Narrative Design

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.

A sense of humor is an important thing to have. I think people often underestimate the importance and functionality of humor – we think of humor as being the engine that powers jokes, that makes us laugh, that entertains and amuses, but it’s more than that – humor, like science, is a way of approaching reality and, like science, can yield exciting discoveries.

Humor is the part of our brain that gets tickled when an unexpected connection gets made. One word sounds like another word, suggesting an amusing mental image, or an event suggests an absurd precipitating cause, or someone reacts in a way that is bizarre and unique to them – and we laugh. Telling a joke is the process of creating and mapping one of these unlikely connections, and hopefully, if it’s well executed, you map it will enough that people will follow, and they will laugh with you.

That’s the fun and games portion. However, the same process plays out in many different ways – one word suggests another word, a reference, sends you off on a tangent, and all of a sudden you have a new idea for a story, an invention, a discovery. That process, of finding an unexpected connection and introducing another person to it in a way that encourages them to make a delightful discovery, is the basic skill of education and rhetoric. The ability to see humor is the ability to see more than is there, to see tenuous connections and to explore them.

I suppose humor is really just one way of connecting weird unrelated ideas. We do it in lots of ways, though most of them are also pretty humorous. Sexual fetishes, for example, are also a way we connect disparate concepts, connect arousal with sensations of sight and sound and smell that have no direct sexual connotation, but have accrued sexual symbolic potency through personal past experience. Sometimes our sense of what’s interesting become remarkably narrow: Some folks only get off to shoes, some folks just endlessly quote Monty Python. Same thing, basically.

For more artistic pursuits, the terms we usually use for this kind of humor is ‘symbolism’, so these jokes are more like cosmic jokes which are generally at our expense. Connections are made between elements of the story, references to other stories, tidbits of history and life, stewed together, and left for us to discover. Of course, we discover weird connections and references and inferences whether they were intentionally placed there for us or not, because us readers we have our own sense of humor as well. Sometime the joke is on the author.

A lot of these jokes, perhaps, aren’t very funny. Still, the ideas they lead us towards, the punchlines they guide us to, those are the payoff of a story, of an idea, of an education. When you map across an endless sea of incidents, you can’t help but start seeing coincidences – and every coincidence suggests a story, suggests a meaning, hints at a possible future.

Parables are a powerful tool. They are maps, life lessons encoded into little stories, encapsulated ways of understanding the world. However, what a parable is is as much our understanding of the tale as it is the tale itself – it’s in the mapping from that story to our story, the understanding that its causality and morality bears some relationship to our own. Any story can become a parable as long as you can create an analogical framework – in fact, every story can and does become many parables, given different frameworks and understandings. Each parable reflects a personal understanding, a relationship between the tale’s teller, its audience, and the world, and these shift subtly, even from people whose understanding of the story and its import are largely the same – and drastically between those whose approach and worldviews are significantly different.

This causes problems. Oppressors frequently like to cast themselves as the victims, and misusing parables gives them another tool with which to do so. Any tool for guiding or leading can just as easily become a tool for misguiding or misleading – one of the worrying and saddening things regarding the many ways that art can be used for good is realizing that every one of them has a separate but equal application towards propaganda, every message of love can be turned into a message of loving hate, every message of tolerance turned into a message of tolerating intolerance. As creators, we can only do so much to control for the understanding people take of our work and how they apply that to the world we live in: In other words, we write the stories, but we don’t make the parables.

Another problem, though, is that our relationship with parables has become… strange. people have started using parables in reverse. That is, rather than creating a map from the story to real life situations and deriving actionable beliefs from that understanding, they have begun creating a map from real life to the story and deriving… nothing, usually. It doesn’t matter if this situation reminds you of Harry Potter if the only understanding you glean from that is that ‘well the good guys will probably win in the end’.

This is not to say that retrofitting a real life situation to a parable is necessarily an unproductive exercise, just that it’s not interesting or useful to stop there. The interesting part of creating an analogy is in following the line created by the analogy towards a conclusion that is itself interesting. Analogies without conclusion become an obstacle, rather than an aid, to understanding. Rhetorically we tend to pay a lot more attention to whether an analogy is apt than to whether it leads to an interesting or useful conclusion, but it has to be both for it to have any place in a persuasive argument – otherwise it’s just reference for the sake of reference, done in a context that’s even less productive than an episode of Family Guy.

What’s the point of even making a reference like that?

Anyone who’s been playing games for a while has probably, by now, encountered the concept of experience points and leveling up in a number of different contexts. I find nowadays that I’m enjoying this design trope less, that I’m less comfortable with gaining experience and leveling up, than I used to be – and I think that’s partially a slow shift in who I am, and what I value in games, and how I see the world, but also represents a shift in how games use exp systems and what the priorities are that lay behind that usage.

