Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Re: Portal and BioShock

Ethan posted some reactions to my post about Portal and BioShock in which he brainstorms narrative archetypes that lend well to game structures. It sparked some interesting thoughts and I wanted to share them here:

The way Ethan breaks down a narrative-friendly game structure to "establish rules, establish new tools, establish final tool" was thought provoking because prior to reading this comment, I hadn't thought that much about matching "establish gameplay rules" with "establish narrative conflict." In film, I've heard it said that the introduction -- establishing conflict -- should be as swift as possible. Because this can literally be done in seconds with a familiar conflict (some films that do this in the span of the opening credits), it leaves interesting considerations for gameplay in the introduction phase of a narrative.

For example, if you care about how well the structures mirror, you might consider matching the time needed for a narrative introduction (short vs. long) with complexity / familiarity of gameplay (simple / familiar vs. complex / novel). Absorbing gameplay in addition to story may also make it important that narrative requirements can be met in a "training" setting (which are often too "step-by-step" to begin with).

A more intriguing though comes in considering that in narratives, characters usually begin in a familiar place and have their world turned upside-down by an inciting incident. I loved how Mario Galaxy 2 began with 2D gameplay and slowly pushed you into 3D during its intro. What if we likewise began with familiar gameplay and mirror the introduction of a rather-different core mechanic with the inciting incident?

What if Bionic Commando started with Nathan able to shoot and platform with a jump, doing familiar activities, when the antagonist does something that makes Nathan lose an arm? The player, like Nathan, starts with a familiar home base with run-and-gun (and jump) gameplay, and the swift time it takes to master means the narrative conflict can be established quickly too. Now Nathan has his world turned upside-down, and in a way that gave the antagonist a gameplay role with much more emotional connection. The player's first set of rising / falling action mastering his new situation. This might also tie in at game end if -- as in the Hero's Journey -- the hero gets offered his old life back but denies it, showing his growth. Perhaps Nathan was a popular soldier but his old comrades but he feels his new disability has destroyed that life, forcing him to adopt the "lone hero" approach taken by most game heroes. In the end, he has the option to restore his normal arm, but he has mastered his new path by then, and accepts it instead.

[Update] This particular example, however may be problematic because it breaks the golden rule of not taking anything (jump) from the player. I wonder if it happening early -- or being attached to a narrative -- helps? I know I hate when a game gives me all my abilities then yanks them for me to recover, but is it better if it's never recovered? Worse?

Fun stuff. Thanks Ethan!

1 comment:

  1. Yep. : )

    I think it helps if the basic rules can be picked up fairly quickly--then you can probably establish conflict and the rules at the same time, and the tutorial doesn't have to feel so slow and tedious. So for narrative-based games it is may be best to stick with well-known control mechanisms, or at least simple and intuitive ones.

    It seems like coupling narrative motivation (conflict and suspense) and gameplay motivation (exploration/learning and mastery) as closely as possible would lead to a game narrative with special respect for and utilization of the medium. A story which, perhaps, could not be told better as a film or novel. And I think for narrative-based games, that is a fine goal.

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