Narratio ex ludo

If you ask a Game Designer, “What came first, the Chicken or the Egg?” about 60% of them will tell you, “The Mechanic” and about 30% will tell you, “The Story.”

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Now, I am not here to dispute which of them is right. I’m here to shed some light on why there is an important element of truth in that percentage bias.

Looking back now at my choices in games so far, I realise that most of my favourites are narratively driven games.

I will even go a step further than that and say that a lot of the games that we as a community have come to love and hold dear are narrative FOCUSED games. And as a game designer, I find that just more than just a little bit disappointing.

It exposes the extent to which we as a community are willing to be forgiving with games that fail to challenge or engage us in new ways but have compelling narratives.

As I am writing this, I can almost sense some of you reading it and clenching up, becoming defensive about all of your favourite titles. But don’t hate me yet; I assure you that I had the same initial reaction.

But as I gave this more and more thought, I began to realise how naked and embarrassingly similar our games look when we strip them of their narrative, their art, their sound, and imagine playing them with just placeholder art.

In fact, let’s actually take a minute to do that as an exercise. Imagine playing early developer versions of Castle Wolfenstein, Half-Life and Halo-5. To do this, just imagine regular gameplay but turn off the sound and replace all of the artwork with basic game engine assets like cylinders, capsules, spheres and boxes.

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Do any of our examples look significantly different? Okay, forget that. Let’s take it a step further and ask ourselves an even deeper question. For the majority of gameplay, do any of these games challenge us differently at all?

My question then is, WHY NOT!? With all the progress that we’ve made in the realms of graphics rendering and game engine capability, why are we STILL making derivatives of derivatives of derivatives?

It seems like a difficult question, but ultimately the answer is not all that complicated. And it is what you would expect:

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Tried and true genres and mechanics work. They sell and they keep our industry well fed. And no one is saying that that’s a bad thing. A lot of good and compelling titles with familiar mechanics have come out of our industry and we are all grateful for them.

But for every game that is worth more than just a passing mention, there are at least four of them that would be better off forgotten in the void of mediocrity. And the reason for this, as much as it pains me to say it is,

“The story is secondary to the mechanic.”

Using story well in game design is like using salt while cooking. If you do it right, a good game will come alive with depth and flavour. But if a game has none of that to begin with, no amount of story is going to salvage it.

And that is why, when writing for games, I think it is much more beneficial to take a “Mechanics First” approach to the design.

Let’s take a closer look at a few games that are lauded both for their story and their mechanic:

Unravel:

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Unravel is a 2D puzzle platformer in which you control Yarney, a little character made of yarn through a world full of challenges and obstacles. Yarney is made from a single strand of wound yarn, which unravels as you play the game. You can use the yarn as a rope, toss it around to latch onto things like a grappling hook, and build bridges and slingshots. The core challenge of the game is to use the yarn you have intelligently and make it last until you can find a new reserve of yarn (checkpoint). You can click on the image above to see some of the Physics based gameplay.

As you play though the game, you unravel the memories of a person that are tied to the level you are traversing. You get tangled up as you experience phases of this person’s life through their memories that are seamlessly interwoven in the design of the levels in game, and once you traverse all of it, as a consequence of the mechanic you invariably leave an important part of you behind. Looking back at the tangled and complicated path you took to get to where you are, you are left a little unsure how you managed to do it. But all said and done, you are happy that you did and you are better for the experience.

Braid:

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Braid is a game all about controlling time. And it achieves this is many more interesting ways than the typical rewind mechanic that allows players to undo mistake that they made.

The rewind mechanic in and of itself is “cool” and has been used in AAA games before. But Braid goes a step further and makes the mechanic meaningful. From a narrative standpoint, it explores the consequences of having the ability to rewind your mistakes and structures puzzles around giving the guests that realization instead of beating them on the head with a stick about it.

It also explores other meaningful ways to interact with time, such as slowing it down, being immune to its reversal, and tying it’s movement with spacial progression. The game’s puzzles explore a slew of other mathematical relationships between objects that are tied together with each other by time, like Amplitude, Frequency, and Phase. The guest is tasked with understanding and appreciating these relationships and using them to their advantage as they solve each puzzle that in some significant way acts as a commentary on how we approach our relationships with ourselves, our work and each other.

If you click on the image, you can see some commentary on the mechanics first puzzle design approach that went into Braid.

Portal:

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Portal is a game that explores the ability to cheat spacial differences and create doors between two disparate spacial locations. It’s a novel and very interesting mechanic and there is a lot to be said about the level design of the game. But that isn’t what I want to talk about here.

