What is Past is Prologue

Laying the foundation for more talk about narrative as a game mechanic, but this time with semi-concrete examples. Plus huge spoilers for Portal 2!

My rambling essay in response to “Narrative is Not a Game Mechanic” gave the impression of being strictly about adventure games. Plus, I spent so much time talking about how to clue players in to what the game developer’s thinking, it could be read as “puzzle games should have good hints.”

But what I’m talking about is much broader. What I’m really trying to get at is a philosophy of treating narrative and game mechanic as so closely intertwined that it no longer makes sense to try and separate the two. It’s cheesy to quote myself — and put it in bold, no less! — but I finally found a pretty good way to describe what I’m talking about in the comments to the other post:

The goal is to make the player feel as if he’s writing a story and simultaneously watching it come to life around him.

A player-controlled narrative is one obvious way to accomplish that. But it’s not the only way, or even necessarily the best. My problem with that is still the Truman Show effect: Even if a developer could build a system with perfect feedback, where the world and its characters infallibly respond to the player’s actions in a satisfying way, what happens at the end of it, when the player pokes his head back into the real world? He’s just spent hours talking to himself, instead of meaningfully communicating with another person.

Of course, the problem with a pre-defined narrative is more obvious: how do you guarantee the player a feeling of agency and participation in meaningful choices, if all the meaningful choices have already been made?

I believe it sounds worse than it is, and it’s totally possible if more developers would just consistently commit to it. I’ve played plenty of games that get most of the way there without even trying. The key, as always, is to treat the story as a collaboration between the developer and the player.

Be forewarned: this post completely ruins the ending of Portal 2, so if you haven’t played that to completion yet, then 1) what the hell is wrong with you? and 2) don’t read it until you have, or unless you never plan to (see 1).

“Ludonarrative Resonance”

It doesn’t do any good to pontificate about “game stories as interactive collaboration between developer and player” without giving some concrete examples. The problem is that there aren’t a lot of good, concrete examples. I don’t believe that’s because it’s impossible, but simply because it’s never been a priority. The conventional wisdom is that story is at best a thematic layer on top of gameplay.

That’s why I really enjoyed this essay by Mattie Brice, called Narrative is a Game Mechanic. It was also written in response to Raph Koster’s Narrative is not a game mechanic, and it makes the case that

Ludology and narratology aren’t mutually exclusive studies. In fact, their combined perspectives will improve how video games influence players.

I’ve said before that I hate the term “ludonarrative dissonance,” since I think it’s a needlessly pretentious attempt to put an academic veneer on a simple and easily-understood concept: a game’s story shouldn’t be at odds with the player’s story. Completely hypocritically, I love Brice’s use of the term “ludonarrative resonance,” to describe moments when the game’s story and the player’s story aren’t just aligned, but they actually build on each other to provide a depth of experience that’s only possible in a game.

She uses the example of Ico. The player begins to feel empathy for the princess Yorda and anxiety over her vulnerability, not just because he was told to in a cut-scene, but because the central mechanic of the game reinforces it. It’s not an escort mission shoehorned into a different style of gameplay, but a game designed to evoke emotion through the player’s actions. There’s a dedicated “hold hands” button!

My usual go-to example is Portal, for putting story and characterization into a game where it wasn’t technically necessary. The story isn’t just context for the game; the story and the game are perfectly aligned. The game puts the player through a series of contrived puzzles, so the game is about a character trying to escape from a series of contrived puzzles. It’s impossible to lose the suspension of disbelief, because the game is in on the joke. Later, when the game starts to pull back the fourth wall and assert a more layered story, it resonates because of the feeling of genuine discovery, and it generates a completely unkillable internet meme.

But Portal is, deliberately, fun-sized. Expanding that to feature length meant filling in more of the game world and introducing a couple of new characters. What resulted was one great example of narrative as gameplay — “ludonarrative resonance” — but a lot more examples of story as nothing more than context and “feedback.”

The Audacity of Puzzling

First, the great example: the very last puzzle of the game. (Hence the repeated spoiler warning). The player’s got a portal gun with no portal-able surface. The game has spent the last several hours teaching the player the rules of the game by teaching the limitations of portal guns. You can only create a portal on certain white walls. The farther you get from the test chambers, the fewer white walls you’ll have available without creating them yourself.

But where Portal had one story, Portal 2 has three: the player character’s attempts to escape the testing facility, Wheatley’s attempts to take over the facility, and Cave Johnson’s creation of the facility and recruitment of testing subjects. One of the things you learn from the story of Aperture’s history is that ground moon rocks were used to create the paint for portal target surfaces. During the climax of the game, the sky is visible, revealing the largest portal target surface possible. Aim the gun, shoot the moon, then watch the conclusion.

Now, “make a deduction based on something you heard earlier” might seem a little flimsy to be basing a game design philosophy on. More than anything else, the fact that it’s such a novelty demonstrates how little emphasis is placed on integrating story with game mechanics. Even in games that do an outstanding job of storytelling, such as Portal 2. But that type of interaction is essential to integrating game and narrative — allowing the player to make strategic gameplay decisions based not on an external, explicit set of game rules, but by the rules established within the narrative.

One of the problems with putting too much emphasis on the “final puzzle” in Portal 2 is that it veers too far into adventure game territory. Any time the game’s narrative re-asserts itself, the player’s forced into a narrow corridor of interactivity. There’s clearly only one correct solution. That’s true of most of the other puzzles, actually, but unlike the other puzzles, the player doesn’t have the opportunity to experiment until she discovers the correct solution.

