A sleeping flock of sheep dream of a dungeon, one imprisoning a magic wielding goat and its rat familiar. To escape the dungeon, the goat must wake the sheep. In western culture, these images have clear meanings in one context. To paraphrase the conflict, the player controls a satanic force against a Christian flock.
What separates Escape Goat from tawdry narratives about assuming the power of Satan, is the objective, to wake the sheep. Why? Because the dungeon is created by their dreams. It can be presumed that the sheep will wake up to reality. From there, it's no large leap to understand the game's message, a benign entity was falsely imprisoned out of fear.
In a world where harassment frequently occurs out of misunderstandings, miscommunication, and outright libel, this is an important message. Escape Goat should be more prominent in our art form's ranks.
Or, maybe not. Although I've spoken with the game's author, I don't actually remember how Ian Stocker described his story. I simply made up my 'interpretation'. My purpose is to warn developers, who tell their narrative primarily through gameplay, we must be extra cautious about the message transmitted.
Art is often lauded for how ambiguity empowers its different forms. However, caution accompanies the praise regardless of form. Ambiguity is not the same as sloppy. I apologize, Ian, if anyone takes from this essay that your game is sloppy. It is not! It's a fine game with a fine story.
When a developer embarks upon creating a narrative primarily through gameplay, she must not sacrifice that narrative to fun. Certainly, some narratives will thrive with fun gameplay, but for narratives that don't, don't compromise!
Awesome narrative games merge engaging gameplay with insightful themes. But when narrative emerges from mechanics, it's easy to gum-up the story when balancing the gameplay. Every bit of art and music and interaction can influence how a player perceives the story.†
One rule worth considering, every tweak to a mechanic changes the story's meaning by an equal amount. Mechanics as narrative is one element that makes our art form more difficult than any other.