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Narrative Design

They say there’s no story without conflict. I don’t really understand why this is said so often and with such confidence, but that seems to be how we teach fiction-writing around these parts because I’ve heard it a lot. I dislike broad structural declarations like this, since inevitably stories are warped to fit the lens rather than the lens being applied to better understand the story: If there’s no interpersonal conflict, then the conflict must be between a person and their environment or their own mind… this covers a pretty broad range. Yes, you can describe a plot this way: Nearly any sequence of thoughts or events could be vaguely described as a conflict, in the same way nearly any arrangement of objects could be turned into a physics diagram, but only occasionally would these be useful intermediary steps towards solving a particular problem. Likewise, only occasionally is the conflict-centered view of storytelling the most useful and interesting approach.

There are lots of stories! Stories of love and loss, of the unreliability of memory and the temptations of imagination and of hurt and exploration. It’s impoverished to regard these as a conflict between Man and Time or Man and Death. What sort of conflict is that? We are not in conflict with gravity or with the ground, we are suspended between them. Even if we fall, our death is not conflict with the ground. Things happen that don’t fit this conflict model, and they frequently make interesting stories anyway. It’s a bit terrifying that we’ve been able to tell the line that stories are based in conflict as a generally uncontested bit of storytelling advice for so long – that, itself, tells a story: It’s like science fiction, a culture that can only understand the world through fights.

Similarly, a popular description of gameplay, coined by Sid Meier, is as a ‘series of interesting choices’. This is broader and, in general, I have less direct criticism of it – my issue is more with what we regard to be ‘interesting’ and what we regard to be ‘choices’. Even in completely passive entertainment along the lines of movies we make choices – we choose which characters we like, we choose what to focus our attention on and choose from different possible interpretations of what’s going on and why. Even in a passive medium we are active audience members, parsing and digesting and translating. This process is much the same as it is in games, except games then ask us to take that interpretation one step further, to translate it into an action that then affects the state of the game.

Since we have culturally interpreted all fiction as being based in conflict, it’s then a short jump to interpret all ‘interesting choices’ as being based in conflict. And, when you frame a choice with conflict, it tends to be crunched down into whether it allows you, as a participant in this conflict, to come out on top. Every interpretation, every decision, becomes a way to navigate a way to victory.

To most people, this is what a video game is.

However, none of this is intrinsic to the medium. Stories don’t have to be about conflict, and choice isn’t just a way to win battles, and interest isn’t just the currency of problem-solving. Games structured this way are fine, and it’s great that they’ll continue to exist because I like shooting digital people with digital guns as much as anyone, but when you take a step back from any of these assumptions it becomes obvious how incredibly tiny this conception of what a game is compared to the massive possibility of what games can be. I mean, we’ve already cut off a huge amount of possibility space to explore in fiction by centering our conception on conflict, and we’ve further constrained games to be a subsection of that.

There’s so much resistance to seeing games as anything but engines for presenting choices that navigate supremacy in conflict, but they could be more. They could be anything.

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The term role-playing is applied very loosely to games. Not only has it come to mean something completely different when used to describe video games than the pen-and-paper games that originated it, but it has drifted away from its obvious meaning in those games as well. Every game is about playing some sort of role – even when there’s no explicit narrative role (which there usually is), we still take on a role defined by the rules of the game – the role of the intelligence who places the pieces in a jigsaw or who builds the Tetris to eliminate four lines of blocks, the role of pitcher or quarterback or referee. This sort of role-playing is in many ways closer to the sort of play that which early RPGs were meant to capture, tactical miniature play inspired by the battles in the Lord of the Rings books, than what modern enthusiasts of the genre mean by the term, which is more akin to playing a part in a play – and, crucially, a part that one writes for oneself.

