Game Change: Minigames and Narrative Arcs

March 13, 2013 - Features / Story Structure

Often, experimental games differ from longer games by exploring a single idea in depth. Many well known art games, from Every Day the Same Dream to QWOP, use a limited set of verbs and give the player just enough time to feel their way around them. A subgenre of experimental games takes the opposite approach: stuffing as many different types of game into a single experience as they can. Like minigame collections in the mold of Wario Ware, they throw a bunch of super short games at the player with little or no warning. I think of them as minigame montages.

2012 saw its share of the minigame montage genre, including three prominent games: dys4ia, Unmanned, and Frog Fractions. They’re three hugely different experiences, but they were all among the most talked about games of the year. They also shared a basic structure. Collections of minigames seem kind of frivolous at first glance, but accomplished works that use them seem to have an outsized impact. I suspect there’s a reason for this, and it has to do with structuring experience.

The Half Cinderella Problem

Thinking about the minigame genre reminded me of an old blog thread from 2011. Paul Sztajer wrote a post about what he called the “Half Cinderella problem.” Inspired by a Kurt Vonnegut talk on story structure, Sztajer argued that games are dramatically stunted because designers don’t like to punish the player for doing well. While that seems like good design, it works against classic storytelling, in which good protagonists often struggle against unjust reversals of fortune.

I’d generalize the problem to a broader one, which I touched on at the time in a response to Sztajer’s piece. Whenever a sense of progress dominates an experience, such as when a player gets steadily better at playing a game, it’s hard to reverse fortune at all. Players always have the ability to exploit systems, and they can exploit dramatic systems as much as any other. Some won’t want to, but many will. A good number of players won’t ever sit back and let the evil stepsisters push them around; they’ll try to find a way to win the situation, and find it unfair if they can’t. This is just something that happens when you give agency to selected elements of a story.

Drama doesn’t suffer alone. A lot of comedy is also driven by reversals of expectations: you think one thing is happening, then your understanding of the situation is overturned. Most punchlines boil down to a variation on that story. When the player keeps learning more about what is happening in the game system, the punchline is hard to deliver.

Games sometimes force reversals of fortune, like unbeatable bosses in an roleplaying game. But such tricks feel artificial when the player knows they should have been able to get past it. As long as forward progress keeps happening in the background, drama and punchlines are hard to manufacture.

Minigame montages can sidestep this problem. The huge variety of experimental games that use the minigame montage technique demonstrates the breadth of ways it can affect the player. Games in this genre make me laugh pretty often, and at least one made me cry. Some of the games feel like songs and some feel like stories despite being totally abstract. What follows isn’t an exhaustive survey, but it does show the diversity and strength of minigame montage games.

Comedy and Expectations

Upending expectations is an important tool in comedy of all kinds. An audience that knows what to expect, then, can make it hard to pull off a joke. Most successful game comedy comes down to trolling the player in some form, such as Bennett Foddy’s view of the designer as griefer or Borderlands 2 intentionally undermining its quests with the need to shoot tons of people in the face. Jokes like these set up clear expectations, then make the player fail to meet them. Minigame montages offer a slightly different model of comedy.

The simplest advantage of changing up genres is that it disorients the player. Get people confused and you’re one step towards absurdist humor. Vidiot Game from GZ Storm is one of the purest examples of minigame montage as playful surrealism. Based on either the whims of the stars or a nonsense character creation screen, you are a mushroom, a frying pan, or a potato. You face an infinite series of randomly selected minigames. Sometimes you face decisions (for example, do you battle the bees or renounce humanity and merge with them), and sometimes floating heads interrogate you.

In Vidiot Game you can fail in any of the minigames, which leads to your character’s death and a swift resurrection. There’s an implicit goal, then, in staying alive with one character as long as possible (at least, I quickly developed this goal). For the most part, though, the point of Vidiot Game is just to fuck around and be disoriented. Randomness is shot through the game at every opportunity, from the characters you roll, to the sequence of the games, to the always-changing combinations of minigames and skins. You can’t predict what’s next when everything happens randomly.

