to herself and her family. With Bethany confined to the Circle and unable to join the party, Anders’ departure left me with a single Mage (Merrill) who had no healing abilities. This forced me to rework my strategy and party composition. For the next several hours the mechanical experience of playing was altered dramatically because of an action I took based not on its mechanical presentation but on its narrative one. Everything about playing Dragon Age II that can be said to be uniquely mine, which is to say the experience and the memories I have, was changed by making that decision.

For choices to be meaningful their consequences need to be experienced, games need to be played to be understood. It was only through playing that the full impact of my actions revealed themselves.

Mechanical choices are the glue that tie the different layers of a game together. That does not mean players will, or should, always make decisions based on mechanical consequences exclusively.

It cannot be said with total accuracy that players only see games as dynamic mechanical systems and will make their decisions based exclusively on that basis. To focus design primarily on the mechanics of a game without equal consideration of the impact of the aesthetic, narrative or other contextualising elements at work risks creating a gulf between the design and the act of interacting with that design. The different presentational layers of a game are not engaged with in a vacuum, how choices are presented and responded to across these layers cannot fail to have some influence over the decision making process. What can seem like an ideal choice given the circumstances can easily become an undesirable one because of it’s impact on other layers of the game.

Framework for Systemic Storytelling, Part 2.

Building off the initial framework outlined in Part 1 these additional concepts serve to provide means of structure and control. The primary appeal of this model is that it marries dramatic character development with player agency while potentially allowing for more variation than can efficiently be achieved through the use of branching narratives alone.

For a possible manner in which the described concepts could be used within an existing game consider the myriad characters in Alpha Protocol with their conflicting goals and motivations. Instead of the increasingly complicated branching structures that were used the relationships between different characters and between each of them and the player could be handled systemically. For the player the observable outcome might well be very similar to that achieved by scripting each possible interaction, but by defining those relationships systemically and by allowing players inputs into that system numerous additional options are opened up and the range of player expression is increased.

General Concepts:

  • Abandon the use of plot as the overriding motivator for progression focus instead on character motivations.

Separating player actions from a scripted plot allows players to take actions based on their desired outcome, or at the very least their least undesirable outcome, rather than the outcome decreed by the original designer. In the Alpha Protocol example a similar structure to the one that was used could be encouraged by simply giving the player the objective of disrupting the plans of Ali Shaheed. Certain characters would be motivated to help, others to hinder based on their long term goals as defined by the designers and writers.

  • Rely on basic assumptions about player psychology.

Players will naturally apply human traits and motivations to characters and they will tend to continue following a path they find interesting. If your characters are strong enough players will want to see their arcs through to the end. (Unsurprisingly this sections requires more in depth analysis and study to ensure that any assumptions made are accurate and appropriate.)

  • Focus on character arcs over plot arcs.

Dramatic moments are subjective what is important to one character is a non-event to another don’t try to imbue a scene with emotion if the characters the player is focusing on have nothing at stake.

  • Populate the world with characters that have non-aligned goals and motivations.

Two characters with directly aligned long term goals does not make for dramatically interesting conflict. Allowing the player to take sides, or not, based upon their actions immediately requires one or more of the characters to adjust their plans thereby creating conflict.

  • Allow events to unfold without player involvement.

If two characters are motivated to kill each other and the player or other characters do not act to stop them let them kill each other. The player doesn’t need to witness such events but they should, like all other characters, be affected by the consequences.

  • Treat the player as another character.

Don’t create special case interactions between the player and other characters.

  • Determine player choices based on the actions they take not through explicit decision points.

Defining players based on their actions allows characters to make judgements based on what they do and therefore react to them as they would any other character. Where the player goes, when, with whom and what they do there should all be used to determine other characters reactions to them.

  • Define player verbs by the characters, props and setting.

Don’t allow the player to use a weapon or directly attack other characters if it is inappropriate to the setting. A political thriller calls for a range of characters and props that a fantasy adventure does not, player verbs should be defined accordingly.

  • Use characters, and setting to determine genre and theme.

