Mechanics as Storytelling: Celeste’s Difficulty

**SPOILER WARNING**

Death is inevitable – a statement that’s just as true in life as it is in video games. It’s especially relevant when discussing tough-as-nails titles like Dark Souls and Hollow Knight, each with their dark atmospheres where repeated deaths create feelings of hopelessness and loss. It’s a similar yet distinct feeling found in 2018’s Celeste, a game with a much lighter and more hopeful design and art style than those previously mentioned, yet sharing their agonizing difficulty.

Surprisingly, all three of these games use their difficulties to elicit the same feeling from their players, which is one of triumph and accomplishment once those difficulties have been overcome. However, while Dark Souls does this to depict a lone wanderer’s struggle against a bleak world and Hollow Knight examines the nature of freedom, Celeste’s difficulty exists for a different purpose, one intimately tied to its story.

Climbing a Mountain Isn’t Easy

First, let’s examine the nature of Celeste’s difficulty and how it differs from those previously mentioned titles. Celeste is a platformer, meaning that the game’s main challenge is figuring out the right sequence of moves to execute in order to move from one piece of solid ground to the next. Aiding you is a handy dash ability, which lets you cover large distances easily. Hindering you are moving platforms, spring boards, narrow paths, spikes, spikes, and yes more spikes. Celeste ramps up the challenge steadily, but it won’t be long before you find yourself dying several times trying to complete a tricky sequence.

The game is a little more forgiving that Hollow Knight or Dark Souls, though. There’s practically no loading screen when respawning after death and every single chamber has a checkpoint at its start, meaning that death is never too great of a setback as it is in those other games. This also leads to certain rooms having more challenge than others, as larger areas ask you to perform more moves seamlessly before reaching the next checkpoint. By the end, you’ll be asked to jump and dash through vast swathes of the screen with little to no checkpoints in between.

Madeline

That’s the difficulty – now let’s talk about the story. Celeste is about Madeline, a young woman who wants to climb the eponymous mountain. We’re led to understand from her dialogue with other characters that she needs to do this because she’s feeling stuck in her life and she wants a win – something noteworthy that will prove to herself that she’s capable. Her journey is as much a mental one as it is physical.

Celeste Mountain isn’t an ordinary mountain, though. Madeline’s internal struggles are made real and tangible as her doubts, fears, and anxieties take physical form as a Part of Her manifests as a dark copy that tries to hinder her progress (we’ll call this Part of Her ‘Badeline’ from here on out). Haunted temples, unstable ghosts, and ethereal dream sequences are also all a part of her experience as she makes her way slowly but surely up the mountain.

Inside Out

Madeline’s struggle is both physical and emotional – it’s difficult climbing Celeste Mountain, and it’s difficult dealing with her many insecurities and self-doubt surrounding her ability to accomplish her goal. Just as Badeline was made real by the mountain, embodying all of Madeline’s anxiety and fear, so too does the challenging climb itself reflect her own emotional journey. Celeste Mountain is a place where the internal becomes external so it makes sense that Madeline’s journey to grow as a person would be made physical.

We know that Madeline has struggled a lot with her mental health. During a conversation around a campfire, she reveals that she’s dealt with depression and panic attacks in her past (and in her present) and that it’s not been easy getting to where she is. In this light, the climb up the mountain acts as a symbol of her mental journey – challenging and tough, often to the point of overwhelming her, but one that is ultimately worth taking.

The Road Ahead

Celeste’s difficulty can be frustrating at times. The game even has an entire mode called Assist to aid those who find they can’t enjoy the experience due to its difficulty. However, as the game itself reminds you when selecting that mode, the challenge is an intrinsic part of the Celeste story. It’s not just about you as a player overcoming the many, many hardships of the mountain, but about Madeline doing so as well. Reaching the summit is about more than just beating a tough series of levels, it’s about the struggles one faces with their own mental health and the better future that awaits after making that long and arduous journey.

Further Reading

In praise of Celeste | Eurogamer

Celeste stresses me out, and that calms me down | Polygon

Mechanics as Storytelling: Hades’s Persistent Story

It’s difficult to pick a mechanic from Supergiant’s Hades that isn’t already part of the game’s story. Pretty much everything that could be considered overly gamey is explained through dialogue and lore. The permanent upgrades from the Mirror of Night are a result of Zagreus becoming more attuned to the Underworld and himself. The achievements and quests on the Fated List are prophecies from the Three Fates, who reward you for fulfilling their predictions. Even your weapons naturally get stronger when given Titan Blood because they were originally used against the Titans.

