Games are a series of loops. Life and Death are a loop. Time may in fact be a flat circle, which is just another way of describing a loop. Repetition is the essence of our day, our entertainment, and our stories. Repetition is essential to establishing believable characters, ones we can expect to always act the same way. But repetition isn’t growth.
“I think it’s very important to have a feedback loop, where you’re constantly thinking about what you’ve done and how you could be doing better.” — Elon Musk
Have you ever wondered what it is about Batman, Spider-Man or other superheroes that keeps people coming back? Or for that matter why Sherlock Holmes is still interesting after all these years?
Different writers have their takes on those characters but by and large while the aesthetics may change the characters still act the same. It’s a frustrating aspect of series when you as a reader/viewer/player want to have a story where things change. But it’s an aspect of writing that enables series to continue for years or decades in some cases.
Just look at the Simpsons, little has changed in the intervening years since the show’s creation. And it shows in its outdated stereotypes and jokes. Yes occasionally a character may die or get married. That’s rare though. I’ve by no means watched the entirety of the show, but I know from my random viewings that things are much the same as they ever were. Before we can talk about breaking the loop we need to talk about what that loop is.
In game terms the loop is a series of actions the player can take. For stories, that loop is how the characters behave. By behavior I mean what the reader/viewer/player can expect a character to do given a certain situation. The most iconic characters across media will always do the same thing — not as one another — but as they’ve done in previous iterations.
Ellen Ripley will warn people, then try to work as a team, before having to do it all herself to save the day. Veronica Mars will crack wise, go undercover and ferret out the truth. Velma from Scooby Doo will say “jinkies” every time she finds a clue, plot out the best way to catch the criminal, and generally be the only person in the Mystery Machine with an sense — both fashion and common.
In comic books we know Batman has a plan, Superman will do everything he can, Wolverine will get violent, etc. In video games it gets a bit more complicated. Mainly because we have mechanics and gameplay loops to be concerned with and how they reflect upon the character.
Some games, like those of the Halo series, have the gameplay loop and mechanics closely tied to what the character would do. In the Master Chief’s case that’s kill with all the firepower he can bring to bear. He’s a man of few words but lots of actions, so the cut scenes are the times with the least amount happening. It’s why the game, at least to me, feels cohesive and actions are never out of character for the Master Chief.
Other games, like those of the Uncharted series, are commonly criticized for the absurd body count players rack up when they are ostensibly rogues and explorers, more Indiana Jones or Han Solo, than trained soldiers. But even Uncharted and its creators know at times you have to break the loop.
That’s why they give you the opportunity to stop and explore the Tibetan village in Uncharted 2 should you want to. Otherwise you can run through the place and get on with your adventure in two minutes. But that break, whether for two minutes or 20 is one that takes the player and the character out of the loop. There’s no combat, there’s no climbing or sneaking, and there’s no puzzles to solve. It’s a world that lets one walk around and explore in peace. Something a lot of games rarely give you.
That’s why it’s so interesting to see a AAA game like Assassin’s Creed Origins provide a mode where combat is not the purpose. Sadly you can’t play the game in this mode, merely explore the world. That change of pace is no different from varying the outcome of different sections of your story, as I mentioned in Try Fail Cycles.
Some games work change of pace into their loops. The Wolfenstein series from Machine Games is a great example. It goes from bombastic combat, to quiet stealth sections, to heart touching moments of tenderness as you converse with other characters. It can cause whiplash in how quickly it jumps from one style to the next, but it can never be accused of being boring.
Yet even with all of that the issue remains — B.J. Blazkowicz doesn’t change in any meaningful way as a player. Yes at the beginning of Wolfenstein: The New Colossus he’s going to be a dad and trying to come to terms with what that means in a world ridden by conflict. He as a character never ceases to fight though.
That’s one of my major issues with game narratives — the characters never seek a different method of solving their problems. And it may be the antithesis of what a game is meant to be. After all, designing systems is difficult and making them interesting is more so. But time and again there seems to be little interest or thought put into the context of those systems and what they mean. People are designing for a feeling but never exploring a feeling to its fullest extent.
Take happiness for example — you can’t, not you shouldn’t be happy all the time. Otherwise you lose all context for what happiness is. Your base line becomes a plateau that gives you no joy. Experiencing other emotions in relation to happiness showcases all the possible ways one can be happy. You’d never experience the bittersweet happiness of someone else’s success if there isn’t a bit of loss for you in that event.
Games so often seem afraid of testing out more complex emotions or scenarios beyond the bog standard. It’s why jump scares are so readily relied upon in horror games, or bullet sponges are so predominant in any form of shooters. Not all games are though. My favorite game to talk about Firewatch, is one such game that explores complex emotions of love, longing, self-incrimination and more.
The Last of Us also seeks to explore what it means to be a parent and the sacrifices that come with that. Parenting to some may not seem like an emotion, but as an experience it’s multitudinous in the feelings it evokes within you. You experience frustration, joy, rage, delight, despair and everything else. It’s in part why as game developers have aged they’ve started to explore parenthood more.