If the cast of characters, settings and props are those befitting a noir story then the choices available to the player can be organically restricted to those that are thematically appropriate for such a story. Genre conventions in this sense are not necessary a flaw and in fact they can help players understand the range of options available to them.

  • Make it clear that motivations assigned to actions are character specific.

If players want to act a certain way to gain the support of a specific character let them. They are not gaming the system, they are manipulating particular characters.

  • Implement a wide variety of vectors by which to inform players of events and character motivation.

News reports, emails, diaries, gossip, all these methods and more can be used to impart information to the player regarding events in the world and the motivations of particular characters.

  • Track interactions of players with the various means of obtaining information to create a model of player awareness of world events.

By tracking the vectors through which players obtain information, assumptions can be made regarding what events the player may or may be aware of at any given time.

Structure and Dramatic control:
The following are methods of controlling the structure and flow of the player’s experience and preventing potential combinatorial explosion. In general these rely on filtering possible character actions based on certain criteria. This criteria can either be defined at creation, or set up to change based on specific events.

  • Use dramatic filters to modify or influence possible character choices.

The use of specific constraints on character behaviour can be used to promote certain aesthetic experiences. A theme of tragic romance can be promoted by limiting character actions to those motivated primarily by emotional considerations over practical ones. (Requires codification of dramatic and thematic concepts, needs further examine in a later post.) This should not be necessary except in very specific circumstances because the characters and setting will have been designed initially to be ones appropriate to the theme.

  • Use player knowledge and player awareness to filter character choices.

Limit the ability of a character to take actions with wide ranging consequences if the player only has limited awareness of that character. This can be overridden by a dramatic filter for example if the player seems likely to meet this character in the future, allowing their influence to be felt before their make their presence known might be more appropriate.

  • As time progresses limit the influence of characters the player has had little or no interaction with.

Focus the story down to those characters the player had shown themselves to be more interested in. This will help to prevent events from occuring unexpectedly.

  • If necessary create a “Fate” character to allow actions to occur beyond the control of all other characters.

If designers desire certain events to occur such events can be instigated by a general purpose “Fate” character, who effectively serves as a designer proxy. Ideally such a character would never be needed but the possibility exists to allow this framework to work in support of a more scripted story.

Stories can be created that revolve around character emotions and desires rather than objects. What follows is an incomplete list of potential story beats possible with the techniques described. All these moments would occurred dynamically based on player actions and characters’ reaction to, and interpretation of, those actions. In all these instances player actions could lead to a variation upon or a complete reversal of events. Consider the possibilities offered by such events occurring dynamically in a game like Alpha Protocol or Deus Ex.

  • A character might lie to the player to get them to perform a specific task so they can avoid being implicated.

Because the transmission of information is modeled it might fit a character’s motivations for a certain action to be performed but not attributed to them. The variables that govern a desire for a certain outcome and a desire to maintain positive relationships with certain other characters might both be high.

  • A player could act as a puppet master exploiting the desires of multiple characters to bring about a specific occurrence.

With an understanding of the way in which knowledge of events propagates, players could manipulate the flow of information to convince characters to take actions on their behalf. This is in essence a reversal of the previous example.

  • While working for a particular character the player is betrayed because their previous actions, which had been unknown, come to light.

Information about actions occurs through interaction between characters so it is not instantaneously. It would be possible therefore, for a player to take an action detrimental to a charcter’s desires and then start working with that character, only for them to then discover the player’s earlier actions.

  • Characters with competing motivations and long term goals join forces because the actions of the player have disrupted both their plans.

Certain actions on the part of the player could make them a more immediate problem for two otherwise competing characters, leading them to both take actions to deal with the player, thereby either directly or indirectly helping each other.

Framework for Systemic Storytelling, Part 1.

One of the manifold strengths of games is their ability to codify and contextualise interaction and through that provoke a sense of agency and investment.

At the heart of stories, and vital to their ability to provoke emotional reactions, are characters in conflict with each other, either directly or indirectly.

If we are to even consider interactive or systemic storytelling we need to leverage the strengths of games in a way that gets to the heart of what give stories their power. The following are some of the my own first steps towards a conceptual framework for systemic storytelling.