Since every single mechanic in the game already seems to have a role within the story, let’s focus on exactly that – the story. It’s one of Hades’s major contributions to its genre as it manages to convey a coherent plot within the roguelike structure. In fact, the story and the roguelike mechanics are inextricable from one another as plot points and character development are one of the things that remain persistent throughout runs. Let’s examine the ways in which Hades uses its persistent story to – well, tell a story.

Roguelikes and Storylines

Historically, roguelikes haven’t featured much in the way of narratives. Sure, they have characters and lore much like many other games, but roguelikes tend to put gameplay front and center above anything else. Titles like Spelunky or Nuclear Throne each pop to mind as games with a lot of lore, but it’s generally only accessible to those willing to dig deep into the games (or their wikis).

Rogue Legacy is one game that explained its story more coherently than most. In it, you play as your descendants after you die – hence the Legacy part of the title. Even so, there’s still more of a focus on gameplay than persistent story as other characters like the Enchantress and the Architect don’t actually change over the years despite your repeated deaths.

Death is Inevitable

Hades handles its story a little differently. First of all, you begin each run in the House of Hades, which you are trying to escape. Whenever you die on your run, you go where all the newly dead go – right back to the House of Hades, to be processed and placed by the God of the Dead. It’s an elegant way of explaining how the roguelike system of repeated deaths works in this world as while death may be inevitable, it isn’t the end for Zagreus.

Each time you die, you’re treated to new opportunities to engage with characters around the House. You can talk you your disapproving father, Hades, your wise mentor, Achilles, your enigmatic stepmother, Nyx, or any number of other characters. Some will only show up under specific circumstances, such as Megaera who needs to be defeated in Tartarus before appearing, while others are present almost all the time Additionally, you can only speak to each character once on each escape attempt, meaning that you’ll need to leave and die again before unlocking new dialogue.

There is No Escape

With most roguelikes, beating the game is a reward in and of itself. You may be treated to a special cutscene or cool new upgrades depending on the game, but generally the prize to be won is just the satisfaction of mastering the game’s mechanics and overcoming the challenge. Some have secret endings and areas for those who have the time and skill to seek them out, but the goal is still largely the same – completing the game.

Hades shifts things bit. Here, there aren’t any secret endings to achieve. You’ll come to realize that the reason for this is because this game, unlike others in its genre, has a story with an endpoint. Escaping the Underworld is not the end of Zagreus’s journey and you’ll need to get him out several more times if you want to see the whole narrative unfold. The story becomes the goal in Hades, with each successful escape getting you closer to the true ending.

Persistence and Perseverance

The story of Hades is one of persistence. Zagreus manages to change to status quo of the world through his sheer determination and will to do so. It only makes sense that a story about persistence would be told in a persistent manner. The steady progress you make through the game, slowly unlocking more abilities and skills and weapons, is reflected in the story itself as Zagreus repeatedly makes efforts to get through to people, even those who don’t seem to want his help at first.

Ultimately, this story couldn’t have been told any other way. Persistence after death is the hallmark of the roguelike genre and the defining feature of Hades’s plot. Even after dying for the hundredth time, Zagreus will still strike out into the Underworld – and so will we, if only to see more of this incredible story.

Further Reading

The Art Of Hades | Kotaku

Meet the voice cast of Hades, including one of the dogs behind Cerberus | PC Gamer

Mechanics as Storytelling: Crusader Kings 3’s Stress

Modern life may be stressful, but at least it isn’t as stressful as ruling a medieval kingdom where your scheming courtiers are as likely to stab you in the back as they are to sleep with your spouse. Crusader Kings 3 is a grand strategy game with RPG elements that puts in in charge of a ruling dynasty and sets you loose into the world. There is no endgame goal, no quest you must complete, and no warning when your son decides that he’d make a better king than you and slips a venomous snake into your bed.

It can seem an impossible task to pick out a certain mechanic that helps to tell a story when the game in question has no formal story to follow. A lot of the systems are relatively independent and don’t affect too many other aspects of the game, like domain limit and de jure claims. One mechanic that does stand out is the Stress system. This single element helps shape Crusader Kings 3 into a wonderful storytelling machine, helps fix one of the major problems that many RPGs face, and explores some themes of its own.

Don’t Stress the Small Stuff

What is Stress in Crusader Kings 3? Stress represents how well a character is coping mentally with their actions and with events in their life. Each character has their own Stress meter that can be filled over the course of their life. Certain events or actions give them Stress and other remove it. At certain Stress milestones, characters suffer mental breaks where they must either take on a coping mechanism that usually carries with it some penalties or suffer through it, with gives them even more Stress.

