This is part 3 of an article series in which I am analyzing story-based games. In this article series I want to break down a group of games that are known for their storytelling. I’m going to analyze their systems and define what those systems tell us, what sort of simulation we can run by looking solely at the systems available. Once I’ve defined the systems of the game, I’m going to look at the narrative of that game. I’m going to look at the specific events that happen to our characters and how those characters respond, and ultimately resolve the situation. Then I’m going to look at how the specific story moments are reinforced through the system. How do they use the gameplay systems to convey the events of the story, as it unfolds. Finally, I’m going to then take a look at whether the systemic story and the written story are equal partners, or if the written story could be told through other genres or systems.
For the sake of courtesy, I’m going to note now that there will be spoilers. I’ll do my best to avoid spoiling specific details, but some of these games can’t be adequately discussed without specifics.
So let's continue:
Intro: Nier: Automata came out as a surprisingly strong narrative title. It uses unconventional techniques to convey its narrative, and is one of the most study-worthy titles to have been released in recent years. Let’s take a look, shall we?
Game: The gameplay of Nier: Automata is a third person action title. Third person action is pretty much the same thing as a third person shooter, except it doesn’t strictly rely on shooting. In this case, its combat focuses on melee combat with swords. The third-person camera has the same purpose as was mentioned in Last of Us, allowing the player to simulate the senses a person would have at their disposal. Unlike Last of Us, however, Nier doesn’t use those systems for hiding, but rather for dealing with swarms of enemies all at once. The pulled-back camera gives the player a heightened ability to see those enemies, and deal with them effectively.
Nier: Automata is also an RPG game that uses typical RPG progression systems to simulate the experience of becoming more powerful over time. You find a variety of weapons scattered throughout the world, and you can increase the stats of those weapons at your own discretion at the cost of other items you find throughout the world. This creates the loop of growing more powerful for the sake of being better at growing more powerful. On top of this weapon progression system, your character will also level up, and you can customize your character with a large number of additional abilities that can be easily swapped out at any time.
One notable thing this game includes is a combat system that includes elements of Bullet Hell. A Bullet Hell system is one that floods a field with projectiles that the player must navigate at penalty of death or injury. These systems exist to force the player to learn to move themselves in very precise ways. Usually a bullet hell game will simplify player attack to simply be an emission of bullets directly in front of their player character (usually a space ship), such that they can focus on precise movement. These games overwhelm the player and then ask them to learn how to ignore extraneous information and focus only on what they must.
Story: The story of Nier: Automata is about a robot uprising happening on earth. Alien robots invaded the earth a long time in the past, forcing humanity to relocate to the moon in order to survive. Humanity has continued sending armies to the earth in an attempt to win back the planet. The story here is split into two distinct sections. The first section follows characters 2B and 9S as they are exploring reports about rogue robots acting strangely on the planet’s surface. They investigate these reports and come to find some giant robots that seem to be corrupting those around them, somehow. They meet two humanoid robots who appear to be the source of the corruption, and do battle against these. In the process of killing these, 9S is infected with a virus and is killed by 2B so that a backup version could be restored from his old data. This whole sequence is the first part of the game, and is presented as if it were a full three-act story structure complete from start to finish. You play this first part twice, once as 2B and once as 9S, before starting a third play-through that then starts part two. Part two follows 9S and a new character, A2. This section of the game deals in the aftermath of the logic virus in the first part of the game, unleashed by the humanoid robots you defeated earlier. This logic virus begins spread to all the other robots, and then eventually to the YoRHa androids as well, calling into question the difference between the two races of machine beings. 9S explores this virus to find its roots, and eventually finds the roots in the YoRHa service that he has been fighting for. It turns out that 2B was created as an assassination robot to kill 9S each time he discovers the truth, and A2 is revealed as an early copy of 2B. This realization, and the presence of the logic virus infecting his system, causes 9S to go insane and he and A2 do battle. Players are then given the ability to choose between two endings. Each of the endings gives a slightly different take on the possibilities present.
