Story and Narrative Structures in Computer Games 1

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Time Structures of Game Play

Game Moves

A move within a game is an abstraction over player action, mapping action to a specific significance within the rule set and independent of local, personal and idiosyncratic variations in performance; a move is a connotation of a physical action allowed and facilitated by the semantic framing of the game (I can move a chess piece on the board at any time, but I only make a move in the game of chess when I’m playing the game, and then I am limited to a very small set of choices of how to legally move different pieces). Hence a player performs actions having conventional connotations as moves within the formal system of the game. Those actions are likely to be highly stylised according to the game, and actions too dissimilar to the stylised set will be regarded as fouls or cheats if their performer intends them to have in-game significance, or as extra-ludic actions potentially frustrating other players if they are not intended to have in-game significance.

The definition of game moves represents an intermediate level of temporal design in a game system. Moves represent the player’s space of possible in-game significant actions, and it is in the role of a chooser and initiator of moves that the player is constituted as a player. This is the core and focus of cognitive engagement of the player with game play, and the nature, modes of selection, and density of moves determines the essential quality of play for a game. It is also in the choice of moves that play style preferences are expressed (together with more open indicators, such as the form and content of inter-player chat). While players may improvise within the freedoms allowed by a design to shift game play towards the play style of their preference, it is good design practice to target specific play styles. As Bartle [2] notes, specific game features support and promote specific styles of play.

While Bartle has proposed specific features encouraging play in the respective styles of achievers, socialisers, killers and explorers, this principle can be extended for story-oriented players and their specific play preferences. In this case different strategies and moves may be suitable for each of the story-oriented play styles: the audience style, the performer style and the immersionist style. As explored in more detail below, the audience form of story orientation may be best served by presentation of predefined story and narrative structures to players having a relatively passive role in relation to the story. However, for the performers and immersionists, game moves are needed that represent interesting performance primitives from a dramatic perspective. For all players, game moves provide a version of what Mackay [20] refers to as fictive blocks, basic fragments or units of fictional/narrative significance that may be strung together to form a higher level narrative. Mackay takes fictive blocks divorced from their original context to be equivalent to Schechner’s strips of imaginary behavior, patterns that constitute a repertoire of potential behaviours that are performed by an actor in new arrangements in ways that may appear spontaneous and unrehearsed. Fictive blocks derived from popular culture sources (films, television, literature, etc.) are understood to circulate broadly within a culture, where they are available for reappropriation by its participants for the creation of new narratives (novels, movies, role playing game sessions, etc.).

In the case of a computer game, fictive blocks have a tangible and predefined form created by the game authors as the constrained set of valid game moves that the player may choose from at any particular point in the unfolding play experience. Since the set of predefined games moves constitutes a player’s in-game-character repertoire of performance primitives, the scope and nature of the available moves has a direct bearing upon the ability of the player to engage in various play styles. Players may improvise around what the system makes it easy for them to do, but it will always be easier to play in the style encouraged by the system. Some move types facilitating various play styles include (see also the suggestions in [2]):
- achiever: all moves falling within the formal definition of a game used here and aimed at advancing the competitive position of the player/character in relation to other characters, including both or either of player characters (PCs) and non-player characters (NPCs); all moves that increase the level of achievement of the player/character in terms of the achievement measures built into the game (eg. game levels, accumulated wealth, skill levels, progress through a game level structure)
- killer/griefer: all official and unofficial moves that can be used to the detriment of other players and/or their characters; an obvious example is combat moves used to inflict damage on other player-characters
- socialiser: moves for managing official in-game social groupings, such as the hierarchical vassal/lord structures of Asheron’s Call, or the guild structures common within many MMORPGs; moves for managing player-oriented social functions, such as open chat facilities and the ability to form friend lists, also common in MMORPGs

In relation to story-oriented player preferences it is possible to propose:

- audience style: moves for reading in-game narrative material, such as opening and reading virtual books presenting game scenario and fictional game world history material, and moves for conversational interaction with NPCs, all of which are common within RPGs. (Cut scenes, of course, are not moves.)
- performer: moves associated with the expression of predefined character roles for player characters. Character roles are most commonly defined in very broad terms using the concepts of functional classes (Mage, Fighter, Cleric and Thief being traditional AD&D classes from which most, if not all, RPG games are ultimately derived) and feature-determining races (humans, elves, dwarves, orcs, etc.). Moves for the selection (or not) of in-game quests can also be regarded as performance-oriented moves.
- immersionist: it is less clear what specific functions and moves support a player experience that deepens from the performance of a character to the development of a persona. Eladhari [7] suggests that developing a persona requires freedom for personalising a character; in the current context this suggests having more freedom than required for performance-oriented play, although immersion may also require a long presence within the game world by the player.

