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Siromatic

Remo's GDC narrative talk--let's discuss ways in which systems and narratives could be more intertwined

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Chris is doing a talk at GDC today (in like…10 minutes) about interactive visual narrative works that don't rely on combat, light puzzles, or any of the known systemic conventions that currently exist in video games.

 

Dunno if it's ever going to be free to watch (that's the only way I'll ever be able to catch it), but thought the topic would be a good jumping off point for discussion here. (Maybe people that are able to catch the talk live could give some input about what was discussed in it as well.)

 

Have thought about the same thing for a long time myself. I sent someone an email regarding this topic in 2014. Here's what I said at the time: "On a related note, I don't think that games have to completely abandon traditional systemic rulesets and all be first-person exploration or point-and-click adventure games in order to tell meaningful stories, but my humble opinion is that games that are systemic-focused need to start figuring out how to have what the player does in the game be closely interwoven with and a reflection of its narrative intentions. And they need to do that without relying on the deplorable violence/combat most games lean on for gameplay. The only games I can think of that have done this well to some degree are 'Freedom Bridge,' 'Journey,' and 'Papers, Please.' But two of those three games essentially only figured out how to make traversal be intrinsically linked with their narrative. 'Papers, Please' is the most innovative in terms of marrying gameplay and narrative into one cohesive vision, but what the player does in that game, while enjoyable at first, gets a bit tedious fairly shortly. Which works since what it's replicating (checking passports) would be tedious to perform in real life and it brilliantly ties into the narrative of the game. But I would be lying If I said I found it enjoyable to do systemically for longer than a half hour or so at a time."

 

I have also criticized the AAA visual narrative systemic approach of having 30 minutes to an hour or so of well-produced cutscenes strewn throughout a 10-20 hour experience, with traditional systemic aspects like combat (often third or first person shooting) and light puzzles being the connective tissue in-between the cutscenes. Yes, dialogue (usually banter) often takes place during the more traditional combat and/or light puzzle segments to try to lightly remind the player of the narrative at hand, but the majority of the narrative in these games is conveyed in the cutscenes rather than the interactive segments.

 

Of course a lot has happened since 2014, and there's been many good-to-great games that primarily focus on delivering a narrative without relying on combat. Lucas Pope of course was back at it again with the great "Return of the Obra Dinn." Some other standouts since that time have been: "Her Story," "Firewatch," "Tacoma," "Thimbleweed Park," "What Remains of Edith Finch," "Night in the Woods," "Oxenfree," "The Gardens Between," "Hypnospace Outlaw," etc.

 

Some of those games do rely on puzzles (both lightweight and more difficult), which of course is another form of challenge and a long-established component in games, while others are much more lightweight systemically and primarily focus on general exploration to unfold the narrative.

 

Of course there's so many genres and types of games that it's hard to try to boil them down to just a handful of categories. So this is definitely reductive, but for the sake of discussion I feel like games as they currently stand essentially fall into these three categories:

 

A: Narrative-focused but systemically traditional game. Often roughly 20-25% cutscenes and 75-80% combat and/or puzzle segments. Typically high-budget and between 15-30 hours long (though those aren't requirements). "Uncharted 4," "God Of War," "The Last of Us II," "Red Dead Redemption 2," "Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus," "Spider-Man," "Horizon Zero Dawn," "Ghost of Tsushima," etc. are recent or forthcoming examples of this type of game. Games in this category clearly put a lot of effort into their narrative (primarily cutscenes, but in-game dialogue as well) and seemingly want it to be the focus, but then large sections of the games in-between the cutscenes are filled with very standard, run-of-the-mill systemic design involving combat against enemies and/or puzzles (of varying difficulty).

 

B: Narrative-focused games with lightweight systemic aspects (often either first-person exploration or adventure games). "Gone Home," "Firewatch," "What Remains of Edith Finch," "Oxenfree," etc. are recent examples of this category. 

 

C: Systemic-heavy games that often have little-to-no overt narrative (or very lightweight narratives). Nearly everything that isn't in category A or B falls into this one. "Mario Maker 2," "Shovel Knight," "Wargroove," "Forza Horizon 4," "Into the Breach," "Dead Cells," "Super Mario Odyssey," "Breath of the Wild," etc. are recent examples of this type of game. Again, it's not to say that these games are devoid of narrative--they all have it to some extent. But gameplay, aesthetics, etc. all take strong precedence over narrative. (Though sometimes people go wild/have fun speculating about the narrative in some of these games, such as the Mario series. Which is highly enjoyable to do. But mostly is people having fun/letting their imaginations run wild based on the limited narrative that exists in the games themselves.)

