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  • Knowing The Difference Between Time And Progression

    [08.21.18]
    - Gregory Pellechi

  • Progression Hinders Narrative

    Character progression is the biggest hindrance to different storytelling techniques because of the expectation that progression continue to move forward, whatever forward is. Game design is built on this concept of loops, those loops build on one another progressively throughout most games. It's rare to find a game that dismisses those loops or mechanics entirely, reverts to earlier ones, or changes the focus of a particular mechanic. That lack of deviation from the established loops is, unsurprisingly, from the continued insistence that games are about indulging power fantasies.

    What Remains of Edith Finch is one of the few games that takes risks with its gameplay loops and mechanics by tying each to a particular story, thus creating a game that's more of montage or anthology within a frame story. In making a game in this manner, the developer, Giant Sparrow was able to play with time, location and progression because none of it was so scared that it couldn't be changed. Roleplaying games would seem like the perfect type of game to do just this, but by and large they don't change loops entirely when you switch between characters. The Witcher 3 changed up how certain mechanics worked when you played the Ciri sections, but by and large combat was still the same and so were the other gameplay mechanics.

    What we do see in games are ones with linear narratives that play with time, albeit it always in a linear fashion creating a series of loops. Braid, TimeSplitters 2 and Super Time Force all provide variations of this concept. Yet their progression remains linear and ultimately the player is never de-powered. Time in this instance allows a change to the environment but not the player's location with regards to the game world. Nor does it change the abilities of the character or the gameplay loops. Instead it's returning the level to its original state but with some variation in regards to the player, their power and position. The narrative remains linear though.

    We're invested in games, as players, because they task us with changing the world. The world doesn't ask us to change at least not in a manner that isn't considered powerful. We're not asked to reconsider our actions or to seek an alternative method. More often than not the challenge comes from the sheer repetition of set tactics, so we're aspected to reapply the gameplay mechanics in a different order to overcome an obstacle.

    Game development often leaves the narrative as a last minute thought, thus limiting the possibility to explore fractured narratives. That doesn't mean that more complex structures aren't possibility. If you want to learn more about that just check out my episode on Structures of Narrative. But even those variations in how to tell a story are often beholden to the progression created by game designers. And they by and large think in a linear fashion. No offense to any game designers, narratives are generally freer because they're not beholden to systems and can be what they need to be.

    Separating Narrative From Progression

    So it raises the question, what can be done to separate the narrative from progression? We've seen that an anthology approach with entirely separate mechanics is one method. Though the frame story it's wrapped in does still provide a form of progression, and anything that enables the player to count or otherwise plan how they're going to play through sections, levels, characters or mechanics is arguably a form of progression.

    But what if we flip the paradigm of game design on its head, so rather than narrative serving the progression, the progression serves the narrative and with it the mechanics and thus the loops?

    For one, we'd probably get games that resemble Firewatch more than say Pillars of Eternity. All because there might be fewer mechanics, fewer systems for a designer to deal with, beyond the one focused on the narrative. Alternatively, it could focus more on procedural storytelling similar to how Caves of Qud, Rimworld, or No Man's Sky do. Though even these have their systems and forms of progression. And procedurally generated stories still suffer from a lot of issues - not just the ones presented by gameloops, mechanics and progression.

    Story in text form is far more powerful and capable than any other mechanic because of the sheer possibility it presents. The problem with procedural generation in terms of creating interesting stories is the difficulty in tracking variables that then affect the stories generated.

    Computers are great at tracking variables. But in stories variables work both backwards and forwards in terms of the narrative's time and progression. Because we don't inherently know what's come before in a story we can only infer what's occurred. Variables like two characters' relationship with one another, or their actions and choices tell us something about how events happened previously but also give us the audience an expectation for the future.

    Take Darth Vader for example. We learn in Star Wars that he was Obi-Wan Kenobi's student, which implies a shared history there and one where he wasn't always evil or the lapdog of someone else. In The Empire Strikes Back, we learn he's actually Luke's father, Anakin Skywalker. That changes what we know of the past and also implies so much more about the fall of Anakin Skywalker, to become Darth Vader but it sets little in stone. It also creates implications for the future, and in either case the variable of Darth Vader's identity and relation to Obi-Wan Kenobi narrows the possible stories that could be told.

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