Your journey begins at the giant mushrooms.

In general I am in favor of narrative in games. However, a trend I totally do not get is that which says we should glue a framing fantasy story around some completely abstract puzzle or arcade game-play.

For instance, I just spent an hour or so with an angular-shooting game called Sparkle. Not great, not terrible. I had some fun with it on the higher levels of the demo, but not so much fun that I want to buy the complete version of the game.

A fair amount of polish has gone into this game, in certain respects. The music is jaunty and has some good passages; the early levels are pretty well-tuned to be challenging but not overwhelming as you ramp up to being able to handle increasingly complex challenges. Your task is to eliminate the marbles as they roll down their tracks before they reach the end of said tracks, and you do this by shooting more marbles; when three or more of the same color meet, they disappear, etc. You’d expect everything good to have been leached from the Snoodlike mechanic already, but Sparkle does manage to do something just a bit different with it. So, fine. It’s a totally acceptable entry in its genre.

But I snickered at the game’s opening screen, which explains that a terrible evil has arisen in Crowberry Woods and that you alone can face it. It ends:

Caught in the middle of all this, the burden has been placed on your shoulders. Your journey begins at the giant mushrooms.

Wherever there’s writing, it’s raw and ridiculous. There are grammar flaws, like the dangling modifier in this quotation. There’s cliche: the fantasy elements are scavenged haphazardly, with no attempt at building a coherent world. There’s vagueness: the nature of this evil, its manifestations and purposes, etc., are never explained in the least. An attentive reader might wonder something along the lines of, “Why are there giant mushrooms in the woods? What do they signify? Are they psychedelic? Are they the result of the dark forces at work, or were they there before? How does my first challenge involve them?” But all those sorts of story-oriented responses would be frustrated, because as far as I can tell the mushrooms are not important except as one landmark on the map representing the player’s progress. Taking these sentences as meaningful was a mistake. The writing is not here for us to enjoy as prose, and it’s not here to tell us a story or (as in Diner Dash) to explain the core game mechanic. It’s vestigial text, a little runty tail or nubbin of wing which it would be most polite to ignore.

A bit later on, on finding an Egyptian obelisk in the middle of New England woods, I am told that I have discovered one of the runes I’m looking for. Terrific! …why am I looking for them, exactly? I suppose the answer is that these “runes” are slightly more aesthetically appealing than numerical score increases, and engender more of a collect-them-all covetousness, so they make a better progress measure. I now have my first rune in the status bar at the top of my screen, and I admit it looks cute. But let’s not pretend these runes have any kind of plot function.

What I’m wondering here is, why the narrative framework at all? Why make up some story that obviously doesn’t interest the game’s creators and is barely even comprehensible to the player? Is it just tradition? Lots of casual games before have had framing narratives, so this game needs one too? (Sparkle is hardly the only offender. Not too long ago I tried a harmless little puzzle game inexplicably cluttered up with some business about wood elves.)

I’d respect this game more if it were up front about what it is, without the trappings that the game’s creators seem to have supplied out of reflex or obligation.

3 thoughts on “Your journey begins at the giant mushrooms.

  1. Lots of casual games before have had framing narratives, so this game needs one too?

    Perhaps it could be, “Lots of casual games have had framing narratives which made the game better, so a framing narrative might make my game better too.” For instance, the narrative in Sling and its sequel, Sling Fire was quite amusing, complemented the mechanics perfectly, and helped to immerse the player in the game.

    If this is the thought process, then the game’s problem isn’t that it had a narrative when it didn’t need one: the problem is that it had a narrative that was really crappy and poorly integrated into the game. And adding *any* element to your game that’s crappily done and poorly integrated will tend to have a negative effect, even if a competent version of the same would have been beneficial.

  2. I have a new theory, actually, which is that Sparkle borrows all of its mechanics and concept from Pirate Poppers, which has a somewhat more successful frame story. [Edited to add: actually, I clearly don’t pay enough attention to every nook of casual gaming, because “marble popper” turns out to be a whole genre describing this mechanic. And they are all, as far as I can tell, exactly the same game, gussied up with some different music and “setting” and powerups, but otherwise, identikit.]

    But I guess what I’m saying is that narratives can help, but if you can’t think of how one is useful to your particular game, the best bet is probably to leave it out.

    Also, thanks for the Sling link. I hadn’t seen that one before.

  3. Good question. My favorite game BreakQuest has this weird little story about corporations taking over people’s minds. But the game itself? It’s a brick-breaker.

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