Levolution is just a theory...
An excellent story has been a fundamental part of many great video games, but are there more ways for developers to create stories in collaboration with players?
Examples such as The Last of Us, Bioshock and even so called “non-games” such as Dear Esther or Gone Home are often cited as examples of clear improvements in modern video game storytelling. Rightly so, as these games display a high level of immersion and intrigue, particularly when it comes to environmental narrative and compelling plots. When it comes to subtler narrative techniques, such as environmental storytelling, anything that is inspired by classic Looking Glass titles is bound to convey a holistic intertwining of story and environmental design, as is the case in 2012's Dishonored. Environmental storytelling is a narrative technique that becomes more prevalent each year, especially as graphical fidelity increases with technological advancement, helping to produce ever richer worlds. Today's video games are doing a great job of telling stories to players, whether explicitly or implicitly through these subtle techniques.
Environmental storytelling is a way for players to engage with story on sort-of their own terms. They can get out of it what they put in, in essence. While the pursuit of telling a story to the player more expertly is certainly a worthy one, what is still even less developed is the ability for players to craft their own experiences and tell their own stories within games. So often “story” is considered to be the thing that happens between the action, when the player has no agency. To put it bluntly, plot happens when the player is not killing things. There's no reason to wait for the cutscenes, however, before creating stories that are compelling that the player can fully engage with.
Placing the focus on combat for now, if pro-wrestling (yup!) has taught us anything it's that conflict itself can and should tell a great story. This principle permeates all mediums of entertainment, particularly films, as is exemplified in scenes such as Rocky Balboa fighting Apollo Creed or Luke Skywalker fighting Darth Vader. The action in these classic duels has pacing, flow, back and forth advantage and most of all it evokes emotion in the audience. When it comes to video games we could replace “conflict” with “any player involved interaction” really but I'd like to just discuss combat as it is one of the most popular scenarios in gaming and should be quite familiar to readers.
Quite often combat is placed against the backdrop of a setting or larger story arc to give it context and then executed by the player at a purely mechanical level. For example, Space Invaders is set within the context of defending against an extraterrestrial invasion. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is set within the context of World War 3. Duck Hunt is, quite simply, set within the context of hunting ducks. Video games have never lacked strong “setting”.
So, what is the difference between these combat settings and combat story?
Combat stories are the events that transpire during any prolonged conflict in a game and, like most stories, have a beginning, middle and end. They have a set-up, pacing, flow and resolution. They make combat more than simply a mechanical challenge and turn it into an emotional experience.
Combat story can also be considered as the events that transpire organically via the mechanics of the game as it is played. To reconsider the Space Invaders example, the combat story in a typical play session might be the players continued survival during the deterioration of their defences as they fight off each wave. As the defences provide less protection, the emotional state of the player becomes more anxious and each enemy kill or round victory provides a bigger relief. The emotional flow of each play session is affected by the mechanics of the game, and each play session has the potential to deliver a different, organic story thread within the confines of those mechanics.
Good combat design will utilize those mechanics to create and recognise emergent events then capitalize upon them to produce much more meaningful experiences for players. We can observe such mechanics being explored in games like Batman: Arkham Asylum where the skilful execution of the games mechanics can translate into story by affecting NPC emotional states. Enemies will become more terrified over time as the player sneaks around taking them out through stealth. This leads to an emerging narrative over time that enhances the immersion of “being Batman”. The players combat story may evolve differently than had they been spotted straight away, removing the fear mechanic. These types of mechanics, that recognise and promote combat story, can drive games to deliver deeper emotional experiences and more believable worlds.
That is not to say combat story has been perfected with Space Invaders or Batman: Arkham Asylum, simply that they help us recognise where the potential lies in enhancing storied combat. Modern games do a great job of setting up a challenge for a player and giving it context (setting), but less games seem capable of capitalizing on the story telling potential of their own mechanics.
With that said, there are few games today that make a more compelling case for combat story and player driven narrative than the Battlefield franchise, which (in my opinion) happens to be one of the best storytelling games of the last generation.
Battlefield is rarely praised for its storytelling, but it has provided many with some of the most memorable stories in their gaming career. This is not entirely due to its plot or setting however, but rather its ability to empower players with the ability produce emergent stories of their own.
When I say stories, of course I am talking about within the multiplayer component of Battlefield. Every play session will, almost without fail, provide what is affectionately known among my friends and I as a “Battlefeel”. Against the setting of a player versus player military struggle for dominance, hundreds of miniature stories will unfold organically; A small squad of players pack a quad bike full of explosives and begin a guerilla campaign against the heavier enemy tanks by ramming them and detonating their payload. A helicopter spectacularly crashes down in the distance, its pilot ejecting to parachute behind enemy lines, creating an emergent rescue objective. The game is built for player storytelling, and it provides plenty of the tools to do so.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was not the first in the series to provide players with the ability to craft these stories, however its execution was incredibly refined. There's a skill in multiplayer level design where designers construct a “flow” that keeps the action moving around the environment. Recent games in the series still maintain this in their maps, but Bad Company 2 maps not only had flow, they also had evolving, player authored, dynamic changes to their layout. Players could use the map itself to tell a story and became its designers by proxy. In the map “Heavy Metal”, players can practically flatten every building in the playable area. This means players have to change tactics as covering structures are removed, turning refuge spaces into dangerously open and exposed prospect spaces. Snipers will become more prevalent in the surrounding hills as the map “flattens” over time and teams have to send out squads to deal with them in response. This drama that unfolds is created by the players themselves placing their influence upon the map.
