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Thematic choices which create narrative/gameplay synergies: the good, the bad, the amnesia trope

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I’d like to comment on something which I believe makes Planescape: Torment’s characterisation and thematisation among the strongest in the history of RPG writing, and ask how that strength can be brought, or whether it should be brought, to Project Eternity. The strategy I’m considering here isn’t an all or nothing approach to game storytelling. And the question may indeed be be best stated “to what extent should Project Eternity employ certain familiar tropes which seek to overcome ludonarrative dissonance?”


Game Storytelling: Problems at the Outset


There are certain things we do, very often, when writing games, or playing pen and paper RPG characters, to avoid the creation of the ludonarrative dissonance which comes of our "gaming" a storytelling experience. Even before we start thinking about "gaming" the story (i.e., engaging in reward-seeking player behaviour), in an RPG, this dissonance is the kind which emerges from the fact that, for example, 1) we just sat down to play a character we know nothing of, and 2) our character already exists, narratively, as a human being with all the personal motivations and desires which form across a lifetime, none of which, it now becomes apparent, we directly share in.


We want to play a fantastical character radically different from ourselves, most of the time. Drizzt the Drow, not Gary the Gamer. So our wishes in that respect find themselves at odds with our interest in playing a protagonist we can effectively identify with. Likewise, we want to jump into this hero, rather than read the annotated history of the first 16 years of his life, from potty training to pimples to stubbing his toe last Tuesday. So we aren't going to intimately familiarise ourselves with his past enough that we might truly, immersively live his present. What we’re left with is a bit of a predicament. Non-game narratives face the problem of plunging us into the unknown and asking us to feel engaged. But game narratives are trying for something even more ambitious. They’re not just asking us to be interested in the protagonist. They’re telling us we are the protagonist. And they’re asking us to reconcile our motivations with those of the protagonist and to experience the character’s motivations.


Storytelling Tropes: Creating a Blank Slate


There are a few solutions which games (and RPG players) often use to mitigate the problem of jumping into a character in medias res. The most popular is simply to explain away the eerily absent backstory. Which is to say, circumstances mean that the character’s past is no longer important. And so, the character’s only intimate acquaintances have died; he is exiled to a distant land; he is an orphan or a bastard born. We’ve seen all of these a dozen times. This extends beyond characters, to setting, as it must, lest the character know everything about a world of which the player knows nothing and so experience it in a fashion radically different from the player. Consequently, the player (in gameplay terms) and the character (narratively) are equally familiar with their surroundings, and the player can immerse himself in the experience of the character exploring a new world. The player and character are equally alien to the land and to the people they meet. And dissonance is avoided. But this comes with a cost. To the extent that we take away the things that make the character a person (his loved ones, his home, his knowledge of his surroundings) we make him less so a character at all. And we cease to play Drizzt the Drow. Because we have taken measures to make his being a Drow unimportant, by taking him from a familiar setting, by removing him from familiar faces, perhaps even by stealing his memory. Which brings me to the crux of the matter.


Turning Strength into Weakness: Thematising the Amnesia Trope


So we can throw in a narrative excuse for the player and character being on even footing easily enough. But the character becomes less substantial by virtue of our doing so, as his past ceases to be. We can create a scenario where they are in harmony with each other, as far as their relationship to others and the world goes, but it is a scenario where our character is less so a character in any meaningful sense. We are after all, depriving them of the very things - experiences, relationships, affections - which make them human. Ideally, we could tell a story which puts the player and the character on similar footing, but let's them share in strong and meaningful motivations, with rich implications for characterisation.


And in this respect, perhaps what Planescape: Torment does is the best one can do. It gives us an excuse for the protagonist's initial dearth of personhood, via the amnesia trope. But it tells us that, rather than accepting this trope as an awkward necessity of game storytelling, we should struggle to confront our character’s past as an unsettling reality. It makes the player objective - to explore and discover the character and world - consistent with the character objective (to find out who he is). And it does something more - it takes the problem of the character's past (to which we have no attatchment) imposing itself upon the character, mutually, the problem of the character. The crisis of the character is, in effect, the crisis of the RPGer - the dissonance between the player experience and the larger rediscovered character history aligns with the dissonance between the portion of TNO's life of which he has direct memory and the rediscovered memory of what occurred before, which threatens to tell him who he is whether he likes it or not. And, more generally, this develops as a theme which addresses the question of how much who we have been explains and determines who we are and will be.


