Block’hood, Stardew, and Cities Skylines: Messaging in Games

This week I bought and downloaded Hollow Knight on Steam to reaffirm that I am just terrible at any game requiring timed coordination of actions. Strategy/sandbox games are my bread and butter, and that’s both because they interest me, and because I just suck at everything else. As a result I decided to beat a hasty retreat to the game that took over my life… mid-February, I want to say, to give it another shot. Stardew Valley is a superb game, and as I wrote previously it is because I love it that the few quibbles I have with it particularly stand out to me.

Games are important because they, more than any other form of media, rely on mechanics to get across their message. A game can preach whatever it wants, but the actual text of a game is rarely what someone remembers. Instead it’s the experience of playing the game, the moments you and the game are able to create together, that become firmly lodged in your memory, so while the actual prose does matter, and can be quite beautiful/goofy/fun, the actual experience is what the game is “really about”. In that regard the mechanics are the story, because they’re “the other player” who is making the story alongside you.

I was first introduced to the concept through Tom Bissell (somehow, of The Disaster Artist fame). He calls the two forces “framed narrative” and “ludonarrative”, and offers this example (cribbing from Ubisoft game designer Clint Hocking). I’ll quote in full, because it’s a great example:

“Bioshock,” Hocking writes, “is a game about the relationship between freedom and power… It says, rather explicitly, that the notion that rational self-interest is moral or good is a trap, and that the ‘power’ we derive from complete and unchecked freedom necessarily corrupts, and ultimately destroys us.” The problem is that this theme lies athwart of the game itself. For one things, there is no real benefit in harvesting Little Sisters, because refusing to harvest them eventually leads to gifts and bonuses of comparable worth. In other words, the gamer winds up in a place of equivalent advantage no matter what decision he or she makes. Bioshock was celebrated for being one of the first games to approach morality without lapsing into predictable binaries, but if the altruistic refusal to harvest Little Sisters has no sacrificial consequence, the refusal cannot really be considered altruistic (Extra Lives, Page 152).”

It’s a situation, essentially, in which the ludonarrative (aka the mechanics) and the framed narrative are at odds. And in the end, because we’re predisposed to remember the ludonarrative better (it is the narrative in which we are “active”, since we are actually in control of the moment-to-moment as opposed to the framed narrative, in which we aren’t actually active participants) that’s the narrative that holds the real “message” of the game. So when a game preaches one thing but feels like something else, the feeling is the thing we actually remember. This is particularly dangerous if the games framed narrative has good intentions and the ludonarrative has unintended bad ones.

Sandbox games are particularly interesting because they are pretty much exclusively ludonarrative. There is no framed narrative of which to speak of: you can play the game any way you want, the only constraints are the mechanics, and that can again lead to games with sort of weird and possibly unintentional (giving the benefit of the doubt here) messaging. Take for example the game Cities: Skylines. It’s a fantastic city simulator, that suggests you can build your city any which way you want… but that’s of course not true. As this article in Paste Magazine points out you are encouraged to both bulldoze lower income housing to make way for citizens who can work higher income jobs, but are also encouraged to keep some of your work force uneducated. This article from The Guardian explores what happens when the player tries to build a post-capitalist city. Like in Stardew money is used as the measure of growth and success, which is in itself a message. The mechanical choice of how to measure progress is a message about how you should measure progress, and consciously or subconsciously a player is going to remember it.

For an alternative example look to Block’hood, an indie game I found while browsing Citylab. Block’hood, like Cities: Skylines, is essentially all ludonarrative, but in that ludonarrative it is able to achieve what Stardew Valley is incapable of achieving in either its framed or ludonarrative. In the trailer for Block’hood the game prompts you to think of “ecology”, and while building a sustainable ecosystem in regards to water, plants and air is important, the ecological ideology expands past that into actual city planning and building. If you want a internet cafe you need to build supply chains to make it happen: coffee beans to coffee roasters to coffee shops to cafes. Data and plastics and entertainment. All of these “blocks” give off both positive products and negative waste, but if you’re smart you can take that negative waste and build a supply chain with that too, recycling the run off into something different and positive. It’s not a perfect game (I ended up with about a zillion algae farms to deal with gray water and a butt load of wetlands to get water back into the ground because for some unknown reason it only rains once a game…) but it’s able to teach you, not through story but through experience, how to build a thriving community that uses resources wisely and sustainably. No character shouted it at me. It was just a necessity brought on by the game.

I love all three games – they all have their own ups and downs and they have all taught me to think about community and city planning differently (I will never look at a cloverleaf interchange the same after having muddled through the traffic of Cities: Skylines). Tonight I plan to start a multiplayer game of Stardew, and am excited to see how playing with others works in a game so invested in community – the “group money pot” is a great mechanic that sounds like a perfect marriage of both mechanics and intended meaning. I just hope moving forward games continue, to along with improving “photo realism” (which for some reason is really important to games…), to consider how to get their ludonarrative and framed narrative to match up. Make it challenging, but worthwhile, to make the difficult choices and live in harmony.

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