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Using Narrative and Gameplay Congruency to Enhance Meaningful Play
by Ben Serviss on 01/10/13 10:26:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This article originally appeared on  

The Walking Dead
The Walking Dead does an outstanding job of combining the player and protagonists' desires.

Everyone loves to talk about immersion in games. The act of submerging the player (or yourself) into a game world, impossible though it may be, remains an unobtainable goal that many developers strive for. But this pursuit is shortsighted – is it really desirable to make someone so entranced by your game they forget to eat, bathe, sleep? Or does an answer lie in finding ways to align the desires of both the player and protagonist?

Instead of striving to immerse the player into the game world, we should instead be trying to meet them halfway – which is why, for games that feature narrative of any kind, I’ve been investigating uses of narrative and gameplay congruency to combine, through mechanics, the player’s desires and experiences with those of the player character in order to imbue gameplay with that special quality that stays with you long after the credits roll. In other words, anytime when the desires of the player are in alignment with the desires of the character.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent developer Frictional Games calls it the player-protagonist connection; others refer to it as player/protagonist synchronicity; but whatever the terminology, this overlap can make for powerful, memorable moments when utilized aptly.

Like when:

♦ In Half-Life, when you’re captured and all of your weapons are taken away. Your sense of powerless is the same as Gordon’s, and your scramble to re-arm yourself is made that much more meaningful;

♦ In Half-Life 2, when the upgraded gravity gun finally lets you toss around those Combine jerks who’ve been pushing you around the entire game – your frustration mirrored in Gordon’s endless encounters with them;

Half-Life 2: Superpowered Gravity Gun
One of the most satisfying gaming moments of all time: turning the Combine's technologies against them.

♦ In The Walking Dead, when you (and Lee) take Clementine under your wing as an adoptive parent. While she’s certainly not your child (being a computer game character), she’s not Lee’s either, and a shared sense of unrelated guardianship is established that lasts the entire game;

♦ In Fez (to a lesser extent) when you rotate the world for the first time, as it’s as new a sensation to you as it is to Gomez;

♦ In dys4ia, as you stumble your way through snapshots of awkward movement-based mini-games with barely a sense of how to navigate through this world, just like the narrator.

Though this technique is hardly new, it remains difficult to perfect. And while the most common instance of it – the amnesiac protagonist – is still certainly effective, it was pretty much done to death in every genre over the late 80s and 90s, forcing developers to get creative.

But there’s still so much we can do that has yet to be attempted. How can we distill these kinds of events into something resembling guidelines? To start, let’s look at commonalities between some of the above examples, in rising degrees of complexity:

1. In all of the above examples, the player is a participant during the entirety of the thread that establishes narrative/gameplay congruency.

In The Walking Dead, you don’t begin the game with Clementine in tow – you’re introduced to Lee and the game world in advance, so that you feel more grounded in his character when you do meet her, and so that the sense of adoption is felt by both the player and the character.

In the Half-Life example, or in any other game where you are stripped of your weapons, you feel the full brunt of the “loss” arc (have no or few weapons -> accumulate weapons -> lose all weapons). While some games start you out with a fully-powered character only to remove abilities after an introductory sequence, this is not as effective since you haven’t gone through the process of earning them yourself, and so you don’t properly value them or feel the loss as much.

Shadow of the Colossus: Wander and the Princess
Shadow of the Colossus intentionally forgoes aligning player/protagonist desires to create a mysterious atmosphere.

2. The narrative/gameplay congruency dynamic is centered around the primary mechanic of the game.

In Half-Life and its sequel, both the weapon confiscation and gravity gun upgrade events are based around the act of shooting. In The Walking Dead, the focus is on creating a player/protagonist synchronicity through conversation and interaction, the heart of the game’s inner workings. In Fez, the moment of discovery is firmly based around the act of rotating the world; and in dys4ia, the sense of disjointedness permeates the one thing you do in the game: try to navigate an at once familiar and unfamiliar world.

