In which the author discusses a failing of conventional game design theory that has been generally resolved in other media long ago.
Conflict is essential to a plot. Some screenwriters go so far as to say that conflict is plot, and suitably, screenwriters have a lot of tools for testing to make sure a plot has sufficient conflict.
As popularised by Trey Parker, one way to make sure a story has conflict is to see if the story beats can be joined together with buts and therefores. Conversely, ands are a sign of a boring story.
Compare the following:
Example A: The hero searched the tower for treasure. And then he found it. And then he went home happily.
Example B: The hero searched the tower for treasure. But had found only things of a sentimental value. Therefore, he went home dejected, questioning the shallow nature of his quest.
Screenwriters use this tool to highlight where a story isn’t developing in an interesting way.
And indicates that the plot isn’t unfolding; it’s already laid out, and the audience can see each step coming a mile away.
For whatever reason, many longer RPGs contain at least one quest which has not been subjected to this quality check. If you’ve ever felt that a game was padded, it could have been the work of the And And Quest.
The “And And Quest” in Dragon Age: Origins
At Dragon Age’s midpoint, (1) a treasonous usurper is dividing the country. Meanwhile, the impending threat of the Darkspawn is consuming the countryside. (2) Therefore, the Landsmeet must be called: a gathering of every leader in the region, all of whom will deliberate on a resolution to these two problems. (3) But the leaders have problems in their own countries, and cannot attend until such time as they are resolved.
(4) Therefore, the heroes go to the humans to fix their problems. (5) And then they go to the mages. (6) And then to the dwarves. (7) And then the elves. (8) And then the Landsmeet is finally called.
What happens during the ands of a story is simple: the obvious unfolds.
Once our player experiences (3), she can see (4, 5, 6, 7 & 8) already laid out. Nothing subverts the story’s trajectory, and there’s no real suspense about what’s going to happen. Our player can see 4 or 5 story beats ahead and the plot becomes tedious.
Dragon Age actually spends this time developing the world and its characters, and it does this incredibly well. Its arguable, however, that there may have been a way to achieve this without also taking the drive out of the overarching plot.
The And And Quest in Ni No Kuni
Near the end of Ni No Kuni, (1) Oliver is powerful enough to defeat the villain, Shadar, but he needs the legendary staff Mornstar to ensure his victory. (2) Therefore, he tracks it down, (3) but discovers it’s been destroyed. To make it whole again, he needs to locate 3 magic stones. (4) Therefore, he goes to get the first stone. (5) And then he goes to get the second. (6) And then the third. (7) And then he fixes it. (8) And then he continues on his journey to fight Shadar.
It is not difficult to see where the plot is put on hold here. At (1), our player knows she needs Mornstar to fight Shadar. Yet fighting Shadar doesn’t come until (8).
Because nothing meaningfully adds to the plot in any of the intermediary beats, everything is reduced to the status of detour and our player must wade through hours of dead story-matter in order to catch up with the plot.
If this is a familiar feeling, this is often what’s at play when we say a game is ‘padded’.
Nearly everything in a story happens in anticipation of the resolution. Conflict keeps us from knowing that resolution, and so keeps a story interesting.
Watching a hurling match is very different when you know the score in advance. It’s not unfun, but the game as a whole loses its arc, and is reduced to disparate segments of interesting play.
The And And Quest is like watching a hurling match when you know the score in advance. If the gameplay is not gripping from moment to moment, the entire experience becomes a dredge.
For all their differences, video games can still learn a thing or two from other media. It is easy to dismiss story-telling tools because video games are experiential and interactive, but the same tricks that work for viewer attention in the context of a TV show can also work for player motivation in the context of a video game.