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Analysis: Challenge, Game Design Conflicts, Storytelling

Writer and designer Emily Short looks at challenge as a story-telling device, and some specific issues raised by Jonathan Blow in his presentation on conflicts in game design.

Emily Short

September 28, 2009

11 Min Read

[Writer and designer Emily Short looks at challenge as a story-telling device, and some specific issues raised by Jonathan Blow in his presentation on conflicts in game design.] Jonathan Blow's November presentation on conflicts in game design raises a fundamental problem: "For a story to occur, it has to keep proceeding... challenge is about preventing you from continuing in the game... Story and challenge work against each other. No matter how hard you work on a game, if you've got a story in the traditional way, and you've got challenge elements like we traditionally use them, they work against each other. -- Jonathan Blow" Accepting the main theses of Blow's presentation -- that challenge is essential to the nature of games, and that challenge does not work with story -- might be enough to make me give up this column. And, unfortunately for me, there's a lot of what Blow says that I agree with, about the difficulty of designing dynamic stories, providing solid pacing, and giving a sense of importance to a constructed non-linear tale. So here's the question: Can the challenge be part of the story instead? Can it lend value to the storytelling? How and where? Challenge directly presents a quest or hero's journey. This is the commonest use, so universal that it hardly seems to need articulation. The player's problem and the protagonist's problem are one and the same. The player has to kill a dragon because the protagonist has to kill a dragon. One difficulty is that this prevents us from putting any kind of problem into the story unless a) we relegate it to a cut-scene for the protagonist to handle alone or b) we can work out a direct game-play way of addressing the challenge. Traditionally, this has meant that the challenges that can appear are limited to activities that can be easily be communicated physically, especially timing, jumping, and combat. Making such actions into the main meat of a story means that the story itself must be of a certain kind. The invention of new control devices brings new things into the realm of challenge: Guitar Hero gives us a fake guitar, Wii an assortment of gestural analogies, the iPhone a device responsive to subtle tilting and shaking. But has this changed very much the nature of the stories told using these devices? The specifics of the challenge may be different -- now the hero's journey is a journey to become a great rock star, say -- but the story arc is unchanged. Another problem with using challenge this way is that it is hard to have significant plot development within the arc of the challenge. That is to say: in order to try to accomplish a goal, the player has to know what that goal is in advance, and the goal has to remain essentially stable as the player moves toward it. So this leads to dull challenge narratives: "Thog approached the dragon, climbed on its back, and drove the sword into the back of its head." That might be a delightful passage to play, and figuring out how to climb on the back might take a lot of work, but the story is not interesting. It's possible to subvert this problem a little, with challenges that change their significance as the player works on them. Interactive fiction and adventure games often, and other genres sometimes, start the player working on one mission and then have that mission evolve into something quite different over the course of solution. (Consider the outcome of Myst, for instance, to choose an extremely obvious example.) But this always raises the design difficulty: how do we make sure the player always has agency, always has something to work towards, even as we alter the point of the challenge? All right: so what if the player's challenge and the protagonist's challenge are not the same thing? Or what if the function of the challenge is something other than doling out quantities of story? Is there a way in which challenge can make a story more powerful or more significant rather than less? I think the answer is "yes", but that the way requires a) giving the player a way to find more content in the challenge, or b) putting some aspect of the challenge in tension, so that it shapes the player's emotional investment in some important way. Mechanic as metaphor. This is what Blow talks about as "dynamical meaning", found in Braid as well as Passage and The Marriage: the thing that you are using as the basis of gameplay also represents some other conceptual or thematic aspect of the game world. In Braid, this may be the fickleness of memory, the association of specific places with specific times, the desire to be exactly perfect in a relationship and so never to need true forgiveness. As Blow points out, the mechanic-as-metaphor approach usually works better as a meditation on some theme than as a means to story-telling exactly. Passage, if it tells a story, tells a very generic one; Braid, a slightly confusing one far less compelling than the play that accompanies it. The Marriage arguably tells no story at all. Challenge to measure devotion. The game is hard, saving the best story rewards -- or an explanation of what is truly going on -- for those who have shown their commitment to the game by persisting through its hardest levels. This is implicit in lots of games, but it needs a lot of framework to become interesting from a storytelling perspective. Braid does a little bit of this, of course: the player's determination to finish all the levels and piece together all the puzzles is the equivalent of Tim's determination to pursue the princess and understand the universe's hints about what would make his life go right. The Mighty Jill-Off (as I understand, though I haven't tried it) frames its platform challenge as a way to express one's devotion to a sadistic mistress. Or, as an alternative, the game is not so much difficult as it is dull or demanding -- as The Path demands large amounts of time, and allows the player to share the experience of the protagonists' boredom and