The story furthermore addresses the erasure of our personal relationships and the formation of our 'party', as has inevitably happened, by asking us how it is we justify the binding of these people to us, who will suffer for us, and perhaps die for us. The story is conscious of the egocentrism of the RPG narrative, and asks (as does KotOR II's narrative) "can you justify your taking the world into your grim service, chosen one, erasing the stories of those around you to make them your own? And who but you, yourself, names you chosen one? Who are you, to call this your story?"


This is all extraordinarily brilliant. It is the best treatment of the problem of ludonarrative disonnance that I have encountered in gaming. It makes the tropes associated with RPG storytelling not weaknesses, but thematic strengths, insofar as they can be. We care, because we relate to the world the way our character relates to it.


But two questions emerge from this:


1) How much do we want to alienate the protagonist from his surroundings and acquaintances, in order to serve the purposes of our playthrough? Do we let him keep his identity and a few acquaintances, with whom we’ll do our best to establish his prior relationships, but drop them all on the other side of the world, so any new acquaintances are equally new to him? Or do we just kill off his key acquaintances in the prologue, wherein the village burns down, or the helldaemon rises, or the grand betrayal occurs, or what have you, and the player must set off on his lonely quest (with entirely new acquaintances)? Or, do we simply give him a strong motive to set out on his quest which does not necessitate his bastardy, or the murder of his family and friends, or the erasure of his past? Perhaps he just sets out on a pilgrimage to a half-familiar province, as all the members of his order do, at his age, and brings companions he well-loves with him. How much do we take away, and how much do we keep, of his character’s past?


2) The amnesia trope works very, very well. It is the ideal solution to the problem of creating an entirely new characterisation experience which aligns the character’s and the player’s exercise of world-discovery, self-discovery and friendship-formation. But is it overused? Is there still mileage in it? Or do we need to shelve it for a bit, at this point in history?

Edited by Yst
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I'm not sure if your positive appraisal of the amnesia trope holds up over multiple playthroughs. I agree that the first time you play the game, being in the more-or-less the same situation as your character makes your ignorance of the setting less of an issue, but once you have beaten the game once, you will no longer share your character's ignorance on your next playthrough. There will again be a disconnect between what your character wants and what you, the gamer, want.


And to be honest, I think there is a level of dissonance even the first time playing an amnesiac. His goal may be to find out who he is, what happened to his memory, and to learn about the world around him, but the player's primary goal is to be entertained. The entertainment may come from learning the same things the character wants to learn, but the motivations behind this common goal are different. For the player, learning about the world and the character is secondary. It's what leads to being entertained, and as such, it is subsumed under the overarching goal of "I want to have fun." For the character, learning about the world and who he is, is primary. It is his central purpose and all other concerns are secondary.


Personally, I generally don't mind this kind of dissonance. I find it very easy to ignore (usually), as I am aware that my situation is different from his and can roleplay things from his perspective. Admittedly, if we aren't both ignorant of our surroundings, knowing what exactly his perspective is may take some time, but I usually figure it out fairly quickly. Furthermore, since I usually play through my games many times each, after the first playthrough this is even less of an issue.


The kind of dissonance that I find to be endlessly frustrating is when the character's actions don't align with what I want his actions to be. This is usually caused by cutscenes. Whenever a cutscene takes control of my character, he ceases to be my character. He is no longer my avatar for interacting with the game world. He has suddenly become the writer's avatar, and I have no choice but to sit there and watch impotently as he does things that I often consider to be completely out of character until the cutscene ends, and he reverts back to being my character again. This, to me, is the primary source of dissonance in games. As such, I feel it would be better to focus on eliminating cutscenes involving the main character or at least to be much more cautious with their design and implementation.

Edited by eimatshya
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We've been told that the game starts with the PC having some kind of life changing experience, resulting from simply being in the wrong/right place at the wrong/right time.


This could cause the same effect as the amnesia, in that, with the player directly observing or experiencing the event, the result is a character defining moment, thereby rendering any meager previous existence either unimportant enough for the player to not care about, or inconsequential enough to the main story that it allows the player to freely fill in the gaps themselves.


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