Two important points should be made in relation to story orientation. One is that much of what may be provided within a game to satisfy story preferences may be outside the scope of user-selectable moves. For the audience-oriented player, story material may be presented as a framing high level narrative delivered via cut scenes marking pauses in the main performance of game moves; story in this case does not constitute game play but is often intended by designers as a kind of reward for the player. The performer may also benefit from the same moves and techniques supporting the audience orientation, but in this case the story information functions to inform the player about the character to be performed and the higher level story that provides a context and meaning for the performance.

This leads on to the second point, that current design conventions for computer game mechanics and moves supporting dramatic performance and immersion are of limited effectiveness and in general poorly developed. Role definition systems like classes and races result in easily implemented functional and instrumental consequences in terms of the basic physical model of the game world and the functions of combat and economic systems. However, these devices do not seem to have any intrinsically greater support for performers and immersionists than they have for achievers (and griefers). The design of classes and races involve balancing capacities between classes and between roles, in familiar “rock/paper/scissors” patterns relating to the achievement criteria of a game, founded more in the specific conception of game form behind the definition used here than in considerations of dramatic characterisation. In-game quests provide a gesture towards the goal-based interpretation of dramatic roles used by dramatic actors. However, in the context of stage and film drama, role conflict is used to generate dramatic interest. This is relatively uncommon for game quests, which usually have the form: “get/take object/information X in place Z ”. In single player games it is easier to set up quest goals in conflict with goals of various NPCs, but for multiplayer and massively multiplayer computer games, conflicting dramatic player character goals are yet to be explored (although this is a technique used extensively in live-action role-playing games).

Game-play Gestalts As Patterns of Moves

Learning to play a game, making progress within a game and completing or winning a game are matters of learning how to interact within the game system and its rules in a way that supports progress. Most contemporary computer games are based upon game play predominantly oriented towards the conception of gaming captured in the basic definition of a game presented above. For the achievement-oriented gamer playing an achievement-oriented game, learning to play is not generally a matter of learning the game rules, but of learning a game-play gestalt4, understood as a pattern of moves (interaction) within the game system. Playing the game is then a matter of performing the gestalt. It is what the player does, within the system and as allowed by the rules of the game. Repetition is actually fundamental to achievement-oriented game play, since it is in repetition that the player learns the skills of play and demonstrates refinement leading to increasing progress and difficulty of mastered game play. In computer games, where the machine enforces the rules, this may lead to players having very poor conscious appreciation of what any of the rules actually are; instead they have learned successful (and unsuccessful) patterns of interaction by trial and error.

A game-play gestalt can have many forms for a particular game, capturing different playing styles, tactics and approaches to progressing through the game and (perhaps) eventually winning. In general, it is a particular way of thinking about the game state from the perspective of a player, together with a pattern of repetitive perceptual, cognitive and motor operations. A particular game-play gestalt could be unique to a person, a game, or even a playing occasion. Recurrent game-play gestalts can also be identified across games, game genres, and players. Some examples of game-play gestalts in computer games include:
Action games: shoot while being hit, strafe to hiding spot, take health, repeat
RPGs: send fast character to lure enemy away from pack and towards character group, all characters kill enemy, take health, repeat

Strategy Games: order peasants, send to work, order soldiers, send to perimeters, repeat while slowly expanding the perimeters (up to the point of catastrophic win/lose); OR: move x archers to tower y every n minutes to head off the enemy camel musketeers from the east who arrive every n minutes
In General: confront barrier, save if barrier overcome, reload and retry if unsuccessful

Such patterns may or may not be explicitly designed for by the creators of a game. If designers do take them into account, it may be in supporting the development and emergence of these patterns in play, rarely by forcing them on the player. Hence game-play gestalts are time patterns of game play devised by users in interaction with the game system.

