Edit: Courtesy of Tim Carter, I have added a section on authorship. Thanks Tim!
Games are brimming with narrative potential and we have done an adequate job of exploring narrative development within games. However, if we are to design games that have rhetorical value, that are designed from the ground up to persuade players of a given ideal, then we may want to re-examine our games’ content. How exactly should we maximize the influence of our games?
Why do this?
While games today have heavily invested in the field of narrative in comparison to games from previous decades, it is still in an early stage of its lifetime. Only recently have studios like Bioware, TelltaleGames, and Quantic Dream appeared, dedicated to crafting experiences filled with emotion and strong characters.
Art is about communicating with an audience, and these types of games are no different. When we begin to throw religion and faith into the mix, however, we all of a sudden run into a relative lack of narrative exploration. Mark Filipowich’s article on faith in games presents the problem quite nicely…
“Games don’t have anything to say about the purpose of existence or where humans fit in the universe. The existential questions and answers posed by religion and belief rarely make their way into games. Gods and churches are just obstacles or assets.”
– Mark Filipowich, Machine Gods: Religion in Games
Philosophical and ethical considerations are a necessary point of discussion in games if the medium is to evolve, but such an evolution requires a firm understanding of how best to make use of games’ core quality: interactivity. Assuming one wishes to craft an interactive experience of a rhetorical nature (that is, one which attempts to affect the players’ beliefs), then an analysis of how best to deliver such an experience is in order.
Note: The following types of games are beyond the scope of this article:
- Games with no rhetorical narrative:
- The narrative elements are more of a utilitarian nature and simply supply the context for the gameplay.
- Asteroids, Super Meat Boy
- Games with narrative of a primarily cinematic nature:
- These games have no intention of relying on interactive content to deliver the narrative. This article therefore has no bearing on assisting their development.
- Final Fantasy XIII
The Fundamental Principle:
It’s not just “Show, don’t tell.” It’s also sometimes “Do, don’t show.”
Everything that follows is more or less a manifestation of the following two-fold motivation:
- Allow the player the freedom to invest themselves in exploring an interactive world, and…
- Craft your world in such a way that the player’s interactions sculpt their perception of that world, instilling themes and philosophy by experiencing them in your virtual reality.
Don’t: Subvert the player’s sense of control.
Do: Deliver limited cinematic perspective.
Cinematics are about creators presenting something to the player. Games are about players discovering what the creators want to show them.
Cinematics seize interactive control, delivering a dramatic, yet passive experience. Games grant interactive freedom, delivering a dramatic and active experience.
Cinematics most definitely have their place in games, but due to their interruption of gameplay, are best used as pacing tools and gameplay transitions.
Occasionally The Last of Us actually uses an innovative technique that hybridizes the intent here: they allow the players to hold down or tap a button to toggle or trigger a cinematic camera view or action whenever something of interest is happening in the scene. Things you can do with this…
- Interesting event? Hold down Y for a zoomed in, closer look.
- Could be adapted to even trigger nearby characters to comment on the scene.
- Nearby NPC invoking some plot-significant dialogue? Tap Y to toggle the camera to always keep the character in focus / the center of attention.
- Player is still free to walk around, inspect the area, or even deactivate the camera focus should they want to.
- An item of note in the scene of just gameplay significance? Have a character comment on it, and allow the player to optionally have the camera hone in on its location to help them find it.
Check out this masterwork of a scene from The Last Of Us (seriously, take notes). In particular, track the following…
- suspenseful buildup.
- NPC-assisted player direction.
- the player directly triggering the progression of the narrative.
- the story camera transitions that connect gameplay and cutscene.
Like The Last of Us, Mass Effect 3 also makes clever use of cinematic snippets that lean in from the player perspective and lean back out which, if brief enough, are an elegant means of delivering cinematic effects without losing player engagement. Here’s an example:
Another terrific example where the camera view actually tracks the player’s avatar throughout the narrative sequence:
As narrative designers, we need to find these kinds of creative solutions to deliver cinematic elements without compromising player immersion.
Don’t: Believe player dialogue is everything.
Do: Rely on your environment to tell the story.
Part of a game’s strong point is the fact that players interact with a crafted environment: the level designer and/or narrative designer will explicitly arrange the details of the environment to be optimal in some regard.
This optimal design is frequently reserved for gameplay functionality, but is sometimes used to enhance the narrative through world-building elements instead. Narrative enhancements improve the sense of presence and immersion games depend on to evoke emotions in players. As such, they are of critical importance to our pathos arguments.
