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  • 09/02/15 02:52 PM
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    Narrative-Gameplay Dissonance

    Game Design and Theory

    Mark William Nations

    The Problem

    Many gamers have experienced the scenario where they must sacrifice their desire to roleplay in order to optimize their gameplay ability. Maybe you betray a friend with a previously benevolent character or miss out on checking out the scenery in a particular area, all just to get that new ability or character that you know you would like to have for future gameplay. The key problem here is one of Narrative-Gameplay Dissonance. The immersion of the game is destroyed so that you will confront the realities that...
    1. the game has difficulties.
    2. it is in your best interest to optimize your character for those difficulties.
    3. it may be better for you the player, not you the character, to choose one gameplay option over another despite the fact that it comes with narrative baggage.

    What To Do...

    One of the most important elements of any role-playing game is the sense of immersion players have. An experience can be poisoned if the game doesn't have believability, consistency, and intrigue. As such, when a player plays a game that is advertised as having a strong narrative, there is an implied relationship between the narrative designer and the player. The player agrees to invest their time and emotions in the characters and world. In return designers craft an experience that promises to keep them immersed in that world, one worth living in. In the ideal case, the player never loses the sense that they are the character until something external jolts them out of flow. To deal with the problem we are presented with, we must answer a fundamental question: Do you want narrative and gameplay choices intertwined such that decisions in one domain preclude a player's options in the other? If you would prefer that players make narrative decisions for narrative reasons and gameplay decisions for gameplay reasons, then a new array of design constraints must be established.
    • Narrative decisions should not...
      • impact the types of gameplay mechanics the player encounters.
      • impact the degree of difficulty.
      • impact the player's access to equipment and/or abilities.
    • Gameplay decisions should not...
      • impact the player's access to characters/environments/equipment/abilities.
      • impact the direction of plot points, both minor and major.
    Examples of these principles in action include The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings and Shadowrun: Dragonfall. In the Witcher 2, I can go down two entirely distinct narrative paths, and while the environments/quests I encounter may be different, I will still encounter...
    1. the same diversity/frequency of combat encounters and equipment drops.
    2. the same level of difficulty in the level(s) challenges.
    3. the same quality of equipment.
    In Shadowrun, players can outline a particular knowledge base for their character (Gang, Street, Academic, etc.) that is independent of their role or abilities. You can be a spirit-summoning Shaman that knows about both street life and high society. The narrative decisions presented to players are then localized to a narrative decision made at the start rather than on the gameplay decision that affects what skills/abilities they can get.


    To be fair, there a few caveats to these constraints; it can be perfectly reasonable for a roleplay decision to affect the game mechanics. One example would be if you wanted to pull a Dark Souls and implement a natural game difficulty assignment based on the mechanics your character exploits. In Dark Souls, you can experience an "easy mode" in the form of playing as a mage. Investing in range-based skills that have auto-refilling ammo fundamentally makes the game easier to beat compared to short-range skills that involve more risk. It is important to note, however, that the game itself is still very difficult to beat, even with a mage-focus, so the premise of the series' gameplay ("Prepare to Die") remains in effect despite the handicap. Another caveat scenario is when the player makes a decision at the very beginning of the game that impacts what portions of the game they can access or which equipment/abilities they can use. Star Wars: The Old Republic has drastically different content and skills available based on your initial class decision. In this case, you are essentially playing a different game, but with similar mechanics. In addition, those mechanics are independent regardless. It is not as if choosing to be a Jedi in one playthrough somehow affects your options as a Smuggler the next go around. There are two dangers inherent in this scenario though. Players may become frustrated if they can reasonably see two roles having access to the same content, but are limited by these initial role decisions. If different "paths" converge into a central path, then players may also dislike facing a narrative decision that clearly favors one class over another in a practical sense, resulting in a decision becoming a mere calculation.


    Should you wish to avoid the following scenarios, here are some suggestions for particular cases that might help ensure that your gameplay and narrative decisions remain independent from each other.

