Sunday, January 3, 2016

Characterizing a genre

The Spring semester starts in about a week, and with it, my most recent immersive learning project. Ball State's immersive learning program has allowed me to offer several Spring Game Development Studio experiences, but this Spring the project is a little different. The following video describes my motivation for the project:

In the video, I describe Tales of the Arabian Nights and Agents of SMERSH as "narrative-rich games," but the term is not rigorously defined—and I'm not sure it's the best choice of terms either. It was what I came up with last summer, when I originally gave that presentation at THATCamp Indiana 2015. As I began working on a formal course plan for the Spring, I realized I needed to more rigirously define this genre. This will help us to focus our efforts as well as communicate our findings.

I have identified the following necessary characteristics:
  1. Take place in a believable fictional setting. The world of Tales of the Arabian Nights may be unfamiliar to the player, but everything in it is representative of the source material, even if there are contradictions. Agents of SMERSH is similar with its cold war secret agent theme.
  2. Use narrative as the primary feedback mechanism. Raph Koster wrote about how narrative is a feedback mechanism in game design. In Tales of the Arabian Nights, player's reaction choice has two forms of feedback: first, the narrative that describes the outcome, and then any changes to the player's game state (story or destiny points, location, status, wealth level, and treasures). Tales gives the narrative first, and the state change is secondary to it.
  3. Have measurable goals. That is, there is a winning condition: this is a game after all and not just cooperative storytelling. 
  4. Incorporate endogenously meaningful ambiguous decision-making. Along with the previous point, I am borrowing from Keith Burgun's philosophy of games, and his taxonomy of interactive forms in particular. The player in these games must make decisions that are important but without total knowledge, and these decisions have an effect on the game world. To me, one of the most bizarre properties of Tales is how little agency a player really has: decisions are made on very little information, but these decisions are critical to the player's success. This leads to the next characteristic:
  5. Reward players for decision-making that reflects cultural understanding. The knowledge that a player brings to bear on decisions is not just knowledge of in-game systems. If you are playing Tales and you face an Angry Ifrit, and you don't have the Combat skill, and you choose to Fight, it is probably not going to end well. This prediction is not based on my having memorized the Book of Tales, nor knowing how many hit dice an Ifrit has. Rather, I am drawing upon my understanding of Anger, Spirits, Fighting, and probably more. I would like to add that I don't mean the game should set up "right" and "wrong" answers to problems, and there should be unexpected twists, but by and large, the story remains logically consistent—or as logically consistent as you can be when you are allowed to respond to a sudden squall with the "Drink" or "Enter" option. 
There are some characteristics which I have not yet determined to be necessary, beneficial, or merely accidental. Principle among these is whether the game needs to involve multiple players. My inspiration for this project comes from multiplayer games, but perhaps the goals of the project could also be met in a single-player experience. This is an important consideration since building digital prototypes of single-player experiences is generally much easier than supporting multiple players. A few potentially important characteristics follow from the adoption of a multiplayer requirement:
  1. Take place in an explicit, represented virtual space. In both Tales and SMERSH, the fact that the game takes place in space is critical to the gameplay. Originally, I thought this was a necessary characteristic, but consider the Choose Your Own Adventure style of single-player experience. These take place in an implicit viritual space, expressed only in text, yet a player may feel immersed in the environment without maps or tokens. If there are multiple players, an explicit virtual space makes it easier to see (and believe?) that each character is on their own journey, in a way that is unnecessary for single-player experiences. Note that text adventure games have an explicit virtual space, although it may be obfuscated through the user-interface, and we see in classical MUDs that this space was critical for maintaining a sense of space to players.
  2. Players orate narration to each other. Having players read narrative to each other is, in part, a game design trick to keep players involved while it is not their turn, but I think it has a deeper significance here. Oral storytelling is an ancient tradition, and my understanding of the literature (although it's outside my area) is that hearing stories leads to different comprehension than reading stories. Having players read the tales to each other feels practomimetic, subtly turning the players into bards and elders, changing the social and power dynamics. However, I also know of games of Tales of the Arabian Nights being ruined by having low-literacy players—players with poor vocabulary skills who read the narrative poorly or incorrectly, impeding the listeners' understanding of the story.
Taken together, I think we can agree that "narrative-rich game" is not a very expressive moniker for this genre. I am open to suggestions for a new name, and perhaps I will give this as a challenge to the team in the Spring. In any case, these are the characteristics I have identified so far, to set some boundaries around the kind of games we will be investigating in the Spring. I am looking forward to this project, although I admit I am not entirely sure how this will all play out. There are a lot of unknowns, but that's always the case with a research project. Regardless of what we find and how it turns out, I am sure the team and I will have a great learning experience, if nothing else.

1 comment:

  1. After discussing this post with some friends last night, I think I want to modify #4 into something like this: "The primary game mechanic is narrative-based decision-making." I played _Above and Below_ for the first time last night, and it uses a "book of tales" style narrative in a very nice way, but that's not the central element of the gameplay: it is fundamentally a worker management game, with a book of tales thrown in for flavor. By contrast, Tales and SMERSH use this narrative-based decision-making as a central mechanic, and moving around the map is a secondary one. I haven't the time to edit the post or write a follow-up just now, but I didn't want to lose this thought, so a comment to myself it is.