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Game Dissonance (3): Elegant Narrative Design

In part two of this serial, we explored three examples of the aesthetic flaws of videogames, and showed how each could be understood as a special case of cognitive dissonance in games, and also as a clash between player practices. This week considers how we can design games to avoid such dissonance.

JingweiWhen we think as game designers – in terms of rules, game mechanics, or systems – game dissonance is solely a negative aspect of the development process, something to be eliminated wherever possible. This may seem depressing; after all, the most effective way to avoid causing dissonance is to never vary from what players have previously experienced. This is, in fact, the typical situation in AAA games, which seldom innovate and prefer instead to take proven player practices and iterate upon them very slightly, counting upon volume of content and degree of polish to wow their players. Commercially, it's the winning move, creatively, however, it's a fairly underwhelming strategy, and one reason that AAA studios don't put everyone else out of business is that more agile, more inventive, smaller developers can attract players via their creativity.

However, when we think as narrative designers, the ways game dissonance can manifest are so varied, and the circumstances so disconnected from anything that we could avoid by simply playing it safe, that there is more of an opportunity for creativity. Again, AAA games don't like to take risks - but in this case, it is to their cost, for the default way of telling stories in these titles is to intersperse an animated movie with the gameplay, and this is not a way to avoid game dissonance but rather a certain way of causing it in at least some proportion of players - indeed, this is what Hocking's concept of 'ludonarrative dissonance' expressly drew attention to.

How do you create game stories that avoid game dissonance? The key is that all of the components of the videogame must align, and the player's expectations must never be disrupted by the situations presented. Thus a player who is expecting that their character's story is going to be developed in cut scenes beyond their control is less concerned by this limitation. An ironic consequence of this is that the more that the developer throws players a bone in terms of creating an illusion of agency (for example, by offering a choice), the more constrained certain players will feel when the developer once again takes full control of the narrative and gives the player no role except that as observer.

Key to avoiding game dissonance in narrative design, therefore, is managing expectations. For instance, if you let the player choose conversation topics, you need to ensure that choosing topics remains an option throughout. If your story requires the player to have a specific conversation at a certain time, you must at the very least ensure that it is the player's choice of topic that kicks it off. This is much easier to do in a game that is, at its heart, investigative, than in a straightforward quest adventure, although even this can be made to work with care. If the player never chooses topics, on the other hand, there is no problem that the dialogue triggered is set in advance: the player will quickly learn to expect this.

I suggested back in the first part of this serial that a common cause of game dissonance (and one integral in Hocking's complaints) is when the story techniques of the screenwriter are injected into videogames. Part of this problem is the screenwriter's fallacy: the mistaken idea that what makes videogames a powerful narrative medium is that the player can make choices in the story. But from a screenwriter's perspective, those choices are only pre-prescribed options in an already planned-out plot. The screenwriter can never give the player agency using their methods, although they can (and do) bring NPCs to life by using a toolkit that is much better suited to characters that are not under the player's control.

Rather than simply inserting choices into a screenplay-style plot, narrative designers can offer players far greater agency by respecting the player's freedom within the game world. Where they go and when! is often more than enough to create opportunities for storytelling, and although developers are cautious about timed elements in game stories (with good reason!) even this can be used when it is done with care. For instance, if the player is told by an NPC that someone is being stalked by the secret police on the other side of town, we can easily tell (as developers) whether they went straight there to rescue them or nipped off to the shop first to buy some more ammunition (or engaged in some other activity that was clearly not appropriate). Having two variant encounters (one if the player goes directly and one if they were dilly-dallying), you can surprise players with a greater sense of presence in the game world than they expect! You can even cover the two cases cheaply with two variant lines ("What took you so long?!"). If you choreograph encounters in a way that the player realises they are being hoodwinked, that will cause game dissonance, but if you honour their agency by reflecting their choices, they will be drawn deeper into the experience.

However, this preceding example is still, at heart, a choice that we have planned and anticipated. To get to a more fulfilling place in terms of player agency we need to have game systems that can, in themselves, allow players to express their agency. A screenwriter approaching a scene of peril might foreshadow a plot device that saves the protagonist from danger. When this same trick put into a game, the player is told to fetch the plot device, and then that saves them - which works, but is flat and dull as a player experience, being effectively a fetch quest. A narrative designer would do far better to design an encounter that the player can prepare for within the game systems. Knowing that a Fire Elemental is attacking the wizard's tower gives the player a chance to equip items granting fire resistance; giving the player spells or magic items that detect fire in the tower, in order to tip them off, heightens the sense of agency even further.

