Kristian recently got his BA degree in Film and Media Studies from the University of Copenhagen. He will continue on the IT-University of Copenhagen, where he is enrolled at the Msc programme for Game Analysis & Theory. His academic interests are ludonarratives, ludorealism and audiovisual analysis of digital games.
A principle of game design theory is that constant feedback from the game-system is critical for a particular design to be ‘good’ (Salen & Zimmerman, 2005). From a usability standpoint, I agree, but problems arise when narrative information is conveyed with the same rigidity and specificity as an ammo count. This is one of the reasons that ludonarrative dissonance occurs in modern video games, which is broadly defined as the phenomenon in videogames where narrative elements stand in contrast to the interactive elements (Hocking, 2007; Yap, 2014:13). As a result, the story presented can become incoherent.
While ludonarrative dissonance shouldn’t be seen as something every game has to avoid–abstract games like Tetris don’t have narrative elements that can clinch with the interactive elements, and experimental games like Undertale (Fox, 2015) subvert the whole concept in thought-provoking ways —Papers, Please (from here on called PP) manages to mix the actions of the player with the embedded story elements to great success. It evades the problems surrounding ludonarrative dissonance by employing what I call strategic ambiguity, which I define as the overt concealing of gameplay-relevant information. By refraining from specificity in its communication with players, the narrative in PP is an entity that can bend to the interpretations and actions of the player instead of breaking. This process of emergent narrative meaning is called player-side emergence (Yap, 2014). Through its interface, mechanics, and granularity, PP grounds the player’s actions in the gameworld and narrative elements of the game with this strategic ambiguity.
In PP, the player takes on the role of a nameless immigration inspector in the fictional communist state Arstotzka. The player is tasked with checking the documents of an endless stream of travelers.
Figure 1. In-game screenshot. Writer’s screenshot
When a traveler enters the inspector’s booth, they present their paperwork; the player may then drag the paperwork to the right side of the screen, where the papers are unfolded and can be read. After finishing the inspection, the player dispenses a red (deny) or green (allow) stamp for entry. Early in the game, the inspector might be asked to examine two or three documents at once; later on, there can be as many as five. The errors in the paperwork that can force the player to dispense a red stamp can range from a typo in a city name to a forged seal. The stress introduced by these monotonous tasks is compounded by the fact that the player is tasked with providing for their family of four and having to balance a tight budget at the end of each day. On top of this, every error the player makes is punished by increasingly big deductions from their paycheck. In this way, the player is constantly struggling, creating an uncomfortable loop where increasingly complex immigration rules make errors nearly unavoidable.
Figure 2. End Day Screen. Writer’s Screenshot
PP mixes these game elements with an engaging narrative. Suddenly, the border post is hit by a terrorist attack. The next day, a woman is pleading for a green stamp, even though her passport is fake. Some days later, the resistance group The Order contacts the player-inspector. The game places the player in a minefield of moral conundrums where they make their own choices, and through this, tell their own story. To analyze PP, I will be using Jørgensen’s concept of gameworld interfaces (2013), Sicart’s definition of mechanics (2008) and Arjoranta’s use of the term granularity (2015) to examine how the game manages to maintain ludonarrative cohesion via strategic ambiguity.
In her book, Gameworld Interfaces (2013), Kristine Jørgensen writes that the point of the gameworld interface is to deliver game-system information to the player, allowing them to take “gameplay-relevant actions within the gameworld” (Jørgensen, 2013:3). She writes that “game-system information might not just be integrated or superimposed; it might also be fictional or ludic and emphatic or ecological” (Jørgensen, 2013:143; author’s emphasis). This means that when information is integrated, it’s geometrically part of the gameworld (Jørgensen, 2013:147). In contrast, superimposed information is presented as a filter attached to the screen (Jørgensen, 2013:147).
When information is fictional it is framed as part of the fiction, whereas ludic information exists for the player only, thereby destabilizing fictional coherence (Jørgensen, 2013:115-117). The last conceptual pair, emphatic and ecological, relates to the ways in which integrated information is represented (Jørgensen, 2013:147). When information is ecological, it means that it’s represented in the game and functions in a way that resembles physical reality (Jørgensen, 2013:79). On the other hand, emphatic information highlights parts of the gameworld to make them more apparent to the player (Jørgensen, 2013:81).
In PP, there is a range of gameplay-relevant game-system information that a player needs to know: the date, the traveler’s weight, country of origin, and so on. Even though Jørgensen is skeptical of the fictionally coherent presentation of game-system information (Jørgensen, 2013:78), this is exactly what the game manages to do by keeping the information integrated, fictional and ecological. Much of the necessary information can be acquired by simply looking around the booth, with the travel documents being the biggest source of game-system information. They are integrated, since they physically exist within the gameworld; fictional, because the fiction motivates their existence; and ecological because they can be moved freely around the table, stacked and read by the player. The game communicates the addition of new rules in a similar way, with the player receiving a small flyer from the ministry of integration at the start of each day. This type of interface is what Jørgensen calls a pure gameworld interface (Jørgensen, 2013:90), which heavily relies on the use of affordances (Norman, 2013) to communicate relevant actions to the player. The interface expects the player to use their knowledge about the manipulation of documents, books and stamps to navigate the interface.
