Last Friday I was invited by Caro Williams to run a game narrative jam with the game design crew she started facilitating here in Madison a few months ago. Turn out was a little small probably owing to the fact that we're at the end of the semester and AERA is around the corner (getting back to work on my poster as soon as I finish up this post), so I had to augment the activity I had in mind. That said, I think we floated some really cool ideas in the conversation that ensued, and as I'd promised in proposing the session I'm re-posting those ideas here.
Writing this post took longer than expected, so what you have here is part 1 (expect part 2 later this week after I've got a finished poster for AERA). Something about in-game moral systems and narratives of loss after the jump.
My original idea for the jam assumed a group large enough to split up into smaller groups. I figured we could run through three iterations of thinking about possible narratives in games by focusing on the primary conflicts in games, and trying to sum those up in tweet-esque single sentences. My plan was to start with conventional big narrative games, then push outside the box a bit to games without a big narrative and serious games, and then finally have a third pass at generating novel narrative conflict stems. With only four of us at first (our ranks swelled to five when John Martin joined us part way through), this wasn't really a viable approach. Instead Ian Benton and Laura Schmidli from the UW College Library (which incidentally has a great games collection), and Caro and I started with the same general concept in a single group, but took a generally more exploratory approach drifting between summary, theory, and other narrative design ideas.
Caro started us off with the Fable games. We hadn't all actually played Fable 1 or 2, but we'd collectively played or seen enough game play to make an attempt at drawing the core conflict out of the game. Our first pass resulted in framing the conflict in terms of a question:
How do you reconcile the traumatic events of your life?
At this point it's key to mention that this is what we felt the core conflict of the written narrative was, not the played narrative. The conflict driving the player's narrative has a lot more to do with the aspect that Fable is so well known for: choices to be "good" (abide by the moral conventions of the game world) or "evil". The whole good/bad good/evil theme penetrated through a lot of our preliminary conversation, and it was probably what lead us from Fable to Mass Effect. After generally orienting to the Paragon/Renegade system BioWare deploys in the Mass Effect games (and establishing that the polarity here is between Order & Chaos rather than Good & Evil) we attempted to sum up the core conflict of the Mass Effect games (thus far) as:
Long standing enemies have to unite against an outside threat.
We recognized that this conflict wasn't exactly unique as a core theme for game narrative, but then again the point of starting with big narrative games was to nail down some of the classic (more or less Aristotelian) themes as they get exercised in triple A titles. In relation to this, Ian mentioned the ancient middle eastern concept of Asabiyyah. We weren't positive that it mapped perfectly to Mass Effect, but it was definitely a reminder that there are a variety of conceptual tools out there for framing narrative conflicts.
The paragon/renegade game mechanic gave us reason to divert briefly into a consideration of moral systems in games more generally. Ian posed the question of whether playing as renegade meant you were bucking the larger theme of the game? This got us focused on the manner in which as a player your own moral system is subjugated by morality as defined in the game narrative since you are rewarded or punished for behavior in-game in accordance with that system. He pushed the question further saying, "You don’t get awarded for following your own path in most games. Would it be possible to have a game where you set a goal, establish a code, and then get rewarded based on the goals that you set?" We dabbled with themes of morality a little longer considering the limited number of universal human taboos and how these could be utilized in developing core narrative conflicts in games, and the idea that taking the "evil" path in relation to the moral system in a game world could be a subversive mechanism for stagnating the narrative.
Since we were already on the topic of BioWare games, we diverted briefly to Dragon Age: Origins as Laura had started playing it recently. The rest of us hadn't played it yet, and she'd only played through the first segment of the game, but it was something to go on. After Laura summarized the game thus far for us, we came up with something kind of similar to our analysis of the core conflict in Fable:
What do you do when you have everything taken away from you?
