Friday, February 6, 2009

A Frustrating Narrative

Whether it is seeing a faraway ledge taunting you, being bested by a computer opponent, or struggling against a maverick camera, video games can be a frustrating ordeal. Their ability to inspire frustration is often overlooked when we articulate the differences between video games and other mediums, but I think the idea that we even expect challenge from games makes them unique. Certainly, a particularly tortuous novel or abstract film can be exasperating, but books and DVDs lead relatively safe lives compared to video game controllers.

I usually find myself getting exasperated with a game in which I continually fail. Usually, this failure takes the form of "dying," in some way, which means losing progress, points, gear, or the like. However, my recent time with PixelJunkEden and BioShock suggest that perhaps failure alone does not lead to frustration and that bad mechanics are not solely to blame. Instead, a game's narrative determines its capacity to frustrate.

I enjoyed BioShock and PixelJunk Eden immensely, despite experiencing quite a few failures on my journey through Rapture and my trek into Eden. I had no large problems with the controls, mechanics, or rules of either game. Curiosly, BioShock stood out as the far more frustrating of the two, despite the fact I failed far more when playing PixelJunkEden.

BioShock is a monument to story telling in games, or more precisely, a monument to explicit, linear-narrative storytelling. Well-written and competently voiced, the game's dialogue and characters articulate the story of a city's tragic demise. The dilapidated city structures are beautiful landmarks along a road that inexorably led me to the game's conclusion. BioShock is a game with a clear message and an explicit story, and this is why my failures frustrated me.

I had a propensity of attacking Big Daddy's without much forethought, and this led me to become intimately familiar with the inside of the vita chambers. Every time I died, it felt as thought I was somehow upsetting the game's narrative. Perhaps Jack was meant to "die" a couple of times to explicate the chambers' cloning capabilities, but rushing headlong into the same battle five times in a row felt like a disservice the story in which I was participating.

My PixelJunkEden failures dwarfed my BioShock deaths. Sweating against the clock while trying to collect enough pollen to traverse the game's massive levels created a mixture of stress and Zen concentration. Despite countless re-tries, I felt little frustration in having to repeat levels.

In retrospect, my lack of frustration in the face of dozens of failures was due in large part to PixelJunkEden's narrative approach. The game has very little explicit story, and what is present mimics the game's graphics to create something that is both abstract and impressionistic. The narrative inPixelJunk is a vague theme: It is a story about pollination and growth.

While playing the game, I clung to the naturalistic motif. I saw the game as a representation of plants' life cycle: Sometimes, plants do not bloom very strongly and must endure a long winter before trying to rebound in the spring. The non-human world is less linear than human-centered stories, and since I viewed the game as a story about nature, setbacks felt less permanent. I could fail as many times as necessary and feel little frustration because failure was not destructive to the narrative.

I have tried to avoid the term ludo-narrative dissonance until now, but I cannot find a better way to describe what I believe is the core reason behind frustration in gamers. If a game's narrative suggest that the protagonist not fail, yet, when controlling the protagonist, the player repeatedly fails, dissonance clearly exists. Here I begin to tread gingerly, as the beast that is the "Narratologists vs. Ludologists debate" is a fitful sleeper, and it is hard to control once woken.

We make sense of our world by creating stories that explain the situations we encounter. Some games create stories by presenting the player with apre-constructed narrative, while others create messages by employing gameplay techniques. However, without each other as foils, neither of approach holds any relative meaning. The chasm between narrative andgameplay is not going to disappear; we just need to figure out how to build a bridge with a sturdy center.


  1. I find it useful to envision not a chasm between two opposites, but a break in continuity in the player's constructed narrative -- in other words, I'm not sure a gameplay-plot break is much different than a gameplay-art break or a plot-music break or a plot-characterization break.

    I think it's easy to assign special case status to "gameplay" and "story", but really it seems like a particular instance of a broader problem, i.e. the interruption of the story the player is accumulating (whether it's from sounds, pictures, or words) with a contradictory fact. Cognitive dissonance is the mind-killer!

  2. "BioShock is a monument to story telling in games, or more precisely, a monument to explicit, linear-narrative storytelling. ... The dilapidated city structures are beautiful landmarks along a road that inexorably led me to the game's conclusion. BioShock is a game with a clear message and an explicit story, and this is why my failures frustrated me."