For games that truly explore a range of emotions you need look no further than Interactive Fiction. It doesn’t matter what the engine is — Ink, Twine, ChoiceScript, RenPy, Inform or TADS. The limited mechanics in those games requires a greater emphasis on the story and the writing.
But for those of us writing in more mainstream forms of games, what can we do?
Break the loop
Rather break the line. By line I mean the standard trajectory of the gameplay loop.
The easiest way to do that is with another character. If a the main protagonist isn’t going to evolve in terms of what they’re capable of then it turns to others to get things done in a different matter. Soldiers have very particular roles, especially in games with class systems. Add that class system or a limited version of it to the campaign and there’s only so much that can be done. That’s why games like Call of Duty WWII have levels where you play as the French Resistance.
Switching characters gives the player new skills, mechanics, systems and motivations. For writers, it means we can push against the loop we find ourselves in with the main protagonist. It’s also a simple narrative justification for why in a short period characters and the player as a result are taking different actions or even in different locations.
Good antagonists are often mirrors of the the protagonist, and heroes in their own stories. But there are times when a story is not about contesting with the will of another person, but something else — an organization, an act of god, a force of nature, or some malevolent inhuman force. In those cases, you need another character to act as the mirror.
Sidekicks, rivals, love interests or other player characters are all opportunities to mirror the central hero and explore the themes their actions, philosophies and ideas present. They can question everything we as players have done previously and do now. They can straight up call out another character for their choices.
Take GladOS for example. They start as a supposed teacher, move on to antagonist and eventually become ally over the games Portal and Portal 2. Asides from them actively antagonistic attitude and attempts to kill you, they get to mock you for your choices — such as jumping rather than speaking. But we don’t get to play as GladOS. And if we had the sound off and no subtitles on the game wouldn’t have had them as a character. Their actions are never explicit given their inability to move, but rather affect the environment.
Delilah in Firewatch is another such character, who acts a mirror to Henry, but one we never see. So her actions in the world are limited. Even at that distance she can question us. Questioning the player character isn’t the sole purpose of other characters, but it is vital to storytelling. It’s necessary to get them to change their tactics and approach situations in a different manner.
Creating another character isn’t always possible due to the constraints every game developer faces — time, money, energy, people, resources, etc. So what can we do with just writing if we can’t add a new character or expect different mechanics to manifest themselves?
Keep it simple.
I’ll go into greater detail in a future episode on this very topic. But for now, it’s a matter of keeping your story simple. That’s not to say there shouldn’t be any consequences to player choices, a complex narrative structure, or try/fail cycles. Rather it’s a matter of taking a look at the arch the protagonist is meant to take. They needn’t change drastically to break the loop, only grow in some way. That growth can be through experiencing new feelings, changing of opinion, relationships to others, or expectations of something else.
If this idea seems hard, take a look at the show Rick and Morty. Dan Harmon’s entire process for writing is about implementing change in his characters. It can be gradual but over the series there’s growth. The same is true for his previous show Community. All of the characters evolved in some way every episode. Not everything about them has to evolve. But parts of them do. It’s so we can accept that change as viewers or players. That change also allows for new any interesting scenarios to occur that can still make use of the gameplay loop.
What is a sitcom other than a game where the characters are tasked with a new scenario every week. In the case of Community or Rick and Morty the cast just so happens to use the same techniques as always but in different ways and to different ends. Rick sciences his way out of problems and Jeff Winger talks his way out. But there’s always a new problem around the corner.
More on new problems and Dan Harmon’s method of writing — the story circle — in a future episode. For now just think about the small things about your characters that could change, things that don’t necessarily impact the gameplay loop. For example they may become less chatty as the game goes on and the reality of what they face and the choices they must make start to weigh on them.
The choice at the end of Far Cry 5, spoilers, whether to betray your allies or take out the big bad is not one of those hefty, thought provoking times. But that’s down to the execution and the ultimate consequences. The game doesn’t earn those endings because it never seeks to question the players actions in any meaningful way beyond having the villain monologue at you.
Breaking the loop can also be about making a character choose an option that previously has been against their moral code — be it torture, killing everyone unprovoked, etc. Of course it doesn’t have to be so violent but it can be a line the player themselves may struggle with. What that is will always depend on the genre of your story and the game.
The simplest thing you can do in writing is have the characters of the game analyze what they’ve done before — create an internal feedback loop to the story that takes into account what’s happened before and the choices the player has made, however small they may be. Even linear, fully-authored content can have such a loop. It’s just a matter of characters being cognizant of their actions.
That can be done by doubting themselves, being called into questioned by other characters, having to pay a price they weren’t prepared to in order to complete a task, or in any number of other ways. How it happens is really no different than what makes us change in life and get out of our own funk — things don’t go the way we expect, or someone else remarks upon our situation. It’s all up to you the writer.