What I learned: Into the Breach and Narrative through "Dialogue"

Tell a story in a narrative-light game through small dialogue quips, repetition and differentiation.

(Story and character spoilers ahead!)



Into the Breach is a cool chesslike roguelike game dressed up in the awesome flavour of time traveling mechs vs kaiju. (Incidentally, we also have a game in the works that's mecha vs kaiju...) It's ultimately a tactics game at its core, but they do story so well that I had to write my thoughts on it.

Subset Games' technique for bringing narrative into a tactics game is so simple, it's easy to underestimate how well it works. Basically, what they do for ITB is have the pilots say X dialogue in response to Y state occuring. Most of the dialogue just hangs in the air for a few seconds before disappearing, and you don't have to read it to understand the game. So it's completely out of the way of players who don't care (which is important for a game like this).

These dialogue bits really add up over the course of the game, though. The named pilot system, first of all, lets Subset craft little backstories for each of the pilots just through the accumulation of little clips. Certain time travellers like Henry and Prospero immediately got my love, while I wish I could avoid Abe (too bad he's so good with Hazardous Mechs). Prospero's constant references to gardening and Henry's arrogance would be a bit two-dimensional in another medium... but it's perfect in ITB when dialogue's in such small doses.

There's a subtle nuance in the repetitiveness of dialogue triggers that lets you see character personalities in a stronger light: for example, because someone will always say something when a Time Pod lands, you get to differentiate each character's reaction to the pod's impact. Seeing different reactions to the same event allows you to better understand what sets the characters apart from each other. 


In contrast, seeing what every character has in common also bolsters the story. The most poignant example is when you realize that basically every character in the game does not plan on resting after defeating the Vek, and instead, without hesitation, prepares to go right on back to fight in a new timeline. That realization put a weight in my stomach and puts the hard fate of these fighters into perspective.

And it probably all came out of a desire to explain the roguelike cycle in the story!

Into the Breach is obviously not a narrative game. It's a roguelike, and it's damn hard to get a cohesive story in a roguelike. Despite this, ITB excels at selling you a world, a lively roster of characters, and telling a great "story".

Even though it's a story without beginning nor end, considering what Into the Breach is about, I think that's absolutely perfect.

* ("dialogue" isn't accurate. It's more like "monologue", but in videogames I think "monologue" has the connotation of a long speech while "dialogue" is a short quip).


Flash Thoughts: Her Story and "Payoff Purity"

(mild spoilers ahead)

Playing Her Story made me want to invent a term: "payoff purity". (I'm sure someone more academic than myself has already coined a similar term, but I haven't come across it yet.)

Payoff Purity: the degree at which your mechanical input and game's reward system sync with each other.

Example of poor payoff purity: Habitica, or any gamification thing where task / reward are unrelated or a one-way deal. Feels like working a job.

Example of high payoff purity: Journey, Her Story

Her Story's mechanic (search engine browsing) requires you to pay attention to the words in the videos, making this game more about watching stuff than anything else. And the reward for paying attention to Hannah/Eve's words, for knowing where to look next? More videos! The fact that the test/reward system loops isn't specifically the point, though it's common to pure payoff games. What I'm getting at is that your actions are rewarded in a very 1:1, organic, makes-sense kind of way, a way that doesn't feel like game mechanics at all, but rather the logical result of your efforts.

The payoff (more vids) mechanically benefits you by giving you a ton more videos to look at, which in turn gives you more keywords to search with, which lets you watch more videos. Nice!

"What are you doing talking about Eve?"

"What are you doing talking about Eve?"

Why it's worth caring about

When you can structure the payoff for doing something to be the main thing the player engages with, that's basically maximum intrinsic motivation, isn't it? You're keeping the player in the game and you're helping them enjoy where they are (the payoff from the last action) and simultaneously making them look forward to what's next.

I think most importantly, it makes the player engage with the game for its own sake instead of doing some task they don't love in order to get achievements or other unrelated rewards. These things are probably fine for some people, but you won't win any holistic design rewards.

Flash conclusion: "It's nice if rewards for your actions mechanically synergize with gameplay and lore."