Ask any Portal fan what they love about Portal is, and almost ALL of them will talk about GlaD0s. Yes, the mechanic is novel, and yes, the puzzle design is spectacular. But the most memorable part of Portal is GlaD0s, an artificial intelligence that for the most part acts only as an omnipresent guiding voice!

That sounds INSANE. If you came to me and pitched an idea for a game that hinged on a sarcastic, condescending and passive-aggressive narrator being compelling enough to carry the entire game, I would roll my eyes and tell you that it would never work.

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And, I would be wrong. But that isn’t the point.

So what IS your point?

All all of the games I just talked about had enough going for it in terms of novelty of mechanic and  compelling puzzle design to succeed on their own without any additional layers of narrative. Without a mechanic that challenges the player and demands some meaningful form of interaction, our games are no longer games; they are films with buttons.

But compelling and memorable experiences are two entirely different things. We as human beings cannot empathize and associate ourselves with abstract puzzles and interesting mechanics. What we see instead is an interesting problem and an fascinating set of tools to solve the problem with. And for some reason, our species finds solving interesting problems a satisfying and compelling experience.

But to make an game truly memorable, it needs to be rooted in an experience that we have all had in our actual lives. And the telling of memorable experiences that we have had with a dash of flair and fantasy is at the very heart of good storytelling.

None of the games that I mentioned above would have gotten anywhere near the kind of following that they have, had they not taken the time and the effort to use narrative to bring their mechanics into context and enrich their experience beyond being just interesting and compelling challenges.

As Designers, when we make games we must bear in mind that the mechanic must ALWAYS come first. Once the mechanic is in place, if an interesting story begins to emerge that helps put the mechanic into context, then you have the golden nugget of a compelling and memorable experience on your hands.

So as a Designer the next time someone asks you, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” what will you tell them?

Narratio ex ludo

The Power of Association

“When the clock stuck midnight, she rose up and fled as nimble as a deer. The Prince followed, but could not overtake her. She left behind one of her glass slippers, which the Prince took up most carefully.

The very next day Prince caused it to be proclaimed, by sound of trumpet, that he would marry the girl whose foot this slipper would just fit. They whom he employed began to try it upon the Princesses, then the Duchesses and all the Court, but in vain. It was brought to the two sisters, who did all they possibly could to thrust their feet into the slipper, but they could not effect it.”

Sound familiar? Of course it does. It’s an excerpt from one of the most timeless fairytales of all time. And there are many things about the story that make it timeless. But the question we are here to ask is:

“Why a glass slipper?”

Think about it. Pragmatically speaking, for the purposes of this story the only real requirement the slipper had was to be abnormally small or abnormally large; just aberrant enough in size that it would not properly fit most women in the land.

But the story goes further than that. That night, the Prince spent a few brief, fleeting moments with what could quite possibly have been the woman of his dreams. And before he knew it, she was gone.

She was almost surreally pure, transparent and beautiful. Was she even real? Even the memory of her felt so delicate and precious that he felt almost afraid of leaving it alone, lest it slip through the fingers of his mind.

He had looked all over the castle grounds for her, but he could not find her. All she had left behind was a glass slipper.

He would take great care of it. He would carry it with him and scour the land in search of the girl whose foot fit the slipper perfectly. For these were matters of the heart. And the heart my friends, is a fragile thing indeed.

You cannot simply leave the heart open for the shallow to slip in and out as they please. Nor can you cannot fill the void of the heart by forcing someone in it who clearly does not belong. When it comes to the heart, it must be handled with great care; because, if someone does not fit “just right”, it is quickly liable to break.

And THAT is the power of Association in Storytelling.

Our minds contain subtle but powerful associations with everyday things that imprint themselves in our memory because of the unique way in which they interact with our senses:

Sight, Sound, Smell, Touch and Taste.

As you tell your story, (through words or images) employ memories and experiences that are common to us all; things that invoke a certain type of feeling or bring about a fundamentally visceral association.

As game designers, we tend to do this all the time, most commonly with red barrels and golden chests. We tend to do it a lot more through imagery, but it is a wonder to me that we don’t use it more often in dialogue or text.

Consider the following two descriptions:

“They both walked side by side along the beach. The waves were pleasant. The sun was setting and there was a nice breeze. They held hands and walked together in silence, both more than happy in one other’s company.”

