Blending story and gameplay is certainly an interesting and widely debated topic. There are as many ways to approach the issue as there are great people working on the subject. Personally however, I've always been interested in the topic of traditional story structure - how a masterfully constructed story has a way of sharing sometimes profound meaning about people, the world, and life. Traditional story structure is a fascinating discipline that focuses on how meaning is shared between people. Finding a way to integrate that strongly structured meaning with gameplay is an interesting challenge.
This year, I was fortunate to get an opportunity to add to the discussion; today, our new game, The Fall, goes live on the Humble Store. So far, the game is getting mostly excellent reviews, so it would seem that at least some of what we tried worked well. This article will be a break down of some of those things.
A common dictionary definition of story is "an account of a series of events." This definition is woefully incomplete. A good story, as we all know, is organized so that the sequence of events means something - In Pixar's The Incredibles, for example, Mr. Incredible isn't just fighting bad guys - the choices that he makes, and the situations he encounters as a result mean something; we watch him struggle with his need for autonomy and glory, and how it's affecting his family life. We see how his inability to bring his primary sense of self to his family is destructive, and we see him struggle and change, ultimately understanding those things himself.
Regardless of its fantastical setting, The film provides commentary on several very real topics, and well constructed stories do just that. In fact, there is a long standing discipline for creating those stories -- that's what I'm referring to as traditional story structure.
If it's true that meaning in a story is constructed out of a series of events, can that same principle be brought to video games? Structure of this kind is relatively easier in film, because the emotional experiences that viewers have is controlled by a very linear sequence. Great films are generally somewhat concise; Viewers experience a specific series of emotions that "add up" to an overall meaning.
This is much, much more difficult in games. In games, players struggle against gameplay challenges first and foremost. For example -- I love the Uncharted games (I really, really do) but as good as their stories are, the bulk of my experience involves shooting people. From a story perspective, this is problematic, because the primary experience that players have has absolutely nothing to do with any narrative meaning that the story is trying to construct. It's difficult to create a meaningful big picture when the bulk of the audience's experience is superfluous to that big picture.
Thankfully, there are a few games that have done really interesting things already. Most notably is Spec Ops: The Line - It was a huge inspiration for The Fall, in that its story gives commentary on player action - the more people you shoot, the more the game's story makes you question if you're really doing the right thing. If you haven't played it yet, you really should!
In a similar fashion, with The Fall, our goal was to design gameplay so that as players worked their way through challenges organically, their experiences would add up to, or at least be congruent with, the game's narrative.
The Fall is about ARID, an AI onboard a futuristic combat suit, who is struggling to save the life of the suit's human pilot, hanging unconscious inside. As ARID takes control of the suit and begins moving her pilot's unconscious body towards help, she finds herself in conflict with her own rigidity; ARID is limited by her own set of rules, and also, external oppression that sees her as invalid.
Because the central conflict in The Fall's story has to do with redundant, unnecessary process and protocol, gameplay is designed around creating challenges that are thematically similar. Players of The Fall are often given limitations that are somehow incomplete, unfair, unreasonable, or aren't tailored to include their abilities. In order to solve each challenge, players are required to find loopholes in the rules they are given, or break them entirely. The narrative then takes over and offers a commentary on rules, restriction, and limitation. The goal was to have the gameplay provide a grounded, felt experience that can be consciously reflected on and contextualized by our narrative.
Gameplay can fit nicely with traditional story structure because at base, they're really quite similar. To explain, we have to get a touch technical for a moment:
One of the key mechanisms for communicating meaning in story is what Robert McKee refers to as "The Gap". Stories in film, generally speaking, involve a protagonist who has some sort of desire, whether it's to find love or not be eaten by zombies. They set out to meet their desire but encounter an obstacle - a "gap" is formed between the result of their initial behaviour and their desired outcome. As they struggle across the gap, the audience gets to watch their behaviour and understand the results of their choices. The Gap, then, is one of the primary ways, if not the primary way that meaning is communicated in traditional story structure.
To recap, a story has a protagonist with a goal, the gap between them and their goal (defined by some type of conflict) and the series of actions that a protagonist takes to move closer to their goal.
The interesting thing is that if we swap out "protagonist" with "player", it begins to sound a lot like we're describing a game:
At base, a game has a player with a goal, the gap between them and their goal (defined by some type of conflict) and the series of actions that the player takes to move closer to their goal.
It might seem slightly unintuitive to think this way, but please consider - isn't conflict at the core of a meaningful story? Isn't it the progression and resolution of that conflict that creates meaning? And if so, what are games other than one form of conflict or another? Even Chess or Tetris have a player who's struggling over an obstacle to achieve an outcome. In the case of The Fall, gameplay-wise, players struggle solve puzzles with expectations that are unfair and overly restrictive. Story-wise, ARID struggles against expectations that are unfair and overlay restrictive.
If story structure and gameplay already share a common ground, then surely that is the place to start from when considering how they blend together. There's probably lots of ways to make this work, but one place to start, I think, is that games should focus on gameplay first and worry about story afterwards. Its up to you to find meaning in your own gameplay, because if you can't, nobody else will be able to. If you're making a game, the gameplay that you're creating probably has a consistent type of challenge. Why is that challenge interesting to you? Why do you find it meaningful? If your character is struggling against some sort of obstacle, why are they doing it? How do you feel about that obstacle? What does it say about your character that they're struggling? What truth does this struggle reflect in the world? What are you telling me about life?
There is, of course, a related question. Does this kind of meaning making matter? Is there something wrong with not having a story with any kind of meaning? I suppose not, but this clip is funny:
Of course, this is just a theory, and the real test of a theory is when its put into practice. You're in a unique position to let me know one way or the other! Check out The Fall on The Humble Store, or Steam, and let me know what you think.
Until next time!