Some play games to be entertained. Some play to socialize. Some, like myself, play to experience a story. And yet others play to escape. Everyone when they play has an intent, whether they know what it is or not. The same is true of games designers and writers. Storytelling isn’t effective if there isn’t an intent after all.
“A truth told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.” — William Blake
Intent isn’t necessarily a loaded word, but it’s one that comes with context. So for the sake of this episode I’ve broken it into three different sections relevant to different aspects of games — namely Playing, Creating, and Storytelling. Another way to see that is with a focus on the people for whom each of those sections are relevant to — players, developers, and writers. Just one note before we continue, for the purposes of my arguments in this episode and really every episode when I say games I’m doing so in the most inclusive way.
Games includes sports, roleplaying and tabletop adventures, board and card games, video games and any other form of play that involves rules. Basically I’m trying to avoid edge cases and Jesper Juul’s definition of games. And now on with the episode.
This may seem self-evident as most people who write or develop games play them as well. And as we know, we play games for a variety of purposes — entertainment, to pass the time, to learn, to socialize and connect with others, for mental and physical health, as well as to escape, experience a story, or express our identity.
Games like other mediums offer the ability to do more than one of those. I play rugby because it’s an escape from the office, the house, everything else. But rugby is also social, and exercise, and an endorphin kick. After 20 years of playing it’s also part of my identity. And while there may not be stories told in the mechanics of the game, they are told between the people there. They are told after the play, so even in something as uncouth as rugby one can find storytelling.
The reasons people play games never has to be seen in isolation, and in fact the type of game they play demonstrates how a player’s intents overlap. Someone playing a tabletop or pen and paper RPG inevitably is playing to be both social and experience stories. With entertainment a given for all types of games. Passing the time, however, is not a given. As passing the time implies a choice to fill time with a game until the next activity or event in a person’s life rather than another option such as reading a book, answering an email, or daydreaming. Where as those choosing to sit down to a game or play a sport may do so with the purpose of doing that exact thing.
Learning is an intent that is difficult to codify as an intent, in part because as one plays one is always learning. This is especially true when playing a game with or against other players. We learn how they play, how to interact with them, and what’s possible within the rules of the game. Players sitting down to learn something specific from a game is not a given, and can vary with each game played. Game developers do this to some degree instinctively when they play, similar to how I and most writers analyze any story we’re experiencing. That’s not to say we do it all the time.
Most people have things they do for the sheer enjoyment of it with little to no analysis of what that game or media says and does after the first few encounters. Playing with the intent of learning something can in fact override all other purposes of play, even entertainment, as by seeking knowledge we can play games that we don’t find entertaining but still have value because of the lessons they can impart. Dark Souls for example is not a game I’m interested in as a player, but as a game designer and writer there are excellent lessons to be learned from it.
Of course at any point in a game a player can switch between different intents. One of the most common examples of this happens in multiplayer games, when a player on the losing teams changes their intent from winning or at least doing well, to being disruptive.
Hell any game with multiple players is going to have to balance those various intents and we know how difficult that is. Just look at any online game with moderation, or the work a game master must put into seeing to various player’s demands for action, story, or loot in a pen and paper RPG. With that in mind, let’s move on to…
Games are made by people and in some cases are people. Sports don’t happen without players, and because of that some games evolve. It’s how we got American Football from rugby. But when games are being developed with specific intent there is also a balance to be struck.
The balance of egos is always a delicate process. If you’ve ever done any sort of creative work with a team then you know this. And writers aren’t anymore precious or sensitive than others about their work. In some ways writers may be better positioned to work in teams because of our experience giving and receiving feedback on our creations. That is besides the point.
Developers, and by this, I mean anyone and everyone involved in game development that touches the project. On a personal level I consider anything involved in the company a developer as even Personnel, Accounting, Marketing, etc. can have a great impact on a game and the team. But for the sake of the arguments in this episode I’m going to focus solely on those who lay their hands on the project.
To say every developer is passionate about a project is willful ignorance. There’s a lot of reasons people work and more often than not passion is not the reason. It helps and may be the motivating factor for why someone entered a particular industry. But for now let’s put it aside as the defining intent of game developers or creatives in general. Game developers come to every project with a variety of intents. Some want to learn new skills, others want to challenge themselves, still more want to make a particular type of game or as is so often said “evoke a feeling”. And then there are those who want to tell a story.
This is all a rehash of players, except this time rather than being on the receiving end of a project, the people involved are on the giving end. So their purpose while personal is also one that is public, given it affects others. Where as players’ intents don’t directly affect others, except in multiplayer games. This is all a long winded way of getting to talk about Narrative Designers. People who champion a game’s story, but also consider the implications of each mechanic and system for the wider narrative and the intents it creates both in game and in the players.