Having too much Stress also affects your character in and of itself as you can experience severe health penalties and a reduction of fertility. Suffice to say that it’s not a good thing to have Stress – and yet, it’s impossible to avoid. Even if you steer clear of any action or decision that would gain you Stress, you’ll still get it when close family members die and from other events outside of your control. The system is built so that Stress can only be managed and never circumvented entirely.

The Measure of a Man

Pretty much every choice you can make in Crusader Kings 3 has the potential to cause Stress. Most of the time, however, that won’t be the case as the actions that cause your character to gain Stress are determined by their traits. For example, a Just ruler will gain Stress if they plot to have someone assassinated, but a Sadistic one won’t. These traits are one of the RPG elements included in the game and the Stress system is how it bypasses the issue of players acting out of character.

Many RPGs suffer from this problem – a character is meant to act in a certain way for the sake of the story, but players make choices and decisions that contradict the narrative (such as an evil character restoring water to the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3). Crusader Kings 3 benefits from not having a specific narrative to follow, but Stress encourages players to roleplay their rulers instead of just using the same strategy for every character. By having the penalties be rather small on their own with long term consequences down the line, the game ensures that you never feel like you’re forbidden from doing something while still ensuring that you remember to stay in character whenever possible.

Rigors of Parenthood

One way to get around the Stress system is to ensure that you always educate your heirs yourself, which will let you dictate which traits they wind up with. This can be a strategic gameplay move as it ensures you’ll be able to maintain an overarching strategy across rulers, but it also plays into the story of a dynasty fostering the next generation of monarchs.

Raising kids also comes with some inherent Stresses. Each child you take on as a ward will have a number of events in their youth where they gain a trait that will dictate what actions give them Stress. As a child’s guardian, you can change that trait to one of two other options (for example, a dynasty all about charismatic diplomacy probably wouldn’t want a Shy heir). However, changing that trait will also gain you Stress. This ensures that you’re still balancing long term consequences against short term effects as guiding your heir towards a certain lifestyle may be best in the future but can cause you a crippling mental break in the present.

Dynamic Systems, Dynamic Stories

Ultimately, Crusader Kings 3 is about rolling with the punches and dealing with whatever challenges you face. The story told by its Stress system is by nature similarly dynamic as rather than following a scripted narrative where certain choices always give you Stress and others always remove it, the mechanic shifts based on what sort of character you’re playing. It allows the game’s story to move in interesting ways as you are well within your abilities to force your Just, Honest, and Compassionate ruler into murder schemes and prisoner executions, driving them to become overwhelmed by Stress.

Even these instances are just another storytelling opportunity. While some games are too lenient with out of character moments and others too strict, Crusader Kings 3 finds a middle ground that works perfectly for its gameplay and the stories it tells. Stress is part of your story, whether you like it or not, and it will play a huge role in your dynasty’s legend.

Further Reading

A Medieval Storytelling Machine: Crusader Kings 3 Review | Overthinking Games

Crusader Kings 3 is more fun when you play it like The Sims | Polygon

Crusader Kings 3 interview: Putting players in control | Shacknews

Mechanics as Storytelling: Breath of the Wild’s Weapons

There’s a lot to love about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, from its expansive open world to its unique characters, full of personality. It’s one of the best games released in recent memory and stands as quite possibly the best Zelda game of all time (Ocarina of Time notwithstanding). One element of the game that received significantly less love than others, however, was the weapon durability mechanic by which nearly every sword, axe, and magic wand you picked up in the game would eventually break down.

This design decision was controversial when the game first released. After all, no other game in the series featured weapons that wore out. There are several reasons behind the weapon durability feature, though, not least of which because it leads to more interesting gameplay experiences. When you’re forced to switch from your favorite sword to an awkward boomerang in the middle of a tense fight against swarms of Moblins and Lizalfos, it creates a uniquely exhilarating experience that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. There are also narrative implications created by this mechanic, which is what we’ll be focusing on here. The weapon durability system – and indeed, the weapons in general – reflect the state of Hyrule and Link’s journey throughout this fallen kingdom.

Journey Through a Ruined Kingdom

The most obvious parallel between Hyrule and the weapons is that both of them are falling apart – quite literally in the weapons’ cases. This Zelda game in unlike any other, as Link is faced not with a bustling, thriving kingdom, but with a ruined world where people are just barely surviving, all with the threat of Calamity Ganon hanging over them. Hyrule is in decay, as we see from the numerous ruined structures that dot the landscape. It only makes sense, then, that the weapons you find in this land are equally as decayed and broken down. Nothing lasts forever in this world, be it the tools in your arsenal or the very kingdom itself.

