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Balancing Narrative And Gameplay

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Games can be considered to be split up into two types of elements: ludic and narrative. Ludic refers to the gameplay elements and how the player interacts with the game. Narrative refers to the story, objectives, characters etc. Tetris for example is almost purely ludic. In contrast Heavy Rain is heavily narrative.

Most blockbusters tend to be sophisticated in both fields and try and marry the two. In this post I want to talk about points where this marriage can go wrong. I am going to discuss this in five sections:

  • Ludonarrative Dissonance
  • How Players Play
  • How Developers Create
  • What The Player Knows
  • The Character and the Player

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What Did Halo Ever Do For Designers?

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Having finished Halo 4 I decided to go back and play through the original to see if it is as good as I remember. Unsurprisingly it isn’t… but it is still very, very good.

More important though is the influence it has had on games. It has changed the way we view FPS games and has given developers a whole new set of tools to play with. That is why I am going back to it after over a decade.

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A Really Good Press

Despite a recent flurry of invention, in general, the controller is either the primary or only way a player communicates with a game. And yet the way in which we approach control design is often in a “what feels good” way.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach but what I want to do is assemble my knowledge of control schemes and try to understand the process of creating one more explicitly. By making it explicit I hope to speed up the process of finding “what feels good”.

Naturally we need to make something that feels good but I think we can arrive at something that we can intuitively assess much more quickly if we apply explicit understanding, rules and considerations first.

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Ethics and Free-to-Play

In principle there is nothing wrong with F2P. Offering something up for free and allowing people to purchase “added value” after they’ve established whether they like the experience is commendable.

However as the industry seems to be drifting towards F2P as the business model of choice, we (as developers) need to be clear on the pitfalls of the model. If we are not already designing a F2P game we are likely to be very soon. When we do it is important that we are armed with knowledge and tools in order to capitalise ethically on the model.

None of us want an exploitative game on our conscience or CV. None of us want to be called “crack-dealer”. None of us wants to have created a game brought up as an example of a “Skinner’s box”. No-one wants an article in the Daily Mail talking about little Johnny and his mother’s credit card (only avoiding the word “whale” because they don’t know it).

This post is not intended to be an exhaustive list of the pitfalls. It is merely my attempt to get my thoughts on the subject in order.

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Reconciling a Hero’s Journey With A Player’s Autonomy

It’s probably worth sorting out some definitions up front. I’m going to talk about “game” and “story” and they are both big words. I am dealing with them in a narrow sense. When I talk about “story” I am talking about an umabiguous hero’s journey style story. When I talk about a “game” I am talking about a set of mechanics that can be fun without motivation or setting – a set of mechanics that you can enjoy in a greybox with a handful of shapes that represent you.

Recently I have been thinking about story in games and have found depressingly little discussion about what makes a good one. The occasional interesting article such as this seems to be the extent of thought on the subject.

Stories in games for me have been uniformly awful. Even ones held up as best of genre tend to be overwrought and at times hilarious. It seems that the industry is still struggling with how to deal with narrative in a gaming context; how to make a fun set of mechanics and support it through narrative. But if you look at it; essentially all the problems boil down to:

How do you reconcile a hero’s journey with a player’s autonomy?
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