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Level Five: Architectonics
As a refresher from the Preliminary phase, the term “architectonics” is defined as the “unifying structural design of something” or “the structural arrangement or makeup of a system.” In our case, it denotes the design and arrangement of a game’s dramatic structure in terms of both narrative structure and game mechanics and rule dynamics.
An advanced example that demonstrates this principle is Brenda Romero’s The Mechanics Is the Message collection, especially Train, where the rules and the narrative are one and the same. A simpler example is the level boss. Here, ideally, all three dramatic development arcs of a game—to be introduced in the upcoming Beat 1. Partitioning—terminate in an event with player action at its center: a plot point from the story development arc; a journey stage from the character development arc; and the culmination of that level’s learning curves from the player development arc.
In too many games, plot points and journey stages are not interlocked with player action but set up as cutscenes. Integrating all three development arcs into player action is at the very heart of the Architectonics territory. To get there, a lot of ground will have to be covered in the upcoming beats, from dramatic structure and empathic tasks to dramatic choice and player decisions to functional characters and the dramatic ensemble.
Not everything in this level will be applicable to games that are not dramatically complete. But dramatic structure doesn’t equal story (we will come back to that in a minute), and it isn’t exclusive to dramatically complete games. Chess, the game of Go, Tetris, or Unreal Tournament are not dramatically complete games, but they are great games nevertheless, which they wouldn’t be without a dramatic structure. In Beat 1. Partitioning, therefore, we will also have a closer look at the dramatic structure of games that are not dramatically complete.
What this level will not do is go astray and venture into the vast, perilous, and beautiful realms of game writing. Game writing demands a treatise of its own. In Beat 6. Personnel, for example, we will discuss the various dramatic functions of non-player characters in scholarly detail, but we won’t discuss how to write compelling characters that come alive on the screen. Functional characters and interesting characters are completely different things.
Another difference that you have to be aware of is the difference between story and plot. One of the central topics discussed in Level Two: Interactivity is unpredictability in its different forms, particularly randomness, contingency, and complexity. For our purposes in the Architectonics territory, we must draw another distinction: perfect information and imperfect knowledge.
Games whose unpredictability resides primarily in the Interactivity territory can be games with perfect information, like chess or Go or many video games with a game-mechanical core. All that can be objectively known and observed about a game state can be known by all players. (Subjective, unobservable information like intentions and assumptions, of course, remain objectively hidden.) In the Architectonics territory, in contrast, unpredictability is a function of subjective uncertainty, primarily produced by imperfect knowledge—information the player does not yet have and information the player does not yet know exists, all strategically positioned in ways we call dramatic structure and, more specifically, plot. That’s where unpredictability resides in games that have stories and are weakly or strongly predetermined.
Importantly, stories are designed. As such, what happens in stories is neither random nor contingent (contingency is discussed in-depth in Level Two: Interactivity). What’s more, everything that happens in a story has to have discernible causes, or reasons. Otherwise, the story won’t “work”—except with a theme relating to the idea that nothing we do makes much sense anyway because the quest for meaning is futile, like the Theater of the Absurd. Beyond causes and reasons, moreover, designed elements must have a discernible purpose. In a story, the purpose of an element can be to advance the plot, portray a character, communicate an insight into the game world, highlight an aspect related to the theme or its motifs, elicit an emotion, or, and that’s of paramount importance for games, stand in some relation to player proficiency and the game-driven goal. Reality can’t possibly do that, thanks to contingency. That’s why reality is a poor writer of stories. What happens in real life is altogether too fantastic and confusing and too seemingly random to be enjoyable. Reality, after all, does not provide insights about itself. Science provides them, and so does art. Now, to be honest, purpose and insight as well as coherence and consistency are not the premier elements that come to mind when asked wherein video games traditionally excel. But games have evolved technologically, artistically, and professionally (in terms of craft and knowledge), and so have player expectations. Games are well on their way to become as sensitive and as vulnerable to be criticized for incoherence and inconsistencies as any novel, painting, movie, building, typeface, or television show.
Plot is the story’s dramatic structure. You might have heard of E. M. Forster’s example where “The king died and then the queen died” is a story, whereas “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. This covers causality, which is valuable, but there’s a lot more that separates story from plot. A plot is a chain of causally related, significant events, organized and arranged into a specific sequence to create specific artistic and emotional effects, and to make everything that happens in the course of the story plausible and necessary. To “plot” a game or a movie or a novel is much more complicated and demanding than to create a “story.” Consider how tightly any given story can be compressed into ever more abstract constituents. Even the most sprawling story can be zipped into an incredibly tiny package:
You can’t do that with plot. Plot can’t be descriptively compressed. Moreover, plotting is an exceptionally difficult and merciless task that will occupy writers for extended periods of time especially when it’s a great story.
You can sketch your story and a number of plot points for your story development arc, which is part of what you’ll be doing in Beat 1. Partitioning. For your proposal, that will do. But just like your sketches of rules and values for the Interactivity territory, your artistic sketches for the Plurimediality territory, and your scenic sketches for the Narrativity territory, your story and your plot points from the Architectonics territory will be just that: preliminary sketches. You will need a professional writer or a team of professional writers later in the development phase (among whom, if you are a writer, could be you), to fully develop the story and its dramatic structure.
With regard to our motivational building, the Architectonics territory is strongly associated with “meaningful choices” from the interactive playing experience model, and through that with the autonomy/agency element from our player motivation model. But, as will be seen, it also connects to purpose/goal in several respects.
This phase’s reading order is fixed for the Introduction, Level One and Level Six.
Level Two through Five are non-linear: you can tackle them in any order you like.