Keep the Candy, Crush the Saga

Musings on the use of narrative in gaming.

By Joshua A. Johnston. Posted 07/29/2013 10:00 Comment on this     ShareThis

If you are a regular to Facebook, you may have noted a recent uptick in the word “saga” in your news feed. (By leading off with this I am probably dooming this article to being outdated if it is read even six months from now.) Candy Crush Saga and its various kindred apps (Farm Heroes Saga, Papa Pear Saga, Pet Rescue Saga… you get the idea) have become mainstays for gamers using Facebook or packing a smartphone. Nary a day goes by where I don’t have several people reminding me that they’ve completed Level 164 on Candy Crush Saga or giving someone an extra life on Candy Crush Saga or some business like that.

As a longtime game writer and reviewer, I finally took Candy Crush Saga for a spin just to see what the fuss was about. Upon loading it, the first words out of my mouth were, “Oh, it’s a Match 3 style tile matching puzzler. That’s nice.” More to the point, it’s nothing revolutionary so much as a polished evolution on a familiar genre. This is not a criticism, per say– some of my favorite games are evolutionary rather than revolutionary.

One problem I do have with these games is in the semantics. The word “saga” is bandied about with wild abandon nowadays, much like everything a couple of years ago was a “Ville.” According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, a saga is defined as “a narrative in prose”, “story”, “tale”, or “history.” That doesn’t exactly seem to point toward a game that involves matching candy or vegetables.

Now, someone recently pointed out to me that there *is* a story in Candy Crush Saga. Technically that’s true, but I know of no one who cares about the story. Do a search for videos on the game, and you won’t find any that showcase the game’s storyline, but you will find people showing off how they overcame that bane of banes, Level 65. People do not generally engross themselves matching candy pieces for narrative purposes; they do to get short bursts of entertainment.

This illustrates a fundamental cleave in the way games are structured. In some games, the narrative is the framework for the gameplay. In others, gameplay is the framework for a narrative that probably doesn’t really matter. This would seem to also point to the cleave between “casual” and “hardcore” genres, but as we will see, the use or absence of narrative can cut across even those distinctions.

Games as diversions

The notions of games as a short to medium length diversion has a long history. Let’s face it; kids have been tossing rocks and playing tag for eons. In the early twentieth century, blackjack and crossword puzzles saw their popularity ebb and flow.

Technology has led to the rise of “stupid games” on computers, consoles, and handhelds. It could be argued that Nintendo was the pioneer in this arena, packing in a copy of the quintessential casual game, Tetris, with the millions of Game Boys it sold in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Nintendo would later reintroduce those themes into many of its Touch! Generations games including Brain Age, Planet Puzzle League, Rhythm Heaven, and Picross DS. Thanks to Facebook and the surging power of smartphones, the market has since exploded, with a virtual carousel of games experiencing their fifteen seconds of fame: FarmVille, Angry Birds, Scrabb… err, Words with Friends, Fruit Ninja, and now the “saga” run of casual games.

The king of the mountain at this particular moment– and I emphasize the word moment— is Candy Crush Saga. As I alluded to earlier, the game represents a brilliant evolution on the short-diversion front. It incorporates the well-traveled conventions of Match 3 puzzlers, sprinkling in special items and random extras to add wrinkles and the unexpected to the experience. It also takes a page out of the Zynga book by limiting playtime; this recreates the famous withdrawal effect of FarmVille and Mafia Wars fame where people have to either wait out their time to get lives, draw friends into the fold to get lives, or– and this is where the money is– purchase extra lives to prolong the experience.

Yet it would be shortsighted to say that only “casual” games can be brief diversions. The advent of multiplayer online shooters, for example, has allowed for players to engage in short 10-15 minute shootouts with angry adolescents. Hardcore racing and action games might contain an action mode for brief excursions. I know people who are regulars in the genre-bending League of Legends and Defense of the Ancients, online RPGs in a box where a campaign of combat and leveling up transpires in a brief 30 minute pitched battle among NPC grunts and user-controlled heroes.

Games as literature

It goes without saying that literature is an old pastime in its own right. Epic poems and tales of high adventure are a fixture in human history, from the Iliad and Beowulf to Orson Scott Card’s Ender series and Lord of the Rings. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries brought that magic to film in everything from The Ten Commandments and Seven Samurai to Star Wars and The Godfather.

People who are not very familiar with video games often look at me funny when I compare one of my favorite pastimes, gaming, to one of my other favorite pastimes, reading. For them gaming rarely ventures beyond diversion; narrative is the domain of books and television. Their confusion is perhaps understandable, as many early games were pretty light on character development and story. Even “deep” titles like Final Fantasy and Adventure were pretty bare by today’s standards. As time has passed, though, developers have slowly but surely found their voice in telling a good tale.

The genius of a good story is that it can find a home in many genres. Capcom wove an engrossing story of memorable characters in the survival horror world of Resident Evil 4, as did Visceral Games in Dead Space and Dead Space 2. Beneath the action of Grand Theft Auto and God of War is a tour de force of drama. The tales told in Beyond Good and Evil and Eternal Darkness rival any book I’ve ever read. Half-Life, Deus Ex, and BioShock prove that shooters can be just as cerebral as any other kind of game. And, of course, console and computer adventures and RPGs are a virtual ocean of sagas.

What about casual games? Can they be “casual” and have a narrative? By definition, casual games are meant to be intended for shorter periods of time, so they are generally less narratively intense experiences, if they have a narrative at all. That said, there are some, and in looking into it, I was surprised at how many “casual with narrative” experiences there were to be found on DS. Infinite Interactive’s Puzzle Quest, for example, places the Match 3 style in the context of an RPG storyline. Mystery Case Files: Millionheir and the Professor Layton games integrate casual puzzles with a larger story arc. And yes, you can even read books on your DS.

Closing thoughts

In looking at these different approaches it would be easy for me to come off implying that one is somehow hierarchically better than the other. I admit that since I’m a sucker for story, the narrative games always win for me. But games are designed to give us varied kinds of entertainment, and there are plenty of people that get the most value from their games when they dispense with story and get straight to the action. One could also argue that games that serve up a half-baked plot as a farce of true narrative are worse than those that don’t try to force something that shouldn’t be there. Tetris works brilliantly because it doesn’t try to be something it’s not.

My latent fear, though, is in the surging popularity of games devoid of narrative at all, especially in the realm of the casual. I am not so shortsighted as to think that it means the death of good story, but I do hope that developers continue to create the sort of diverse array of games that draw in all of us, whether we just need a few minutes of puzzle joy or a good saga to wander into.

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