“Putting into play” originates from the site Narrative Construction, whose goal is to offer a hands-on approach to the design of an engaging and dynamic game system from a narrative and cognitive perspective. The series illuminates how our thinking, learning, and emotions interplay when the designer proceeds from scratch to reach the desired goal of a meaningful and motivating experience.
Before shifting to interactive media, I wrote story arcs for films and television series. The technique of scriptwriting was to follow your gut, establish a conflict, take it to a climax, and end it with a twist. The receiver's engagement was built into the dramatic story structure, which meant that focus was laid on the character's motivations, relations, and behavior. As long as the audience stayed seated and the ratings were good, work continued as usual.
Since my gut was what motivated me to realize new experiences and feelings through a tool, I didn't look at the change of media as anything other than a natural act of using a new tool. However, when asked to write a canonic story for a game plot like a film, I felt my gut protesting.
Why change tools if it wouldn’t give me a chance to explore new possibilities?
The problem with the gut is that it doesn't come with an answer. It can just leave you there with an awkward feeling that things don’t make sense. The good thing about the gut is that it's loyal as hell. It can just turn itself into a mood and linger in your memory as a reminder until your brain works out the answer. The effectiveness of your gut can be improved if you get into the practice of backing it up with a drive state of curiosity, which helps to make sure you don’t miss anything that can be useful to the creative process (see Part 6, Putting into play).
Over the years of game development, it has been tangible to those working with narratives that something doesn’t make sense by how the narrative is conceived as a canonic story from other media. For example, you would never hear someone asking you to construct your story like a video game because video games are considered to be what stories aren't - interactive. And if you get to work with game productions as a writer or narrative designer, it is not given you will be able to work with the development of the parts that are considered to be gameplay related, such as the mechanics and systems.
The game and a narrative designer Chris Bateman says in an article about the understanding of the narrative craft in the game industry:
"Narrative design is "one of the toughest crafts in the whole of video games -- made even tougher by the fact that most developers don't even think that it's part of their process."
How come the narrative isn't a part of the process yet? Haven't we got over the linearity versus the interactivity debates? Or has arguing about story versus game exhausted us enough to accept it as a fact?
But what if the narrative is more than the parts, the story, and the medium?
Fitting the narrative within games
Since the narrative is fundamental to the cognitive process, being intrinsically connected to our learning and understanding, which permeate the entire process by how you are giving meaning to the parts that are to be presented before the receiver's senses. Today, it would seem that the game industry has created its own narrative about the narrative.
Ever since the game industry built up speed to its production of story-driven games, intense work has been in progress to make the narrative fit within games. We have now become so used to the narrative being adapted to games that the craft of adaptation has earned its own terms: firstly, converting, which means redesigning the existing storyline of a film or book to fit a video game. One example is the James Cameron moving picture Avatar currently being converted into a game. Secondly, the term merging refers to the craft of making a dramatic story structure fit with the gameplay.
The craft of fitting the story to games has even earned its own genre - the so-called narrative- or story-driven games. The genre is so established that if you claim there are other ways to understand the narrative, people tend to say “I like stories in video games”, as though you were about to remove the fish from the chips.
Since the narrative has turned into something you like or not, it has also become an element you choose to have in your game or not. Associating the narrative with large-scale AAA productions, making a narrative-driven game is even considered an economic risk. This conception of the narrative also rubs off on writers and narrative designers as being something you may either need or not as opposed to programmers, graphic artists, level- and game designers who are necessary.
By looking at the narrative as being a choice, it isn't strange that the narrative is sometimes considered as being a part of the process and sometimes not.
Bateman suggests that instead of thinking of the story as "the other side of the coin in games," one should "think of story as one more game system.". To bridge the gap he proposes an exchange of techniques and experience between conventional writing and game design.
Since I am at the final sprint of Putting into play, which treats the narrative construction of meaning and how emotions assist the design of an engaging and dynamic game system, I intend to take Bateman's call and add my part to uniting the systems (and minds). As I have one foot in conventional writing, and the other on in game design, I will take you on a trip to find the hidden art of pacing, which means we will trace back to where the core of engagement and motivation resides.
As in previous sections, I will provide a cognitive and narrative approach to the design of an engaging and dynamic game system from a hands-on perspective on the organization, arrangement, and direction of the thoughts and feelings towards the goal of what the receiver should experience or feel.
Tracing the hidden pacing of engagement
The first time I came in contact with pacing was at a meeting to discuss a playwright at the dramatic department of Stockholm City Theater. Instead of speaking in standard terms about scenes and characters, they turned the playwright into a music piece. The characters' interactions by how they talked, moved, and behaved were translated into terms of volume and tempo. Using rhythm, they defined the timing of when elements occurred and how long they lasted, and how far from each other they were as to appear again.
First, I was confused and wondered when they should get to the point. Afterward, I was amazed by how it made perfect sense of how words and music/sound connected.
It was not until I started working with game design that I got the opportunity to experience the art of pacing as a feeling of rhythm again. Then it was from the perspective of how you provide and withhold meanings to engage and motivate the receiver's thinking. It was also then the gap between conventional writing, and game design became visible by how the story structure worked as a method to access the pacing of actions from the receiver's perspective.