    Case 1: Multiple Allied or Playable Characters

    Conduct your narrative design such that the skills associated with a character are not directly tied to their nature, but instead to some independent element that can be switched between characters. The goal here is to ensure that a player is able to maintain both a preferred narrative state and a preferred gameplay state when selecting skills or abilities for characters and/or selecting team members for their party. Example: The skills associated with a character are based on weapon packs that can be swapped at will. The skills for a given character are completely determined by the equipment they carry. Because any character can then fill any combat role, story decisions are kept independent from gameplay decisions. Regardless of how I want to design my character or team, the narrative interaction remains firmly in the player's control.

    Case 2: Branching Storyline

    Design your quests such that...
    1. gameplay-related artefacts (either awarded by quests or available within a particular branching path) can be found in all paths/questlines so that no quest/path is followed solely for the sake of acquiring the artefact. Or at the very least, allow the player to acquire similarly useful artefacts so that the difference does not affect the player's success rate of overcoming obstacles.
    2. level design is kept unique between branches, but those paths have comparable degrees of difficulty / gameplay diversity / etc.
    3. narrative differences are the primary distinctions you emphasize.
    Example: I've been promised a reward by the mayor if I can solve the town's troubles. A farmer and a merchant are both in need of assistance. I can choose which person to help first. With the farmer, I must protect his farm from bandits. With the merchant, I must identify who stole his merchandise. Who I help first will have ramifications later on. No matter what I do, I will encounter equally entertaining gameplay, the same amount of experience, and the same prize from the mayor. Even if I only had to help one of them, I should still be able to meet these conditions. I also have the future narrative impacted by my decision, implying a shift in story and/or level design later on.

    Case 3: Exclusive Skill-Based Narrative Manipulation

    These would be cases where your character can exclusively invest in a stat or ability that gives them access to unique dialogue choices. In particular, if you can develop your character along particular "paths" of a tree (or some equivalent exclusive choice) and if the player must ultimately devote themselves to a given sub-tree of dialogue abilities, then there is the possibility that the player may lose the exact combination they long for. Simply ensure that the decision of which super-dialogue-ability can be used is separated from the overall abilities of the character. Therefore, the player doesn't have to compromise their desire to explore a particular path of the narrative simply because they wish to also use particular combat abilities associated with the same sub-set of skills. I would also suggest providing methods for each sub-tree of skills to grant abilities which eventually bring about the same or equivalently valuable conclusions to dialogue decisions. Example: I can lie, intimidate, or mind control people based on my stats. If I wish to fight with melee stuff, then I really need to have high Strength. In other games, that might assume an inefficiency in mind control and an efficiency with intimidation (but I really wanna roleplay as a mind-hacking warrior). Also, there are certain parts of the game I want to experience that can only be done when selecting mind-control-associated dialogue options. Thankfully, I actually do have this option. And even if I had the option of using intimidation or lying where mind control is also available, regardless of my decisions, my quest will be completed and I will receive the same type of rewards (albeit with possibly different narrative consequences due to my method).


    If you are like me and you get annoyed when narrative and gameplay start backing each other into corners, then I hope you'll be able to take advantage of these ideas. Throw in more ideas in the comments below if you have your own. Comments, criticisms, suggestions, all welcome in further discussion. Let me know what you think. Happy designing!

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    Interesting article. Tbh though, I think way too many people are far too concerned with others' expectations of them. I think the most important quality that we can have as game "psychologists", is to not generalize players. There's a playerbase for everything.

    Of course, some things are more universal than others. But I like to think that trends don't define games - games define trends. This is true for almost every major success ever released, with some sequelitis exceptions. The trend has emerged as a result of the success rather than its preceding factor.

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    Interesting article. Tbh though, I think way too many people are far too concerned with others' expectations of them. I think the most important quality that we can have as game "psychologists", is to not generalize players. There's a playerbase for everything.

    Of course, some things are more universal than others. But I like to think that trends don't define games - games define trends. This is true for almost every major success ever released, with some sequelitis exceptions. The trend has emerged as a result of the success rather than its preceding factor.