Remember that dissonance will manifest whenever any part of the game fails to align with the player's experience and expectations; this means the game systems themselves need to avoid clashing with each other, and also with the story materials. For instance, if you have a fantasy game in which an ancient sword of great power is a key plot device in the story, players will experience dissonance (or at least grumpiness) when acquiring the sword does not give them a new weapon! Avoid this, where necessary, either by making the plot device something the player can carry but not use (e.g. an orb only a sorcerer can use, but the player character is a warrior), or by adding a limitation to the weapon such that despite its power, the player can use it only sparingly (for instance, because it drains their life force while they are wielding it).

Elegant narrative design, therefore, is not about writing a screenplay-style plot and trying to shuffle it in between playable sequences, but about having a set of game systems that you can use to advance and mediate the player's narrative experience. This is why International Hobo has, for some twenty years now, urged developers to perform narrative design in pre-development, when everything is up for grabs, rather than hiring a writer later in the process to merely write dialogue. You are asking for game dissonance among your players when your story is the last thing you try and put in place. It ought to be the among the first things you put into place - and it ought to be constructed from the elements of the game design or not at all, if your goal is to minimise dissonance among your players.

Clever narrative design can also help in small but subtle ways to head off game dissonance between conflicting game systems. Games that let the player recruit an NPC retinue in a camp or base constantly face the risk of rupture when those characters can do nothing to help the player in the challenges they are encountering. That conceptual gap is not Hocking's 'ludonarrative dissonance', it is rather (quite ridiculously) 'ludoludic dissonance', which is why 'game dissonance' may be a better term all around. When two game systems work well conceptually in the game design but risk contradictions in the logic of the game world, always try to ensure there are reasons for things to be this way. When your military base is preparing to defend against an attack, its soldiers have a reason not to come with you on a mission. If the base is a mobile military hospital, you have even stronger reasons why you are not building a private army. These kind of decisions are simply not part of a screenwriter's toolkit (at least until they become an authentic game writer, which is always a possibility!), but they are central to the narrative designer's craft.

What these examples have hopefully made clear is that when we are conducting narrative design, avoiding game dissonance is also creating an elegant narrative design, which is to say, creating stories from the raw materials of the game systems themselves, giving player a sense of agency within those systems, and creating the fictional glue that holds together the logic of the game world. It is agency, not mere choice, that games bring to the artistic table, and whenever choice is substituted for agency we are not going as far as we could. Those planned choices can be valuable to a game story, indeed, they can be essential to avoiding dissonance and giving the player a sense of an active role in the game world. But they cannot substitute for honouring the player's freedom within that world. The screenwriter's fallacy flows from taking too great a control over the player's story, such that we know all the ways it can possibly turn out. There's a place for that, but it's not the best we can do, and it comes with high costs - it destroys the inevitability that makes conventional drama (especially tragedy) so emotionally intense, and it undermines the player's role in the process, thus betraying both the screenwriter's craft and the game designer's.

Finally, it is worth considering the question that Hocking brought to the table in analysing Bioshock: how do we make themes work in videogames? Here, the screenwriter's toolkit has more to offer, but is still slightly inadequate to the task. The way we make themes work in literature, theatre, and film is to have a topic manifest within and through the structure of the story, or via symbolic plot devices - the solid-gold Maltese Falcon is the perfect symbol for the greed its story revolves around. To evoke theme elegantly, the participant in the story ought not to see it coming a mile away, or if they do, they should feel the weight of tragedy (Whitehead's "remorseless working of things") precisely in its inevitability. Yet players, unlike readers and viewers, are resistant to inevitability; it is a cause of game dissonance that they can do nothing, unless enormous care is taken to create the inevitability (something few if any games have managed).

Therefore, rather than relying solely on conventional narrative techniques for expressing themes we ought to try and bridge between the game systems and the story systems, making both link up via theme. If your game involves murderising an ethnic minority like goblins to gain XP, you have an opportunity for themes that reflect upon this violence, or that paint the player's greed for personal advancement as the cause of suffering in the game world. If your game entails managing a farm, the logistics of that process give you opportunities to explore themes directly connected to what the player is doing - and perhaps reflect real tragedies in fictional form. Indian farmers committed suicide after scurrilous multinational corporations sold them 'super seeds' that functioned as a form of extortion since the crop yielded no further seeds, requiring it to be bought again every year at crippling expense. There are themes here ideal for inclusion in a game, although probably not in a commercial product.

The danger in relying on the existing narrative toolkits when creating videogames is both that the player will fall prey of game dissonance, and also that we will fail to explore the more unique possibilities in the media of games. Hocking was right - we still don't have exemplars for our medium as a storytelling form, even though we have had them for a long time as 'merely' a game. Tetris is one such exemplar. I hope it's clear why we might think we could do better if our goal is to push our creativity further, and take games into novel and unexpected places. But standing between where we are and where both Hocking and I hope we might be able to reach is game dissonance. Understanding what causes it, and appreciating how to avoid it, is thus the epicentre of the struggle to take games further as an artform, a battle which places narrative designers squarely into the front line.

