Jeremy, freelance game designer and writer, discusses using Narrative Mechanics as a tool to create emotions in games.
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Interviewer: Hey, welcome to the show. How about you introduce yourself?
Jeremy: Hi, my name is Jeremy Bernstein. I’m a free lance writer and game designer working in both the film and television industry as well as, obviously, the game industry in a variety of different projects, from AAA titles to much more independent and serious ones.
Interviewer: You gave an interesting talk at GDC Online in Austin, Texas, on narrative mechanics. Can you discuss what narrative mechanics are?
Jeremy: Sure. So, what I think of as narrative mechanics, it sort of grows out of an area that I’ve done a lot of work in, serious games. Serious games, for anyone who doesn’t know, are sort of like the documentary wing of the games industry. That’s how I like to think of them. They’re games with an educational or socially motivated purpose.
One of the things we talk about in serious games, learning games, is that you create really good learning games, good experiential learning where your game mechanics mirror your learning objectives, right?
Everybody’s seen games like Math Invaders where you just slap some kind of learning content on top of pre-existing mechanics. But those games don’t make for good learning experiences. In order to get good learning, you need to create new mechanics that mirror that really fit with what you’re trying to teach.
So, this is considered a best practice in making serious games, and that sort of reasoning got me thinking about entertainment games and the ways that entertainment games create emotion. And usually we sort of rely on the trappings of Hollywood, on dialogue, on scenes, on cut scenes and so on and so forth.
But this got me thinking well, if we can use emotions, if mechanics can mirror a learning objective, what if we create mechanics that mirror an emotional experience. And, therefore, create emotion not through the story, not through the scenes of a dialogue and all that stuff but trying to create emotion through the mechanics themselves.
And so, that’s what I call narrative mechanics, and I think it’s a really interesting technique of telling stories, I guess, really in games.
Interviewer: Can you give an example then of a game that uses this mechanism of narrative mechanics, or how narrative mechanics would be applied to a specific game so the audience can have a clear sense of how this would be used?
Terence: Sure. My personal favorite example, I talk about it for 20 minutes in my talk, is actually the Battlestar Galactica board game which is based on the television series which anyone who has seen the show knows it’s a very heavy, very emotional experience. And the mechanics of this game are just built pretty much across the board to replicate that emotional experience. I’m not going to go on for 20 minutes about that here, but I highly recommend the game. It’s a lot of fun in a sort of soul crushing way, much like the television series.
But I guess in electronic games I think to me one of the best examples would probably be… I like, Dead Space. The first Dead Space game, I think, does a great job. And they do a great job across the board in that game of creating a frightening experience through the art direction, through the visuals, through the animated design, through the story. You know, there are a lot of techniques that they do.
One of the experiences that I had playing the game which I thought was really profound. I played a bunch of games that use very similar mechanics to Dead Space before. Gears of War comes to mind as a particular one where you have to hold down the right trigger, I think it is. You hold down the right trigger in order to raise your weapon, and then you pull the other trigger in order to fire it, right?
And so, the mechanics, you’re in a position where you have to take action to raise that weapon up, unlike, say, Halo where your weapon is always ready. In Dead Space you have to take action and pull that trigger in order to bring the weapon to bear which is what it’s like in real life. If you’re actually walking through a space ship that’s full of zombies with a gun, if you don’t keep that gun up you can’t shoot it.
And one of the things that I thought I was having tremendous tension in my finger from keeping that trigger squeezed so tight to keep that gun up. That mechanic created this additional sense of tension in me on a whole new level from what I would experience if I were just watching a scary movie. If I were just watching Aliens, I wouldn’t be feeling that same physical tension. So, there’s a mechanic right there that creates an emotional experience in the player.
Interviewer: So, would you say then it’s pretty much taking a real world experience or a specific experience and just trying to figure out a way where players are just simulating? That contrast with the Math Blaster where it’s just really taking math and there’s really no story integration in it. I’m trying to clarify exactly how a designer would go about using these narrative mechanics to make more effective game or a more compelling game.
Jeremy: Well, the thing that I like to do when I’m working on something is, as a game designer you’re asking the question: what does the player do? And then, the next step to that to me is to say, “How do I want the player to feel?” It’s not just game design. It’s an experience design.
