Primary Probability Stew

As I continue to contemplate the feature of post-primary narrative, I’ve begun to wonder just what place “primary” has in it at all. Of course, there is always a primary. Something must always come first. In games with a multipathed narrative though, what comes first may be different for everyone. I will continue to use Dragon Age: Origins as an example.

There are 6 entry paths available to the narrative in DA:O. These are the “Origins”. However, although there are these finite beginnings, they are able to be colored differently by the players themselves. The dialogue trees in the game offer different perspectives and responses from various game characters. Although in the Origin, the player-character is destined to eventually end up at the same place, they can do so with varied experiences. Rather than 6 individual primary paths, there are actually 6 probability clouds of primary paths. And this is only the Origin. After that, the diagram would get much more complicated.

How then do we analyze a primary narrative experience? Rather than working with traditional methodologies of narrative, we may need to create a theory that acknowledges a model of narrative that has little to no stable text or primary foundation. It can be argued that any text will result in different initial readings depending on the reader, but in those cases, there is a stable text common to all.

In a multipathed narrative like in DA:O, what is common to all? The narrative is a stew of variables rather than a string of constants. There are certain plot points which do occur for everyone, but they still offer multiple avenues of experience through player choice. Although we may all journey to visit Arl Eamon, what actually takes place there at his castle may be quite different for each of us. There are many possible intratextualities and many possible cross-references, but many of them could only come to light in particular post-primary experiences, in which case, the reader’s particular primary experience of the narrative would be greatly influential.

Does this then mean that a single reader could never fully experience the entire narrative? If some post-primary features are dependent on one’s particular primary experience (of which there can only be one, naturally), then a single reader could only experience those which his particular primary allows.

Are his experiences intertextually related to another’s? These are not separate texts that readers experience, and yet, they are different.

Post-Primary Narrative: The Re-Encounter

My papers are finished for the term and I know I’ve promised summaries, but I just cannot get this topic off my mind.

When working on the Dragon Age narrative paper, I became captivated by the concept of post-primary narrative or a re-encounter with an already experienced game/text. With traditional text, some nuances may appear which were missed the first time, but no new words are actually read and there are no new speeches or revelations from the characters. In games, it is quite different. A second playthrough of many games offers entirely new experiences. Although the basic plot itself does not change, the perspective from which it is told may be completely opposite from the first and choices made by the player may actually alter how the plot is progressed. Even if one plays a second time from the original perspective, in many games, there is some element of chance which will alter the way in which the player experiences the narrative. Further, there are often areas or events which were missed the first time although present and which may be noticed a second or third time.

I have also been working on The Lord of the Rings Online, as many of you know, but hadn’t yet applied the thoughts of post-primary narrative to it and its genre. Players often complain about the fact that they must do the same thing over when leveling a new character or when completing dungeons or battles. They are actually experiencing post-primary narrative, but one in which there are very few possibilities of emergent narrative (that portion of narrative which is uncovered by other actions in the game and often requires multiple playthroughs).

The new skirmish system in LotrO highlights the presence of post-primary narrative in MMOs. In a skirmish, one experiences a particular event (such as the death of Mazog) a second time. Unlike a game such as Dragon Age, MMOs typically offer a single perspective (that of the player, regardless of player-character) and often have a lower element of chance. Under these conditions, it is quite difficult to have a new experience colored by the first:  a post-primary experience. Instead, they simply have a reminder of a former experience. We see Mazog say the exact same things at the exact same time as before. The only thing that may change at the end is how many marks (rewards) we get.

If MMO developers tried to further the possibilities available in their post-primary narratives, the player experience could be made much more engaging. There would actually be incentive to play through the game again, to re-encounter it. The current pervasive desire to skip to the endgame as soon as possible could be lessened, if not eliminated. Bioware’s upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic will certainly have more obvious features of emergent narrative than other MMOs, since each class will have its own story to play through. These will surely give incentive to experience post-primary narrative, though I am not sure how much possibility for change there will be after the main plot is experienced. I’m looking forward to it though!

Dragon Age: When Narrative and Gameplay make Fun

I think I fell in love with Alistair the moment I came out of Flemeth’s hut and he was so happy to see me alive. I knew it was just because he was relieved to not be alone in the world, but I was still head over heels.

Narrative in a game has the power to be so much more than just a framework of a universe or a generic plot to satisfy the genre. Game narratives can help create emotional experiences.

In Dragon Age:Origins, superb voice acting, fabulously animated facial features, developed histories, and consistent moralities somehow combine into a magical, sparkling, non-vampire known as Character. Alistair is sarcastic, playful, good, strong, sometimes conflicted, always gorgeous, loyal, and … interesting. I gave him some kind of runic symbol and he looooved it.

Why? Why does he like runes? Maybe I just hadn’t spoken to him enough to find out, but I knew there must be a reason and I was going to dig it out of him – I was going to get to know him.

Alistair is just one example of great character design in DA:O. But, is that enough to make a great game? Couldn’t I just go read Tolkien or Jordan or Martin if I wanted a good fantasy character? (Shhh, let’s only think of the first few Jordan books – let him rest in peace.)

I could. I don’t need to play a game for good narrative and if that’s all I wanted, I’d probably read a book. But we play games because we also want to have fun. We want to act. We want to play and I firmly believe that no amount of even superb narrative will, on its own, make a good game. A good game also needs good gameplay.

What is about DA:O’s gameplay that’s good? How does it interact with the narrative to create a seamless “game-goodness”?

One of the ways is I think the game’s focus on moral choices. Not only do they influence how the story plays out, they also influence whether your party members stay and fight beside you. Some class specializations are only unlocked by certain moral choices. NPC interactions vary dependent on choices you’ve made that have influenced them. Some preferable choices simply can’t be made because you haven’t worked on your character’s cunning and Coercion skills. The entire game can simply not be completed 100% on one playthrough, not just because there are different class/race beginnings, but because you will experience different parts of the game dependent on the choices you make.

It's not what it looks like...

All right, moral choices, but how does that influence the buttons I push and my heartrate in combat? Well, it may not influence the buttons you push for your main character, but it does influence what buttons you can push for your other party members. As I mentioned, some may leave you if they don’t agree with you, but also, their own abilities directly match their character as developed through the narrative. Of course, Alistair is a tank. Of course, Oghren fights with a two-hander. Of course, Wynne is a healer. Etc., etc.

Sometimes, narrative may even help make up for less-than-superb gameplay. The dwarven main questline is too long by most players’ estimation, but we know Branka must be out there so we keep searching, and the longer we search, the greater the suspense builds. Had I been a real adventurer, I would have assumed the darkspawn ate her and went back much earlier than I actually did. It dragged on and was the only area I left partially unexplored. At the end, though, I was rewarded with great narrative and a good battle. It wasn’t just a dungeon crawl – it was an epic search for lost Paragons and legendary technology.

The game is fun for more than just Alistair (and his very dreamy…mm). It’s fun to fight in this game. It’s fun to find class specializations and new recipes. It’s fun to get new spells and discover spell combos. It’s fun to give gifts. It’s fun to hear my characters talk to each other. It’s fun to open chests and find love letters. It’s sad to see characters leave or die. It’s exciting to recruit someone new. It’s scary to fight the Broodmother.

I could go on and on. The important thing to see is that it is almost impossible to separate the threads of narrative and gameplay in this game. Either they are so fine, I just cannot discern the boundary, or else they are so finely done, they merge.

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