Abstract of Dynamic Range: When Game Design and Narratives Unite

Author: 
Date created: 
2005-06-01
Keywords: 
Emergence;narratives;game design;dynamics
Game Design
Abstract: 

This paper proposes a tool and methodology for measuring the degree of freedom given to a player in any resource-driven game (that is, any game in which managing resources is an integral part of the gameplay). This concept, which I call the Dynamic Range, can be used namely to evaluate a given game system’s potential for developing emergent narratives, as defined by Henry Jenkins in his publication Game Design as Narrative Architecture. While Jenkins places at the heart of the creation of narratives the concept of spatiality, I will argue that narratives can be triggered just as well by a game’s very system – the rules that govern that which Janet Murray calls the participatory. Different game systems can stimulate narratives to different degrees; these possibilities can be examined by drawing a game’s dynamic range. I define the dynamic range as a measure of the extent to which a player can modify his resources in order to face a particular challenge requiring a specific set of said resources, without impairing his future odds of winning or survival. While resource-driven games can be globally defined as focusing on players managing resources toward the accomplishment of a goal, this definition needs some improvement if we are to put it to good use in the growing, conflicting context of game versus narrative as pointed out by Jesper Juul. I believe it is certainly possible to combine both of these worlds, although doing so requires us to move away from the Aristotelian model and reshape our definition of storytelling so as to center it on the player-reader, and not on the designer-author. All games do not allow a player to manage resources equally; specifically, games relying on manual dexterity and skill will usually offer less choices and decision-making problems than, for example, strategy or role-playing games. If one is to study the measure of a player’s freedom depending on different game systems, then, it follows that the latter example is a more interesting and complex question; after all, the freedom of a player in skill-based games is usually directly – and sometimes solely – dependant on the player’s perceptual or motor skills, hand-eye coordination, etc. When one is to evaluate and measure player freedom in resource-driven games, a theoretical tool is needed. That is why I propose a model to do so: to draw a game’s dynamic range is to compare the usual statistical values, amount of resources, or other mathematical attributes of the player in a normal situation, and the maximum statistical fluctuations he can attain by optimizing his resources to face a particular challenge. This paper compares the game systems of two computer games, Diablo and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. What results from such a comparison is that, Diablo being a linear game, its game and character improvement system is as such, making the player’s character slightly better overall as he progresses in the game; whereas in Morrowind, arguably the most open-ended single-player video game ever, the player acquires but few artefacts giving a constant statistical improvement, and even those items are overpowered – both in raw statistical logic and common in-game usage and practicability – by the magical objects offering a short but strong increase in a select attribute. Thus Morrowind’s gameplay system favours the feat rather than the steady, constant increase in power, giving a creative player the ability to do almost anything. One key result from such a game design difference is that it stimulates emergent narratives. The term, following Jenkins’ definition, should be understood as a narrative emerging from the player’s manipulation of the game’s context. A player who is given a lot of freedom when playing a game – translated as a wide dynamic range – is prompt to creatively use that freedom so as to constantly reinvent the game. Indeed, some Morrowind players have their characters take off their armour before going to sleep, though it is a tedious process and has no statistical influence of any kind; others have their character regularly take Skooma – an illegal narcotic substance comparable to cocaine – not for the statistical boost in strength it offers, but to create the narrative track of playing a character addicted to heavy drugs (Note that the game itself does not make the character addicted; this is entirely the player’s own interpretation of the events he causes) . As beings communicating primarily by words, we function with tales and events, not numbers. Hence Morrowind players share their stories and accomplishments a great deal more than Diablo players used to when the game was at its popularity peak: its very wide dynamic range allows them to undertake quests way too perilous for their characters, and accomplish them by creatively using all the game system’s resources, whereas all Diablo characters follow the same road in a narrow dynamic range, thereby limiting the possibilities of a player having something interesting and unique to say. While a player cannot truly create events while playing a video game – he only gets to choose between pre-generated events, or, perhaps, to bring many pre-generated elements into an unexpected situation, as Juul wrote –, he can create new cognitive and psychological sense out of pre-generated events, in the same way we construct causality and attribute feelings of sympathy to a dog wagging its tail after seeing a neighbour’s dog, even though it may be that the two events are completely unrelated. Using the notion of dynamic range can help video game developers determine the amount of emergent narrative possibilities to include in a game so as to strike a balance between game and narrative, paving the way for alternative means of storytelling. ----- Sources used: Henry Jenkins, Game Design As Narrative Architecture Available online at http://web.mit.edu/21fms/www/faculty/henry3/games&narrative.html Jesper Juul, A Clash between Game and Narrative: A thesis on computer games and Interactive fiction Available online at http://www.jesperjuul.dk/thesis/ Aristotle, Poetics; Penguin Classics, Toronto, 1996 Roger Caillois, Les Jeux et les Hommes : Le masque et le vertige ; Gallimard, Saint-Amand, 1967 Mark J.P. Wolf & Bernard Perron, The Video Game Theory Reader; Routledge, New York, 2003 Janet Murray, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace; Free Press, New York, 1997 Pedro Faria, Jarulf’s Guide to Diablo and Hellfire Available online at http://members.core.com/~dfrease/Body/JG1.html

Description: 
Contact: Dominic Arsenault, Department of art history and cinematographic studies, Unive, dominic.arsenault@umontreal.ca
Language: 
English
Document type: 
Conference presentation
Rights: 
Copyright remains with the author
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