Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Four Years Later

In early 2008, I was engaged in the second of my two college semesters abroad in Montreal.  I took part in a class called “EGD-310: Interactive Storytelling,” a standard part of the curriculum for Game Design students.  Studying in Montreal, however, carried with it a separate perk.  Our instructor was, at the time, working as the lead writer on a recently-announced project for a brand new studio.  While she declined our half-joking requests to be taken onto the project as her brain trust, she was able to share with us her knowledge and experience from years of writing for video games – knowledge and experience that was being put into action a few blocks away.

Though it’s been nearly four years since I was first exposed to those lessons, I’m now able to see them in action and get a more complete picture of what everything means.   With Deus Ex: Human Revolution finally available, I’ve once again entered a classroom with Mary DeMarle, and it’s interesting to see some of her lessons in action.

This blog post is serving dual purposes.  On the one hand, it serves as a [very] limited review of some of the aspects of the narrative for Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  On the other, and more importantly, it analyzes those aspects in an effort to understand the challenges associated with nonlinear narrative development.  As the game is still a somewhat recent release, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers.

The Basics of Interactive Narrative

Writing for a game is unlike writing for any other medium.  Even a highly linear game demands much more flexibility and depth than a comparable movie or television script.  Most of the issues involved with writing for games come back to one overarching concern: THE PLAYER WILL NEVER DO EVERYTHING YOU WANT.  As a result, every bit of freedom allowed to the player will alter the game narrative in some way.  Player personalities become projected onto characters and a player’s skills and tactics alter a story’s pacing.  Thus, the individual player’s interpretation of a game character’s interaction with the environment – in a way, the plot – will vary depending on the subject concerned.  As more and more freedom is provided to the player, this sensation grows more pronounced.

The above relationship can apply to either implicit or explicit narrative.  When referring to implicit narrative, player freedom refers to the openness of in-game actions.  A greater number of play styles being available indicates a greater level of freedom for implicit narrative.  When referring to explicit narrative, player freedom refers to a diversity of predetermined story elements, i.e., a branching vs. non-branching storyline.  A non-branching storyline provides one set of established plot points which will always be followed in the same sequence.  In contrast, a branching storyline provides the player with these established plot points, but these plot points don’t always link together, or at least not always in the same way.  A branching storyline is still based upon player choice, but unlike with implicit narrative, the established story points play out in the same way for each player.

While level of rigidity can, and often will, be similar between implicit and explicit narrative elements, it doesn’t need to be by any means.  An open explicit narrative with a rigid implicit narrative is similar to a text adventure or a choose-your-own-adventure novel.  Story progression and endings can be changed, but the path to each will play out similarly any time that story path is followed.  An open implicit narrative with a rigid explicit narrative is similar to what you find in a lot of stealth- or action-based games.  While there’s only one core story to follow, there are a fair number of options for how to progress between each one.  Player actions will have minimal bearing on how the explicit plot plays out, but the player’s interpretation of the story will be highly individualized.

This description is very generalized and may come off as a bit confusing.  For that, I apologize.  In the basic sense, though, what matters is that an open explicit narrative will change the plot for ANY player.  An open implicit narrative will change the way the plot is interpreted by an INDIVIDUAL player.

So where does Human Revolution fall in the spectrum of implicit and explicit openness?  The entire concept of its narrative is centered around a high degree of explicit openness.  There are a range of side missions to choose from, branching dialogue tracks, and a variably open world is provided to allow players the option to complete some mission objectives in differing sequences.  Likewise, the implicit narrative is provided a large degree of openness via a combination of stealth and action tactical options, lethal versus non-lethal weaponry, and an RPG-style upgrading system that changes the gameplay style, but has little direct bearing on how the explicit narrative plays out.  The result is a game with a high level of freedom in both implicit and explicit narrative elements.

By its very nature, implicit narrative is something a game writer has little control over.  The most a game writer can really do is leave gaps in the explicit elements to allow room for interpretation.  Layout for implicit narrative falls more in the hands of game designers, level designers, and artists.  Therefore, for the purposes of this discussion, any further reference to the game narrative will refer to narrative of the explicit variety.

Characterization & The “Hero’s Journey”

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Player Character: Adam Jensen, Security Manager at Sarif Industries, a biotech corporation that creates cybernetic prostheses for various purposes.

Character Traits: Well, he’s male.  He’s sort of…thirties-ish.  A bit of a Matrix character look about him.  Incidentally, sounds a bit like Keanu Reeves.  And, emotionally, um…well…it depends.