Consider the impressive narrative feats accomplished by games that have no interactive dialogue whatsoever. Journey, Gone Home, & Everybody’s Gone to Rapture each are highly praised for their narrative exploits, but the bulk of the story is accumulated by exploring an environment, witnessing events in the world, and interacting with elements that merely inform the player’s understanding of past events.
Virtually any aspect of the game world can be leveraged to deliver narrative. The best case scenario is when you can devise world-interactions that not only teach the player about the world or evoke an emotion, but also teach them about a critical gameplay mechanic.
Chris Winters illustrates a great example in his discussion of Portal:
“[Valve] successfully managed to tie player emotions to an inanimate object: the Weighted Companion Cube. Gamers had to carry the Cube from room to room only to be told later on to incinerate it, which in turn spawned a slew of fan-made Weighted Companion Cube tributes and, later on, Valve’s very own plush toy…And the Weighted Companion Cube was there for a very important reason, fan obsession notwithstanding. With its demise, it taught the player a new gameplay mechanic that was instrumental in the final boss battle with GLaDOS.”
Mind you, this is just a random block the player interacts with that has a heart on it. It’s not a character or a fancy gameplay object. There are plenty of functionally identical blocks the player encounters. And yet, it holds a significant influence over the narrative of the game. Portal just wouldn’t have been the same without the companion cube.
Don’t: Attempt to tell the player what to think.
Do: Ask the player questions.
People predominantly play games to be entertained (edutainment not-withstanding). To craft a game meant for a traditional audience that argues for particular ideals, the key is to expand the player’s mind.
When people are playing for fun, they don’t want to be lectured to. They don’t play to hear someone argue a given perspective.
Interactions are a games strong suit. Therefore, the game should rely on interactions to persuade people. Interactions involve us presenting a situation, and having the player respond.
Emphasizing interactions means our goal is to craft a world that begs for a response from the player. We need to ask the player questions.
What questions should we ask? Clearly they should be questions that make them think twice about significant issues.
Keep in mind, the priority should never be to outright force the player to believe in our goal: merely to 1) break down their biases and resistances and 2) subsequently be open-minded when exposed to our ideas.
What sorts of questions are useful? Why, quite a large variety in fact:
- Questions regarding the subject of our rhetorical goal.
- We can manipulate the narrative result of these decisions to suggest the results of player actions.
- Be careful not to make these “narrative results” correspond to the success of the game. If a given choice is better for the player’s gameplay by default, the player will feel as if the game is trying to “make them” agree with it (read my article on Narrative-Gameplay Dissonance if interested in this topic).
- Questions regarding related subjects that ease the player into the main topic in the first place.
- Gotta start somewhere.
- Questions that provide the player with doubt concerning the validity of common preconceptions or misconceptions they may believe in.
- This is where breaking down resistances is key.
- Questions that explore multiple perspectives concerning the main topic.
- Different politics / cultures / religions / layers of society may examine the topic on different terms, in different contexts.
- Questions that explore multiple facets of the theme itself.
- What are the consequences or implications of our proposed idea? What does it mean if we are right? Wrong?
Also understand that these are absolutely not necessarily questions in dialogue. We are equating questions with interactions as the player’s input is a response to a question we have posed. Therefore, gameplay tasks we give the player are, taken in narrative context, a form of questioning them.
Don’t: Make your point just through story.
Do: Evoke player emotion via gameplay dynamics and relatable characters.
An average narrative design includes a story alongside the gameplay to promote a given theme.
An exquisite narrative design builds the story and gameplay within one another from the beginning, integrating the two as a cohesive, reciprocating harmony.
An average narrative design includes characters that inform the player of a crucial problem they must solve and what they must do gameplay-wise to fix that problem.
An exquisite narrative design includes characters with their own goals, motivations, histories, and relations to others, and who become equally as aware of problems as the player; these characters in turn have their own evaluations of whether “it” is a problem, how “it” should be handled, and how “it” will affect themselves and others. Players then “answer” these gameplay questions by evaluating character relationships and the narrative consequences of the options before them.
Pathological arguments are our primary goal. Logic is useful, sure, usually delivered via character conversations. Ethos is also useful, delivered via our reputation/credibility (or our game characters? Untested, but an intriguing idea…). However, the strongest weapon of a game’s arsenal lies in its ability to deliver enhanced pathos through a strong sense of presence.
Let’s do an example. We want to convince people that animals should be perceived on equal terms with humans. We wanna use games because we think we can make a strong appeal with that medium.