    Your above description of BioShock beautifully captures how certain first-person shooters do their best to PROPEL players through a given narrative. These games do storytelling quite well. On the other (and strangely smaller) side of the coin are first-person shooters concerned with storymaking, such as Far Cry 2. Titles like this are almost inherently less frustrating, as they offer a modicum of freedom and encourage a kind of experimentation where the only blame for failure lies in your personal approach.

    While I wouldn't really say that PixelJunk Eden is a storymaking type of game, it's abstract enough to facilitate players' various interpretations. This can certainly help lessen frustration, but it didn't in case. I'm psyched to try playing again now that it's been patched.

  3. Oops -- meant to say that creating a story or theme in PixelJunk Eden didn't lessen frustration in MY case.

    I also meant to mention Steve Gaynor's excellent post, "Storymaking," which inspired my comment. Check it out at

  4. I think some games implicitly require failure to reach satisfying narrative conclusions, even though deaths usually interrupt the narrative flow. In the final scenes of an action film, the hero is usually wounded near-fatally, and he needs to suffer to make his ultimate triumph meaningful. Near-death in video games is insignificant; the character will find a health pack or automatically heal between levels. To feel like you've overcome a difficult adversary, especially at the conclusion of the game, you'll probably have to die a few times. Some newer games use the half-hour boss battle to create that sense of accomplishment, but I think more games will continue to kill the player's character to show them how much is at stake when fighting a boss.

    While player-character deaths generally require restarting the battle, interfering with the uniformity of the narrative, these deaths still have an emotional and dramatic role in the game's overall narrative.

  5. Just off the top of my head, maybe some form of dissonance improves the experience overall as it might give the player a good place to stop, turn off the console, and go eat dinner. Maybe the break from game to reality would be more counterproductive as far as the narrative goes than including chapters or even game-over screens. Just an idea.

  6. Joe:

    I think you are correct to point out the multitude of continuity breaks to be found in games. I'm interested in finding examples of how people have tried to smooth these breaks. It seems like a monumentally difficult task, as it is impossible to control for the kind of inclinations and assumptions that a player brings to the game. Without mind-reading, it is hard to resolve dissonance.

    mtvernon: I still haven't played Far Cry 2, but it's generating so much discussion that I'll definitely get to it soon. Do you have any other favorite "story making" games?

    Jonathan: I agree that game developers probably want players to feel frustration in some circumstances, but it's a difficult line to walk.

    First, they have to make sure the game challenges the player but doesn't turn them off completely. Second, they have to make sure that if they are telling a explicit narrative akin to a film or novel, the failure isn't discordant with the narrative tone.

    Overall, I think BioShock did adequately with that second requirement, but at times I still felt that the game was trying to be both an unbroken narrative and a purely ludic shooter at the same time. I don't envy having to try to find this balance, and I'm excited to see what direction they go with the next BioShock game.

    Jorge: The old "remember to tend to bodily functions" game over screen, eh? Sadly, I've experienced the utility of such a function all to often.

  7. To go on perhaps a slight tangent here, lately I have wondered why developers insist on having the possibility of the player dying while playing, especially in games that are trying to advance the medium by having involving stories. BioShock would be one of these games, I'd argue, but my point is that if the supposed importance of the game is to tell a compelling narrative that engages our imagination then why must challenge and the resulting death still exist in the game? I realise that the medium has been built on these traits (if you will) and so moving away from it is hard, but surely there are ways to tell these in-depth stories without having roadblocks for us to hit along the way?

    I guess in a way, Heavy Rain could be an upcoming example of maybe heading down the path that I'm trying to refer to. As far as I know, if you die in that game the events and story continue on. That is one way to deal with death without having the player jump over hurdles to reach the end of the story, but is it the only way?

    And now I've lost my train of thought and point, so take this as mindless rambling if you want. Another thing that comes to mind though is TV show The Wire and how it told the story of the city of Baltimore over the course of its five seasons. I mean sure, we had main characters that helped the story along and at first it looked like it was about them rather than the city, but as the show progressed on the viewers came to realise that it wasn't about the characters of the show necessarily, but how their parts (drug dealers, cops, politics, school children and etc) of the city all combined to tell the overall story of the show.

