The original guide to writing for games returns! Every chapter has been revised and expanded, and there are new chapters covering storytelling for MMOs, urban narrative, interactive script formats, and the different kinds of relationship players can have with a game's story. Available from Bloomsbury now as a paperback, hardback, or ebook!
This is a critique not a review. If you want my review of Shenmue III it would be 'play this game if you have ever enjoyed a Shenmue game or are interested in unusual approaches to game narrative'.
It takes me quite a while to get around to playing games these days, which helps insulate me from jumping to kneejerk conclusions about what I've been playing. I like to have the time to engage in a game in the way that it requires, which isn't something you can do under the time pressure inherent to reviews. Thus, earlier this year, I completed my playthrough of Ys Net's 2019 title Shenmue III. It's a remarkable achievement on many fronts, not least of which is that it managed to pick up a franchise after an absence of a decade and a half and provide a sequel that is entirely in keeping with the aesthetic achievements of its predecessors. Yet many people have complained about the time they spent with Shenmue III, in one extreme instance lamenting that "Shenmue 3 is a Terrible Game and I’ve Wasted My Life".
Gladly will I concede that, as a commercial proposition, Shenmue III has serious problems... but those problems are the ones it inherits from Shenmue itself, and as a game that was funded by a Kickstarter pledging to provide a true sequel to 2001's Shenmue II, objecting that it is too much like the games that preceded it might rather miss the point. Frankly, if the flaws in an artwork are that some people do not like it, this really isn't as knock-down an argument as it may seem. Rather, to appreciate Shenmue III we have to understand why it is the way it is, how it fulfils the promises made by its creators, and why its beautiful closed world has more to teach about game narrative than most of its critics are prepared to allow.
Yu Suzuki's Shenmue series is a work of flawed genius, and it is not for the reasons its creator claims that they stand out in the history of videogame narrative. It's originator gave the original game the clunky genre title FREE, standing for 'Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment', supposedly to show the interactivity and freedom the player would have. Well, interactivity maybe - you can indeed spend hours meaninglessly opening each compartment in every chest of drawers, for instance. But 'freedom' is precisely the opposite of what a Shenmue game is about, and it is all the better as an artwork precisely because it is really quite uninterested in the player's freedom.
Suzuki-san and his colleagues often try to paint this series of games as a precursor to the open world genre. Indeed, in the Kickstarter for Shenmue III, the text expressly tries to make this claim:
Shenmue defied all convention and created the genre that later came to be known as "open world." An unparalleled level of freedom let you chose how you wanted to play.
But this is neither true nor fair. Not only does 1999's Shenmue not foreshadow or influence the open world games of the early 21st century, what it actually does achieve is artistically far more interesting than this claim would suggest. The open world genre crystallises in the Grand Theft Auto franchise, especially after its transition into 3D models from its sprite-based roots. As I have written about before, it is the playground worlds of 1985 (which were never exported to Japan) that influenced GTA, most especially Elite, although I still suspect Paradroid has a part of this tale to tell. Suzuki-san was neither influenced by these titles nor went on to influence the open world lineage that followed.
But so what? The open world genre may have become a commercial powerhouse, and certainly contains a great many games that enjoyed both huge sales figures and critical acclaim. But the open world is a narrative dead end in many respects... brilliant, and still evolving, but also highly limiting and increasingly stagnant creatively. To get stories into open worlds, designers have to seed the huge landscapes with signposts that push to set piece encounters, a technique I have compared to 'plot origami'. From a game design perspective, this is often brilliant - both Witcher 3 and Breath of the Wild have shown the immense appeal this can have when it is done well.
Yet the open world is a format that is fundamentally limited when it comes to characters. Precisely because the worlds are so large, characters either remain locked into a geographical slot they inhabit, or have to haunt the landscape as ghosts who can appear only when they need to miraculously reveal themselves to the player in order to advance the storyline. As a result, the open world's fevered desire to satisfy the player's desire to 'do anything' always risks becoming narratively flat... whatever interesting aspects of Breath of the Wild story I might have picked out in Zelda Facets, it cannot change the fact that the moment-to-moment activities the player pursues are basically a kind of bizarre subsistence hunter-gathering, collecting durians, horses, and weapons to fund the player's role as an itinerant trouble-maker.
