Narrative-Gameplay Dissonance

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 player’s make narrative decisions for narrative reasons and gameplay decisions for gameplay reasons, then a new array of design constraints must be established.

  1. 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.
  2. 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 levels’ 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.

Exceptions

To be fair, there are a few caveats to these constraints; it can be perfectly reasonable for a roleplay decision to affect the game mechanics. An obvious example of this would simply be the goal of having gameplay that supports the narrative. While that is extremely important in its own right (in most ANY game), our concern is mainly for dealing with situations where the attempt to follow a narrative or gameplay motivation begins to conflict over our motivations for the other. Assuming that you wish to have a narrative integrated with gameplay at all, the following are exceptions to the previously stated goals.

if you wanted to pull a Dark Souls, you could implement a natural game difficulty assignment based on the mechanics your character exploits. Dark Souls allow you to 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. As an example, Star Wars: The Old Republic has drastically different content and skills available based on your initial class decision. You are essentially playing a different game, and while they may have similar mechanics, they nonetheless possess a prime independence. It is not as if choosing to be a Jedi in one playthrough somehow affects your options as a Smuggler the next go around. And even if it could, the only way to breach our implied contract would be to make it more economically advantageous for the player to start their SWTOR experience with a particular class.

There are two dangers inherent in this second 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. This applies in both a gameplay and narrative sense. If one type of Jedi got a fancy lightsaber and the other one got a fancy cloak (perhaps because one type is offensive focused and the other, defense-focused), then player’s may be frustrated by their inability to choose. In a narrative sense, if there were some type of Force-specific plotline that was denied one or the other Jedi-types, players may be confused/annoyed (what if they wanted to play through that same storyline but with a different class?).

The other danger is that 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. Continuing the Star Wars example, if one class has a natural affinity for gaining influence over conversations and the other doesn’t, and if the player sees that they can very clearly get more control over the narrative using the first class, then that incentivizes them to NOT play the second class at all.

Suggestions

While you may not necessarily wish to implement them, 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 the player wants to design their character or team, the narrative interaction remains firmly in their 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 quest paths so that no 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).

Conclusion

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!

Greetings Internet

This site will be a combination blog and portfolio, as soon as I actually get around to uploading some content I’ve worked on.

The topics addressed will involve the game industry, game development, game design, and narrative design in regards to games.

I look forward to joining the vibrant and growing community of developers and designers around the world. 😉