By breaking down the story structure and pacing out the content across sequences so as to meet the receiver's building of experiences and engagement, you combine the contrasts of tempo (fast/slow) and intensity (strong/soft). In relation to actions, intense combats are followed by peaceful puzzles or an exploration of the world while gathering objects. It was also here, in the craft of pacing out the content through missions, levels, environments, and worlds, you could find the systems of quests, dialogue-trees branched storylines and cinematic that writers and narrative designers are usually in charge of.
Since pacing is at the heart of conventional writing and game design, which rhythm and tempo accommodate the core to the engaging and motivating forces, I will start by bringing on the dramatic story structure to see where the core resides that connect structures and crafts.
Since the whole idea with the art of pacing is to trigger the engaging and motivating forces, which "tricks" by how you entice curiosity shouldn't be noticed by the receiver. The problem, though, is if the core to the pacing is hidden to the constructor.
The dramatic story structure (also known as the three-act structure) is very good at appearing as if it shows where the hidden engine to the pacing resides by how the acts, turning-points, and conflicts capture an overarching rhythm. At first sight, the structure seems to correspond very well to the idea of how the feeling of being aroused goes up and then down. The structure also hints at converting the rising and falling actions into components that could fit the interactivity of a game.
But as the story structure leads to focus on the development of the characters' motivations, relations, and behaviors while a gameplay's structuring concentrates on the receiver's actions. When taking a closer look at the dramatic story structure as to ask whose actions are actually rising and falling, the structure veils some essential parts that concern the engaging and motivating forces to be from the receiver's perspective and position. These forces contain the receiver's feelings, experiences, and expectations brought by the overall rhythm, which captures the core of a mood that follows the receiver after the movie or game ends. This core of the mood works as a drive, which desires encourage us to relive the experience and feelings, which can be noticed when we express appreciation to a specific genre or style (but it can also generate the opposite, which we will get to when looking into balance and control).
When making use of a story structure in the writing and designing of engaging and motivating experiences, you need to look beyond standard features of the dramatic story structures to access the motivating forces that form the core to the mood. The reason is you want to release the thinking and emotions from being framed by the end-state of a structure. As we go, you will see how the liberation fits very well by how the style of the game´s mechanics and systems work.
An example of a core to a mood that is based on the players´desires from earlier games can be found embedded in the mechanic of The Last Guardian (see Part 1, Putting into play, with interviews with Fumito Ueda). The forces constituting the core of a mood were collected from the relation between the player and the girl in Ico, and the bond between the player and the horse in Shadow of the Colossus that were transferred to the boy (the player) and the creature Trico in The Last Guardian.
To discern the core of mood which captures the forces of the engaging and motivating drive, I will get underneath the story structure and remove the standards of start, end, acts, turning points, and conflicts and replace them with an engagement and duration-axis.
To explain how the engagement and duration-axis work, I will introduce the narrative systems behind the act of stripping the story structure in the first place.
The narrative systems are not the story but the systems that assist the structuring of patterns, which are based on the narrative principles of logic, time, and space (which I will return to later as they can explain what causes gaps).
The narrative keys of perspective, position, and goal presented in the previous section (see Part 6, Putting into play) represent the three narrative systems that constitute the cognitive process behind the creation of meaning. The systems that originate from David Bordwell's studies (Bordwell, 1985), also constitute the base to the method Narrative bridging (Boman, Gyllenbäck, 2010), which I am using in various forms depicting the hands-on approach to the design process (can be recognized from its color scheme).
- The narrative system of syuzhet translated as plot (which term I will use) defines the constructor's perspective and position in the arrangement of causal, spatial, and temporal networks. The numbers of techniques on plotting are many, and my intention is to give you the base. The plot is not the story but the patterning of a story, or the patterning of gameplay (which I will get to later). The numbers of patterns that can be plotted are infinite. An example of one pattern is the canonical story format (exposition, complication, outcome). The pattern is a result of a long Western tradition of analyzing the assumptions of a canonic story. The canonical story format works as a template of developing story structures and where the three-acts story structure is just one variation of the template.
- The plot system can't exist without the other system of style that mobilizes components and techniques provided by the medium and vice versa.
- The plot and style systems prepare for a third system: fabula, which represents the receiver's perspective in the interpretation of the plot and style.
The reason why it may seem unclear from which perspective the rising, falling action, and the climax of the dramatic structure are taking place is that the structure doesn't define the systems of style or fabula. This is also why I have toned down the rising and falling actions, and the climax, for the time being as they will make sense when we get to the gameplay structures.
The narrative keys assist the change of perspective/position, and the goal captures how the plot and style convey the desired goal/outcome of what the receiver should feel or experience from what is presented before his or her sense (see Putting into play, Part 4 and Part 6).
Since each narrative system contains two perspectives - the constructor’s and the receiver’s - as we go, it will be easier to understand how the unfolding of plot and style affects the experience of the receiver if you have picked the “right system”. To “pick the right system” I will let the team that was introduced earlier (see Part 6) illustrate the two main perspectives and positions.
