Commentary

01/09/2013

Slowly Burning Stories

A look at the new theory of content degradation and how it impacts role-playing games.

By: Joseph Leray

Filed Under: Adventure Editorial Mechanics Reflections Story-driven

persona-3

There seem to be two distinct, but corollary, ideas that pervade role-playing game fandom: that RPGs are where good video game narratives are found; and that having a good story is crucial, foundational aspect of an RPG.

This is curious to me — broadly speaking, RPG narratives tend to be melodramatic, convoluted, trite, and hyperbolic. Even the ones that don’t suffer in this way are held back by the genre’s hallmark systems. The proliferation of grinding, sidequesting, and snowboarding mini-games systematically hamper effective plotting and pacing, constantly pulling players away from the stories these games purport to tell.

And yet, role-playing games — rightly or wrongly — endure as cultural touchstones for the industry, championed as a place where game narratives flourish. I think content degradation explains why.

***

Writer Kirk Battle first introduced content degradation to me when he applied it to his playthrough of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. He explained it as his “diminishing capacity to view the objects in the game independently of the system for which they signify.” In other words, players — particularly of first- and third-person shooters — tend to reduce what they see on-screen to a series of wire-model frames and hitboxes.

In his analysis, Battle makes a distinction between “modeling” and content. Modeling is learning how each map works as an explorable space, where the chokepoints and best sniping locations are. For a role-playing game, would-be adventurers make mental diagrams of each system in play, internalizing the rock-paper-scissors structure of Pokémon or the differences between Cura and Curaga.

“I don’t think a falling chunk of skyscraper may actually potentially  kill me in-game during the opening level of MW3,” Battle writes. “I see a setpiece unfolding … It has no emotional meaning to be cause my understanding of the game comes from the game design, not the content.” Because the skyscraper doesn’t affect players’ ability to model the area around them, it’s unimportant.

The plotlines in Modern Warfare are hyperbolic, jingoistic, and trite, but their biggest sin is irrelevance — as long as it remains distinct from the system at play, content will degrade. Content can be said to have degraded when it is no longer meaningful or emotionally resonant with a player. Irrelevance to the player’s model of the game causes content degradation. or game narratives to resonate, they need to have consequences in the ludic systems the player interacts with.

This is something I think RPGs do well, actually — broadly speaking, RPGs keep their stories relevant by chaining them to the mechanics at work in the other parts of the game. The longer a game’s story remains important — not just good, but important — the longer it will resonate with a player.

***

The most basic illustration of this can be found in the Final Fantasy series: despite the revolving door of producers and designers that have helmed the franchise, through its oscillations in quality, Final Fantasy has consistently underpinned its mechanics to its narratives.

Jeremy Parrish traces this sensibility to the shift from fantasy to sci-fi that occurred during the development of Final Fantasy VI: “Only four of the game’s dozen-plus party members have an innate to use magic, and each one is especially empowered within the confines of the plot.”

But it’s not hard to catalogue the Final Fantasy games since and find how each one grounds its mechanical excesses — the Phoenix Down being an obvious exception — to an internally consistent gameworld. Most of these systems are diagetic: the Materia system of Final Fantasy VII occurs in a world in which materia is a real, physical item. Common townspeople have a few pieces of it, and it can be bought and sold in shops. It’s not relegated or written off as a game-y necessity. The game takes its own systems seriously.

Junctioning a Guardian Force in Final Fantasy VIII; summoning a sky-dragon in IX and X; buying a license from a government-approved vendor in XII’s Ivalice — all of these complex, Byzantine systems are pinned into their respective game’s plots, taken as literal parts of their worlds. These mechanics are only possible in the context created by each game’s narrative foundation. The content — the story, the characters, the setpieces — serve as the foundation on which the systems are built.

In other words, the content in, say, most Final Fantasy games doesn’t degrade quickly. Even in the midst of a boss fight, when the game is almost purely mechanical, players are dealing with tiny pieces of the plot and gameworld. When content is inescapable, it remains relevant.

***

A more specific example, and one that pushes this line of thinking further, is Aeris’ death in the Temple of the Ancients in Final Fantasy VII. Her death was a watershed moment: it is unexpected and deeply, heartachingly tragic. And it remains so, 16 years later — if we’re using content degradation as a model — because it irrevocably damages the player’s ability to model the rest of the game. The mechanics of the game must change to accommodate this trauma.

All things being equal, Aeris is the Final Fantasy VII’s best de factro white mage, and likely a vital part of most first-time players’ strategy. Without her, players have to regroup and re-asses their relationship with the gameworld and the mechanics by which they navigate it — who ever heard of an RPG without a healer? Her death, both mechanically and narratively, is profoundly traumatic, and any viable team composition has to account for her absence. Part of the reason Final Fantasy VII’s Materia system is so flexible is to compensate, mechanically speaking, for her loss. She haunts the rest of the game like a phantom limb.

