I recently had a busy Saturday morning, filled with playing videogames and reading criticism on videogames. It's vastly different from my weekday routine, where I play videogames, read criticism, and feel guilty about not writing more. With this post, I'm hoping to kill two birds with one stone: a little writing on game design, and a little link sharing of pieces I find particularly worth people's attention. So: discussion of space and non-progression narratives, after the break.
The essay that got me thinking in this direction was Line Hollis' piece on minigames and narrative arcs. (Unrelated issue: I've been becoming more aware of ethical blogging practices, and was suddenly very enthusiastic about trackback and pinging and such. And then I found out that Blogger doesn't support these things. And that made me consider switching to Wordpress. And then I realized I have 800+ posts to move, and I'd almost certainly lose whatever meager audience I have. It's a conundrum, which in this case means I'll do what requires less work. Sorry Hollis. If it's any condolence, it's one of the best posts I've read for a while on games, in terms of opening avenues for new discussion.) Essentially, Hollis is arguing that the narrative arc of gameplay in most games is a narrative of progression: you become more and more powerful as the game goes on. The problem with this is that it really limits what kind of stories you can tell--it excludes downward reversals of fortune, for example. In this particular post, she suggests that short experimental or indie games allow these reversals, especially ones that cycle through multiple types of games in a brief period of time.
This post is part of a larger body of posts; in an earlier post on her own blog, she discusses more generally what sort of narratives you could get by mapping the reversals of fortune onto the morality of the characters involved. That, in turn, was inspired by the original post noting this lack of downward reversals in games, by Paul Sztajer at his Gamasutra blog. And that, in turn, was inspired by a talk by Kurt Vonnegut. So it goes. In other words, there's something of a legacy here.
As for my own humble contribution to this line of thought, I'd like to talk about a type of negative fortune reversal that can happen without (necessarily) taking away the player's abilities: the limitation of space. In games, it's pretty common for the expanding game world to be associated with the player's overall empowerment narrative. You get stronger, you go to new places. In Super Mario Bros. 3, the player declares mastery of a space by replacing the level icon with an M or L; in Starcraft, it's all about wiping all traces of your opponent off the map. In the Japanese RPG, mastery of space was often indicated by the possession of some machine that allowed you to travel anywhere in the world, usually from above: the airship, in other words.
And if the expansion and mastery of space works towards the progressive narrative, then the restriction can be viewed as a step in the other direction. Again, the JPRG is a great example. In the half-way point of Chrono Trigger, you're captured by Dalton, and thrown in prison. This comes immediately after and before you have access to almost all of time and space in the game; to be trapped in such a confined space at that point reinforces the narrative tragedy that characters have just experienced as well, that their best efforts to stop Lavos--the game's main villain--have met with failure.
But for me, I think the most effective use of the spatial limitation in a JRPG, though, was in Grandia. In the game, the protagonists continually head east in the attempt to stop a great evil. Typical RPG stuff. Where things get interesting, is that, about half way through the game, the protagonists cross an ocean, a passage that's implied to take a long time. And then there's no going back. All of the characters you've met up to that point, all the NPCs you've come across--if they didn't cross the ocean too, you're not going to see them again. It really reinforces the sense that you've been through a lot. And later in the game, most of the new locations are destroyed by an encroaching bio-monstrous thing that's growing over the area--again, there's the sense that you can't go back, and that you've somehow failed to let things reach this point.
Admittedly, the spatial restriction usually comes with an ability restriction as well--if your character's been thrown in a dungeon, for example, it makes sense that they've lost all their cool stuff as well. The sense of confinement is also common in horror games, where less positive story arcs are more accepted--and expected, to a certain extent. It's usually a plot point in the game's explicit narrative, tooo. In Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, one of the game's more fondly remembered moments is the "A Brush with Death" quest, when the player enters into a painting, and can't leave until they've retrieved a magic paintbrush; the restriction makes the quest much more harrying, as the player has to defeat a number of fairly difficult painted trolls to get to the brush. Come to think of it, if the player's movement is restricted and there isn't some plot-based explanation for the restriction, the player will probably be fairly upset. There's a sense then that it's less a designed element and more a bug that's failed to anticipate their action.
I'm not sure if this is extendable to a general game principle. But *shrugs* it's something to think about.