Games are Structure

(Forget it, this is going up as is. – Eric Swain)

My last post was really only the first half of a longer first draft I wrote on paper. When transcribing it I realized it started to meander and connect too many points, so I cut it down and resettled everything else into another post where it would hopefully make more sense.

I wrote about how my exposure to Dungeons and Dragons 4th edition at PAX East sparked that tabletop creative part of me and I started a new campaign. Well here is where I bring that journey full circle back to PAX. While there I got into a discussion with Matthew Gallant and Alex Horn where we got to talking about structure in video games, namely Far Cry 2.

I was told the story of how, apparently, the other writers of the game wanted to give the player the option at the very beginning of the game to shoot the Jackal while lying in bed in a malaria stupor. CLINT HOCKING shot this idea down, though he had to fight to get rid of it. It may make a nice bullet point on the back of the box, but if the Jackal is dead, why would you play the rest of the game. Your ultimate overarching objective had been removed. Even as the game is, some people feel that the final objective’s presences isn’t felt enough to make it noticeable and via consequence the game is missing direction. It’s one reason I respect CLINT HOCKING, despite hating the first title he worked on, he understands structure. When I heard the story it took me less than a second to realize there was a problem and identify it.

Please correct me if I’m wrong about the story, but from the sounds of it, the other writers didn’t see a sliver of a problem and thought it was a good idea. So many others, like them don’t get it and throw a lot of cool things into a pile in an attempt to racket up the tension higher and higher.

I can’t just be imagining it. It’s lack of structure that had most of us scratching our heads about No Russian’s point in Modern Warfare 2 or the numerous plot holes riddled throughout Heavy Rain. It’s lack of structure that has me rolling my eyes every time someone brings up Prince of Persia (2008)or force catatonic boredom during grind sessions in JRPGs. It’s why Brutal Legend stops so short it gave me whiplash. It’s where the cries of outrage came from the retconning of Fallout 3′s ending. It’s why people call Bioshock’s last third a padding waste of time. And it’s because of structure that Portal is hailed as one of the greatest video games ever made.

It is a complaint that comes up again and again even if it’s not expressly what people are saying. Sometimes they don’t understand why something is bad and they latch on to the most obvious, a shoddy sequence that tries to make plywood take the place of hardwood dining room floors, when really it could be that the termite riddled supports can’t sustain the oak.

Since designers are incorporating story more and more into games, then they have to follow a basic structure. It wouldn’t interfere with gameplay or difficulty. Instead a grasp and implementation of structure would compliment and better the product overall. It would allow for clear and reasoned direction so we wont end up with dead points, ludic gates, anti-pacing amping up of action or failure to end a game properly. (Or begin one for that matter.)

I think some of it comes from most of us having grown up in the 8-bit and 16-bit gaming era where the whole game was set as an extended third act and the backstory relegated to optional material. Now we are setting ourselves up to experience the whole story, with developer only having the skills from an earlier age.

Now this isn’t true for everyone. Bioware knows structure, almost fanatically so. Valve understands pacing like its nobodies business. Bungie doesn’t care for an overall product so much as the next 5 minutes flow and it works. But structure doesn’t just mean pacing it also means setting.

We already know what video games are better at than any other medium. Games are better at setting a world up for players to experience. Fallout 3 put you in the wasteland. The Silent Hill games are terrifying, because the town in a place that becomes real. Rapture was as much a character in Bioshock as Andrew Ryan was. Even Left4Dead story works in its minimalism. The best stories from these worlds were the found stories. Clues and hints in a world that suggested a story outside itself.

Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor has a story so divorced from its gameplay, I marvel at who thought to put them together. The game is all about feeding your spider and making his way through the mansion. The story is about a love triangle and family betrayal all told through found objects that make up the world. It’s a perfect case study of what games do best.

Uncharted 2, by contrast, gave us such an authored narrative, with linear active story engagement up the ass, but what it had better than every other game was a detailed understanding of plot pacing. Amy Hennig knew that a story arc doesn’t go up and up until the climax; it sweeps up generally with pits and lulls all along the way. Uncharted 2 does this artful precision, even if the story itself is a bit trite.

The Metal Gear Solid series, for all their over verboseness, have marvelous structure when it comes to pacing out the action. (Maybe not so much MGS4.) There aren’t really lulls, but a constant state of tension thrown into sharp relief by the high action sequences. When you are not in alert phase the game is very quiet and toned down, with the ever-present threat of being caught around every corner. It allows the world to keep tension there, but it is such a gradual climb, that it could be said that it was level, until you are spotted and have to run for it.

Tension, action and compelling are not synonyms. I have yawned at over extended action sequences, because I frankly didn’t care. When a system built to pull you into a world is only interesting because the player is metagaming it, you have a problem. When external incentives like achievements and trophies are why you keep playing or why you are expected to keep playing, it’s a problem. If your game is designed to draw the players in on merits of ouroboros like activity, see Farmville, it’s a problem. A game that cannot stand on it’s own merits has a problem. (Another rant for another time.)

Structure, however a designer employs it are the bread and butter of the medium. At its most basic, structure is the rule set that governs its magic circle. At its most expansive it is how all information is delineated from the system to the player and back again.

To paraphrase last weeks post, cause it is such a good line: the designer creates the story, but the player creates the plot. Just make sure you know which part you’re dabbling in. CLINT HOCKING did.

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