Monday, January 23, 2012

Narrative not a game mechanic?

I just stumbled upon Raph Koster's "Narrative is not a game mechanic" and found that it contains some stuff that I do not really agree with. Now, thinking somebody on the internet is wrong happens all the time, but I think this article brings up some stuff that warrants a reply. While it has up a few good points, it also contains views on a few concept that I think can be quite damaging when trying to expand upon the medium of videogames.

The word game is a very broad and fuzzy one. I can refer to boardgames, gambling, politics, drug dealing, sports and whatnot. For more part of the the article, Raph seems to be talking about videogames (given the black box analogy and that he specifically says "racing videogame"), but then later on slot machines and choose-your-own-stories are used as examples. Now one can see this as just using simply making a point, but I think the unclarity leads to an important issue: Videogames are very different from other games like chess, football, etc even though they are often lumped together.

The main reason why videogames are different is because they strictly impose rules upon the player. It is not really possible to play a videogame wrong, whereas playing football or chess (the physical versions) the wrong way are very easy. A videogame is more than a few game-rules, it is every single rule that you can possibly experience. Even basic laws of nature like friction and gravity play an essential role in a videogame. Videogames are not about following a specific rule-set, they are about being present inside a virtual world. The only way to really play a videogame incorrectly is to change the very fabric of its virtual reality, or to find some kind of exploitable flaw. (This is not strictly true, as one could say playing Mario and only running back and forth the first few pixels is not the correct way to play it, but I think I make my point).

In case you want more discussion on this, Chris Deleon goes into the issue a bit deeper here. My main point here is just that when discussing videogames, it is very common that all other kinds of games get thrown into the mix, and that is exactly what happens here. This does not mean that we should try and learn from other kind of games, but when we want to talk about the strength and weaknesses of our medium, we need to be clear what it is we are really talking about.

(I know I do say "game" when I really mean "videogame" from time to time. I hope I have become more clear on what I mean in later posts though. Also note that I sometimes simply use "game", after having just said "videogame" to make the text less repetitive. With that said, I hope I do not get too hammered because of improper usage :) )

A series of problems
This is something that have annoyed me for some time. It is the idea that videogames must pose some kind of challenge to the player. It leads to all kind issues, most importantly the idea that one needs to have trial-and-error in videogames. In my mind it is this kind of thinking what has been holding back videogames for quite some time.

In Raph's article, this thinking is best exemplified by:
"Cut the problem inside the black box, and you have a slideshow."
Once you get into this kind of mindset, I feel that there is so much you are missing out on. For instance, Amnesia would not have been possible to create if we had not let go of the belief that every meaningful interaction must have some kind of problem and challenge at heart. It is also a statement that makes videogames like Dear Esther impossible to create. It even dismisses a lot of what makes Silent Hill so great as bad videogame design. Needless to say, I think this is a very silly statement to make.

My view on the core of videogames is not that should to provide us with problems, but to immerse us in engaging virtual worlds. Sometimes problems are useful for doing this and sometimes not. But they are never what lies at the core of the experience.

Feedback is for fun
The way the article talks about feedback (graphics, sound effects, etc) is in a very simplistic manner: They are simply there to enhance the underlying mechanics. I believe that feedback, in any sensory form, can be a lot more than that. I think that visuals, etc can lie at the front and the mechanics can be a way of exploring them, hence you tweak the gameplay according to your visuals instead of the other way around.

Instead of seeing feedback as rewards for problem-solving, I think we should see them as a way to increase the feeling of presence in our virtual worlds. It is the ability to "kick back" that makes the virtual worlds of videogames so compelling and so different from other media like novels and film. If we see feedback as a tool of immersion, we can also stop seeing all interaction as problems. I think this brings forward a more inclusive view of what a videogame can be and is also much better at forming a platform for evolving the medium than the old narrow view.

I think there is a quite a confusion with words in the article. Narrative, in film theory, is how the story is told (how characters and plot are put together). When Raph talks about narrative in the sense of choose-your-own-adventure games, he is really referring to the plot. It is not narrative, but plot (ie some very specific events), that act has the reward for the player whenever they provide input.

It is much better to say that narrative is the subjective entirety of the session. This also goes along with Chris Bateman's view that all games tell a story and more interestingly that all art are games of some form. One could also take the view (which I do not) that narrative is, like in film, the way in which the story (plot and characters) are told, in which case narrative would be an umbrella term for game mechanics. In any case I do not think Raph's usage of the word is correct and a better title for his post would be "Plot is not a game mechanic". By saying it this way, I think the main point gets no stranger than "animations/sound/etc are not gameplay mechanics".

This might seem like a useless discussion in semantics, but I honestly think it is quite important. Right now, story, plot and narrative are mixed up to mean pretty much whatever, making discussions like "should our game focus on story" pointless. Language is our main tool for thinking, and if we cannot have a proper terminology, we will not be able to think properly.

The article's example from Batman: Arkham City is to me a very clear example of this kind of bad thinking. By saying that the "video of the Joker playing on a television set" is a narrative element, but then dismissing the entire climb that came before it as such, one is really missing out on the strengths of the videogame medium. For me I the Joker video is pure plot, a bit of needed exposition and not what is interesting. What is interesting is the climb up the cathedral. Here the player takes on the role of becoming Batman and, while performing interactive actions, forming a very compelling narrative.

As I have written before, in order to improve story-telling in games we need to consider stories beyond their plots.

End notes
Most of this post has been about meaning of words and of how to approach some concepts, but I hope that I still showed that it is a very important issue. Videogame is a medium that have grown from simplistic simulations, arcade machines and boardgames. This legacy has put its mark on a lot of nowadays thoughts on design, many of which are holding the medium back. The only way to move forward is to reassess this line of thinking and remove ingrained preconceptions of what a videogame is and needs to be. Not until we break the bonds of the past can we freely explore the future.