The New Dramaturgy Part 1 of 4
We lack a formal system for discussing Video Games as a Medium and that is a serious problem.
We have a vast library of great and meaningful works but no working theory of how to examine, compare, and deconstruct them. Over the past decade we have seen the release of dozens of games that have begun to validate Videogames as a true artistic medium. But despite the power of works like Bioshock, Mass Effect, Journey, Shadow of the Colossus, and Silent Hill 2 slowly turning the tide of opinion, that vital piece is still missing.
Part of the problem is that what we do have existing formal structures for examining Videogames, but only as class of artifact not as a medium. In such systems games exist as objects meant to provide narrowed forms of gratification aka “fun”. An example of this categorization can be seen in Robin Hunicke, Marc Leblanc, and Robert Zubek’s seminal paper MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research they establish a system for examining how the mechanics created by the designers are interacted with by the players. This system offers some deep and useful insight to interpreting play, but it may not be enough as we move forward. This is because it only examines games as objects that program behaviors and not as a medium for evoking emotions and ideas. MDA frames games as vehicles for mechanics instead of vehicles for Stories and Emotional Experiences. Even so, the MDA system is still extremely useful as we continue. Several concepts in this paper are expansions and evolutions of the ideas in their essay.
This new formal system of Dramaturgy is meant to be a set of tools not a set of absolutes. The content of this series of articles is not meant to be a rigid structure of how to make games the “right” way but to serve as an outline of what is universally important to making a game emotionally impactful. Each concept covered in this series can be accomplished in a myriad ways and are all focused on the goal of giving our players powerful emotional experiences just like any other medium.
Dramaturgy is the art of dramatic composition and representation of the main elements of a story. Dramaturgy as a concept is normally associated with theater. While officially coined by Gotthold E. Lessing in 1760s, its core principles date back to Aristotle. Its practice in theater is considered entirely distinct from writing and directing. It was the responsibility of the “Dramaturg” to ensure that all of the plays other elements worked together to achieve the maximum dramatic effect. And while we usually lump this practice together with other roles in most media (like Directors in film) I believe Video Games will benefit from re-establishing a similar distinction between our various disciplines.
The lack of a formal system of gamic drama and lack clarification of what a Narrative Designer/Dramaturg “does” is a problem for production. Many studios struggle with internal conflicts of miscommunication on this front. Some segregate story and play into separate departments with minimal communication. While others try to integrate Narrative and Design teams only to find competing and seemingly incompatible views of the games needed direction, many readers will recognize these debates of“Cinematic” vs “Fun” from personal experience. One of the most effective ways to overcome this barrier is to provide a formal system that everyone on a team can use to focus on the true common goal of their efforts, creating an emotionally engaging gamic experience.
Establishing a New Formal Structure
Where do we start? In order to create a comprehensive system for Game Dramaturgy we first need to Establish what we need out of a system and how and what it will be used for. The core goal is to create a system to evaluate Games as a Dramatic, Emotional, and Artistic Medium. It must be a system of understanding that is useful for both Academic Criticism and evaluating Games as we create them. Specific enough to allow for standardized discussion but broad enough to be useful in evaluating games past, present, and future with nearly any mechanical or emotional focus. This is so we can even evaluate and compare games without explicit narrative. And it must be flexible enough to examine the effectiveness of wildly different approaches to similar games.
How are we going to accomplish this? This system must be comprehensive and holistic in its formulation. It should focus on evaluating the emotional experience of a game and understanding the internal structure that generates that emotional experience. This lets us formally evaluate, compare, and contrast nearly every game by their emotional effectiveness instead of just their systems and mechanics.
To begin we need to isolate the most fundamental aspects of the Medium. Aspects that are broad enough to cover every component of our final system while still being specific enough to build those categories from them. As outlined above those aspects are a game’s Experience and Structure.
The Experience of a game is the sum total of the emotional, mental, visual, audial, and kinesthetic experiences that result from playing the game. The Experience of a game is its external half that a player interacts with directly
The Structure of a game is the sum total of all of the underlying structures and design goals that facilitate the Experience of a game. The Structure of a game is its internal half that a player can only indirectly interact with.
Now that we have a broad foundation we can begin to break down these large concepts of Experience and Structure into smaller more specific, interlinked components. First we will break down the Experience half of our system.
Each of these concepts will be covered in depth as part of this series, but for now these definitions will give a general idea of their scope.
An Idiom is a game’s identity, what it plays like, what it looks like, what it’s about, and what form it takes. For now think of a game’s Idiom as a very specific way to identify a game more clearly than what genre it inhabits.
Suspense is the set of emotions that occur when a player is invested in the uncertain outcome of an event in the game. This definition is emotionally neutral by design and is meant to establish the two most important components of Suspense: Caring and Uncertainty.
Catharsis is what springs from an intense, sometimes overwhelming, emotional release. This is the end goal of any emotional medium. It is the feeling of purification or change brought about by powerful emotional resolutions. Like Suspense its use in the system is emotionally variable.
Next we will break down the Structure half of our system.
Pacing is how a game’s Suspense is structured in order to create Catharsis. It is the rhythm of the emotional events in a game.
Dramatic Substance is the set of qualities of in game that generate suspense. These qualities themselves will be explained to great depth later on, they are: Sense of Agency, Character Communication, Creation of Complications, Play Integration, and Presentation..
Design Goal is the impetus of an entire work. This is what shapes the Idiom of a game and everything after it. It is the core emotions and ideas that all of a game’s Idiom, suspense and catharsis are all structured around conveying.
As a system these elements build off of each other:
- The Design Goals shape the choices when constructing a game’s Idiom
- A game’s Idiom determines how Dramatic Substance is represented
- Effective Dramatic Substance is what creates Suspense
- Suspense gives the emotional charge that Pacing uses to create rhythm
- Effective Pacing is what builds the other elements into Powerful Catharsis
These concepts can also be seen as deeply and non-linearly interdependent. Where the execution of each element is independent, synergistic and vital to the total emotional experience.
When viewed with both of these lenses this system gives us a formal way of understanding and evaluating a game’s Dramatic Effectiveness, the quality of its Dramaturgy.
This set of concepts is the foundation of exploring games as an Emotional Medium. And the start of building a formal language to discuss games in a dramatic context. In the coming weeks we will explore each element and their interrelations in intense detail.
Next week we will examine Catharsis and Pacing. We will specifically be covering what Catharsis is and why is it so vital, how Pacing is the key to effective Catharsis, and why 3 act structure is a difficult to adapt to games for an unexpected reason.
Part 1 of 4
Evan Hill can be contacted at:
The full version of The New Dramaturgy may be read at:
Special Thanks to:
Alan Emrich (Victory Point Games)
Jeffery Yohalem (Ubisoft)
Brian Kindregan (Blizzard)
Gavin Jurgens-Fyhrie (Blizzard/Snail Games)
Justin Dye (Blizzard)
Michael Shaneman (GameGeist.com)
And to all of the other people who helped me edit and refine my ideas for this series over the past few months.