Of the concepts and techniques described below the majority are implementable in a basic form using current technology, however they are still only building blocks and a substantial amount of further development in design and implementation terms is required.

Part 2 can be found here.

Characters and Players:

  • Don’t create allies or antagonists create Characters.

Define Characters both contextually and functionally. Create AI Characters that are autonomous Agents with their own personalities, goals and motivations. Use these variables to determine their behaviour and reaction to the Player’s actions. Let them become allies or antagonists based on the Player’s behaviour and their own perception of it.

  • Provide Characters with a view of the world based on actions and outcomes.

Model the world based on objects with associated variables. Make this space searchable, in an AI sense, so each Agent can select the appropriate actions to take based on the desired future state of objects in the world, as determined by their specific personalities.

  • Alter the state of objects indirectly.

Don’t allow Players or Characters to directly change object variables, instead utilise temporary objects to provoke changes in other objects: A Grenade creates an Explosion and a Fire object; a Door reacts to the Explosion object by taking damage and the Fire object by starting to burn, the Fire Alarm object also reacts to the Fire object by sounding an alarm and initiating Sprinkler systems. Multiple objects can react to a single temporary object depending on context and proximity.

  • Model knowledge of events based on connections between Characters.

Initially only allow knowledge of an event to be passed directly to those Characters who witnessed the event. Propagate that knowledge through the network of Characters based on their connections to each other: Allies share information, Enemies don’t. Any Characters who don’t receive knowledge of events directly should only receive knowledge of the consequences as represented by the changed state of objects within the world. Propagate changes in the world to the player through the same channels.

  • Define Character “intelligence” based on their ability to comprehend object interactions.

Limited the searchable possibility space for each Character based on their personality traits. The more “intelligent” a particular Character the further along the chain of indirect object interactions they can search. Standard “Grunts” are only aware of first-order actions and their consequences, limiting their perceived intelligence but allowing for faster reaction times.

  • Determine player knowledge through evaluation.

Test Player’s knowledge of the state of objects within the world by requiring them to make use of that knowledge in future actions. If they fail  to act on this knowledge either reinforce or continue, as required.

  • Contextualise Player behaviour based on Player knowledge.

If Players are repeatedly acting against the interest of a Character whose motivations they have been made aware of, it can be assumed that they  are choosing to act in a fashion they know to run counter to that Character’s desires. Use this to codify Player motivations and then reinforce/reinterpret based on future Player behaviour.

  • Use past Player actions to make predictions about future actions.

Assume consistency and use that to make predictions about the Player’s likely actions. Have Characters base their interactions with Players on these predictions.

  • Use predictions based on past Player actions to define each Character’s “emotional reaction”.

If a Player has consistently been helping a specific Character and then acts against them treat that as a betrayal and have the Character react according based on their personality. Use similar behavioural predictions to handle emotional reactions to other changes in Player behaviour over time.

Groping The Map: Introduction.

Next week witnesses the beginning of a new phase for this site. Starting Monday evening (GMT) Groping The Map is a series of in depth examinations of a single level. Each new instalment will see me take a detailed look at a game level from the past several years that has been personally memorable or influential. For each level I will look at structure, encounter placement, aesthetics, layout and related design issues. Accompanying screenshots will be used to highlight particularly notable aspects of the design. The individuals posts that make up a single Groping The Map instalment will be longer that is traditional for this site, however I will strive to make each one worth reading.

The time needed to produce a single instalment is variable but significant, and so I cannot commit to a fixed schedule, however I will endeavour to provide at least one instalment approximately every six to eight weeks. Traditional posts will continue, time permitting, in the intervals between instalments. I am open to suggests for levels for subsequent instalments of Groping The Map, as the current list is specifically focused on those levels that resonate with me personally, therefore it is biased towards a particular style of game. Once I have worked through these first few instalments I will begin to move beyond the first person shooter genre for my analysis. I’m also soliciting suggestions for a better name for the series.

UPDATE: Future plans for Groping The Map are detailed here.

