Author: Luke Perkin, Technical Designer at Fabrik Games, May 2020.
I was recently watching one of my favourite streamers, Sean Plott AKA Day9, playing the 2003 classic Command & Conquer Generals Zero Hour. In his usual style, Sean goes off on a tangent about 'Formal' and 'Narrative' qualities of gameplay mechanisms. It really stood out to me, as it is something that has been on my mind recently but wasn't quite sure how to elaborate on the concept. Now I've got that 'hook', I can attempt to explain it in this article.
You might have heard about this concept under the horrifically academic term 'Ludonarrative Dissonance'. That is the idea that games have two narratives being told: the narrative told through gameplay (things the player does) and the narrative told through the story (things the player observes). These two narratives can be working together in tandem or they can conflict with each other, hence the dissonance term. Sean calls these two aspects 'Formal' and 'Narrative'. For this article, I'll go with Systemic and Observational. The systemic aspect is how the player interacts with it and how it interacts with the rest of the game's systems. The observational aspect is how gameplay is presented and contextualised to the player.
In the video above, Sean Plott explains how a specific mechanic in the game has the two narratives working together. There are tanks and there are pilots, you can put a pilot inside a tank and the tank ranks up allowing it deal greater damage. If the tank is destroyed however, the pilot still lives and keeps the rank, so that veteran pilot can enter another tank and deal increased damage. The narrative as shown via observation is unambiguous, it's a battlefield with the US fighting fictional terrorists (for context, this game was released two years after 9/11). The systemic aspect is more subtle but fits thematically, "of course it's the pilot that gains battlefield experience and not the tank itself" you might think to yourself. It also incentivises the player to value their pilots more than their tanks, which creates interesting decisions. It would be a lot simpler to implement this gameplay where you remove pilots entirely and have the tanks rank up. That would be fine as an abstraction. But abstractions rely on the player having pre-existing knowledge of the context, as you create more and more abstractions in games the more likely you are to encounter a clash between the systemic and observational aspects.
In board game design, this concept is often split between rules and theme. Board game rules lie on a spectrum between arbitrary and thematic. If you are making a board game where the theme is 'Pirates', then you might have cards with pictures of pirates on them, a board that represents the ocean and a bunch of islands, the game could have an app that plays pirate shanties. These are all things that sell the theme through observation. Chess is another game that represents a battlefield. The observational aspect is heavily simplified but still there. The smallest pieces are at the front and named 'Pawns', clearly meant to represent cannon fodder. The Knight can hop over pieces, again something that is totally simplified and abstracted from real horse movement, but that systemic rule fits a lot better than if the Knight could only move one tile per turn. The bishop, and other pieces in chess, have no correlation between it's systemic and observational aspect. I'm no expert on the gaits of religious folk, but I'm pretty sure they're not stuck walking only diagonally. I would argue this dissonance in Chess is absolutely fine, it is an abstract game. The simplified design leads you to expect simplified rules. These systemic clashes hurt more when the player begins with a higher expectation of fidelity and story.
As a final example, I'll talk about one of my own designs, a board game called Blaggards, which is about Pirates both attempting to co-operate and sabotage each other. Each round a different player is the Captain of the ship. As the designer, I need to figure out how to select which player becomes the Captain. In most games you take turns around the table, each round the player to your left becomes the 'active' player. I didn't choose that option as I wanted it to be a player decision. Blaggards is a game about deciding who to trust, I needed some way to let the players decide that systematically. The next option is to have a vote (also common in board games). Players point to who they want to become Captain and the player with the most votes is selected. This satisfies the systemic aspect; players are deciding who to trust and there is co-operation between players. This does not satisfy the observational aspect; a council of pirates democratically electing an official. That doesn't sound like pirates at all! So I decided to turn the mechanism on its head. The player with the least amount of votes is elected, and instead of calling it an election call it a 'BRAWL' and instead of 'putting in a vote' you are 'throwing a punch'. Now the player who was punched the least is selected as the new captain. Effectively, the players are now deciding who they don't trust, and altogether becomes a much more cohesive ruleset within the pirate universe.
Hopefully, you can use this line of thinking in your own games. Consider that every rule you introduce creates two narratives: the systemic narrative that the player creates via interaction and the observational narrative that is presented to the player. Perhaps in your next playtest session you will find comments such as "this was unintuitive" and "that didn't feel quite right" and you'll be able to pinpoint the mechanisms at play creating that dissonance.