The weapons in the game can also be used to track Link’s own journey through the world of Hyrule. When you start your quest, Link is freshly awoken from the Shrine of Resurrection, weakened and adrift in a strange land. Fittingly, most players’ early weapons will consist of tree branches, rusty swords, and wooden clubs. Link is still weak, and so are his weapons. As you progress through the game and Link grows stronger, you’ll find better tools to help you combat your foes. By the time you’ve freed all four Divine Beasts and are ready to take on Ganon, you’ll be kitted out with Great Flameblades, Royal Broadswords, and all manner of other powerful weapons that reflect your empowered status.

Divine Weaponry

Speaking of the Divine Beasts, there are several weapons you receive as rewards for freeing them: the Lightscale Trident, the Scimitar of the Seven, the Boulder Breaker, and the Great Eagle Bow. Each of these weapons can be broken, but they can also be reforged if you possess the appropriate materials. Additionally, they are each connected to one of the Champions who faced Ganon alongside Zelda and Link a hundred years ago. Obtaining these weapons mark major points in the game’s story after the spirits of those Champions and their Divine Beasts have been released from Ganon’s influence. In this way, the weapons mirror their original bearers as even though they may be broken and defeated, they can be reclaimed and return just as strong as they were before.

Finally, there is the Master Sword, a unique blade filled with divine energy and hands down the best weapon in the game. It holds this status for several reasons, as it is the only sword you can find that won’t break – instead, it simply enters a recharge period, after which you can use it again. It also adds its own slot to your inventory when you obtain it, meaning that it doesn’t prevent you from picking up other weapons. On top of this, it’s also just a very good sword, and its damage is doubled when in the presence of anything that’s been corrupted by Calamity Ganon (Guardians, Divine Beasts, and Hyrule Castle).

In order to obtain the Master Sword, Link must have a total of 13 hearts, or else the effort from attempting to pull the blade from its sheath in the ground will kill him. This ensures that players won’t find the best weapon in the game too early and then just breeze past the rest of the Shrines and Divine Beasts, but it also fits narratively, as the Sword wants to make sure that Link is strong enough to take on Ganon. Additionally, while Link can use the blade against any foe he encounters, this will make it run out of charge very quickly. The Master Sword is most powerful when facing Ganon and it gains increased durability in addition to its enhanced damage when in the presence of anything that the Calamity has touched.

Broken Swords for a Broken World

The weapons of Hyrule are varied and complex, their many facets showcasing different pieces of game design and subtle storytelling techniques. They reflect so many aspects of Breath of the Wild, whether it’s their parallels to the world’s decay or the way they tell the story of the Champions’ resurgence. A good game mechanic is one that accomplishes several things at once, and it’s safe to say that the weapons in this game do just that.

Further Reading

Eiji Aonouma On The New Look And Why Nintendo Wasn’t Inspired By Skyrim | Game Informer

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – An Open World Adventure | Game Maker’s Toolkit

Mechanics as Storytelling: Hitman 2’s Disguises

The core mechanic of the Hitman games is the disguise system, which forms the player’s primary means of infiltrating areas and interacting with the world around them. It’s a relatively straightforward mechanic – Agent 47 starts each mission in his suit and in the role of an ordinary civilian. He must then make his way to his targets, taking out security and finding new outfits that will permit access to restricted areas. The rules are easy to follow because they’re the same as in real life – waiters and cooks are allowed in the kitchen, guards can enter the surveillance room, and musicians can go onstage. The overlap of where these roles are and aren’t allowed forms the basic gameplay of a Hitman level as you do your best to navigate Agent 47 around obstacles and obtain new costumes that grant entry to key sections of the map. All of it works to enable the classic “freedom of approach” gameplay that Hitman is known for.

This mechanic does strain the bounds of reality somewhat in certain areas. Agent 47 is a tall, well-built, Caucasian man. As such, he looks out of place as a street vendor in Mumbai or a security guard in Colombia, yet no one gives him a second look. It’s a quirk of the system that is largely there to provide seamless gameplay. Looking at it from a strictly thematic standpoint, however, this aspect of the Hitman world tells us something very specific: people only see uniforms, not the individuals behind them.

The Clothes Make the Man

It doesn’t matter whether he’s pretending to be a bellhop in Bangkok or a surgeon in Japan – the first (and often only) thing people see when they look at 47 in this world is the outfit he’s wearing. By extrapolation, that applies to everyone, international assassin or not. Because of this, the Hitman games become an absurd reflection of reality, one that confronts us with our tendency to reduce people to little more than the roles they’re meant to serve. Waiters bring us our food; masseuses give us massages; security guards are allowed pretty much everywhere. This dissociation between the image of the uniform and the actual human being behind it is on full display in the Hitman games – indeed, it’s Agent 47’s preferred approach, hiding in plain sight.