One big challenge a writer of an interactive narrative may face is the prospect of developing the main character.  A character’s personality is illustrated through actions; choices made in a given situation, styles of interaction with other characters, and measures taken to solve (or not solve) a problem all combine to give an image of who a character is.  In a game, the main character is a combination of two personalities: the player and the avatar.  Since the actions taken by individual players, i.e., their personalities, are impossible to predict and player choices dictate how the avatar character interacts with the plot, it’s extremely unlikely that a character will develop as both the writer and player desire.

One solution to this problem is to remove all personality from the avatar and allow the player to start from scratch.  This approach is used in many MMORPGs.  The character created is the creation of the player.  This technique, while effective in the open, unending structure of MMORPGs, doesn’t lend itself well to more traditional “beginning, middle, and end” plots.  A plot based around a three-act structure is expected to build and evolve, and that evolution is shown through the characters.  As a result, the characters are affected by events in the plot – affected in ways that the player might not be.  So how do you generate character traits and development for a character whose behavior is affected by actions that can’t always be predicted?

Deus Ex makes use of a highly structured system of narrative branches and dialogue tracks to dictate what sort of range of options the player has for the type of person Adam Jensen will be.  For instance, the various choices made available in dialogue tracks, which may read as “Cold, Empathetic, Confrontational”, are not absolute.  While they yield different results to accommodate different play styles, each option keeps within the range of the preexisting character traits of Adam Jensen.  Each piece of dialogue expresses the advertised inflection, but is worded so as to lead back to the core character.

Despite the tendency of the dialogue to rein the character back towards the center, enough action in one direction or another will, in the long run, shift Jensen’s character towards one end or another of his established range.  To put it another way, if you stretch a rubber band enough, it will eventually start to lose its elasticity.  The ultimate range of characterization that can be reached is limited to fit within pre-scripted (and often pre-rendered) cutscenes at key points in the story, but it’s enough to create the sensation that the player does have control over the character development process.  For the most part, it seems to be relatively seamless; the player isn’t left with the idea that he’s done something wrong or strayed from the intended character.

The same concept applies to the game’s portrayal of the “Hero’s Journey”.  Human Revolution’s practice of continually driving players back towards key plot points is the main tool used to ensure the integrity of the character development process and the evolution of the plot.  While the narrative structure is based upon branching, it still focuses on classic narrative elements.  Players still progress through a story about a “hero” who is pressed into action by an inciting incident, discovering that not everything is as it seems while facing ever more challenging threats, until he finally uncovers the truth and eliminates the primary threat that led him into action in the first place.  The basic elements of progression and character development are all still there.  The variability lies in the manner in which players move from point to point in that sequence.


A game with a highly interactive narrative runs into the same problems as one with highly photorealistic graphics.  It’s the classic balance of believability versus realism.  In game that is very realistic in the visual sense, every detail matters.  A low-res texture or an object placement that doesn’t make sense aesthetically becomes all the more noticeable as the visuals reach more and more towards reality.  What might normally be a minor inconsistency that players accept and ignore becomes a glaring error that players note and view unfavorably.  It doesn’t fit – players don’t believe it.  The illusion of the game is broken and a degree of immersion is lost.

In the case of interactive narrative, we run into the same concerns.  Real life has no narrative structure; it is infinitely variable.  We can say or do whatever we want, and those words and actions have different consequences based on the situation and people involved.  Human Revolution attempts to capture a small slice of this interactivity through variable dialogue tracks.  Choosing the right dialogue track for whatever outcome you wish to produce is based upon evaluating the personality of the receiver.  Limits are set in place in terms of how often the player can speak in a given conversation (typically around 4 to 8 times, give or take), how many dialogue choices there are at any one time (no more than 4), and also by the range to which character traits can be maintained.

For the most part, this system blends together well, depending on play style.  Since the believability of the conversation is dependent on the player’s familiarity with the character of Adam Jensen, however, it can take a while for the player to settle in.  The player’s exact choice and inflection of words can’t be reflected entirely accurately, so what a player might think is the best thing to say in a given situation won’t always be available.  As players grow more comfortable with Jensen’s style of speech and ways of thinking, it becomes easier to predict the direction of a conversation and accept a more secondary role in the decision-making process.

Some lines of dialogue do tend to feel a bit unnatural when combined together.  For instance, you might be attempting to convince someone to do something important.  You say exactly the right line towards convincing someone to do something.  A second choice appears, and again, the right choice is made.  The subject is almost ready to do what you want.  Then, you select the incorrect line.  The subject calls you an idiot and thinks you’re being manipulative.  Another choice appears, and you select the correct line again.  Instantly, the subject forgets that you were being ignorant and manipulative, realizes how wrong he’s been, and gives you everything you want. 