Ludo-Narrative: Alright, strap in, this section is gunna be DENSE. Let’s start at the end. I just mentioned that each of the endings gives a slightly different take on the possibilities present. That’s because each playthrough represents a new attempt by the androids to accomplish their mission. It’s directly stated by the game that each play through of the game is a new attempt by the respective androids to resolve this situation, and that this exact same series of events has played out countless times. 2A exists solely to murder 9S each time he discovers the truth. So each ending is, therefore, simply the end of a particular cycle. You can always reload because there’s always going to be another version of 9S succumbing to the same events, and there’s always going to be another 2A doing the same. Over and over again through time. One would assume that it would take some time between each of these events, due to the other robots interacting with the androids, but still. Time dilation as a metaphor is almost ubiquitous in games (I mean. How many day/night systems are there that cycle through over an hour or two?), so this isn’t too difficult to explain away as a mechanical concession. What’s interesting is that the true final ending actually resolves this situation. It allows you to literally fight the systems of the game that are replicating these events. You fight the credits as a metaphor for fighting the game itself, the game itself being the system that keeps loading in this new saves, these new instances of the same war over and over again. You fight that system and ultimately, with the help of other players, prevail against it. At that point you have the ability to wipe out your save game entirely, ending the vicious cycle of death and rebirth and allowing the earth to finally heal. And I grant you that the fact that you can always put the game back in and start over might defeat this metaphor slightly, but I’ll take a bit of uncanny valley here as a concession to otherwise continuing the game’s narrative metaphor running through every single other aspect of the game. Even with that questionably broken metaphor, that still means the entire process of playing the game, even from the moment of launching the application, is a part of the ludo-narrative built into this title. Quite the impressive feat!
Beyond the mind-games from above, the game still manages to use its ludo-narrative effectively on every other level as well. From the start our entire GUI, health bar included, is a chip installed into your android. At any time you may remove all of these chips in favor of others. The entire interface acts as the androids’ viewpoint, warping in time with their own perception. As 9S becomes corrupted, so does the player interface and control scheme. When 2B is injured, or even blinded, those changes are reflected in how she controls. There are several sequences where player control is altered for the sake of conveying a particular feeling the androids are experiencing. Some of the game design in these segments gets a little questionable, but the narrative effectiveness of them is pretty inarguable. The player has no choice but to feel the way the androids feel as they struggle to keep moving despite their own failing bodies. The game also includes a hacking interface that is unique to 9S, which allows player participation even in the sections of the game not directly related to the characters. These moments would have been conveyed by a cutscene in most games, a simple video showing the protagonist interfacing with a computer and expository dialogue being exchanged throughout. The hacking moments are almost entirely narrative, but they are presented in a way that maintains player control, never robbing player input for the sake of story. There ARE moments where players lose control, but they are always quite brief. The game strongly favors keeping the player in control, and overlaying their actions with verbal dialogue spoken as they play. Several of the ship flight sections are clearly designed simply to keep the player engaged while dialogue happens, but still this feels more engaging than simply watching a video every few minutes.
Conclusion: Nier Automata is one of those experiences that left me with strongly mixed feelings. I don’t understand the bullet hell mechanics at all. Mechanically bullet hell is about getting players to move in particular ways in order to deal with overwhelming information. If there had been a plague of tiny robots that the player needed to dodge in order to save the earth, I may have understood the bullet hell as a build up to that moment. As it is, it feels like an extraneous system. The combat isn’t particular geared towards it, and the game designers seemed to only include it because it was in the first game, never quite capitalizing on its functions in any significant way. The bosses where you are tasked with dodging bullets are, to me, among the best moments in the entire game. I really wished I could have seen more of this, but only if the entire experience had been tweaked to make it work. There were definitely times during the boss fights where you are being asked to play bullet hell while the game has just robbed you of your movement as part of the story, and these moments just feel bad. There are other moments where you’ll be fighting one enemy and another will unleash a stream of bullets you can’t possibly see coming. They designed the health so that each bullet is balanced for these sloppy interactions, but that just makes the whole bullet hell aspect feel unnecessary. And at no point does the bullet hell aspect get used by the narrative. Ship combat is used by the narrative, and including that into the base gameplay is a good idea, but it’s just never quite tied in with the rest.
On the one hand, the narrative is one of the most complex and interesting stories ever told in games, and it’s told in a way that could only ever have been done as a game. It’s a truly fascinating weave of narrative structure. On the other hand, the combat design is clunky and sloppily integrated. The enemies seem to be placed with barely any thought to how they will interact with each other, and the systems present in the combat feel the same.