Do I want them to be excited? Do I want them to be tense? Do I want them to be scared? Do I want this to be difficult? Do I want them to feel exertion or exhaustion or hope or whatever? And then, the question is how can I create that sensation with the tools at my command which typically is your standard two stick control?
Interviewer: And then so, a designer would say, maybe, at certain parts of the game how do they want to convey a certain emotion or experience, and that’s when they would apply these. They would figure out how they can do that using these narrative mechanics.
Jeremy: Yeah. The first question is what’s the sensation I’m trying to evoke, and the next question is how do I go about doing that?
Interviewer: Now, you mentioned controllers, but what about… How does this relate to building multiplayer? Are there certain emotions or certain feelings or experiences that you can only get by doing multiplayer design or other kind of… not really controller-based type or something that transcends more than a controller? Is that something that you’ve explored yet, or is that still evolving in your current understanding of narrative mechanics?
Jeremy: Well, there’s a couple of elements to this, right? First off, there’s the whole motion control revolution. I think to me the reason why Wii Sports has remained as popular a game as it has since the launch of the Wii is because it makes you feel like you’re playing tennis. It makes you feel like you’re bowling. It gives you that exertion, that sense of motion.
I have seen people dive across the living room in order to try and hit a virtual tennis ball on the Wii, and that’s the fun of it. It’s not only doing it but watching other people do it. It recreates that sensation. So, I think that motion control adds a whole dimension to this kind of thing.
Rock Band is a great example, right? Rock Band is awesome playing the little guitar thing. If you were just pressing ABXY buttons on the standard Xbox controller to play Rock Band, it would be lame.
Jeremy: So, there’s some element to the motion control, to the replication of real actions that makes them that much more fun. So, that’s sort of one element to it. I’m still waiting to see what happens with Lou, what happens with Kinect, how is this really going to change the face of how we make games.
Is it going to change how we make games, or are they going to, basically, remain toys for casual players, and most of the serious gaming is going to stick on the dual sticks? I don’ know.
The other element when we’re talking about multiplayer, I don’t know what is and what isn’t possible. I know what people have done. I know what works for me, and mileage always varies on a lot of these things.
Interviewer: So, this is… go ahead. Go ahead.
Jeremy: Well, I think multiplayer has a lot of opportunities to create some very intense emotional experiences because of the fact that you’re actually interacting with other people. Left for Dead, multiplayer Left for Dead is vastly superior, I think, to single player.
The difference there is that you’re playing with other people as opposed to playing with an AI. Left for Dead actually has some great narrative mechanics in it. The enemy design in Left for Dead, the whole game is designed to make you feel independent, inter-dependent, excuse me.
So, that’s a great example and in multiplayer it’s very much enhanced because you’re actually relying on people, you’re not relying on the system to save you when you get in trouble.
Interviewer: So, a game designer should first ask, what’s the experience to try and communicate what’s the emotion, and then they figure out visuals and mechanics. It’s interesting because you brought up Rock Band so even, maybe, the controller itself. It’s just communicating part of that experience.
Jeremy: I think that one of the places that games fall down, and I think Hollywood is much better at it than the games industry is so far is creating a cohesive emotional hole. Most of the time we focus on creating a cohesive game play hole.
Our focus is on the level design which way do I go and can I see all the things that are important. Does it stand out just enough that it sort of catches the eye, but not so much that it’s obvious and all that sort of stuff.
That’s all good, don’t get me wrong. That’s all very important. But you don’t, I think, get as much of everybody from the game designers to the art directors to the writers who usually aren’t even involved in the process early on. You don’t get everybody talking about the emotional experience in the same way, at least, not often. It happens, but it doesn’t happen often enough.
Interviewer: In the examples you gave in the talk, it was mainly mechanics that kind of conveyed somewhat negative emotions, like helplessness or fear, stuff like that. And then, I think you mentioned that some other people brought up some other interesting types of mechanics that can communicate more positive emotions.
Have you explored that since the talk? Some of the things you mentioned were building mechanics. Are there any other explorations on ways to reach positive emotions versus the negative emotions that you mentioned in the talk?
Jeremy: I’m sure there are. I haven’t had a chance to explore too many of them. Minecraft has really taken off since then. I think there’s an interesting one. Part of the problem is you look at most multiplayer games are still about either shooting your friend in the face, which is fine in a game.
