Kill It Before it Dies!

It is interesting to see how naturally the topic of video games comes up in connection with violent activities. In reports about a German school shooting, a Final Fantasy game found in possession of the attacker has been connected to his violent nature. And while I certainly will not argue in favor of any validity of these arguments, I do see that there is quite a point in making these connections.

When looking at most games’ core loops, killing seems to be a necessary part of both their mechanics and their theme. This goes even so far that from German magazine PC Games’ list of Top 100 games, only about 19 of them do not include constant killing of other living beings as their core mechanic. And from these 19, at least two still include killing as a core theme in its story. The games without a killing core loop are mostly games that simply cannot include it due to their nature, i.e. sports games or Sim City.

To go even further, some games omit killing, but substitute it with quite a similar mechanic. The Dark Knight in Batman: Arkham Asylum for example swore never to take a life and instead beats his foes to the ground – but, I would argue, this is still a killing mechanic in a sense that its aim is to violently get rid of enemies. The Pokémon games do a similar thing – the situation of a “killed” Pokémon is reversible as it is only “knocked out”, but still the game’s core loop revolves around combat and defeating enemies.

Killing seems to be such a fundamental part of games, that even games with a totally different theme and story (like Bioshock: Infinite) use killing as their core mechanic – almost completely detached from the game’s story. Magic, too, becomes just another means of killing enemies in most games, and thus just another weapon at disposal, instead of a mysterious force that alters reality.

Why do we kill?

And there is absolutely no problem with all that. I perfectly see the reasons for all these decisions. Death is the greatest threat we know in real life. It is, as well, the greatest threat known to players, as the death of the PC (contrary to, for example, the loss of his or her family) translates into game vocabulary: Game Over. Thus, protecting one’s own life as well as one’s play progress is a big motivator (although, in many modern games, this is a pseudo-threat that does not pose any progression loss).

Also, the ability to kill at will is a unique characteristic that differentiates games from real life. The power this ability represents and the feeling of progression as the lines of enemies fall and decrease is a positive feedback that enhances the player’s experience, with the released adrenaline helping the immersion and emotional bonding.

Why not?

What I am arguing about is while there are several good reasons to include killing mechanics in a game, I do not see it being necessary. For the same reasons we see a rather small number of movie characters with a spectacular body count, interactive stories can also be told without the need for killing. Of course, such an established mechanic cannot be simply avoided without further thought. Therefore, other motivators need to be found. An example for this can be seen in social games, where the pressure of keeping up with your friends provides a motivator quite possibly greater than the fear of virtual  death.

As a matter of fact, whole genres have already successfully chosen other mechanics and themes for their core. Puzzle games, even in the hardcore line, have mechanics completely harmless. In games like Portal or Quantum Conundrum, you will not see much killing and violence, at least not against living beings other than the PC. Most point and click adventures also refrain from PCs that kill other persons, as do some survival horror games in the style of Amnesia (where enemies are not even attackable).

Point and Click Adventures also often embrace the possibilities a non-killing PC offers: Their personality can be picked from among a much broader range of characteristics, as it is not necessary for the character to be violent, tough or even able to hold a gun. A shy, cautious, hemiplegic and pacifistic PC suddenly becomes possible, which in turn allows for a great deal of inspiration for possible, plausible, and character-tailored game actions. All the while, the moral of PCs that constantly kill can easily get blurred. It is simply hard to present a character as the good guy when you have made him kill dozens of people before.

So, to sum up my position, I do not argue for removing killing from all games. In fact, it is as rightful a theme and mechanic as it is in every movie, book or song. But what I do say is that we need to come up with different mechanics and themes to mature out of telling stories about but one theme. This way, the range of game themes and game loops will diversify, possibly spawning new genres while doing so. For example, think of an open world fantasy RPG that does not include killing. You would need to step back from hero-saves-damsel-in-distress clichés to reinvent the meaning of a fantasy world in the context of living there instead of killing and looting there. And suddenly, a new game genre could be born.

 

P.S.: L.A. Noire with turned off action scenes comes pretty close to such a new genre, as the core loop of finding clues and interrogating suspects based on their reactions presents a whole new gameplay feel. Without the action scenes, of course, L.A. Noire's open world would be redundant.
P.P.S.: As Ian Bogost points out, Fullbright Company's Gone Home is an example of how a game like Bioshock would look like devoid of its combat. And indeed did it manage to tell a story more mature than most video games, and with an atmosphere quite as thrilling. This might arguably be the genesis of a new genre as well.
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Gameplay Is Narration Is Gameplay

Tying gameplay and narration together is quite a big topic in modern game development. I argue that parting them would actually be the harder task to accomplish, as I feel they are very close at heart. Though it is true that narration is often implemented in a way that differentiates it from gameplay in terms of interaction (controls change or are completely blocked during a major story event), this only refers to narrative content, or embedded narration. While it is generally accepted that its complement, the emergent narration, also exists, few consider it as an equal element of storytelling. Nonetheless, many players derive a large portion of their fun from emergent narration. What compels most long-term players of MMORPGs is the group experience of accomplishing something that they will forever remember as a unique story. This is not a story that the game writers wove into the game, but rather a story that developed from the sum of all game actions and reactions.

When considering not only dialog, cutscenes, and written text part of the narration, but each and every gameplay action – as they are part of the PCs experiences as well – playing itself becomes an act of storytelling. And while I do not argue that games should focus solely on this type of narration distinct to the medium, it should not be forgotten when considering the narrative depth of a game.

This tight connection between narration and gameplay leads to the fact that whenever gameplay emerges, so does narration. Consider a game with a high amount of emergent gameplay, like Civilization V. Though there is almost no embedded narration within the game, the complex interconnections of all game elements spawn story wherever they spawn gameplay. This way, fictitious history can be written, where China threw the A-bomb on the Iroquois in 1895 and Lincoln conquered Mongolia on horseback.