The developers at DICE have certainly noticed the drama unfolding, the carnage and the “Battlefeels”, but in an effort to capitalise upon that facet of Battlefield's recipe they may have applied the polish a bit too rigorously in recent iterations of the franchise. What made these moments memorable, I believe, is not the spectacle of the events but instead the sense of authorship of a personal combat story; of being the catalyst to an event that wouldn't have existed without you.
Creating an epic story with the tools you were given, rather than bearing witness to the same script everyone else is seeing is very empowering. Explosions have never looked so epic as in Battlefield 4, it's true, but they also look the same every time. They also seem to have come at the expense of the quantity of destructible buildings. Players are used to seeing the “levolution” play out the same way every time in these more recent maps. The fact is “levolution” was already in play in Battlefield: Bad Company 2, and “Heavy Metal” is just one of its finest examples.
The drama of the battleground is something most studios have been trying to capture for decades. There are so many FPS games these days, but very few that deliver a truly dynamic experience like Bad Company 2 has. So how do we provide the tools that allow players to craft combat stories in this way? In the case of Battlefield's multiplayer, it helps to have well established General Purpose Systems.
Harvey Smith of Arkane Studios describes General Purpose Systems (GPS) as game mechanics that “listen” to each another. By ensuring that an object or mechanic has a suitable “output” when acted upon in a particular way, or by another mechanic, designers can create much more complex systems for players to play with. This can lead to incredibly complex and dynamic chains of events that rival even the most polished cinematic of set-pieces. This is one of the core principles of the “sandbox” game, something which is exemplified in games such as Crysis, Minecraft and Stalker as well as Battlefield. Crysis in particular is arguably another example of a franchise sacrificing agency in the name of cinematic setpieces through its sequels. The original Crysis utilised GPS to create scenarios in which players understood how to, and to what degree, they could influence the environment. Most buildings (in the early part of the game) could be totally destroyed which was a consistent rule, many vehicles were drivable and multiple objects could be thrown around with fully physicalised properties. These systems were largely lacking in the sequels, reducing the amount of emergent gameplay players could experience. More importantly the environments were accommodating of sandbox play. They were designed for possibility, not inevitability.
Previous Battlefield games have created this sandbox play by reducing the amount of scripted drama that can unfold and instead giving players the power to create drama themselves. In order for GPS to work, however, mechanics, systems and objects need to respond in the way players expect. There is a principle in product design known as “affordance” which is also evident within Battlefield to ensure objects respond in the manner which players expect them to. For example, C4 can stick to any hard surface. A quad bike has a physical surface and so affords sticking sticky things to it. A quad bike affords driving, and so players can deduce that it is possible to stick C4 to it and drive it around...you see where this is going. By ensuring these mechanics deliver on their affordances and “listen” to each another, Battlefield creates general purpose systems that players can experiment with! By building these properties in a robust way, designers can generate more possible relationships between mechanics for players to experiment with.
This then leads us back to the how Bad Company 2 executes its combat stories. I think this is best explained through an example:
One of my favourite memories from playing Bad Company 2 is when friend and I were trapped at a control point in “White Pass” during a game of Conquest. We had sneaked past enemy soldiers as a two man unit and captured the control point while the enemy threw themselves against one of our more strongly defended posts elsewhere on the map. Upon realising our presence, the opposing team immediately returned to where we were, with tanks. Before we could escape, we were flanked by a BMD-3 and a M3A3 Bradley (which our own team had generously forfeited). We holed up in one of the nearby buildings and were immediately fired upon with shells. Walls can be destroyed by heavy impacts, (they afford falling down!) and the knowledge that every single wall in a building can be destroyed creates a sense of anxiety to anyone that happens to be using it as cover. As the building fell away around us we were greeted by enemy soldiers pouring in through the newly created holes, breaking doors and smashing windows. Surprisingly we endured and racked up a body count as more walls started to come away, providing more entry points for enemy soldiers. Our environment was evolving, providing new challenges for us and new opportunities for enemies. As things started to look dire I took a bullet to the head! After being revived by my friend, who was thankfully a medic, I instantly killed another enemy climbing through a hole in a wall in the rear of the room. In desperation we used C4 to destroy one of the last remaining walls to provide an escape route, pointing away from the oncoming wave of enemy soldiers. Miraculously, destroying that wall revealed a quad bike parked right outside (presumably used by one of the earlier attackers). We ran to the bike, both clambered on and sped away from the building just as it started to creak and groan, signalling a full structural collapse. Under a hail of tank shells we fled to safety and survived.
This is Bad Company 2 almost every single time I play. These moments that were authored by players, using the tools given by designers, create stories that are more meaningful than any pre-scripted “levolution” event and their uniqueness means they will stick with players far beyond the initial “wow” of watching the skyscraper collapse in Battlefield 4. Combat stories have the potential to keep players talking about your game around the water-cooler for far longer than discussions about the same set-piece everyone saw on level 3. That said, Battlefield remains one of the most impressive feats of design and development in our industry today, and I am constantly in awe at what that incredibly talented team achieve every year.
As a designer I am always looking for ways to ensure players become the authors of their experiences as best I can, with a little guidance here and there to evoke the right emotion. As a player I'm always awaiting my next great “Battlefeel”.