Blending mechanics, aesthetics and story

My recent forays into Steam’s catalogue of indie games has given me a renewed interest in just how games work, and how developers can blend elements of the design process together to ultimately create something greater than the sum of its parts.

Although before I get started, games have got to stop ripping of Professor Layton style puzzles. Puzzle Agent gets a pass on this for actually being good, the rest of you have no excuse.

Now the narrator as a storytelling technique is hardly new, and the ‘support character over an earpiece’ is a favourite for games trying to include exposition without stopping the flow for cutscenes, and it can also allow for building character through the interaction of two or more people. This is everywhere, from Mercenaries to Mass Effect and other games that don’t start with M.

Another trick is to have the character be narrating the story to someone else, like Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones or Metroid: Other M if you want an example of this done badly.

Now, this is all perfectly serviceable in most cases, but what’s serviceable is merely what’s doing a solid yet thoroughly unspectacular job. As some of my recent purchases have shown me, narration can be used as a potent toll for immersion, storytelling and worldbuilding.

Had I mentioned this game before?

The Stanley Parable and Bastion both feature narrators who provide the sole point of exposition and we gain all we known about the game world through what they tell us. Now in the Stanley Parable the narrator was an active, omniscient presence with an agenda and an Old Testament sense of retribution.

In Bastion the narrator is a character within the world itself, and his narration is him telling the story of the Kid’s exploits while explaining what the hell actually happened to the world. This means a couple of things, the narrator is both fallible and prejudiced. Though he can tell us a great deal about the city of Caelondia and the guilds like the Brushers and Menders, while assuring us all this stuff was wonderful and amazing and fantastic he also balks at the mention of the Gods, is largely ignorant of the Ura and will comment on what actions you actually take.

These ‘dynamic narrators’ that interact with the characters and the plot, or are even integral to them, help to bridge the gap between gameplay and exposition. They also allow the developers to pick and choose the perspective you’re given on the gameworld and influence your decisions while you play.

If these examples are making you think of GlaDos from Portal, that’s probably no coincidence on the developer’s part.

It took me forever to realise I had to take the wheel from the schematics

Another technique I was impressed with was making Tiny Bang Story‘s visuals be its gameplay. This isn’t exactly unique, similar things have been done with games like Rez and Children of Eden, and really it in this case it just feels like the most logical extension of the point-n-click concept. That Roman numeral graffiti isn’t decoration, it’s something you can take to complete a clock. Need a spare wheel for that train? Take it off the diagram.

I’ll be the first to admit that Tiny Bang Story far from perfects this technique. It fails to ever really establish that we can do things like this and the lack of text or speech gives it a certain charm, but also means you have to clue into its logic without any assistance.

Another thing of note was that both Puzzle Agent games include instances where you’re lead to believe that this is a perfectly normal puzzle, only for the real world to intrude on it. One puzzle had an FBI Agent catch you as you were working it out, one had some pieces of the puzzle stolen halfway through and more than once Nelson gives up himself because he doesn’t have the information for the puzzle.

They're not kidding

To set up expectations like this and then drop them with an intrusion of logic that works with the narrative and doesn’t cheat you out of anything is not only a great storytelling method, but could also be a great method of covering up where content had to be cut if used cleverly and creatively.

Another thing designers need to start doing is relearn the old JRPG trick of having a character’s abilities be tied into who they are. Final Fantasy IV, VI, VII, IX and X all had good examples of this.

Cthulhu's here to save the day and destroy civilisations, and he's all out of civilisations

I recently saw it to some extent in Cthulhu Saves the World in a way that really left me wishing the game had done more to integrate it. Cthulhu could make enemies insane in battle, which could really help or hinder you. If only the characters had had more differentiated skills rather than just vague archetypes.

A few more things from Bastion, explaining game mechanics with an in-universe reason. To make the game more difficult, you invoke the Gods, who’re pissed at you. The Pike & Revolvers works so well in the wilderness levels because they were used by people who explored and tried to tame those areas. The reason each upgrade level offers you two mutually exclusive options is because they’re alternate forms of the same component. Giving reasons why things are there and how they work might require some extra legwork but it can really enrich what’s otherwise an age old mechanic or story trope.

El-Shaddai looks pwetty

I’ve hardly been able to play every indie game I want, but from my brief foray I can see that this is where the real experimentation is at. Nerds may run comics and Hollywood, but I have a feeling that the business suits and by-the-number developers of the gaming industry will give way to more experimental and visionary people. Look at Catherine or El Shaddai. Hell, look at Kingdom< Hearts‘ complex metaphysics and philosophical aspects.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mitch Allan
    Aug 25, 2011 @ 22:01:11

    Firstly, Catherine. Just…CATHERINE. (Atlus never fail me).
    Also, Kingdom Hearts + Complex Metaphysics = You’re Not Wrong.
    But couple of serious things: I love the way characters’ Jobs are intergrated into the plot in FFX (and other titles but this is where I noticed it most). Instead of ‘Hey, now you can summon Ifrit in battle because…uh, yeah’ and no one reacting – we have the whole ‘OMIGOSH you’re a summoner!?’ and building the entire plot around this character who is usually typecast as ‘the white mage who is your girlfriend’, and really examining how does summoning actually WORK.
    Also, tiny example of blending game mechanics and story that impressed me in Nier (which is sometimes wonderfully weird and sometimes wonderfully awful, so I’m not sure I can say I recommend it; but it’s a personal favourite) was that in the climax of Act I, a major character needs to be sacrificed in a farily unpleasant way to ensure that the rest of the cast survives. This kind of thing has been a million times before in cutscenes, and it can be powerful and tearful and all the rest. But this time, whilst characters are still arguing (‘No, you can’t!’ / ‘But it’s the only way!’) the game stops and asks you to choose. The options are only ‘Do *nasty thing* to *said character*’ or ‘Be annihilated’. Instead of having characters wail ‘It’s our only choice’, the game forces you to accept that by asking you a question that really only has one answer.


  2. jackcalico
    Aug 25, 2011 @ 22:14:21

    Ugh, I wish I could have talked more about The Stanley Parable, but I don’t want to ruin it for people šŸ˜¦ Have you played it yet? You should play it now.


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