The team constructors represent the style and plot and the team interpreters represent the receiver’s interpretation of the plot and style.
The way our mind processes information creates a common denominator and bond between the teams (see Part 6). From the perspective of the constructor, to access the core of mood where the experiences and expectations reside, your approach to the development of an engaging and motivating experience should always be to consider the possibility offered by the receiver’s (interpreter´s) ability to think, learn and create meaning.
Thus, the meaning created by you as a constructor will be converted into experiences and expectations by the receiver (interpreter).
The core cognitive activities mentioned above have been presented throughout this series and are based on the 7-grade model of causal cognition (Gärdenfors, Lombard, 2017). Here, the model helps to illuminate the process of how our thinking leads to the drive-state whereby we pick up meanings from what is presented before our senses and store the feelings of these experiences in memory.
These elements compose the dynamic forces behind the narrative vehicle of meaning making (see Part 4, Putting into play), which provides a possibility to engage and motivate the receiver (the interpreter) along the duration axis.
In order to meet the receiver’s (interpreter´s) capacity to process causal, spatial and temporal links in the creation of meaning, I will replace the turning-points and conflicts with the minimum of data needed to trigger an emotional effect to the engagement and duration-axis - which is cause and effect.
How to play on the causal keys of plot
Since it is an established fact to writers and designers that the pacing of engagement of cause and effect is similar to the craft of composing sound and music. This can be noticed by the shared vocabulary of musical terms such as rhythm, tempo (beats per minute), tone, and theme.
If you imagine the green dotted lines of cause and effect above as piano keys or audio tools. When striking the causal elements within a duration of time, you give tone and mood to the experiences and expectations. Tone and mood are what we commonly call themes that capture experiences and feelings.
What fascinated me the most when experiencing my playwright as a music piece was how the style of the theater wasn't mentioned. The explanation for this can be found in the culture to not precede the director's and actor's artistic work to interpret and design (gestalt). It also gives us a hint of why writers are expected by routine to keep a low profile so as to allow for the next level of artists to step forward and finalize the concept. However, the experience gave me insight into how the plot constitutes a system that, independently from style, creates a causal rhythm, which can be applied and moved between media.
I would like to share this insight as it gives you the basic techniques to the pacing and balancing of the plot by how the rhythm and tempo form a dynamic pattern. To avoid being too abstract when showing you an example of how they utilized music terms at the theater,
- I will "play" a theme on the keys of cause and effect that generates the excitement of a classical story structure, which means the cause and effect will be presented within the frame of a start and an end.
- I will define the goal by setting the duration within the time frame of a movie. By doing this, I also describe the style of the medium that mobilizes the theme.
To express strength, rhythm, and tempo, I will start using the musical terms that apply to the dynamic elements of loudness and intensity (strength), i.e., volume:
- Forte, is loud/strong
- Piano is soft
To give you a sense of how the plot works independently from media, I will start with a music piece before moving to the plot pattern of a classical story structure.
In the illustration below, the musical terms are depicted by the first punch on the keys of cause and effect that creates a forte (1), which is followed by a piano (2).
If you haven’t heard about the music piece called Carmina Burana, I am pretty sure you have heard a choir singing: “O Fortuna” (if unsure, check this link on Youtube).
The song starts with a punch of a kettle-drum and a choir singing out loud: “O Fortuna.” (1). By moving on forward on the duration-axis the forte changes into a piano (2). Then the dynamics gradually build up an overall rhythm along the duration-axis towards the climax (3 and 4) and return to the same strength as at the beginning (5) keeping the forte until the end (6).
The same pattern that is reflected in the description of the song can be seen in the pacing of cause and effect in a movie with a theme intended to create the kind of excitement we know from a classical story structure.
Based on the same diagram as above, the forte is illustrated by a global conflict (1). Next after the forte, the daily life of activities and internal conflicts in a village is presented with a piano (2). Next, the engagement of the villagers builds up the cause and effect that raise their awareness about the global conflict (3). When the villagers realize the inevitable by how cause and effect unfold, they will put aside their problems (4) - at least that is what characters usually think - to battle the global conflict (5). But the villagers will also have to fight their internal disputes at the end (the so-called resolution) (6).
The contrast between forte and piano in music constitutes a sudden dynamic change that even has its own musical term: fortepiano (fp). In your crafting of engagement, it is the contrasts and nuances of the components causal relation that create the dynamics. This explains how the plot conveys contrasts between the forte from the global conflict (1) and the piano from the daily life in the village (2), in which dynamic forces increase engagement when they change along the duration axis.
If you would like to guess which classical story I've depicted, now it's the time.
The diagram, which shows the composition of Carmina Burana and the plotting of cause and effect of a classical story structure, gives us the pattern of the movie: The Lord of the Rings
To compare the feelings brought by the plot pattern, you can check the song while bringing memories of mood from the movie. As I didn't mention the tempo you can notice how the forte (1) has a slow tempo and the piano (2) is conveyed with a rapid tempo.
As you can see, the dynamic changes of contrasts and cause and effect conveyed by the plot are united in either medium