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“As they walked, their feet left behind gentle prints in the sand that were washed away every now and then by a wave that rushed in to kiss the shore before quickly receding. The sun set slowly over the horizon and their hair swayed gently in the breeze. Nothing was said between them. And nothing needed to be. They continued walking hand-in-hand and enjoying the hum of the sea.”

Now, how heavy-handed you want to be with your descriptive associations is something that I leave up to your discretion. It behaves a little bit like a potent spice in a cooking recipe. If you add too much of it in all the wrong places, it will render your narrative almost completely inedible.

But a clever little pinch here and a quick little dash there with a resonant association will add a whole lot of flavor to your narrative that will keep your guests coming back for more, without their having a completely conscious understanding of why.

So as you weave your next narratives, I encourage you to think about things that invoke a certain kind of visceral association, like wood, metal, flowers, smoke, grass, dew, snow, fire, fungus, blood, insects…

The list goes on and on. But ask yourself what these things mean to you. And then ask yourself what your character is experiencing at that moment? Can the two be mapped to one another? How?

I hope this helped and I wish you well. Let me know if you come up with something cool @JerryTJohn. Good luck and Godspeed.

 

The Power of Association

The Eloquence of Silence

I once conducted an experiment, during which I attempted to spend the entire day without uttering a single word.

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Needless to say, I failed. There were clear instances during my day when some explicit form of communication from my end was required and necessary; not just to avoid being rude or looking silly, but to remain properly functional on the stage of my reality and perform my role in it well.

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For a while, I tried to circumvent this problem via the loophole of writing down full sentences for the fellow actors on my stage. But this quickly turned my whole exercise into a farce, and I abandoned it after a few very comically sad attempts.

The purpose of my experiment was not to test how long I could go without saying things out aloud; it was to explore how much we as human beings could communicate when we were robbed of our words.

Have we as a species become so dependent on our own cultural construct of language that we are now completely incapable of functioning without it?

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Unsurprisingly, the answer is yes. Yes, we have.

I don’t know what I expected to find when I began the experiment. But despite its failure, I learned a lot about what we as humans are capable of saying without our use of language.

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I learned that sometimes, the words that we use to punctuate our silences add nothing more to what we are trying to say than paint or perfume applied on a flower.

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Meaningful silence is profound. And that which stands unspoken but understood between us is powerful.

And for us as storytellers, I think it would be a worthwhile exercise to explore the depth and scope of our silences, and to seriously consider how we can use them to enrich our narratives.

But before we dive right into this, I think it would be wise for us to first decide where we  should draw the line.

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If we were to be nitpicky about it, any means by which one human being chooses to express themselves to another, could (correctly) be considered as communication. A smile, a kiss, a hug, a slap in the face, a stab in the back; these are all legitimate and completely valid ways in which we as a species express ourselves to one another.

Even the act of deliberately ignoring another person and refusing to acknowledge their presence is our way of telling them something. And from there, it is only a short leap away from other methods we have invented to express ourselves, like Music, Art and Dance.

So the question then becomes, how and where do we draw our line between Language and Communication?

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I think a reasonable metric to distinguish between the two would be to ask ourselves “Can this be understood across cultural borders?” or rather, “Can this be understood without anyone having to explain it?”

That being said, I would argue that a nod or a shake of the head sits right on the edge of that border, while sign language crosses over into the realm of language.

Well, now that we know where the distinction between language and communication lies, we can begin to ask ourselves what we can effectively manage to communicate without having to resort to the use of language.

These are just a few of the things that I have noticed over the course of my exposure to people and narrative in general:

1. Our State of Mind:

This one is fairly obvious and by far the most easily implementable. In fact, in most cases the narrative directors do not even need to explicitly call this out. It is part of the actor’s job to understand the state of mind of their character and portray it convincingly in their delivery.

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Any script that is reasonably well written should by itself be enough for the actors to understand the bare minimum of what is expected of them in their delivery. And if not even that is being conveyed, then either the script needs to be changed, or the actor.

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However, the more subtle and interesting ways in which our state of mind can be conveyed, is through the intelligent usage of things like tone, restraint and indifference.

All the interesting pieces of narrative delivery live in the space between the superfluous and the brutally honest. In other words, whenever we invite the audience to read in between the lines and infer the implied, it’s like were sharing a little secret with them. And we all know how exciting it is to feel like we are “in on a secret“.

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The undertone of heartbreak and disappointment painted over with the vocalization of happiness and congratulations.

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The maintenance of social niceties and polite conversation,  layered on top of the undertones of seething jealousy and silenced vitriol.

