Taking an axe to a dead horse

Let me start this post by not just kicking that one dead horse, but again mince its meat and turn its hooves into glue; the story of a game is in its play, the rest of framing. The thing that makes electronic gaming so interesting is that the framing is considered equal, if not more important in some cases, than the content it is framing.

A game’s framing narrative will always be second to the play of the game, that’s part of the medium. The framing can never escape the play part, and ultimately has to be break itself apart and into segments to satisfy the needs of play. This could be, for example,  the need for the player to move a character from locale A to locale B in order to continue the narrative segment. Or in case of Xenosaga, walk from a room to another to continue from a fifteen-minute FMV. The narrative also has the option to cover game mechanics as part of the world, but that is not specifically necessary.

The game can cover rules of the play by other means as well, but for the sake of game’s own narrative consistency, more often than not the rules are implemented as part of the framing narrative. Sometimes it makes sense, like how Trails in the Sky has the whole orbs-in-slots system, something concrete that the player sees and collects, and other times it’s rather abstract like Junctioning Magic to Guardian Forces in Final Fantasy XIII. Nevertheless, the framing itself matters less than the function and rules of the play the provide.

Of course, depending on the game, the framing device can be extremely important, or matter very little. Modern audiences are used to having everything in FMVs and pre-scripted sequences that take control out of the players’ hands, but in the arcades this context was delivered via cabinet marquees and attraction screens. In the best cases, games were laid out and designed to deliver the framing without much words or time wasted. For example, the subtitle of the first Street Fighter II was The World Warrior, referring to the world stage the player’s chosen character would be in. The selection screen itself presented this concept with the world map and plane flying here and there. Much like any other visual medium, games excel in the visual side of things. Certainly, many arcade games slapped a text to give you the base framing and that was that, which is effectively an equivalent of any modern FMV. More abstract games didn’t need any. Pac-Man eats pills and tries to avoid the Ghosts. That’s the minimum amount of framing a game needs to fully justify its play. Funnily enough, that is also the description of the play, getting two birds with one stone.

The framing fights the player agency because it’s not the content, the play is. Nowadays we take for granted how large the overall framing is to give a whole world for the play to be justified, which is overreaching it rather hard, but it is one of the easier and most accessible aspects to analyse regarding games. This is because we are taught to read from a young age and how to analyse media overall. Film criticism comes a bit later, but often we build our own preferences based on certain aspects of films, which makes the whole analysing this framing device very easy.

It’s not as easy with other media, where specialised knowledge is more or less necessary to understand how the content is being framed. To drag the remains of the horse’s corpse here for a moment, not many people concentrate on the frames of a painting or on the pedestal of a statue despite the possibility that they too could have seen masterful works themselves. A painting is being elevated further when an unique frame has been designed and carved for it, accenting its strokes and colours properly. Often they just get overlooked and whatever readily made models are there on the table gets picked up, because the frame isn’t the main point. Not many know wood-crafting well enough to begin to appreciate the necessary skill and knowledge master framers have built up throughout the years to pair a painting perfectly to a frame, and proceed to frame it in an equally skilful manner. Everything from material selection to the attaching itself must be taken into account. Or, y’know, just nab that proper sized black frame from Ikea and go with that. Sure, same thing. I’m overstating this point because handiwork and craftsmanship isn’t something we all learn too deeply. We dabble in it and may learn base skills, but we aren’t taught them to any deeper extent. Craft lessons at school mostly just play rather than building up any true skill, unlike your native tongue lessons.

Games that rely heavily on the framing narrative also tend to decrease the agency of the player, the freedom of play. This doesn’t matter too much in games that are laid out as fields of challenge, like almost every action and racing game out there, but raises its ugly head when it comes to RPGs. More often than not, RPGs do not offer a whole lot of ways for the player to realise their own play. Some RPGs allow completely free character creation and follow in suit, but even then framing device is ready and sometimes can’t even be affected. When the developer concentrates on emphasizing their framing as a single narrative, the player agency is effectively nil. Very few times the framing allows the player to have a large agency on its course and in cases like YIIK the narrative is overwhelmingly more important than the play to the point of it having been designed to hate the player. The greater the narrative design, the more it has to rely on the techniques from other media, but marrying it to the play also requires an equal amount of design decisions regarding the play. For example, Kojima may have made his titles long-ass movies at times, but simply allowing the player to turn on the first person camera and look around for clues and easter eggs add to the player agency. While the player can’t continue the scene on their own terms, they are given control over an aspect nevertheless. A small thing that adds value to otherwise lengthy scenes of doing nothing.