    Ever since seeing that show in its entirety, I've been trying to figure out how a game could do the same sort of thing and tell a story without necessarily having some importance on challenge, death and the other roadblocks we are accustomed to as gamers.

    Does that even make sense? I apologise if it didn't and also for it being a major tangent, rather than a slight one. You guys are used to it by now though I'm sure of it. ;)

  8. Hi Steven:

    Where would we be without your tangents? ;-)

    Have you played Eternal Darkness? It is a game that had a huge cast of characters, some of which didn't make it through the whole story, some of which interacted with the others in surprising ways. It's the closest thing I can think of in regards to your "Wire" analogy. It was hugely ambitious and I wish more developers would try big, ensemble-cast style games.

  9. @Scott - I have played Eternal Darkness though I never got to finish it (only rented it :( ) and can't really remember it now. It has been on the list of games I want to go back to for ages though so hopefully one day I do. I can understand why you thought of it after reading my "Wire" comments and that's certainly something interesting as I never thought of Eternal Darkness like that before.

    I agree that it would be nice to see some developers try new things with a bigger ensemble of characters but I guess it is just far too much of a risk to take? That said, Far Cry 2 just popped into my mind so I wonder if that is a start? I don't know, I am still yet to play it.

  10. When I was a NES playing, snot-nosed little kid, I LOVED Battletoads. Yet, it was completely and utterly frustrating. I actually improved my throwing arm better with this game better than I ever did playing baseball because I had thrown my controller so many times that I actually got to a point where I could hit the power point from across the room with my flying joystick as I dramatically exited the room in a scree of white noise from channel 3.

    I think videogames are a unique form of story telling because they require that you exhibit a skill to complete the narrative. That combination of skill with storyline is part of what makes them so addictive and enjoyable. I remember when I finally beat Battletoads I was... a... GOD! I wished I had recorded my triumph because my friends would never believe that I actually beat that damn game because it was notoriously hard. So, what I believe makes games both so enjoyable and so utterly frustrating is that they tease you with a story of your rise to power and conquest, but they throw innumerable obstacles in your way on the road to victory. And if they break without cheating... in a way where you can see that you really lost do to your own failings in the skill of the gameplay, then you are going to enjoy the hell out of that game and spend some money on new controllers after you snap some in half.

  11. csecrist:

    Ah, a kindred spirit to join me in hearkening back to the days where games were the enemy! How far we have strayed ;-)

    I think you raise a great point in the unique skills games require in order to fully grasp their narratives.

    Like learning how to read a novel critically or analyze the composition of a movie frame, learning to play a game is necessary to fully grasp the experience.

    I often feel like I've lost my "edge" when it comes to hard games, as most just aren't as challenging as they were in the old days. Do you feel similarly?

  12. I do feel similarly! In 1990 I was so good at games that I was in the state semi-finals of the Nintendo World Championship up on stage with 3 jumbotron-style screens projecting the gameplay of me and my two other competitors to an auditorium full of people. Now, I get my ass handed to me by twelve year olds online (Although, perhaps having your life mirror a bad Fred Savage movie like "The Wizard" is nothing to be too proud of). Anyway, I spend most of my gaming time these days playing Shin Megami Tensei games which are challenging not because of gameplay, but because they are such a ginormous time-suck on your life.

    Nevertheless, I sometimes feel like new games don't dare to challenge players like they used to. Companies want their games to appeal to a wide range of people, which is understandable from a business perspective, but they're giving the shaft to the most talented gamers who will get bored and turn it off before they even finish the tutorial level. And sadly, the truly challenging games that kick you in the balls without thinking twice about it get caned in the reviews! I think it is a great injustice that games like PS2's Shinobi, Contra Shattered Soldier, and Gradius V all received their fair share of negative reviews primarily because the reviewers were just bitter over the stinging, throbbing, tear-squirting, ass whooping they received.

    The world of videogames is big enough now though, that there is room for everything, so I can't complain too much (I love the variety anyway). As long as companies still throw a few bones to us old-school gaming dogs like XS Games' superb gameplay focused "The Red Star", I'll be happy.

    For a similar and incredibly funny read, I suggest checking out Maddox's homage to Contra III: