The Trees are Always Greener! Photosynthesis and its balance of story and gameplay
Photosynthesis is a game that perfectly balances game mechanics and narrative. The game takes a series of mechanics, each narratively driven, and layers them into a creative and inspiring experience that orbits a simple but important story. This multilayered playing is an expertly crafted area of game design as it is just as important to the experience of the game as to the plot you are navigating through.
At this early stage of the article, it is important to say, I think this game is superb. Admittedly, at one paragraph in, the descriptive language used is a little generous in its praise, maybe a touch hyperbolic. The intention here is to simply capture an enthusiasm for design. Photosynthesis is a demonstration of inspiring design as it allows for this game to do something rather impressive. It creates an experience that, when looking at it from a wider perspective, injects something new into a rather old debate. Photosynthesis shows that the argument of Ludology vs. Narratology might have something far larger to contend with; Ludonarratology.
Ludonarratology, is the symbiotic relationship of both mechanics and narrative to create a gameplay experience that is equal parts ludic and narrative-driven in nature. This is what we mean by and how we are engaging with this term in this article. Simply put, Photosynthesis uses gameplay mechanics and narrative to craft its player experience, favouring both in equal measure.
Designed by Hjalmar Hach and released in 2017, Photosynthesis is a tabletop game where each player takes the mantle of species of tree, locked in the struggle of light and dark to occupy the most nutrient-rich area of the forest. As you play out a passive contest for the most sun, you take actions to grow, disperse seeds and return to the earth, and it is here where we can begin analysing and deconstructing the wonder of this game.
Your actions in the game are linked to the amount of sun you have collected. As the currency in the game, your sun points are spent each round on several things. You can purchase seeds or small / medium / large trees from the bank. You can invest in any of the trees you have on the board with the next level upgrade that you have already purchased. You can disperse seeds at a distance based on the height of the tree you are dispersing from. Or, you can return a large tree to the earth for a hefty cost of four sun points. However, doing so will allow you to claim a forest tile that has a hidden number on the reverse. These numbers are your victory points and whoever gets the highest total number from their forest tiles wins.
The game ends when the sun makes three full rotations around the hexagonal play space, shining its light at all 6 points of the board as it goes. It is here that players create their dynamics and behaviours. The strategies within Photosynthesis are all in the placement of your trees. Where they are in relation to the sun and how long you might profit from them before they are cast into the shadow, are important considerations for victory. This, coupled with having a finite amount of resources, means you must employ confident economic strategies to ensure your products are as lucrative as they can be.
That, for the most part, is the ludic DNA of Photosynthesis, your choices that form the foundation of the game mechanics. Each action is a decision you carry out to ultimately secure victory. However, where Photosynthesis begins to differ from other tabletop games, is that each mechanic is designed from the narrative of photosynthesis, the process plants adopt for generating food. It looks like Science in School did come in handy for my career in Games. Please excuse me while I look for my hat to eat...
[SOME TIME AFTER EATING A HAT AND THEN THE INEVITABLE AFTERMATH]
Hach’s game is simple, yes, but that is all it needs to be. Without complicated mechanics or complex layers of functions, Photosynthesis tells a great story, as well as providing a great player experience. If we go back to the list of actions, we can demonstrate this games excellence and how it uses the narrative in its design. First, let’s look at purchasing trees.
Whenever you purchase a tree, you must secure it from your bank before you pay another fee to get it onto the board. Taking two steps to get trees out onto the board slows the movement and pace right down. This can be frustrating; it seems like it costs twice as much. Yet, the slower pace is important to simulate the gradual, patient growth of flora that moves far slower than us. Also, it teaches us that at any stage of growth the cost is more than we think. Together, the seemingly higher costs and slower pace, adds a greater level of value to every decision we make. Where we plant our seeds is important, but which trees we decide to invest in is vital for a life spent in the sun, collecting more food for more energy to grow more trees.
