Mechanical Storytelling

A review of lessons learned while studying mechanical storytelling in games through the lens of Meyers-Briggs' personality profiles.

I recently wrote an article series with a premise of evaluating video game characters’ personality as it is presented in the game and mapping that personality onto a Meyers-Briggs profile. The purpose of that series was not to map characters onto internet memes, but to explore the ways a game conveys character traits through methods other than cinematic sequences. I believe that using video in games is as strong a disconnect as using text in film. Not to say that text doesn’t work in film, but you don’t go to a theatre to read a book. With this series, I endeavored to take a look at other options.


I mean. It works.

In this article I would like to expand on some of the things I’ve learned while doing this article series, and in the time since. I will start with the root at the Meyers-Briggs structure I chose, and then move beyond that framework as I carry each thought to completion.

The first thing I noticed during my research, was that the four categories were not equal. Perceiving/Judging was always very easy to map, in every game I played. So why was that? These two traits are defined by a person’s desire to make plans and act on those plans, or to simply go with the flow more freely. In video games this basically translates to whether or not a character is making quests for themselves. If a character is following a discrete list of things to accomplish, you can assume their mind to be a place that desires structure. Nearly all games use missions or quests, as well, which explains why it was always so easy to map. Quest markers and quest lists directly reflect whether a character is Perceiving or Judging. Given this, we can now say that a game’s quest log is a direct reflection of one part of the protagonist’s mind. If that’s true, how else could we extrapolate from this simple premise? Perhaps a quest is assigned to us because of a thought from the player character. Maybe the character sees something that reminds them they should go pick up something from the nearby market. Maybe along the way they remember an additional thing they need to pick up, and another quest is added to the first. Rather than thinking of our quest markers as arbitrary guiding hands made by the designer to get the player to go where they are supposed to go, we should think of them as a visual representation of thought. This will allow us to seamlessly align player character intention with player movement.

Expanding on this idea, we could also use quest markers to show a change in a characters’ state. If the character is disoriented, the quest marker could be unstable, moving wildly on its own. If the character has gotten lost, perhaps the marker becomes more vague somehow. If the character knows that they have a specific task that they are supposed to be doing, but that they do not want to do, perhaps the marker stays where it is, very clearly, but is scratched out or in some other way obscured by the character’s own mind telling them not to go there. The options are many, but the lesson is simple:

Quest markers are a tool that can show a character’s thoughts and goals.

This is still kinda awful, but let's save the baby from the bath water, shall we?

On the other end of the spectrum, it was always very difficult to discern a character’s emotional state through gameplay. If I wanted to know whether a character was Thinking/Feeling I would have to look at their reactions within a cutscene or scripted moment, rather than their actions within the gameplay. So why is that? Is there no way to convey emotion or thought during gameplay? Well, there definitely is, but it goes against the easy power fantasy writing we have in games. Bioshock Infinite features a protagonist who goes around wantonly murdering everyone in his path. Why? Why does Booker DeWitt need to kill so many people? Well, the answer is simple: he doesn’t. Based on his goals, and his backstory, he shouldn’t want to kill anyone at all. He’s lived that life and is tired of being that guy, he wants to do something else. He clearly states his weariness, and desire to be reborn, throughout this game. Now, it would make sense if he were to backslide into violence during extreme situations. Perhaps the easy path of the game would involve lots of violence, while the more difficult (and rewarding) path would be non-violent. The player could then choose which route to take, as they go along this journey with Booker. The gameplay could then be designed to force a particular violent/non-violent choice at key moments, telling us which choices Booker DeWitt would definitely make on his own. By creating those key moments as character development moments, the rest of the gameplay becomes the struggle. At any given time, Booker (the player) could give in to his baser instincts, or hold on to his ideals, and so this is reflected in the gameplay. At key moments, choice will be removed from the player as Booker decides with certainty that in X situation he will definitely choose Y. This would make the entire game reflect his mind, and would tell us who Booker DeWitt wants to be, even as he struggles. Making this into a proper character arc would require slowly forcing Booker into more situations that align with his less violent tendencies. In other words, the player starts the game with many options, but is slowly restricted to fewer options over time. This can easily become problematic, but if the story is strong enough the player will accept the design. Handle with care.

This observation also highlights another that I made while doing this research. Gameplay represents choice made by the protagonist. Samus decides which items to bring with her on each mission. Whether it’s discussed, or even acknowledged, does not matter. Action speaks louder than words, and we see Samus start each of her missions without her weaponry that was acquired from the last mission. That tells us something about Samus. Would Booker DeWitt choose the same weapons to begin his missions? Would the Knight from Hollow Knight? No, Probably not. Samus brings only the essentials on each new mission. We may not know the reason, but we see the choice. This may have been a design decision, but it also represents a part of our character’s mind.

So where else do we see this type of choice? How about: if your gameplay is in the style of Metroid, and you wander through until you pick up a weapon that freezes enemies, why does your character pick up that weapon? In the game it’s because the level and gameplay designers put that freeze weapon there for the player to use, but in real life Samus is on an alien planet. She could go down any number of weird side caves. What we see in the final game is a recording of her actions, and a representation of her possible actions. If Samus did not go down that ice weapon cave, that cave would not be in the game. If she MAY have gone down that cave, then that weapon could be presented as optional. If that weapon is essential to beating the game, that means she definitely DID go down this particular cave. This is true whether or not the designer is aware of it. Whether the designer knows they’re representing choices their protagonist made, or if they just think they have a cool gameplay mechanic they want to introduce, it still says the same things about the character. You can adjust your story to match the gameplay, or you can adjust the gameplay to match the story. Ideally they would inform each other, each providing new nuggets to be used by the other as the game develops into its final form.