It felt, to me, like this was probably a result of two different companies working on two different parts of the game. Hopefully we’ll get a third game in the series (or a spiritual successor) which will refine these systems into a shiny pearl, because I truly believe that there is something worthwhile in this combat! And any excuse I can give to see another game with such a complex narrative, I will give in a heartbeat.
Super Mario Brothers 3
Intro: Ok, ok, so I know I said I was looking at narrative-heavy games, but bear with me on this one. SMB3 famously begins with an opening curtain, much like one you would find at a stage play. Because of this, speculation arose about the entire game being a theatre production, which was later confirmed to be the intention by Miyamoto. So let’s dive into this game with that in mind.
Game: Mario is, obviously, a platformer. Platformers are simulating travel from one space into another. Metroidvanias will take this and make the experience non-linear, but for your average Mario title, you are simply moving from one space to another, overcoming obstacles along the way. Progression happens, in these games, through the inclusion of ever-more-complex movement being required.
Story: Mario is always the same cliche’d story. A dragon has stolen away the princess, and our hero must rescue her. Mario 3 is no different. Mario travels from castle to castle trying to find his princess, each time finding Toad in her place, directing him to the next furthest castle away from his starting point. Eventually Mario finds the proper castle, does battle with the dragon, Bowser, and rescues the princess.
Ludo-Narrative: The ludo-narrative in Mario is pretty nonexistent, right? None of the mechanics of a Mario game reflect the story, the story is simply a wrapper around the juicy center that is the gameplay. But Super Mario Bros 3 does something interesting, nonetheless. Every background in the game is presented as if it were crafted by hand and placed on a stage. Each stage then takes the 2D perspective and makes the player a member of the audience watching as Mario traverses the space. The 2D camera angle now becomes the relatively two-dimensional view one gets while sitting in front of a stage play. The backgrounds being made as if they were set dressing means that the whole game becomes a sort of moving panorama. Making Mario work as a stage play would be difficult, but it’s plausible to make a moving panorama that’s intricate enough to simulate at least a part of a Mario level. Luckily, due to the nature of a video game, this difficulty doesn’t translate and the game pulls it off effortlessly.
The rest of the gameplay systems of Mario don’t really reflect anything in particular, in terms of this stage play storytelling concept. Fire flowers and invincibility stars, various enemies, etc. all just exist as elements that are on the stage, not any specific metaphorical representation of any part of the story. They don’t take away from this design, however, which is the much more important part. They simply exist as props relevant to the play unfolding on stage.
Conclusion: So let’s take a look at these systems and this story and discuss what we can learn from this. The game’s camera, and that curtain animation at the start of the game, turn the entire thing into a stage play. The backgrounds all reinforce this idea, and nothing of the mechanics take away from this idea. The scrolling would be difficult to replicate in real life, but that’s ok, we all understand that this stage play experience COULD work.
For the Mario simulation, this gives us relatively minimal benefit. Either Bowser has partnered up with Mario once again to make a stage play (you know, instead of for kart racing or tennis or whatever), or this is a play about the story of Mario. Neither of those really means much in the overall lore of the Mushroom Kingdom. But what if this wasn’t about the Mushroom Kingdom? What if we took Shakespeare and turned it into a similar simulation? Could Romeo and Juliet be presented as a platformer as well? If we really look at the way a stage play is presented, the elements can all be easily visually presented in the same way as Mario 3, and especially easily with modern technology. The trick would mostly come from trying to emulate the story elements of Romeo and Juliet (or literally any other play) without it just being a bunch of people walking onto the stage and talking. But what if, instead, we looked at The Odyssey? A story that’s much more catered to story through action, but that’s still been made into a stage production many times. By putting a curtain in front of Mario 3, Nintendo showed us that a stage play can be a video game. They showed us that a stage narrative could be presented as a 2D platformer, and we can extrapolate that knowledge to teach us how to present many more types of narrative.
Mario 3 is a pretty simple example of this idea, of course, but it teaches us a lesson. Games can tell stories in ways that most games simply don’t. It’s not a limitation of the medium, but a limitation in our own minds. If we seek a better understanding of what it is that these simulations are simulating, we can use that knowledge to tell our stories. If we can tell our stories through better means, we can learn to express ourselves, as people, in a way that we’ve never done before. This, to me, is the ultimate goal of video games.
And that's all for this series.
Thanks for reading.