However, there are interface elements that deviate from this integration of information within the gameworld. About halfway through the story, the player is equipped with a rifle, which can be used to neutralize terrorists. If they choose to use it, a crosshair will appear on screen.
This crosshair is superimposed, ludic, and emphatic; it’s superimposed because it appears as a filter across the screen, ludic because it exists for the player’s informational needs, and emphatic because it highlights part of the represented gameworld. This sudden change can perhaps be explained by one of Jørgensen’s guidelines for interface design: it should communicate game-system information precisely, without getting “in the way of the player’s attention and gameplay” (Jørgensen, 2013:147). By the time the rifle is introduced, the player will have certain expectations about the interface, and it would be absurd if the game suddenly turned into a first-person shooter just to keep the interface integrated, fictional and ecological. This illustrates a situation where interface coherence is prioritized over fictional coherence. Despite these deviations, it should be apparent that the interface is designed to ground the player in the game’s fiction and give them agency within it. By refraining from including metareferences, i.e. presenting information in a way that calls attention to the medium of the video game in its communication with the player (Jørgensen, 2013:124-125), PP maintains fictional coherence. This isn’t in itself a case of strategic ambiguity, but could be a prerequisite for the successful application of strategic ambiguity. By keeping the interface grounded in the gameworld, PP maintains fictional coherence. Deviations from this only occur to uphold the interface’s internal coherence.
Next, let’s look at the way PP’s mechanics are designed. Miguel Sicart (2008) defines mechanics as being “methods invoked by agents, designed for interaction with the game state” (3). They should be understood as the player’s specific, potential actions in a gameworld. Mechanics are limited by the rules of the gameworld and certain mechanics can only be used in a particular context (Sicart, 2008:10-11). PP has a scarcity of mechanics, as they’re all related to manipulating elements within the booth: checking documents, issuing a stamp, using the rifle etc.. All of these actions are performed by with the mouse by clicking and/or dragging objects. The same basic operations are used to detain a weary traveller or to dispense a merciful but ‘wrong’ green stamp. Even though the player’s actions are limited, they are constantly being challenged about which to use.The game presents an avalanche of difficult choices that can all be handled by using the few offered mechanics. This seems to fit with what Sicart calls focused game design, “in which player actions are limited, yet tuned to create emergent gameplay” (Sicart, 2008:18). The game is inviting the player to participate in a roleplay, where the mechanics are designed to maintain a coherent performance. Depending on the playstyle, someone can be anything from a bureaucratic homunculus to an idealistic freedom fighter, or something between the two. Dispensing a ‘wrong’ stamp and having mercy on a traveler will lead to negative consequences for your family’s welfare; if you don’t get that detainee bonus you won’t have enough money for food.
One of the most innovative design choices in the game is that the player is never assessed morally by the game-system. There are consequences, of course – if the player chooses to support the resistance, certain story endings are unachievable –but this isn’t communicated to the player via game-system information. This case of withholding of information is an example of what I call strategic ambiguity. This lack of feedback from the game-system tells us much about the emotional experience the game wants to cultivate. It grounds the player in the fiction with its narratively-focused mechanics, while also letting the player assess and interpret the moral implications of their actions without getting clear answers from the game-system. By constraining player actions and withholding game-system information, the player is invited to interpret the content of the narrative and engage in roleplay.
There is another force at work in PP. The term granularity is used by Arjoranta (2015) in his article about how narrative tools can be used to create meaning-effects in video-games (Arjoranta, 2015:4). A meaning-effect is defined as ‘a cognitive response to a textual stimulus’ (Bundgaard, 2010:5, in Arjoranta 2015). Granularity describes in how much detail something is represented, and how detailed it is in relation to surrounding elements (Arjoranta 2015:14). It should be noted that there are several narrative tools being used in PP, e.g. focalization, but for the purposes of this essay, I will be focusing on visual and auditory granularity and how it relates to dialogue.In the last half of the game, a specific scene illustrates this kind of auditory granulation in PP. The player is introduced to Sergiu, a soldier hired to protect them. The screenshot below shows a conversation between the player-inspector and Sergiu. This is one of the few instances where the player isn’t controlling if their character speaks (top speech-bubble).
The game doesn’t utilize voice-recordings. Instead, a grimy sound effect is played in time with the appearance of a speech-bubble, simulating speech. This means we don’t know in what tone the inspector calls his hometown ‘a shit-hole’ or if Sergius’ ‘haha’ is a hearty laugh or a nervous chuckle. This way, the low visual and auditory granularity creates information gaps that the player fills. This interpretation could be shaped by the player’s playstyle, influencing whether what conclusions they make about the inspector. Therefore, low granularity can be used to employ strategic ambiguity, maintaining a coherent fictional character. Low granularity in the world simulation could be used to create information gaps, which the player subsequently fills in with their own interpretation, thus maintaining ludonarrative cohesion.