That or… I’m going to get reamed for this statement. It’s ridiculous, but most multiplayer games out there are either shooting people in the face, or they’re like Facebook games which aren’t really interactive games at all. There aren’t a whole lot of examples of really good multiplayer with interesting interaction.
A lot of MMOs, I think, the sort of team sense that can be built in a good guild, I think, is a really good example. I know Warcraft, World of Warcraft has some great ones. Combats require some really good, close knit teamwork, or you’re just going to get yourself reamed. I think those are really interesting examples.
Interviewer: That teamwork affords the opportunity for more interesting narrative mechanics, too, if it’s done right.
Jeremy: Yeah, absolutely. And I’ll tell you one of the interesting things when you’re talking about Facebook games. Frontierville is a really interesting Facebook game because it does have some level of story to it. It’s mission based, and there’s sort of building a family on the frontier, getting a…
Interviewer: So, in a way that’s an application of narrative mechanics because the story is kind of integrated into the game play to an extent, if I’m understanding things correctly.
Jeremy: Well, the mission design is usually to some extent story design, but it’s not emotional design.
Interviewer: OK. Gotcha. So, it would have to be one step further. So, a designer, say, working on Frontierville, when they’re designing a quest, not only would they have to say what the story is going to be, they should start from the first concept of what’s the emotion they want to communicate. I’m just trying to clarify how a designer would then use narrative mechanics in, say, for designing Frontierville or something else like that.
Jeremy: Well, let’s take the example of Frontierville, not to second guess what they’ve done over there with their purposes.
Jeremy: It’s really interesting to me what it’s like. OK, I’m out here on the frontier, and oh look I can bring my girlfriend out and we can get married. Now, that’s something that I want to do because that’s what people want.
And so, to me as a designer, I say like, what’s that experience feel like? What’s that experience of, I’m trying to earn enough money so that I can bring my partner out here so that we can be together. There’s hope. There’s…
Interviewer: There’s hopefulness, yeah.
Jeremy: Hopefulness. There’s some degree of urgency, maybe some nervousness. Is it all going to go well? And so, that’s what I would do next to take the emotional experience of that. Anticipation is the right word. If I was to sum it up into one, anticipation.
And so, then the question becomes how do I create missions that lead to that where the mechanics, the going around, what you’re clicking, what you’re doing, leads to a sense of anticipation. Does it make sense to have a mission where you have to pick wildflowers to have a bouquet, you know, go around and find little flowers and things. Maybe, that helps build into that. I don’t know. But those are the sorts of questions that I would ask.
Interviewer: And maybe another question that could be, how can I involve my friends to communicate that emotion, too, or to reach that emotion, or how do I engage other players, not just the game itself but other players, too?
Jeremy: Absolutely. Frontierville does an interesting job of requiring interaction with your friends in order to get the things that you’re looking for. And it’s funny because, you know, in order to bring the wife out, you need to build a general store. In order to build a general store, you need to get building materials which you can only get from your friends as gifts.
So now, here’s an interesting example where it’s like, you have to get help from your friends in order to bring your fiancé out, but what you’re getting is hammers and nails.
Jeremy: That doesn’t really mirror the experience to me emotionally of like I need to build a store. Anyway, that fixes the mechanics model that they had built for the engine, and they built for a bunch of other things.
But I think it leaves you open to some interesting possibilities, like what else could we do? How else could you get your friends involved in wanting to plan your wedding? I will say I think the very last mission you have to do in order to do that is you need ribbons from your friends.
Interviewer: I guess so. I guess they’re using gifting. I guess that’s the purpose of friends. In their case, it’s just providing gifts, and those gifts are nails or whatever else.
Jeremy: That’s the core interactive mechanic between friends in most of those sorts of Facebook games. They’re very limited in what they can do. They’re asynchronous games. It’s very different from a MMO or whatever. So, you have to work with the mechanics that you’ve got.
Interviewer: Well, even following the narrative mechanic concept, maybe if they just had different roles for those other friends, you know, just having different roles towards some kind of goal. So, instead of providing the gifts to build that or instead of providing the gifts needed for that wedding and actually playing specific roles in the wedding, I don’t know if they actually have it where your friends can be the bridesmaid or all that other stuff. Maybe, that would.
Jeremy: It’s funny. They don’t. I was just thinking about that, and there’s a mechanic in Mafia Wars that’s a similar, sort of, you know, you assign someone as your bodyguard or whatever.
