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Opinion:  Crisis Core 's Quiet Redefining Of The Gameplay Narrative Divide
Opinion: Crisis Core's Quiet Redefining Of The Gameplay Narrative Divide Exclusive
January 20, 2009 | By Christian Nutt

January 20, 2009 | By Christian Nutt
More: Exclusive

[Developers are looking for a way to integrate narrative and gameplay effectively, and Gamasutra's Christian Nutt looks at a surprising, but -- he claims -- effective example: the slot machine-like DMW system in Square Enix's Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII for PSP.]

As I talk to developers and attend industry events, it becoming clear to me that designers and writers have a real thirst to see narrative and gameplay become more closely enmeshed in games.

Funnily enough, I played a popular game in 2008 that did an excellent job of effectively bringing these two things together, but I've rarely heard anyone discuss it in those terms.

Several people I've talked to personally have spoken highly of the way the title combines the two, but there hasn't been broad recognition, as far as I can tell.

That game is Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, by Square Enix, for the PSP. I have a feeling that there are a couple of reasons there hasn't been more dialogue about this title.

For one, it's a PSP game, so it doesn't have the same stature as a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 title. For another, I don't think people outside of the fan base give the series a lot of credit these days.

I think many professionals, while recognizing the series' popularity, would be surprised to hear just how often it gets things right.

A Surprising Mind Wave

The most innovative element of Crisis Core is the Digital Mind Wave system. It may have a silly name (that's a weakness of the Japanese, for sure) but it is an ingenious gameplay system.

Most of the writing I saw (in reviews) was confined to confusion about the randomness of the DMW -- it's essentially a slot machine. When you hit onto the right combination of numbers you get stat boosts, powerful attacks, or even more impressive monster summons.

It also governs the leveling of your character, his special attacks, and spells. This is the bit people didn't like: though it wasn't actually random (since it masks a more-or-less standard experience point system) it appeared random, and that galls players.

I understand why, and I'm not here to defend that aspect of it, but pick up the conversation where I think the system really worked: the DMW's clever integration of character and story directly with the battle system, and the game's larger narrative.

As you fight battles, the DMW continuously spins, without your input, in the top left corner of the screen. When it gets close to making a beneficial match, the spinning reels zoom in to take over the entire screen.

Instead of fruit or other typical slot machine items, important characters from the game's story populate the DMW; when you first encounter those characters in-game, they're added to your DMW roster.

This is ingenious, because it ties what would otherwise seem very arbitrary into the game's narrative. Say what you will about Final Fantasy. Even those who do not enjoy the series must recognize that its characters are its strength, particularly with its fans.

This is so much so that Final Fantasy VII continues to produce successful products 11 years after its initial commercial introduction.

"Heightened emotions have affected the DMW!"

The way the package ties so neatly together within the context of the game is what makes it work so well. The DMW is affected by protagonist Zack Fair's emotional state (hence the quote above.) The more intense his emotion, the higher likelihood there is of a match. When a match is made, that might be it -- you just get a bonus.

But sometimes, a (very short) cutscene might play. This cutscene is always a memory Zack has of an important character of the game, and it's always from Zack's perspective.

This memory, just like memories do in real life, affects Zack's emotions -- and allows him to take advantage of his emotional state to perform more effectively in battle. This is what translates into the bonuses.

When you arrive at a combination -- say, FFVII antagonist, Sephiroth, who's also a major character in Crisis Core -- across all three reels, a cutscene displays an interaction between Zack and that psychotic silver-haired swordsman.

You'll see the scene -- for example, a simple training exercise where Sephiroth, who takes the role of Zack's superior officer in the Shinra army for much of the game, goads Zack into battling more effectively. At this point, the game reappears and Zack performs a devastating special attack against the foes he's facing.

We all know that our emotions and memories affect us in this way in real life, but when's the last time you've seen this communicated at all effectively in a game, particularly in the heat of combat?

When Zack remembers a particularly strong memory, he's filled with strength to fight even harder. This is rewarding both from a story perspective and from a gameplay perspective -- who doesn't want an HP boost in the middle of a tough fight?

Boosting the Story, Too

Even more cleverly, these memories show events that fall outside of the primary story sequences you've already seen. They are vignettes that logically follow from the plot of the game, but which were not part of the main narrative -- which makes them compelling to view, sometimes revelatory.

And, depending where you are in the twists and turns of the story, even a scene you've seen before (they're finite, of course, and do repeat) can be imbued with new shades of meaning. It's really clever.

And from a design perspective, it reminds the player that the story is integral to the Crisis Core experience. But it doesn't penalize the player who doesn't have much interest in it -- these scenes are skippable.