Narrative designers aren’t just about story, or making sure writers are involved in the development process. They’re concerned with the intent of mechanics and what’s being told to the player. To some degree they’re concerned with the game’s gestalt. Granted a Creative Director is meant to do much the same, but where a Creative Director has to over see a project and make a lot of high-level decisions, it’s often up to Narrative Designers to make more low-level specific decisions to see the Creative Director’s vision through to completion.
That being a matter of how teams are structured and tasks assigned can change with every studio or project. For the purposes of this episode though, narrative designers are the people who play the most with the intent of the gameplay. Part of the appeal of games is the loops, the consistency of the rules. Humans love consistency a lot, it’s why we’re often so afraid or offended by change. As mentioned on a previous episode, it’s why we also like serial productions be they TV shows, novel series, or movie universes.
It’s also why we’re comfortable with certain mechanics, UI elements, or in the case of stories the hero’s journey and the three act structure. But doing too much of the same can get boring. And it doesn’t take a narrative designer to recognize this or implement something different. But it often does require one to recognize how such changes impact the story of a game and the intent those changes may convey. The addition of new enemies in a game has effects beyond introducing new challenges or complicating the situation for the player. It has an impact on the story. This is not a matter of “it should have an impact” but it does have one.
Humans love to argue over the story. The entire history of the Abrahamic faiths is just that — people arguing over stories, their meanings, the intents of the creators and the impact various elements are meant to have. It’s no different with other creations — especially video games. Just look at Bloodbourne. Irrespective of those facts, game designers whether narrative focused or not, are telling a story with their mechanics. And that story can and should change.
Building on loops as is so often done in games provides little change in a deep and meaningful way, because the character or player is always doing that base loop — that moment to moment task. Granted some of that may need to remain the same, such as movement. If the game is about going through a world then there’s little need to change that. Of course a designer may decide to switch it up and have the world come to the player instead.
In effect this is what’s happened in Mass Effect 3 in the final act when all of the alien races join together for a last stand on Earth, the enemy shows up and there’s a great example of deus ex machina in the arrival of the Citadel. Previous to this Commander Shepard and you as the player were tasked with going about the galaxy to solve problems and raise troops. But then the game switches about everything being in a single place. Travel and movement are no longer much of a concern.
Now it may not seem that groundbreaking or much of a surprise given how often story-driven games end up funneling players towards the end in order to face the Big Bad. But when a game so actively encouraged exploration and may have even been a gameplay pillar. It takes courage to look at the story a game is telling, the intent its trying to get across, and for a designer to say “this element” is at odds with what they’re trying to achieve.
A narrative designer, or really any designer thinking about the story and intent, is primed to do just such a thing. Playing with the expectations of the players, and the intents of the mechanics, takes the creative director’s goals, those feelings they want to evoke, and demonstrates all the facets of those very things. A feeling or an intent is never in isolation, especially in games because they’re of how the systems tie together. Which brings us to…
Writing is about imparting information. With that comes a number of intents — those of the writer, those or the narrator, and those of the characters. I know for writers this may be repeating the obvious, but this series isn’t only for you — it’s for everyone involved in game development and storytelling.
The writer’s intent or intents are shown through the language the use, the structure they decide upon, and of course the story they tell. The latter being a combination of the plot, the narrator and narration, and the characters and their characterization. Because writing is about imparting information, storytelling is a combination of what information is shared and how. But it’s also a matter of how much information is shared and when.
Good stories string the audience along with by dispensing information over time rather than in a single large dose at the beginning. Take Firewatch for instance, we don’t know Deliah or her motivations at all until a good fifteen or more minutes into the game. Even Henry, the main character and the one played by the audience isn’t entirely clear. We know his motivation for going to the Wyoming wilderness but we don’t know his intent for doing so.
Intents for characters and narrators don’t have to be crystal clear nor does the plot. If a character’s intent changes then that’s either character growth or a twist. If a narrator’s intent changes, it’s an example of unreliable narration. Both common enough elements in writing, but ones not encountered in games all that often. Of course intents are always a matter of motivations and whether they are intrinsic or extrinsic. The writing style will simply determine if that intent is implicit or explicit. But more on that in a future episode.
We’re tasked with a lot as game writers. We’re asked to explain the world, to give a reason for a character’s actions, to justify what is an artificial creation. But other than our teams, there’s no one we ever have to give a straight answer to — especially the player. Which is why you should play with intent when making a game. Just remember, a story should have either a complex plot and a simple world, or a complex world and a simple plot. Games add an additional system on to that which is gameplay, so your audience is tasked with more than they are when reading a book or watching a film.