Kingdom: Levels of Narrative

Aaand we’re back in action. Kingdom: New Lands dropped recently, replacing the original Kingdom (now subtitled ‘Classic‘) on Steam. The updated version has got me playing again, and there’s one particular moment I’d like to chat about today. Kingdom is a 2D side-scrolling game where you ride around on a horse and build up your kingdom, hiring archers and building walls to keep all the little hooded gremlins from stealing your shit. Part of the difficulty is that as your borders extend further in each direction, it takes you longer to get from side to side – so it’s harder to make sure everything’s properly maintained. Anyway, I don’t want to talk about any of that – I want to talk about one tiny specific little detail which I thought was really neat. 

As you ride around, you pick up coins from various sources – you can set up farmers to farm crops (which magically turn into coins at harvest time), your archers can hunt animals (which magically…), etc. You pick the coins up, they go in your little coin purse, and then you spend them on shit.

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To spend your hard-earned dosh, you stand underneath whatever it is you want to upgrade, and you get a little indicator that shows you how much the thing costs. You can see this merchant20161008152328_1.jpg here – he’ll give you a bow for two coins, and then if a citizen doesn’t have a job, they’ll grab the bow and get to work. To buy the bow, you just hold the ‘Down’ button, and your money flies up from your person and into the indicator (it disappears from your money pouch at the same time). That’s all fine and dandy.

Let’s talk narrative theory real quick. Part of what we know about stories is that the old division between ‘first-person’ and ‘third-person’ is bullshit: it doesn’t really tell you anything accurate about the narrative. As categories, first- and third-person just aren’t strong enough. For example, I can write this article in first-person, but also use third person pronouns when I’m talking about him over there and them up in the gallery. A more useful division is to talk about fictional levels. At the heart of the story, you’ve got the fictional world with all the characters running around and doing their thing – it’s the main reality in which events take place. Even if you’re dealing with a multiple-reality alternate-universe-type affair, all those worlds are usually still within the one fictional umbrella of ‘The Story-World’.

Next we step up to the narrator’s level. Think of stories like Harry Potter – there’s a narrator, but they don’t exist within the story-world. They narrate the events of Harry Potter from outside of that reality – so, in terms of fictional levels, we have the core story-world, and then the level of the narrator, who stands outside the story-world and tells us what’s happening. Contrast something like The Dresden Files, which are all narrated by the protagonist, Harry Dresden. In that case, there is no second level for the narrator – he exists within the story-world. Other people in the world can talk to him, hug him, and concoct extended plans to murder him.

In video games, you have another level of fiction: we can basically call it the HUD. It’s information that exists within the game, but it’s not necessarily part of the story-world, and it’s not necessarily part of the narrator’s reality either. We’re talking about health bars and cross-hairs, mini-maps, compasses, radar, all that kind of stuff. Sometimes it’s integrated into the story-world (HUDs in helmets in games like Republic Commando and possibly BioShock 2, if I remember correctly), but it doesn’t have to be. The little indicator in Kingdom that tells you how many coins you need to buy a thing – that’s an example of what I’m calling the HUD-level of fiction. It exists to help the player navigate through the game, and it can be entirely separated from the story-world level.

So when you throw coins into the indicator, you’re operating on the HUD-level of fiction. Nobody looks at those coins floating in the sky above their heads and says “Oi, what’s that shit about?” What’s cool – and this is what we’ve been working towards – is that if you don’t have enough coins to fully buy something, all the coins you’ve piled into the indicator will drop onto the ground. See Exhibit A:

In this moment, the coin (which existed on the HUD-level, outside the fictional world) drops out of the HUD-level and back into the story-world – you can walk over and pick it up again, and it goes back into your pouch. I don’t expect the moment to blow your mind – it’s not the most important part of the game by any means! It’s interesting though, because it doesn’t feel like we’re moving between two different levels of the fiction. They’re integrated in a way that makes the process feel cohesive – and that’s what makes this interesting to me. Often when you’re gaming, the HUD-level and the story-world are two very distinctive things. Nobody’s going to mistake their ammo-count for something in the story-world. But in Kingdom, those lines are brought together and blurred. It’s an interesting moment for the people who want to see the HUD-level become more integrated into the story-world – the same sorts of people who put HUDs inside of helmets in Republic Commando, or make Assassin’s Creed into a game-within-a-game to justify all of the game mechanics in narrative terms. It’s a bit gimmicky, in the latter example, but that’s by the by: what’s important is the instinct that they’re trying to fulfill. It’s the same thing we see here in Kingdom. It’s not a mechanic that draws much attention to itself, and that’s why I’m fond of it – it’s simple, clean, and well-designed.

It’s good to be back.

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