More things to say about narrative! Hope I don’t repeat myself too much. Today I’m thinking about how narrative and theme are kind of tricky in puzzle-based events. With regular games, you might imagine “I want to make a game about the zombie apocalypse,” and then the constraints of that theme inspire the mechanics of the game (the zombies, the survivors, the chase, and victory). With puzzle events, I feel like it often starts from the other end, with “I want to make a puzzle event,” but the act of designing to fit within a certain narrative or theme comes a lot less naturally.
A theme might inspire specific puzzle ideas, but the core function of the game will always be puzzle-solving, and puzzle-solving is hard to justify within a narrative. Puzzles are such invented things, I think it can be really hard to come up with an immersive and sensible narrative that explains why groups of people are trying to solve a bunch of puzzles. When I ran Jefferson’s Lost Invention, I made an effort to design a motive into the game and have it fit together nicely with my theme, but I think it all felt kind of contrived and I had to just ignore a bunch of parts that clearly couldn’t fit in. Since designing a robust narrative is so difficult to do, I think narrative is more often just used to supplement the event rather than define or justify it. Narrative is an afterthought, something that helps tie everything up nicely in a cohesive package, but is rarely used to dictate the experience.
Maybe there are three or four tiers of narrative usage:
- Tier 0: No narrative — Here are your puzzles, here is your time limit, have fun solving them. I can definitely see the appeal of this kind of game which lets you just focus on the puzzling and nothing else. I’d like to play in one sometime!
- Tier 1: Loose narrative — A theme for the sake of one. Something to put on the T-shirts, something to make things a little more interesting and memorable. Makes no pretense of immersion.
- Tier 2: Contrived narrative — An effort at immersive narrative that doesn’t quite cut it. Puzzles are contorted to fit within the narrative, the narrative is stretched to accommodate the puzzles. Heavy suspension of disbelief required, abundant plot holes.
- Tier 3: Robust narrative — The narrative is incorporated into the game naturally, and in a way that truly enhances, and even defines, the game experience. (I’m reminded again that I need to read up more about Doctor When, which apparently used narrative wonderfully!)
I think I’m okay with all of these tiers except #2, the trap I’ve been falling into. I love narrative, and I would have thought that more narrative always equals better, but I think trying too hard (but not quite hard enough) and falling into that in-between place creates a disjointed experience for the player. The narrative is constantly distracting players with the promise of immersion, but can’t deliver. Better to present the theme candidly as a decoration and let players parse it, file it away appropriately, and focus on the puzzles than to split their attention like that.
In summary, when it comes to narrative, go big or go home!