What breaks your sense of presence in a story? The culture of video game playing has developed a tolerance for the common practices and limitations in designing and producing games. We’ve stopped asking “why?” and have come to expect the typical input arrangements, the impermanence of death, and restrictions of our own free will. Although much of the work in the EIS lab is focused on investigating new practices in creating and playing games, I’ve found, in my personal “research” of popular games, that despite the predictability, certain innovations in narrative are notably novel.
If we break down a game into layers of: paidia, ludus, and narrative, an area that is quite nontrivial is the connection between paidia and narrative. Often, your paidia is constrained such that you don’t ruin the narrative layer in the game. For example, it is common that your agency sucks in order to maintain the story elements.
(This post contains spoilers for: Final Fantasy 7, Planescape Tourment, and Bioshock)
More relevantly, in story driven games, the paidia and narrative layers find themselves compromising. Ultimately, the paidia-narrative relationship determines the user’s agency in a game and the overall flow and presence in a story. The question I want to pose is: What breaks your sense of presence in a story?
Three typical (sense of presence breaking) examples are:
- Entering a story with no prior domain knowledge
- The occurance of dying and respawning
- Having a terrible sense of agency
In my experiences, I’ve felt that creative innovations in game writing and game design (or conforming the narrative layer to suite the paidia) were apparent in the following approaches:
1. Write into your story that the player character, at the start of the game, has amnesia.
Every game has some form of introducing a new user to the experience. Usually, this includes teaching a user how to play in addition to priming the user of the introductory narrative context. Early forms of this include opening cut scenes and easy challenges in the early game play. Star Craft campaigns, for instance, introduce you to the complex build system by composing a story around a mission-based tutorial. With very little contextual priming, the 1995 game, Chrono Trigger, starts with the player character as a red spikey haired young man being woken up by his mother. My initial thoughts as I start this game are: where am I? who am I? what is going on? and what am I supposed to do next? It follows that the protagonist, Crono, doesn’t have much of a personality represented throughout the game. In contrast, player characters such as Cloud from Final Fantasy 7 and Pheonix from Phoenix Wright: Justice for All, with more complexly defined personalities and lives, are introduced to the player with temporary memory loss. Suitably, the world must be explained to the player character and coincidentally presents information that the user needs to know. As you are discovering the world around you, you are also discovering yourself as a character that is recovering from amnesia.
2. Write into your story a curse that makes the player character immortal.
Death is a common occurance in many games. There are pretty typical approaches in handling life and death in video games. It is expected that if you do poorly enough, you lose your life and will be set back in some way. Super Mario employs extra lives. Halo uses check points. Final Fantasy uses save spots. In midst of a big dungeon, there’s always that awkward explanation of “here and only at shiny spots like these can you save your progress.” When you die, the game ends, but when you start again, you resume from previously saved state. We just accept this as how things are, but Planescape Tourment takes it a step further. In Planescape, the main character is “cursed” with immortality, and when he “dies,” he wakes up in a mortuary… the closest mortuary to the location of death (and no, time has not stopped nor rewound). In fact, he’s lived and died so many times, that his lives, recorded in a tomb, have taken many possible paths (in addition to the path you are currently on). Your living, dying, and resurrection, within play, is just an intentional feature of the story experience.
3. Write into your story how the player character was genetically engineered to be mind controlled on command.
It goes without saying that stories in games are fairly linear. When it comes to choices, there really aren’t many that make a difference. Eventually, you will go from point A to point B to point C with nominal embellishments along the way. That’s just how games have been (in particular, JRPGs and action RPGs). If I don’t accept the current quest, then the story stops until I decide otherwise. In FPS campaigns, I accomplish the mission objective and await my next orders. Bioshock, for example, is an RPG/shooter that progresses quite linearly. You take in the presented circumstances, the interesting setting, music, and dialogue, and you go along with it. For the sake of progressing through the story, you do what you are instructed (I mean, what else would you do?). What’s different in this game is that you’re not meant to have a choice, because you, the player character, were genetically engineered to be mind controlled by the trigger phrase, “Would you kindly.” For the first half of the game, you just go along with your lack of autonomy, and for the second half it is cleverly worked into the story.
…And voila, here are three instances where we have gone from typical constraint to novel feature.
Until we begin to formalize and create new ways in designing games, our paidia remains a bit limited. Fortunately, we still have the expansiveness of our imaginations at the narrative layer’s disposal (in the meantime).
About the author: Sherol is a PhD student with interest in telling stories through games. She loves Jazz music, Jesus, and had a crush on Super Mario when she played her first video game at the age of 5.