Now, in most cases, a situation this minor would easily be interpreted as “fitting into the rules” and would not interfere with the believability of the game world.  However, since the act of pressing through the conversation is centered around a mechanic as undeniably real as human emotion, it becomes easy to notice that something is off.  When something isn’t quite right about someone’s behavior, it’s hard to miss.  

Actions can also interfere with the believability structure, such as in the situation when I ran up to the “boss” character, David Sarif, in the middle of a crisis situation.  With my gun drawn, I engaged him in conversation.  A small cutscene began, and his immediate response was, “What are you doing?  Put that thing away!”  After holstering my gun, I spoke to him again.  Another cutscene began, with David Sarif walking up to Adam Jensen as though he had just entered the room – as though he hadn’t just spoken to him three seconds earlier.  “Oh, Adam, thank God you’re here!”  It seems a bit strange that your employer, for whom you are employed as Security Manager, would be offended that you were carrying a gun in the middle of a life-threatening situation, and apparently so much so that he wouldn’t acknowledge your existence until you put it away.


In the end, what Deus Ex: Human Revolution illustrates about interactive narrative design is that control is key.  Though the game may offer a wide range of story branches to follow, they are all very carefully regulated and deliberately placed.  The degree of freedom players have is far from infinite, and measures are often put in place to ensure that players remain on the Golden Path and keep moving towards the next vital plot point.  Yes, it’s a game about choices and their consequences, but those choices and consequences are all regulated cleverly.  The idea is to provide enough flexibility to generate the sensation or illusion of player control while subtly ensuring that everything eventually leads where it needs to.  In short, the folks at Eidos have done a very good job of tracking and controlling the variables.  The places where the narrative falls down demonstrate a conflict between player and developer control – elements of non-sequitur generated by behaviors that can’t be fully accommodated.

I’ve truly only scratched the surface of the issue of nonlinear narrative design.  I spent the better part of four months learning about it and still can’t quite grasp it all, so I don’t expect to explain it effectively in one blog post.  What’s always interesting, though, is the process of analysis.  It’s always a learning experience.  For instance, four years later, Mary DeMarle is still teaching me about narrative design.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Eager Apathy

Or: How Learning How To Design Games has Ruined My Interest in Playing Them

I’ve been trying to come up with a new blog post for some time.  Many people write analyses of specific games or current events.  That’s not so easy for me, seeing as I often know frightfully little about games.  In my frustration, I lost the will to try making a point and began rambling about my nostalgic experiences of games past.  It led me to an interesting question: why do I need to write about my past experiences in gaming?  Why don’t I have anything interesting to say about new releases?

The answer: because I don’t know anything about games.  You see, I’m in rather a strange situation.  It’s actually a bit difficult to describe.

I do have a particular fondness and respect for video games.  I do enjoy playing certain games.  However, generally speaking, the world of games has trouble securing my attention.  For someone who’s trying to gain a foothold in the industry, this situation is far from ideal.  I have a certain duty and responsibility to remain educated and up-to-date on the latest big titles, and I find it strangely difficult to find the motivation to do that.  It’s a duty to myself as a designer, the industry as a whole as a sign of respect, and to people like you who take the time to read what I have to say about games.  If I have no opinions on the world of games, I have nothing to work with.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy video games.  In fact, that’s exactly what makes my predicament so difficult to describe.  I love to design games.  I love the challenge of sculpting player experiences and tying together all of a game’s various pieces.  Likewise, I look back fondly on the video games I’ve played in the past, the emotions connected with beating them, and the social experiences related to their play.  There was a time, probably about five years ago, when these experiences were at their zenith.  Back then, I was still, primarily, a game player more than a game maker.

These days, however, I consider myself a game creator.  I often feel as though my duty to create an experience is greater than my duty to actually experience that experience.  My game experiences aren’t so much new as they are fan-based quests for nostalgia.  Again, it’s difficult to describe, but a good example would be the fact that the great majority of games I’ve purchased in the past 8 to 10 years have been sequels or new installments in franchises I already own.  I can list off all of the games I’ve purchased (or received) in that time period which are my first foray into an IP (dates represent my purchase, not releases):

Super Smash Bros. Melee (2002)
Metroid Prime (2002)
Timesplitters 2 (2003)
SSX 3 (2003)
Resident Evil Zero (Unknown)
Wii Sports (2006)
Rayman Raving Rabbids (2006)
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006)
Excite Truck (2006)
Portal (2007)
Zack & Wiki (2007)
WarioWare: Smooth Moves (2007)
Wii Fit (2008)

In a way, these are the only new games I’ve bought in the last ten years.  Yes, I own more than what’s on this list, but these are the only games that weren’t bought for the sake of name recognition.  I don’t include games based on movie franchises or sports games in this list as they represent recognized names or formats.  Likewise, I don’t include the small number of indie games I’ve played in stints of less than ten minutes.  Thirteen games.  The bottom line is that games just don’t seem to catch my interest very easily.