 

I'll admit, for a decent amount of time after "Gone Home" came out I thought the medium as a whole would be better if it almost all started moving towards category B. I thought games in categories A and C were mostly meaningless because I do think traditional systemic design aspects of games--combat, puzzles, etc.--are inherently mostly meaningless. They can be incredibly well-designed and executed and enjoyable to perform, but if those interactive actions are completely divorced from narrative then they don't inform the person performing them about anything useful other than A: how to perform them and B: giving them the ability to improve at how they perform them. 

 

A game like "Spelunky," which is a masterclass in systemic design in every conceivable way and without a doubt one of the best games released this decade (and probably ever), is also ultimately mostly meaningless/a waste of time. Please don't get me wrong--I love systemic-heavy games, getting proficient at them, etc. And I'm not trying to discount that such games frequently are enjoyable to play/make the person playing them happy. "Mario Maker 2" is the game I'm currently most looking forward to, and I am going to spend hundreds of hours getting immense enjoyment from it. But it's not going to impart any information to me that is going to be useful in the real world, or that will make me think about things in a different way, etc.

 

But then I realized that of course there's nothing wrong with that. If a game has great aesthetics, a killer soundtrack, and highly enjoyable, traditional gameplay, but conveys remotely nothing of importance to the player (other than how to play the game and improve at doing so)--as long as the player is getting personal enjoyment out of it, that is perfectly fine. (Though I do think it is always important to be heedful of how one is spending their time, and even if one finds systemic-heavy games to be highly enjoyable, they also tend to take a lot of hours from you. So I do think it is important to remind yourself that engaging in them is not as meaningful as doing many other things and to limit the amount you do engage in them to what you feel is an appropriate amount.)

 

And yeah I think there will always be room for those types of systemic-heavy, narrative-light games. Honestly some studios would probably even be better off entirely focusing on that rather than even trying to do narrative. Such as Nintendo, who are incredible at gameplay and aesthetics (which of course are the primary focus of their games), but who have repeatedly dropped the ball when it comes to their (admittedly lightweight) narratives, often relying on generic stereotypes and tropes and failing to treat people with dignity. I honestly feel like Nintendo would be better off giving up on narrative altogether, or radically changing their priorities when it comes to it/recognizing what they've gotten wrong and assigning narrative duties to more narratively skilled employees who would be able to handle diverse characters with much more care and respect. 

 

I also personally don't have any great ideas or implementations of my own for better integrating gameplay and narrative so that they are more closely interwoven. Like I said earlier, most of the games that have done a better job weaving the two together have done so via traversal mechanics rather than non-traversal character actions, which means the surface has only begun to be scratched. I do think if more game designers were thinking along these lines/more purposefully trying to have the systemic interactions of their games be a reflection of its narrative, that they would be able to come up with inventive ways to do so. It's a problem I've thought about for a long time, and I fully admit to not coming up with much of anything that seems like "yeah, that would definitely be a great example of systems and narrative being more closely intertwined." I'm not very smart, though, and I definitely think there are many people--already working in games and not--who would be able to.

 

I also think coming up with a great example of narrative and systemic marriage and strongly executing on it isn't the silver bullet for making video games as a medium be better/more meaningful than it currently is. There is still the problem of the quality of the narratives themselves not yet quite reaching the highs they have in other mediums--it's equally important that issue is recognized and attempted to be improved upon as well. And a game with an incredibly strong intertwined systemic-narrative still is not as generally accessible as works in other narrative mediums, which only require eyesight to be enjoyed. (Of course hearing is also important for movies, but not completely essential.) This issue will probably lessen over time as more and more people are familiar with how to play games/use controller input methods (and I do think people overemphasize how long it takes to get acclimated to doing so), but I do think other mediums will perpetually be more accessible/easier for people to experience overall.

 

(Apologies if this post is a bit haphazard/lacking clarity. I only got five hours of sleep last night. Will likely edit the post and try to improve its clarity later. Hope it can still bring about some discussion of the topic at hand, though.)

 

What do y'all think are currently the best examples of games that are strongly intertwined systemically and narratively? (Where what you do in the game is a reflection of/ties into the narrative itself, in a more meaningful way than "stop enemies because enemies bad.") Do you have any ideas or implementations of your own of one? Do you even think that games that fall into the narrative-heavy, systemic-light category should evolve and try be more involving systemically, with those systems tying directly into the narrative itself--or do you think they should remain systemic-light? Would love to hear everyone's thoughts on the subject!