This is a topic we could dig deeper into, what role-playing has come to mean in different contexts, but at the moment I’m more interested in the way that playing a role, or choosing not to play a role, appeals to us. One of the core conflicts of my life is my simultaneous desires to have a place in the world and to not be constrained to do any single thing: These desires are flagrantly contradictory, and yet I feel them both frequently. At one moment I wish people would just tell me what they want from me, at one moment I wish I could pursue interests with no regard for what anyone’s expectations of me are. I can even feel both of these at the same time. It’s a sort of talent, I suppose.

Both of these, finding a niche in which we excel or choosing any path for ourselves and having it work out, are sorts of power fantasies, and different sorts of games like to cater to both of them. Whether these games are called “Role-Playing Games” or not has very little bearing on this. Most MMORPGs favor casting the player fairly narrowly, where they pick a class and have to play to the strengths of this class in a very specific way, while games like Skyrim are built to allow the player to do basically anything they want to with no negative consequence of any sort.

If you don’t like the role the game casts you in, you probably won’t like the game. If you don’t feel like the game gives you enough room to perform your role in your own way, you probably won’t like the game – in much the same reason people don’t like jobs that don’t give them any freedom to tackle tasks with their own methods. For a few days I went back to playing Team Fortress 2, and somehow there I have the best of both worlds – probably one reason I played so much of it. I have a list of 9 roles (or perhaps more, with all the ways equipment can change a class’s role) which I can pick at a whim. Maybe today I feel like getting into the thick of things and causing a lot of trouble, so I play Soldier, or I feel like moving around and harrying, so I take Scout, or I feel like being an asshole, in which case I roll Spy.

I usually play Spy.

Out in the world, though, we seldom are afforded the opportunity not to be defined by the roles we are cast in. Usually, in order to survive, we are forced to live the role we are given. Others of us, bereft of such a role, struggle to define ourselves in terms that are understandable to others, socially approachable, economically viable. In the end, we have to either accept a pre-made role, or learn to make our own – and, to make our own, first we have to have some idea of what sort of role could be both desirable and viable.

It’s easy to be led astray. I generally want to be an artist and thinking person, and what are the traits that we have used to define these sorts of people? Lonely. Mentally unstable. Self-destructive. We paint doom on our thinkers and artists, even though there’s no particular reason to believe in any real correlation outside of the feedback loop caused by this stereotype. How have these cues affected the way I live my life? How can I learn to define myself as a creator outside of this toxic worldview?

I can’t help but stand back and look at the motivations behind this toxicity. Who stands to profit from making artists believe they are worth more dead than alive? Who stands to profit when inventors are forced to sell their inventions for pocket change?

Those who have written the roles we are cast in may not have our best interests at heart.

I don’t consider myself exceptionally awkward in social situations, but I don’t think I’m particularly comfortable in them either. Much of the time, particularly in emotionally loaded moments, I have no idea what to say – no idea what an appropriate sentiment is for the occasion, no idea how to express something that isn’t hollow or tone-deaf. My usual tendency when I don’t know what to say is to say nothing, but sometimes nothing is just not an okay thing to say, and that tends to be when I run into issues.

These sorts of ambiguous situations, where anything could be expressed and all expressions seem insufficient, exist everywhere in life. However, when we make games, even when we try to simulate some aspect of life, this ambiguity is flattened. Dialogue is expressed through branching trees of pre-written choices, or in more ambitious attempts through some text parser or abstract sentiment generator – in the long run, no matter how the player expresses the sentiment, it is interpreted by a machine, chopped up into something quantifiable for the game’s systems to react to. There is inevitably a Right Choice, a correct thing to say in that circumstance to progress the game, to get the ‘good’ ending, to see the bonus cutscene.

Dialogue, in a game, is a control mechanism, not communication – or, if it’s communication, it’s the game’s designer speaking to you rather than you speaking to the game. You don’t care if the game understands, you don’t care how the game feels, you just care about how it responds to your input. It really isn’t much like speech at all – which is fine, it doesn’t really need to be, but having it constantly presented as speech, being treated as though the player is genuinely expressing something in the way they would to another person, probably has some strange effects on how we understand speech to actually work.