I have now complied the three existing Groping The Map articles into .pdf files for easy distribution, they can be found here, feel free to share:

Living with your mistakes.

Structurally Mass Effect 2 is built around the concept of recruiting a team to participate in a ‘suicide mission’. Each new character recruited has their own  specific quest line, a part of their lives they feel compelled to resolve before committing fully to a task that may lead to their own demise. These loyalty quests become available after a character has been with the player’s crew for a predefined length of time and their successful completion causes that character to be considered ‘loyal’ to the player; unlocking new abilities along with a palette swap costume change.

Personally I find the former a useful addition, and the latter a little difficult to swallow, it does not help that the costumes changes lead to your party looking like the Halloween Goth Power Rangers.

Conceptually these loyalty quests offer some of the most interesting situations in the game, and in some cases their implementation pushes against the traditional boundaries of a BioWare title. Though one loyalty quest in particular seems  full of unfulfilled potential. One of the last characters it’s possible to recruit, the asari Justicar Samara, is on the trail of an Ardat-Yakshi, a serial killer who murders her victims during what is for all intents and purposes sexual intercourse. Samara’s loyalty quest involves the player agreeing to act as bait for the Ardat-Yakshi, Morinth. As thematically dubious and clichéd as the concept of a female serial killer who literally uses sex as a weapon is, the concept of the player acting as bait for a dangerous predator is one loaded with possibility.

Entering a club unarmed and alone, the player, as Commander Shepard, is tasked with attracting the interest of Morinth in the hope of being invited back to her apartment where the trap can be sprung before the Shepard herself becomes the next victim.

Unfortunately the dramatic and gameplay potential of such a sequence is quickly undermined, it doesn’t take long to realise that failure is unlikely. A player would need to go out of their way to create a situation where they could fail absolutely. I’m not actually sure failure is a possibility, it would take a concerted effort to select the wrong option and it might simply just delay success even if the player tried.

As rich with potential as the concept of serving as bait to trap a predatory serial killer is, the manner in which it is implemented and its resolution leave it feeling shallow and rushed. It could have become a much more meaningful aspect of Mass Effect 2‘s narrative if it had been possible for Morinth to spot the trap and escape. Shepard had put themselves in mortal peril to help Samara and therefore would have shown they were worthy of Samara’s loyalty, and so the quest line itself would be completed, if not resolved as Morinth would have escaped to kill again.

The lack of impact this loyalty quest has on the rest of the game is more disappointing because Mass Effect 2 already uses a variety of techniques to track changes in the state of the world. News reports, emails, and the reactions of characters help to keep the player informed of the consequences of their actions; the structure is already in place for the player to hear about other murders committed by Morinth after escaping the player’s trap. The possibility of Morinth surviving her encounter with Samara and Shepard could also be carried through into Mass Effect 3 adding to the already strong sense of investment players have in Shepard through the continuity of choices made throughout Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2.

A founding principle of the design of Mass Effect 2 seems to be the concept that the player’s choices must be the final deciding factor in any situation. Resolution of a quest is not about a player’s ability but about which choice the player makes: Paragon or Renegade. I can understand why this is desirable for the main quest, I can’t honestly condemn anything that keeps people playing when they might otherwise abandon a game unfinished. However Samara’s loyalty quest is optional, allowing the player to fail and yet continue with the main quest seems to have more dramatic potential than simply required the player to select between the standard Paragon and Renegade options once again.

Several years ago I played the FMV adventure game Spycraft: The Great Game, despite the obvious flaws of such a format there was at least one specific incident that stays with me. During the final few hours of the game, the player is presented with what appears to be a side quest (At the time I my understanding of game design wasn’t well formed enough for me to realise that the inherent nature of FMV games means very few non-essential elements can be included) to locate and recover a stolen nuclear warhead due to be traded to a terrorist organisation.

There are several parts to this side quest: the player is required to capture an arms dealer; obtain the information necessary to persuade him to divulge the location of the trade (Including information about the names and location of his family); and finally to attend the trade and either through force or guile recover the nuclear warhead. At each of these stages it’s possible to fail, and though you are reprimanded for your inability to recover the warhead, the main plot continues and you are told that another team will be sent in to recover the warhead. The assumption is that this mission was secondary to the main plot which involves the assassination of the President of the United States, and that failure of the player’s part is problematic but that eventually the warhead will be recovered by other means.