While the framing narrative sees ever-rising budgets and effort to have the most well-scripted stories to be delivered, there is an immense lack of any effort to meld this narrative within the content. This, of course, would necessitate far larger scale of stories and pathways the player can take, making it necessary to consider completely opposite directions of their current framing narrative than intended. For example, imagine if during a Call of Duty campaign the player could at certain points make a decision to change sides. Perhaps this could be a multi-campaign element, where the player could choose to effectively change one campaign to another, but at the same time changing the way the framing of the campaign works from thereon. The rules of the game don’t change, but rather than being one of the Allied, he might end up playing a soldier who now fights for the Axis. This would offer the developers ways depict a more complex narrative as well as offer the player more options to explore. Perhaps even allow a third option of abandoning the war altogether and be chased throughout the fields by both sides. These aren’t RPG elements or the like, these would simply be options to be presented to the player in a similar manner that optional routes are. All this of course goes in the face of the current paradigm, where the narrative must one whole that the player must experience. The Last of Us 2 aimed to make the player uncomfortable by making enemies lament on their friends’ deaths while the narrative didn’t offer any other options but what the developers intended. It didn’t work out.

This isn’t exactly railroading the player as much as the paradigm for video and computer games haven’t shifted to consider these a valid option. Not that they necessarily should, as these spreading games are more or less considered gimmicks. Surprisingly, the Drakengard series, including Nier, has taken strides in this. Their multiple endings can be unlocked by player actions to different degrees, though usually, the first round is always the same. Nier: Automata has one of my favourite examples of this, where you can turn around as 9S when you first get control of him in New Game + and just fuck off from starting point, you achieve an end to the game. Another example would be when the player reaches the peaceful robot village, and despite their pacifism, the player proceeds to murder every robot there, gaining another ending. Again, these are minor things and yet they show how the developers considered possible player actions or at least their want of certain kind of action, and realised it as a solution or a path as part of the framing narrative. None of this, of course, would function if the frame wouldn’t have designed to house these deviating rules of play.

The thing is, with games making the framing is easier than making the content. The content isn’t as freeform or artsy, it requires intensive labour hours and demands a lot of skill even if you use a ready engine. The designs of play and choices made have to function, each and every programming error and design mistake compound on top of each other faster than it does in the framing narrative. Creating the framing for a game is the fun part, but creating the game itself is where the true difficulties lie. It’s no wonder that a multi-branching game that would allow the frames to change at the player’s decisions are still rather rare, and even then some franchises make clear-cut marketing that this is an element of their play, that routes are a franchise gimmick. That’s not even what I’m truly trying to convey with this post.

Let me try to rephrase the whole thing in short; Computer and video games still rely on methods of film and literature in their framing narrative and have not been able to truly marry it to the play. This some times comes through as route selections, sometimes as exposition being spouted during a boss battle. The main split is whether or not the player is in control. The marriage of the frame and the content would need to be as with painting that has specifically made frames for; a player should have large agency, perhaps even control, to move the framing narrative. This way the story, that is the player actions during play, would be part of the narrative. This is just a solution. Furthermore, the more the framing device aims to be the main point of the game, the more the game will suffer as it still has to accommodate the play. This is why video game adaptation on the silver screen can’t work as intended because they are written and planned around the game. Point of a game is to be played, to be the active participant.

Here’s a point where this is apparent. During TGS 2020, Square-Enix released a trailer of the new Final Fantasy because overseas customers wanted to see a trailer that shows the game’s play footage. What SquEnix did first was to offer the game’s frame, as that has always been their forté. However, what the customer always wants to see is the content and that applies to every field. You can jingle shiny keys in front of the customer however much you want, but at the end of the day, they want to go for a drive too.

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