Keeping Gameplay Narrative in Context

A short piece entitled “Narrative as Gameplay” by Jonas Kyratzes made me think today. His key (and rather eloquent) point is this:

“In some games, you click on the enemy soldier and the enemy soldier dies, removing an obstacle to victory. In my games, you click on an object and it gives you a description, removing an obstacle to understanding.”

I like this thought in principle, but I think it’s missing a caveat: the revealed content must be appropriate to the player’s current context.
For example, if I were to to nit-pick The Book of Living Magic, I’d complain that the setting is SO surreal that the wealth of little asides do not really increase the player’s understanding. Many of them are charming little storylets in their own right, but it’s very hard to build a coherent picture of a world where the distinction between animals, people and other bizarre entities are so blurred. It must be acknowledged that this is the whole point of the Land of Dream, but it highlights my point.
In contrast, the superb The Infinite Ocean presents a very tightly focused narrative, each scrap of content referencing the already-established facts or themes. It’s only when you can hook the new information onto some existing part of your world model that it feels rewarding. Without that framework, each new piece of content has no obvious relation to the whole.
That, I think, is why some people don’t grok the Book of Living Magic – the content is more like a bag of marbles than a LEGO set. I happen to love world-building and was happy to comb through the descriptions looking for the links and occasional Lovecraft nods, but I can see how more casual players might find the Mountains of Oddness somewhat impenetrable.

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2 thoughts on “Keeping Gameplay Narrative in Context

  1. Ah, but if you think about it, the Lands of Dream are coherent in their own strange way; there is absolute consistency between The Book of Living Magic and The Strange and Somewhat Sinister Tale of the House at Desert Bridge. It is a world where everything that’s ever been imagined exists in some way – as do a bunch of other things, like dead people from our world (thus there are references to people meeting their own creations, or created characters writing books about their creators). There’s certainly plenty of silliness in the descriptions, but there’s still an overall pattern. Besides, as I said, the silliness is part of the place. Just because it doesn’t fit into a specific narrative doesn’t mean it doesn’t reveal something about the world.

    • You’re right – I was just making the point that it’s easier for the player when the snippets of world background clearly tie in to their current narrative. When they don’t, you have a handful of pretty marbles but it’s difficult to see any overall structure. I guess the Lands of Dream are unusual in that their content is *deliberately* interconnected in unexpected (sometimes silly) ways.

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