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I apologize for the short response to a lengthy post, but I can't help but feel like being meaningful is a metric that's impossible to define in this context, and as such isn't particularly useful as a means of evaluating the progression of games as a medium (or any individual game). Just like how people are going to find vastly different things fun, I imagine people are going to find vastly different things meaningful. Given that, I feel a bit doubtful that a closer merging of narrative and gameplay would have significant effects overall. I could just as well say that people probably aren't going to play enough to receive any directed messaging if the gameplay isn't enjoyable, so that should be the foremost concern. That said, I haven't seen Chris' talk either, and I feel like I may be missing something fundamental in the argument here? Sorry if that's the case!

 

Separately, I think the ability of people to draw personal meaning from media that isn't about specific topics or themes is being somewhat underrated here. 

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I think you raise a number of good points, but I would resist the notion that a more systems-driven game would necessarily be devoid of "meaning" (like Kyir I think this is probably a difficult to define and unhelpful metric, but I'll take  your notion of imparting knowledge "that is going to be useful in the real world, or that will make me think about things in a different way"). Similarly I'm also not convinced that a game that has more of a narrative focus would inherently furnish players with some "useful" information that would prompt reflection about real world issues. Certainly in the examples you choose I think you could argue that this dichotomy is present; Spelunky probably doesn't have anything to teach us about much else other than how to play it, while Gone Home is as I understand it a game that tries to address real-life LGBT issues and might help players to see these matters in a different light (apologies if I'm misrepresenting the nature of Gone Home, to my shame I have never gotten around to playing it). But I think one could find other examples that problematise this dichotomy.

 

For example, the Democracy series are games that are pretty much wholly systemic in their design, with no real "designed" narrative content per se, and yet one can very much see how the nature of the systems within the games and the manner in which the player interacts with them might encourage the player to reflect more deeply about the nature of our systems of governance, the incentives our politicians have when policymaking, and other aspects of our society's political sphere. At the same time I think one could say that a series like Broken Sword (which I enjoy enormously), while very narrative-focused, probably has little to offer the player in the realm of "deep thinking"; they're enjoyable romps but I very much don't see them as having the capacity to shed light on any societal issues. Ultimately I'd say there are definitely systemic games that can be "useful" and narrative-driven games that can be "meaningless", I think this comes down more to the individual game than being inherent to either category.

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Fair enough, @Kyir! And yeah I might have come off a bit harsh when talking about systemic-heavy, narrative-light games: like I said, I genuinely love 'em! 

 

Systemic-heavy, narrative-light 2D games are among my favorite kind--"Dynamite Headdy," "Demon's Crest," "Mario 3," "Mario World," "Sonic 2," "Sonic 3K," "Sonic Mania," "Super Metroid," "Castlevania III,"  "Rondo of Blood," "Link to the Past," "Super Meat Boy," "Mega Man 2," "Mega Man 3," "Mega Man 9," etc. are some of my favorite games I've played thus far. When it comes to 3D systemic-heavy, narrative-light games, "Mario Galaxy," "Mario Galaxy 2," "Mario 3D Land," "Mario 3D World," "Wind Waker," "Resident Evil 1 Remake," "Resident Evil 2," "Resident Evil 3," "Resident Evil 4," etc. are also some of my favorite games I've played thus far, too.

 

And you're right that I probably downplayed the ways in which people derive personal meaning from media that is not trying to use narrative to convey something about humanity, the world around us and our relationship to it, etc. 

 

Even games that are narrative-light still convey a lot purely through aesthetics (how the characters and world are portrayed, how the character interacts with that world, etc.), and of course many if not all people derive meaning from narrative-light games in their own way--whether that's using your imagination to wonder more about what the characters and world would be like separate from the conditions that exist when you're playing the game, or simply remembering where you were, what your current state in life was, etc. at the time you played a game. We all create those types of memories and narratives, even for narrative-light games (or ones that are essentially devoid of narrative entirely). To be fair, though, all of that is mostly separate from the games themselves and what they convey, and can exist with almost anything one experiences (media or otherwise). 

 

I was more just trying to express how most games essentially rely on combat and puzzles to comprise the majority of what you experience/do in them, and that I think there should be a greater range of interactive expression in games that is able to be more closely intertwined with narratives than those are. I'm not trying to argue that combat and puzzles should ever go away--there's obviously always going to be a place for them to exist. (Since I love 2D and 3D platformers so much I'd be pretty upset myself if great new ones ever stopped being made!) But I do think combat and puzzles dominate way too much of what video games as a medium are comprised of. I honestly have felt this way for a long, long time (well over a decade and a half). It's hard for me personally not to feel like the medium is collectively treading water when it comes to what happens systemically in a majority of games that have been made, are being made, will be made in the future. Of course there are still slight advancements and interesting things to be unearthed from the systems that have long existed in games--I think we were all collectively surprised and delighted when it was revealed that Cappy in "Mario Odyssey" allowed the player to posses various other characters and objects, a seemingly fairly novel mechanic for a 3D platformer--but for the most part combat and puzzles (as implemented across various different genres) are well-established conventions that are mostly being repurposed over and over again.

