Fractal Design

Sun, Aug 9, 2020. Tags: Games.

When people talk about game design as a medium for storytelling, they usually talk about player choices which directly change the events in the story. Like in a choose-your-own-adventure novel. And yeah, those are worth discussing. But this kind of sweeping player agency in the plot of games is fairly uncommon. There are rarely more than a couple branching paths in any given game. There’s another, more interesting way in which games as a medium tell stories differently from other mediums. Games do it constantly, and it makes them totally unique.

Take Firewatch — a game about a man named Henry who takes a job working for the forest service. Firewatch is a gorgeous game. Henry is surrounded by beautiful landscapes, and the dialogue with his boss Delilah is really well-written. And if Firewatch were a movie, then this article would end here. But there’s more.

Firewatch is packed with little odds and ends that make the world a whole lot richer. Take the bad paperbacks that you find lying around everywhere.

The Patriots

Screenshot from firewatch.gamepedia.com

Such as The Patriots. You could just leave this book lying in Henry’s room where you find it. But if you pick it up and read it, the blurb on the back of The Patriots says:

It begins and ends deep in Red Russia, where they sent him to spy, where they urged him to kill, and where they learned that he wasn’t The Patriot they had hoped.

Sent to plant the poison pill of espionage inside the dinner of the communist bear, Ray Friedman would return to his government’s doorstep disgraced and disowned by his keepers. Forced back into civilian life as a simple comptroller, but with the intelligence and super-skills bestowed upon him by the United States government, Ray struggles to fade into obscurity. That is, until a janitor named Claudell Williams reveals that he too was there the night in Stalingrad — the night everything went wrong and the truth was made clear.

Can two men ever return to civilian life in possession of information that will destroy both themselves and a presidency? Will the government even let them?

What a delightfully trashy novel! Here’s another:

The Fourth Estate

Screenshot from firewatch.gamepedia.com

Neil Black thought a trip to California would do him good. He’d soak up some sun, drive a convertible, and maybe even enjoy a poolside drink with a tiny umbrella.

But in Richard Sturgeon’s fourth entry in the Neal Black series, California is nothing but a dream. An emergency landing after a murder in first class [obscured by Henry’s hand] a trans-American thriller that puts Neal [obscured] the South City streets and slams him [obscured] into a sordid web of politics and [obscured] high-finance and all he finds is murder, deceit and betrayal.

The Fourth Estate is new territory for Sturgeon, and it’s not to be missed.

I love these little story details. It really tells you something about Henry’s time in the woods that these cheap crime thrillers are all he has to read. The most a movie could have done is adding a throwaway line about bad paperbacks, but they could never have had a character read out the back of one of those books in its entirety, much less all of them. The game has more than a dozen. It would be a huge waste of time and absolutely ruin the pacing of the story.

But in a game, the player sets whatever pace they want. If you’re not in the mood to read the back of every book, you don’t have to. You can glance at the cover and throw it away. You don’t even need to pick it up at all. The player has the opportunity to seek out lots of extra narrative detail and flavour without the risk of them being bored by it.

In fact, these details become more compelling in a game than they otherwise would be: If a movie just recited the back of one of those books to you, you’d probably find it dull. But if you become curious, grab the book, and read it in the game yourself? Then your attention is held, because the whole thing is mediated by a genuine sense of curiosity. If you weren’t authentically curious, you wouldn’t pick up the book at all.

This way, you wind up with a game that has story at many levels. The overarching story of Firewatch is writ large through the dialogue and the actions the characters take. If the player chooses to examine a small corner of the world, however, they’ll find even more storytelling. The story of Henry finding yet another bad paperback in a supply box, and wishing he’d brought something else to read. The speculation that maybe all these bad thrillers are making Henry paranoid. If you look more closely, you just find more storytelling, on a smaller scale. It’s like a fractal, where zooming in on one part of the pattern gives you more of the same pattern. This is why I call this “fractal design.”

A film can’t engage in fractal design, because there’s no vector for an audience member to “zoom in” on a detail. Only the director gets to decide what you do and do not see; the viewer has no agency. A novel can do a bit better, through footnotes or appendices, but that’s pretty rare.1

For games, however, fractal design is baked into the way they tell stories. Players are constantly choosing which details to examine more closely.

Firewatch Sunset

Screenshot from wallup.net

Just look at the scenery in Firewatch. A movie could show a panorama like this in an establishing shot, but it could only last a few seconds before moving on to a scene where something actually happens. In a game, you can stare at the scenery as long as you want. Whatever resonates with you the most stays on your screen longest.

In effect, you’re taking the tools that the game gives you and using them to tell yourself the story in the way that suits you best. That’s not something you can find anywhere else. Only in games. I think that’s really cool.


  1. Besides, who doesn’t read footnotes? ↩︎