Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Why Game Designers Should Understand Procedural Rhetoric

I am sometimes asked why I think stories in games need to improve.  Considering I'm studying nonlinear stories in games for my PhD project, I was for a long time unsatisfied with my answer.  But I finally figured out what my beef was about today's games and their stories.

My problem is that stories and gameplay far too often feel like separate activities.  The best stories tend to be told outside of the main mechanics (not necessarily via cut-scenes, but not during the main action either).   Many CRPG's with random encounters are guilty of this.  More recently, BioShock Infinite's story felt really separate from the shooting galleries that punctuated it.  The game felt very close to (if not exactly like) what Chris Crawford called a constipated story.  The only possible exception was the Hall of Heroes, where the environments passively provided backstory brilliantly alongside Slate's narration.  Even there, though, the slaughtering of hundreds of Slate's men felt forced, and the constant battling made it difficult to pay attention to anything else.

Beyond separating the story from the main mechanics, the meaning of what you do through gameplay may not even be tightly coupled to the story, or worse, may go against it.  We've been playing Red Dead Redemption, and I feel this dissonance fairly often.  In some quests (many of them optional, like the bounty hunting), you earn more honour or money for bringing back the bad guys alive.  Killing them sometimes even lowers your honour.  Yet in many of the main episodes, you kill multitudes of men and your honour goes up.  Even worse, in many conversation with Bonnie, your actual actions are not taken into account and she only ever paints you as an honourable man (or so it has gone for us so far - we are not yet finished the game).  Although some feel that the violence and shooter nature of BioShock Infinite has meaning, for most it creates a disconnect from the story the game tries to tell.

I've written a couple of times before about procedural rhetoric.  If you haven't checked out Ian Bogost's Persuasive Games, where the idea originated, be sure to do so.  As a reminder, procedural rhetoric in games is essentially using their rules and mechanics to make an argument (as opposed to, say, the words in the game or the visual elements).  I like to simply describe it as "saying something" with the mechanics, as I have discussed in the context of Sweatshop and Unmanned

Games whose designers don't consider procedural rhetoric end up running into problems like those mentioned above.  If you don't care what your mechanics are saying, your story could feel separate from them.  If your mechanics are saying one thing while the story says another, a troubling contradiction occurs.  But if designers carefully plan their game's mechanics so that what they say aligns with what the story wants to say, then, in my opinion, great masterpieces are possible.  And that is why designers should learn about procedural rhetoric.

Edit: I was reminded of the concept of ludonarrative dissonance, which describes my problem with stories and games quite well.  There's even an article about BioShock Infinite and this idea.  So basically what I am saying is that understanding procedural rhetoric and being mindful of what your mechanics are saying is one possible fix to ludonarrative dissonance.


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