The same is true for the reverse view: Just as gameplay creates narration, narration creates gameplay as well. Storytelling is a huge part of informing the player about gameplay, even if using the more subtle art of environmental storytelling. Not only does narration provide the core gameplay hook for designers, it also forms a fictitious world’s rules that the player can use to think within. This way, he or she is enabled to grasp the game’s rules more easily (provided they are consistent to the game world, of course), enabling him or her to learn to conclude game actions from the narration presented (e.g. learning that groups of enemies in a water pond can be electrocuted together after observing it).

A third conclusion from the co-existence of gameplay and narration is that following a narrative itself can also be gameplay – be it games with narrative gameplay actions like Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead or even just proceeding in the narration itself as in the genre of Visual Novels. These games have no distinctive game mechanics other than those providing means to process through the story. This way, gameplay is actually there just through the existence of interactivity of the story.

And though there are games that keep their narrative dimension almost separate from their gameplay dimension (like most JRPGs and other games with turn-based combats do, as these combats do not represent proper actions in the game’s narration), these games still have emergent narratives, at times even more intense than other genres. Beating Omega Weapon in a Final Fantasy game and developing a strategy for doing so can be a highly emergent narration completely separate from the game’s usual story.

What I am arguing for is that the topics of Game Design and Narration should not be discussed about too far apart, as they inform and rely on one another. Both should be at the heart of a non-puzzle based game, providing the other the best assistance possible and as early as possible – even if they are developed apart from each other.

They will eventually meet.

Lines, Trees, and Clusters

Some of the concepts presented here are partly based on Justin Alexander’s node-based scenario approach to writing Pen & Paper RPG adventures.

Though the industry talks much about interactive storytelling and non-linearity in games, most games available to this day actually still follow pretty linear approaches to leading the player through the game’s environments. And though one might argue that open world games offer freedom of choice, these choices appear to be choices of different linear paths to follow rather than open interconnections. The reasons for this linearity can be manifold, but the most-quoted of them is probably the manageability of linear content. When there is a predefined route for the player to follow there is little doubt that the player will encounter all content placed there for him or her to find. The argument goes that each larger piece of content that will not be encountered during playthrough is lost development time.

What I am suggesting here is that there are two conventional ways to address this problem:

  • Following the linear approach
  • Branching the story into a tree-like structure

And then there is another solution that I clearly prefer above the others:

  • Keeping the story open in a cluster-like environment

Line

A linear story path

A linear story path

In the shown example, each of the squares might stand for a point in a dialog, a place the PC is to visit or an in-game interaction during a quest. For example’s sake, let’s imagine we are talking about a single quest in a fantasy RPG where the player has to find and retrieve an abducted king. The developers prepare six interactions (talking to court members, catching a member of the kidnapper gang, interrogating him, finding the gang’s hideout a.s.o.), and the player will encounter any of these steps, one after the other. The story will appear well prepared, but the replayability is comparatively low due to the lack of diversions the player can take. This makes for 6 interactions (6 per playthrough), 0 choices, 1 way and 1 possible outcome.

Tree

A branching story tree

A branching story tree

To offer players greater freedom, branching decisions are often implemented into games. This results in a tree-like structure that allows for the player to decide at certain points to follow a different path. Players feel more empowered with this non-linear approach, especially when comparing to other players, and replayability is kindled as well. On the downside we have the enormous development cost – the example requires the developers to implement 22 different interactions, but upon each playthrough the player will encounter but four of them. In the said example this could mean that the player can decide between interrogating court members, searching for clues in the king’s bedroom, visiting a seer and so on, with another two critical decisions later on, based on the taken path, but no backtracking. All in all, this makes for 22 interactions (4 per playthrough), 3 choices, 11 ways and 11 possible outcomes.

Cluster

An open story cluster

An open story cluster

Following Justin Alexander’s insights on Pen & Paper RPGs, the next logical step is to open the system up for an almost indefinite number of player choices. Such a clustered approach keeps up the impression of freedom of choice for the player, while having this freedom emerge from the system itself rather than from predefined content. The cluster allows players to freely move between the nodes of the cluster, going back and forth and backtracking as he or she pleases until a defined outcome is reached or it is interrupted by the player. In the fantasy RPG example, this could mean that the player might wander around the court, talk to different people, search for clues and so on. From the gathered information can then be concluded where the hideout of the kidnappers is. This could happen through cutting the hideout-related information up into different parts (like the surroundings – forrest, desert, mountains, – the cardinal direction, and the secret keyphrase to enter) and then have the player uncover only parts of these from each interaction until the information is complete (doubling the pieces and hiding them in different nodes is therefore necessary). The player will maintain full control as to where he or she goes and how the investigations proceed, finally uncovering the truth using his or her very own way of doing so. To sum this up, the Cluster approach will require the designers to come up with 9 interactions (any number of them per playthrough) and an almost indefinite number of choices, ways and outcomes, as all these depend on the player’s decisions throughout the quest.

Conclusion

This post argues that using a cluster-based approach, development cost can be held comparatively low while still providing the player with an interactive and replayable experience depending on his or her playstyle with almost no lost content. Any of these techniques can also be used during a conversation with an NPC – with the Line approach equaling a cutscene, the Tree approach corresponding to usual dialog trees and the Cluster approach providing a technique where (using only a few generic interconnections), topics could be addressed in a freer and more natural way, without endangering the player to have missed a critical branch of the dialog.

Please note that other than in a tree-based approach, the cluster does not withhold any node from the player – he or she can access any node at any given time, provided the correct interconnections are taken. This way, no content is lost to the system, and the better part of the story emerges from the interactivity itself.