Strategic ambiguity from a more theoretical standpoint is a potentially useful tool for improving ludonarrative cohesion, one that if designer’s would like to follow, could be adopted within their own designs and ideas. In her article about interactive poetics, Ryan (2009) presents the interactive paradox: i.e. the problems regarding “the integration of the unpredictable, bottom-up input of the user into a sequence of events that fulfills the conditions of narrativity – conditions that presuppose a top-down design” (Ryan, 2009:45). The simplified model below is meant to represent a best-case scenario, with perfect confluence between the designer’s expectations and the player’s actions.
At the top is the designer who creates differents aspects of the game’s design including the top-down structure that the player encounters. At the bottom of the structure is the player, whose bottom-up input collides with the designer’s structure. This collision creates a story that is, optimally,fictionally coherent, but this isn’t always the case. Many games wish to keep the player updated on the consequences of their actions, hoping to give them the optimal amount of agency within the gameworld. For example, in Telltale games, certain actions will result in an on-screen text stating ‘x character will remember that’ (e.g. Game of Thrones, 2014). Another example is the use of binary moral systems, like the Paragon/Renegade system in Mass Effect (Bioware, 2007). This philosophy of constant feedback is also evident in Salen & Zimmermann’s influential writing on meaningful play (Salen & Zimmerman, 2005:60-61): one of their principles is that the results of player actions need to be discernable, and while this certainly is important from a usability standpoint, it seems the same principle is used in relating narrative information. The problem with these systemic communications are their rigidity, and as Yap points out, this specificity in discourse “locks the game experience down to a very limited range of meanings and interpretation” (Yap, 2014:5). When this limited range of meanings is in any way warring with the player’s perceived meanings, we have ludonarrative dissonance.
What PP and other experimental games strive to do is withhold feedback, relying on the player’s interpretation to create semantic meaning. In this way, narrative information becomes elastic, allowing it to bend and stretch in concert with the player’s interpretations. Pictured below is a reworking of the earlier model.
Here, we see how an info gap is placed between player and designer, inviting the player to create cohesion through interpretation. Other games that use strategic ambiguity in their communication with players are Cart Life (Hofmeier, 2011) and Journey (Thatgamecompany, 2012). The upcoming game Forest of Sleep (Twisted Tree, TBA) intends to create randomly-generated stories by relying on the inferences of the player, thus letting them co-create a narrative with the game-system (Cameron, 2015).
Just to be clear, I am in no way against games that provide constant feedback to the player about every little aspect of the game-system. What has been missing is a discourse where a lack of feedback from the game-system is seen as something more than ‘bad game design.’ It’s not bad, but it’s a trade-off between two different types of meaningful interactions, both carrying their own implications for the overall design.
- Arjoranta, J (2015). Narrative Tools for Games: Focalization, Granularity and the Mode of Narration in Games. Games and Culture (July 28, 2015).
- Bundgaard, P.F. (2010). Means of meaning making in literary art: focalization, mode of narration, and granularity. Acta Linguistica Hafniensia: International Journal of Linguistics, 42. Special Issue: Travaux du Cercle Linguistique de Copenhague Vol. XXXIV Linguistics and Poetics.
- Cameron, Phill (2015). Gamasutra.com: Procedurally generating a narrative in Forest of Sleep. Retrieved from: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/259455/Procedurally_generating_a_narrative_in_Forest_of_Sleep.php
- Hocking, Clint (2007). Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock. Retrieved from: http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html
- Jørgensen, K. (2013) Gameworld Interfaces. Boston, MA: MIT Press.
- Norman, D. A. (2013). The Design of Everyday things, revised and expanded edition. Boston, MA: MIT Press.
- Ryan, M. (2009) From Narrative Games to Playable Stories: Towards a Poetics of Interactive Narrative. Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies 1(1).
- Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2005) Game Design and Meaningful Play. In Raessens, J & Goldstein, J (Eds.) Handbook of Computer Game Studies (59-79)
- Sicart, M. (2008) Defining Game Mechanics. Game Studies 8(2). Retrieved from: http://gamestudies.org/0802/articles/sicart
- Yap, Christopher Michael (2014). Conceptualizing Player-Side Emergence in Interactive Games: Between Hardcoded Software and the Human Mind in Papers, Please and Gone Home. In International Journal of Gaming and Computer-Mediated Simulations, Vol. 7, Issue 3.
- Telltale Games (2014). Game of Thrones
- Thatgamecompany (2012). Journey
- Twisted Tree (In development). Forest of Sleep
- Fox, Toby (2015). Undertale
- Bioware (2007-). Mass Effect series
- Pope, Lucas (2013). Papers Please
- Hofmeier, Richard (2011). Cart Life