How Gameplay Can Be Used to Shape A Game's Narrative
Many games have a disconnect between what happens when you're playing and what happens during cut scenes. At its worst, scenarios exist where one second you're an invincible killing machine and the next you're a fragile weakling that could be bested by the most basic adversaries. We've all had those moments where we turn the other cheek in order to rectify these differences in our mind.
A very salient instance from my childhood was returning to the ruins of Trodain Castle in Dragon Quest VIII, and the main entrance was barricaded by large vines as thick as trees. Instead of looking for another path, my fireball wielding team mate, Jessica, steps up and quickly burns these vines away. Despite the story showing that she can destroy these vines, the inside of the castle is full of unexplorable pathways thanks to the vines blocking the way.
Similarly, if you followed the logic of Borderlands’ mechanics, then any character should almost instantly be brought back to life when they die because of the New U stations.
Okay, the vines weren't as thick as trees. Give me a break; I was twelve!
The dissonance between mechanics and story is not necessarily a catastrophic thing. Both Borderlands 2 and Dragon Quest VIII are easily in my top 5 favorite games of all time. However, while DQ8 merely bothers me because a dungeon is made illogically, major plot points have the wind taken out of their sails in Borderlands 2 because of this (Even though it's sort of inevitable when you canonically make your respawn system based around an instant cloning device).
Shooters often suffer heavily from this dissonance. It's hard to believe a cutscene that shows a character dying from a gunshot wound when your invincible ally absorbed dozens of bullets in the preceding fire fight.
Even The Last of Us, which is hailed as having one of the greatest stories in video games, features an AI companion invisible and invincible during combat encounters.
The recent Tomb Raider Reboots suffer from this dissonance to an extreme degree. One moment Lara is making insane jumps, shooting foes, taking bullets, and just generally being a badass. The next, a QTE asks you to take cauterizing a small wound seriously, despite having taken dozens of shotgun blasts earlier. You can’t heal from bullet wounds in seconds during gameplay while being vulnerable during cut scenes and expect your storytelling to carry full effect.
I promise you don't have to cauterize every single bullet wound.
That’s where Pharmakon enters stage left.
This indie strategy title uses its mechanics in multiple ways to sell its story and build its world. The first example is how the game handles its enemies. 5 different types of elemental beasts appear in 5 distinct kingdoms, each of which is built around the supposed dominance of their particular element. The kingdoms hunt down and exterminate these beasts, and devote a large amount of their existence to exterminating them. It's accepted that they're a threat and they are always hastily dealt with when encountered.
But see, here’s the thing -- while the game tells you that these beasts are a threat, they're not actually all that violent. Unlike enemies in almost any other game I’ve ever played, these foes will not actually attack you unless provoked. They only counterattack, or when they become infuriated by you knocking other enemies into them.
Whether they realize, or simply refuse to admit that the beasts are docile, isn’t ever alluded to. But that’s not important. What is important is what it says about a society willing to compete to fight a threat more perceived than existent. Pharmakon’s countries seem to have built their identities around facing off against these beasts. You could say I'm reading too much into this, but when I asked the game’s developer about it, he confirmed what I thought, adding:
"The Elemental Beasts are punching bags in which factions see one another."- Visumeca Games
The whole thing is reminiscent of North Korea. The government tells their people that they're at constant war with the western world to fuel patriotism and reduce upheaval, despite the country’s high poverty rate and poor human rights record. One can only imagine what sorts of secrets the governments of Pharmakon is hiding away from their own people.
Another great example of the game’s mechanics selling its story is your ambiguous, almost entirely anonymous avatar. You play as an agent of one of the 5 nations in its world, but you don’t choose your nation. Instead, it's randomized when you start the game and every time you die afterward.
Upon death, you're informed that you are no longer useful, and a new agent will be assigned to your mission. You see, you're not actually playing as just one agent, but as a series of agents. You're not a chosen one, you play as all the unfortunate dredges that were unlucky enough to be sent on this mission -- one after the other until one is finally successful. You play as metaphorical generations building on top of their ancestor’s backs.
It feels believable that anyone could get dragged into this. Much like when you see a crash in front of you and know if you were going a little faster, you would be the one in a crumpled up ball of steel and plexiglass. It could be anyone.
"Abandon him and send a new agent."
I would argue that, in a lot of ways, mechanics do help build their worlds in ways that we don’t pay attention to. For instance, in Borderlands, getting loot is an integral part of the core gameplay, but it's also a huge motivation for every character in its universe. While the playable characters are mostly blank faces, it's hard to imagine a version of Pandora where they would be satisfied with the vault if it only contained gold and jewels but no wicked guns.
In a lot of ways, when mechanics compliment a game’s story it goes unnoticed, and when they actually conflict with the game’s narrative we choose to ignore it. Since this is so common, we really don’t have a lot more choice; we have become desensitized to it, or perhaps we were never sensitized to it in the first place.
That being said, the power of mechanics as a narrative device is undeniable. Pharmakon is an indie title made by a one man team with a very minimalistic approach to storytelling. If it weren’t for the mechanics helping do so much of the heavy lifting, the whole narrative would have lacked the weight it had. But it’s more than that. A game can be good and its story engaging when its mechanics conflict with its world. But to be truly great in this interactive medium, you need to blur the lines between the rules of mechanics and the worlds these systems exist within.