My notes from the session aren't entirely linear, but I think this was the point where we started focusing in on narratives of loss. Inevitably Heavy Rain came up in parallel to this theme, and John dropped the phrases "Memento the game" and "man vs. self" as we explored ways in which a narrative of loss could be approached. We agreed that if you skip the exposition, many games start by functionally asking the player to figure out who they are and what they're doing there. We did recognize that most players have a lot of context to fill in some of those answers via paratexts and the trappings of the game industry in general. Personally, I have a feeling that if the played narrative conflict is primarily focused on that core existential question there's probably been some failure of game design somewhere along the way. That said, it was around this point where we discussed Portal briefly and we were all able to agree that the first conflict presented in Portal is something like:
What am I doing in this place? or maybe What are we testing?
Portal also provided us with an interesting case for discussing narrative and conflict for two reasons. First, those of us who had played through the whole game were in agreement that the narrative flip in the middle of the game fundamentally changes the driving conflict from one of exploration and discovery to one of survival. The second half of Portal (or maybe more depending on what point you become cognizant as a player of the character being in mortal peril) is definitely driven by a conflict that looks more like:
How do I get out of here alive? or more simply How can I save myself?
The other reason Portal provided us with an interesting case lay in the (unsubstantiated) claim I'd heard at a writer's round table at GDC. Word was that as with many games, the writing in Portal was a relatively late addition in the game development process. I can't find anything online to validate that statement, but in searching around I did find this great interview with Portal writer Erik Wolpaw over at RPS. At any rate, assuming this is true (as it certainly is in many other games where writers are a late addition to the team), we thought that Portal provided an interesting opportunity for a writer. Unlike a conventional shooter, the puzzle game nature of Portal and the heavily constrained setting (no human NPCs) meant that Portal was a relatively blank slate for writing over. The thought here wasn't that this writing task was easy, but rather that the constraints of design and uniqueness of game play made for interesting narrative opportunities.
The theme of loss also prompted us to consider the idea of a game in which the player character is homeless. There was definitely some mutual agreement that such a game could potentially include compelling game play and be socially powerful, providing opportunities to explore themes like the American myth of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and the diverse reality of homeless individuals from successful panhandlers, to the truly desperate, to the countless homeless individuals that don't fit into the homeless stereotype. We considered how tension between core axes of virtue and socioeconomic status could drive conflict in a game like this.
The narratives of loss theme pushed us to consider both more serious/social game ideas, and potentially compelling story concepts for the entertainment market. Ian pushed us on ways of subverting the traditional game sequence in which you begin with nothing and accumulate a variety of increasingly powerful tools along the way until you have more or less god like powers. The idea is that the player has to figure out how to get by with a diminishing pool of resources (a sort of inverted heroes journey). Both Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Terry Pratchett's Small Gods were invoked as an example of a narrative framing for a game mechanic in which a player might have diminishing powers, as in each of these two tales the deities powers are based on their number of followers which are diminished in "contemporary" settings.
There was some push back on the idea of stripping powers away from the player based on the fact that traditionally games teach the player more complicated game play techniques by giving the player more tools as the game progresses. Ian proposed the idea of leaning on whatever constitutes "gamer race memory" so that early mechanics include things like hook shot and double jump that most gamers will already know how to use. I also proposed that a similar effect could be created by giving the players a single extremely powerful ability early on that they can use to overcome virtually any situation. Then as the game progresses, they would lose this universal hammer and it would be replaced by decreasingly powerful tools that need to be used in appropriate combinations to overcome challenges. Invoking out literary examples, we agreed that such a game could render the narrative like a trickster story in the end where the player increasingly has to rely on words and their ability to convince others to get the job done. We also noted that in designing such a game, it would be difficult to keep the played narrative from becoming one of resource management if the world were more open (Spawn came to mind). By comparison if the game were on tighter rails, you could keep the player more focused on the written narrative and less concerned with resource management.
That's all for now. In the exciting part 2 we'll take a look at a couple of core conflicts from games that don't have a big narrative, and consider some ideas Laura and Ian are throwing around for a library science game. I'll also offer some considerations on running future game narrative jams.