Academic Research

What do Amnesia, Immortality, and Mind Control have to do with Game Design, Immersion, and Suspension of Disbelief?


What breaks your sense of presence in a story? The culture of video game playing has developed a tolerance for the common practices and limitations in designing and producing games.  We’ve stopped asking “why?” and have come to expect the typical input arrangements, the impermanence of death, and restrictions of our own free will.  Although much of the work in the EIS lab is focused on investigating new practices in creating and playing games, I’ve found, in my personal “research” of popular games, that despite the predictability, certain innovations in narrative are notably novel.

If we break down a game into layers of: paidia, ludus, and narrative, an area that is quite nontrivial is the connection between paidia and narrative.  Often, your paidia is constrained such that you don’t ruin the narrative layer in the game.  For example, it is common that your agency sucks in order to maintain the story elements.

(This post contains spoilers for: Final Fantasy 7, Planescape Tourment, and Bioshock)

More relevantly, in story driven games, the paidia and narrative layers find themselves compromising.  Ultimately, the paidia-narrative relationship determines the user’s agency in a game and the overall flow and presence in a story.  The question I want to pose is: What breaks your sense of presence in a story?

Three typical (sense of presence breaking) examples are:

  1. Entering a story with no prior domain knowledge
  2. The occurance of dying and respawning
  3. Having a terrible sense of agency

In my experiences, I’ve felt that creative innovations in game writing and game design (or conforming the narrative layer to suite the paidia) were apparent in the following approaches:

1. Write into your story that the player character, at the start of the game, has amnesia.

zeldaEvery game has some form of introducing a new user to the experience.  Usually, this includes teaching a user how to play in addition to priming the user of the introductory narrative context.  Early forms of this include opening cut scenes and easy challenges in the early game play.  Star Craft campaigns, for instance, introduce you to the complex build system by composing a story around a mission-based tutorial.  With very little contextual priming, the 1995 game, Chrono Trigger, starts with the player character as a red spikey haired young man being woken up by his mother.  My initial thoughts as I start this game are: where am I? who am I? what is going on? and what am I supposed to do next?  It follows that the protagonist, Crono, doesn’t have much of a personality represented throughout the game.  In contrast, player characters such as Cloud from Final Fantasy 7 and Pheonix from Phoenix Wright: Justice for All, with more complexly defined personalities and lives, are introduced to the player with temporary memory loss.  Suitably, the world must be explained to the player character and coincidentally presents information that the user needs to know.  As you are discovering the world around you, you are also discovering yourself as a character that is recovering from amnesia.

2. Write into your story a curse that makes the player character immortal.

namelessoneDeath is a common occurance in many games.  There are pretty typical approaches in handling life and death in video games.  It is expected that if you do poorly enough, you lose your life and will be set back in some way.  Super Mario employs extra lives.   Halo uses check points.  Final Fantasy uses save spots.   In midst of a big dungeon, there’s always that awkward explanation of “here and only at shiny spots like these can you save your progress.”  When you die, the game ends, but when you start again, you resume from previously saved state.  We just accept this as how things are, but Planescape Tourment takes it a step further.  In Planescape, the main character is “cursed” with immortality, and when he “dies,” he wakes up in a mortuary… the closest mortuary to the location of death (and no, time has not stopped nor rewound).  In fact, he’s lived and died so many times, that his lives, recorded in a tomb, have taken many possible paths (in addition to the path you are currently on).  Your living, dying, and resurrection, within play, is just an intentional feature of the story experience.

3. Write into your story how the player character was genetically engineered to be mind controlled on command.

bioshock11It goes without saying that stories in games are fairly linear.  When it comes to choices, there really aren’t many that make a difference.  Eventually, you will go from point A to point B to point C with nominal embellishments along the way.   That’s just how games have been (in particular, JRPGs and action RPGs).  If I don’t accept the current quest, then the story stops until I decide otherwise.  In FPS campaigns, I accomplish the mission objective and await my next orders.  Bioshock, for example, is an RPG/shooter that progresses quite linearly.   You take in the presented circumstances, the interesting setting, music, and dialogue, and you go along with it.  For the sake of progressing through the story, you do what you are instructed (I mean, what else would you do?).  What’s different in this game is that you’re not meant to have a choice, because you, the player character, were genetically engineered to be mind controlled by the trigger phrase, “Would you kindly.”  For the first half of the game, you just go along with your lack of autonomy, and for the second half it is cleverly worked into the story.

…And voila, here are three instances where we have gone from typical constraint to novel feature.

Until we begin to formalize and create new ways in designing games, our paidia remains a bit limited.   Fortunately, we still have the expansiveness of our imaginations at the narrative layer’s disposal (in the meantime).


17 thoughts on “What do Amnesia, Immortality, and Mind Control have to do with Game Design, Immersion, and Suspension of Disbelief?

  1. This is a very interesting and unconventional comparisson. I’m not sure what ludus means thouth. I’ve never seen a game with a narrative layer before. This is something pretty sophisticated to my mind.