Oddly, this apathy seems to stem from fandom itself.  No…that’s not entirely true.  The original basis for my “eager apathy” likely stems from two opposing forces I’ve been exposed to – fandom and fanboyishness.  When I say “fandom”, I refer to my general interest in the game industry and in the idea of games themselves.  When I say “fanboyishness”, I refer mainly to my devotion to a specific company: Nintendo.

Fandom is the driving force behind a desire to create games.  Whether you play a great number of games or not, you take to them with enough interest to develop an understanding of what they are and what they’re capable of being.  Fandom is what brings you back to a game a second time.  Fandom is what draws you to learn more – to discover what this fascinating thing is and what it’s all about.  Fandom comes out of positive experiences and openness…

The first video game I ever beat was on my Nintendo 64.  And no, despite Super Mario 64 being the first title I owned for the system, that victory came later.  My first victory presented itself in Starfox 64.  Oh, I remember that day.  How troubling and irritating that final battle against Andross was.  Little did I know at the time, but I wasn’t even fighting the true, “difficult” final battle.  Still, ignorance being bliss, after several unrecognized hours, I rose from my seat, dripping with sweat, to cry out “YES!” for the first time.  I don’t remember for sure, but I think I may have been weeping with joy.

“Fanboyishness” (or “fangirlishness”, I believe I’ve also heard) is, essentially, another way of saying “stubbornness”.  Though it derives from fandom, it lies on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of its motivations and inspirations.  Fanboyishness isn’t an interest that leads to a desire for more knowledge, but a blind sense of devotion.  It’s a sense of superiority and protectiveness.  It’s a sense of defensiveness against perceived threats.  Fanboyishness results from negative experiences and isolation…

My fandom truly rose to prominence in the transitional era between the first and second 3D console generations.  To serve as the most obvious transition from a Nintendo 64, my next console of choice would be the Gamecube.  Given the rather poor reaction it went on to receive, particularly in a high school like mine, I expended a great deal of effort working to validate that choice in the face of the opposition.  Rather than studying all the industry had to offer, I dug in my heels, defending the Gamecube from those who would deride it.  In efforts to balance what I saw as a rather unbalanced media portrayal of Nintendo, I eventually took to ignoring the competition altogether.

Though that era has passed and I’ve been introduced to more intelligent and level-headed gamers, a part of me has had trouble letting go of the stubbornness.  My mind still filters out information on games I can’t play (by virtue of not owning the necessary hardware).  As a result, I’ve missed out, partly by choice, on a great number of the most popular games of the past ten years.

On that note, there’s another important list I’d like to mention.  These are very, very popular games I know almost nothing about, have never played, or in some cases, have vehemently resisted playing for no real reason.  Now comes the time when you attempt to slap me in the face through the computer for even thinking of calling myself a game designer.

Games I haven’t played and/or know very little about:

The Halo franchise
The Call of Duty franchise
The Gears of War franchise
The God of War franchise
The Elder Scrolls franchise
Any Grand Theft Auto (other than GTA3)
World of Warcraft
Any MMORPG (except a brief stint on The Matrix Online)
Most of the Final Fantasy series
Half-Life 1 & 2
Red Dead Redemption
The Sims franchise
Any Zelda other than Twilight Princess
Super Mario Bros. 3…

The list goes on, but this should at least give you some idea of why I have trouble talking to people about games.  Name your favorite game, and chances are good I’ve never played it.

This ongoing dichotomy of fandom and fanboyishness is just one part of the puzzle, however.  It helped to lay the groundwork for a way of thinking that has inspired further isolation and restriction.  The real key to my apathy lies in an additional result of my fandom.  As a fan, I began to develop a personal connection with the games I played.  No…more than that, I developed a sense of personal responsibility for those games.  In a way, that personal responsibility has turned on itself, changing the way I see my relationship with games forever.

Beating Starfox 64, in retrospect, may have been the experience that really turned me back on to video games after having missed the 16-bit era.  Prior to that point, video games had always been a primarily social experience – something I would bring my friends over for.  But when I beat Starfox 64, I had, for the first time, done it entirely by myself.  Video games were no longer a party piece or a casual pastime, but instead, they represented challenges that could be overcome.  My video games became about me, not just those around me.  Naturally, I wasn’t thinking along these lines at the time, but I get the sense that this could easily be true. 

