I figured something neat out last week. I forgot to translate it into a blog entry.
The NATURE of NARRATIVES (in games).
This is really just part of a MUCH longer essay I mumbled to my keyboard at 1AM Saturday. I've rewritten it, hopefully to make it more coherent.
Many of my friends - and me, of course - are all up in arms about narratives. We like to think narratives are wikkid kewl and quite important. We talk about how we can beef up our narratives, how we can use narratives to hook players on new kinds of games, etc, etc, etc.
The truth of the matter is that most games that HAVE narratives have SHITTY narratives. But the vast majority of the gaming community doesn't (or didn't, until recently) care. I have looked out over the morass of unwashed gamer geeks from high atop my ivory tower and discerned the reason.
A game can pit a player against one of THREE opponents.
A game can pit the player against the player. This is the style of game where you play the game and get better and better. Your scores go up, you live longer, etc. Old-style games like Pac-Man and Tempest are like this. There are some new games like this, too, but they are either small puzzle games or take the slightly different approach of allowing great creative freedom.
A game can pit the player against other players. This is the multiplayer game. In some ways, you can consider a high score list this kind of competition, and many games offer both this and player-against-himself competition. These games, like the player-on-himself games, usually consist of a number of autonomous levels which can be played in any order.
Both of these kinds of games are programs which serve up a number of independent levels heavily focused on emergent play. The levels are usually fairly short, although some games of this sort (such as Scrabble) can last hours. Sometimes, it is one independent level over and over, relying on emergent play to distinguish it from other instances. For example, word games. Other times, there are a large number of unique levels, each of which has specific characteristics. For example, Starcraft.
People play these games to beat themselves or their enemy. The game ITSELF cannot be 'beaten'. You can become absurdly GOOD at the game, but it will gamely continue offering up 'new' levels for you to play until your thumbs fall off and space aliens steal your cattle. Whether you make it to level five or level six doesn't matter, save that you have done better than you did before.
Now, what happens when you add a NARRATIVE?
Suddenly, there is a goal INSIDE THE GAME. Getting to level six is a NEW PIECE OF THE STORY. You are no longer competing against yourself or another player. You are competing against the GAME. You want to defeat the GAME, so that you can hear the whole story.
Suddenly, the whole dynamic is VERY different. The individual levels serve a greater arc. Suddenly, reaching level six instaed of level five has a tangible, mathematically discrete reward instead of a subjective "I'm doing better!" And you know that if you get to level ten, you'll finally know how the boss is defeated and the game will be BEATEN.
Okay, now the game's primary draw is the INEVITABLE ENDING. The game needs to be defeated. Your players need to be able to reach that ending. So what happens to the gameplay?
It becomes wussed out. You need your players to be able to win, or they'll hate the game. So you make the game winnable. Winnable by who? Your whole audience. Meaning? Even the one-armed boy with palsy and severe frontal-lobe damage.
Okay, fine, that's too easy. We'll put in DIFFICULTY LEVELS. People who want a challenge can play on 'hard'.
Fine. What does this MEAN?
It MEANS that the gameplay is SECONDARY, and the NARRATIVE is PRIMARY. Egads! MANY WORDS IN CAPITAL LETTERS!
That means that the narrative serves the purpose of making the game itself the enemy, rather than the player. It doesn't need to be good or bad. It is enough that it provides an ending. The player knows the game has an end, and therefore will try to beat it.
That said, if you have a wide selection of narrative-based games (like we do today) and some of them have shitty narratives, you won't bother to play them. And gameplay is still important... just not AS important.
This seems to imply that emergent gameplay will NOT pair well with storytelling, but I can see a new kind of game emerging, one which uses a narrative but is player-vs-himself.