However this assumption is one that comes back to haunt the player at the end of the game regardless of how the player resolves the main quest; which in a similar fashion to Mass Effect 2 comes down to a binary choice. If the player has failed to recover the warhead, during the closing sequence a news report from outside the United States Capitol is interrupted when a nuclear device is detonated in Washington D.C. dramatically undercutting whatever success the player may have felt upon resolving the main assassination plot.

The consequences of failing to trap Morinth do not need to be as abrupt, but certainly it could be powerful to hear reports of further victims, and her presence as an active force in the galaxy could carry forward into a dramatic confrontation in Mass Effect 3.

There is narrative and ludic power in requiring players to live with the consequences of their actions, it seems a waste for this potential to go unfulfilled. Will Wright has said, justifiably, that video games can actually make players feel guilty, and surely fundamental to that sense of guilt is having to live with your mistakes.

Narrative through level design variation.

In the interests of pacing it’s not uncommon for action games, and first person shooters in particular, to vary the style of gameplay over the course of the game as a whole, and over the course of individual levels. This variation of gameplay style leads to a variation in the aesthetic experience of play, and because of which it can be used as a narrative tool.

While playing Resistance: Fall of Man, I found I was able to break each level down into a combination of seven distinct styles of gameplay. With one notable exception all of these different gameplay styles used the same control scheme. In order to provide this degree of variety without changes to the core mechanics, changes were made to the layout of the levels, the placement of enemies and other objects (Nouns), and the range of tools (Verbs) available to the player. This form of level design is common throughout action games.

The seven distinct gameplay styles in Resistance, should be  familiar to anybody who’s played an action game in the last decade:

  • [A] Combat in a corridor or along another form of restricted path.
  • [B] Combat in an open area.
  • [C] Boss Battles.
  • [D] Mini-Boss Battles.
  • [E] Navigation past mines, and other traps.
  • [F] Combat against Turrets or other fixed emplacements.
  • [G] Vehicle Combat. (The sole exception where a new control scheme is used).

While each level in Resistanceis united by an overriding narrative goal and aesthetic (Visual, aural) theme, the gameplay is made up of a combination of these seven different gameplay styles. It’s possible to examine each level and break it down into a string of characters describing the gameplay, for example BEFAB, or ABDAG.

Each of these gameplay styles changes the experience of play, eliciting a different psychological reaction from the player. Therefore it’s possible to ascribe certain emotional responses to each gameplay style. Often in areas that are focused on gameplay style B (Combat in open areas) the player is provided with support from allied non-player characters, the aesthetic experience is one of cooperation and teamwork. Areas that are focused on gameplay style E (Navigation past mines, and other traps) keep the player alone and lead to slow and careful progress, the aesthetic experience being one of tension and deliberate action.

A level built from the structure BE evokes an aesthetic experience of teamwork followed by tension and isolation, an implied narrative of having to “go it alone”. This is a different emotional reaction to a level structured as EB, which contains an implied narrative escaping isolation and “pushing through to your teammates”. In the former case the narrative arc of the level moves from a position of  camaraderie and power to one of tension and isolation, a downward arc. In the latter the arc is reversed and the player ends the level with a with a sensation of power and comfort that they did not possess at the start, an upward arc.

In this way it’s possible for a level designer to indirectly influence the emotional experience of a player, altering  their personal narrative, through changes in the gameplay style of a level.

Who are you?

Who is Gordon Freeman?

That is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The elements of his character that can be said to be fixed, are insubstantial and provide little that is definitive. In reality there are a hundred thousand Gordon Freemans, a million. Each person who plays Half-Life has a subtly different interpretation of who Gordon Freeman is yet in each instance he is explicitly not the player; he may be of a different race, a different gender, or may simply have a different name. At the same time it cannot accurately be said that Gordon Freeman is a specific pre-authored character. He is in fact a composite entity who’s authorship is shared between two different individuals separated by a multitude of factors, not least time and physical location.