Final Fantasy IX pulls a similar stunt: after the destruction of her kingdom, Princes Garnet of Alexandria loses her voice. More accurately, she falls into a deep depression and refuses to speak until much later in the story. Again, the attack on Alexandria is a powerful, climactic scene — it pulls the game’s lore and immediate plot together neatly and is presented as one of the game’s most beautiful full-motion videos. It’s traumatic for Garnet, but it part of its resonance relies on the ludic implications of her depression: because she cannot talk, Garnet cannot cast spells or summon eidolons in battle.

Like Aeris, Garnet is her team’s white mage and primary healer. Because Final Fantasy IX is more mechanically restrictive than VII, there are actually fewer ways for the player to compensate for Garnet’s absence during this part of the game. The trade-off is that she eventually recovers and re-joins the team in a mechanically significant way. Again, Final Fantasy IX’s content is doubly effective because it changes the way players model the game. It is relevant to the system, therefore it doesn’t degrade.

***

Persona 3’s Social Link system links content to mechanics even more closely, rendering the distinction virtually meaningless. In Persona 3 — and Persona 4 as well, I’m led to believe, though I haven’t played it — Social Links govern the strength of the main character’s Personae. These are the metaphysical avatars used to battle the demons infesting Tartarus, a large tower that sprouts spontaneously out of the local high school during each night’s Dark Hour.

The game’s protagonist is a high school student. During the day, you’ll attend classes, take quizzes, and make friends. The most important of these activities is hanging out with other students — your conversations will lead to establishing Social Links, a set of stats that determine which types of Personae you can use, what types of abilities they’ll have, and how strong they’ll be. At night, you’ll make increasingly deeper forays into Tartarus, battling the shadows that take residence there.

The characters in Persona 3 pretend that they live inside a dualist system, attempting to separate day and night, physical and demonic, their “normal” lives from the extra-weird reality of shooting themsleves in the head over and over to fight demons. (No, really.)

Players, too, tend to make a distinction between gameplay and story, but the designers at Atlus know better, treating the social interactions and plot points as integral parts of the game’s underlying system. Every piece of content in the game has some implication for effectively you can model and exploit the game’s battle mechanics. Persona 3’s “gameplay” isn’t limited to dungeon crawling, but extends to each social interaction and dialogue prompt — in the sense that “playing” a game means interacting with its combat system, you’re playing Persona 3 at every given moment.

The content in Persona necessarily degrades slowly because it is the foundation of the gameplay system and the primary tool that players use to model that system. The player’s agency has extended into the narrative sphere of the game. In the earlier examples — Final Fantasies VII and IX — players are more restricted: they can react to content from within the gameplay system, but they cannot change it.

The connection between the content and mechanics of Persona 3 are somewhat opaque and the information only flows in one direction — the content can drive the system and players’ model of it, but not vice-versa. Of the RPGs that I’ve played, the ones made by BioWare seem most devoted to a fluid exchange between a game’s content and its mechanics.

***

Like the Persona games, BioWare’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect series employ a few basic ways by which content can propel a system forward. In Mass Effect, this is the Paragon/Renegade dichotomy; in Dragon Age, it’s the love-hate meter that visualizes the protagonists’ relationship with the other members of their respective teams. Granular dialogue choices and character interaction feed into a set of larger systems.

These content-driven systems manifest themselves differently in different ways, of course, but the most obvious of these is that teammates will get new abilities. A series of narrative moments will eventually give the player access to, say, Thane’s shredder ammo in Mass Effect 2, or Merril’s Solidarity skill in Dragon Age II. These represent basic intersections of content and system in BioWare games, but the web is usually more complex.

In Dragon Age: Origins, for example, the player-controlled Warden is tasked with finding Andraste’s Ashes, a religious relic with healing properties. The player can chose to “defile” the Ashes — that is, pour dragon’s blood into them. Origins’ most devout characters — a chantry priestess named Leliana, and a mage named Wynne — are opposed to this course of action and, depending on how and how often the Warden has interacted with them, may attack the player, leave the party, or simply foster quiet resentment.

Wynne and Leliana’s death or departure from the party come with consequences to the, and the player’s model has to be readjusted accordingly. In Dragon Age: Origins, then, and in BioWare games generally, content is driven by the systems in play (provided those systems allow players to, say, kill their own teammates).

Let’s assume that Wynne attacks the Warden after the Ashes are defiled and that the Warden kills her. Mapping the series of events that led to this looks something like this: content (the Warden’s interaction with Wynne) was fed into a system (the relationship meter), which was fed back into the content (the player’s decision about the Ashes), which fed back into the system again (the player’s fight against Wynne, and the fact that there are no more healers in the party). This feedback loop spirals infinitely outward, incorporating every piece of Dragon Age: Origins: the game’s narrative is indistinguishable from from its mechanics and statistics.