Shenmue III is not an open world. Nor should it have been, because neither of its predecessors are either. This is most obviously apparent in the fact that each game consists of two different 'village' locations, as opposed to having 'dungeons'. This split into village and dungeon dates all the way back to the tabletop and Dungeons & Dragons, and was picked up by Ultima and Wizardry, and so spread into videogames. There are no dungeons in a Shenmue game, only villages - and each episode is about two such villages (although the second episode foreshadows the village that will feature at the start of part three). If Shenmue III were an open world game, you would be able to return to Bailu village from Niaowu. But you cannot. Once you leave Bailu village, the story has moved on and you have moved on with it. Shenmue III is a closed world.
Being a closed world affords enormous advantages for narrative in games. Precisely because an open world game features a vast landscape, the depth of conversation you can have with characters is necessarily curtailed. Open world games often do a great job hiding how shallow its cardboard cut-out characters are with lively dialogue and quips, but fundamentally every open world game saves its interesting characters for those narrative 'ghosts' who the player cannot access on demand, and populates the rest of the world with convenient stereotypes. Yes, you can run over anyone you like in Liberty City or San Andreas, and you can kill a bokoblin all over Hyrule. What you cannot do is learn anything about these characters, because they are not really characters in the literary sense at all. They are props to make the playground seem lived in, like the woman in the princess costume at Disneyland.
Precisely because it is a closed world, Shenmue III can be about place in a way that no open world game can manage. That's because human places - villages, towns, cities - are about the people that live there, whereas videogame places - inns and shops, dungeons and secret bases - are about the loot the player can steal and the advantages the player can eke out of them. To be fair, there's a little of that in Shenmue III as well - it is still a videogame after all! - but by building these games around pairs of 'villages', each Shenmue game evokes a sense of place that is rooted in the people who live in these places, and complemented by the player's character, Ryo, who is much more than just a blank slate like, say, the Master Chief. On the contrary, how much you enjoy playing Ryo will depend upon how much you are willing to become Ryo.
Here we come to the biggest complaint levelled against Shenmue III by its detractors: the kung fu fighting isn't good enough. But this is paradoxically not a game about kung fu fighting at all. Indeed, when you fight in the major battles, you will not use any of the skills you have practiced up until that point, because victory in these set pieces is determined by QTEs i.e. Quick Time Events, which is to say preset button sequences. Shenmue did, alas, invent the QTE, although the 1983 arcade game Dragon's Lair had already pioneered the form (and for detractors such as myself, shown how tedious it could be). If I have warmed to them over the last forty years, it is only thanks to the efforts of Shenmue... and I am still quite frosty about them.
In so much as it is about kung fu at all, Shenmue III is a game about practicing kung fu. This is not about the freedom to go and beat the living daylights out of ten thousand cardboard cutout characters creating the illusion of a city, this series is partly-yet-significantly about Ryo's restless youth gradually coming to terms with the commitment and patience required to master a martial arts. Thus the player is asked and expected, in every game in the series, to spend a significant part of their time performing repetitive actions to master the individual moves, or the elements of their form. Thus in the original Shenmue I spent a part of every day repeating sweeps and kicks, because as a game-player I wanted the advantage of levelling up those moves.
By Shenmue III, while that carrot still dangles, my engagement with the training exercises such as Horse Stance and One Inch Punch is practically meditative. Yes, as a player I am conditioned to want to complete my bars and gain higher levels. But as a visitor to this world, I am choosing to train at the dojo high in the mountain so I can watch the clouds drift lazily across the mountains as I do so, immersed in the beauty of this world which is categorically not reducible to polygon counts. So effective is the game at getting the willing collaborator into this state that it is possible, as happened to me, to be sad when the training exercises are completed, and no more points can be earned. The game has made me into Ryo, and given me the slightest taste of his impatience along with a parallel yet opposite flavour of what it means to practice a real martial art (or, for that matter, any other art): patience and commitment.
In this regard, it is a design flaw of the combat system in Shenmue III that you can assign moves to controller shortcuts and therefore execute them effortlessly. Having spent hours mastering the control inputs during sparring, we really ought to be tasked with executing those moves ourselves, not handing them off to an automated surrogate. I imagine this was a design decision intended to support weaker players, but since all the moves power up, even a button-masher who persists can get by without being able to execute the stronger moves. Letting them be triggered by an all-too-convenient shortcut control undercuts the focus upon training that suffuses the player's experience. I am almost ashamed that I made use of this feature at all, and if I play the game again, I will certainly try to avoid doing so.