Disorientation is a start, but where genre montage really shines is in letting a game build to a punchline. A common joke structure is to lead the listener into expecting one thing, then revealing something surprising about the context. A classic experimental game that shares this structure is The Peanut Gallery’s pOnd, which puts on a convincing show of being a gentle art game about breathing before the final twist. A similar punchline structure is used by Nick Scalzi in Ducks and by Stephen Lavelle in Bababada[…]. It’s a structure that’s reliable at making me laugh, at least. There’s the moment of surprise and a flailing at the keyboard to learn new controls. And then there’s trying to fit the two halves of the game into a single cohesive model, which makes systems that once made sense seem absurd. Was the mama duck always trying to fatten up her babies for cannon fodder?

A subgenre of games that make a slightly different use of this context disorientation are those along the lines of John Cooney’s This Is the Only Level, which features a single platforming level in which the rules change every time you beat it. A new level might feature the arrow keys all remapped, or spikes suddenly acting as trampolines. While they don’t share its singleminded one-level focus, fast-paced platformers with lots of rule changes between levels like Karoshi: Suicide Salaryman and Psychout do something very similar. In all these cases, a lot of the comedy comes from the moment you start a new level with the expectations of the last one and immediately fall on your face. It’s a lot like the Looney Tunes gag where Bugs Bunny casually does something impossible like stroll across a canyon, and Daffy eagerly follows him only to meet a gruesome cartoon death.

Frog Fractions uses both the disorientation and the expectation-setting of genre montage to excellent effect. The game is a string of unannounced changes between short, funny parodies of game genres. Unlike Vidiot Game, there’s no possibility of failure, besides not knowing how to proceed. But you don’t necessarily know this on first play. Like other comedy montages, you’re constantly scrambling to learn new controls. The comedy doesn’t just come from the spot-on parodies, but also the baffling transitions between them.

Frog also does something different from other games discussed so far. Mostly, minigame montage games throw changes at you without warning. There’s a separate set of games where you choose among a collection of minigames, like Hoshi Saga or This Is a Work of Fiction. Those feel different than the montage games, because you have some control over what’s coming next and can predict what’s coming. Frog isn’t like these either, but it does make players choose to enter into the montage. You have to go down to start the game proper. Developer Jim Crawford admits that many never make it past that first step. Players must make a conscious decision to test the limits of the game before heading into the uncontrolled rush of game changes.

In this way and others, Frog Fractions demonstrates how genre montage can construct a pretty solid narrative arc. This separates it from most other comedy montages. It’s not just a punchline or a constant level of disorientation: Frog controls your experience in many different ways. First you must buy into the concept to play the game at all. The string of minigames that follows frequently changes pace, alternating between fast pieces like the frantic Dance Dance Revolution segment and the quiet, slow-paced text adventure or Dear Esther parody. The content of all the segments is loosely tied together into a single story, but as Robert Yang points out, much of the game’s humor comes from the arbitrary juxtaposition of story content and game style. Still, what I got from Frog is a journey that started out with a lot of mad scrambling, quieted down, hit some snags along the way, got worse, spent some time tinkering around a spaceship, then got frantic again before ending in pointless decadence. That’s an arc. The changing pace of the games, and my varying proficiency in them, by itself made for an experience that broke the half Cinderella problem.

The Dramatic Arc of Montage Games

Changing the rules of the game changes the emotional tone, how much attention the player is paying, and disrupts the learning process. Critics often make distinctions between “linear” and “open world” games, but even games that allow a lot of flexibility in decisions and play style tend to have a linear arc towards understanding the game world and system. No matter how much you dick around in Skyrim, you’re still getting better at dicking around. Removing constant progress allows for a more deeply felt change in fortune that directly fights against the half Cinderella problem.

Anna Anthropy’s autobiographical dys4ia is a game about re-learning how your body works while undergoing hormone therapy as a trans woman. The emotional arc is not a linear one. Anna’s feeling of discomfort in her body gets worse on many dimensions before it gets a little better. Separating this story into minigames does several key things: it embodies the disorganized, patchwork challenges of everyday life. It expresses how the rules for how to live in the world are constantly changing. And it gives her the chance to revisit mechanics with slightly changed rules over the course of the story, with space in between.

For example, the motif of the Tetris-like block trying to fit through an impossible gap is revisited three times over the course of the game. At first the block looks like it might fit, but doesn’t; during the beginnings of hormone therapy, the block morphs into something that will obviously not fit; finally, it constantly changes into forms that may or may not fit. You could make a game that repeats the wall segment with slight changes in conditions. It might be a dramatic version of This Is the Only Level. But the game would lack the effect dys4ia has. Mixed in with a variety of other games, many of which are undergoing similar changes, some of which are unique challenges, it captures the feeling of coming across a situation you have many times before and realizing something has changed.