This, though, is just a specific instance of the process of disambiguation that happens when we try to emulate the vast mess that is reality in our goofy little electronic worlds. To play, as a child, is to imagine scenario after scenario with no logical connection or overriding ruleset – you have been shot, but you are bulletproof, but the bullets are armor-piercing, but you’re actually bulletproof times infinity plus one. To play in a video game, though, even an open-ended one, means that there must be a logical connection from one moment to the next, since the game, being a computer program, has to operate on logic. There’s still lots of room for self-expression in a well-made and open-ended game, but the fidelity of that expression is mediated by the granularity of that simulation. Or, at least, the fidelity of the part of that expression that exists within the game – because there’s also the part of that expression that exists within the minds of the players, and that could be as unbounded as ever. In theory, at least – do kids pretend they’re pirates in games that aren’t about pirates? Ninjas in games about vikings? Wizards in games about soldiers?

Maybe that’s why we like to play games, though. The infinite possibility and ambiguity of life and human interrelation is incredibly overwhelming. How relaxing it is to be provided an environment where only a few choices can be made – and, even if those particular choices end up being wrong, they are wrong for reasons which are explainable and quantifiable, albeit sometimes quite complex. The games industry keeps trying to make games look more and more realistic, though, while maintaining this simplicity of input and response, and it builds a myth – a myth of a world where each action and consequence is mapped directly and predictably, and anyone who’s clever can find the action and the consequence. The ‘Just-world hypothesis‘, the belief that everyone gets what they deserve based on the actions they have taken, is much easier to convince yourself of if you can build it on a belief that every action and reaction are directly mapped, straightforward, and quantifiable.

If the causal relationship between action and reaction is completely predictable, any suboptimal outcome can be blamed 100% on poor decision-making. Every tragedy becomes a justification that bad things happen to bad people, where in this case ‘bad people’ means people who have made any choice that is subsequently followed by a bad outcome. In this way, games as they have traditionally been structured have a radical conservative bias.

Maybe there’s some other way for them to be structured – but without some huge leap forward in technology that creates worlds too complex for predictable causality, or some sort of ongoing responsive content created by another person (as in a tabletop RPG), this is always going to be a sytemic bias of the technology. The only way to push back against that is explicitly through the content of the game, and that’s going to be difficult to do without alienating players, since rewarding ‘optimal play’ is a foundation of game design.

You’re writing a story. You know what happens next – what has to happen next in order to complete the narrative arc you’ve been planning out. You’ve got a Big Picture you’re trying to paint, here. The only problem is, your canvas is a video game, and players are so uncooperative: the surface you’re trying to paint on keeps moving under your brush. The question becomes, how do we make it stay still long enough to get the details right?

In a medium defined by the choices we proffer, one of the trickiest bits of designing a game comes when you need to force the player to do something. It sounds kind of ugly presented that way, but it usually needs to happen at some point in order for the game to progress – and normally these forces happen quietly, without being commented on. In Super Mario Brothers you have to run right, in Metroid you need to get the missiles – the player is channeled by means of the structure of the game itself to make the choice the designer wants them to make. The system works. Hooray.

It works less well the more ambitious the narrative gets. Say the story only works if you Kill The Guy – but maybe the player doesn’t want to Kill The Guy. Maybe they really like The Guy. Maybe they really hate The Guy, but he seems generally fairly harmless, and they don’t want his death on their conscience. Either way, the next scene takes place at The Guy’s funeral, so you better fucking figure it out.

You have a number of options.

One: Just make them kill the guy. Play a cutscene where the main character stabs him a hundred times and pushes him down an elevator shaft and then says some kind of snarky one-liner. This one doesn’t ever really fail but it never really succeeds either. It moves the plot to the next scene, and all the characters do the thing they’re supposed to do, but the player wasn’t really involved in any of it and no longer feels like they’re controlling the character – since they aren’t.

