Using Ludonarrative to Craft a Story in Harvest Moon

 

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

Games are perhaps one medium in which it is entirely acceptable to have an underdeveloped story and one-dimensional characters. It is most certainly the only medium in which it is regular practice, even an encouraged practice, for the main character to have little-to-no defined personality traits and nearly no dialogue. Games with so-called “silent protagonists” are hardly rare. Often times they have specific narratives that the silent protagonist must navigate through in order to complete the game, such as in Half-Life, Portal, or the Legend of Zelda series. Games such as these rely on ludonarrative in order for the player to build an understanding of the character. “Ludonarrative” is a term which refers to the “unscripted and gamer-determined” (Bissell chapter 3) narrative that develops through gameplay, as opposed to non-gameplay, “framed narrative” elements such as cutscenes. Some games take their dependance on ludonarrative to make a compelling story even further. The games of the Harvest Moon franchise, specifically Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town and Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town, depend a great deal on ludonarrative elements in order to form any sort of cohesive story or understanding of the protagonist as a character. This paper will examine how these particular Harvest Moon games rely on the player’s decisions, and the player’s personal interpretations of those decisions, in order to create a story.

The Harvest Moon franchise has been around for almost 17 years, releasing over 20 games (in addition to 11 spin-off games) on multiple platforms. The ‘core system’ of the games, which has remained relatively unchanged throughout the franchise’s long life, is simple: you play as a young man or woman who has come into possession of a farm in a rural town and you must now make a life there (MacDonald). For the majority of the Harvest Moon games (including Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town and Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town), there is no real way to “win” or “lose”. There may be a ‘main storyline’ and ultimate objective present in some of the games (e.g.: players must collect a certain number of mystical items in order to revive the Harvest Goddess and restore the land), but the player is not usually required to complete this objective in order to continue playing and most of the games only give you the vague goal of ‘making a life’ in this new home. The game sets up a number of ways you could potentially pursue this goal, but the game itself doesn’t do much to push the player in any one direction. The game presents an “ideal story” (Juul) for the player to realize: plant crops, raise animals, expand your farm, make friends, get married and start a family. However, none of these options are required for continued gameplay. The game does very little in terms of requiring you to complete any particular goal. Instead, the player’s own motivations determine how the game plays out. The player’s in-game decisions, their ludonarrative choices, determine the course that the story of the game will take. Harvest Moon can be a game about bringing a downtrodden farm back to it’s former glory, or a love story between the new person in town and a local, or a story of a creepy loner who spends all their time digging for gold in the local mines, or some combination of all these and more, depending on how the the player choses to spend their in-game time. In addition, the characters of any Harvest Moon title are purposefully shallow. The main character in particular has very little in terms of known personality traits. The player is given a few key facts: that the playable character used to live and work in the city, but circumstances have made them decided to try their hand at rural life. Any motivations or personality traits hereafter are entirely up to the player to supply, and they do so through their ludonarrative choices.

The protagonists’ of the Harvest Moon games are a subset of a common video game trope: the silent protagonist. They are not, strictly speaking, true silent protagonists, because the playable character is treated in-game by other, non-playable characters as if the playable character was in fact speaking. When the player engages with another character, the character reacts as if the player’s character has said something, although the game does not make it explicitly known what that ‘something’ was. In addition, the game will occasionally present the character dialogue options when ‘speaking’ to other characters. If another character asks the player a question, the player will be presented with a small number of simple responses. In this way the player has more explicit control over how the character interacts with the world of the game. Tom Bissell contrasts game characters with characters from other mediums by say that ““In a cartoon, a character is brought to life independent of the viewer […] In a game, a character is more golem like, brought to life first with the incantation of code and then by the gamer him-or herself” (Bissell chapter 5). Some games are more cartoon-like in this way: the protagonist has a set characterization even before the player begins the game and that characterization is seen in the framed narrative elements, such as cutscenes. Harvest Moon features a much more “golem like” protagonist, one that has no real personality prior to game play. There are many ludonarrative reasons for wanting the playable-character be a “blank-slate” silent protagonist. Leaving out character details is a technique used by game designers to encourage players to create their own mental version of the character. In many cases, game designers are aiming for a feeling of ‘immersion’. According to Joseph Staten, the lead writer of the Halo series, the reasons that the protagonist, Master Chief” is lacking in personality is because the studio felt that “the less players knew about the Chief […] the more they would feel like the Chief” (Ashcraft). In Harvest Moon the lack of a main character with a strongly defined personality allows for the player to make their own ludonarrative decisions based on what they want to do without much dissonance in relation to the framed narrative of the game. Because the rest of the characters in the game treat the protagonist as if they can speak, we must assume that in-game they do. However, the game’s refusal to actually show the player what their character has said in most interactions leaves that character’s personality open to interpretation. Adding in specific dialogue to an intentionally ‘immersive’ character could be potentially confusing, as one Kotaku commenter explains in his defense of Portal’s silent protagonist Chell:  “Having Chell snap off one-liners would totally conflict with how I imagine the character would be. I could be thinking or doing one thing, only to hear Chell something completely different than me. That contradictory wouldn’t break the game, but it certainly takes me out of the moment” (Fahey) In Harvest Moon, the player can imagine their character as bold, shy, soft-spoken, goofy or serious and most of the time the framed narrative supports those interpretations. There are certain restrictions: it’s near impossible to make anyone in the town outright hate you, so any designs the player has on becoming a ‘villain’ are ruled out. If the player engages with another character with the intention of being hated they will most likely be disappointed. However, these restrictions are supported by the ludonarrative structure of the game. The game mechanics don’t allow the player to do anything crueler than give someone a bad gift in order to upset them, therefore the non-playable character’s reactions to the protagonist remain reasonably understandable. Overall, the lack of lack of a protagonist with a defined personality, along with the simplicity of the protagonist’s interaction with non-playable characters, allows for players to come to their own decisions about what kind of person they want the protagonist to be and then use the ludonarrative of the game to support that conclusion.

