One of the core ideas of indie tabletop game design is the GNS principle/Threefold Model: as I understand it (probably not completely accurate), games can target three modes of play/preferred player styles. The styles are typically understood to be:

  • Gamist: The rules and systems are emphasized such that much of the fun of play comes from using the game engine. Games that emphasize cool powers, complicated rules-based play, and tactics that are to some degree metagame are often considered gamist.
  • Narrativist: The story is emphasized such that much of the fun of play comes from making your game feel like a book or movie. Games that subordinate actions or tactics that don’t support the story to those that do are often considered narrativist.
  • Simulationist: The physics and verisimilitude of the world are emphasized such that much of the fun of play comes from treating the setting like a real world with real consequences. Games that have extensive rules designed to model reality that then ignore them if a result seems unrealistic are often considered simulationist.

These elements are often represented as a triangle, such that the more focus that is put on one element, the less that can be put on the others. A single game can rarely do all three elements well, as compromises to make an interesting game system work with a full-on realism simulator that still produces a satisfying traditional narrative tend to weaken all aspects.

I hadn’t really considered in great detail whether these elements applied to video RPGs, as most such games are forced by the limits of programming to favor certain elements over others, particularly as far as being unable to have true simulationism in the way a human-moderated game can have. However, after beginning to play Mass Effect 2 and see how different it is than its predecessor, I’ve begun to believe that there is a threefold model that can apply to video games that might be just as valid as the one for tabletop games, drawing on slightly modified principles:

  • Fun (Gamist): A game that focuses on fun is concerned with carefully balancing the game engine, skill systems, and challenges to ensure that the player is constantly having a fun and engaging play experience that is not too difficult or too easy. Most video games fall fully into this mode, but RPGs and some other genres may break away due to the other modes.
  • Entertainment (Narrativist): A game that focuses on entertainment is concerned with telling an engaging story that is almost as fun to watch as to play, and leaves players discussing its ramifications later. Many modern action, adventure, and roleplaying games focus on this mode to some extent, with varying degrees of compelling story.
  • Immersion (Simulationist): A game that focuses on immersion is concerned with creating a world that feels like a place people could actually live; barriers to travel are disguised and game elements are placed in logical rather than practical locations. RPGs, mysteries, and some adventure games strive for immersion.

Ultimately, like the tabletop model, strengthening one element weakens the others. A well-balanced and enjoyable gameplay experience often makes it hard to hide the game elements enough to create immersion. A fully-realized and entertaining story may make demands on game setup that reduces the fun of actual play. An immersive play experience often rejects the taking away of control from the player required to tell a good story.

Like tabletop GMs and designers, video game designers should be cognizant of what mode of play they want to support and support it consistently. A game will likely be far more memorable if it does one mode and does it well than if it is ambivalent about what style of play it wants to produce.