Following my posts on Identification and Narrative (my distinction between story and narrative is important to this post), I'll explore the use of Kenneth Burke's Theory of Dramatism as a tool for analyzing game design. As a bonus for the impatient, here's my elevator pitch: by creating a narrative structure that is intentionally laced with ambiguities, we create the potential for a positive response (Identification) from a large audience. I threw that out there, because this a really long post...sry!
The Center of the Earth!!!
Our trusty vessel on this endeavor shall be The Pentad, built by master polymath K. Burke specifically for sailing the Seas of Motive, that fickle font of human behavior. The motion of this ocean is not the undulation of the brine but the roiling of magma! Is our vessel up to the challenge? Indubitably! All of these lame metaphors will make a bit more sense shortly - first let's discuss Dramatism. I'm citing my quotations in case anyone wants to dig a bit further on their own.
Dramatism might be called Burke's metatheory of Humanity, and he was comfortable with the following definition:
A technique of analysis of thought and language basically as modes of action rather than as means of conveying information.
Language as Symbolic Action p. 54
The converse can also be said to be valid through the lens of Dramatism, i.e. action is communication - but that's a far more common conception, the important bit is in the bolding. Dramatism is a unique method for locating the motivations inherent in a situation, and for analyzing the interplay of those motivations in the resulting behavior of humans. Dramatism has an inherent sense of antagonism, which I believe especially suits it to be a design tool for videogames:
...If action is to be our key term, then drama; for drama is the culminative form of action...But if drama then conflict. And if conflict, then victimage.
Language as Symbolic Action p. 54-55
The Pentad, as Dramatism's primary tool, consists of five terms: Act, Scene, Agent, Agency, Purpose. [from this point forward, unless otherwise noted: all bolded quotes below are taken from Grammar of Motives, Burke (1955)] These terms bear no small resemblance to Journalism's Big Five - who, what, where, how, why; the difference in nomenclature is key, however:
Accordingly, what we want is not terms that avoid ambiguity, but terms that clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise.
The focus of the Pentad is not to give a clear, "objective" reading of a given situation, as with the "5 Ws", because the application of the terms is not objective. The five terms of the Pentad do not represent absolute positions, but contingent relations. These relations are represented by "ratios", such as the Scene/Act ratio. Burke discussed ten possible ratios, thus considering only bivariate ratios and assuming the Scene/Act ratio, for example, to be equivalent to Act/Scene ratio. The ratios should be understood not as representing a quantifiable, statistically predictable process, but rather a fluid set of dynamic symbolic interactions.
This process of reading by assignation, as it were, can be understood as 'framing'. The audience is constantly framing the content by assigning the Pentadic roles to content elements; as the series of content elements progresses, the audience may reassign roles from one element to another. These transitions between frames create opportunities to make or break Identification, as they realign the connections that constitute a player's Identification with the story/narrative complex of the game.
These transitions are also ambiguous in that they might cause a player to suddenly become more or less invested in the game, while unable to explain exactly why that is the case. Large planned transitions are possible (such as the revelation of Jack as mind-controlled clone in BioShock), but transitions can also occur spontaneously as the player develops an aesthetic response to the game (ex.: player finds an audiotape of bereaved mother - perception of Rapture's citizenry changes).
In fact, throughout the entire experience of a work, the artist may elicit a reassignment of the terms from the audience (once or even several times), to give new meaning to the work. As noted just above, the reassignment/realignment of the terms, the resulting perspective shift creates distinctions that branch out from the areas of ambiguity. Narrative elements can be placed within the distinctions to act as signals of the artist's intent, yet the audience is liable to misinterpret (or simply miss!) the changing of the labels, and so the artist(s) must take great care to use the correct process. Or as Burke put it:
Distinctions, we might say, arise out of a great central moltenness, where all is merged. They have been thrown forth from a liquid center to the surface, where they have congealed. Let one of these crusted distinctions return to its source, and in this alchemic center it may be remade, again becoming molten liquid and may enter into new combinations, whereat it may be again thrown forth as a new crust, a different distinction. So that A may become non-A. But not merely by a leap from one state to the other. Rather, we must take A back into the ground of its existence, the logical substance that is its causal ancestor, and on to a point where it is consubstantial with non-A; then we may return, this time emerging with non-A instead.
Obviously no two audience members will have the exact same interpretation of events. This is due to the complex nature of human symbol making, and results in different folks having different perspectives:
From the central moltenness, where all the elements are fused into one togetherness, there are thrown forth, in separate crusts, such distinctions as those between freedom and necessity, activity and passiveness, cooperation and competition, cause and effect, mechanism and teleology.