Two: Make the guy try to kill them, or otherwise make the desired action necessary in order for the player to survive. This is usually the go-to for most games, but it makes The Guy seem like a brave idiot with a death wish, which may be entirely contradictory to the character you’re trying to establish. Also, if you want to make them Feel Bad for Killing The Guy, having it be an admissible-in-court clear-cut case of self-defense probably ameliorates that instinct.

Three: Control the number of ways the player can act. This starts getting into a bit more interesting territory, but can easily go awry – this is the “when all you have is a hammer” of game design. If you’re in a room with The Guy and all you have is a gun and he has the keys, odds are that The Guy is going to get shot. Take care, though, that there is a logical obstacle to progression, like that key you need – without that, you’re forcing the player to do something they might not want to do, for reasons you’ve never bothered to explain.

Four: Control the number of things in the environment the player can productively act upon. This one is a lot like the last one, except you can still do all the stuff you’d expect to be able to do, it’s just that none of them get you anywhere. You’re in a room with The Guy and also there’s a pool table and some pinball machines. You can play pool with him, and you can try to rack up a high score at pinball, but eventually if you want to leave you’re going to have to get that key from him somehow, and all you have is a murder pistol and a pool cue – and it turns out The Guy has a fatal allergy to the exact wood that pool cue is made from. He normally plays with gloves. This one is, if anything, even worse if the logical connection to progressing the plot isn’t clear, because it’s impossible to guess which of five arbitrary actions you should be trying to do to move to the next room. Maybe if you get a high enough score he’ll be so impressed he just gives you the key? Who knows!

Five: Control the number of ways the environment can productively react. If the player presses the button to talk to The Guy, and instead of striking up a conversation the character immediately shoots him in the face, it definitely sends a message: Boy, this character was apparently Really Mad at The Guy! Next to doing everything in a cutscene this one takes the most agency away from the player, but it also conveys a lot more about the character and their internal state – this character is not just angry enough to kill, but is so angry they cannot stop themselves from killing. The main issue with this is just outright confusion, the player perhaps thinking they pressed the wrong button or that they missed a choice. That’s a pretty crude example, though. A more subtle version of this might just have talking to The Guy lead to a scene where the main character accidentally touches him after playing with the deadly pool cue, leading to anaphylactic shock, for which they are later guilt-stricken over his unnecessary death – either way he’s dead and they’re responsible, but the path taken to get there was very different. This is akin to the Magician’s Force, a staple of stage magic wherein you proffer a vague choice to the volunteer but the outcome of both choices is eventually the same.

In the end, whether any of these work is mostly a product of how logical the connections you’ve built up prior to the scene are. If your character is uncontrollably angry, you need to be able to convince the player of that. If The Guy absolutely must be killed in order for vital goals to be achieved, that needs to be communicated. If the guy fights like a cornered rat, that has to make sense for his character. Plan ahead: If you need to force the player to do something, try to make it make some goddamn sense.

The game mechanics compel Mario to run to the right, but Mario runs to the right because that’s where the castle is.

Death is omnipresent in games, but they mostly don’t like to acknowledge that. Dying in games is just a way of keeping score, a nice easily understandable failure state, something to be avoided, not experienced. In life, death is omnipresent in a different way – not as an obstacle, threatening and concrete, a risk to be managed – but as a patient specter, a cold and solid certainty. Wherever we decide to go in our wild lives, we can be certain of finding at least one thing at the end: The End.

Last night I played What Remains of Edith Finch, a first person narrative around the same length as a feature film, wherein we explore the tragic history of Edith Finch’s possibly cursed family, of which she is the sole surviving member. As you explore her weird convoluted family home, you find documents and artifacts showing how each family member died – and, more often than not, experience their final moments from their perspective. Or some version of their final moments, from some version of their perspective: Who knows? The knowledge of what part of these stories was true has passed from the world long before we got there. Much is unknowable, and the stories are as much family mythology as family history.

