3. Narrative Design
Hey guys, I’m Ari-Matti, the game designer for Cave Digger 2. I’ll be sharing my thoughts with you all on this blog sometimes, just to give Jaakko some time to focus on other stuff. Today I’ve got something to say about stories and games.
I love stories, designing them, telling them and experiencing them. I’ve also often said that all games have stories, even the most abstract ones. After all, even chess and go are basically just narratives of struggle and strategy, told with very minimalist tools. At the same time I think many games are bad at presenting the stories they ostensibly present. In my opinion telling stories with the medium of games is less about telling, and more about showing, inviting and experiencing.
The narrative framework is where story and plot meet game and experience. It is where the constraints of diegetic reality define what can happen in the plot, shaping game systems and design choices. A button that causes an anvil to fall on an enemy mob would be right at home in a game about the Looney Tunes, but very much out of place in Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. I tend to think of all game systems and features in terms of the narrative framework of the game, which ideally leads to designing robust systems for things the story focuses on, implementing minimal interactions for lesser focus points, and ignoring other elements entirely. For example, Cave Digger 2 is a game about a mining adventure in an unexplored valley: we need robust systems for tool interactions and juicy loot; some focus on combat and monsters to create a sense of danger; and no systems at all for stealing a car, performing stealth takedowns or singing karaoke.
When focusing on telling a story through experience the depth and complexity of game systems is key. Often this is accomplished through increasing complexity on focal points: a game about survival has multiple different types of food and tracks your water intake, whereas in a game with survival elements you just need to remember to eat an apple every now and again. Cave Digger 2 is a game about finding shiny things underground. Consequently I’ve spent the last few weeks figuring out what these shiny things are and how much they’re worth. This is less glamorous than it seems, since it mostly means fiddling with spreadsheets, dry numbers and loot tables, but hey, it keeps me off the streets.
Paying attention to the experiential side of things is even more important when designing content for virtual reality, as all interactions need to be as tangible as possible. To simplify things, how you tell the story is almost more important than what you’re telling. To pull an example from my own recent reference gaming, both Half-Life: Alyx and Dead and Buried both have game systems for shooting mindless monsters who drag-step advance on you. In Alyx the experience is intended as stressful and haunting, and consequently loading your gun is a major point of interaction: fumbling with your clip while loading your handgun as a single crabhead zombie advances on you is meant to induce stress and create a sense of danger. In Dead and Buried you’re an undead gunman, cutting down swarms of creeps bearing down on you: loading your six-shooter happens with a flick of your wrist, and the focus of the action is on speed and perception. The same interaction executed differently yields a very different experiential result, and so tells a different story.
I like to think of VR games as playgrounds: you’re given a whole bunch of toys and rides to interact with, and the narrative is built from these experiences. In this sense, Cave Digger 2 certainly has a narrative (maybe even more than one!), but this plot is presented as an experience of emergent scenes and mysteries to explore. The closest examples of similar narrative design are games with a metroidvania progress structure in general, for example Zelda: A Link to the Past if we’re looking at golden classics. The world opens up slowly, there is more to explore as you unlock new tools and increase in power, and the greatest mysteries can only be found once you reach the deepest caverns. And I for one am looking forward to letting you discover what we bury in our little playground!
Random development quote: “HYVÄÄ KANSAINVÄLISTÄ CAPSLOCK-PÄIVÄÄ ARI-MATTI”