January 28, 2009

Glossary: Fiction

Defining terms is an important step in the design process. There are some concepts for which I find it useful to create new or more specific definitions when discussing game design. See a collection of all glossary posts, here.

Game designers often wrap a game's mechanics in familiar trappings to help the player understand and remember them. In a Tag-variant game such as Sharks and Minnows or Cops and Robbers, those roles are shortcuts to help players understand and remember who's meant to run from whom.
Fiction: The usage of metaphors to present mechanics and gameplay as a cohesive and logical whole.
Fiction encompasses all the characters in a game, it's geometry and animations, music and sound effects, the names of its powers and enemies, and the general traits of the world and setting.

To imagine a game with no fiction at all, try to picture the game stripped down into the form of a gameplay prototype, with no names of powers or statistics or characters. Dwarf fortress has a fiction that players have to learn, but at first glance it has no obvious fiction at all:

Imagine trying to learn to play the game without someone explaining to you what each character represented. Once people started making custom character sets for the game, things started being a lot more understandable:

Try picturing some other games with their fiction stripped away:
  • The Sims becomes a game about little squares moving around and interacting with other squares to get some numbers from them. Some numbers can't be gotten from other squares, so the squares must spend resources on circles, and spend time near those circles until they receive enough of the numbers they want. Your square is doing well if it has a lot of the right kind of numbers, and very little of some other kinds of numbers.
  • Dungeons and Dragons becomes a game about moving around some rocks on a piece of graph paper and the rocks collect some numbers from other rocks which another player arbitrarily puts down on the grid sometimes. Your rock has some numbers, but if you spend some of those numbers to take some other numbers from the other rocks, you'll eventually get some other numbers which you can convert into special permanent numbers which improves all of your rock's number-giving and number-taking.
Yikes. Sounds fun, right?

It's almost impossible to remove all fiction from a game. Even the concept of movement, time, and dimensions are metaphors to some degree. Even Tetris has the fiction of building and gravity. The only game I can think of with no fiction at all is Sudoku, and most people would probably refer to that as a puzzle rather than a game.

Fiction informing mechanics

Imagine World of Warcraft remade as a scifi game, but only visually. Every creature and castle would be replaced by a spaceship or starbase. Every power would receive a new icon, display name, and animation, but the game would have exactly the same mechanics and gameplay.

The game would be exactly as fun to play in theory, but it would be a lot harder to understand. A lot of WoW's mechanics don't make sense in the context of a space game's metaphors: Why can my warrior class spaceship only attack things in melee range? (And what would the animation for a spaceship melee attack even look like?)

The same problems would arise if CCP tried to reskin EVE as a fantasy game. How would they explain the metaphor of a quasi-permanent avatar piloting a pod inside a destroyable, upgradabe ship in the context of a game about being a huge warrior with an axe?

The fiction of these two games provide valuable context for all of their mechanics, as well as influencing which mechanics are included at all. Every player and designer innately knows from a century of pop-culture that shields in a space combat game should function very differently from shields in a fantasy game.

Fiction informing gameplay

While fiction helps players and designers understand mechanics, it can also work with fiction to help point players toward gameplay. Splinter Cell contains many mechanics that encourage the player to play stealthily or punish them for not doing so, but it also has a fiction and art style that encourage the player to roleplay a sneaky and careful spy, patiently waiting in the inviting shadows of the game's environment.

If you showed a non-gamer a photos of Sam Fisher and Kratos, they'd be able to easily recognize that one game is about a sneaky spy and one is about a rampaging badass. If you showed them a video of both characters' walk animations on a nondescript character, they'd be able to tell from that too. Every element that we present players with gives them subtle information of how to have fun in our game. This information must always be purposeful and consistent.

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