So much is Ryo's kung fu training foregrounded in the game, that one of my favourite characters turned out to be someone who has really quite a peripheral role in the story: Su Zixiong. This jocular, overweight tai chi (taijiquan) instructor is found at the village square on the edge of Bailu village every day, training the young children in their moves. When Ryo meets him, he declares himself preposterously to be the Lu Bu of Bailu village, referencing the unbeatable warrior of the legendary Three Kingdoms era of China. Pressed on the topic, he admits to being more of the Zhang Fei of Bailu village - another legendary figure from the Three Kingdoms, and one that is a slightly more honest fit to this character, for all that it maintains a self-aggrandisement that is both harmless and charming in its excess.
Every day, I went to spar with Su Zixiong (although I think his name ought to be Zixiong Su...), even though he is a deeply minor character in the plot. My primary motivation for acquiring new move scrolls was not to learn new moves (I didn't need a wide range of moves in any Shenmue game), but to have something new to practice while sparring with my friend in town, since he declines to spar if you have nothing to learn. That I was able to form a surprisingly robust relationship with such a peripheral character could be dismissed as merely a quirk of my personality. But I do not think so. It speaks to precisely why the closed world of Shenmue III works: it is full of interesting peripheral characters, so many that whoever the player bonds with really is up to them. No open world can claim this, because the major characters are 'ghosts' who appear only when the plot requires them. Shenmue III offers a greater sense of place than almost any other game you might choose to mention.
I adored my time in Bailu village, which is among the most beautiful villages in any videogame to date, and easily my favourite settlement of the six to feature across the Shenmue series. I was literally saddened to leave, and as the plot inexorably pushed me to the point of 'have you done everything you want to do here...?' I found myself wanting to tarry longer in Bailu, to spend more time fishing her streams and lakes, to continue my training in her mountains - even though I could not, because I had acquired all the available move scrolls, and maxed out the bars for my training exercises. The game conspires through its design to force you to co-operate with its plot voluntarily, an extremely clever trick that perhaps is difficult for most gamers to appreciate.
There was another reason I did not want to leave Bailu: Shenhua's house. It is your home in Bailu for the entirety of your stay, and I found myself becoming absurdly attached to it. Not as a mere building, as I had done with the house Link purchases in Breath of the Wild, but as a genuine home. For to my surprise, I wanted to talk to Shenhua when I came home every night, even though the conversations were pointless if judged in terms of game benefit or plot advancement. As someone who has to write videogame dialogue as part of my job, I have very little patience for the so-so conversations most games have to offer. Many a time do I find myself clicking impatiently through weak dialogue. This never happened with Shenhua. I wanted to talk to her - I wanted to learn not only about her, but about Ryo through her.
One remarkable moment in my nightly discussions with my host came when I was given another strictly meaningless choice about how to respond to something Shenhua had said about her quite literally unbelievable ability to speak with animals. I made my comment, and clearly caused offense with my (and Ryo's) down-to-earth scepticism. I wanted to take it back, but I did not, not least of all because reloading the game was pointless (this conversation did not have plot consequences) and would not in fact undo the choice I had made anyway. The very fact that I even considered reloading to undo a 'meaningless' choice reveals the depth of meaning these conversations had to me.
The game is rather less successful with its second area, Niaowu, which although enjoyable suffers from not being able to include quite enough passers by to really capture the sense of a busy market town in rural china. Don't get me wrong, there is a great deal of character to Niaowu, with its vast array of shops - and Shenmue's signature capsule machines ("I love those!") - giving the player many corners to poke and prod. But I enjoyed learning about the herbs and plants of Bailu far more, and although you can still find these in Niaowu they have lost a certain part of their resonance in the market town, where the shops and their shopkeepers are far more crucial to the spirit of the settlement.
There is so much more I could say about the closed world - or perhaps, closed worlds, Bailu and Niaowu being quite distinct - of Shenmue III but let me close this critique with a reflection of the role that time plays in the player's experience, and the tension it reveals with the expectations of gamers. A great many players complained that you could not skip ahead, just as I know many players bitched about being forced to work the forklifts in the original game. This could not be further from the spirit of Shenmue. Just as Ryo is asked to learn patience, so is the player. While as a commercial decision, skipping time would be justified, the entire issue is parallel to the way that the quick travel of Breath of the Wild guts the brilliant horse riding of its joy and wonder. It is precisely because you will frequently have time to spare that you will find yourself playing pachinko, or dropping coins into capsule machines, fishing, or working the docks. Not out of the love of money or the other game currency, XP, but for what that XP is named after: the experience.