Interested in game writing and narrative design? The second edition of Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames is coming soon!


Game Dissonance (2): The Aesthetic Flaws of Videogames

In part one of this serial, the concept of cognitive dissonance was introduced, along with Clint Hocking's ludonarrative dissonance, concluding that it was only a special case of a more general phenomena: game dissonance. This week considers how game dissonance functions.

Metroid PrimeWhen we talk about videogames, we tend to focus upon the aspects of the experience that we are enjoying. As a result, when our enjoyment is disrupted, we usually conceptualise this as a flaw in the game, although there are times when we will admit that a game is simply "not for us" and step aside. This creates a selection bias whereby we are misled not only about "what games are" (we will tend to think that what they 'are' is what we happen to like), but also about how our experiences in games are functioning in terms of our cognitive faculties. As a result, enormous volumes of text has been written about the qualities of great games and how to make good games, yet almost nothing has been written about the aesthetic flaws of videogames.

In February 2015, I published an article that addressed this deficit. It came at an interesting point in my life as a blogger, as encapsulated in the three comments it received. One was from Spry Fox's Dan Cook, who up until that point had been a regular correspondent with me on game topics - and indeed discussions with him over the wrapping paper fallacy had led directly to my writing the piece in question. Another was from game design legend Raph Koster, another of my long-standing game blog correspondents, and someone who I had perpetually only just missed encountering in person during my many years at GDC. The third was from a new face, Chris Billows, who would go on to be the most important of my blog correspondents over the next five years, both encouraging me to keep writing, and sharpening through opposition my understanding of a great many concepts that would become key to my thinking.

I eventually buffed up The Aesthetic Flaws of Games into a paper for the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA), entitled No-one Plays Alone, and presented it in Dundee in 2016. It went on to be republished (in a slightly altered form) in the organisation's transactions, about which I was rather pleased - although as usual for my dabbling in academic circles, it had zero impact upon the research community, which remained steadfastly committed to their prior discourses (as inevitably they must!). This paper was the first time I had cohesively elaborated my understanding of player practices, which is to say, the habits we pick up when we are playing games that go on to assert constraints upon us when we make games. To understand games in terms of player practices is to appreciate that anyone who thinks their game concept was entirely their own invention is fooling themselves; we don't invent new games from whole cloth, we iterate on the player practices we already learned and crossbreed them with new influences, often from other kinds of media.

What do I mean by a player practice? A clear example can be found via recurring control schemes. Dungeon Master (1986) provided the prototype for the FPS by being a novel new form of computer RPG played in real time, and allowing the player to move square-by-square through a dungeon using cursor keys. The same control scheme was inherited by early id shooters like Catacomb 3-D (1991) and Wolfenstein 3D (1992), but as id moved away from Dungeon Master's square tile grid into free movement with Quake (1996), they added 'mouselook' as an option. This was to set the agenda for every FPS afterwards, and by Valve's Half-Life (1998) cursor keys were no longer the standard, but rather ASWD and 'mouselook'. Nowadays, any PC player who plays an FPS inherits this player practice, even though they have no conception that it descends from an older practice. A similar (yet more extensive) example is the conservation of game inventory elements.

Because player practices are the habits of players, they are more than capable of triggering cognitive dissonance when they come into conflict with other mental states. In the 2015 article, for instance, I gave the example of Metroid Prime (2002). This completely tore up the rule book when it comes to the player practices of FPS games, which for consoles had been set with GoldenEye 007 (1997) in response to Quake. The console adaptation of 'mouselook' was twin stick controls - but this practice had never taken off in Japan, quite possibly because of the smaller community of PC players in that country. Nintendo handed development of Metroid Prime to a US developer, we can deduce, to attempt to come up with a new version of the FPS controls, one that Japanese players could operate. While they broadly succeeded on this account, they also created a serious issue with many US players.

I have called this problem perplexity, meaning not mere confusion (which is a positive part of the play experience of, for instance, adventure games) but rather cognitive dissonance caused by the player having learned one player practice and then encountering a game that it is impossible to play by that existing practice. Thus, some players of Metroid Prime (especially in the US) complained in vociferous terms about how dreadful the control scheme was. But the scheme itself is fine, taken in isolation; indeed, it works rather well on its own terms, providing all the expressiveness of a twin stick control but never requiring simultaneous operation of both analogue sticks.