    1. I definitely agree that we need to be conscientious of the diversity of the industry's player base. It's part of the reason I included the "exceptions" section of the article.

    2. I feel that this article scratches the surface of a particular "universal" principle, as you refer to it, that can be applied to all manner of games' narrative design. In each of these cases, I believe that there is a way to re-implement the design that will maintain the objective of the technique (multiple deep and involved characters, branching storylines, & limited control over dialogue scenarios), without somehow burdening the player with unnecessary stress or pressure. Admittedly, I am opinionated about them being "quality-compromising" practices, but I believe I'm not alone in my evaluation of the current trends in their usage.

    3. I would have to disagree with the concept that "trends don't define games - games define trends." Might there be a two-way street here? As a game developer, I draw from previous games, and trends in the industry, to develop the source material that is the collective set of ideas for a game. Then I attempt to innovate on those ideas in some manner (so that it's not just a straight up copy of a preceding product), producing "new" content. If I'm lucky, it is successful, and other games in turn derive their content from it, then their use of the game would, in turn, convert my game design INTO a trend. I could become proud to see my work as a trend-setter. So I both draw from others and possibly have others draw from me, i.e. trends defining games / games defining trends.

    4. If by "The trend has emerged as a result of the success rather than its preceding factor," you mean that people have been using the designs I've mentioned because they have been successful, and not simply because they are the way things have been done previously, I would agree with you. In every case, there is something admirable in the goals of the narrative design and mechanics. But also in every case, there are design problems permeating nearly every iteration of it in the industry. This would imply a need for us as game designers to re-evaluate them and decide - NOT whether the narrative design is successful or valuable - but whether there is a capacity for an evolution of the design into something greater.

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    Good article, Will.


    I'm all in favor of decoupling systems within a design, but your suggestion opens up a whole new can of worms:


    If your overall design requires or encourages balance you can not really have a "mind-hacking warrior".

    Simplification: Either very strong or very intelligent, otherwise would be overpowered.

    Outsourcing the skill set to (swappable) equipment would not remove this completely.


    You'll have to design around many possibilities of emerging ludonarrative dissonance.

    A gentle, intelligent and caring Close-Combat-Type who gets pushed to slay hundreds of dragon-puppies because that's the most (only?) effective way to get somewhere specific for that skill set.


    The more one designs around this, the greater the danger of having to "dumb down" encounters and levels in general.

    I can't remember offhand which one it was, but one of the early Deus Ex games became very easy if you played an all-around Type because the levels/encounters simply had to be doable with all types of combinations (still tons of fun, though).


    A more or less inherent connection between mechanics and narrative can be easily violated and can in turn lead to "narrative-gameplay dissonance".

    There's no "Game Master" in interactive computer games (yet), who judges players decisions, gameplay or story related, and will block the player from acting, based on something like alignment.

    I've given this a fair amount of thought and prototyped a simple system that does this good enough for games.

    Using it would require far more design in pre-production and keep in mind, it wouldn't help with the level/encounter problem of having to "dumb down".


    I feel that with todays technology one either has to keep possible variations and freedom of choice in restraints or have a big budget to expand and fine tune design and worldbuilding.

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    Interesting. Game narrative can be frustrating indeed. I'm particularly thinking of "rail shooters" with a single storyline or a few branches, where "gameplay" consists of shooting baddies and moving to the next map marker to advance the linear narrative. Or CYOA games where narrative is entirely determined by dialogue choices.


    My current project does the opposite of what this article advises: narrative is tightly wedded to, and subservient to, gameplay. Conversations merely provide feedback for the player's actions, so they're short conversations with few choices. I try to leave as much as possible to the imagination. Guideline: "Imagination > Action > Cinematics > Narrative". Actions can have drastic consequences; it's possible to win or lose in 10 minutes. It's a short-play RPG with many possible outcomes so that should be ok. It's an experiment anyway.

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