As the sun rotates around the board, we get to experience the game’s own frame of time. Each round is a movement that may or may not prove lucrative. This passage of time is constant and, more importantly, cyclical running in parallel to our decisions of which to return to earth and which to sprout. The rotation of the sun is a cycle, moving position as the earth orbits around it. All this continual circular movement afforded by the mechanics is an echo of real life. Considering the position of the sun at present and in the future, teaches us that we must be strategic in both the investment in growth and death. The trees exist as a species where death is much a part of the cycle as is life.
All its mechanics act as characters or plot devices in the overall narrative of the game’s story. Each moment is part of a bigger scene. And, where the light and sun might be the motivation, the protagonist we pursue, the shadows are certainly the antagonist. Yet, like any decent story, morality is purposefully unclear, and the definition of protagonist vs antagonist is grey. The shadows become tools for you to use to hinder the growth of another player, as much as they are something to watch out for. As you grow your trees and begin cast shadows on the board, you become the antagonist of someone else’s story as much as the protagonist of your own. It seems that on the race to the canopy of the forest you become both a victim and a suspect of shady behaviour. Yet, maybe this is not as dramatic as I make out.
At the end of the day (or indeed at any other point in this day) you will be rewarded as the sun shines down on you. This feels much more realistic, far freer, and less competitive. You might spend one, two, or three turns in shadow, but the chances are you will certainly have your share the next three turns where you will be returning the shadow casting on your neighbours. This socialist approach to sharing wealth is simple in design but allows for the creation of very complex strategies and relationships. Furthermore, if we reintroduce the already carefully crafted passage of time, we can fully understand the sense of struggle and cooperation that goes into being a forest resident.
It might not be the game that everyone enjoys as the slow pacing, simple mechanics and shallow levels of complexity could easily turn some more masochistic hobbyists off. However, it is not its experience I am arguing to be perfect here, it’s the way design is employed to balance gameplay and story. Ludonarratology is the balance of the two to great an experience equal parts narrative and gameplay driven. One is neither more present than the other and both are required for the player experience. Photosynthesis is exactly that.
At its roots, Photosynthesis is an experience that teaches us of the process of life for trees. Yes, it is abstract and very simplified, but the aims are not to make us biologists or environmental scientists. Through the collaboration of the game mechanics and narrative, Hjalmar Hach has created an experience that enlightens our perspective on the secret life of trees and posits a very subtle political commentary by giving us a socialist, economic structure where everyone-wins-just-sometimes-you-win-less. This is not the most obvious reading of the game but it is important to acknowledge, if only to demonstrate how games might give us the option to question existing structures, provide us with new and exciting perspectives, and allows us to be a race of trees for an hour or two!
Ultimately, Photosynthesis has its satisfaction not in the winning of the game at the end, but in many places throughout. Getting to play as a race of trees feels like a privilege of mythical proportions. Getting a blast of sun after spending a round or two in shadows. Helping your trees develop from little seeds all the way up to full-grown adults. Just being part of this abstract forest where everyone has a place that is, at some point, lucrative. The added levels of texture that come with the different dimensions within the game.
There is a great deal I haven’t discussed in this article, but these are things better understood through playing the game yourself. Things like the space of the game and the elegantly designed cut out trees, are all important to feel and play with. What I do think is important to end on is this idea that the design of games can, and should, be in equal parts about the story and the gameplay. This allows any game designers to provide meaningful experiences that educate, inspire, and excite their players. Photosynthesis does all these things, and it does them perfectly.
Some design tips:
- The mechanics, independently of each other, are designed in close consultation of the narrative.
- The strategies and behaviours the players employ should be a complex layering inspired by a range of clear mechanics.
- Narrative and gameplay should exist simultaneously to create a meaningful experience.
- The balancing of these will allow any game designer to provide alternative perspectives like playing as a tree!
As always, we're here to start a debate and expand on the conversations around tabletop gaming, past the review and into a critique. If you have any questions or thoughts on this, or any other articles posted in this blog, then please do let us know! Only with more voices can we have a better conversation.