The problem was not that the control scheme was flawed, as such, it is that it was different to what players had already acquired as a practice, and this disparity caused game dissonance. It should be clear that in this case there was literally no aspect of that dissonance that can be attributed to a disconnect between story and game. Rather, two different player practices - the one already learned, and the one Retro Studios invented - could not be reconciled in a proportion of the players of the game. This is what I'd consider to be the textbook example of the how clashes between player practices cause game dissonance, and in cases of perplexity that dissonance is resolved either by 'converting' to the new practice in its context (that is, loving Metroid Prime) or by 'rejecting' it (and therefore heaping scorn upon the control scheme).

The second of the three aesthetic flaws of games I previously identified is inelegance, which occurs when game systems become so bloated or disconnected that players become aware of something troublesome in the design. Here, the problem is not so much a disconnect between the previously learned player practices and those of the game being played, so much as it is a disconnect between one set of player practices the game is teaching and another. The mechanical systems of the game simply do not fit together, and the player becomes acutely aware of it. Once again, this is an example of game dissonance; two (or more) cognitive models are failing to align with one another. It's unusual, though, as those models are of the same game (at least in the sense we usually talk of a single 'game').

It is interesting to look at examples of older games that switch their control schemes around. In the 1980s, this was very common: Horace Goes Skiing (1982), Aztec Challenge (1983), Beach Head (1983), and Raid Over Moscow (1984) are all examples of games consisting at heart of at least two and as many as half a dozen entirely different sequential game sections, each requiring players to learn different practices. Players in the 1980s accepted this willingly, in part because it was the usual practice in the 1980s to play lots of different games in the space of an hour. Whether in the arcade, or working through an audio tape of pirated games, players routinely played videogames as a buffet at this point in time.

Today, however, we view this kind of wanton collision of disparate play activities as decidedly inelegant, and typically criticise them unless they have some clever conceit to bind it all together, such as the Warioware series' (2003 onwards) microgame concept, where a single command ('Enter!', 'Rub!' or 'Don't Move!') introduces a fragmentary game snapshot. Our player practices have shifted: we now rarely play multiple games within the space of an hour, and are far more likely to immerse ourselves in a single more substantial game for hours at a time. Thus while Paradroid (1985) was considered one of the greatest games ever in the 80s, the use of a frequently recurring mini-game within a game today is largely frowned upon, except in open world games whose gigantic sprawling worlds never manage to have enough to do without either a built-in level editor ('virtual Lego') as in Minecraft (2009) or a pile of content that compensates for this excess of space. Such examples avoid accusations of inelegance at the moment because there is an awareness of a core game world with consistent (elegant) practices, with mini-games and the like being merely 'extra content'. I leave open the possibility that in forty years time this approach will seem as inelegant to players as the 80s games mentioned above tend to seem now.

Finally, the aesthetic flaw of rupture occurs when the imaginary world a game builds in the player's head is catastrophically disrupted by an intrusion of something that cannot be reconciled with it. The player is broken out of the experience, and becomes aware of the elements of their play instead of being immersed in the world evoked by those elements. Once again, this is clearly game dissonance, but here the incident tends to be more acute, as our experience of immersion is interrupted ('immersion' being nothing more than a term for our intense mental engagement inflated in importance by our love of videogames). As with all forms of cognitive dissonance there is a clash between mental states, but here it is because the game is making its representations play by different rules. For example, the world implied by the game mechanics and the world implied by the story might pull in different directions - this is the case of dissonance that Hocking was drawing attention to under the name 'ludonarrative dissonance' (see last week). But rupture also happens when a player's engagement is focused upon the game systems and they are forced to confront the story systems instead - those who are not fans of cut-scene heavy games such as Final Fantasy VII (1997) and its successors are acutely aware of this problem!

We generally fail to recognise that our engagement with most game systems is in itself a story-generating activity. All game systems are representative i.e. they ask that we imagine some specific arrangement. It is precisely because games are inherently representative that we make the mistake of thinking there is an unavoidable clash between stories and games - but what we mean by 'story' here is 'a story in the style of a movie or TV show' i.e. a screenplay. The problem is not and never has been an insuperable gap between games and stories, it is that the stories created by screenplays diverge dramatically from the stories that game systems produce on their own. Sometimes this tension is felt as rupture (the imagined experience collapses), sometimes as inelegance (Hocking's complaint about Bioshock is more of this kind), but in all cases it is game dissonance.

The aesthetic flaws of videogames as videogames are therefore examples of Festinger's psychological model of cognitive dissonance manifesting within our play experiences. These can be further understood as clashes in our habits, our player practices - either between those practices we have learned from earlier games, or within the practices a single game is expecting us to learn and execute. In this way, game dissonance is a more precise concept than cognitive dissonance: it zeroes in on the ways our learned habits condition our experience of the imagined worlds of videogames. Recognising this allows us to think about how we can avoid game dissonance through clever narrative design.