The precise nature of this shared authorship is unique to the interactive medium however there are some striking similarities to a type of authorship that has been occurring for decades in other media. Let me present another question.

Who is Batman?

I expect everybody reading this has an instant mental image of a specific character. Everybody’s mental depiction of Batman will share some key similarities but the precise nature of that character will be subtly different. Some will be more influenced by the recent work of Christopher Nolan and Christian Bale, others might go back further with a concept of Batman heavily based around the work of Tim Burton and Micheal Keaton, or that of Frank Miller, or Tim Sale and Jeph Leob. Over the years, hundreds of different artists have reinterpreted the character of Bruce Wayne and Batman through the lens of their own tastes and beliefs. Each of these is unique and yet all of them are still identifiably Batman.

Consider how this relates to the original question: Who is Gordon Freeman? There are some fixed elements of Freeman’s character, defined by Marc Laidlaw and Valve Software, the rest is constantly reinterpreted by each player through the lens of their own actions. In one instance Gordon Freeman is cold, methodical and precise, in another he is messy, aggressive and violent.

Much as each writer, or actor, brings their own style to the character of Batman, each player brings their own style to the character of Gordon Freeman.

The specific instance of Gordon Freeman each player experiences exists within the common ground constrained by the boundaries set down by the original creators and those imposed by the actions of the player.

This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to shared authorship, but even in an otherwise linear game such as Half-Life there is a layer of player interpretation that makes every player’s experience uniquely theirs.

Mechanical Definitions.

At a low enough level all game mechanics are the same, we press a button, move a stick, and something happens. Action and Outcome. Process and Result. Context is what allows us to determine if we are moving a ship through space or a counter across a board context is provided by the narrative of the game.

If a plot is conceptually a “to do list” of events, then the rules of a game define the game’s systemic plot, what actions are possible and when. Using this metaphor game mechanics are the constituent, atomic, elements of a game plot, so what are the constituent elements of a narrative plot? Sentences? Dialogue? Games are often compared to film, and a line of dialogue, an individual frame, these are potentially the atomic elements of film?

As a method of conveying meaning, what is the role of any line of dialogue, any scene?

  1. To move the story forward.
  2. To provide information.
  3. To characterise.

Nothing is wasted. Everything that is present should be important, and everything important should be present. If a character walks a certain way, it should provide information, characterise and move the story forward, or at least two of three. Shouldn’t the same hold for any game mechanic? How do we define a specific game mechanic precisely enough to determine if it meets any of these three criteria?

“Shoot this Grunt” is that the mechanic? Or is the mechanic: “Move yourself in the world so that you are Aiming at this character and press the Fire button”?

If an individual mechanic is to be an atomic element then surely the latter is too complex? It is several discrete actions: Move, Aim and Fire. In Halo: Combat Evolved it requires moving two sticks independently then pulling a trigger. It also has to occur at the correct time. But then so does a line of dialogue, a particular scene. If they occur at the wrong time they make no sense.

Events in the wrong context hold incorrect meaning.

Is it actually sensible to try and examine game mechanics devoid of context? Should a game mechanic be considered an action within a context? Not: “Press this button to increase this number”, which increases some arbitrary number in the underlying simulation of the game but: “Increasing my Strength”? Should it be even more high level, an abstract: “Improve\Change my Character”?

If game mechanics should carry meaning at which level should that meaning exist? Or does it exist at each level? Is meaning implicit in action or is it, as I’ve discussed previously, tied to context? Context might inform whether we are moving a ship through space or a counter across a board, but does the action itself hold meaning free of this context?

Is it the responsible of the narrative context, to move the story forward, provide information and characterise or is it possible for mechanics to do that separate from their context?

Contextual Specification.

When it comes to the creation of the common ground in which play occurs, the boundaries themselves can either be embedded or emergent.

Embedded boundaries are those defined prior to, and separate from, the act of play itself. They are the rules of the game and the narrative overlaid on those rules. These elements define what is possible and provide an underlying context.