The ridiculous nature of the disguise system in Hitman and Hitman 2 play into real world invisibility of uniformed work. But one of the most important precepts in these games is that invisibility is power. Agent 47 is not like most other characters from third person shooters (which the Hitman games technically are). He’s not durable enough to take multiple gunshots to the head, he doesn’t have a combat roll, and he often faces more armed enemies than he could ever realistically take on alone. His strength lies not in a massive health pool or overwhelming firepower, but in stealth. To get the best score on a mission, he needs to operate from the shadows, eliminating his targets in accidents and without being detected. His invisibility is his power, a theme that we see cropping up numerous times in the games’ stories.

A Most Sinister Plot

Briefly, the plots of the last two Hitman games have been focused around the Shadow Client and an Illuminati-like group known as Providence as they go to war with one another. Each side possesses a degree of invisibility – the Shadow Client manipulates much of the events in the first game from behind the scenes and the second game follows up with Providence retaliating. In both cases, the story concerns people who operate from the shadows, dangerous in large part because they are unknown and invisible. It is only when either party is forced out into the light of day, when knowledge is gained about them, that they become vulnerable. The Shadow Client is put at risk when 47 and Diana learn of his existence. Providence becomes a target once they’re exposed to the world. When they lose their invisibility, they lose their power.

47 is a perfect protagonist to tell this story, and the disguise mechanic is a perfect gameplay system with which to explore it. While the overarching tale of the games is about the mysterious and anonymous elites who control the world, the experience of the games shows that this works in reverse. Agent 47 adopts the invisibility of everyone from restaurant workers to racecar mechanics in order to move unseen and strike unexpectedly. Invisibility is a sword wielded by many different forces in these stories, and you’re only as strong as the disguise you wear.

Further Reading

“Immersion [is] Really Important For Us”: IO Interactive Discusses Hitman 2’s Development | OnlySinglePlayer

Level Design in Hitman: Guiding Players in a Non-Linear Sandbox | GDC

Mechanics as Storytelling: Prey’s Gloo Gun

If anyone expected 2017’s Prey reboot to be a conventional first-person-shooter, that expectation goes out the window in the first few minutes of the game. After a disorienting and disturbing intro, you find yourself trapped on a on the Talos I space station full of terrifying alien monsters. As you tentatively step into the first few chambers, you’ll be forced to deal with limited resources, an oppressive atmosphere, and enemies that can hide in plain sight. To further complicate matters, you won’t find any conventional weaponry until later in the game. What you will find, however, is the Gloo Gun.

This device is the second tool you acquire, after the wrench that serves as a melee weapon. It’s not really a gun in the conventional sense as it deals absolutely no damage and uses foam canisters instead of ammo cartridges. If you’d been hoping for something would let you take out the Typhon aliens from afar, this isn’t it. Instead, the Gloo Gun can be used in a variety of other ways that aren’t directly related to combat.

Multitasking

The most immediately obvious application of the Gloo Cannon is to freeze the Typhon in their tracks. A few seconds of concentrated fire on a mimic or a phantom causes the foam to harden around them, immobilizing the enemy and giving you a few seconds to attack freely. The gun can also be used to create new pathways as blobs of gloo stick to walls, floors, and pretty much any other surface. If you’re having trouble reaching a vantage point or spy a medkit atop a high structure, the Gloo Gun is the way to get there. Finally, the foam can be used to deal with hazards in the environment as it soaks up everything from fire to electricity and can even be used to plug breaches in airtight zones.

What’s also interesting to note about Prey is the sequencing of how players acquire new weapons. You’ll first find the wrench followed shortly by the Gloo Cannon itself, but there’s also a hidden area in the first zone with an electric stun gun – great for dealing with robotic enemies. The next section has you picking up a silenced pistol by following the main story track and a shotgun if you’re daring enough to explore the Talos I lobby. This remains your default loadout for a while until you gain access to Typhon powers which grant you a wide variety of new options. The experimental Q-Beam can also be retrieved later on by completing an optional side quest. There are additionally a series of grenade-like tools that can be used for a variety of purposes such as distracting enemies, recycling materials, and negating psionic powers.