Next week: Elegant Narrative Design


Game Dissonance (1): What is Game Dissonance?

BioshockWhat is game dissonance and how do you prevent it? This question is not one that game designers tend to ask, and yet almost every effective practice we have for creating games depends upon our intuitive grasp of the ways that game dissonance disrupts the player experience. In this short series of articles, I will explore the nature of game dissonance, the origins of the concept, and how to design systems and write game stories that avoid falling prey to this quintessential human quality when it manifests in our play.

The origin of the concept of dissonance in this sense, as a cognitive flaw, is in the work of the psychologist Leon Festinger. His work grew out of earlier models for human behavioural change by Kurt Lewin in the 1930s and 40s, who suggested that human behaviour was not a purely internal matter, but the result of a collision between our internal states and the social forces (or fields) we are situated in. In 1954, Festinger wrote about "social comparison forces", suggesting that when people are uncertain of their views, they seek to compare those views to those of the people around them. In other words, it was not purely a matter of good arguments that swayed people, but also that we have an innate drive to accord with the social context around us - usually, to align with it.

He became interested in the edge cases: what happens when people's internal states are radically out of step with the social context around them? Extending a research programme initiated by Lewin, Festinger began to stage-manage encounters in a series of experiments that contemporary research ethics would probably have excluded from consideration. In 1954, he began observing a doomsday cult that was convinced the world was going to be destroyed in a catastrophic flood. This flood did not happen. Afterwards, those who were on the fringes of the cult readily abandoned its tenets and recognised they had been rather foolish, while those who were deeply embedded reasoned that the world had been saved as a result of their faith. These observations were to deepen Festinger's concept of social comparison.

Festinger began to theorise that humans were driven to attempt to maintain some kind of consistency between their thoughts, their feelings, and their behaviours, and that his concept of social comparison was only a special case of a more general phenomena. A series of further experiments shored up this understanding, and led to the publication in 1957 of A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. This theory would become one of psychology's few great success stories, with applications in every aspect of human experience. The core idea is that inconsistencies between internal mental states (beliefs, theories, memories), emotional responses, and behaviour creates an uncomfortable tension (cognitive dissonance) that sets off a drive to reduce the discrepancy. Sometimes this involves changing the internal states either as they relate to the individual (switching beliefs, 'editing' memories) or the social group (identifying a certain set of 'others' as different in some key way). The theory has been applied to almost every conceivable aspect of human affairs - I myself applied it to politics and morality in Chaos Ethics with the concept of 'moral horror'.

Game dissonance is nothing more nor less than cognitive dissonance in the context of the player experiences of games. Festinger's big idea would be first applied to videogames, albeit almost accidentally, in 2007, when Clint Hocking (at the time, a level designer and scriptwriter at Ubisoft Montreal) wrote a notorious critique entitled Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock. Despite being its most obvious legacy, the coining of the term 'ludonarrative dissonance' is arguably the least interesting aspect of this frankly insightful analysis of Bioshock's narrative, which was also one of the first to lament the absence of anyone we could convincingly call a game critic (a problem that has only marginally improved in the intervening decade or so). Hocking argues in the piece that Bioshock's narrative design is flawed because it offers two different player contracts: one, as a game, and another as a story. He alleges that this sets up "a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story". Was he right?

Yes and no.

Firstly, Hocking made the claim that the player contract with Bioshock as a game is "seek power and you will progress", and that this is an appropriate arrangement for a game about Ayn Rand's rational self-interest i.e. that the player contract aligns with the theme of the game. He also notes that this is "a pretty standard value in single player games where all the other characters... tend to be in direct conflict with the player". According to his reading, the player contract aligns with the theme because (he contends) "I actually feel the themes of the game being expressed through mechanics". He argues this because he harvested the Little Sisters, and interpreted this as "the game literally made me feel a cold detachment from the fate of the Little Sisters." This reading is problematic, though, given the huge number of players who did not harvest the Little Sisters, and had no desire to do so i.e. the opposite experience to Hocking's. Rather than the game mechanics being about Ayn Rand's philosophy, as Hocking claims, it might be fairer to say that Hocking's play experience aligned with Rand's philosophy. This is a subtle yet important point.

The alleged 'Ludonarrative Dissonance' comes about because Hocking claims that the story does not align with Rand's work in the same way, being framed on the narrative contract "help Atlas and you will progress." Hocking's threefold complaint is that helping someone is not in line with Randian rational self-interest; Atlas is opposed to Ryan, but Ryan aligns with Rand and hence "I am philosophically aligned with Ryan by my acceptance of the mechanics"; and finally, there is no choice in how the player positions themselves with respect to the contract, since "even if I am opposed to the principle of helping someone else... I must do as Atlas says because the game does not offer me the freedom to choose sides in the conflict between Ryan and Atlas."