In addition to allowing the player to use ludonarrative elements to define the protagonist’s personality, Harvest Moon also depends on the player’s in-game decisions to develop the overall story of the game. Bissell gives us one theory of game-narrative interaction: “games are not and cannot be stories or narratives. Rather, some games choose to enable the narrative content of their system while others do not” (Bissell chapter 5). The Harvest Moon games certainly fulfill this type of game. The games allow the player to make a series of ludonarrative decisions which can result in ‘narrative content’. If the player decides to pursue a romantic relationship with one of the eligible bachelors or bachelorettes then Harvest Moon becomes at least in part a love story. If the player decides to spend their time taking care of their farm, the game becomes a story of a young man or woman moving from the city and making a successful life in a small, rural town. And if the player decides to spend all their time running around in the forest and letting their farm and relationships fall apart, well, the game doesn’t penalize you for making your game a tragic tale about a lonely hermit with no friends. Bissell describes the traditional video game narrative as “someone [wants] something, he [goes] through a lot to get it, and his attempts […] take place within chapters or levels”(Bissell chapter 5). Harvest Moon allows you to decide what the protagonist wants and the ludonarrative provides the journey to get it. The ‘levels’ are only applicable if you choose to pursue a specific story: if the players chooses to ignore the romantic options of the game then the game never reveals  any further ‘chapters’ of those stories. Past a certain point, the narrative elements that are unlock are almost entirely up to the player and there are no real consequences for not unlocking a certain narrative. In most games you can only advance once you’ve completed specific challenged, but in Harvest Moon the completion the challenges the player encounters does not mean that the player cannot continue on in the game, only that they cannot continue on in a specific narrative arc of the game. Although specific elements of the framed narrative of the game are not alterable, the pacing and selection of encountering those elements is completely determined by the ludonarrative.

Most games tell stories. In some games the story is the same every time the game is played through: the player-controlled aspects of the game only serve to get the player from cutscene to cutscene. The stories in these games could just as easily be told through almost any other medium: games like these sometimes see their stories retold in the forms of movies, comic or books. But games like Harvest Moon could never be transmediated into any other form. You cannot tell the story of Harvest Moon outside of the game because the story of Harvest Moon depends on the player’s ludonarrative decisions. There are certainly ‘framed narrative’ elements within the game, but what framed narrative the player encounters depends on the decisions they make. One can play through Harvest Moon countless times and come away with a slightly different story each time. What one player thinks is the narrative of Harvest Moon can vastly differ from any other player’s perception, because each makes crafts their own story out of their ludonarrative. Harvest Moon depends on the player’s decisions, along with the player’s interpretation of those decisions, in order to create a story.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY 

 Ashcraft, Brian. “Why Halo’s Master Chief Is So Damn Empty.” Kotaku. N.p., 2 Feb. 2011. Web. 08 Mar. 2013. <http://kotaku.com/5749721/why-halos-master-chief-is-so-damn-empty>.

Bissell, Tom. Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter. New York, NY: Pantheon, 2010.

Fahey, Mike. “Some Game Characters Need To Keep Their Big Mouths Shut.” Kotaku. N.p., 24 Feb. 2011. Web. 8 Mar. 2013. <http://kotaku.com/5769329/some-game-characters-need-to-keep-their-big-mouths-shut>.

Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town. Marvelous Interactive Inc. April 18, 2003. Video game

Harvest Moon: More Friends of Mineral Town. Marvelous Interactive Inc. Jul 26, 2005. Video game

Juul, Jesper. “Games Telling Stories? -A Brief Note on Games and Narratives.” Game Studies 1.1 (2001): n. pag. 2001. Web. 7 Mar. 2013. <http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/juul-gts/>

MacDonald, Keza. “Man on the Moon: Harvest Moon’s Yasuhiro Wada on the Series’ Past, Present and Future.” Eurogamer. Gamer Network, 19 Apr. 2007. Web. 8 Mar. 2013. <http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/man-on-the-moon-interview>.

 

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