Emergent boundaries are those that exist only during play, they include the actions of the player (though these are limited by the embedded rules), and the perceptions and biases the player brings to the narrative.

The embedded boundaries define the range of possible actions and motivations, the emergent boundaries define the precise actions and the motivations assigned to them by the player. Embedded boundaries provide the scope, emergent boundaries the specific shape.

Emergent boundaries are unique to each player and each play session, emergent boundaries form the fabula out of the entire possibility space of the game and its associated narrative. It is not possible for a designer to control these emergent boundaries they can only use the embedded boundaries to shape and influence the possible form of each player’s fabula.

The rules through which a designer controls and regulates the player’s interaction with a game directly influence the play experience but without context such abstract rules are meaningless. They can define what is possible but they cannot influence the meaning a player takes from a game. In order for rules to convey an emotion or idea, they need some narrative assigned to them.

The rules establish what actions are possible, the verbs, adverbs and nouns available to the player and their interactions. The narrative provides a fictional explanation for these actions as well as providing concrete instances of the nouns. The concept that “on contact blue objects remove red objects ” is a rule but the notion that “blue objects are water” and “red objects are blood” is part of the narrative. Additional elements of narrative can be layered on top leading to the concept that “water cleans blood”. The rules of the game have not changed from the original interaction of blue and red objects but now the action of using blue objects on red objects has been imbued with a much richer meaning.

The more narrative elements that are used to define the context the more specific the game becomes, and more pared down the range of potential meanings. The number of games that feature blue objects and red objects is huge, when the interaction between them is define the number of games that still fit that definition is reduced, this process of specification continues with each additional layer of narrative that is added.

Consider the the rule that “grey objects change their properties over time” this is a valid dynamic that is true of many objects, even now you are likely adding a context to that relationship to better understand it. If I contextualise “grey objects” as “weapons” then the range of valid possible examples are limited, though the relationship could still describe many situations from a weapon that can only function under certain circumstances, such as the “Hammer Of Dawn” from Gears Of War, to weapons that degrade in usability over time, such as those in Far Cry 2.

This process of specification is what takes a game from a collection of mechanics and dynamics to an experience with the potential to engage and enthrall. The embedded boundaries put in place by the designer can only take this specification so far. At that point the emergent boundaries defined by the player take it from the contextualised actions of the game itself to the unique personal experience of play.

Abstract concepts can be powerful but are difficult to appreciate without specific examples. In a game with little narrative context players will assign their own. They will personify game objects and assign motivations to their actions, becoming confused and frustrated if future actions do not fit these self assigned motivations.

This is an important consideration as player expectation is shaped as much, if not more, by their own perceptions and beliefs as it by any narrative context provided by the game itself.

Whenever any narrative element is layered onto a game mechanic not only does it strip out all other potential meanings it also bring with it a wealth of meaning both explicit or implied. These implied meanings are the most difficult to contend with, as they are part of the emergent boundaries defined by the player and are  often highly subjective.

The entire concept of ludonarrative dissonance exists because the implied context and meaning of abstract game mechanics are not taken into consideration. The embedded narrative context assigned to a specific game mechanic at the low level is in conflict with the narrative context layered onto the game at a higher level. What players have been led to believe about a game mechanic from its basic context with all its implied meaning, is being contradicted by the narrative presented at a higher level. The embedded boundaries of the game are operating in opposition to the emergent boundaries defined by the player; the common ground has broken down. The designer has not taken into consideration the implied meanings and associations that a specific context provokes.

Narrative Context.

On several occasions I’ve recounted events that took place while I was playing a game. I’ve described in detail the actions I took and the consequences of those actions, as well as explaining my motivations and emotional reaction to such events:

Jumping out I threw a Molotov at the pursuing vehicle. The Molotov hit the driver setting him on fire and killing him almost instantly. Ducking behind my dune buggy I drew my silenced MP-5 and after a brief game of cat and mouse around some nearby trees I was able to to finish off the second mercenary with a burst to the chest. While I’d been otherwise occupied the fire from my Molotov had ignited their vehicle and as I watched it started to spread toward mine. I sprinted back in an attempt to reach it and drive away before it too could catch fire. I was forced to turn away at the last moment as, already damaged from the initial crash, it exploded, taking a significant portion of my health with it and leaving me standing in the middle of nowhere.