That sense of personal ownership culminated five years later in Metroid Prime, a game I was drawn to for no specific reason, experienced alone, and beat in a way that became a truly individualized and personal experience.  My resulting fandom is what would eventually lead to my choosing to enter the game design field.  I wanted to know more about what this and other games were, and that quest for knowledge led to my learning how to make video games of my own.

Through fandom, I had made games something personal to me.  They became things that I took responsibility for tracking down, obtaining, experiencing, and completing by myself.  I had taken responsibility for developing my own play experience and the idea of what the game meant to me – the entire concept surrounding a game.  I suppose from there, taking responsibility for actually creating the game was the next logical step. 

So that’s exactly what I did.

Through a seemingly random series of events, I soon found myself drifting into a game design degree program.  I would spend the next four years learning about generating flow, creating assets, working out a crude functionality, and managing the elements that make a game an enjoyable experience for the player.

What I’m now left with is the desire (and for the sake of my portfolio, the need) to conceive and develop new game ideas.  The challenge no longer lies in seeking out the perfect game through research and sampling, but in creating a game of my own.  That sense of wonderment and awe is gone; everything has become concrete and simplified.  I’m no longer able to see games as adventures to be lived or as new worlds to enter, but instead, as collections of elements.  I can admire a game for its presentation and cohesiveness, the cleverness of its mechanics, or the cleanliness of its functionality, but only when I’m able to ignore these elements do I truly enjoy a game.  In looking at games more analytically, I can still admire them, but I can’t really enjoy them.

Before I started making games, I thought more along the lines of “Which game would I most enjoy playing?”  It was a highly personal analysis that resulted in a much wider breadth of knowledge being gleaned from the experience.  “I like this about this game, but I also like this other thing about another game.  Which one would I most enjoy playing?”  Since I hail from a bloodline terrible at making decisions, there could be only one rational solution: “I’ll have to play both!”  Ultimately, the decision was about me, and either way, I’d derive significant enjoyment from the experience.

These days, my conundrums aren’t based upon my personal enjoyment.  I don’t debate over which game I’d enjoy designing more, which I well shouldn’t.  You don’t design games for yourself.  That said, my debate also isn’t based upon which design “the audience” would enjoy more.  As I look back on the designs I’ve conceived over the past few years, the actual question I ask seems to be far colder and, frankly, a bit disturbing.  In the end, I seem to ask myself, “Which design would allow me to most effectively display my utter brilliance?”

I ask it in much the same way that the CEO of a major Wall Street firm might ask, “Would I get a bigger bonus than the other CEOs if I laid off the entire city of Detroit?”

Okay, I don’t find myself literally asking which designs make me look good.  However, as I run words like “innovation” and “immersion” through my head, there always seem to be lingering thoughts of “This would look GREAT on my portfolio,” or “If I can pull this off, I’d look like a crazy genius.”  I find myself with desires to do something insane and seemingly impossible.  They’re delusions of grandeur, mostly, but the point being that I interpret designing games as a personal duty.

There was something personal when it came to choosing and playing the right games.  “I did this.  Me.”  Now that I’ve started designing, that personal connection has been translated to the development process.  It’s a desire for quality and making great games, sure, but it comes from that selfish wish to witness myself doing something utterly brilliant.  “I DID this.  Tiny little Wheatley DID this!”  As a result, I’m often disappointed when I find myself NOT doing something utterly brilliant.

The real issue, though, is that the desire to make games has come to outweigh the desire to play games.  “There’s a new game coming out?  Bah.  I don’t care.  I’m too busy trying to make this one work.”  In other words, I’m wrapped up in my work.  (Mentally speaking, at least.  I have difficulty actually translating my design concerns into results.)  The thing is, I don’t want to be in a situation of isolation.  I want to be able to introduce myself to new games and truly enjoy them again.  Yet somehow, I can’t seem to get over the mental block that tells me I don’t have time to play.  The ghost of fanboyishness comes in and tells me that there are games I shouldn’t enjoy, shouldn’t RISK enjoying, and therefore shouldn’t play.  In the end, it works into a pattern in which I only end up playing three or four new games every year.

I’m not entirely sure why I don’t enjoy games anymore, but I’ve attempted to lay out my best guesses here.  I’ll say it again – it’s not that I don’t still love the world of games.  I love designing, I love the development process, I love the culture, and I love the idea and potential of video games.  What I miss is that spark – that desire to know more.  I miss the need to absorb all that the world of games has to offer.

If you’ve managed to bear with me this long, well done.  You clearly possess a great tolerance for boring personal stories.  Or maybe you’re a kindred spirit.  Either way, I hope you’ve been able to get something out of this.  It’s all I can really think of talking about right now.  As I always wish upon my colleagues, good luck out there, and keep having fun.

That is all.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

What Violence Means to Games

I’d like to put my “More than Design” series on break for a little while to discuss a different issue.

I’ve been running a lot of blog topics through my head recently.  In the process of this line of thinking, the Supreme Court came up with a news-breaking ruling: video games are protected by the First Amendment and sales of violent games cannot be restricted by the government.  Now, I wasn’t greatly impressed by this ruling, namely because I’ve never felt all that threatened by government regulation.  At the time, I just kind of tossed it aside and offered a hearty “Congratulations” to my colleagues.  However, as time wore on, I started thinking about it again.  I’ve thought about the violence question a lot in the past, and the whole issue with the Supreme Court ruling has gotten me thinking about it again.  In response, I decided to jot down a few thoughts.  Those thoughts kept coming, resulting in what you see below.

An Introduction to Regulation

If you look back through video game history, particularly at attempts for regulation, you’ll come across the scandal involving Death Race for the NES and Arcade.  In the game, you drive over humanoid figures in a car, turning them into graves.  When it was claimed that Death Race served as a means of promoting violence (supposedly by inspiring children to start going out and running people over, or something like that), the developers fought back with the information that the footage was taken out of context.  Players in the game weren’t running over humans, but zombies.  Apparently, that makes everything okay.

Ah, zombies.  Zombies make for a great way out.  Can you imagine if you were to create a game that involved running through a mall killing hordes of innocent civilians?  The scandal!  The outrage!  Zombies, though, are mindless drones who are better off dead anyway, so a game like Dead Rising is okay.  It’s just a fantasy environment, like something out of a horror movie.  The same goes for just about any zombie game.  Left 4 Dead using live humans?  Resident Evil?  The closest you can get to a zombie game using live humans is something like Grand Theft Auto, and that series has definitely seen its share of controversy, too.

Can More Violence Make a Game Better?

Then there’s something like Gears of War.  From what little I know of this game, I know it has some rather impressive and elaborate weapon impacts.  I don’t know how much time it takes to make a head explosion look that realistic, but I know it involves a certain amount of research and subsequent testing and tweaking.  It’s impressive to have such realistic shotgun impacts, but do they really make the game better?  That’s an interesting question.  Most people probably wouldn’t find it worth the effort it takes to create such effects.  However, Gears of War caters to a specific demographic – a demographic which gravitates towards things like realistic head explosions.  If players in the target demographic find those effects impressive and are more fully immersed in the game world as a result, then you could truly say that those effects make for a better game.

Another classic example is Mortal Kombat.  Nintendo’s decision to remove all blood from the Super Nintendo version of Mortal Kombat is often regarded as one of the company’s all-time great screw-ups.  Swapping out blood for sweat did nothing to impact Mortal Kombat from a design standpoint.  Removing Fatalities, while having a slight impact on the gameplay (as they require specific button combinations), was also largely an aesthetic choice.  Regardless, the Super Nintendo version of Mortal Kombat was generally regarded by fans as a lesser game than its Genesis and arcade counterparts, and, among other reasons, Nintendo has been thought of as the “kiddie company” ever since.

What Mortal Kombat demonstrates is that what violence and gore provide to a video game, more than anything, is spectacle.  From a design standpoint, Mortal Kombat is a fighting game based on mastering the use of complex button combinations in specific time intervals.  But the design isn’t what Mortal Kombat is about.  It’s about brutally ripping your opponent’s spine out or watching them explode into a flurry of blood and bones.  Even then, it’s not necessarily about the violence itself.  It’s about the pure showmanship of the whole ordeal.  It’s not just bloody and vicious – it’s completely over-the-top.  You don’t just destroy your opponent – you show off to the camera.  What people really missed from the SNES version wasn’t blood and gore, but the flash and absurdity that the blood and gore offered.

On the other hand, I’ve heard people complain about other games for their lack of, specifically, blood.  I’ve seen people rant in forums about how Zelda needs to be M-rated, a gritty action title in which enemies shower Link in blood as they get sliced up.  This isn’t just random musing, either.  This is serious talk from people who legitimately believe that a Mature rating will automatically make Zelda into a better game.  The gameplay and overall flash value wouldn’t change; the only addition would be a bit of blood in replacement of cartoony flashes.  For these people, I suppose increased gore WOULD make for a better game.  However, for everyone else, all it does is limit the available market.

In this case, the addition of blood doesn’t really serve a purpose of improving the flash value of the game.  This is just gore for the sake of gore.  Yes, changing Zelda into a more God of War-like environment would make the series appeal to a new audience.  However, it doesn’t change it from a design standpoint.  Additionally, a well-established and very popular series like Zelda has no responsibility to add blood purely to attract a few new people.  Those who want a more God of War-like environment can play God of War.  Those who want Zelda to be Zelda can still have Zelda.

Violence for the Sake of Violence

I don’t take issue with the existence of violence in video games.  After all, where would the industry be today if it hadn’t been for a bit of punching, kicking, and shooting?  Violence is, on some level, almost necessary to the very existence of video games.  Violence generates danger, generating drama that can drive a player forward.  Sure, there are other ways to generate action, but what better motivation is there than “SOMEONE IS GOING TO KILL YOU!”

What I take issue with is the concept of what seems to be violence for the sake of violence.  Games with unnecessary levels of gore, deliberate showers of blood, and game mechanics centered around actively going around killing as many people as possible in the most gruesome, tortuous ways possible – this sort of thing I have a problem with.  (There was a lot of sighing involved when I witnessed Manhunt in action.)  With all that the game industry has tried to do to gain respect and freedom over the years, it feels as though deliberate shows of elaborate and gratuitous violence tend to hinder progress.

And no, games aren’t the immature displays of vulgarity that the news media, parents, and politicians make them out to be.  People who want to see all games as poor inspirations for children will see what they want to see.  They’ll focus on the gore, the sexism, and the way in which such elements actively involve the players.  The issue I see is that while this isn’t what games are about, we’ve certainly made it easy to paint that picture.  The conversation can be a little hypocritical at times.

THE GAME INDUSTRY sits on the couch, playing God of War.  CONCERNED PARENTS stand off to the side, hands on hips.

CONCERNED PARENTS: Video games are a horrible influence on our children!  They expose them to scenes of graphic violence!

INDUSTRY: So do movies, the news, even Saturday morning cartoon shows.  Do you want to get rid of all of those, too?

PARENTS: But video games are different because they make our children active participants in that violence.  They don’t just glorify killing – they make it seem fun!
INDUSTRY: Games aren’t about glorifying killing.  Games are useful tools for all sorts of things.  They’re vital teaching tools, they develop hand-eye coordination, and some are even being developed that can help people manage chronic illnesses like cystic fibrosis.

PARENTS: We don’t hear about any of those games anywhere.  We only ever see ads full of explosions and guns.

INDUSTRY: That’s just a matter of what the media promotes.  Games aren’t trying to make violence cool or fun.  You should really just consider the potential thatOHMYGODDIDYOUSEETHAT?!  I JUST SLICED THAT GUY INTO FOUR PIECES!  THE BLOOD ANIMATIONS IN HERE ARE AMAZING!

CONCERNED PARENTS stand with a shocked and horrified expression.

It just seems like we shouldn’t be trying to convince people of our maturity while simultaneously showing how cool it is to disembowel demons with a giant sword.

 Really, though, what can you do about that sort of thing?  To end the violence is to restrict our own freedom.  The best we can do is admit equality.  “Yes…we’re just as immature as the rest of the world.  Please treat us as you would treat the rest of the world.”  Don’t think for one moment that I’m suggesting games are worse than other forms of media in regards to gratuitous violence.  Movies like Saw illustrate the apparent appeal of this kind of material to the cinema audience.  The fact that the original went on to have as many sequels as it did only proves the point.

Again, I don’t take issue with the fact that violence exists prominently in games.  My concerns arise when the potential video games offer to society is pushed aside in favor of making violence more realistic.  When new graphics technology emerges, we make more detailed blood spatter.  When a new control scheme rolls around, we use it to swing a sword or aim a gun.  These are, of course, just small portions of what new technology is used for, but in some ways, they serve as a driving force behind the very evolution of that technology.

As stated before, it’s not so much about violence as it is about flash.  Graphics technology in particular has moved forward in an effort to make games more elaborate, impressive, and exciting-looking.  Invariably, one of the main ways to illustrate that impressiveness is with a big action title – characters going buck-wild jumping around through particle effects, blasting away at enemies while bits of the world explode dramatically around them.  It certainly looks pretty.  If it doesn’t, the more clever gameplay-oriented games will have a lot of trouble compensating.

In this sense, you could almost say that violence has driven graphics forward.  Since graphics technology has represented the primary evolution of video games over the years, it could even be said that violence has moved the entire game industry forward.  That scene is shifting somewhat now.  Changes in control schemes are bringing elements of gameplay into greater prominence in the public eye, and as graphics technology has begun to plateau, issues such as social connectivity and adaptability are becoming the new evolutionary forces for the industry.  This doesn’t mean games are becoming any less flashy or less violent.  Simply put, the public is becoming more aware that there are different aspects to consider, and those aspects are becoming decidedly more prevalent in the mainstream world than they have been in the past.

