This post is written in response to the framework for game drama that Marc LeBlanc outlines in his chapter of The Game Design Reader.

LeBlanc’s metrics for uncertainty and inevitability seem to be predicated on the notion of the game as a contest [2].  In an RPG this element is often de-emphasized in favor of other types of fun.  Certainly there is an aspect of achievement, but this is associated more with things like “collecting X special items”, and “advancing the plot”.  In Mass Effect, the bulk of the pleasure is narrative in nature, with significant sub-pleasures for the completionist player, the explorer, and the “min-maxer”.  Note that these are not formal play-types, per-se, but they are common within RPG play.  Completionists win when there is nothing left to do in the game; explorers win when they have found everything there is to find; and “min-maxers” derive pleasure from the process of character building and skill optimization.

When it is present in an RPG, the pleasure of contest takes the form of the player vs. the system, and so it makes sense to look at the game’s combat system as an obvious source of contest and thus drama.  In Mass Effect’s combat system the player’s squad of characters faces off against an assortment of AI controlled enemy characters, deploying various weapons and special abilities until all of the enemies have been killed, or the player’s character runs out of life.  Each of these combat encounters might be considered to be a mini-contest-based-drama (or “Play-Centric” drama), from which either side may emerge victorious.  However if we step back further from the combat, it is possible to identify a different type of drama in Mass Effect, associated with the narrative notion of “what will happen next?”  It is this dramatic tension that drives me to continue playing the game, and I believe that the same systems that govern LeBlanc’s notion of play-centric-drama may be applied fruitfully to this more traditional “narrative-centric” conception.

Two Sources of Uncertainty

LeBlanc describes uncertainty as “the sense that the outcome of the contest is still unknown”[2].  Nowhere in Mass Effect is this more evident than within the central mystery that drives the story.  It is clear that forces are aligning against the player, and the human systems alliance.  It is clear that they intend no less than the destruction of all life in the galaxy, and that they have a plan to accomplish this task.  As one of the only people willing to recognize the true danger that the galaxy is in, and as an operative of the ruling council with virtually limitless freedom to pursue these enemies, the player’s character is the only person able to save the galaxy.  The contest around which the narrative is structured is one which may be measured by access to critical knowledge (much like Clue): if the enemy discovers certain ancient secrets before the player, then the game is over; if the player learns what the enemy is up to, she may be able to avert the destruction of the galaxy.

To use some of LeBlanc’s terminology, we can imagine the overall shape of the story as being masked by a metaphorical “fog of war“.   As the player’s character uncovers different aspects of the plot, this uncertainty falls away, revealing the nature of the conflict, and allowing the player to take the necessary actions needed to succeed.  Mass Effect manipulates this even further by showing the player information about the movements of the enemy which her character is not privy to, thus creating additional tension around the question of who will win in the end by demonstrating the very real threat posed to the galaxy.

By considering the momentum of the game in terms of advancing the narrative, it is possible to arrive at a different understanding of the role of the combat.  Each combat sequence serves as a decelerator for the process of uncovering the plot.  Without the combat mechanics, players could just fly from planet to planet, tracking down clues, talking to people, and eventually discovering all of the pieces of the puzzle.  Combat forces the player to work for the next piece of story, and introduces an element of uncertainty into the contest by making story elements unavailable until the player is able to overcome a set of challenges.  Lengthy sequences of searching from planet to planet, or interrogating people (and the environment) for more details about the storyworld all serve to slow the rate at which the player is able to acquire and implement important story knowledge.

Two Sources of Inevitability

Inevitability in LeBlanc’s framework deals with the perception that the contest is moving toward a resolution and that the outcome is imminent [2].  In Mass Effect, this is accomplished by providing the player with carefully staged snippets of information about the larger narrative arc, and by subdividing this arc into a series of what Bizzocchi calls micro-narratives[1].  In an RPG, with hours upon hours of gameplay, the mechanism of the ticking clock must operate at both a micro and a macro level.  It is neither possible nor desirable to drive the player from beginning to ending of a single grand narrative arc with only one source of tension that continually scales from moment to moment.  Instead, the building tension must be nested within progressions of self-contained arcs (micro-narratives) which aggregate to form the tension of the grand narrative within the game.

Thus, in Mass Effect, we are presented with a set of choices, each one of which may be tied into the larger task of uncovering the mystery within the game, and each one containing a complete beginning, middle, and end.  For example, to advance the storyline, the player must find and question a particular scientist.  To find this scientist, the player must travel to a distant planet, only to discover it infested with agents of the enemy.  The story of rescuing the scientist, then, becomes a complete vignette, with its own tension and resolution.  At the end, the scientist provides information about the macro-narrative, thus plugging this separate arc back into the main story.  However, while the player is pursuing the scientist, the main story is temporarily set aside.  During these sub-narratives, the bigger questions of “who will win?” and “when will we know?” are displaced by immediate concerns of “can I survive?” and perhaps some broader concerns of “how does this relate to the story?”  By nesting these micro-narratives within the broader narrative, the player is constantly under some pressure to move the story along in the moment: the micro-narratives are the second-hand, which slowly advances the minute and hour hands of the story’s ticking clock.
The other way in which Mass Effect creates a sense of inevitability is by triggering events that advance the story as a result of seemingly innocuous choices made by the player.  Whenever a player travels to a new planet, or star system, there is a chance that she will be contacted by an NPC with a new assignment or plot point to explore.  In this manner, the story follows the player around, never dropping too far off of her radar.  Even a player who is actively avoiding moving the plot forward (A common completionist strategy, as advancing the plot often results in closing off various alternative paths) is forced to confront its workings.  In this way, the player perceives the plot as something that is happening independent of her own choices and actions, creating the (illusory) sense that if the player were to fail to pursue the narrative then the enemies would succeed in carrying out their evil plans.  This reinforces the sense that the game is moving toward some resolution, and that this resolution is just around the corner.

[1]    Bizzocchi, J. Games and Narrative: An Analytical Framework. Loading – The Journal of the Canadian Games Studies Association, 1 (1). 5-10.
[2]    LeBlanc, M. Tools for Creating Dramatic Game Dynamics. in Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. eds. The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts; London, England, 2006, 438-459.