This, to me, is how change feels in real life. It’s never steady progress. You backtrack, and sometimes you find yourself on the other side of the wall before you realize something is different. I got pretty emotional playing dys4ia for this reason.

This control over changes in emotional pacing has also made the minigame montage a good platform for games built around music. Richard Lach’s POP: Methodology Experiment One and Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf by cactus and Fucking Werewolf ASSO both throw multiple minigames at the player to fit with different sections in a piece of music. These games recognize that changing the pace and tone of a song resembles changing the rules of a game. By contrast, I don’t think something like Sun God matches a piece of music as effectively. It works as Bennett Foddy fucking with the player, but the changes in pace and feel of the music don’t come across as distinctly as in POP or KDFW. Mind you, I’ve got a tin ear, so take this with a grain of salt.

Unmanned also builds on a minigame montage structure, though in many ways it uses that structure to the opposite effect of a game like dys4ia, with its careful emotional progression. In Unmanned, the sequence of minigames conveys how equally trivial all the tasks of the main character’s day are, from managing his relationships to smoking a cigarette to killing people. Unmanned shares its basic tone with the leaning game style of art game: a dude makes a bunch of minor choices over the course of a game and is judged on his moral leanings in the end. By combining that common style with a minigame montage, Unmanned makes a bit more of an argument about this person’s character and how he sees the world. He sees everything as a little game with little achievements for good performance, we’re told, and so the leaning game structure grows out of his amorality. The sense that these games are all at the same emotional level is reinforced by the fact that they often happen in parallel, so the player is, for example, splitting attention between a dating sim and a target-tracking task. Doing well at either is given the same reward, so the incentive is for giving them equal amounts of attention.

That minigame montage can be used to either heighten emotion or flatten it out seems a little contradictory at first blush. But what all these examples share – dramatic or comedic – is that they seem to do exactly what the designer wants them to do. Flattening emotional impact is the point of Unmanned, a frustrating nonlinear emotional arc is the point of dys4ia, and a freewheeling journey into the unknown is the point of Frog Fractions. With these games, I felt like I went through an emotional arc that more or less matched what the game was telling me I should feel in other ways. The awards and acclaim for these games suggest that a lot of players had the same experience with them.  And indeed, they match what the creators have said they wanted players to feel. Compare to something like the Far Cry 3 debacle, where a creator found himself repeatedly annoyed and surprised by how players interpreted his game. As Brendan Keogh convincingly argues, the continual progression of the game may have undermined what its author was trying to say. The island felt safer over time, so the cognitive dissonance its writer was going for faded away. Games that switch genres midstream seem to fall into that trap less often.

The Impact of Changing the Game

Learning is at the core of all these challenges. As the player moves through a game, they learn its systems better and better. By the end, they’ve probably mastered it. They can predict what will happen when they perform certain actions; they know what kind of challenges to expect; and they feel powerful with respect to the world. All these things work against the usual mechanics of drama. Mind you, there are emotional impacts to be had from the process of mastery. But an experience in which the protagonist always becomes progressively more powerful is limited in the variety of emotions it can express.

If the problem is that the player continually learns a system, there’s a few ways around it. You can make the game too short for significant learning to take place. You can resist including a predictable system at all. Or, you can just keep changing the system. By applying different genres to different phases of a game, it’s possible to build dramatic arcs and comic timing that rely on the protagonist facing setbacks and the unexpected. It allows for some of the pleasure of learning a system, but with the flexibility of taking that pleasure away when needed. It expands the possibilities.

Because whatever the differences among them, all these games are more or less telling the player: “you cannot master this.” That’s a message that can mean a lot of different things depending on how the game delivers it. For some games, it just means, “PSYCH!” For others, it’s “this is a long road,” or “why do you want to master something futile?” or “WHEEE WHAT’S NEXT??” There’s a lot more dramatic and comedic potential in that than in “you WILL master this.” Because what really gets us going, I think, as art-consuming things is a sense that things are unfinished or hard to predict. The brain works harder to fill in the gaps, and when you fill in those gaps you fill them with what matters to you. A system you can never master is the one you make the most theories about. In those theories are real personal reactions to a thing, not just impatience for the next level of progression.

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