Here’s a terrible elevator pitch: “It’s a RPG where you solve puzzles and fight animal thieves to protect local wildlife who are under your care.” We’ve got some gameplay (puzzles and combat), and we’ve got a narrative (caring for animals). That’s pretty much it. It sounds like crap, and nobody would ever invest in the title (let alone play it).
Instead, let’s rely on a mechanic that delivers engaging dynamics intertwined with character relationships: “In an adventure game leveraging deep relationships akin to Mass Effect 2, a shy girl without any friends finds herself connecting to others in mysterious ways when she suddenly understands the speech of the neighborhood wildlife.”
Right off the bat, we know the player has an interesting narrative mechanic: they will need to interact with animals in order to develop relationships with the people in the story. This guarantees that the player will in turn develop relationships with the animals as well, something they may not have initially cared about narrative-wise, but are interested in gameplay-wise. Regardless of whether they care about animals, many people will care about two things: 1) trying to make friends in an uncomfortable environment is something many can relate to, and 2) the novelty of the puzzle-solving interactions. Together, these may pull together an audience.
The second step is to make clear that the player’s interactions with the wildlife will be personal. Not “I can ask a cat to spy on a hidden conversation for me”, but rather, “I can ask Mr. Tibbles to spy on a hidden conversation for me. He’s quite interested in playing the role of a spy, so I’ll play along with his fantasy.” The deeper narrative context has several opportunities associated with it.
- The interaction may initially just be utilitarian: the player could just be using the character. But the result is that the player knows Mr. Tibbles trusts her to share in his fantasy. Mr. Tibbles now has expectations of the player. He is now “real” in that the player must consider his perspective.
- The next time the player has the option of supporting Mr. Tibbles’ fantasy, there are several types of responses available, several “answers” to our question for the player.
- Will they appeal to those expectations and continue to build his fantasy? Or will they squander the expectations and tell the cat that he’s just a cat? There are plenty more as well.
- A question such as this may have little to do with whether the player is directly comparing the animal to a human, but we are at the very least having them treat the cat similarly in an elevated context (making progress towards our goal): considering a deep philosophical question in regards to Mr. Tibbles, the cat.
- Subsequent interactions should lead to the player forming a bond with Mr. Tibbles (this relies on having interesting and relatable characters). The player cares about Mr. Tibbles’ relationship to them.
- The player’s original goal was to connect with people and develop friends. Assuming the player has worked with Mr. Tibbles to help a classmate named Jenna from afar, we can later present the player with our primary question: Without the ability to do both, the player can choose to maintain their relationship with Mr. Tibbles or start a new relationship with Jenna in line with the original player goal.
- Our design wouldn’t punish the player for the choice they make, but would simply acknowledge their choice and highlight the effect it has on the characters involved.
- It wouldn’t be your job to make the player choose whom to favor. Instead, your job would be to make this a difficult and heart-wrenching decision: for them to consider Mr. Tibbles on equivalent terms as the human character, to recognize them equally as valuable relationships and members of the community.
By nature of your gameplay dynamics and emotional, relatable characters, you can manipulate your quests and narrative interactions to achieve your rhetorical goal effectively.
Don’t: Overlook the value of the people.
Do: Provide recognition for creators.
While not directly pertaining to game design, it is also important for narrative-focused games to highlight not just game designers, but also the other leads responsible for delivering the necessary immersion: writers, composers, lead artists, etc. The illumination of authorship for the experience is important both to gamers who would like to know the people responsible for crafting their cherished stories as well as the creators who work so hard.
A rhetorical reasoning for doing so is that it increases the likelihood that gamers, and not just people in the industry, will begin identifying the work of particular individuals and bring the power of ethos more closely at play in the realm of marketing games. In the end, it’s better for gamers’ experience, creators’ careers, designer’s rhetorical goals, and the industry’s future.
Games have the potential to host powerful conversations within society, and they are most influential when they leverage their interactive nature. We must therefore learn to focus our efforts on highly immersive interactions with narrative systems if we are to hone the art of narrative design. Some methods for doing so include relying on…
- cinematic effects that don’t compromise player immersion
- our virtual environment to enhance the player’s sense of presence in the world.
- our gameplay options to pose narrative questions to the player, allowing them to consider the philosophical or ethical implications of their decisions.
- narrative-inspired, engaging gameplay interactions to draw in players
- relatable characters to evoke player emotion and incorporate a pathos argument for our cause.
- Recognition for individual creators closely attached with the game.
Hope you all enjoyed the article. Feedback of all kinds is much appreciated! I welcome future conversations on the topic.