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The Uneasy Merging of Narrative and Gameplay
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The Uneasy Merging of Narrative and Gameplay

January 26, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 5 of 6 Next

How Do Narrative and Gameplay Get in the Way of Each Other?

Let's go back to the last example, where I described the value of establishing a grammar of trust in narrative situations where the player actually has some control. There is also quite a bit of value in narrative deception and surprise.

Let's say we really want the player to experience the effect of comfortably watching two characters talk to each other, and then feel the sting of deception as something suddenly attacks them from behind. In film, this is a totally valid and oft-used technique. In games, we need to proceed much more carefully. But why?

In a film, the audience has no control over what happens. The director of the film, if so inclined, can relish the freedom to backstab the viewer over and over with impunity. The viewer is trained to fear and expect the possibility of a backstab, and yet they can do nothing to avoid it.

Now let's consider what happens in a game. We put the player in a fully controllable cutscene that appears to be innocuous, where the only element of interest is two characters talking. The player has their guard down, and views the conversation. Without warning, we surprise the player by producing a backstabbing enemy that may actually kill him.

So the developer gets the intended payoff, but now we have trained the player to be wary of consequential surprises, and this expectation will carry forward with disastrous consequences, all because the player can control themselves in the narrative.

The next time the player enters a cutscene, their attention will be on the possible enemy hiding in the dark, rather than the narrative of the present. Any hope remaining that the player will pay full attention to the narrative has evaporated. The price of this fearful effect on the player is the loss of their trust, and this fear will not diminish until many more cutscenes are experienced without incident.

Most games handle this type of scenario by working in the deception in such a way so that it is unavoidable -- inconsequential in gameplay terms -- and thus restricted to the narrative. In this way the player gets surprised, but then realizes, "oh, I was supposed to die," thereby compartmentalizing the action into bins called "stuff that happens in the cutscene", and "stuff that happens in the game."

Interestingly, this effect works completely against the intent to blur or altogether remove the line between interaction and narrative. But it's less because of our inability to be "smart enough" as developers, and more because of an inherent side effect of training the player, and then giving them control.

Let's assume that you don't like getting punched in the face. If you're going to watch the hypothetical film, John Punches Daniel in the Face 80 Times, The director can say that Daniel will not fight back, even against the viewer's wishes, because the intent is to make viewers know what it feels like to get punched in the face 80 times in rapid succession.

But in the game, John Punches Daniel in the Face 80 Times, where you play as Daniel and have a limited life bar (and some actual net negative consequence in game terms to getting punched), you will undoubtedly do all that you can to avoid getting punched. The only way for us to make you feel all 80 punches in succession is to freeze you there in some way. But if you're frozen, then we're watching a film, and not playing a game.

There are just some things that you cannot do to a person when they have control over the situation. Translated into our specific context, there are just some things you can do in narrative but cannot do in gameplay. So the next logical question would be, "Are there things that work as gameplay that are impossible to accomplish as narrative?"

Not surprisingly, with a little investigation we find that the answer to this question is also yes. In Why We Play Games, Nicole Lazzaro describes eight categories of emotion that are commonly experienced in games. Some of these, like Disgust or Fear, can be experienced with equal intensity whether the medium is gameplay or cinema. However, there are a few that are pretty exclusively in the realm of gameplay, because they involve the exertion of effort as a necessary prerequisite.

We already know that strict narrative requires that the observer has no say in the outcome of events. As we've shown, this limitation is not inherently negative, since the thriller John Punches Daniel in the Face 80 Times could not exist without it. This single distinguishing element also has important implications -- not only can you not control the outcome, you are also not allowed to exert significant effort in any way. Indeed, you don't even have any way to exert effort in the narrative's world, even if you wanted to.

So what does this mean? Two gameplay emotions, "Kvell" and "Fiero," can only exist as a possible consequence of the exertion of effort on the part of the player -- exertion that can never be accomplished within a pure narrative.

Kvell is a verb, but also a feeling. It's a feeling of pride, especially over the accomplishments of one's children. You don't have to make your kids play video games to feel kvell, but when you are proud that you taught your close friend a secret Street Fighter combo that he uses to win a tournament with, that's kvell.

When we saw Mr. Miyagi teach Daniel over the course of The Karate Kid, we felt good when he finally beats the Cobra Kai in the karate tournament, but we can't feel kvell over it, since we didn't teach him. Kvell can also be experienced in games where the player has control over training, instructing and cultivating their minions -- such as Oddworld and Pokémon.

Fiero, on the other hand, is the specific feeling of success after one has undertaken significant effort to accomplish something. When you beat a difficult boss after several failures or finally figure out a challenging puzzle, that feeling of victory you experience is Fiero. Fiero junkies love to play insanely difficult and unfair games, because it's all about the payoff for them. The intense satisfaction gained by surmounting challenges in such games far outweigh any amount of torture the game designer unwittingly springs upon them.

To return to our The Karate Kid example, we might feel happy or relieved when Daniel wins the tournament. But we didn't expend any effort to win any tournaments ourselves, so the meaning of victory for us is not the same as it was for Daniel-san. Narrative can describe Daniel-san's expression of Fiero, but it cannot make us feel the way he did. The only chance you have of giving the player such a feeling is through gameplay.

Article Start Previous Page 5 of 6 Next

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