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Deep and passionate love masquerading as anger and resentment.

These are all wonderfully delightful experiences to watch, because some primal part of our psyche enjoys the tension in a bow held taught far more than the release of an arrow we know to be fatal.

To wrap this up, if you ever write your characters into a position where they feel compelled to break down, do everything in your power to help them fight it; because that struggle is FAR more compelling to watch.

2. Our Perception of Self:

Our perception of self is an interesting phenomenon and is usually revealed in subtle behavioral patterns. The way we walk, the way we carry ourselves and the way we behave around others.

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Things like our inherent kindness, underlying sadism, self-confidence or self-loathing can and should be brought out and painted upon our characters to give them compelling depth and dimension.

But an interesting dichotomy arises when we critically examine our characters through the filters of who they want to be perceived as in contrast to who they really are. And for truly compelling characters, these two usually exist in interesting opposition.

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The way people behave around those they aren’t afraid to trust or be vulnerable in front of can give us great insight into their true character.

We, like all our characters, prefer to hide behind our façade of composure and control, and pretend like we know what we are doing. But every once in a while, it is nice to just drop the act and allow ourselves to lean on those who already know us intimately for who we really are, and do not judge us for it but rather, quietly understand.

For most of us, these are our friends, our family, our loved ones.

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For others, they are our mortal enemies.
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And for a very sad minority, there is no one but themselves. They just go, lock themselves in the bathroom and cry quietly into a towel for hours, before regaining their composure and heading back out to face the world.

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Regardless. Whatever be the case for the character you have written and howsoever they allow themselves to be perceived publicly, every now and then, just remember to afford your audience the opportunity to glimpse into their naked soul. I guarantee that they will be far more memorable for it.

3. Our Perception of Others:

The way we behave around others and the way they behave around us allows us to establish the all important relationship of STATUS between our characters. There are plenty of ways to implicitly establish status in a relationship without explicitly having to call it out, but I will not elaborate on that here. There have been whole books written on the subject, and if you are looking to delve further into the matter, I would recommend that you start here.

But as storytellers, we are essentially concerned with three modes of status that we normally deal with:

1. Higher Status:

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2. Lower Status:

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3. Equal Status:

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And for us, as storytellers, amazing things can be accomplished with an implicit understanding of status between our characters.

There can be a wonderful Resonance of Status between our characters, where they both understand and respect the nature of their relationship, and together carry forward the narrative while accomplishing great things in the process.

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Or, there can be a delicious Dissonance of Status, where both parties have a skewed understanding what the the true nature of their status relationship is, and typically someone of lower status will think themselves better than someone of higher status and take every opportunity to correct or challenge them.

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Whether or not this is a valid claim, it leads to delightfully juicy conflict either way and furthers the narrative in an interesting direction.

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Another interesting, but not as often used method to create conflict through dissonance of status is to begin with an understanding of equal status, and gradually make one player change the status quo by putting themselves on higher ground, thus creating a messy but compelling conflict from the ruins of what used to be a fruitful relationship.

4. Our Motivations:

Our motivations themselves are not usually implicit. Normally, they are called out quite evidently in most mainstream narrative. The interesting stuff begins to happen when you tease and taunt your characters with their motivations and then, with a snap of your fingers, take it away from them like a carrot dangling on a chain.

Seriously. Try suddenly and unexpectedly giving your characters EXACTLY what they want, and then let it slip through their fingers. Turn it into dust in the wind. Or just put it further out from their reach than it was before you teased them with it.

The way your characters respond to having that done to them will tell you a LOT about them. Their mettle, their moral fabric, their level of caution, their equanimity, their patience, their determination, their desperation, their pride…

The list goes on and on and on…

But more than exposing your characters for who they really are, this sort of a tease opens up an all important window of opportunity to highlight and introduce the beginning of their Character Development. And that’s powerful storytelling stuff right there.

I found a nice little short film that does this really well. I hope you enjoy it!

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Balance – Short Film

5. Our Footprints:

By our footprints, I mean any and every imprint that we leave on our surroundings to evidence our presence there, and the impact that we have had. There is a lot that you can tell about the nature of the people that inhabit a space and just by examining the space itself.

Instead of elaborating on this too much, let me just show you a few concrete visual examples.

Pittsburgh – The Last of Us

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The Millennium Falcon – Not Sleek and Shiny like most Sci-fi spaceships that look like they’ve never really been used

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Ratman’s Lair – Portal – The Cake is a Lie!

