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Designing Mechanical Narratives (Part 1)
by Taekwan Kim on 01/25/13 12:35:00 pm   Expert 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.

 

Before I start, I must confess that a large portion of this is going to be a quasi- post mortem on my three Indie Speed Run entries (postscript note: I actually ended up splitting this post into two parts, so most of that will be in Part 2). I wanted to write about that experience in some capacity, but to be honest, since their development cycles were so short, there just isn’t all that much relevant or interesting to say about the experience itself.

(This is about as interesting as it gets: I use a standing desk with no chair. On my last entry, I ended up spending at least 18 consecutive hours standing [you don’t really notice, though, when you stand all day every day]—I was actually nodding off standing up 5 hours before deadline, though the panic of time closing fast killed that off pretty quickly. And that’s my experience in a nutshell: standing around all day panicking.)

So anyway, I’d like to use these games instead to examine something much more specific and hopefully also more practical: designer-driven mechanical narratives.



 

Firstly, then, what the heck do I even mean by “mechanical narratives”, let alone “designer-driven” ones? Simply put, by mechanical narratives I am talking about narratives formed through gameplay. I’m making this rather pedantic distinction, however, in that wrangling with “non-ludic” narratives to get a certain result is also gameplay, and I’d like to avoid that confusion/overlap/semantic quagmire as much as conceptually possible (that whole “Where does the ‘narrative’ end and the ‘gameplay’ begin?” trap and what not).

For clear, written examples, you can see mechanical narratives in playthrough diaries such as An Illusionist in Skyrim, or A Lone Farmer at the End of the World, etc.

In practice, mechanical narratives are always stories about the experience of adhering to a set of rules, be they the game’s default rules or a player determined subset within those rules. More specifically, these narratives are typically embodied by and narrated through the general methodologies required to “win”, and the behavioral patterns and verbs the player needs to adopt to realize them.

Moving on to the “designer-driven” part, then: when we think about ‘narratives arising from gameplay’, we have a tendency to think of them of as purely player-driven, organic, and completely dynamic. Not pre-determined. This tendency, however, somewhat obscures the actuality that these types of narratives, too, can be sculpted, designed, and pre-determined. (The claim that this is not possible was the argument behind Mr. Jonathan Jones’s recent assertion that games are not art, which hopefully this post will help thoroughly refute.) Not to mention, of course, that their dynamism is already a result of the set of possibilities furnished by the rules.

The important thing to note with designer-driven (versus player-driven) mechanical narratives (henceforth DDMNs) is that they are still procedurally generated—the narrative only emerges through the various interactions with and between the mechanics and rules. The difference is that, in player-driven MNs, the “win” goal typically has nothing to do with the win conditions of the game (or such conditions don’t even exist—the player always determines what constitutes “winning”).

Or, let’s put it another way. In DDMNs, while the individual behavioral patterns and verbs chosen may change from player to player, the general methodology towards winning remains the same. You can win Fallout through either speech or guns, but the requirement that you have to really specialize in a strictly limited set of skills, and thus commit yourself to the actions permitted by that specialization, remains consistent for every playthrough.

This is to say that DDMN games typically allow at most a handful of genuinely successful strategies (that is, chains of limited possibilities, as opposed to ordered exactitudes) for winning or even progressing. Consequently, you end up having to play the game in certain ways, which in turn leads to the mechanical experience, and thus the mechanical narrative, being relatively uniform and relatively pre-determined. Everyone knows to leave that last column free for an I piece in Tetris, for example, which accordingly leads to everyone knowing what it feels like to wait for an I piece. (For those curious about my take on Fallout’s mechanical narrative in particular, I have written about it previously here.)



Crucially
, whether or not any sort of mechanical narrative exists at all (and this goes for both player- and designer- driven) depends on how deterministic the rule set is. Mr. Jones’s example of Chess is a case where a mechanical narrative fails to emerge because the variations for winning are too vast. If, however, the rules were restricted such that you could only win using one specific pawn, and every other piece besides the king must be sacrificed if that’s what it takes to queen that pawn, a narrative begins to emerge.

On the other hand, a game that has only one exact way to win (the aforementioned ordered exactitude) also does not contain a mechanical narrative (repeat: mechanical narrative).

There is a sweet spot, then, of determinacy and variation which gives rise to the most compelling experiences. Such a confluence gives us just enough agency within a pre-determined narrative to make experiencing it deeply real and personal, in a way not unlike how Duchamp’s Étant donnés actively causes the viewer to embody someone else’s experience.