Likewise, those who complain that this should have been used to tie up the storyline and give players some closure are missing the point. Ys Net did not promise to conclude the story with this Kickstarter, they promised to make another Shenmue game. If this game had ended the story, they would have failed to have done so. This desire from players was in tension with the spirit of the Shenmue franchise, which is neither as swift nor as impatient as most players of games have become. On the contrary, in not only bringing back Shenmue II's delightful rogue Ren but in establishing both him and Shenhua as companions on Ryo's adventure, the game escapes the very real risk of being just a super-polite, gently paced version of Herge's intrepid boy adventurer Tintin. On the contrary, Ryo is so much more than just 'Japanese Tintin', precisely because he is Ryo.
Shenmue III invites us, once again, to become Ryo. How much you enjoy that experience depends to a great extent on how much you are willing to be Ryo, to endlessly train for fights you won't actually have, to talk and to listen to strangers who may yet become friends, and to obsessively drop coins into a capsule machine in the hope of that one rare drop. This is not, despite Suzuki-san's protestations, a game about the player's freedom, for you are not free, just as the world is not open. On the contrary, you are constrained throughout by the invitation to become Ryo, and if you accept that invitation you will find yourself in a beautiful closed world of surprisingly vivid characters who inhabit a place that transcends the usual limitation of videogame villages: the world is there for you to discover, and is not merely a pile of resources for you to loot and pillage. Ryo's adventure is not over, and even if there never will be another Shenmue game, it is inescapably appropriate that Shenmue III ends once again on 'tsuzuku' (to be continued) not 'owari' (the end). It is far more wonderful that the narrative tree that is Shenmue was given another chance to blossom.
Is Mario's secret power to lower dissonance...? You ask interesting questions about how and why Mario is able to star in so many different kinds of games - from the bizarre pseudo-medical puzzle game Dr. Mario to the arcane sewing simulator I Am A Teacher: Super Mario Sweater, there does seem to be almost no concept that cannot be made to work with Mario as its centrepiece. By contrast, you point out there is no Doom Space Marine Tennis... and that does gesture at a limiting factor in Mario's promiscuity: there will never be a Super Mario Massacre game in which a gun-toting Mario and Luigi murderize hordes of enemies in a splatterfest of gore - and as your chosen juxtaposition highlights, there is a sense in which what is going on with Mario is that Nintendo have claimed everything outside of what the traditional gamer's vision of 'what videogames are' by having Mario come and plant his red flag. There are subtle points here worth exploring.
Many thanks for your engagement with the Game Dissonance serial in your blog-letter Layered Dissonance in Video Games. Our continued correspondence is a recurring blessing, especially since I can become quite discouraged when no-one is engaging with me on the topics that have drawn me in, and I have always been either in tension with or in exile from (take your pick) the mainstream academic communities - although I am increasingly convinced that standard academic discourse is not founded upon engagement, per se, and is rather a way for us insular nerds to satisfy their own desire to feel clever while being removed from any conversation that might have any impact upon how things are.
Before unlocking the mystery of Mario's secret power, I must push back against your use of 'theme' to mean 'setting'. This is certainly not your fault or responsibility! Boardgame geeks (primarily in the US by my reckoning) set up this use of 'theme' in games that has both stuck and spread - despite mildly disastrous consequences in terms of keeping games of all kind outside of the 'serious art' clubhouse. The problem is that 'serious art' considers theme to be an essential quality of narrative artworks - it is what a story is about. Thus while War and Peace has as its setting the 1812 invasion of Russia by Napoleon, its themes are about spirituality and suffering. 'No theme, no entry' is the door policy on the 'serious art' clubhouse. So identifying 'theme' with setting not concepts helps keep games (of all kinds) excluded from consideration for serious art. Which is doubly unfortunate, since there is an enormous volume of great artworks that are not serious (Duchamp's Fountain, for instance), which makes me wonder what's really going on inside that clubhouse...
You imply in your letter (and state explicitly in a short exchange we had by email) that you think videogames are better able to transition between settings than other media. I am not at all convinced of this. I suspect what makes this seem like a credible claim is tied up with why we ended up with 'theme' meaning 'setting' in the first place - namely, the association of 'game' with the patterns in the systems of play. Thus we can call Destiny and Phantasy Star Online 'the same game' despite being set in very different worlds, and switching a fantasy setting for science fiction does not break the sense of sameness between Terraria and Starbound.