frustration. In this case the challenge or patience-requiring element may become a representation of the protagonist's passion -- both passion in the modern sense of intense desire, and in the original sense of suffering and endurance. But it also asks, why will the player bother to demonstrate this passion? Why should we have to enact the suffering of the protagonist when we don't necessarily share her sources of misery (The Path) or his infatuations (Braid)? In my experience this kind of structure works best when the protagonist is well-enough characterized that the player feels like he's playing some role. In The Path, it took me a long time to come around to a reading of why the game's infuriating slowness mattered. In the meantime, the game lost a lot of points with me because I felt as though it was boring me through simple carelessness or bad design. In Braid, on the contrary, I generally felt that my willingness to replay a sequence over and over did correspond to something in the character I was learning about. Challenge to create complicity. Making something hard taps into the gamer's need to play and succeed, and this sometimes gets him to do things that he ordinarily wouldn't want to do, or wouldn't think was a good idea. In this structure, the gamer's solution-desire comes to stand in for whatever other ambition the player character is supposed to have, the one that makes him ignore tell-tale signs that what he is attempting might be wrong. Make It Good and Varicella both use this technique to bring the player in on the side of characters who are at best morally dubious and who are undertaking extremely doubtful tasks. Done well, this can produce a strong tension in the player -- especially in the case of Make It Good, where the nature of the protagonist is not completely obvious at the outset. Challenge as an opportunity to demonstrate many failure states as well as the success state. Sometimes the story -- especially horror -- only has its greatest strength if the player knows also what would have happened if things hadn't gone according to plan. Alternatively, the failures might have comedic value; think of all the training montages in movies where the hero makes a fool of himself a dozen ways before becoming an expert sword-fighter. Making failure states numerous and interesting changes the nature of the challenge: now, instead of getting no new story until the player passes some test, he instead explores the nature of the protagonist's problem by running into many failure cases as well as the edge case. This is an idea that has its place in more traditional media as well, of course -- many movies and books make use of side characters whose situation is similar to that of the main character but resolves differently due to some distinction in their choices or circumstances. Games simply allow the author to make all of these things happen to the same protagonist. Related to this is the idea of forced failure, where there is no way to win except by dying at least once. (The stock example in interactive fiction is 9:05.) It's hard to pull this off without making the player feel a bit annoyed and manipulated; ideally there needs to be some payoff in the nature of the story, some reason why a failure is the beginning from which success is built. Constraint can be framed as a challenge -- one that has been built in such a way as to be insoluble in fact. The player may try and try again to win, but he will always find that it is impossible; the illusion that it might not be impossible is what makes constraint powerful as an interactive storytelling device. Then the point of gameplay becomes an exploration of this blockage; the protagonist experiences the frustration of discovering that the universe is arranged against him. This is again a hard one to write well, especially because the player needs to come gradually but definitely to realize that success is impossible. If there is no clear point of realization, then there is the risk that the player will keep bashing his head against the game indefinitely, not understanding the point of the story but instead resenting the author for wasting his time. Challenge wedded to choice. There are multiple ways of doing something, but the best way is also perhaps the hardest. Then the challenge stands in for whatever motive the protagonist might have to take the easier route. This works only if the options -- one or more of them "gated" by challenges -- are clear to the player. Otherwise many players may choose the easier route because they don't even see that there is a difficult solution available. Moreover, the results will only have narrative significance if the challenge comprehensibly represents something that the protagonist would have to overcome -- addiction, sloth, social phobia, greed, anxiety -- to make the same choice. As a variation: there are multiple strategies available for solving the challenge, and the different strategies represent choices that the player is making about the protagonist's personality. Do we choose a quick and dirty solution, or play a subtle long game? Are we violent or sneaky? Some RPGs have made use of these elements, though there is also an obvious temptation to add value judgments to the different strategic approaches. So here are some possibilities, and I am sure that the list is not complete. One thing that is fairly consistent, though: most of these approaches work best if the protagonist is characterized in some concrete way and is not a generic analogue for the player. Several of the approaches also require that we set aside some preconceptions about what a story in a game might look like. A game story does not have to be the narrative that emerges from playing once. It might come out of playing many times; it might come of incorporating knowledge of failure or branch states that are subsequently "undone" and removed from the protagonist's official experience. Which is a fitting place to end an essay that started with Braid. [Emily Short is an interactive fiction author and part of the team behind Inform 7, a language for IF creation. She also maintains a blog on interactive fiction and related topics. She can be reached at emshort AT mindspring DOT com.]

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