(A strange coincidence there: Duchamp “quit” art to play Chess of all things, to work on endgames, only to come back post-mortem with a profoundly gamey installation—one that fundamentally employs rules and play to craft a narrative. It’s as if he grasped all of this earlier than any of us did.)

This is why we revel (at least conceptually) in games such as Day Z, because the existence of that sweet spot is so readily apparent. It’s why Civilization II, now almost two decades old, came back into the public eye in such a huge way through “The Eternal War”. It’s why Hotline Miami has such instant appeal (and why that hospital level dismays just as instantly). And it’s why just looking at something like Path of Exile’s passive skill tree can be fascinating and exciting (public service announcement: PoE is now in open beta). Etc. etc. etc.



Enough with the conceptualizing, let’s talk about making games.

The three games I’m going to talk about are terribly rough. But they are useful in this discussion in that their simplistic rules and variations, and their minimal to non-existent “in-game” narratives, should make this examination easier. Plus, with these I can actually describe the design process and thinking behind the attempt to craft their mechanical narratives. (Ok, that’s all BS and I just want to talk about my games, right?)

Each entry will proceed with a short description of the game, followed by a discussion of the narrative goals of each game’s ruleset. Along the way, I’ll also be talking about some of the games’ failures of design.

 

  



Sola Scriptura
Theme: Idolatry
Element: Submarine

Briefly, Sola Scriptura is a game about identifying a saboteur within a submarine’s crew before the submarine sinks from internal and external attacks. To be honest, I think I rather bungled the mechanical narrative in this game. But I should probably talk first about how Indie Speed Run works, for those who are unfamiliar with it.

Indie Speed Run is a 48 hour game jam which has teams of up to 4 members produce entries for competitive judging. You get assigned two random variables: a theme and an element. The theme concept is pretty straight forward; your game needs to be about the theme. The element, then, is an object that needs to be incorporated in your portrayal of the theme. (Interestingly, ISR allows multiple entries per individual/team. Sola Scriptura was the last of three that I submitted.)

Getting Idolatry/Submarine was like running into a hard place after running away from a rock. By trying to avoid essentially copying HP Lovecraft’s The Temple (that mental association was nearly inescapable for me), I ended up essentially copying FTL instead. Well, that’s not entirely fair I suppose... but you can judge that for yourself.

This was my thought process: I wanted to keep the idea of paranoia within an inescapable environment (the submarine), as well as Lovecraft’s recurring theme of fear of psychological/genetic pollution. In the most reductivist analysis, Lovecraft’s writings are basically political. Especially in his early works, they are allegories about miscegenation and ideological contamination resulting in alienation.

The latter aspect of that (ideological purity) gave me a conceptual foothold. Sola would be a critique, then (more like a mild teasing, really), of the tendency in American political rhetoric to idolize/deify the Constitution and the Founding Fathers. The mechanical narrative was supposed convey the idea that dogmatic absolutism and ideological shutdowns (à la 112th Congress) are just as deadly as active sabotage and external attacks, and that the system only functions when all the parts operate concurrently. So, a submarine locked in a self-interrogative, self-destructive spiral, until the player realizes that circular accusation is the quickest way to die. At least, that was the idea.

To implement this mechanically, I needed to make every compartment of the submarine essential to survival in some form. I also needed to find out what compartments submarines even have, being completely clueless about them. The research into that, fortunately, helped define the role for each compartment, and thus the overall design process. Once that was all worked out, it was simply a matter of mechanizing paranoia induced dysfunction.

I say simply, but really that had me somewhat stumped for a while. Ideally, I wanted to implement interpersonal relationships between each of the crew members, causing interrogating or just questioning one to lead the other crew members into becoming suspicious of the subject. But, due to time constraints and the fact that I’m terrible at programming AI (read: can’t actually do at all), the end result was far more simplistic.



 

I had originally intended to make this a single post, but it seems that it has grown much longer than anticipated. Part 2 will pick up where this left off, continuing my analysis of my three ISR entries, and wrapping up with some general observations and applicable conclusions on mechanical narratives.


My ISR entries are now available online. You can play them while you’re waiting for Path of Exile to install/update, and then forget about them forever. Or at least, until the next post.