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My Brother’s Desk

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My Desk

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Even the imprints that we leave behind on the lives of other people that we interact with says a lot about who we are.

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But enough said. Let’s start to wrap this up.

Final thoughts:

This list is by no means comprehensive. I am sure there are plenty of other interesting ways to use the unsaid to say more than we ever could with words, and if you can think of any, please do me a favour and Tweet them at me @JerryTJohn.

That being said, there are a couple of other things that did not fit neatly into the five broad categories that I listed above, so here are my final two thoughts on how to use the unspoken to great effect:

First, when crafting your character’s reactions to certain events, take your audience’s expectations and turn them on their head.

Scenes that do this well always manage to create an interesting juxtaposition that provides a surprising amount of depth and insight into the characters, their relationships and the world they live in. My favourite example of this was in the final scene of the 2015 film, Sicario. It’s a movie about the rampant drug trade along the Mexican border and the costs and consequences associated with it. To give you some context, the boy in the scene has recently lost his father (a corrupt cop who was working as a drug mule). In the absence of his father, his mother (the widow who saw it coming), takes the boy to the football practice instead. In the middle of the game, they suddenly hear the eruption of gunshots firing off nearby.

This is what follows.

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And finally, cleverly leave just a little bit unsaid. Let your audience join the dots and fill in the gaps for you.

Remember what I’d said earlier about the tension in a taught bow being more compelling than the actual release of the arrow? Well the human mind is excellent at extrapolation. And if you leave just enough breadcrumbs lying around, your audience will follow them straight into the vast and expansive universe of their imaginations and fill in the strategic gaps you left behind with more colourful imagery than you could ever do justice to with mere words or images.

In “The Last of Us”, when we are about to die, every once in a while, the protagonist Joel will find himself in the following situation:

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The bloater here is preparing himself to rip Joel’s face apart. Like, literally yank his lower jaw off his face while he kicks and screams. But the scene fades to black right before it happens.

We do not get to see or hear it happen.

Why!? It’s not like Naughty Dog’s animators couldn’t do a kick-ass job of animating Joel’s face ripping apart like tissue paper. But they chose to leave it this way. And do you know why?

Because our imaginations do a much better job of filling in those gaps for them.

So the next time you have an antagonist that everyone absolutely hates and wants to see die in the worst way possible, don’t waste your time coming up with graphically torturous ways of killing him off. None of it will be enough or do him any kind of justice.

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Instead, just feed your pet tiger a steak laced with Viagra and leave your antagonist locked up in a cage with him.

The Eloquence of Silence

Characterization through Action

I’m going to go on a rant here, and discuss a feature that is central to a lot of games today, but is used egregiously out of place in far too many cases: Character Customization.

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Now let me be clear: I have nothing against character customization. I think it’s a wonderful mechanic that sets up a unique canvass for the player to express themselves in game. But that’s just it.

It works well ONLY in games that serve as a projection of self for the player. And that means that ALL games, that deliver narrative specific to the character and not to the player have no real use for customization.

In these cases, it is at its best, an extraneous and unnecessary feature that adds NOTHING to the game.

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And at its worst, it does an extraordinary disservice to the game by compromising on the quintessential narrative that the game could have been delivering instead through characterization.

Allow me to explain.

Character customization in online MMORPGs like World of Warcraft empower the player to craft themselves and how they wish to be perceived in a way that reflects a little bit of who they are, and a lot of what they aspire to be. This is a POWERFUL thing.

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Anyone who has played this sort of game can relate to how attached they grow to be to their avatars, and how it adds to the immersion in a way that transcends the screen and the hardware separating the real world and the virtual.

“That isn’t just a bunch of meshes and tessellated polygons moving around on the screen. That’s me! And I could kick you and your pussy little dragon’s ass.”

But…

When a game attempts to tell a story, then the character’s choices, their appearance, and their relationships with other non-playable characters in the game are all coloured and informed by the narrative as a whole, and are emergent from well rooted understanding of who the protagonist is, and what is important to them.

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I will argue that giving the players the ability to craft their own characters in  a game that attempts to tell a story to which the character is central, actually DETRACTS from the experience as a whole.

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Let’s first take a good look at some of the games that tried to tell a story AND give us the freedom to craft our own characters. We’ll look at what worked for them, and where they were lacking. Then we will contrast them to games that KNEW who their characters were and used that information to great effect in colouring the narrative of the experience.

First, let’s look at “South Park- The Stick of Truth”.

