Life gets in the way, especially when it involves things like graduation, conference planning, and dissertation writing. This post slipped from being a couple of few weeks late to being more like a month late, but I'm going to leave the part that was written previously as is so I can at least get it posted.
Prior to the work flow hurricane which is the AERA conference, I relayed the majority of ideas we played around with in a game narrative jam a couple weeks ago in this post. I'd promised this follow up post sooner, but you know how it goes with the backlog and what not. In this post I'll relay some odds and ends around played narrative conflict in games without a big narrative, some awesome ideas Laura and Ian are tossing around for a library science game, and offer a few thoughts for anyone interested in doing this sort of thing in the privacy of your own classroom, office, or home (for the power geeks among you). Find all this and . . . actually just all of that after the jump.
Just to refresh, in the previous post we talked about games with a big narrative (sometimes called a story) like Half Life and its ilk. I didn't actually talk about Half Life in the previous post, but it did inevitably come up in relation to Portal. I tried to roughly approximate the primary narrative conflict as:
Save the planet from an alien threat
Or perhaps even:
Save the people you “love”
in relation to Half Life 2, and particularly Episode 2. Of course, Gordon Freeman is a really odd character for mediating emotional experience (hence the scare quotes around love), but then again these sorts of conflicts tend to be dominant across games anyway so I figured no harm in accounting for them here. If you want more of my thoughts on that particular topic, they're somewhere in the middle of this post (which I still need to finish cleaning up).
At any rate, after we cleaned up on the saving the world from aliens theme, Katamari Damacy came up. I don't know exactly why it is that sort of thing happens, but I suppose that's just the sort of game it is. However, by delving into narrative conflict in Katamari the conversation started to open up in a big way (at least in my head). We tried framing the core conflict as:
Reassemble the universe?
but that just lead to an emphasis on the difference between written conflict and played conflict. All in all it was the perfect lead in for talking about games that don't have a big narrative. As it turned out, this included MMOs, casual games, and other game concepts that push at the edges of a literary conception of genre.
Eve Online was one of our first targets. Ian had tried Eve and he gave us a familiar description of how the grind, the politics, and a whole bunch of cold and heartless space pirates defined the real narrative of the game. At the same time, he summed up the played conflict as:
What can I do in this game to keep me interested in it?
At this point Bejeweled chimed in as almost a counterpoint. It's worth noting that everyone at the table had played this game and had something to say about what it was that created a pleasant feedback loop while playing it. Sadly I didn't take very good notes about who said what but the phrase:
Just like "television"
was offered up for consideration. I should note here that I just finished watching Lost (The Candidate), and that when this phrase was uttered it was definitely not in reference to that kind of TV. Rather, it was in reference to channel surfing (an activity which I tend to view as a form of problem solving anyway) and other similar modes of viewing. As a result, we were lead to the question of whether this hypnotic effect could supplant a played narrative. An opposing claim was made that the played narrative was one of competition with ones self. It was at about this point that the conversation turned towards broader theoretical principles of games as media, and away from more particular analysis of core conflicts in specific games. Ian mentioned Puzzle Quest and noted that it superimposed the played narrative of an RPG on top of the played narrative of a puzzle game. Basically, we felt that the core RPG narrative could be reduced to increasing the power of your character/s.
When we pulled back even further from the specifics of games, we began to consider how elements like a the narrative hook or the overarching theme structure a played experience. Caro noted that as players we often buy into a big narrative hook before we buy into setting. Ian emphasized that core themes (the more universal sort which pop up across different media) serve to reflect parts of life that we can relate to, re-framing challenges and conflicts that we experience day-to-day.
In the previous post I'd discussed ideas we'd had around narratives of loss. I'm pretty sure that in the actual chronology of our session, it was Ian's mention of core themes and day-to-day conflicts that first lead us to that topic. One concept we tossed around in relation to it which I didn't mention in the previous post was the idea of an aging game. We generally agreed that it would be a significant (but worthwhile) challenge to design a game that forced players to reckon with the onset of feebleness. This was the seed idea which lead us to focus in terms of played narrative on how such a game would effectively become focused around a narrative of switching skills. The core narrative conflict bridging both written and played narrative for a game like this (or the deity game described in the previous post) might be something like:
How do I survive on less?
Taking a turn into the conceptual allowed us to consider the close coupling between the played narrative and the designed goals of games. We discussed how MMOs and sandbox games might seem to offer players a variety of goals, but ultimately leave the player with a relatively constrained set of goals so long as they're playing an unadulterated version of the game. We speculated on the idea of a game space in which you could have the capacity to set more concrete goals for yourself in a manner which was supported by the game design, or even one in which you could choose goals that other players have made. I should mention that PMOG (now the Nethernet) can function in this way, although it's more like a big game than most video games are apart from the fact that it's virtual and ongoing.
Somewhere around this point John mentioned the idea of a sheep dog game. For the life of me I don't remember what exactly this was about, but I'll ask him sometime. Equally John, if you happen to read this feel free to fill us in in the comments section.
It was around this time in our jam that the conversation began to turn towards Laura and Ian's specialty of information science. In discussing ideas they'd had for a library game, Ian summed up the basic narrative conflict for designing such a game as:
Man vs. Information
John offered the concept that people are getting pummeled by information and need some form of umbrella or filters to handle the deluge. Ian mentioned that people often don’t understand what they don’t know. We recognized that information is super ubiquitous in general (especially in libraries) and another way to frame the design challenge in such spaces involves asking the question, "How do you position the player in an incredibly information rich context?"
Laura related that as they'd moved into a second iteration of thinking about library games, they had moved from starting with learning objectives to starting with game play. The example which they had been toying around with was the idea of a haunted library where exorcising the ghosts leads the player to understanding libraries and search. Ian emphasized that in general library games have a lot of ARG potential, as they are staffed by people who’s job it is to answer questions. The conversation also evidenced the fact that if schools are a little slow to take up digital media, libraries are jumping in more aggressively. Personally I found this reassuring.
While, that about wraps up the notes that I had from the game narrative jam back in April. Ian did note that I might want to start with Aristotle explicitly next time. I would definitely say that in designing this activity for a small group, more structuring elements are actually necessary if the aim is to keep the focus on game narrative rather than letting the conversation drift into various aspects of game design and media analysis. As Mark helped me consider in the comments on part 1 of this post, it's also worth thinking about trying to sum up narrative conflicts with as few words as possible. For another iteration of this activity, I would consider asking participants to stick with the same games for two rounds starting with a longer description that captures the written narrative of the core conflict in the game, and then going for a much shorter description that encapsulates the played narrative. Perhaps most importantly, if the aim is to help to create a picture of the sorts of narratives games can bear and the conflicts which drive them, it probably isn't a bad idea to ensure that participants have played a bunch of same games and to lean on those so as to provide a deeper analysis of individual games that can synthesize multiple played perspectives.
And now, back to my dissertation writing. I really would like to finish chapter 4 by the end of this month. After all, I told my interviewee's they'd have a chance to read a draft of it at the start of the month (sorry 'bout that folks).