Musings on Game Plots

Alan Tew made an interesting observation on his LittleBot Studios blog: that the plot of escaping enslavement lends itself especially well to the video game medium. This led me to wonder what other sorts of plots might also lend themselves well to the medium, and I decided to do my musing here. This will be more rambling than normal, since I’m basically writing my thoughts as they come…

Why does the plot of escaping enslavement work so well? Alan mentions what he calls the “emotional mirror:” when the emotions of the player and the protagonist he controls coincide. This is a good point but I’m not sure it fully explains what works about this plot in games.

Both BioShock and Portal are played in a first-person perspective. I don’t know how much BioShock does to sort of enforce the protagonist’s emotions, but I know Portal does basically nothing along those lines: the player’s avatar is an extension of the player. This seems like an important point, since anything the story might induce its protagonist to feel must affect the player as well, and that “emotional mirror” is how the narrative works. The player is the protagonist, about as directly as is possible.

Really, for any plot to lend itself well to the game medium, it must embrace the fundamental nature of that medium. The plot of escaping enslavement works because it acknowledges that the player is limited in what he can do within the game world and provides the illusion of breaking free from those limitations. It works hand in hand with the learning curve of a game, with the player slowly gaining mastery and then being able to use that mastery to poke holes in the system. That’s something I think many players enjoy and try to do to some extent in every game, and the way the escape plot embraces it makes it resonate in a way that other stories don’t.

So what about the medium of games uniquely affects how stories work? Questions of immersion, like an aversion to invisible walls and unbreakable paper doors, are tangential to the discussion of what kinds of plots work best in games, so I’ll leave those aside for now. Let’s see…

  • Games are artificial worlds of rules created by game designers.
  • Players can’t be directed as actors or characters in novels can be. Players are independent, though they have some obvious motivations:
    • Exploration: to learn what is possible within the world of the game. Not what is on the map, for the most part, but what cool things they can do or find, what cool interactions they can have with the world.
    • Exploitation: to use what they’ve learned to gain an advantage.
    • Mastery: to complete the game’s objectives.
  • Players can’t be forced to care. Of course, readers can’t with novels either, but it seems like an especially large hurdle when that likely ambivalent person is the protagonist. And fiction readers want to invest their emotions, while that isn’t often much of a motivation for people to play games.

Stories fundamentally have a beginning, middle, and end, as do narrative-based games. The parts (beginning, middle, end) of a story, though, are not the same as the parts of the game, even when talking about the story for that game. The parts of a story are generally something like:

Beginning: establish conflict
Middle: escalate conflict
End: resolve conflict

while the parts of a game are more like:

Beginning: establish and begin learning rules
Middle: apply and master rules
End: complete final objective

Put that way, it seems like while stories tend to build to a climax, games seem more inclined to peter out at the end, becoming less challenging and more repetitive as the learning levels off. Maybe this means that games are just too long? Perhaps the first thing to do to come up with a more “pure” alignment of game and narrative is to adjust the structure of the game to be something more like this:

Beginning: establish rules
Middle: learn rules
End: master rules

Of course creating rules that are “easy to learn but hard to master” is much, much easier said than done, and that’s not really the point in a narrative-based game anyway. Many well-designed games, like World of Goo, Portal, Braid, and many others, introduce new applications of their rules (new rules, effectively, but it’s easier to distinguish them by calling them new tools) throughout the game so that there is always something new to learn and master, and full mastery doesn’t really come until the end. That may be the closest we can reasonably expect to get to the above structure:

Beginning: establish rules
Middle: master application of rules, add new tool, repeat
End: master application of final tool

This actually lines up really well with the structure of a story, which could be written:

Beginning: establish main conflict
Middle: move toward resolution of conflict, establish new conflict or dilemma in main one, repeat
End: resolve main conflict

So if the story aligns the conflict with the rules of the world, and each new rule introduced is associated with and/or accompanied by a new conflict or dilemma in the main conflict, the story and game will complement each other well. This seems like kind of a rambling digression, but I think it relates. If there are no new rules to add, the story and the gameplay should both race toward the finish line.

Keeping these things in mind, then, what plots (conflicts) could work especially well in games? Hmm…

  • Escape from Manipulation
    Beginning: enslavement/manipulation established; rules established
    Middle: new manipulations; learning and new tools
    End: enslavement/manipulation broken, possibly revenge; rules mastery
  • Treasure Hunt
    Beginning: need for treasure established; rules for exploration established, first environment introduced
    Middle: new clues; clues lead to new environments and/or new tools
    End: treasure found; final environment explored
  • Mystery
    Beginning: question established; rules for exploration established
    Middle: new clues; clues lead to new questions and/or new tools (could be witnesses or ways to find them, new ways of detecting clues in the environment, access to new sections of the environment, etc.)
    End: question answered, possibly revenge; rules mastery

There are probably plenty more, but those are the ones I can think of right now. It’s interesting that these are the types of stories which are in general not as interesting the second time; that is how narrative-based games often are as well. Of course, in a game this could be mitigated with procedural generation or randomization of some elements (like a cast of characters and a mystery which are not exactly the same from one playthrough to the next, or clues placed differently, or procedurally generated environments for a treasure hunt).

One thought on “Musings on Game Plots”

  1. Your game structure breakdown of “establish rules, establish new tools, establish final tool” correlates well with a narrative arc, I think. Prior to this reading, I hadn’t thought enough about addressing the needs of establishing rules and establishing narrative conflict. In at least film stories, they say that establishing the conflict should be as short as humanly possible. If it’s a familiar conflict, this can literally be done in seconds and I’ve seen films that do this in the span of the opening credits. This leaves interesting considerations for gameplay in the introduction phase of a narrative.

    You sparked some fun thoughts. I’ll post more on my blog in a few minutes.

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