This game is charmingly surreal and macabre, which I had expected, but also left me with a piercing sorrow, which I had not. It’s a sensation that I never get from games; it’s a sensation I rarely get from art of any sort. It’s the sensation of death as we know death to be but prefer not to acknowledge, something which we inherited at birth and will pass on to any descendants we may have, the sensation of every joy we have being borrowed against a future sorrow. I think what makes the difference in how mortality feels in Edith Finch is that every character we play as is, we know from the start, doomed. We are them, and we are about to die, and we have no choice but to step closer and closer to that destiny – and this may be a fairy tail retelling, but we’re all taking steps towards our own far less whimsical doom. Building up a mythology of our own deaths is perhaps the only sane way to keep moving forward – though it’s not like we have a choice. We’re all on the train track, all on the conveyor belt, and there’s only one way to go from here, whether we want to go or don’t.

Death that feels anything like real death is for the most part scrupulously scrubbed out of video games. I got a whiff of it from The Walking Dead, Season 1, particularly near the end, where the stakes and sacrifices became more clear. There were the barest remnants of it in the famous post-nuke death scene in Call of Duty 4, though the developers tried to strip out, as they always do, any sense of actual death, any sense of the friends and family left behind, dreams left unfulfilled. The realities of death are largely incompatible with enjoying war on a conceptual level. This is how we relate to death in art, usually: The dying are plot devices, not people. Dying Person is a role that requires an unfortunate to play it, a character written to be a heroic sacrifice or the hapless victim, to show the act of violence rather than its consequences. We care more about killers than die-ers, usually.

What Remains of Edith Finch made me uncomfortable in a way I usually forget I can feel, in a way I usually put away in a drawer for later to forget about. It’s a sensation I mostly only get from dreams nowadays, dreams of death and of loss. A shard of ice buried under the chest and over the belly, and difficult to forget once remembered. It pierces the lungs, makes us breathless, and an ancient yell or groan bubbles up, a word born before language. I want to yell for things lost that will never be found again once they’re gone, even though they are not yet lost. I want to yell to expel the cold I already feel setting in. I want to yell to reject how comfortable the cold is, a welcoming linen pillow or a slab of stone, what dreams may come.

We were built around this yell. Someday every artifice and edifice will slough away. Under hot soft flesh is cold hard bone. We might fly, for a while, but we cannot escape gravity. There is nothing to be done, except to live a life of love and pride and happiness.

It is difficult.

Fictional lies pose an interesting challenge. With the (many) lies we encounter in our daily lives, we understand that there is a reality that these lies are purposefully misrepresenting – that, even if we don’t know the truth, there is a truth to be known. However, when the entire reality of the thing is made-up, when even the truth of the world we are participating in is a lie, lies that happen within the fiction of that world become strangely insidious. Sherlock Holmes says that once you have eliminated the impossible then whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be true – Sherlock Holmes also solved a mystery where a man drank a de-evolution serum and turned into an ape-like creature to murder the victim, so I feel his claims should be taken with a grain of salt. Within the world of Sherlock Holmes the impossible is quite possible, because he is a character in a book and the only guarantee we have against impossibility is the discretion of the author.

It’s particularly difficult to convey lies in games. In novels and movies the audience doesn’t need to worry about what to do next, so they don’t actually need to worry about whether something a character says is true or not – it might be fun and interesting to think about, but determining falsehood won’t factor into what happens next at all. A lie in a game, however, can have consequences for how the player experiences that game, possibly leading them on a wild-goose chase or towards a decision which will turn out to be disastrous. Also, since people don’t expect to encounter lies in games, they tend to regard any information which doesn’t pan out and isn’t explicitly revealed as a lie to be a mistake or, at best, a vestige of cut content. For instance, the villagers in Castlevania 2 may have been lying or the game may have been poorly translated – as best as I can tell from a cursory look online it appears to have been both – but when players were misled they read that not as thematic but as accidental, and blamed the developers for slipshod work.

Because of this, certain conventions have arisen in games when it comes to falsehood, and these are rarely betrayed. Lies are almost always constrained to the narrative of the game, while rarely affecting the actual gameplay. That is, being lied to by your commander has become such a common game trope that it’s surprising on the rare occasions that you’re not betrayed, but since being lied to or not makes absolutely zero difference in how you approach the problems presented by the game it doesn’t matter. It’s just fluff.

