Games as Experiential Narrative
A while ago, I came to the conclusion that the term “video games”, as it is used these days, ultimately contains two fundamentally different art forms. On the one hand, gameplay-driven series of mechanical challenge, that primarily use their theme and narrative context to intuitively explain their rules. And on the other hand, interactive fiction making use of the specific emotional impact of certain mechanics to support the story and convey their message.
Today I will provide a few concrete examples to demonstrate how drastically the ways of looking at both those kinds of “games” differ, which in some cases results in design principles that are diametrically opposed to each other.
Puzzles that aren’t puzzles
Stories Untold by No Code is a collection of four connected interactive short stories. Formally, they are based on a series of puzzles: Players are supposed to reach a pre-defined goal state, i.e. find the solution. The first part of the game is about traversing a text adventure with a twist, then players handle lab and radio equipment by referring to rather antiquated manuals, and finally there are even some first-person passages.
None of those interactions are particularly challenging. Players are more or less working through checklists to advance the story. But that’s not the point! Those interactions are not meant to stand on their own. Finding the solutions for the sake of finding them isn’t interesting. Instead, the mechanics are very carefully tailored to evoke specific emotional states within players, thereby bringing them close to the story’s protagonist. Empathy via gameplay.
While traditional puzzles games, such as The Witness or Portal, are all about finding the solutions, this is just a means to an end in the case of experiential narrative. The puzzles don’t have to be particularly difficult, nor do they have to be based on a clear core mechanism that is varied and re-combined over the course of the game to provide players with problems of rising complexity. Ultimately, they don’t even have to be “fun”.
After all, it is beneficial for games such as Stories Untold or Florence to be “too easy”. In this way, they’re never in danger of sacrificing their narrative pacing due to hard “progress stoppers”, or distract players from thinking about and immersiving themselves in the story. Thomas Grip of Frictional Games (SOMA) even calls this a “core element” of interactive storytelling.
In addition, a low level of difficulty can itself support a narrative message:
“I think of the mini-games as metaphors. The interaction on the touch screen … how can that make you feel something about the characters? One of the stronger metaphors that is in the final game is when they’re on their first dates and you’re putting the speech bubbles together. People often tell us that’s one of their favourite levels. The idea was that it feels like putting words together, but that as the dates go on and they find it easier to talk to each other, the puzzles become easier and easier.” (Florence-Designer Ken Wong)
The Meaning of “Good Game Design”
From looking at those examples, we can immediately conclude that the form of “experiential narrative” requires completely different design criteria than traditional “games” that are full of gameplay loops. The Witness makes you learn a “puzzle language “, in Super Mario Bros. you hone your timing and dexterity over time, and in Civilization you gain deeper understanding of the underlying systems with every playthrough.
Those titles are based on mechanical challenge and test their players’ skills — be it decision-making, logical reasoning or reflexes. Therefore, “good game design” will be built around concepts like having transparent and consistent rules, coherently aligning all game elements in support of a core mechanism, giving reliable feedback, systemic elegance (“easy to learn, hard to master”) and so on.
Games of experiential narrative on the other hand adopt a very different approach. They shine in conveying emotion by using their mechanics as a narrative metaphor. Looked at from a “gameplay loop” point of view, they’re shallow, boring or confront players with a weird mix of unrelated mechanics that barely allow for any kind of iterative learning to happen (Stories Untold).
However, all of that is beside the point. The important thing is making the emotions evoked by the mechanics fit the story that’s being told. If the story is supported perfectly, then even confusing (What Remains of Edith Finch) or mundane (Cart Life) gameplay can work wonders. Usually it takes something more and more specific than merely traversing the game world (see “Walking Simulators”). Except if that’s what the game is actually all about (Journey).
Ideally the story won’t just run alongside the game (in cutscenes, dialogue, text or audio logs), but becomes the game itself. And in that case its delivery can reach unmatched levels of intensity.
Both categories of games described above are totally valid. Neither is one of them “better”, nor the “logical next step”. Again, in the end they’re just two forms of art that happen to share the common language of interactivity.
From the antithetical principles of game design between both forms, we can conclude that they also require a very different skillset from their developers, maybe even different studio setups. Are systems designers subordinate to narrative designers or vice versa? Do we even need both?
Similarly, the audience’s reception is very different between both forms. Of course both might appeal to me, just like I can be into symphonies and also a fan of radio drama. However, there are massive differences in how I perceive and process them. Which furthermore makes it seem pretty absurd to try and discuss, analyze and criticize such different works of art by applying the same methods or even “rating systems”.
We need to start consequently differentiating the forms instead of throwing everything onto one big pile of “video games”. We need to move past “genre” and consider more fundamental principles of interaction. We need to create an environment that allows both forms (and any sub-categories) to thrive.