This is a rather poetic way of saying that humans create little symbolic worlds in order to understand their reality; given the same 'molten core' (i.e. any situation), however, two people will "throw forth" different crusts. In order to achieve a consistent vision, the artist must attempt to signal the audience with instructions on recreating the 'geology' of the little world as embodied in the work, and it is the level of potential for Identification which determines whether or not an audience member follows those directions closely, realizing the artistic intent. I'll tackle a few of the tools for actually achieving that goal in a future post...
For this to make sense (and be useful beyond navel contemplation), we'll apply it to game design in an analysis of BioShock...
Let our powers combine!!!
Who is the "hero" of BioShock? This question is more complicated than it might first appear. Is it Jack the tabula rasa? Given Jack's notorious lack of self-control and lack of character development, could it be Dr. Tennenbaum instead? After all, within the context of the story, she's acting with free will, and she's grown from a callously indifferent researcher to a compassionate rescuer. How about Frank Fontaine? A tragic reading of the plot construes FF as the epitome of hubristic greed resulting in downfall. Using the traditional understandings of protagonist, "hero", and character development, it is difficult to assign traditional roles to the characters of BioShock. So what?
In the picture above, who is the aggressor and who is the victim? The Big Daddy will not attack unless provoked, yet he is the brutal guardian of the desperately needed resource Adam, working to stockpile the ooze for the sake of a tyrant (take your pick); surely that is itself a passive form of violence.
Depending on your ethical and philosophical predilections, there are at least two possible divergent interpretations of the picture above: sad souls trapped in a hell partially of their own making, cursed to risk their lives in order to maintain the addiction they developed just trying to survive; OR the scum of the earth, mucking about to risk their wasted lives for one more grab at Power...
An example of different meta-interpretations of the game as a whole:
Traditional: Act-escape from Rapture; Agent-Jack; Agency-ADAM and weapons; Purpose-Survival; Scene-Rapture.
Psychological: Act-self destruction; Agent-Andrew Ryan; Agency-greed and brutality; Purpose-fulfillment of extreme narcissism, Scene-Rapture.
Evolutionary: Act-selection of viable subspecies, Agent-Nature; Agency-ADAM and Rapture; Purpose-strengthening of survivability; Scene-Earth.
Moral: Act-Corruption of the greedy; Agent-Power; Agency-greed for power, i.e. ADAM & EVE; Purpose-Moral Justice; Scene-The 'souls' of Rapture's Citizenry.
Teleological: Act-Culmination of Modernity's Rottenness; Agent-Rapture; Agency-Citizens of Rapture; Purpose- Self-Realization of an (flawed) Ideal; Scene-Human History, 1960 CE.
The examples above are meta-level interpretations, but throughout every game, every film, novel etc., the audience/player is constantly making such interpretative judgments about characters and situations, and these judgments can be understood as applications of the Pentad, even if the individual making the connections doesn't consciously employ the exact terminology.
Notice how the interpretations above use many of the same core elements, but in radically different formations. Here is an example of our moltenness! The story of BioShock is tightly scripted, but the narrative of BioShock is replete with ambiguities. The confluence of the competing interests of the citizens, the disruptive nature (socially, physically, and psychologically) of ADAM, and the polarizing presence of the Little Sister/Big Daddy dyads - all of this offers fertile ground for the player to Identify with the game world.
The Dramatistic sequence noted above (action=drama=conflict=victimage) is identifiable on multiple planes within the story/narrative complex of BioShock: citizens against each other, citizens against Ryan, Ryan against Fontaine, citizens against themselves, etc. These threads of conflict are interwoven with lush, but subtle, detail and create a lavish tapestry of ambiguity, replete with sites of distinction where the player is invited to make a judgement (Ryan is Evil, Rapture's citizens were psychologically weak, etc.). When you kill for Sander Cohen, are you: ridding the world of some trash, murdering in self interest, or simply aiding and abetting the madness of Rapture? Despite a tightly scripted linear story, BioShock lets high level questions like these stay in the background, in the narrative murk of ambiguity, with great results!
And...we..are...done! Sort of...
Even if many players failed to Identify with the BioShock, as Clint Hocking did so famously, millions of others found the game to be wonderfully immersive. As Clint shifted frames in response to the game, it failed to match his new perspective (i.e. Pentadic assignations) with changes in story and narrative; but so many more found that the elements of story and narrative reinforced their perspective of the game. If anything, BioShock's failure was a lack of adaptability in the story to match the depth of the narrative ambiguity.
So what I'm asserting here is that BioShock's success is due to the inherent ambiguity of the narrative structure, resulting in a variety of equally valid assignations of the Pentad; i.e., the game's narrative ambiguity allows for a wide variety of player types to find a significant level of Identification with the game world. In a future post, I'll discuss a few of the tools available for creating narrative depth within a game design. But first we'll have to tackle the issue of how story and narrative interact to effect aesthetic response...