Exploring Game Mechanics as Narrative Elements

The way the unique elements of film and literature affect the narrative discourse has been studied extensively. For example, the way that lighting or framing affects the way viewers see a scene in a movie. Even the differences between television and film and the impact on the narrative discourse is well explored. Games on the other hand are rarely viewed in such a narratological light, and often when they are, it is purely negative. Games have existed for thousands of years and film has only been around for a couple centuries, yet it is rare for anyone to have analyzed the stories that games tell. Perhaps it is because only through recent technological advances that games have started to tell explicit stories, but board games like Risk or Monopoly tell stories without any advanced technology. Specifically video games have been the target of modern narratologist/ludologist exploration.

Video games tell explicit stories, very similarly in some ways to film and literature, but also with completely unique elements. Specifically the inclusion of interactivity and rules or game mechanics. These two elements of games as a narrative medium are what are most interesting and specific, but there has been very little exploration into the ways they affect narrative. One noteworthy experiment explores a game devoid of any story, all entities almost completely abstract. This study concluded that,

“all other things being equal, game mechanics play a role in shaping how a player perceives the narrative of a game.”

With that being established, it is worth exploring popular and notable game mechanics and storytelling elements affect the narrative discourse of video games.

A perfect starting point, which draws from the studies of film, is the way the camera in games contributes to the way the story is experienced. What the player can see obviously plays an important role in the focalization of the story. The biggest example would probably be the different perspective in games, from first person, to third person, to top down views. Each impact the way the game is played and experienced. Even the difference between having the camera follow one character versus allowing the player to have free control makes a big difference. More interesting are examples where the camera is an active gameplay element. In Super Mario Bros. the camera can only move right. This encourages forward progression and also adds an element of impact to the players decisions, if they miss a power up for example, they can’t go back and get it. This method most likely draws from a similar film technique, a great example would be the movie Snowpiercer which a youtuber explores here. This effect is amplified by the two dimensional space the game takes place in, there is only moving forward. Another very cool example of the camera would be the Silent Hill series, the limited view of the rooms and lack of control over the camera enforces the suspense of the game and the themes of powerlessness.

A good jumping off point of camera angles that still works with the focalization of games is the common mechanic of a “fog of war”. This is the way most games restrict the player’s knowledge intentionally. In strategy games like the Civilization series the player must explore to gain vision of different areas, and if they don’t have any way to see an area, like troops or a city, they can no longer see what is happening there. This is also very common in roguelikes as the exploration during each run is a big part of the game. Vision as a game mechanic can also be used in other ways like in FTL where the player can buy upgrades in order to gain better information on enemies or the map. While it may not seem to tie directly into the literature based definition of focalization, what the player sees is a huge part of the information they have. Games have the unique ability to allow the player to be in control of how what they see. Similar to how perspective shifts in literature or film, but engaging with the interactivity of games.

While looking at limited player knowledge, a few games use the engagement the player has with their character to enhance the impact of restricting knowledge from the player. In Spec Ops: The Line, the player is forced repeatedly to make decisions that have impacts on the lives of civilians and their allies. Giving the player the ability to choose makes the effects of the choices seem much more meaningful. It also adds room for the player to ask why they made the choices they did. A really cool way a game addressed this was in Bioshock where the main character was being mind controlled the whole time, this feels much more important than perhaps in a movie where a character is being mind controlled, instead it was the player themselves that were affected. Bioshock also is a great example of the ways games can deal with nuances in the narrative discourse of games. No other medium has to deal with the player losing. A movie goer can’t fail at something and be forced to restart the movie. Bioshock, like other games, explains this inside the narrative space through cloning machines. The way games deal with these nuances of the medium is an interesting example of combining the narrative discourse with the story itself.

Games which focus the story around the player embrace the interactivity of games. MMOs are good examples of this, specifically the game EVE Online. The game doesn’t have a traditional story at all, instead giving the players the tools to create conflict and narrative themselves. Wars in the game even have real world consequences, the biggest battle in the game cost over $300,000. These games embrace the sandbox nature of games, giving the players rules and allowing stories to emerge naturally. Minecraft also acts as a great example which gets explored more here.

Another way that games commonly attempt to create a more natural feeling of narrative are the branching paths offered in games like Mass Effect or Infamous. Players decide how they want to act via prompts in game. These attempts are worth looking at as they are trying to integrate the player interaction and choice into the game and story. This is something that definitely can be improved upon though. These choices make the story have more in common with choose your own adventure books and dip towards traditional storytelling through literature. While not inherently making the games bad, in fact both examples are great games and highly successful. The way they achieve an interactive mode of storytelling is artificial, creating a story told with a faux distance. Player interaction can be used much more effectively as a narrative element.

In this article I had hoped to explore some of the commonly used mechanics for storytelling in games as well as some of the most common mechanics in games and the impact they have on the way games tell stories. This is by no means comprehensive nor specific, I think an entire article could be spent just on the ways games address health. Mechanics are to games what cinematography s to film,  the rules of the game world shape the way players experience them and this article is just the tip of the iceberg in exploring the new ways stories can be told. Looking at what works and what doesn’t, and why, is the best way to create compelling games, and the tools in narratology are perfect for this analysis in games.

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