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NZGDC15: Games aren’t a guided tour

Edwin McRae presented at last year’s NZGDC on “jigsaw storytelling” in Path of Exile, the art of combining lots of little standalone elements to create a cohesive narrative experience for players.

He’s had plenty of time to develop his skills, working on Shortland Street for several years as well on other shows for South Pacific Pictures and Gibson Group. More recently he’s worked on Outsmart’s just-released Blood Gate: Age of Alchemy, having been involved with plenty of other local games, including Runaway’s Flutter and Ingame’s NZ On Air-supported Indie Music Manager.

At this year’s NZGDC McRae presented on “emergent narrative”, which he defined more by what it was not than by what it was.

It was not, McCrae explained, “emergent gameplay” (players talking to one another about what they’re doing), nor plot (which is linear). “Narrative is larger,” McRae said, “but emergent narrative is not narrative structure.”

So far so muddy, which in a sense was not inappropriate. Just as McRae’s 2014 session explained the building blocks of story elements which made a complete picture when combined, so the elements of emergent narrative combined to offer players a greater understanding of the game world they were in, and what they might do while there.

McRae laid out a stall of things he disliked in gameplay, particularly “a reliance on cut scenes to tell me the story. As a player I want to own the story – or at least think I have a hand in its generation, although I’m not actually creating material.”

He also believed that gameplay, or good gameplay, should be “a designed experience that’s more than railroading people through a plot”.

Having identified the problem, McRae offered up some examples of approached to solve it. Broadly those came down to giving players an understanding of and connection with the game world they were inhabiting.

Breaking that down, McRae said gameplay should offer players objectives, meaning and guidance (a different OMG).

Identifying objectives prevented a player “wandering around wondering what to do”. Those objectives might be compulsory to advance the game or optional.

McRae talked about the “reward of listening” to guidance. It might be information that could be useful in a practical sense, it should also enhance the player’s understanding of and engagement with the world.

Although McRae offered occasional references to his work on Path of Exile to illustrate points, he devoted a good part of the presentation to Darkest Dungeon (“a Lovecraftian Victorian RPG with barely a plot”) as an example of all that was good in emergent narrative.

Stats into story
Despite his earlier expressed objection to reliance on cinematics, McRae considered the opening cinematic of Darkest Dungeon “a work of genius”.

The game, McRae said, “doesn’t tell you the story – it makes it happen to you.”

He also explained that the game was procedurally-generated, so gameplay is never the same. Returning to OMG, McRae explained that they were clear, despite the minimal plot.

One thing McRae particularly liked about the game, something more narrative designers should strive to achieve, was the relationship between mechanics and narrative elements.

Turns stats into story. “When your character gets stressed the game will make something happen and trigger narration. You don’t have to take notice, you can ignore or use the info you’re being offered.”

In retrospect, McRae said he could understand how he was being manipulated, but the use of data made it feel organic. “The user experience is very enjoyable. Every mechanic isn’t just a stat but a comment, an effect, information I connect to emotionally.”

He also noted that all those snippets of information and one-liners offered added up to a novel – a cohesive body of information.

In an earlier session, Australian game designer Matt Hall had spoken about the goal of not wanting to drive people to keep playing his game now, but always wanting to drive them to play tomorrow. While Hall was speaking about mobile games with little narrative component, the goal was the same for McRae: to create a user experience so engaging that players would want to return.

For McRae, crafting a compelling narrative experience was a major part of delivering that user experience.

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