System and Story

‘Interactive’ is a convenient buzz-word that we’ve been using to describe games for some time. What separates games from other art, so we say, is that the audience acts upon the game and the game in turn acts upon them, a stable loop where each shapes the experience. This isn’t really unique to games; audiences interact with stage plays and novels all the time, controlling the pace and interpretation of the experience and occasionally making substantial differences in content. There’s a difference between the experience of more traditional narrative forms and the newer forms enabled by personal computing technology, but interactivity isn’t a very useful term to describe that difference.

But still, perhaps, it is a useful term to describe something else. Art is the experience of art, the moment where the audience perceives and interprets  the work the artist has created. The game is the experience of playing the game, the interaction of software and player, the moment of interpretation. This is the game as it is received, the final result, and is different for each player, alchemical. That’s not what we usually mean when we talk about art: We usually just talk about the physical, the painting or text or software product that enables that final experience, since that’s the part of it that we, as artists, can control directly.

Disregarding, for a moment, this final interaction between audience and work, there are other interactions internal to the work itself. Art is not just the sum of its parts, but the way those parts work in concert, the way they act upon each other – ‘interact’. The systems of the game and the narrative content of the game also interact, intersect, and the specifics of how they work together are, together with the player’s mental state, what shape the experience of the player. Any part of a game or other work of art can be viewed as an interaction of more elemental sections; the interaction between the strategic and tactical layers, the interaction between the music and environment, the interaction between two story lines.

Games are, however, an unusual art form in that they have robust systemic content. That is, most forms of media have fairly stodgy and restrained forms of input, and don’t generally have an intentionally designed set of responses to those inputs: Applause, laughter, cheering, gasping, these all may affect the performance, but rarely in ways explicitly set out by the author of the piece. Games usually provide many forms of explicit input, and respond in ways that are often unpredictable to those, mediated by several interlocking deterministic systems. Some designers like to think of the game as being comprised of those systems: It isn’t, any more than it’s comprised of its story. A game is comprised of the primary interaction, experiential interaction of the player and the work, and the secondary interactions between its systems and narrative which enables the primary.

Trying to design as though games are purely systems quickly results in dead ends, at least as far as the realm of single-player games extends. There are only two possible purely systemic challenges we can create: Reflex and puzzle challenges. Most games are one or the other of these, offering strategic decision-making and/or coordinated challenges to achieve a goal. Some might disagree with the characterization of strategy as a puzzle, but it inevitably becomes so once the player gains enough information of and experience in the system to route an optimal grand strategy. You can hold that off by obscuring information or making the system complex, or introducing randomization, but this is just kicking the can down the road. Players will eventually end up mastering the game, reflex and puzzle and all – which is fine, then they can just speedrun it at charity marathons.

Games don’t need to last forever, though. Art is eternal, not because one person can engage with it for eternity, but because the primary interaction is different for each audience, shifts with culture and language, becomes interpreted and reinterpreted and deepened through newer understandings and perspectives. Games are capable of even grander shifts, entire new ways of play within their space is defined, aspects long thought irrelevant become the seed of a whole new perspectives, new games within the game.

Focus on the moment of experience: The system can be solved, so don’t rely on the system: The story is just a story and could be told in any medium, so don’t rely on the story. Rely on the interaction of story and system, using the system to tell the story, using the story to contextualize the system. There are so many possibilities, and we’ve only yet scratched the surface of the manifold ways systemic and narrative elements can interact.

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