Limited Loadout

The important thing to note here is that for many players, the only real weapons they’ll have for a significant chunk of the game are the wrench, the pistol, and the Gloo Gun. The stun gun and the shotgun are technically available early on, but they’re both tucked away in hard-to-reach areas. The prevalence of mimics alongside an omnipresent sense of danger will discourage any adventurous impulses in favor of sticking to the critical path until players feel more confident in their abilities. This means that the Gloo Gun will become most first time players’ default weapon, and for good reason – it’s highly adaptable and useful in nearly any combat encounter.

Gloo and Yu

This adaptability is mirrored in the protagonist of Prey, Morgan Yu. Throughout the game, you’ll be able to customize your own version of the character as you progress, deciding which abilities to unlock and which weapons to invest in with upgrade kits. There are also choices to make as you encounter secrets from your forgotten past. How you deal with these matters just as much as the abilities you choose. Morgan’s character is malleable and changeable, mirroring the versatility of the Gloo Cannon itself. It’s up to you to define what the gun is used for, just as it’s up to you to define who Morgan is.

On top of that, the Gloo Gun contributes to the game’s override themes of knowledge and understanding since at its core, it’s a tool, not a weapon – much like how Morgan is a scientist, not a soldier. While the right neuromods and upgrades can turn you into a shotgun-toting badass who isn’t afraid of a few mimics and phantoms, things change quickly when the Nightmare Typhon starts hunting you or a situation turns sour. The Gloo Gun is still the best choice for handling these difficult encounters, giving you time to regroup and reload – and then blast away at the monsters, if that’s how you’re playing.

The Gloo Gun’s versatility and adaptable design align closely with Morgan’s nature, both in gameplay and in story. Who you are is a choice you have to make. While you can’t change the past or the Typhon outbreak or even the tools provided to you, how you deal with it all is your decision.

Further Reading

Mechanics as Storytelling: Doom’s Silent Protagonist

Is there any trope more specific to video games than that of the silent protagonist? The device has become so ubiquitous in the medium that it’s something of a running gag as games will often poke fun at their steadfastly mute heroes and heroines. The trope exists for a reason, though, as famous examples such as Link from The Legend of Zelda or Chell from the Portal games prove. Silence, it is generally accepted, allows the player to better immerse themselves in a game’s world as the character’s reactions are their reactions. We get to decide how Link interprets the world around him based on how we interpret it, and when we’re frustrated with a tricky level or triumphant at having finally beaten a boss, we imagine that’s what he’s feeling, too.

A silent protagonist can be more than just a vehicle for player reactions, and in some cases can even contribute to a game’s story. For proof, look no further than Doom (2016), where the main character’s tight-lipped attitude gives greater weight to the significance of the events that transpire. True, his silence is perhaps more due to tradition than anything else (the classic games featured a voiceless hero as well), but it’s still a part of this world and therefore is still a part of the story being told.

Talkative NPCs

The first thing to take into account is that Doom isn’t set in a world in which all the characters are mute. Take games in the Zelda series, for example – people in these titles rarely have actual voices, and those who do often just get a few lines of dialogue during a cutscene. Speaking is represented by text boxes that appear on screen alongside some gibberish sounds to give them a bit of personality. Link shares the same system (minus the gibberish) as his dialogue is simulated by dialogue text options that can be selected. He’s as silent as the rest of the world, with only the implication of a voice.

Doom takes a different approach. Every character in the game has a voice, no matter how major or minor their role. The only real exception is the Doom Slayer, who ostensibly never talks to anyone, not even the artificial intelligence VEGA that chimes in with the express purpose of helping him defeat the demons. There’s not even so much as a dialogue box to represent the Slayer speaking – for all intents and purposes, he spends the game truly and completely silent. As mentioned before, there are some obvious reasons for this bit of design, as tradition holds that the Doom Guy doesn’t speak and immersion is easy to achieve when the player character is silent. The question, then, is how the silent protagonist impacts the game’s story.

The Road to Hell

The plot of Doom is pretty straightforward – the UAC, in their attempts to leech energy off of Hell and weaponize the creatures found there, inadvertently caused a full scale demonic invasion of their facilities. Now the Doom Slayer has to come fix things – violently. Exploring the levels fully and watching the cutscenes reveals some additional details regarding Olivia Pierce getting corrupted by the demonic energy and how the UAC treated its employees, but the most significant plot point is the demonic invasion. It’s a simple tale of mankind’s hubris – after all, who in the world could have had the arrogance and audacity to think that drawing energy from Hell itself was a good idea?