Jeremy: Could you blend those two things? Sure. Now, of course, the problem you deal with whenever you’re talking about it, look this is a very heady and theoretical conversation, obviously. There’s a cost associated to bringing that functionality into your game, and so in a lot of cases, especially when you’re dealing with commercial games, you need to ask yourself. Is it worth it? Is it worth the cost to put this mechanic in?
I think to me these are questions really to be asked when you’re building something at the ground level. What’s Frontierville about as a game in the broad sense, and what’s the emotional experience of that? It’s about crafting something out of nothing. It’s about making your space where before there was just untamed wilderness.
I think to some extent the initial mechanics in Frontierville actually do a pretty good job of mimicking that, clearing land and trying to get established. So, that’s really the question on a broad scope. What is your game about, and when you’re designing mechanics from scratch how do you mimic that?
Interviewer: As you see games progressing, where do you see story playing? Where do you see the evolution of story in games? I know you mentioned that people do want stories, but you also brought up Tetris. You look at Bejeweled. You look at a lot of these simple games that have a huge audience. They’ve been played by a lot more people than some of these games that have deep and intricate stories.
So, where’s going to be that common ground where a game with story can hit mainstream? When I say mainstream, I’m talking about 50 or 100 million daily users or something else like that, kind of like Farmville or something.
Jeremy: Wow, that’s a complicated question, I think.
Interviewer: Maybe, the story just can’t be fantasy based. Maybe, it almost has to be intertwined with a person’s real life. That’s a scalable story because they’re already interested in their own life.
Jeremy: Yeah. I think that becomes more of a make your own story kind of thing. The issue with a lot of this stuff is really what is your attention window, right? A game like Fallout is great, but it’s what, a 60 hour game if you’re quick. Somebody was just talking about having just spent 200 hours playing Fallout 3. And I’m like, that’s awesome, but I don’t have 200 hours.
Interviewer: Yeah. Well, you do have 200 hours for your real life. So, you look at Facebook, right? A lot of game developers are, like, yeah, that’s the ultimate game. It’s perfect because it is about you and your friends, and you’re just learning about them. You’re clicking likes and all these other things and you’re sharing.
Jeremy: That becomes a game of justification question and all of that sort of stuff which I’m not… It’s a little outside my area of expertise.
Jeremy: But I think that part of the issue with Bejeweled is like the fact that you don’t need a story makes it a low impact game. You come in. You go. You play for as long as you’ve got, and you get out and so on and so forth. I think that part of the problem is that intricate narrative story telling as opposed to the sort of immersive story telling that you get off of a Facebook of whatever, that requires a little bit more commitment.
Interviewer: Yeah. Yeah. I was about to say that. I guess that’s a good point. So, really as a designer if you’re going to have story, you’re going to have to require the player to have longer time commitments to the game, at least, at this point given current game designer understanding.
Jeremy: Over the life of the game, yes.
Jeremy: The real question is how big of a chunk do players have? You play a Facebook game. You play for two minutes, and then you go away and you come back later.
Jeremy: Is a two minute chunk of time enough to tell a meaningful amount of story whereas you watch an episode of television, and that basically requires a 45 minute time commitment, all told. So, I think that’s part of the issue in terms of story telling and really big mass marketing sorts of games.
Interviewer: Well, yes. So, that’s pretty much it. I just wanted to just discuss the narrative mechanic concept because I think it’s an interesting tool for other game developers and game designers out there who want to figure out a more compelling way to communicate certain emotions through their games.
Are there any last words or suggestions that you have for game designers or developers that are looking to use narrative mechanics to make their games better?
Jeremy: Yes. I guess what I’m saying is it’s a hard problem. It’s getting into unknown territory. It’s getting into things that… It’s very much getting into games as an art form and sort of poking and prodding and seeing, well, what can we do with this? We know what we’ve done, but what are the new worlds out there that we’re just beginning to tap?
And so, I think to some extent I’d say we’re on the frontier. It’s an exciting place to be, and I’d say be daring. I’d say be responsible. I’d say be mature. To me, it’s the difference between games being an immature art form and games being a mature art form. So, I guess that’s what I’d say. I’d say, strive for that and have fun.
Interviewer: OK. Cool. Thank you very much.
Jeremy: No problem. Thank you.
Interviewer: Yep. Take care. Bye.
Jeremy: You too.