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.