I didn't comment on this back in 2007, although I did read it at the time, because I had neither played nor studied Bioshock at the time, and so it seemed wrong to wade in. However, I think it now safe to make the following remarks. Firstly, that the assumption that the player contract is aligned with Rand's philosophy is mistaken, and is more a fact about Hocking (and others who played like him) than it is of the game as such. Secondly, that the player having no choice but to align with Atlas is crucial to the story since it is part of that story that Jack (the player character) has no choice but to do as Atlas commands. This is, in fact, a major plot device and reveal within the story. Finally, since Jack is not the player and since the story depends upon Jack's backstory (not the player's free will - indeed, the player expressly has no free will as Jack) that Hocking's suggestion that the player needed a choice of whom to align with is ultimately mistaken.

Now none of this means that Hocking was wrong to claim there was cognitive dissonance brought about by Bioshock's story. It's clear that Hocking did experience dissonance, and the same might be true of anyone else who was intelligent and educated enough to mount such a sophisticated reading of the game. But that dissonance was caused less by the game as such, and more by Hocking's reading of how the game should have mounted its themes. The most remarkable thing about Bioshock, though (and Hocking was keen to make a similar point himself), is that it is capable of sustaining this kind of critical engagement with theme. It is a sad fact of videogames both then and now that very few manage to get a theme into their story at all, and fewer still manage to get it into the game mechanics, or join the two together. In this respect, the biggest flaw in Bioshock that Hocking reveals is that we weren't doing very well at bringing theme into games - and in that regard, it is worth pointing out that we still aren't. That Hocking's piece is remembered for coining 'ludonarrative dissonance' and forgotten for an insightful critique of narrative design that is still just as relevant today is both slightly tragic, and also entirely unsurprising.

However, I can go further in usurping Hocking's discussion. In suggesting that an aspect of what went wrong in Bioshock was that the player lacked a choice, Hocking reveals a likely cause of his dissonance: the assumption that player choice is an essential missing link in bridging the gap between a game story and the game systems. This, I would suggest, is what might be called the scriptwriter's fallacy - that the power of a videogame story lies in the choices that are not available to a screenwriter in other media. I would counter this claim the same way I did in my blog-letter to Caroline Marchal and John Yorke, Beyond Choice in Game Narrative: that screenwriters perpetually overestimate the importance of choices, and as a consequence all too frequently offer meaningless choices that the writer has effectively pre-empted, instead of engaging with the turbulent depth of game's capacity for narrative where the player can take the story where the developer cannot hope to anticipate. Contra the scriptwriter's fallacy, it is precisely the narrative power of plays, books, and films that the participant cannot change how the story ends. Whenever games stories are created solely with the toolkit of the screenwriter, the result is not greater artistic possibility, but far less.

In this serial, I hope to clarify Hocking's concept of 'ludonarrative dissonance' by replacing it with a more general concept - that of game dissonance. I view this substitution as essential, because in so much as 'ludonarrative dissonance' is a valid conceptual apparatus, it is only so because of the screenwriter's fallacy. In short, there is not and cannot be a fundamental and inescapable disconnect between games and stories of the kind 'ludonarrative dissonance' is usually evoked to explain, firstly because stories are themselves a kind of game (a point I made at length in Imaginary Games and will not be recapping here), and secondly because game dissonance occurs in so many other contexts that the few times it occurs between the narrative systems and the other elements of a game design cannot be taken as anything more than a special case of a much more general conceptual framework for understanding the aesthetic flaws of games.

Those that contend that games and stories are radically different entities and that therefore ludonarrative dissonance is the inevitable consequence of trying to tell conventional stories in videogames have too narrow a view of games. Very few experienced Games Masters would suggest that there was an insuperable gap between the game mechanics and the narrative of a tabletop role-playing game, and when there is it is because the rules break with the world of the game, not because the story intrudes upon the game systems. This is an essential clue that the only reason 'ludonarrative dissonance' feels like an appealing concept is because of resistance to the colonisation of games by screenwriters. This resistance is well-intentioned. But it should not be couched in terms of opposition to game stories.

The problem is not, and never has been, that stories and games are different things - they're not. As Ian Bogost already made clear back in 2009, they are both structured systems, one (in his terms) of rules and the other of narration. The problem was never between stories and games, but almost always between the stories that game developers can make, and the stories that screenwriters can make. If a game has strong narrative design, there will be no dissonance, 'ludonarrative' or otherwise. Besides, as this serial aims to make clear, the problem of game dissonance has nothing to do with stories at all - but it has everything to do with player practices.

