Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Meta Stories and Games

Another thought bubble about narrative and games. I've touched on the topic of meta-game elements several times but now we meet it head on. (apply directly to the forehead.)
First what do I mean by meta-game elements and stories? Where will this post go?

I remember when I first ran into the term "meta-game" while studying table-top RPG games. For example, rolling the dice and points were meta-game elements. It could also mean elements that pertain to the game world but not the main focus of game play. In table top role play, the dice rolls and charts are necessary for the game but that is not the main focus of the game. That is to say that a person doesn't play D&D to roll dice...that's what Yahtzee is for. The goals of the game are to explore, complete tasks, and refine your character.

For a digital translation, this would be interface or the repeated actions in a game. In a game with random encounters (like a J-RPG), the main focus of the game is not these random encounters, those are just a necessity. Likewise, navigating through menus and managing stats are not part of the game proper. It's something you have to pause the game for to manage.

This is the concept of a story within a story. The purpose of a meta-story is to immerse the viewer into the fabricated world. Particularly in narrative driven games, there are myriads of little details that add to the story world. Anything from the art of the environment, to NPC dialogue and side-quests build the world making it more accessible to the player.

However, there is another aspect of meta-story that is beyond the control of the game developer. This would be the story that the player projects or perceives. This is the stuff that gamer web-comics THRIVE from.

The player's experience with a game often allows them to project a part of themselves into the story. The illusion of control allows for this. It is possible in any game, even ones that do not come with pre-written narratives. These are the jokes, the silly things player's notice, or the moments the suspension of disbelief fail. This is what makes gamer comics what they are.
There are also elements of the meta-story that will just click with players and it becomes their favorite element of the game.

As a developer/designer you can help promote these instances in your game. However they are rather unpredictable. Easter eggs, glitches, or allusions to pop-culture are all ways that help hook a player deeper into the experience or pop them out of the experience for a laugh. These things are also very shareable so it gets people talking about the game with friends.

The devil's in the details they say. And details help flesh out a game that's easy to talk about and share with friends. Thus promoting the title. Granted its not something to rely on and like any spice should be applied in the right amount.

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