Mechanics and Story

The opening of “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” describes a tension between narrative and mechanics that I think is common in story-based games. I experienced this tension a bit in “Ask Again Later”: At the end of the game, the storytellers explained some of the thematic and narrative material they intended for the story, in which magic served partially to symbolize repression. And while I enjoyed the LARP a lot, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to experience that thematic material more directly. I imagine more of those themes would have revealed themselves in a long-term version of the LARP, but I also think the format of play limited the storytellers’ ability to convey those kinds of themes as directly because of the need to adapt to our decisions as players. My final project group encountered a similar tension in planning our ARG, as we initially struggled to figure out why, narratively, there would be any need to communicate through puzzles and riddles rather than directly.

To some extent, I think this tension is comparable to other art forms. Across platforms, there are ways in which structure and story can conflict. In a first-person book, for example, the desire to write engaging and compelling prose might conflict with the less polished way a character would actually realistically write. My main creative platform is YouTube, and I’ve encountered similar tensions there. For instance, there have been times when I felt that things like including end screens or asking questions for the comments detracted in theme or pacing from the rest of the video.

I think one way to address this is to try to have structural elements serve doubly as thematic content. For games, this is similar to Bogost’s idea in Persuasive Games of “procedural rhetoric,” in which processes act as a kind of expression. This resonates with the way we used mechanics at the second Queer Game Night, where the game mechanics themselves were also thematic material, such as using “coming out” as an action players could take within the game. I think this kind of procedural expression can also be thought of in relation to derivé or similar kinds of play, in which the meaning comes less from the actual landscape being explored and more from the way it’s being explored, and the process of exploring.

I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has thoughts on this sort of tension between story, or theme, and mechanics, and on ways to address it.

2 thoughts on “Mechanics and Story

  1. I often think about the tensions between story and gameplay especially. Across different genres, I’ve noticed that sometimes gameplay tends to sort of “interrupt” the story, while the story is chunked out into cutscenes. This is problematic in many ways, since cutscenes take almost all control away from players and reduce them to more of a watching position. I notice this especially in first person shooters. Granted, some of the story elements are presented in things like embedded narratives and spatial details, but I still think there are many examples where all the major plot is kept as scenes. Games that include cutscenes that are influenced by our choices perhaps do this better (like Telltale), but I tend to look for games that integrate story and gameplay more seamlessly. One example I really love is Florence, a mobile game that utilizes its mechanics to tell a story about a young woman and her relationships. To me, it really helped ease that tension. So I think for designers it’s a matter of thinking more about how to integrate the story into the mechanics and what kind of actions they can use to impart the plot points that they’d like to. They still might need some cutscenes here and there, but hopefully we can get closer to more integration.

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  2. I think that this sort of tension is something that is present in every art form. I essentially see what you are describing as staging – the method of presenting a performance of piece of art. The form it takes in ARGs is that of puzzles because of the necessity for player interactivity and gameplay, but this is present elsewhere as well. A painting can directly depict thematic material, but has to do it in a way which will remain visually interesting for the person viewing the piece. A film, similarly, must obey certain rules of filmmaking in order to make sense to an audience. In these mediums it is easier to clearly depict thematic content, because of their nature as a visual art form rather than an interactive, but it typically still must fall within certain artistic boundaries. Conveying the information of an ARG directly is certainly doable, but it misses what is the fundamental staging requirements of the ARG format. Simply telling players the narrative (or even just certain narrative beats) transforms it into either a written narrative or interactive narrative experience, which themselves are subject to their own set of artistic guidelines. That tension which exists in ARGs is fundamental to their existence and to the format itself, as are other tensions fundamental to different art forms. Deciding to try and reconcile that tension is not necessarily wrong, but it could lead to a different genre classification of the end result.

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