Enter Dr. Samuel Hayden, chairman of the UAC and architect of the project to extract power from Hell. At various points throughout the story, Hayden tries to influence the Doom Slayer to work with him in order to curb the invasion while leaving the infrastructure of harvesting Hell energy in place. He proves useful at times, giving you vital information on how to proceed, but he also betrays you at the end of the game and exiles you to Hell so he can salvage his operation. From his actions and dialogue in the game, we can safely conclude that Hayden’s fatal flaw is an inability to admit failure. True, he wants to stop the demonic invasion, but his priority is getting the system back online. He constantly focuses on the fact that he was trying to do something good and that if he could just give it another go, he’d definitely be able to do it right.

Paved with Good Intentions

It’s important to note that this is the person who the Doom Slayer interacts with most during the course of the game. His silence is therefore directed mostly at Hayden, insofar as silence can be directed. The distinct lack of engagement with Hayden’s arguments and reasoning tells us exactly what the Doom Slayer thinks of the points he makes – and of Hayden himself. As we see time and time again throughout the story, Hayden is not going to change his mind. No one and nothing is going to convince him to accept his failure, and so our energies are better spent elsewhere. Sure, the Doom Slayer will accept his help when it’s provided and he’ll listen when he can glean some valuable information, but he’s not here undo Hayden’s failings or assuage his ego – he’s here to kill demons.

This is the reasoning behind the Doom Slayer’s silence. He doesn’t speak because even if he did, no one would really be listening. Anything he said would be worse than useless, as it would draw energy away from the more important task of killing the demons. The Doom Slayer is above all a pragmatic character – if something cannot help him, it is discarded or ignored. And in Doom, events have moved far, far beyond the point where words could help anything.

Further Reading

Inside the Doom Score: Mick Gordon Interview | Bethesda.net

Doom: The Definitive Interview | VentureBeat

Mechanics as Storytelling: XCOM 2’s Time Limits

To say that the turn timers in XCOM 2 were received poorly would be an understatement. A quick glance at the

forums

makes it plain that a significant number of players didn’t want to be rushed through missions. This led to the rise of mods designed to remove those timers rather than play through the game in the way the developers intended. Two appropriate descriptors for the mechanic would be unpopular and controversial – but not necessarily bad.

The Best of Intentions

Turn timers were introduced in XCOM 2 in order to lead to more interesting and engaging experiences. The idea was that players would be forced to make difficult decisions as they rapidly advanced while encountering challenges that would require them to think quickly and take risks. This was meant to counter the slow, methodical, and often boring gameplay from the previous title, XCOM: Enemy Unknown. While it may have been good game design in that it facilitated intended play, the fact remains that it made a significant group of fans enjoy the game less.

Regardless of the quality of the feature or how it was received, the turn timers do contribute to the game’s story in an interesting way. In order to get a clearer picture of how this mechanic plays into the narrative, we also need to consider the other time limit introduced in XCOM 2 – one that received less attention and far less controversy. We’re referencing, of course, the Avatar Project.

The Avatar Project

The Avatar Project is a game-wide timer that advances periodically. It functions as a limiter on the entire game since if it finishes the player instantly loses. While the timer will advance automatically at times, it can be countered by pursuing main story missions and destroying special alien facilities. This incentivizes players to put greater priority on taking out Avatar sites as they represent the greatest threat in the game. Doing so will often divert attention from other tasks, such as obtaining supplies or recruiting new staff, and can throw off players’ rhythms at crucial moments.

The turn timers in individual missions function in a very similar way to the Avatar Project’s timer, albeit in a more short-term manner. Just as Avatar forces you to make difficult choices, so too do the mission clocks. You’re made to move your squad into risky territory without full knowledge of what’s waiting for them, reacting to the threats as they appear. Taking a chance could mean losing a valuable soldier, but it could also be the only way to succeed.

Change of Pace

Contrast these systems to Enemy Unknown, where a slower paced narrative and the absence of turn timers led to a more methodical game. You were encouraged to preserve your soldiers’ lives in the field.  Back at base, there often wasn’t much choice to be made regarding which missions you’d follow and which research projects you’d pursue. It lacked the urgency and desperation of XCOM 2 and felt much more like you were in control of the situation.

This schism between the two games is where the story is told. Enemy Unknown saw you take charge of a highly advanced military outfit with every country on the planet providing you resources and support from the word go. XCOM 2 puts you in the role of resistance leader, forcing you to scavenge and scrap for resources and establish connections in regions before you can get any supplies from them. You’re no longer the global organization funded by well-connected donors, but an underdog who’s been on the back foot for a while now. As the game’s intro informs us, the aliens have already won. This means that from the very beginning, the player is at a disadvantage. Nowhere is this feeling better encapsulated than in the game’s time limits.