Next week: The Aesthetic Flaws of Videogames


Game Mechanics vs Player Practices

ASWD vs Arrow KeysDear Pablo,
You asked earlier this week how game designers define 'game mechanic' and how you differentiate it from 'game system'. And this is an interesting question, for a number of different reasons, not least of which is historical.

'Game mechanic' and 'game system' are terms that have a history, and it is 'game system' that appears to be the older term, or at least, the term to have come into common currency sooner. Already, by 1974, Dungeons & Dragons talks about its "combat system", Frank Metzner's War Machine in 1984's Companion rules is a "mass combat system" – even Chainmail in 1971 talks of "The Move/Counter Move System", "two systems of movement" etc. In fact, the concept of a 'game system' is completely an artefact of the tabletop wargame scene that was driven forward to a huge degree by Avalon Hill, and that went onto influence videogames more than is usually acknowledged – not least of all via Dungeons & Dragons, the influence on videogames I've discussed many times, including in Imaginary Games.

Some time around the early 2000s, it became fashionable for videogame designers to start arguing about 'game mechanics', and for game studies academics to begin vaingloriously trying to define this term once and forever. Miguel's "Defining Game Mechanics" shows the problem exquisitely – he can explain at great (and beautifully precise) length what the problem is with 'game mechanics', but his solution is to propose yet another definition, a strategy with failure built-in. Also, neither Miguel nor anyone else has been able to show where the term 'game mechanic' came from, or how it became so widespread. However, I can find reference to 'game mechanics' in a 1973 edition of Simulation and Games, a 1979 edition of Games and Puzzles, and its successor The Gamer. In other words 'game mechanic' is also a tabletop game term.

And that's where and why it all goes wrong for everyone trying to 'fix' game mechanic as a term. Because both 'game mechanic' and 'game system' are concepts from tabletop game design where rules are explicated in written form by necessity. It is a 'game mechanic' in D&D that the D20 is used to resolve a percentile hit chance with 5 percentile increments, and this is part of the 'game system' for combat resolution. It is arguably a 'game mechanic' that pluses on weapons add to both to hit and damage – a mechanic consisting of a great many rules, not all of which appear along with the combat system in the rulebooks. In other words, for a tabletop game, everyone saying 'a game system' is made of 'game mechanics' (bonus points if you spot that 'game mechanics' are also made of 'rules') is continuing the practices of tabletop game design that flourished in the 1960s and reached a turning point in the 1970s – just in time for videogames to join the party and make everything much more confusing!

So the root problem with 'game mechanics' and 'game systems' applied to videogames is that we are applying these terms solely by analogy almost all of the time. Sometimes that analogy goes deeper – when I write a Game Design Document (GDD) for a client, it will be organised into chapters that are conceptually game systems, but nothing inside that design is something I would usually point out as a game mechanic in any formal sense. Conversely, Raph Koster is much happier using the concept 'game mechanic' in his design thinking, but he has a clear conceptual framework that guides his use of this term - and as comments at his blog repeatedly reveal, not one that transfers without friction to other designers! Historically, 'game mechanics' is shorthand for something akin to 'clusters of rules serving a single representative game purpose' in tabletop games. And while some videogames directly parallel tabletop designs, and therefore retain a meaningful sense for 'game system', few if any are specified in actual written rules, because this is not how videogame design proceeds.

So how does videogame design actually proceed? Well, as ever, there are multiple ways of describing what goes on, but I'm just going to focus on how I deal with this problem, as discussed in my DiGRA paper "No-one Plays Alone" (inspired by a brilliant argument I had with Dan Cook!) and explored further with the inestimable assistance of the good and excellent José Zagal in "Game Design Lineages: Minecraft's Inventory". My approach is to recognise that what anchors all the different game design processes are player practices – the things that players learn to do repeatedly. Many of our player practices began as rules, mechanics, or systems in tabletop games – the player practice that you grind for experience points to level up and gain in power, for instance, comes directly from the XP system of D&D. Many other player practices were built up and maintained by the specific design opportunities afforded by videogames. All these player practices form lineages that intersect but also proceed very conservatively… just look at that analysis of inventories in the second paper for a great example!

Most game designers and game studies academics seem to think player practices are an unnecessary abstraction. I don't. Player practices are the real habitual foundation of games and game design; it is 'game mechanic' and 'game system' that are largely abstractions of convenience. They are relevant and useful only as long as they can be applied – which is to say, only with complete confidence when there are written rules. This is always the case at the tabletop, and is sometimes the case with videogames, especially if the game designer has a background at the tabletop and therefore writes their GDDs in the style of a rulebook, or when a coherent conceptual framework allows the terms to be used with local precision. In all other cases, you can invent a set of rules as a mental model for what's going on… but it's always going to be a post-hoc justification for taking the analogies with tabletop design further than ought to be comfortable.