3. The stronger the game’s commitment, the stronger the congruency, the stronger the connection.

The amount of preparation and integration on the development end seems to be directly correlated with the quality of the payoff and corresponding increase in congruency. While Half-Life’s weapon confiscation sequence doesn’t require much specialized development and serves as more of a break in pace than a game-defining event, the buildup for Half-Life 2’s gravity gun upgrade takes the entire game before manifesting as a supremely satisfying twist (with nontrivial gameplay ramifications) that lasts for the duration of the game. The Walking Dead uses the Lee/Clementine relationship to color the entire game’s events cast against real stakes, while Fez’s initial “Eureka” moment of discovery lasts only until you leave the starting area.

Armed with these observations, how do we transform them into takeaway points? Let’s take a look:

1. The player is a participant during the entirety of the thread that establishes narrative/gameplay congruency.

→ Create meaningful stakes through gameplay, not other means. If a monster is about to wreak havoc on a village, don’t communicate this through text, audio logs or a cutscene. Show it through gameplay; have it destroy a bridge or kill a notable NPC while the player is fighting or fleeing from it. This way, both the player and player character will have faced and survived the challenge firsthand.

Limbo and the spider
Limbo leaves all narrative elements unexplained, but presents everything else directly in gameplay to instill a sense of danger.

2. The narrative/gameplay congruency dynamic is centered around the primary mechanic of the game.

→ Layer subtext under your mechanics. The Walking Dead takes great pains to inform the player that his decisions affect the outcome of the story – first with a blatant title screen, then by immediately having player decisions effect the outcome of events. If it’s possible, integrate narrative subtext into core gameplay mechanics to infuse every instance of gameplay with added meaning. For example, in a shooter, tying the regeneration rate of an energy weapon to a vulnerable character’s shield would add ramifications for choosing to attack versus defend.

3. The stronger the game’s commitment, the stronger the congruency, the stronger the connection.

→ Use grounding techniques to bridge the gap between player and player character. Steel Battalion’s legendary 40-odd button controller accomplished an unparalleled feat in aligning the player’s experience with that of the player character, though such a heartfelt (and expensive) commitment doomed the game to cult status. A less drastic example: players control remote combat drones fighting an interplanetary war, with their in-game player character using an interface similar to the player’s controller. If the player’s drone dies, another one is deployed, much like how extra lives function to the player – creating an overlap between the player’s experience and the drone pilot player character.

Regardless, these ideas reflect just a few ways of creating narrative/gameplay congruency. If you have ideas for other ways to integrate this into gameplay, or more examples of it  in other games, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Ben Serviss is a freelance game designer working in commercial, social, educational and indie games. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.

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Luis Guimaraes
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The HL, HL2 and especially the Fez example seem more akin to player-world connection rather than player-character connection. Point #1 "The player is a participant during the entirety of the thread that establishes narrative/gameplay congruency" also sounds like it's rooted in player-world connection. So it brought me to the following (not necessarily correct) conclusions:

I. whenever you have character and narrative, there will be character-world connection irrefutably;
II. bringing player-world connection to the same level as character-world connection essentially creates the player-character synergy the article sugests, as the other half of the connection (character-world) is already there (item I);
III. trying to mimic character-world connection when designing player-world connection is a good trick for character-focused designers; but
IV. it's important to keep in mind that the character has a fictional designed mind with fictional designed actions*, while the player has a real mind that outputs real actions and reactions;

* Narratively, characters also have "reactions", but from a gameplay POV all character's reactions are in-fact just actions, unless they're products of a reactive AI. Their "actions" also, are not a product of individual or collective "intention", AI intention appart.

Ben Serviss
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Good points - admittedly, these are slippery topics to deal with.

For this point:

"IV. it's important to keep in mind that the character has a fictional designed mind with fictional designed actions*, while the player has a real mind that outputs real actions and reactions"

I completely agree - and it's the moments where these two minds align that the congruency I'm talking about happens. Not that it's desirable for all types of games, or that it's something story-focused games must do (you can certainly have successful and effective narrative-driven games without it), but that it's just one of many tools that can be used to infuse gameplay with more resonant meaning.

Luis Guimaraes
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"it's the moments where these two minds align that the congruency I'm talking about happens"

Awesome, "align" is the word I was looking for. When you connect the player to the world in the same manner you connect the character to the world. Interesting way to look at narrative immersion.