Of course, the satisfaction is still there. Every moment, every action, making you better, stronger, more effective – intoxicating, really. Becoming learned without learning, becoming strong without exercising, discovering one day that, to your surprise, you know kung fu. How delightful, to feel we have earned our power fantasies, not through the specifics of actual work done to develop a particular skill or capability, but through the application of genericized soylent work product. Plenty has been said about and against this aspect of unearned reward – and, indeed, part of what divests my interest in experience systems is that I’ve come to find it much more rewarding when a game demands I actually practice and learn rather than merely grind. In this context, however, what interests me more, what has increasingly begun to unnerve me, is the form of that reward.

It’s strange, and almost a kind of body horror, to find yourself slowly and inexorably becoming a more effective killing machine. RPGs have had many kinds of leveling systems, and in the past most of them allowed you some degree of control. Sure, the end result was usually to make you more effective at fighting, but you at least chose how and why – and, though I never thought about it much at the time, you also chose whether to level at all. You could, if you’d rather, remain exactly who you always were – you could, if you chose, remain weak. This option is not available to us in most games with leveling systems: Now we level up the way we breathe, rather than the way we eat.

And, man, it kills me that everything I write goes back to Dark Souls, but that’s a game where you get to make that choice. And, man, it also kills me that everything I write goes back to Undertale, but that’s a game that actually explores the subtle horrors that are implied by experience systems. Having played these two games, it’s hard to ease myself back into the classic experience of classic experience points without feeling a bit of discomfort.

Maybe, though, this is the realer system. We change, uncontrollably. We go through puberty, become physically stronger whether we want to or not, learn things we were happier not knowing. Experience accumulates, and the numbers that describe us go up and down, mostly up at first and then mostly down as they describe our arc. The lie of the exp system is that it pretends we always become better and more capable, which is never true. Every moment something is gained, yes – every moment, as well, something is lost, and we change. We do charge forward, uncontrollably, but we never level up.

Most games are power fantasies. It would be nice, perhaps, if games focused on providing more diverse and interesting experiences, but, still, there’s nothing wrong with a good power fantasy… right? However, sometimes creating that fantasy of capability involves undermining the actual ability for the player to express their personal competence. Sometimes we create a fantasy that no longer has a place for the player.

Let’s look at level-up systems for a moment. Originally, in the Pen and Paper role playing games where they originated, they were a way to create a sensation of character growth and progress, increasing their agency within the world created by the dungeon master (sometimes to the DM’s dismay). Later, in video game RPGs, they maintained the sensation of growth but without really adding to the player’s agency, since they were still constrained to the sandboxes the developers had devised for the player. Later still, in MMORPGs, levels became a way to restrict the player, hiding game content behind challenges that were beyond them and drip-feeding that content to the player as they slowly grinded up.

All of the above may seem similar in concept and in practice, but the slight differences – from having challenges constructed for your un-mighty character, to having challenges constructed to funnel your un-mighty character into becoming mighty, to challenges constructed to keep you busy until might was, inevitably, in the due course of things achieved, end up creating a vastly different experience. The difference is in the goal that is presented. In the classic pen and paper RPG, the goal is to complete the adventure: Experience and treasure are things you accumulate along the way to ensure that you are prepared for a bigger better adventure next time, but the current adventure is always your primary concern. In the classic video game RPG, the goal is completing the grand adventure, ensuring that you tackle the game’s challenges in the proper order to complete the quest that is the game. In most MMORPGs, the goal is to get to the maximum level, which is where the real game starts since you’re finally at a high enough level to hang out with the big kids. Now, once you actually reach that level there are other goals that are dangled for you – PvP arenas, high-level dungeons, mini-games, and so forth, but these are mostly gated behind reaching that maximum level.

We’ve created a collision between min-maxing mentality of creating the best adventurer that can do the best adventures against the role-playing mentality of trying to create the most interesting adventurer that can have the most interesting adventures – and, sadly, and the former has decisively won. Higher level characters are more powerful than low-level characters – therefore you should always prefer having a high level character – therefore any low-level game content is, by definition, there to be rushed through as fast as possible so you can get to the biggest, therefore most impressive, and therefore best, part of the game.

It’s an experience that’s difficult for me to get excited about. To me, becoming strong is far more interesting than being strong, doing important things is more worthwhile than being an important person. Thus, what should be the most interesting part of the game, the story of how your hero became heroic, becomes a rote exercise, becomes an extended tutorial. But what is the appeal of ultimate power, when it comes to playing a game? It’s much harder to make a good Superman game than it is to make a good Batman game, but MMORPGs presume that we’d rather play Superman than Batman.

It’s saddening that, in a genre full of so many possibilities, this is what has become the industry standard. Why have leveling at all? Why have a journey to reach mastery if all that happens on that journey is trivial and unimportant? If the real story of the game is about the struggles of demi-gods, why even bother making the player chew through a 50 hour preamble about the birth of those demi-gods? In the end, we have a genre of games which are all uncomfortable compromises between the many things they are assumed to be, paying tribute to all and committing to none.