Videogames do not usually invent new 'rules' as such, although they are sometimes conceived of in terms of 'game systems', and 'game mechanics' are solely a way of picking out an arbitrary aspect of the game for discussion in isolation, usually held together by a common representational purpose, or else centred upon the player's choices (also a concept coming to us from the tabletop!). What videogames always do, however, is iterate player practices. Watch the evolution of arrow keys to ASWD and mouse look between Dungeon Master and Half-Life via Quake and you're watching actual changes to actual player practices, reflected in the games being made and how they are being played, none of which involves a 'game mechanic' in the sense that this term was being used in tabletop design, let alone a 'game system' – even though I would have the greatest sympathy for anyone who said that the ASWD and mouse look scheme was a control system because, frankly, that analogy is easy to follow.

Every year, a horde of really interesting videogames die a commercial death because the people making them forgot that new players did not know anything about how their otherwise wonderful game worked. Instead of taking a set of existing player practices and putting a new twist upon them, they invent new player practices from whole cloth… and then few if any players put in the effort required to learn how to play. We don't even provide manuals ('rulebooks') any more to make the learning any easier! Players are dumped into a new videogame with just their prior habits to rely upon – which is why thinking in terms of player practices eliminates in one simple step myriad close-to-hopeless commercial paths in game development. If you don't know any of the player practices your eventual audience has already learned, your project is already in serious trouble! More likely, you know it so well you don't even think about it, precisely because player practices are habitual.

The videogames that succeed combine and iterate player practices to create new experiences – nothing in Fortnite is 'new' except the specific combination of practices each season brings to bear, rooted on practices raided and inherited from elsewhere. Minecraft's core player practices, including its inventory, are inherited from a grand tradition of prior games that also participated in those practices. And all these player practices are sustained in videogames because code and assets were created by developers who had learned the player practices and could create new videogames that reproduced them. Sometimes they did so thinking about 'game mechanics' and 'game systems'… but regardless of how they described what they did – they took the existing player practices, and developed them into a new videogame.

That's the game we play as game designers – and it's a game with a long history.

Many thanks for kicking off this discussion,

Chris.

In response to Pablo J. Gorigoitia's tweet on Monday 29th June 2020.


Guild vs Houses: 2-player co-op for Splendor

SplendorHere at ihobo, we rather enjoy a quick game of Splendor, and we're always looking for new ways to play. Since we also love co-op games, it did not take us too long to experiment with a co-operative version of the game.

Guilds vs Houses is a variant for the popular boardgame in which 2 players (the Houses) attempt to defeat an automated opponent (the Guild), who plays by a unique set of rules, described below.

 

Rules of Play

  1. Set up the game exactly as you would for 3 players (i.e. remove two chips from each stack except the gold). Set up the turn sequence so that both of the Houses (human players) take their turns before the Guild.
  2. When the Guild takes its turn, it acts according to the rules described below.
  3. Players combine their victory points and compete against the Guild to be the first to reach 20 victory points.

 

The Guild

The following rules govern the Guild's actions:

  1. Splendor SequencePurchase Lowest Numbered Development Card: The Guild purchases the development card in the lowest numbered slot it can afford (counting top left Rank III card as the #1 position and the bottom right Rank I card as #12, i.e.top left, to bottom right)
  2. Else, One of Each Gem Token: If the Guild cannot purchase any development cards, it takes one gem token of each kind. If any stacks have run out, the Guild takes one gold token for each gem it would otherwise have received.
  3. Or, All the Gold Tokens: If the Guild already has one of every kind of gem token it takes all the remaining gold tokens instead. Count solely gem tokens for this rule - development cards that contribute gem values do not count. (This will guarantee it can make a powerful acquisition next turn.)
  4. Flip After Three: Once the Guild has three development cards of the same kind, turn one of the zero victory point cards of that kind face down and place it over the other two - this indicates that the Guild may no longer purchase Rank 1 development cards i.e. slots 9 to 12. (This will mean it picks up tokens more frequently, accelerating its buying power.) In the unlikely event that the Guild has no zero victory point cards when it gets three of a particular kind, the lowest value card is flipped over, and its victory points no longer count towards the Guild's score.

The Guild's buying power massively exceeds that of the Houses, but its automated purchasing help balance its performance against the players' collective intelligence, as it seldom makes the 'best' purchase. If the players manage to co-operate, victory is attainable - but it does not take long for the Guild to build up substantial resources if it is left unchecked... The game is especially difficult if all the Noble tiles have similar requirements, and easiest when the Nobles have more distinct requirements. Good luck!

The variant might work with more than 2 players, but it has not been balanced for this - let us know in the comments if you try any variations!