Desperate Times

Turn timers in missions force these encounters to feel meaningful and impactful. They make you carefully weigh the consequences of every decision as you now have much more to lose, regardless of what action you take. The Avatar Project as a whole is a looming presence, constantly nagging at the back of your mind. It forces you to spread yourself thin as you race to reach areas with alien facilities and destroy them. Every second counts, and it portrays the experience of resisting a vastly superior foe extremely well. The desperation and urgency of your actions in the narrative are made real through the gameplay consequences of the time limits.

This story is not one told through cutscenes – the XCOM 2 lore and the cinematics are all pretty straightforward and don’t have much emotional weight. What it does manage to achieve is something that only games can really do – it tells a story using not words or images or sound, but using the systems you interact with and the feelings they elicit. You’ll never see your soldiers share your own frustrations and apprehensions through their dialogue or animations, but you’ll feel it all the same. It’s a story you feel instead of read or view as you do everything you can to hold onto the last hope for humanity’s future.

Further Reading

Mechanics as Storytelling: Skyrim’s Open World

The challenge of telling a story in an open world game comes down to time. The main quests of these titles often revolve around urgent problems needing immediate attention – think Calamity Ganon in Breath of the Wild or finding your lost son in Fallout 4. This narrative line is very often at odds with the nature of open world gameplay, as such a setting encourages getting lost, following up on trivial side quests, and generally just exploring the vast landscape in front of you. It often feels as though you’re delaying the main quest, which can lead to some cognitive dissonance when you realize that there are no consequences whatsoever for putting off the primary conflict of the game for as long as possible.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, perhaps the ubiquitous open world game, avoids this problem entirely simply due to the kind of story it tells. The main quest follows the Last Dragonborn, a mortal with the soul of a dragon, as they seek to defeat Alduin the World-Eater. This ancient dragon is a being straight out of myth, a terrifyingly powerful force who means to consume or enslave all the world. It is absolutely a quest of dire importance and one that should not be delayed in the slightest – and yet that’s exactly what you’ll do. Skyrim is chock-full of distractions, diversions, side quests, and opportunities to get off track.

Hero Out of Legend

On the surface, this is the same problem experienced by game like Red Dead Redemption or Shadow of Mordor – you have an urgent quest that needs to be completed, and yet the game design seems to direct you away from it and towards less significant matters. However, Skyrim does not suffer from its scattered narrative because this isn’t just any story – it’s an epic. The tale of the Last Dragonborn and their fight with Alduin is a grand adventure full of sidetracks and pit stops that don’t detract from the story being told, but instead contribute to the mythos.

The Dragonborn is not a modern hero – they’re more like Theseus or Heracles out of Greek myth, figures who had major triumphs and notable moments but whose stories are characterized by the multitude of feats they accomplished. Heracles had his Twelve Labors, Odysseus encountered trouble literally every time he visited an island, and while Theseus may be best known for conquering the Minotaur, that was hardly the only heroic feat he performed. These are classical heroes, known for the breadth of their achievements. The Dragonborn shares that status, and the journey through Skyrim reflects that.

The Hero’s Journey

This is why the open world works so well. The Dragonborn needs to go on many adventures in order to fit into the archetype of a classic hero, and the setting provides heroic feats aplenty. Yes, they will eventually also defeat Alduin and save all mortal life, but they’ll also join the Thieves Guild to gain fortune and plunder, fight alongside the Companions for honor and glory, help guide the College of Winterhold into a new future, and may even bring an empire to its knees as part of the Dark Brotherhood. An epic story demands an epic hero after all, and by the time the game is done the Dragonborn will be just that, having ventured to the furthest corners of Skyrim and accomplished many great deeds, the likes of which will be immortalized in song and prose.

Other open worlds don’t quite manage to capture the same feeling as Skyrim. Fallout 4 takes place in the post-apocalypse, Red Dead Redemption is a western, and Shadow of Mordor is a revenge plot. These stories require more specific heroes, with more detailed motivations to propel their narratives forward. The open world then dilutes that main plotline, mixing in side quests and optional objectives that are not a part of the core problem in the game’s story. It doesn’t make these games bad by any stretch of the imagination as they’re all fun to play – they’re just less focused in their storytelling.

A Hero Defined by Their World

Skyrim solved this problem by featuring a hero who is wholly defined by the expansive world they inhabit. Not every game needs to follow this pattern (Breath of the Wild is an excellent example of an open world game with a singular focus), but it would be interesting to see more in this vein of storytelling. We’ll just have to wait and see if The Elder Scrolls VI keeps up the tradition of epic heroes in epic tales.

Further Reading