It also provides a respite from battle, which is a great chance to regroup mentally; and, as this is a portable game, allows you to shift position or look away for a moment to check which stop the bus is pulling into -- or whatever.

The Digital Mind Wave system, then, quietly does something we've been asking for -- but in a small, somewhat unassuming way, rather than suddenly delivering the revolution in gameplay and narrative concepts people seem to be waiting for.

The mechanic takes elements that already existed (chance, traditional narrative, RPG special attacks and stat boosts) and fits them into a larger, traditional game design (an action RPG with random encounters).

Thus, the developers of Crisis Core have nudged forward the evolution of their series, offered a fresh new gameplay system to fans. They've also put a few cracks in the cutscene/gameplay dichotomy that Square Enix is famous (or infamous, in some circles) for relying on.

To say that the developers use the DMW effectively by the end of the game would be an understatement. Its appearance in the final moments of the game -- which would be poor form to spoil here -- boosts that up another level.

Crisis Core is a game whose developers know how to use the tools they have given themselves. The DMW is the most striking example of that.

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Nestor Forjan
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Analyzing the article and the previous one, further down the site, also about narrative and dialogue I find both cover pretty much opposite ends of something, yet both claim to be about the same thing.

The Tom Cross article was about putting more gameplay into storytelling, this one is about putting storytelling into gameplay, yet they both seem to talk about a common drive to integrate both things.

I wonder if other forms of storytelling are obscuring part of this issue for game creators. It seems to me that we're all still trying to either come up with a proper interactive movie or an interactive way to feed non-interactive movies to players and, as I said in my comment to Cross's article, I wonder if either of those should be an objective of interactive storytelling.

Both articles seem to complain about people not reacting positively to either interactive dialgoue trees in action games or interaction between storytelling devices and gameplay. Maybe it's time to accept this as a fact and stop blaming execution or reception for it. Maybe these types of gameplay-story integration are just not effective and it's time to reach beyond both of the paradigms proposed into a new way to make players interact with game storytelling based on how people play games, not on how people tell stories.

I'm willing to concede that CC's DMW system may have been just one such thing that got washed away by other bad design decissions, but I do have an unscratched itch for further exploration by creators in original angles.

Erin Hoffman
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Very interesting spot analysis of a new narrative construction -- much appreciated. The connection between memory and action, and the ability to potentially break the linearity of narrative, is one of the most interesting things gameplay can bring to the storytelling table. In addition it would seem this system connects achievement/power with memory, another game strength that does not exist in other media. This looks like a first jab at such a system that can be further refined in later iterations, but it's terrific to see this kind of innovation being done.

I doubt I would have heard this much detail about the DMW system elsewhere -- thanks for writing this, Christian.

Peter Shafer
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I was hesitant to invest myself in CC after the earlier entries in the FFVII Compilation. I was surprised at how much I ended up enjoying it though. Since it didn't get much attention I thought I was indulging a guilty pleasure, but after reading this article I see it in a different light. CC did deserve more attention for what it did right.

The idea of narrative in games is overblown a bit in my opinion. I welcome CC's 'quiet' approach. My favorite moments in game storytelling don't involve complex storytelling systems or fantastic writing, but thoughtful integration between the game and the story much like how it was done with the DMW in CC. The appeal of games is the careful crafting of an illusion of consequences for your actions. I think this extends to narrative in games as well and does not require a revolution in how we design them.

I agree with Erin, thanks for giving CC and the DMW this sort of thought Christian.

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Cool game, but that DMW got annoying after awhile since you can't skip the scenes. (non cg ones)

Thomas Shaw
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I created this account just to comment on this great article.

The DMW system really did strike a chord with me. As an old fan of Square RPG's I wished at first that I had more control, or at least more understanding of its workings. But then it would lose some of its charm.

To me, the DMW reflected and expanded the narrative even more than you mention. You see, every player that picked up Crisis Core after playing FF7 or watching Advent Children knew how the game would have to end. Zack Fair's fate was no more a mystery that the Titanic's.

As I played CC, I grew convinced that I was experiencing a flow of consciousness more than a game. The way the story jumps forward in time between chapters, skips back during the DMW, and almost never shows ANYTHING from anyone else's point of view... Crisis Core is Zack's story as he imparts it to Cloud, Zack's life flashing before his eyes as he's cut down.

The entire game is a series of flashbacks, but presented it a way that's so honest and untraditional for a flashback that you either don't or aren't intended to realize it.

The ending DMW just sealed that interpretation for me.

This play element wasn't just a way to expose more of the narrative. It was a key part of the narrative, reflecting the erratic, fleeting nature of memory.

...but that's just my $.02