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Comments


Jay Anne
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Good article. I look forward to the Part 2. I find that DDMN often take the form of an unexpected complication caused by a designer explicitly causing a deterministic scripted event within a procedural system. The hand of the designer seems hidden because it is done through the procedural system, thereby making the event seem natural and personal to the player.

I also think that because these systems are almost always built around non-social conflicts, the narratives themselves cannot involve social themes. To me, this is the fundamental reason why games have been unable to feel like art in the same way that cinema has.

Taekwan Kim
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Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Much appreciated! Part 2 should be up some time towards the end of next week.

Those are both some interesting points, and I was actually hoping to touch upon some of that in Part 2. But I'll try to go into it a bit here. I believe that mechanical narratives are inherently strongly systemic. Scripted events are good, and frequently used to great effect--I would like to say, though, that they are often times used more in the employ of "in-game" narratives, as single use incidents in the service of delivering a precisely pre-determined sequence of events or ordered exactitudes, than systemically dictated occurrences.

But I say "I would like to say" because honestly it's not that clean cut. This is all rather conceptually hairy; it's difficult to separate when an event is a "gameplay" event and when it's a "narrative" event. Of course, it doesn't have to be either or, so what I'm actually trying to say is that it's difficult to tell when it is mechanical, and when it is non-mechanical.

For instance, the problem of solving the lead-up to, and encounter with, the Master in Fallout (the final boss): is that a mechanical event or a non-mechanical one? Clearly, depending on how the player navigated the game's mechanics, the player will have different viable pathways available, which makes that event mechanical. It's a mechanical result (*and* test) of the player's preceding mechanical decisions, and depending on the player's build, the player can kill everyone in sight or walk away without having shot a single bullet (well, mostly). And yet, the actual event itself is out of the player's hands--encountering it is an ordered exactitude that must occur as part of a non-dynamic, non-rule determined narrative sequence.

At any rate, you can see why I tried to avoid using the term "gameplay narrative", because the two overlap so much in most games. Which is to say that every verb and rule in a game has both a narrative definition and a mechanical one--something I'll try to talk about in Part 2. But in the meantime, consider: the more abstract a game is, the more these two definitions converge.

On the second point about social commentary in games: because social behavior is based on rules, I actually believe that it's very much possible to use mechanical narratives to address social themes, and indeed has been done so with games in the past. Depending on which rules we make the "winning" or "losing" conditions, or even what we define *as* the rules, we can emphasize different aspects of social experiences, and thus deliver experiential critiques. To be completely honest, this belief is precisely why I decided to dedicate my life to designing games, because I feel very deeply that games can and are used to discuss and perhaps even change perspectives on fundamental questions about our existence as human beings.

And once again, it seems I've blathered on for entirely too long. Sorry for long comment!

Jay Anne
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"Gameplay narrative" and "mechanical narrative" overlap often, and the distinction I usually make is whether the event was interesting in terms of conceptual ideas brought forth by the narrative or whether the event was interesting in terms of gameplay goals the player has. Yes, often they are linked, but quite often, games are not very good at making mechanical narrative events very interesting or unique. Usually it's a sign that the system design behind the mechanics are not capable of making that event very unique. For example, an end-boss that merely has high damage attacks and high hitpoints will probably not be very interesting or unique in and of itself. I really like your consideration where a completely abstract game will rely entirely on mechanical narrative events.

On the second point, I have yet to find any games with social commentary using mechanical narratives. I believe the difficulty is that we as humans don't always view social behavior as adhering to simple straightforward rules, which works against the need for games to have simple straightforward rules. Social beings are complex, enigmatic, unpredictable, and that does not mesh well with the need for a player to learn and master a game's ruleset. Can you name any examples of games that have impressed you in this regard?

Great comment! Everybody should spend more time blathering on longer about these topics ;-)

Taekwan Kim
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I want to firstly thank you once again for this exchange of thoughts; it has definitely helped me to refine my thinking on mechanical narratives further and further. And, to be sure, my thinking on this is imperfect and incomplete—I am dangerously close to inaccurate generalizations with these observations, though I try with great pains to avoid them.

As a result of this process, however, I feel I am now able to express an idea I was unable to properly delineate before. Here goes. [Oh lord, the comments are going to be longer than the post itself D: ]

I think I need to establish more clearly what I mean by “mechanical” before I attempt to describe “mechanical narratives”, and this really should have been I the post itself.

