Thursday, August 27, 2009

Board Game Narrative part 2

And so begins Part 2 of Board Game Narrative Stuff. Once again, I lead with the following disclaimer:

It should be noted that I’m just collecting random thoughts on this subject. Various thoughts as described herein probably have many fallacies when viewed through the lens of different types of game, and I'm sure that anyone could find a particular game that refutes any thesis that I'm providing (heck, I can do that on my own).

Part 1 can be found by clicking this link.


Since a main component of the narrative story is the theme, there is a need to somehow get the player immersed into the theme. Immersion can come from many areas, one core relation is that choices and performance of actions actions that seem natural within the world of the selected theme is necessary for this to happen.

Probably one of the biggest disappointments in this regard is the co-operative Lord of the Rings games. Here’s a case of a very rich theme in which the game itself seems to have very little to do with the exciting themes that surround it. It just feels like you are carefully playing cards to move your little tokens along various tracks, racing against another token on another track. There is no sense of defeating various villains or moving logically throughout a world; the players are just moving on to the next board as quickly as possible.

It’s a tricky thing. Usually, to get one immersed into a theme the design should try to hide it’s mechanics as much as possible, getting the fiddliness out of the way, trying to make sure that players are involved in the story of the game, and not the rudimentary bookkeeping actions that all games have. This would normally require that the game be kept simple in some regards. But often, that is usually not the case; the Lord of the Rings game example above is probably as easy as you can get, but since the game is reduced to merely “play XX amount of icons to move on a track” it loses almost all of the flavor that the theme represents. A game like Arkham Horror, which contains many components and reading of cards and various interlocking rules becomes much more complex, flavorful, and immersive.

Not that I’m inviting the idea that flavor text as an answer. In most cases, I hate flavor text. But if the individual rules and flavor text somehow merge as the same thing, then I’m all for that. Ideally, flavor text SHOULD be the unique rules, or at least describe the “what and why” of the unique rules given a certain representation on the card.

Additionally, I completely understand the idea to iconize all components as much as possible. This reduces the cost of a game significantly, being that the game doesn’t require multiple printings across multiple languages. But I feel that there is a cost to this; the game becomes, again, a mere shuffling of iconography around as efficiently as possible.

Again, following this thread of thought, the "tangible representation" of what is supposedly going on in the game should have some attempt at feeling like a real world representation. A game like Caylus completely fails in terms of feeling like an actual castle is being built. Additionally, as much as I like Princes of Florence, the game never really feels like fantastic works of art are being created which is what the game promises. Instead, the game is merely collecting points off of various menus.

With regards to how players compete with each other, games can fit on a sliding scale with one end being competitive, while the other end being co-operative. Strangely, over the scope of most games, this result in an inverted bell curve of either-or possibilities; it is not very often that a game comes along that shares a compromise of being both competitive AND co-operative, unless you consider “traitor” games, when one of more players are secretly plotting against the rest of the players to help the system win.

While games on both ends of the spectrum can be narrative, games where the players must fight the game system tend to be more narrative, as opposed to pure competitive contests. Unless the system allows for the players to invoke thematic, creative “elements” into the game as the game goes along, pure competitive struggles focus solely on winning the game, and trying to derive the most efficient ways to do.

By adding systematic elements for the player to fight against, in addition to the players, the designer has time and creative effort to add thematic elements into the struggle. Ultimately, the game system becomes another player, who isn’t so much involved in “winning” (even though this can certainly be the case, especially in co-op games), but this virtual player is instead adding thematic flavor to the game, in the form of obstacles that are jointly being added against each player.

However balanced or unbalanced these events are, this does add randomness to game. Randomness, it can be concluded, is a prime factor for narrative, provided it is thematic and not random for random's sake. Events that are known to be coming or are scripted to happen, are things that can be planned for. Things that can be planned for then become mathematical exercises. Which reduces the thematic impact of such events.

This does not mean that things should happen completely chaotically or willy-nilly. Logic still needs to dictate these random elements. If a game’s monsoon season starts in late summer, then it shouldn’t happen in winter. But that doesn’t mean a player should know the exact date as to when the monsoon is coming. An even better approach would be including elements of foreshadowing that, yes, the monsoon is coming…the clouds are growing darker, but it’s still an unknown as to when the skies will open.

to be continued...

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Blogger Nathan said...

Very interesting! I look forward to the next article in the series....

2:13 PM  

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