In response to my earlier post on puzzles in narrative games, a couple of the commenters noted that contrasting the puzzles in Professor Layton with those in Grim Fandango isn’t fair, because the puzzles in the former game aren’t integrated into the game world in the the same way as puzzles in the latter one are. I wouldn’t go so far as to say, as Daniel did, that Layton isn’t a narrative game at all – we’re not talking Picross here – but it clearly isn’t as far on the narrative end of the continuum as Grim Fandango is.
But, thinking about it some more, something is still bothering me. I was responding to a forum post containing the sentence “Has shooting replaced puzzle-solving as the ‘gameplay’ aspect in narrative games?” So, rather than sticking within the context of games with lots of puzzles, what are narrative games like outside of that genre, and how does their direct gameplay (or “interaction”, to borrow Iroquois’ term) fit in with that?
To take games where shooting plays a prominent role: is Half-Life 2 a narrative game? Is Halo? Is GTA? Is Mass Effect? They all have some narrative aspects; then again, so does Professor Layton. More to the point, to what extent is the gameplay natural within the narrative context?
My first answer to that last question was “a lot more so than in Professor Layton“: in the latter, solving puzzles is quite artificial, while in the former games, shooting people is quite natural. Now, though, I’m not so sure: maybe that reaction has a lot more to do with my constant exposure to the extreme violence in games (and other media) than with anything else? I’m quite sure that if, in real life, you were to act as violently as you have to in GTA, you’d find out very quickly that behaving that way is widely considered unnatural, or at least strongly discouraged in polite society. And, for that matter, I have been in situations, albeit rare ones, where solving puzzles as arbitrary as any in Professor Layton has been essential to my overcoming real-world obstacles, much more so than violence ever has been for me. (Then again, I have a checkered past.)
In particular, let’s consider RPGs. That’s generally considered to be a narrative genre, and I think most people would say that Mass Effect is a narrative game. And it presents a context in which shooting people is a natural way to progress in the environment. To move away from shooting (but staying firmly within the genre), Golden Sun is also a narrative game; there, instead of shooting, you select actions (e.g. the powers given to you by your djinni), but your actions still fit within the narrative context.
Then what about Puzzle Quest? All of a sudden the gameplay feels completely artificial: you’re not supposed to fight monsters by playing Bejeweled, you’re supposed to fight them by choosing attacks and shooting and stuff! Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed the game, but, for me, it flipped over to the artifical, puzzles-not-integrated-with narrative side the same way that Professor Layton does.
But I can’t convince myself that my reaction there is justified: maybe it’s just my conditioning from other games that causes me to think that the fighting in Golden Sun is linked to the narrative in a way that the fighting in Puzzle Quest isn’t. And if we accept that the fighting (or, more generally, overcoming obstacles) in both of those is really a matter of convention, entrenched within the world of the specific game but with a tenuous natural link to either real-world convention or narrative requirements, then isn’t the same true for Professor Layton?
At this point, I’m pretty confused, and I hope some people will be kind enough to comment on this post to set me straight. Circling back to our original contrast of Professor Layton versus Grim Fandango, though, it raises an interesting question: I still agree that you can make a good case that the puzzles in Grim Fandango are better integrated with the narrative than those in Professor Layton.
But if we also accept that there’s at least something to my suspicion that, in most “narrative” genres, the mechanics of the gameplay have only a conventional tie to the narrative structure, then maybe Grim Fandango suggests that puzzles give a mechanic that can actually work uniquely well with narrative gameplay! Again, going back to Michael’s question, asking “I wonder if puzzles in narrative games are a relic of a bygone era of gaming – or are they a necessary ludic element?”, maybe the answer is that they are a necessary ludic element, or at least a ludic element that’s uniquely capable (because of its versatility) of reinforcing narrative gameplay? This may also tie into Iroquois’ comment that puzzles are at a different level in the game design hierarchy than more direct forms of gameplay (shooting, jumping, whatever).
I’m still not sold on the thesis that I’m describing here, but I’m surprised at how interesting the journey is turning out to be. Michael, I don’t want to hold you accountable for your every forum post, but I’m curious: what did you have in mind when you used the phrase “narrative game”? Maybe the next step would be to dig into that phrase a bit more.
(Edit: Fixed a typo where I accidentally wrote “ludic” instead of “narrative”.)