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The New Dramaturgy Pt 1: Introduction to Gamic Dramaturgy
by Evan Hill on 08/08/13 10:02:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

The New Dramaturgy Part 1 of 4 
Parts --[2]-[3]-[4]

We lack a formal system for discussing Video Games as a Medium and that is a serious problem

We have a vast library of great and meaningful works but no working theory of how to examine, compare, and deconstruct them. Over the past decade we have seen the release of dozens of games that have begun to validate Videogames as a true artistic medium. But despite the power of works like Bioshock, Mass Effect, Journey, Shadow of the Colossus, and Silent Hill 2 slowly turning the tide of opinion, that vital piece is still missing.

Part of the problem is that what we do have existing formal structures for examining Videogames, but only as class of artifact not as a medium. In such systems games exist as objects meant to provide narrowed forms of gratification aka  “fun”. An example of this categorization can be seen in Robin Hunicke, Marc Leblanc, and Robert Zubek’s seminal paper MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research they establish a system for examining how the mechanics created by the designers are interacted with by the players. This system offers some deep and useful insight to interpreting play, but it may not be enough as we move forward. This is because it only examines games as objects that program behaviors and not as a medium for evoking emotions and ideas. MDA frames games as vehicles for mechanics instead of vehicles for Stories and Emotional Experiences. Even so, the MDA system is still extremely useful as we continue. Several concepts in this paper are expansions and evolutions of the ideas in their essay. 

This new formal system of Dramaturgy is meant to be a set of tools not a set of absolutes. The content of this series of articles is not meant to be a rigid structure of how to make games the “right” way but to serve as an outline of what is universally important to making a game emotionally impactful. Each concept covered in this series can be accomplished in a myriad ways and are all focused on the goal of giving our players powerful emotional experiences just like any other medium. 

Dramaturgy is the art of dramatic composition and representation of the main elements of a story. Dramaturgy as a concept is normally associated with theater. While officially coined by Gotthold E. Lessing in 1760s, its core principles date back to Aristotle. Its practice in theater is considered entirely distinct from writing and directing. It was the responsibility of the “Dramaturg” to ensure that all of the plays other elements worked together to achieve the maximum dramatic effect. And while we usually lump this practice together with other roles in most media (like Directors in film) I believe Video Games will benefit from re-establishing a similar distinction between our various disciplines.

The lack of a formal system of gamic drama and lack clarification of what a Narrative Designer/Dramaturg “does” is a problem for production. Many studios struggle with internal conflicts of miscommunication on this front. Some segregate story and play into separate departments with minimal communication. While others try to integrate Narrative and Design teams only to find competing and seemingly incompatible views of the games needed direction, many readers will recognize these debates of“Cinematic” vs “Fun” from personal experience. One of the most effective ways to overcome this barrier is to provide a formal system that everyone on a team can use to focus on the true common goal of their efforts, creating an emotionally engaging gamic experience. 

Establishing a New Formal Structure

Where do we start? In order to create a comprehensive system for Game Dramaturgy we first need to Establish what we need out of a system and how and what it will be used for. The core goal is to create a system to evaluate Games as a Dramatic, Emotional, and Artistic Medium. It must be a system of understanding that is useful for both Academic Criticism and evaluating Games as we create them. Specific enough to allow for standardized discussion but broad enough to be useful in evaluating games past, present, and future with nearly any mechanical or emotional focus. This is so we can even evaluate and compare games without explicit narrative. And it must be flexible enough to examine the effectiveness of wildly different approaches to similar games. 

How are we going to accomplish this? This system must be comprehensive and holistic in its formulation. It should focus on evaluating the emotional experience of a game and understanding the internal structure that generates that emotional experience. This lets us formally evaluate, compare, and contrast nearly every game by their emotional effectiveness instead of just their systems and mechanics.

To begin we need to isolate the most fundamental aspects of the Medium. Aspects that are broad enough to cover every component of our final system while still being specific enough to build those categories from them. As outlined above those aspects are a game’s Experience and Structure.

Fig1  

The Experience of a game is the sum total of the emotional, mental, visual, audial, and kinesthetic experiences that result from playing the game. The Experience of a game is its external half that a player interacts with directly

The Structure of a game is the sum total of all of the underlying structures and design goals that facilitate the Experience of a game. The Structure of a game is its internal half that a player can only indirectly interact with.

Now that we have a broad foundation we can begin to break down these large concepts of Experience and Structure into smaller more specific, interlinked components. First we will break down the Experience half of our system.

 fig2
Each of these concepts will be covered in depth as part of this series, but for now these definitions will give a general idea of their scope.

An Idiom is a game’s identity, what it plays like, what it looks like, what it’s about, and what form it takes. For now think of a game’s Idiom as a very specific way to identify a game more clearly than what genre it inhabits.

Suspense is the set of emotions that occur when a player is invested in the uncertain outcome of an event in the game. This definition is emotionally neutral by design and is meant to establish the two most important components of Suspense: Caring and Uncertainty.

