Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Waiter, there's Narrative in my PCG.

Another rather interesting post by Andrew Doull regarding the function of narrative in games had me thinking today. I really enjoyed the article, but there seemed to be 2 problems creeping in the back of my mind: Do AAR's count as game narrative, and does the metagame count as a narrative setting?

Firstly on to AARs. Ducked out at lunch for a finance meeting, which gave me some in-car time to dig into how AARs fit in my world picture. I made a recording on evernote on the way back, but it's pretty crappy quality.

To me, AARs really work well in a PCG setting because your 'story' that you experience in a single pass through the game is almost guaranteed to be a different story than someone else's play though the game. Your adventure begs to be told lest it be lost to fading memories. I've started a couple of AARs for specifically this reason and also weekly GameLogs for a more concise memory dump of my experiences.

AARs started out differently for me though. Back at Uni I was stuck in a Civ rut. I constantly played the game over and over and over. I absolutely loved the game, but after a couple of months and hundreds of games I had to stop and take stock. Why do I feel I need to keep playing this game? I've beaten it so many times it's not funny. When I analysed what I was doing I was constantly learning from each playthough on how to beat the game even better, or would think that a false move back in the stone age was what caused my space race defeat. What I needed (well, craved) was that perfect game. It never felt like I'd completely mastered the game until I played through it flawlessly. With a new determination I set out to defeat it once and for all, on the hardest setting, in the quickest time. I managed it within a week through countless reloads and, satisfied, could put the game down and get onto other things (like uni).

A funny thing happened though. About 3 months later I started up another game of Civ. It wasn't on emperor setting like before. It wasn't even the optimal race. It was just a casual game on monarch that I actually enjoyed for the story thrown up by this wonderful randomized world. Once I had 'broken' the game I could then look at it in another light. Instead of seeing numbers and optimal choices, or minmaxxing reloads, I could relax and go with the flow of the grand story that played out by my choices. This is the mode that makes me write (and appreciate) AARs.

All of my AARs are at least the second play through. I still have to break the game to get that competitive element of my brain out of the way, but then I can really savour the game as it unfolds and add my own imagination to the tale.

Imagination. To me this is where the arguement of AARs as a confirmation of narrative in PCGs falls down. Andrew stated:
My experience with roguelikes suggests external agency is not a requirement. Narrative exists in roguelikes in two forms, in a similar ‘what I’ve already done’ and ‘what I have to do’ form (it would be disingenuous of me to omit the fact I’ve chosen a narrative theory that provides this correspondence). The ‘what I’ve already done’ consists of after adventure reports (AARs) and day in the lifes (DiTL) written by players of roguelikes and posted to the forums and shared with other players
AARs aren't just the narrative of the game, but embellished with the imagination of the writer to create the story in a narrative context. Great AARs like Boatmurdered or Real men do it Alphabetically could quite concievably have been run-of-the-mill games with no real epic tale to be told. The imagination and additional information added to create the scene and a sense of 'being there' comes from the author, not the game. The game is the framework on which the story is built. The story resonates with other players of the game because they have shared the same exposure to the game's framework. In great AARs you can see the game shine through the writing and you can visualize not just the story on the page, but how the game could have played out at a deeper level.

In my experience, letting go of the 'game' and accepting the 'story' is a mindshift. Some games make it easier than others to do, but I have yet to see a game write my story like I would have in an AAR. Masters of Orion III had that as one of their goals; to write out the story of your reign as a book so you could read what happened and how the rest of the galaxy reacted. Unfortunately that idea got canned (with a bunch of original employees) and the lame duck came out without its golden egg. I still think it's an achievable goal in PCG, maybe even the holy grail: To make a game that writes your epic tale.

I still think narrative exists in PCG, but expressed in terms of ‘what I’ve already done’, the AARs would show that the game inspires tales and creates a setting for them, but doesn't create them. And, from my experience, games with random content do poorly at summing up what went on (I live in hope though).

Hmm, past midnight and I haven't even started on permadeath. Might make this a quick one with some followup later on ..

To me I think that permadeath brings a lot to the table when playing through PCG games, but I'm not sure about extending the narrative to the metagame. Permadeath bring a sense of emotional energy to the fight akin to playing poker with real money rather than play money. Something is at stake. Your investment in the character. The time. The attachment. The trinkets they have collected. I vividly recall my brother throwing his mouse across the room and ranting when he lost his 99 warrior in hardcore Diablo II. You don't get that in normal D2. The sheer brutality of permadeath makes the journey and reward that much sweeter once you have completed the game.

The roguelike narrative of a single play through is united, I’ve argued elsewhere, by the meta-narrative of repeated interesting and hopefully unique failure which guides the player’s learning of the rules of the game.
Personally I'd put learning the rules of the game under ludology. When I'm in game breaking mode I'm playing the game as a puzzle; the content and story are far removed from my enjoyment of the game. In this mode I'll keep playing the game over and over if I feel there's more to learn. Once I'm over the game breaking mode and can settle into the game as a story I'm not looking for replayability, I'm looking for a single pass through an interesting set of events. I think, no, I know PCG games can do that because I do it regularly with games I'm happy I've beaten (*bands, Civs, Footy Managers, Mount & Blade, Total War, etc).

What PCG games have in spades is the interestingness that inspires repeated play. To me this tugs at the wanderlust gene. "I wonder what's over the next hill? down the next level?". Coming back to resonance as a narrative element, I see that the interesting set of events and the unpredictability of what can happen next keeps us heading out on the next glorious adventure. Bilbo Baggins would be proud.