Friday, September 11, 2015

Framing Devices in Videogames

Let's talk about framing devices in videogames.

Ever since the first Assassin's Creed I've been in love with them. When done well they can ameliorate ludonarrative dissonance by couching the contrivances and tropes of video game mechanics in a frame that is already understood as being an artificial construct. Hopefully a few clear examples will make that sentence less gobbledygookish.

In Assassin's Creed, you primarily play a character in the middle east from a thousand years ago. But because it's a videogame there are things that you can and can't do that a real person from a thousand years ago in the middle east would not have to deal with. For instance, you can't walk off into the sunset. At some point there's a wall that will always stop you, because we don't have the technology to build an entire planet simulation yet. (No Man's Sky and Spore are great baby steps, but the detail is so crude that I don't count them) As designers we have a couple different ways to deal with the artificial boundaries we have to put around the playspaces we build. We can make "natural" boundaries like cliffs, impassable mountains, unswimable water, etc.  Or we can just bluntly put a “glass wall” around the area that the player smacks into if they stray too far off our beaten paths.  Usually it’s a mix.  In Assassin’s Creed they do the glass walls, but because of the framing device, these actually contribute to -rather than diminish- the overarching narrative. That framing device is the idea that the player is using sci-fi tech that lets you enter a re-creation of the past in a virtual environment.  So it’s set up as a game within a game.  The glass walls you encounter are explained as the limits of the file you are inhabiting, and the art they use reinforces that.  The same framing device makes death and restarting (another major trope in videogames) coherent within the meta-narrative.  Sadly, they end up ruining the framing device by having small sections of the game where you play as the guy outside of the sci-fi machine in the “real world”, running around and doing a lot of the same things (and thus experiencing the same tech limitations and design tropes) WITHOUT the benefit of a framing device to explain them  That’s the ludonarrative dissonance.  The IDEA of being in the real world crashing into the reality of the mechanical constraints that games have. There is no dissonance when you are playing a simulation of the real world, because the framing device has explicitly told you that it’s NOT the real world, so the mechanical constraints are perceived as PART of the story, not an abrogation of them.

Hand of Fate presents an action/RPG through the framing device of a collectable card game.  The set-piece battles you participate in are framed as an event simulated by the meta-rule-set of a card game. And again, this allows the gamey tropes to add charm to the experience rather than break immersion.

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! Is a digitial Choose Your Own Adventure book that has a simple-but-effective combat system.  The metagame has you moving a token over a map, RPG or strategy board game style.  The text describing your battles reinforces the bookish nature of the experience and keeps things unified.

Ancient Trader is a stripped down 4X strategy game inspired by old maps, and is carried in large part by the aesthetic of its inspiration.  The way old makes were simplified and embellished by the cartographer’s ignorance informs and reinforces the strategy game tropes it uses.  Games are by necessity over-simplifications of reality, and so the more realistic the framing device is, the more out-of-sync the gameplay will be with simulation. Ancient Trader succeeds in large part because it matches the over-simplification of the mechanics with the framing device of old charts that reflected an over-simplified knowledge of the world. 

Puppeteer uses the framing device of a puppet show at a theater.  Being a straight-up platformer, this device does not address all the game mechanic tropes such as death and restarting, but goes a long way in bringing the mechanics and narrative together.

This are five games I can think of that use framing devices effectively.  I’d like to know if there are more I’ve forgotten or am not aware of.