Either way, your gameplay reflects your character’s choices.

Games are a recording of possibilities, not a recording of just the final choice

The most difficult part of the Meyers-Briggs to map was consistently Intuitive/Sensing. This is an expression of a person’s inclination towards using information as it is presented to them, or taking that information and extrapolating based on outside knowledge or intuition.  If Judging/Perceiving is defined as whether or not we are getting quest markers, Intuitive/Sensing is the type of quest our character accepts. A sensing personality will process information directly, they will take a missing princess to mean simply that the princess is missing. An Intuitive person will extrapolate, and may take a missing princess to mean that she must have been taken to another nearby castle. One may choose a quest to search the area, while another may choose to search nearby kingdoms. If we want to convey a personality, we must choose which quests we present to our characters and how they approach those quests.

What I noticed, however, was that this was often taken to an extreme. Rather than simply assigning us a quest and then allowing us to approach it however we like, as is seen in most open world games, linear games often merely give us a corridor to walk. We proceed ‘on rails’ from where we get the quest to where we complete the quest. The space in between should be the perfect place to explore how a character thinks and responds to information, but instead we get cinematic camera angles and conveniently-placed barricades.

So let’s take the missing princess example. Our quest is this: “Find The Missing Princess”. We are then given control of our character and told to complete the mission. How do we do that? If we are a Sensing personality, we will approach the world around us with eyes on concrete details. Perhaps we are a ranger who tracks footsteps, so the gameplay mechanic is to look around the world in Monster Hunter fashion, until we find prints that look suspicious. If we are an Intuitive personality, we will approach the world with an eye on patterns, so we may go about interviewing people to discover some pattern happening in the world, and maybe we hear about a group of bandits who were in town a few days ago, acting weird. Either way, the whole sequence should be set up to allow exploration of the thought. How is your character feeling about all this? Represent that as you explore the space. Let their anxiety or confidence show through the world around them, or the people around them. Make the level so that we see not just one moment, but a handful of moments that all show us not just that our ranger tracks footprints, but how they go about the task. Sure, they’re looking for sensory information by tracking footprints, but how locked are they to that method? Do they also see patterns in where the footprints are located? Do they find one set of prints and follow that trail all the way to the princess, never looking anywhere else?

What quest they accept will tell us part of their personality, and how they approach that quest tells us the rest.

but how does that make you feel...?

For my last observation, we have something I noticed unrelated to the Meyers-Briggs focus of the articles, but very much in line with the mechanical storytelling that I was studying through the lens of Meyers-Briggs. That observation is this: gameplay never gets an arc. In film or books, it’s critical that a character have a story arc. It’s also critical that side characters have story arcs, and that the world around them has an arc as well. If the character is changing and the world is not, the story will feel very flat. In games we have a new element of interaction layered on top of the rest of those things, but that element never seems to change. At least not in a way that reinforces the story.

Think of James Bond. In every Bond movie, the stakes are set and we are introduced to the situation that Bond must face. Then Bond is given a set of tools to use and enters the fray. As the movies progress, he uses up those options until he’s left to confront the ultimate enemy with his wits. James Bond never faces the villain with his suped-up car or his exploding robot watch or whatever, because those films are all about being suave and adaptable. Bond’s arc always must show how he is a capable spy with and without his fancy toys. Bond films are not known for their complexity, and this is about the simplest non-linear arc you can get, so why don’t we see this in games? Gameplay always progresses in a linear fashion, forever moving forward. Players get stronger and more versatile over time. Imagine a Bond movie where he only ever gets more and more powerful as the story goes along. Rather than meeting Q at the start, Q would appear every 15 minutes to hand Bond a new weapon. By the end of the film there would be no tension unless the final fight was with some gigantic monster, which is exactly what most final bosses are in gaming. This works well, but is a bit juvenile. Why not adjust our structure, now that we’ve grown up? Instead of giving us a new weapon every level, why not use the big weapons as a crutch to get us started? While we’re learning the complex mechanics, we have simple mechanics to keep us moving forward. Then as the game progresses, we stop getting ammo for the big crazy gun and instead start getting a lot of bubble gum and tooth picks to MacGuyver our way through the rest. You’ll have to handle this carefully, as it’s important to teach players the skills they’re going to actually use, rather than tutorializing them on guns and then ending with a game all about basket weaving. Still, if story arcs are so important in film, surely we should be trying to use this in games as well.

And of course I’m not saying that these arcs aren’t used at all. Many games will add tension by limiting ammo drops or health packs. But very rarely do we see gameplay develop in any direction but up over the full course of the game.

And that about does it for my observations while doing this series of research. Hopefully reading my thoughts has helped to kick some new ones into your own brain. Feel free to comment below with what you agree/disagree with about my conclusions.

Oh, and if you'd like to read the research articles, you can find them here, here, here, and here.

Until next time!

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