But the same is eminently possible with other artworks, especially narrative artworks. Shakespeare's plays are routinely (and often quite excellently) transplanted from one setting to another without changing the plot, characters, or dialogue - consider, as only one example, the transplanting of Richard III from the 15th century to an alternative history 1930s fascist Britain in the 1995 film of the same name, directed by Richard Loncraine and starring Ian McKellan. Indeed, the Royal Shakespeare Company has thrived in recent decades upon finding ingenious settings to transplant these plays into. In my mind, this is a sign of greater transplantability of content in literature than in games, which are actually severely constrained by their systems. As I have said before, whatever setting you attach to Chess, the game will remain a representation of conflict. If there is a sense in which games are more transposable, however, it is because those systems are always dealing with pawns and not personalities; it is thus easier to house a game system in a new setting than to find a new way of mounting Richard III, because there are fewer interdependencies in game systems than in narrative systems.
Which brings us to Mario's superpower, namely to star in all manner of games provided none of them are serious. I cannot help but point out that this is also a power possessed by all cartoon characters - how many different settings has Bugs Bunny participated in...? Indeed, Mario is to Nintendo what Mickey Mouse used to be to Disney, before they discovered princesses were even more marketable than that ugly freak of a rodent. Thus I would suggest the power to reduce dissonance that you attribute (half-jokingly) to Mario, might perhaps be better understood as a power possessed by the cartoon setting to inherently transcend all other settings, to move between them for comedic purposes without ever breaking our engagement. It is something we have seen reach a kind of zenith with The Simpsons, Shrek, and other cartoons that smash together material from everywhere into a single semi-coherent world. Here, as elsewhere, our expectations - the habits we have picked up by participating in prior narrative practices - are precisely the limiting factor as to what we can get away with, and in cartoons it seems that what we can get away with is basically everything!
Many thanks for engaging with the Game Dissonance serial, and I look forward to exchanging further ideas with you in the near future.
Until next time,
Comments and further blog-letters are always welcome!
International Hobo is proud to announce the imminent publication of its long-awaited second edition of Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, the original 'how to' guide for game writers. Here's the blurb from the back of the book:
As the videogame industry has grown up, the need for better stories and characters has dramatically increased, yet traditional screenwriting techniques alone cannot equip writers for the unique challenges of writing stories where the actions and decisions of a diverse range of players are at the centre of every narrative experience. Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames was the first book to demystify the emerging field of game writing by identifying and explaining the skills required for creating videogame narrative.
Through the insights and experiences of professional game writers, this revised edition captures a snapshot of the narrative skills employed in today's game industry and presents them as practical articles accompanied by exercises for developing the skills discussed. The book carefully explains the foundations of the craft of game writing, detailing all aspects of the process from the basics of narrative to guiding the player and the challenges of nonlinear storytelling. Throughout the book there is a strong emphasis on the skills developers and publishers expect game writers to know.
This second edition brings the material up to date and adds four new chapters covering MMOs, script formats, narrative design for urban games, and new ways to think about videogame narrative as an art form. Suitable for both beginners and experienced writers, Game Writing is the essential guide to all the techniques of game writing. There's no better starting point for someone wishing to get into this exciting field, whether they are new game writers wishing to hone their skills, or screenwriters hoping to transfer their skills to the games industry.
Game Dissonance was a three part serial that re-positioned the concept of 'ludonarrative dissonance' as merely a specific case of cognitive dissonance in the context of games, and explored the ways that games can trigger - and avoid - dissonance. The serial ran from September 30th to October 14th 2020. Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the “next” links to read on.
The three parts are as follows:
If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment!
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.
When 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!
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.
When 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
What 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
You never quite know what's going to pick up momentum on social media - ihobo founder Chris Bateman's tweet about the advice he gives to people wanting to improve their game writing and narrative design skills was just an offhand remark, but it seemed to resonate with a lot of people working in the games industry!
You came up with a fantastic story, but when you came to put it into the game you discovered the players hated it. Why? The answer could be that while conventional narrative techniques can be applied to videogames, what works in linear media seldom holds together when you put a player into the key role. When you work on game stories, you don't just need a writer – you also need a narrative designer. The title 'narrative designer' was created by International Hobo Ltd in 2001 to describe the unique challenges of combining game design and writing in the context of game stories. Since then, the term has spread out into the games industry – but there is still little understanding among writers from other media as to what narrative design is or why games cannot deliver great stories without it. This crash course in narrative design from the people who coined the term will open your eyes as to how great game stories are not just written, they are also designed.
Tickets are available from Eventbrite.
This Saturday (10th November) at 12:15 pm GMT, ihobo’s founder Chris Bateman is giving a talk at AdventureX entitled The Secret of Game Narrative. The event is being streamed live on Twitch. We hope you’ll join us for this special talk about the unique ways that videogames create and subvert traditional narratives.
12:15 pm GMT, Saturday 10th November 2018.