As in Persona 3, the narrative choices the player makes in a BioWare game reverberate throughout the gameplay system, which manifests itself as more content. Characters that come and go, that remain loyal or turn treacherous — these moments are the products of a gameplay system that is driven by previous narrative choices, but that also must be modeled from within that system.

***

Content degrades over time as players model a game’s systems more fully. In shooters, the model is developed quickly relatively quickly, and any information that isn’t pertinent to that model can be safely ignored. Content in RPGs is resistant to degradation because it tends to have a larger impact on the player’s model, but also because the model is relatively more complex. Role-playing games are traditionally long, expansive affairs, meaning that players will need lots of information to gain a full model of the game’s systems. As long as a players’ model remains incomplete, he’ll be hesitant to ignore the game’s content. Content doesn’t degrade as long as it’s potentially useful.

Mass Effect’s gameplay model is outsize: spanning three games and dozens of hours, the content in Mass Effect is impervious to degradation because each game’s model borrows heavily from that of its predecessors. Shepard’s decision to free the Rachni Queen from the Binary Helix lab on Noverria in the first game has consequences for Mass Effect 3, as do Shepard’s love interests, and which squad member she sacrifices on Virmire, and which loyalty missions are completed, and so on and so forth. Each of these content-system intersections go through their own feedback loop, which are in turn nested like space-opera Matryoshki.

It’s impossible to know where and when each piece of content will become relevant again, and so each narrative moment is fraught with risk and drama that isn’t derived from its writing or voice-acting, but from the mechanics that will bear it out.

***

Dragon Age II opens with an interrogation: Varric is a dwarf and a close friend of Hawke, the Champion of Kirkwall. Hawke has gone missing, and Varric is being somewhat pointedly questioned by a member of the local church’s paramilitary arm, the Seekers. He eventually caves and tells Hawke’s story, which is the plot of Dragon Age II.

There are obviously limits on how flexible a game’s narrative can be, but Dragon Age II represents an evolutionary step in the long ladder of content-system intersections. With a little wink and some sleight of hand, Varric invites the player to manipulate and shape Hawke’s story as if it were just another part of the playable system of Dragon Age II. What the player does, the choices he makes, will dictate what Varric tells the seeker. Hawke’s story cannot exist until the player creates it.

This is, of course, just a narrative frame, but it’s an empowering suggestion. Dragon Age II tells the player that he is solely responsible for the content of the game and its effects on that game’s system. The feedback loop becomes reinforced. Within the context of the game’s fiction, the gameplay system generates an external narrative. Because the player is positioned as the primary engine of the story, that story is less likely to become irrelevant.

***

The crux of using content degradation as a model for examining game stories is that it happens gradually, at a different rate for different players. “There is not a black-line test or moment when this happens for any player,” Battle explains. “We are talking about the dynamics of the subconscious and conscious as symbols which represent things in the game become interchangeable.”

Thus, RPG fans can be seen as a self-selecting group of people for whom content degrades more slowly.

Perhaps we’re worse at modeling game systems and thus worse at figuring out which story elements are irrelevant. Perhaps we place too much stock in small bumps in the mechanics — the Rachni Queen’s role in Mass Effect 3 is exceedingly minor, but I’m still tittilated by my Shepard’s story coming full circle. Perhaps we just like stories.

Whereas degradation occurs in a game like Call of Duty, where there is a clear demarcation between content and system, content in RPGs like Final Fantasy tends to be emotionally resonant, especially insofar as it has implications for the game’s mechanics. In Persona, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age, the content feeds into the system itself, rendering the distinction less meaningful. As a whole, each game’s plot points and characters resistant to degradation.

Content that hasn’t degraded still has the potential to be emotionally resonant, which suggests not only why RPG fans are so enamored with their favorite warriors and mages, but how. Content degradation provides a model for understanding the process by which some gamers come to love the game stories that mean most to them.

Filed Under: Adventure Editorial Mechanics Reflections Story-driven

About the Author:
Joseph Leray is an associate editor at Destructoid. His work can also be found at Touch Arcade and MTV Multiplayer.

  • http://twitter.com/miksimum Jesse Miksic

    Very good observation. The next point to address (at least to my eyes): why does this happen? Why do games, which begin as rich experiences, reduce to mechanical rules and abstractions over time?

    There are two reasons to ask this question:

    1 – See what it tells us about the human brain, its craving for novelty of experience, its appetite for rational predictability, and its ability to normalize

    2 – To help pave the way to some company (a Squaresoft/Bethesda merger?) to create the greatest RPG ever made, which I fully expect to be able to play in my lifetime.

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