Higher Level Temporal Structure in Games

As noted above, player engagement within a game experience is strongly associated with the choice and performance of game moves. Without any higher level designed time structures informing the play experience, the potential for choosing moves results in a very loosely predefined time structure such that games by themselves are not strongly a priori time-structured in their design above the level of the definition of types of game moves. Many specific types of move have some time structure within their definition, at least implicitly within the rule-derived constraints bounding valid ways of performing a move together with the simulation level mechanisms involved in implementing it. For example, the game move “move to point [X, Y]” takes as long to execute as required by the simulation of velocity of the moving unit in relation to the simulation of spatial extension represented by the virtual distance within the synthesised game space from the current position to the [X, Y] move destination. But this is only a time structure within the move, and the temporal structure of game-play gestalts, formed by patterns of moves, is an emergent structure developed during play by a player. Even a game like Snakes and Ladders, in which progress is a matter of very constrained movement across a highly structured grid, supports a very large space of possible combinations of moves on the board, corresponding to an equally large space of possible time structures (the extent of a game object move in this case being determined by the performance of player acts having probabilistic outcomes, ie. the throwing of dice).

For this reason, the purest examples of game form cannot be regarded as heavily time-structured artefacts above the definition of specific types of moves and the general time-structuring goal of winning. However, there are larger scale time structures specific to game form. These larger scale structures are reflected in the language of rounds, bouts, matches, tournaments, seasons and campaigns. The most primitive complete game experiences, at which a point of win or lose is reached, are bouts or rounds. Significantly, higher level structures tend to be highly repetitive patterns of these simple game experiences; they are largely concerned with the organization of opponents, extending the simple competitive situation of a game to include a broader field of opponents with a view to obtaining a global performance or game play ranking obtained by accumulation of the results of many bouts.
In order to discuss these higher level structures more clearly, the following somewhat arbitrary working definitions are proposed:

  • a bout or a round is the single performance of a game between opponents resulting in a win/lose state5

  • a match is a series of bouts of the same game between the same opponents

  • a contest is a series of rounds of different games between the same opponents

  • a league is a series of rounds of the same game between different opponents

  • a tournament is a series of rounds of different games between different opponents

These structures may be organised into hierarchies, lattices or networks. For example, performances within a tournament may each have the form of a match. High level game structures have their own rules, including rules for the accumulation of the results of bouts and rules for matching competitors in ongoing events. A multi-game structure requires a principle of accrual of results. That is, various formulae may be used for accumulating wins and loses, and degrees of win/loss, into an overall competitive ranking, or for the identification of a set of champions across various categories. The structure may also include elimination events in which losing competitors are eliminated from further competition, or the game system may include principles of handicap by which differences in demonstrated game play expertise are compensated for to provide for less predictable outcomes in ongoing competitions.

These are match, contest, league and tournament rules that have no impact upon low level game rules or the abstract form of moves within each specific game type. The time structure among these higher level game groupings is incidental to the essential performance of the players. Even more strongly, it can be stated that the high level structures of game forms have little to no dependence on specific time orders. Their primary meaning is the ranking of player competence; time-ordered competitions are a convenience for identifying this ranking. In principle it doesn’t matter at all what the sequencing of competitions is, as long as it leads to an order of player competence (hence the common freedom to choose the sequence in which one defeats one’s opponents in the case of more open computer game levels). So at this level too, games are not primarily time-structured designs, and high level time structure does not impinge upon low level game rules or the basic experience of play. This is a critical distinction between the temporal form of games and those temporal experiences (such as movies) that have a strong a priori linear time structure (or set of potential linear time structures) created by their designer. In computer games, instances of combat are individual bouts (these are experiences of playing single games, by the definition above), while levels are organized as a series of matches, contests, leagues or tournaments. If a higher level game structure is designed to present players with a specific sequence of game experiences, activities and opponents, serving to shape the emotional tone and intensity of the experience, the form is starting to move away from pure game form, more strongly integrating variants of authored narrative as manifested in the pre-specified sequential design.

Tactics and Strategy

Tactics can be regarded as higher level and conscious game play patterns developed by players. Hence there is a progression of scale in play patterns: moves are primitive meaningful game actions, performed within the game space, using relevant game objects and conforming to the rules of the game. In turn-based games, the completion of a move (or a specific number of moves required or allowed by the game rules) generally signals the end of a particular player’s turn. A pattern of moves developed by a player as a method of making progress within the game is a gameplay gestalt. Tactics can be defined as gameplay gestalts or patterns of gameplay gestalts that are consciously chosen by a player in response to the actions of an opponent or other aspects of a developing situation. Tactics are selected with the aim of winning bouts or rounds of a game. A strategy can then be understood as a higher level policy or plan, consciously followed by a player with the aim of winning a match, a contest, a league or a tournament.

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