Narrative Mechanics, Narrative Dynamics

Changeful Tales

“Changeful Tales” is a blog series where I rework my dissertation into more bite-sized, readable, and visible ideas.

Game designers and scholars have developed many useful frameworks for thinking about how games work. One of these is the MDA model, first developed in the early 2000s by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubek, and still in wide use today. MDA stands for Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics, and posits that these aspects of a design exist in a sort of stack, moving from a player’s perceptions of a system on one end (the aesthetics) towards the designer’s implementation of it on the other (the mechanics).

Image courtesy slides by choigd

Briefly, the mechanics of a game are its actual rules and actions. A mechanic of Myst is that clicking on an open area in each static view presents a new view from a closer position. Another is that clicking on the edge of the screen when the mouse cursor changes to a side-pointing hand will rotate your view. The dynamics are how the mechanics work together to create a coherent experience of an overall system. In Myst, the movement and rotation mechanics combine to create a dynamic of moving through an explorable 3D world, even though the game mechanically includes no such literal simulation of 3D space. The aesthetics, finally, are how the dynamics of the game combine to create an overall emotional experience in the player. Myst’s dynamics of movement, puzzle-solving, and piecing together fragments of story (from the environment, journal entries and video clips) create together a wistful, perhaps lonely aesthetic of wandering beautiful but abandoned worlds.

MDA is useful in part because it recognizes that game systems function on many interconnected but different levels simultaneously — like all systems instantiated in code, which exist on a stack of abstractions that can be alarmingly deep. In my dissertation, I dig into what we see beneath mechanics: the “action” part of a mechanic as understood by the system (in Myst, say, a click on a part of the screen that moves you forward) and the “input” underneath that (say, a mouse event at location 234, 78).

Another way of thinking about the unification between these levels is to consider them as a holistic system. Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s term operational logics (later further developed with Michael Mateas) describes a way of “specifying the behaviors a system must exhibit in order to be understood as representing a specified domain.” When we speak “moving” in Myst, we’re really talking simultaneously about a set of pre-rendered images that can be switched between by clicking on certain parts of each screen, and the player’s understanding of that system as representing movement through a 3D space. Myst’s operational logic of movement is thus different from Zelda’s or Zork’s, even though all of these games have a mechanic of movement and a dynamic of exploration. Operational logics link the player’s perceptions of cause and effect with the hidden internal workings of a system, not stopping at the elements visible on the surface. The way the thing actually functions, under the hood, can also be a part of how we understand it.

Screens from Myst, Zork, and two Zeldas, all showing mechanics of movement and dynamics of exploration, but with very different operational logics combining to create that perception.

In a well-designed system, the player quickly comes to understand its relevant logics: the way in which interacting with it causes consistent changes to the player’s mental model of its simulated world. Imagine a degenerate Myst, where the click targets were scrambled. Each click on a view takes you to a seemingly unrelated image. On a technical level, this is no different at all from the canonical Myst, but the logic of movement has been broken: the player would have no sense of moving through a connected world, and the sequence of images really would feel like a slideshow, rather than a simulation of space. Myst’s images and click targets are in fact carefully designed to help you understand each image’s origin point in the original 3D model (information not present in the final game at all!) so that the player can mentally understand their actions as embodying an exploration. When we think of functional operational logics, imagine a set of gears smoothly turning — some of them on the screen, some buried in code, and some buried in the player’s mind.

How can we apply these frameworks to the space of storygames? We can begin by talking about narrative mechanics: the subset of a game’s rules and actions that inform how the story is presented to, and manipulated by, the player. Think of each piece of indivisible narrative content (or lexia) in a game as something that can be acted upon by its narrative mechanics. In some games, a lexia might be a paragraph of text, an audio clip, or an entire cut scene; in others, it might be a sentence or even a word. Regardless, the narrative mechanics are the affordances and rules that govern how and when the available lexia are shown to players, and how they can interact with them in response.

I’d argue there are a surprisingly small number of well-established narrative mechanics. While storygames often make use of mechanics from other styles of game — such as for movement or inventory management — only a handful of mechanics specifically operationalize narrative content. Here are the chief contenders, as I see it:

  1. Story dumps. The player can activate something to reveal a particular (or random) lexia. (Audio recorders strewn around a level; an NPC with random barks.)
  2. Explicit story choice. The player is given a list of alternatives, and is shown a different lexia next depending on their choice. (Choose Your Own Adventure; dialogue trees.)
  3. Delayed story choice. The player makes a decision that effects which lexia they see at a later point. (Picking a class in an RPG; moving a good/evil bar.)
  4. Challenge-gated content. The player must use unrelated mechanics to achieve a particular victory; doing so successfully reveals new lexia. (Beating a platformer level to get the next cut scene; solving a puzzle.)
  5. Naming. The player directly chooses or enters text that becomes incorporated into future lexia. (Asking for the player’s name.)

There are more examples of narrative dynamics, due to the way different implementations of narrative mechanics can interact with each other and with non-narrative mechanics. For example, a conversation system might have an “explicit story choice” mechanic where some choices lead back to earlier nodes in the conversation, and also certain nodes that provide some kind of benefit (maybe even just an aesthetic one), leading to the dynamic called “lawnmowering,” where the player feels the need to explore every possible option before continuing. Story dumps with no ludic consequences for activating them (such as audio logs scattered around a level) can lead to a dynamic where the player perceives the story as optional or pointless, and loses motivation to keep seeking out and activating lexia.

So how can we talk about the operational logics of a game’s narrative systems — the way the different levels come together to give the player the sense of operating a coherent story machine? I’ll turn to this question in my next post.