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I won’t lie, I really enjoyed this game. It was clearly designed with the intention of making me feel like I was my own special little character in South Park. And it succeeded spectacularly.

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But as you would expect, this kind of design came with a trade-off. Throughout the game, with the exception of one line at the very end, our character remains moot. Completely blank and expressionless. The characters around him infer what they want to hear from him based on his reticence, and then proceed to tell him what to do.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. The characters and the world of South Park is colourful and engaging enough in and of itself that it did not need any new input from our extraneous new character. But that is the ONLY reason that it worked.

In the vibrant and pre-established world of South Park, we take on a more passive role than most protagonists typically do in games. From a narrative standpoint, we are actually just reacting to events that occur in game, rather than calling them into action. And while this worked out pretty well for the specific case of South Park, it is not so easily extrapolatable to games that try to deliver on narrative in general.

Almost all attempts at adopting this kind of design in games that try to tell a story have left us with a hollow shell of a character that the writers have absolutely no idea what to do with. And then the player is left with the task of filling in that void of a character with little more than cosmetic changes and largely meaningless binary choices that lack depth and have little or no bearing on the narrative as a whole.

Worse still, this doesn’t just affect the dialogue on our end of the conversation, but also fractures and fragments any semblance of meaningful conversation or interaction with other non-playable characters.

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The writers need to know who they are talking to in order to craft meaningful dialogue with palpable depth. And the same holds true for the voice actors who are tasked with delivering these lines without any point of reference or anybody to riff off of.

There is one franchise that made a bold attempt at tackling this design challenge, and did an astounding job it.

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Yes, I am talking about the “Mass Effect” series. They did an extremely good job, but in the context of delivery of narrative through character, despite their best efforts to create dialogue rich with meaningful choice and interaction, little slices of authenticity just couldn’t help but slip through the cracks.

First, commander Sheppard’s face is almost always entirely stoic and devoid of expression. To do real justice to the animation of facial expressions, the writers and designers need to clearly be able to convey to the artists and animators EXACTLY what the character is going through and where they are coming from. But with such a large branching narrative and a character so personalized that their personality itself is carried forward and informed by choices previously made, can you imagine how much work it will be to animate the nuances of every single branching conversational interaction?

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And second, as I alluded to before, the voice actors despite their laudable talent, are left a little confused about how they really feel about the conversation they are having with the protagonist, and it shows through in the artificial delivery of some of the dialogue.

But despite these faults, the Mass Effect series is a STAGGERING accomplishment to the delivery of personalized narrative in our industry. But not all game studios have the production scope or the budget to manage such a huge branching tree of possible content and dialogue without significantly diluting the richness and depth of their game.

Now, let’s shift gears and talk a little bit about games that embraced the concept of characterization in service of narrative, and made the best use of it in the delivery of the experience.

Take “God of War” for instance. God of war is a monument to characterization through gameplay. Kratos is instantly recognizable because he’s one of the most fully realized characters in gaming today.

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Everything about him just screams violence, bordering on madness. His design, his combat, finishers, weapons; even the way he deals with encountering Gods and monsters just demonstrates his reckless disregard for living.

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Look at the way Kratos moves, and behaves in game. Without any backstory, cutscenes, or even a single word of dialogue, you can see that Kratos is a creature of instability and pride.

(Okay, I’ll admit I lifted the last few lines from an Extra Credits episode, but that does nothing to hurt the validity of my point)

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Everything about Kratos’ carefully crafted appearance, including his pale skin-tone, his scars, the weapons seared into his arms with chains; ALL OF IT bears meaning and carries with it a valuable insight into the troubled past of this spartan hero.

Let’s take look at yet another excellent example of characterization done right.

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“The Last of Us”. Ah, The Last of Us.

Just little things like the wrinkles around Joel’s eyes that stand out in contrast to his very evident physical fitness, and the bruises on Trish’s face and the unyielding severity in her eyes do so much to tell the story of the world they live in.

And most important of all:

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These characters KNOW the nature of their relationship. They have an unspoken understanding of what they really MEAN to each other, and how much they can trust and bank on each other. And it shows through in their delivery of dialogue.

These games have an element of authenticity in the way their narrative is delivered that games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age lose, despite their staggering budgets and production values.

It is something that we as designers need to bear in mind and seriously consider when thinking about the kind of experience we are trying to deliver. Self-expression and choice is a wonderful and empowering thing to include in games. But often, it comes at the expense of meaningful choice and narrative depth.

And if you can’t tell as yet, I have a very strong preference in the matter.

Characterization through Action