 

And you are absolutely right that a closer merging of narrative and gameplay is meaningless if either or both aspects are not done well. I'm not arguing for games that have a better integration of systems and narratives to be less enjoyable than ones that currently exist, but rather a best of all worlds where what you're doing in the game systemically is enjoyable, ties into the narrative the game is trying to tell well, and the narrative itself is interesting and well-done, as well.

 

(And of course I understand that is going to be incredibly difficult for developers to pull off. This issue already exists of games that excel at one thing more than the other. People consider Swery's "The Missing" to be very interesting narratively but to be a bit clunky and less well-executed systemically. The "Uncharted" series got better and better narratively with each entry but made little to no evolvement systemically, where it got to the point that it seemed like most people dealt with the boring combat and light puzzle segments just to see/get to more of the story. And "Breath of the Wild" is regarded by many as incredible systemically but mostly a misfire narratively. So we already have this issue/struggle of trying to have the narrative and gameplay both be of high quality at the same time, and that issue would still exist when trying to have more intertwined systems and narratives. I do think if it's ever able to be pulled off, though--a game that is highly enjoyable systemically and narratively and the two are very closely intertwined/a reflection of one another--that the end result would be incredible.)

 

Also y'all are right that I was too vague with what I meant by "meaningful" in my original post (and of course what is considered "meaningful" is going to vary from person to person). Was already thinking of trying to better explain my view of that in a separate post, so I will do that. (Won't have time to write that up until tomorrow at the earliest.)

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@Goose Malloy--totally agree that narrative-focused games are not inherently meaningful and that it depends on the quality of the narrative, what's being communicated, how well it's executed, etc. 

 

That's actually a big part of my personal issue with games in the category A that I described--the glossy high-budget games that are often around 15-30 hours long and comprised of around 80% combat and/or puzzle segments, with the narrative cutscenes interspersed between those gameplay segments. Often the narratives in those games are highly imitative of and less well-done/interesting than the works from other mediums they are imitating, and the combat and/or puzzle segments (which are often mostly or completely divorced from the narrative being portrayed in the cutscenes and nearly always amount to little more than "defeat bad enemies because enemies bad") take up such a large percentage of the overall work that it lessens the impact the narrative might otherwise have. As a result games in category A frequently end up feeling not much different than games in category C--the ones with little-to-no or very lightweight narratives--and are often worse/less enjoyable systemically than games in category C, as well.

 

I've never heard of the "Broken Sword" series--it sounds very interesting. Will definitely check it out--thanks. And yeah I likewise agree that many well-done narratives are not very meaningful in what they convey, but are rather mostly just frivolous and entertaining. Obviously nothing wrong with that--a lot of my favorite narrative works fall into that category! Ernst Lubitsch's "Trouble in Paradise" and the 2009 animated movie "A Town Called Panic" are two of my favorite movies I've seen thus far--they're both nothing but pure entertainment. I personally find frivolous but highly entertaining and well-told narratives to still be more meaningful overall than systemic combat and puzzles, but I could understand how other people would not. (And I do love a great, engaging gameplay mechanic or well-designed, satisfying to solve puzzle.)

 

(Also of course narrative works that deal with more serious subject matter can still be entertaining and/or funny. The best ones often are!)

 

As for systemic-heavy, narrative-light (or devoid) games that can still convey meaningful narrative: I've never heard of the "Democracy" series but I imagine a lot of people would feel similarly that games like "Civilization," "SimCity," "The Sims," etc. can also convey a lot of meaningful things without having much of any overt, authored narrative. I do feel like those games are the exception rather than the rule when it comes that, and require a bit more work on the part of the player to extract/think about those narrative implications. But it is a good point/interesting example, and it would be neat if the same thing could be accomplished via systemic-heavy, narrative-light (or devoid) games in other genres. No issue whatsoever with developers trying to accomplish that, or with them continuing to make other kinds of games that have been made up to this point. 

 

But yeah, I think developers trying to come up with better ways to intertwine systems and narratives and have them be more of a reflection of one another would also be a very worthwhile endeavor!

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Aside from any discussion about what meaningful means, I absolutely would love to see more stuff than the standard sort of puzzles and combat. I think Undertale did a pretty good job in terms of melding the way those two things interact with characters and broader themes, but I'm not sure how much that could be replicated with stories about other topics. Complex themes seem like they're going to necessitate complex gameplay when intermeshed in the way you're describing.

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