When the Player’s Story is the Least Interesting

My bigger problem with it, however, is that it’s such a narrow point of intersection between the player’s story and the Aperture Science story. Over the course of the game, you’ll spend hours learning the history of the facility and the events that led up to the beginning of the first game. But the vast majority of it has absolutely no bearing on the actions you’re taking in the present. Until you need to remember a bit of info at the game’s end, the story is doing nothing but provide context for the game.

And Cave Johnson is one of the most interesting characters in the game! But he’s been relegated to a separate “presentation layer.” It’s all very well presented, and it undoubtedly adds to the overall experience, but it doesn’t do anything for the actual gameplay.

The storytelling gimmick used in Portal 2 is pretty common, from System Shock through BioShock and Skyrim: as you’re playing, you discover recordings, letters, books, or computer terminals that deliver some chunk of background narrative. Occasionally, it’ll feed into your narrative — you’ll hear a pass code for a lock, or learn about a secret entrance to a room.

It actually works pretty well. I like it in the Elder Scrolls games, for its ability to convey a novel series’ worth of world-building in a method that’s completely opt-in. At worst, it’s ignorable. And it actually solves a lot of problems: it allows the story to be doled out at the player’s own pace, it can give context to the player’s immediate surroundings, and it’s more manageable to develop as a linear narrative.

The last bit is also the biggest problem with it: it’s more manageable for the developers because it exists in a separate timeline, one that the player can’t interfere with. The player never has the opportunity for an actual conversation with Cave Johnson, so he can just have several well-written monologues. The player can’t change what happened to Aperture Science, so Valve had total control over the timeline, allowing them to go backwards through time at exactly the pace they wanted.

Meanwhile, the player’s just going from one level to the next, solving test chamber puzzles (and thinly disguised test chamber puzzles) as she goes. Portal 2 has more sophisticated storytelling than Portal, but at the cost of that tight integration between the player’s story and the game’s story.

The other story in Portal 2 — Wheatley’s taking over the facility from GlaDOS — is taking place in the present, but the player has no real agency in that story, either. But Valve does such a good job of establishing these characters, without rewarding us for understanding the characters. We can tell pretty early on that Wheatley’s an unreliable narrator, but we can’t do anything with that information. We know that when Wheatley asks us to flip a switch, it’s going to end badly, even if we can’t predict exactly that it’s going to inadvertently flip the hundreds of switches that end up re-activating GlaDOS. Our only agency is to deliver the punchline.

Granted, it’s a great punchline! But there has to be room to use that character development for genuine narrative development. Let the player make deductions based on his understanding of the character, and let her make some type of decision based on the narrative. That’s the story that I want to be involved in.

I’ve said before that I started to lose interest in Portal once I’d left the test chambers and had to apply the portal gun to “real world” environments — which, it was revealed later, was originally intended to be the entire game. My problem with the post-test chamber section was that it reintroduced the feeling of artifice that the rest of the game had so deftly avoided. When the game is acknowledging that I’m in a contrived puzzle, I’ll run with it. When the game presents a situation that’s just as clearly a contrived puzzle, but it’s disguised to look as if I’d broken into the “real world,” I’m jolted back into the state of second-guessing the game. My story’s diverged from my character’s story.

Portal 2 alleviated a lot of that by making the environments so interesting. Portal‘s sections looked like repurposed Half-Life 2 levels, while Portal 2 maintained a genuine feeling of exploration. I’m using that exploration to further my own simple “narrative:” find what looks like it will help me escape, and then use it to escape. There has to be room to integrate the Aperture Science narrative with my own narrative of escape. Instead of just navigating the level, couldn’t I be making deductions based on what I’m learning about the facility’s history?

It’s easy to tell when a game is doing nothing more than throwing the player a bone. That can break the suspension of disbelief even more than leaving it out altogether. When BioShock introduced characters still alive in the player’s present, it was abundantly clear how much they’d been relegated to a zone safe from player interaction: phone calls from someone on the other side of the city. The closest you come to a living human (who doesn’t want to kill you) is seeing a numeric pass code scrawled on the other side of a glass wall. It’s a story moment, but not so much a game moment, since no deduction is required. In terms of game mechanics, it’s just a fancy way of presenting the next rule.

I’ll accept that it’s difficult if not impossible to achieve the perfect integration between gameplay and story that Portal achieved, when expanded to a feature-length story. But I can’t believe that it’d be impossible to bring together Portal 2‘s three main stories — the past, Wheatley & GlaDOS’s story in the present, Chell’s story in the present — in more significant ways. Learn something from Cave Johnson’s recordings that give us the solution to a test chamber. Learn something about the formation of GlaDOS that helps us defeat GlaDOS. Take advantage of our knowledge of Wheatley’s incompetence in order to defeat him, instead of just ending with a boss fight (no matter how clever the boss fight).

When you can tell two stories as well as Portal 2 does, and simultaneously deliver some great gameplay, it seems like there’s little incentive to treat the stories as anything more than background and context for the story. But consider the satisfaction that comes from figuring out the perfect solution to one of those test chamber puzzles, and think about how great it would be to use that same kind of clever problem-solving to put story moments together.

One thought on “What is Past is Prologue”

  1. Nice article πŸ™‚

    Ludonarrative dissonance seems to be a concept that is influenced by the notion of harmony. It sees seperate tracks that need to be harmonized wherein it should have seen a matter of synchresis. + It blames bad design on narrative instead of designers πŸ™‚

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