Kevin Bender
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"Create meaningful stakes through gameplay, not other means." Yes, I like this... I just started playing through Dragon Age: Origins. There is a mission where you fight alongside NPCs during one of the "blight invasions." Because we were obviously winning the fight and near the end, i wasn't paying attention with my healers and accidentally let one of the towns people die. In the following cutscene after the battle, although we had been victorious, his death was acknowledged. It made it so much more immersive/meaningful knowing that it was my carelessness that caused it, rather than his death being a scripted event.

Joshua Darlington
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I think drone based video games are awesome.

I'm not sure that adding an extra layer of reality to a game just to explain respawning helps or hurts immersion. It could draw extra attention to the mechanic. & It reminds me of early novels where they would have a story inside a story inside a story - like a game where you play a demon who demonically posses a terrorist who has a bomb strapped to a video game player and is forcing her to controlling an implant inside the head of an navy drone pilot and is using the threat of a rogue drone strike on Milwaukee to force the POTUS to saw off his own hand and give it to aliens living in the Latin Quarter of Quebec City etc etc.

Axel Cholewa
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Having a narrative inside a narrative works in books because reading is a conscious act. Playing, on the other hand, is mostly not really conscious. The player is not always aware of who he's supposed to be in control of (the drone pilot), because he is in fact controlling the drone.

Luis' statement from above that "the character has a fictional designed mind [...] while the player has a real mind" is important here: it's always the player who is in control. The player would not be controlling the demon who posseses the terrorist, but he would be controlling the terrorist. That's why I'm not sure that this approach works well in games.

Examples are the mini games in Bioshock or Mass Effect: when hacking into turrets or computers, in both games the player is playing a mini game. He's not anymore playing Jack or Shepherd. This, while I found it fun to play, in my oppinion hurt immersion.

Joshua Darlington
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Yes, my point is that putting an extra layer to the game story (like Assassins Creed with their Sci Fi set up) can create more problems than it solves.

I would question your assertion that "Having a narrative inside a narrative works in books." It generally takes away from the immediacy of the main plot like Don Quixote or with multiple layers it can get confusing, like Manuscript Found on the Road to Sargasso.

I would rather control a drone than play a video game about controlling a drone.

Sean Monica
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Actually this is great to read, I just finished spec ops the line. I know most shooter games have terrible or odd stories with them, however I fell in love with the game and think you should try it after this. It started out as an ordinary over the shoulder shooter. Soon though I found myself actually playing to find out what happened next in the story it was so enticing. The game offers a variety of choices and decisions and they are not by any means empty. The game writers did a beautiful job of making the player fully realize that what they did had an effect. The ending also did a fantastic job of wrapping everything up. Most of the reviews however are low because the multiplayer is generic. As it was just on steam sale I found it a steal for a great involved story. Your article goes very along the lines of how a player can be brought into the game and I think spec ops did a fantastic job and is one of the few shooters to do this.

Ben Serviss
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It's next on my backlog of Steam games to play for exactly this reason! :)

Bart Stewart
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Clint Hocking has talked about "ludonarrative dissonance" -- I think that means what's being described here is how to achieve ludonarrative congruence. ;)

And it's a good discussion, too. These are great practical points.

All I might suggest is that it should work in both directions. Just as the story should provide a context that gives satisfying meaning to the player's actions, the actions (expressed in the gameworld) should intensify the meaning and help drive the plot.

A simple example might be a game about aspirations and adversity. The story is about characters who want things, and the core action mechanic might be jumping: you have a character who can jump so high, with a bit of left or right bend.

As you introduce new characters, you can alter the mechanics of jumping slightly in ways that echo the personalities of the new characters (a bubbly character might do backflips in flight, etc.). I think this is similar to your suggestions, Ben.

But you can also change the core mechanic to drive and intensify story beats. In this game example, maybe you discover a powerup that lets you jump higher; this unlocks a new "significant other" character or other important event on the path toward achieving the player character's aspiration. Maybe hitting some other object causes a slight left/right randomization: this could signal the story moment when a disruptive influence arrives, or (if the left/right powerup is optional) choosing to get drunk a lot... which can bring in other story elements that in turn drive different changes to the core mechanic.

The point being that congruence, at its best, goes both directions. (Actually, in addition to emotion-based narrative congruence with gameplay, I'd also encourage logic-based congruence between gameplay and the structure of the gameworld itself -- but that's a different discussion. ;)

Great piece, Ben. I hope it gets read by a lot of designers.