Despite being an accurate description of the events as I perceived them, none of those things occurred in any discernible, measurable way. What actually happen in that period of time was that I moved my mouse in a specific sequence and pressed certain keys in a specific order in reaction to the changing images on my monitor and sound emitted by my speakers.

Somehow I had become so invested in the fictional context constructed by the game that it overrode my logical faculties. The events occurring within its fictional world temporarily became my own reality.

The described sequence of events, my story of that encounter, is unique to me and it existed in an intangible non-space defined by the feedback systems of the game and my understanding and perception of the context of my actions.

I’ve already discussed the concept of games as systems of communication, and fundamental to effective communication is the establishment of a common ground between all participants. Without a common ground, a shared context, even rudimentary communication is difficult and effective communication is impossible.

This concept of communication is not unique to games. Every work of fiction exists for the audience in this non-space bounded by the intersection of the text itself, ripe as it is with the intent of the author, and the mind of the audience, with all its associated preconceptions and prejudices. The form of this common ground and the story describing an individual’s path through it are unique to each individual and each reading. Though the boundaries of this common ground defined by the text itself are immutable those defined by the audience are inherently subjective and flexible.

When reading a book the reader mentally explores this common ground and through this exploration discovers the intended plot. Although this predefined sequence of events will be identical for every reader their individual emotional connection and response to it will be entirely based on the subjective elements they have brought with them.

The act of reading is the act of discovering each person’s individual subjective story. The process Corvus Elrod describes as the construction of the fabula.

If this description of reading as a process of exploration sounds familiar it should. The act of play is the act of exploring a bounded possibility space. The process of exploration forming a personal story within the common grounded formed by the game itself and our own beliefs and values. The fundamental differences between this form of exploration in a game and in other media is that player action has the capacity to change the landscape of this common ground, this possibility space.

Though the audience of a film, or the reader of a novel, is free to explore the common ground and the boundaries defined by the author, those boundaries are absolute and predefined. Events occur in a specific sequence regardless of any action taken on the part of the audience. We are free to scream at the girl to not go up the stairs because the killer is waiting but we know it will have no affect on the outcome. The aspects of the common ground open to exploration are those related to our interpretation of events and motivations, and our emotional reaction to those events. Such works of fiction allow us to explore ourselves through our reaction to the fictional context.

This is not true of games. The events I  described above were not a predefined sequence of occurrences structured by an author, but an emergent sequence of events caused by a confluence of in game circumstances only some of which were under my control.

Game designers cannot directly affect the experience the player has in the game. Their role is that of influencing and shaping the possible experiences, and designing the context for play. Each player’s fabula is one of an infinite number that exist within the bounded possibility space defined by the mechanics and dynamics of the game and the players own personality. Such works allow us to explore ourselves and also the rules and systems governing the possibility space, the game, itself.

Rules and mechanics exists only in the abstract, though they implicitly provided for exploration and discovery, stripped of all context their ability to convey meaning is greatly reduced. Consider the story described above stripped of context and reduced to the basic mechanical elements:

“Verb”  I “Verb” a “Noun” at the pursuing “Noun”. The “Noun” hit the “Noun” setting him “Adjective” and “Verb” him almost instantly. “Verb” behind my “Noun” I “Verb” my “Noun” and after a brief game of cat and mouse around some nearby “Nouns” I was able to to finish off the second “Noun” with a “Verb” to the “Noun”.

Even that almost meaningless story still relies on some context. The story constructed through the exploration of an entirely context free possibility space is a list of mechanical inputs and outputs. In order for any game to hold meaning, and thus compel us to suspend our disbelief and allow it to become our temporary reality, it requires the effective establishment of a context for actions. The bounded possibility space needs to become a bounded narrative space.

So how does a game designer go about establishing this bounded narrative space, this common ground? How do they maintain effective and meaningful communication?

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