  2. I did originally have a snippet on Ludus, but I took it out b/c it wasn’t as relevant.

    (For the purposes of this discussion, it’s hard to say where ludus fits into the picture, but I suppose ludus is then the motivator and challenge that encourages a user towards accomplishment. However, I’d also say that a well written narrative layer also gives motivation for a user to press on. Often, in story driven games, the ludus provides the milestones in order to further the story.)

  3. So do we require our ‘character’ to actually lack a degree of consciousness, in order to be able to invest in it emotionally?

    • Caleb, I think that when technology gives you lemons, you can make more than just lemonade. Despite technology delivering new tools to build with, narrative also has creative avenues in bridging the gap. Although being an amnesiac, imortal, or mind controlled are somewhat constraints on the narrative, I think it opens a door for a deeper connection to what is happening to the character, b/c you are experiencing it yourself. As a game player for many years, it’s nice to see something new now and then, and usually these are technological or design advancements. Once in a while, they are narrative contributions.

  4. Neat post! One of my favorite narrative approaches for dealing with repeated deaths is Prince of Persia sands of time. In that case extra lives play out in the core mechanic of the game as you move backward and forward through the time stream. Then, if you die, you hear “No, no, no, that’s not how it happened.” The game presents your death as a storyteller miss-telling the story.

  5. I was replaying through the “New Game +” feature in Chrono Trigger and came across another narrative example.

    The maximum number of party members is 3

    Old Man: Why, this is The End of Time, of course! All lost travelers in time
    wind up here! Now, where are you from?

    Lucca: We’re from Guardia Kingdom, circa 1000 A.D..

    Robo: I come from 2300 A.D..

    Old Man: When 4 or more beings stop into a time warp, the Conservation of Time
    theorem states that they will turn up… at the space-time coordinates of
    least resistances. Here. Disturbances in the space-time continuum have
    increased recently. Far too many folks are just popping in here… I fear
    something is having a powerful effect on the very fabric of time…

    Lucca: Which means one of us has to remain here.

    Marle: Stay HERE? ALONE?

    Old Man: It is pretty bleak here… But not to worry. All time periods
    connect here… You can visit your friends whenever you wish! But you can
    never travel in groups greater than 3…

    Robo: So, one of us must stay.

    Lucca: Who’ll it be, Crono?

  6. These are interesting approaches, but they shouldn’t be overused. Amnesia has already been used too much, it should be used in an very well thought context for not appearing cheap.

    In the case of death, another interesting example is Square’s Brave Fencer Musashi for PS1, in which the death of the protagonist becomes a nightmare from which he wakes up in the town’s inn. Sadly, it is just as far as it goes: the same cutscene of waking from a nightmare repeated over and over.

    Other death-related problem that I have yet to see being integrated convincently to narrative is gameplay death vs storyline death, which are temporary an permanent, respectively.

  7. Cesar,

    I agree that amnesia is widely used. It’s interesting in any type of storytelling, how a person is primed or familiarized with the given situation. To me, it’s interesting how the “interactive” aspect encourages protagonist amnesia over other forms of storytelling.

    Currently, I’m working on an article on non-linear storytelling and where the stories actually begin. Having amnesia sort of presumes that there is a lot that has happened in the past prior to the start of the game.

    In regards to death, I’m sure you’ve already seen the more recent post here.

    it’s a bit of a reverse from what I was talking about in my article, but novel none-the-less.

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  9. I like the concept of time travel as you can go back in time and re-write the entire story. Kind of how J Abrams erased 20 years of Star Trek in the opening scenes of the new movie.

  10. These approaches are cool, and novel. But their just that; novel. Novelties are only cool and fun for as long as they’re not overused. As soon as they start becoming to common they become ignored. Once the player passes a certain threshold of “deaths” the explanation for the death becomes overlooked and the player just continues. That’s not to say these approaches aren’t cool, useful, and interesting, just rather the fact that they are address the result of an issue rather than the cause.

    I’ve always like the idea of not dying, cause I never die in real life. Games that don’t include death/respawn as a mechanic are interesting. None come to mind at the moment, but losing a game because you failed rather than you died allow for closer relations to real life, which in turn can help the player empathize with the character more effectively, and ultimately produce more compelling stories. Not many can empathize with the body they are controlling dying and being ressurected in one matter or another.

    I recognize this is not a definite solution; just some thoughts I have. And novelties can be fun.

  11. Being someone who has played many FPS-type games with a linear story progression and the inevitable dying/respawning that follows, it’s definitely interesting to see how games have taken their own mechanics and constraints to assist in telling the story and provide reasoning for your agency in the game. I do agree with a previous post that amnesia or the character’s loss of memory recollection have been greatly overused (most innovative implementation of things tend to turn cliche after a while), but I believe that to an extent it’s like you can only do so much with how you bind a book. For example, FPS games placing players straight in to action usually do the military fiction book cliche where the player is placed into the hell of things or the opening of Pandora’s box… however it’s usually the depth of the story itself that gets the most reception/criticism.

    I think it’s cool that you point out the novelties that can be used to make a game a more cohesive entity… as Andrew said though, it’s only a novelty and only good when it’s not overused. Like frosting on a cake (assuming you like it in the first place)!

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