The verbs available for use in any given ludic event obviously depend on the rules and the player’s preceding decisions as allowed by the rules. However, the difference between a mechanical event and a non-mechanical one is that in a mechanical event, the verbs the player then chooses to use in turn changes the rules—changes which of them are in dominant effect.

A gross simplification: boss fights in games like Diablo 3 are definitely ludic events. But they’re not necessarily mechanical events in the sense that the skills the player brings to the fight does not change how that boss will behave in that fight. Paradoxically, boss “fights” in games like Fallout, which are typically seen to contain _less_ “gameplay”, are in fact more “mechanical” because the player character’s skill set can change how the boss behaves.

Once again, I am striving (perhaps straining) here to establish a distinction between ludic (or “gameplay”) and mechanical. These two are not necessarily the same thing.

To de-simplify: I said just now that the boss fights in D3 are non-mechanical, but the design and skill set of Diablo 3 is sufficiently advanced (compared to Diablo 1, for instance) that the active rules _do_ change significantly depending on the player’s build, even if the boss’ behaviors do not. A Wizard using Critical Mass and Arcane Power on Critical utilizes an entirely different set of rules than a Wizard that has to kite/teleport everything to survive. Which is to say that even static events can have dynamic rules—something I was trying to get to with my previous comment on Fallout’s final encounter.

(To be even more pedantic, this is actually a debatable point, at least concerning D3 in particular. One might say that pretty much the only viable Wizard build in Inferno is a CM build—it’s really the only practical solution, especially in Hardcore [and the number of serious solutions for the other classes are more or less singular too]—which once more reduces the degree of mechanical interaction involved.

I apologize also that I’m resorting to such specific examples and particularly their end game content, but these are really the most useful examples I can come up with at present.)


Getting lost in the details here, so let’s move on.

Applying the above to narratives, a mechanical narrative is a coherent sequence of events that result from the rules put into effect through the player’s selective usage of verbs. A _designer-driven_ mechanical narrative, then, deliberately shapes the variability of that selection to form a specific range of possibilities.

A final, hopefully illustrative example: an adventure game has gameplay, but it does not contain a mechanical narrative, only a strictly non-mechanical one, because the rules in effect never vary. Every obstacle has an exact and pre-determined solution, which serves an exact and pre-determined, non-mechanical narrative. It’s not so much about “linearity” as it is about non-varying rules.


On the subject of examples of social commentary in games: these are just some examples I can cite off the top of my head, and I’m sure that others more “well-read” than I am in games can list many, many more (remember, these are examples of games delivering commentary through the rules, not through non-mechanical in-game narrative content):

Fallout 2 (http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/11/23/gaming-made-me-fallout
-2/)
dys4ia (http://nightmaremode.net/2012/11/gaming-the-system-oppression-pla
y-23338/)

A negative example: BioWare Romancing (http://nightmaremode.net/2012/12/you-know-whats-gross-we-play-nic
e-guys-in-so-many-games-23896/)

All of these examples are about how a game’s ruleset can bring into sharp relief (or, in the last example, obscure via unquestioning acceptance) the rules of the artificial construct that is social behavior, thus promoting (or hindering) critical thinking and questioning of those rules.


This is all very vague and I’m terribly sorry that I am failing to be clearer. I hope Part 2 will rectify the situation somewhat with more concrete and immediate examples.

Jay Anne
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I clearly had an overly broad definition of MN then. If the only distinction that makes it mechanical is "the player can change the emphasized rules", then it seems to include many games, at least on paper. Like how you managed to include Diablo 3 into that list. I suppose the aspect that is debatable is whether or not it's a good or meaningful MN. But I've already brought you down into the semantic quagmire that you were trying to avoid ;-) Looking forward to Part 2!

While I agree those rulesets can promote critical thinking of social behavior, they seem to do so only with deeper analysis, rather than engaging on an emotional level. Maybe this is why I feel those narratives are more interesting when written up in article with analytical commentary, rather than played (particularly dys4ia).

Taekwan Kim
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I want to express my sincere apologies that part 2 won't be going up until this coming Wednesday. An unexpected hardware failure with my computer cost me several days of work, and I was unable to get part 2 wrapped up in time. Once again, I am terribly sorry for the delay. :(

Jay Anne
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Sorry to hear that. I switched to Google Docs because of nightmare scenarios like that. Still looking forward to reading it!


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