This is a solution, of sorts, but it also removes most of the narrative power and interest from falsehood. Another solution might lie in informing players that they will be lied to and that it’s on them to believe or disbelieve what they’re being told, but this results in its own set of problems – asking players to determine whether someone is lying is a core mechanic of LA Noire, but in reality every actor whose performance was captured for the game was, in fact, lying. They’re actors, that’s the job. So it’s a matter of determining which lie was the more convincing looking lie – which is really a shit way of determining when someone’s lying, since accomplished liars are much better at being convincing than people who are unaccustomed to lying, even when the latter are actually being completely truthful.

I suspect that the only way to integrate falsehood into gameplay in a way that’s satisfying is to leave traditional failure states behind completely. If we refocus the game’s design around exploring a story, rather than ‘winning’ at it, then the player is free to believe or disbelieve what characters say based on what they think is the most interesting to the story or on where they’d like to see it go next. This also opens the door for playing a character role, where the character can be trusting or cynical, rather than analyze the scenario for optimal play.

Even then, something is lost, because this makes the deception stakes low for the player. Is there a way to satisfyingly integrate falsehood into a single-player game, when the systems of the game and its narrative are being conveyed through the same channels? How can the player know what to trust, without the game being scrupulously honest at all times?

A thing about video games that I wonder sometimes if people really understand is that they’re made to be completed by the player. Dark Souls is made to be completed. Cuphead is made to be completed. The most challenging (or even unfair) game you could possibly imagine is still almost certainly made with intent to create a complete experience for the player. A lot of players never finish most of the games they play, but still, that intent, that structure, is there.

This makes difficulty a kind of odd concept. We offer challenge paired with the assurance that the challenge is possible to complete – which makes it completely unlike most of the challenges we’re likely to face in our day to day lives, which might easily turn out to be impossible. Perhaps impossible for anyone, due to some fundamental law of nature, but more often circumstantially impossible – impossible for us because we don’t have the resources to make it happen. Some of these resources are external, such as wealth and social power; some of these resources are internal, such as mental and physical health. Either way, some of us are born with more of one or the other, and this can make some tasks others consider to be easy impossible – and others some consider impossible to be easy.

I worry sometimes that the structural assumptions, taken from games, that challenges are inherently completeable has helped to reinforce the ever-popular just-world fallacy, the belief that what is sown is reaped, that we all get what we deserve through our own merits and demerits. This belief is extraordinary popular both because it absolves the wealthy and powerful of responsibility for caring for the less fortunate and reassures those less fortunate that if they only try a bit harder, try to be a bit better, than a commensurately better life awaits them.

In games, when we make every goal set out for the player achievable, we communicate, over and over again, that those who cannot achieve their goals are not working hard enough. When you believe that natural advantages and disadvantages simply make achieving those goals easier or harder, when you think of having or not having privilege as merely being playing on easy or hard mode, you are convinced that anything is possible for anyone. If you regard physical and mental ability as simply being the quality of the player, and if the player can’t improve their play then they deserve to lose, you are convinced that anyone who won did so because they were a better player. It becomes a meritocracy where the ability to avoid starving or dying of exposure is defined as merit.

What’s curious though is that games are full of things that are actually impossible. Invisible walls constrain you to the constructed play area, you only get a few dialogue choices at any moment, your hands are built only to stab and shoot and fight. You aren’t made to live like a person, but to be played by the designer until you complete his or her obstacle course. That’s fine: It’s a good time, it’s a fun and interesting experience if it’s made well.

But I think sometimes about what it would be like to do the impossible. To break beyond the level boundaries, insert new dialogue options and game commands. We have words for this: Cheating, modding, hacking… And these, as well, may be what we will need to do to break down the boundaries that channel us, that let us be played by our designers, in everyday life. Cheat, mod, hack, and turn the world into something its owners never intended it to be.