Catharsis is what springs from an intense, sometimes overwhelming, emotional release. This is the end goal of any emotional medium. It is the feeling of purification or change brought about by powerful emotional resolutions. Like Suspense its use in the system is emotionally variable. 

Next we will break down the Structure half of our system.

Fig 3 

Pacing is how a game’s Suspense is structured in order to create Catharsis. It is the rhythm of the emotional events in a game.

Dramatic Substance is the set of qualities of in game that generate suspense. These qualities themselves will be explained to great depth later on, they are: Sense of Agency, Character Communication, Creation of Complications, Play Integration, and Presentation..

Design Goal is the impetus of an entire work. This is what shapes the Idiom of a game and everything after it. It is the core emotions and ideas that all of a game’s Idiom, suspense and catharsis are all structured around conveying. 

As a system these elements build off of each other:  

  • The Design Goals shape the choices when constructing a game’s Idiom 
  • A game’s Idiom determines how Dramatic Substance is represented 
  • Effective Dramatic Substance is what creates Suspense 
  • Suspense gives the emotional charge that Pacing uses to create rhythm 
  • Effective Pacing is what builds the other elements into Powerful Catharsis  

 

                                   


These concepts can also be seen as deeply and non-linearly interdependent. Where the execution of each element is independent, synergistic and vital to the total emotional experience.

When viewed with both of these lenses this system gives us a formal way of understanding and evaluating a game’s Dramatic Effectiveness, the quality of its Dramaturgy.

 This set of concepts is the foundation of exploring games as an Emotional Medium. And the start of building a formal language to discuss games in a dramatic context. In the coming weeks we will explore each element and their interrelations in intense detail.

Next week we will examine Catharsis and Pacing. We will specifically be covering what Catharsis is and why is it so vital, how Pacing is the key to effective Catharsis,  and why 3 act structure is a difficult to adapt to games for an unexpected reason. 

Part 1 of 4 
Parts --[2]-[3]-[4]

Evan Hill can be contacted at:
Evan_Hill@ehilldesign.com
The full version of The New Dramaturgy may be read at:
www.Ehilldesign.com 

--------------------
Special Thanks to:
Alan Emrich (Victory Point Games)
Jeffery Yohalem (Ubisoft)
Brian Kindregan (Blizzard)
Gavin Jurgens-Fyhrie (Blizzard/Snail Games)
Justin Dye (Blizzard)
Michael Shaneman (GameGeist.com)
And to all of the other people who helped me edit and refine my ideas for this series over the past few months.


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Comments


Daniel Cook
profile image
If you are interested in how the emotions emerge from game mechanics, I recommend checking out Stephane Bura's Emotional Engineering essay. It is a solid model that deserves additional exploration. One nice thing about it is that it is testable. You can set up the player in specific resource and verb contexts and observe how either the play testers or a larger scale population responds. http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3738/emotion_engineering_a_
scientific_.php

Also a useful touch point for such essays is Frank Lantz essay Games are Not Media. His point about the message model of media is pertinent to your writing about games.
http://gamedesignadvance.com/?p=1567

All the best,
Danc.

Evan Hill
profile image
I've read Frank Lantz essay as well as your take in "A single game as a lifelong hobby". They are perfect for contrasting the formal structure I'm presenting. I think we need a wider range of paradigms for games because they can exist as a medium and/or an artifact, and that was the main impetus for writing this series.

I have not heard of Stephane Bura's Essay however, thank you for bringing it to my attention.

I'm an avid reader of your work, thank you for the great input
-Evan

Josh Wilkinson
profile image
I recommend Greg Costikian's "I Have No Words & I Must Design". It's a great article that analyses what makes a game a game, provides a wonderful vocabulary to help designers speak consistently and goes into a light discussion of game design mechanics. It's something I recommend to all game designers.

http://www.costik.com/nowords.html

Jeffery Wright
profile image
Fantastic deconstruction. I'll admit that I haven't looked into any linkage with game design and the narrative result a game has, but this brings a lot of stuff to light. I can't wait to read the rest.

Alexander St John
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I'm very excited to see the rest of this series. I am always impressed when a game's mechanics and gameplay are intricately tied to its story, instead of just having the two run parallel. One game I played recently that did this very well was Spec Ops: The Line (an underrated title, probably due to lackluster multiplayer). I look forward to analyzing its dramatic structure with the tools you're setting up, instead of just gawking at individual moments of synergy.

Altug Isigan
profile image
Quite some while ago, Stephen Dinehart wrote an article on narrative design that had similar ideas with your's. I'm not sure whether he published it here on gamasutra or on the Narrative Designer's Network. Tynan Sylvester also wrote about how dramatic structure must be forged through mechanics and systems.

I tried to apply dramaturgy principles to games myself. Here are two articles you might like to have a look at:

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AltugIsigan/20110816/89743/Urgency
_in_Video_Games.php

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AltugIsigan/20101016/88184/From_Fi
rst_Act_to_End_A_Comparison_of_Video_Games_and_Feature_Films.php

And of course, thanks for the nice elaboration. I'm looking forward to the next parts!


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