Artistic Expression

There’s also a strange argument for the use of violence from an artistic standpoint.  Now, I’m not about to start another “games as art” debate here.  That’s another topic all its own.  No, I’m simply referring to the fact that works of art (high art) have a level of expressive freedom beyond what the average media allows.  Art is about meaning – the observer derives some sort of meaning from a work of art through experience and reflection.  Every piece of a work of art serves to conjure up an emotion and get the observer thinking.  Sex, nudity, and violence are allowed to exist in high art if they work towards this purpose.

Art, through its function of eliciting emotion from the observer, contains massive freedom to utilize violence to achieve that end.  Artists have the privilege of claiming that their work is designed to elicit a particular feeling.  If you were to look at something like Dead Rising as a work of art, you could theoretically say that the act of killing zombies in creative ways is meant to make the player feel some emotional response.  The player may feel excited, nervous, disgusted, frustrated, or even joyous as they run around beating zombies with a baseball bat in an effort to survive.  But you see, that’s all part of the open interpretation of art.  Everyone experiences and reflects on it differently.

I’m not about to claim Dead Rising is a work of art.  In my mind, it’s just a world in which you run around killing zombies.  What I hope to do is illustrate the point that making violence in a game mean something not only makes for a better game, but also brings games one step closer to being taken seriously as works of art.  I’m not greatly concerned with whether or not games reach that status, but I know a lot of people seem to be.

Freedom of Speech

I think it’s important to consider what’s been offered here.  Games have been granted the same rights as other forms of media.  The game industry has been granted what is deserves: equality.  That’s all.  No more, no less.  The fact that violent game sales cannot be restricted doesn’t indicate that games are free and clear from persecution.  All it tells us is that the United States government recognizes games as being less destructive and dangerous to society than yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater.  It’s not a statement that we’re mature and civilized, but rather that we’re no worse than television or movies.  Really, I think that’s a fair assessment.

The worst thing to do is flaunt the liberty we’ve won.  The Supreme Court hasn’t just given us permission to go out and make games as violent as we please.  Well, technically, they have, but that’s not the point.  The point is that just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD.  This isn’t a criticism of the industry.  I’m not implying that we’re bloodthirsty savages who only want the opportunity to unleash images of bloodied corpses and exploding heads upon the world.  No.  We’re mature enough people…most of the time.  I just think it’s up to us to maintain that maturity.  I don’t want people to get into a habit of “violence for the sake of violence” just because we’re free to do so.  Violence is still a useful element in a lot of games, but there no sense in feeling obligated to use it.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

More than Design (Part 2: Writing)

I’ve been put slightly on hold in discussing this topic.  My entire life fell away for a week or so as I prepared for a pending interview.  In the wake of said interview, a return to normalcy is called for.  Thus, as I play the waiting game, life must go on.

On that note, I provide a discussion of the links between game design and game writing.  There are two different branches I’d like to cover on this subject, but mainly, I’ll be talking about narrative design.  What narrative design tools can be useful in setting up a game design?  What are some ways to help a game and story merge together at the most basic level? 

Getting the Idea Across
When I refer to “writing” in the context of this topic, I’m not referring so much to general writing skills, but more to narrative design.  It’s important to note early on, though, that writing skills are nothing to dismiss when talking about game design.  Game designers, almost by definition, must have well-developed writing skills.  Just as the blueprint for a building is laid out visually, the blueprint for a game is laid out verbally.  Design documentation must make sense to anyone who needs to read it.  (FYI: “Anyone who needs to read it” means “everyone”.)  It’s not just a matter of being able to describe what needs to be done, but being able to do it clearly. 

It’s easy to think of a game design document as a technical schematic or outline, but proper knowledge and use of grammar is the key to ensuring clarity.  Whether or not an idea is clear means nothing if the language used to convey that idea is unclear.  Incidentally, it will be easier for the team’s inevitable Grammar Nazis to focus on the game if they aren’t constantly focusing on the fact that you’re using apostrophes to pluralize words.  (This is a personal pet peeve, and I would ask that you stop doing it.  Thank you.)

Writing for the purpose of designing a game deals with more than simple usage, however.  A bit of dramatic creative flair is also important in conveying a creative idea.  A design document isn’t just a blueprint, but is, in a way, the story of how the game works.  An understanding of creative writing is useful in allowing you to recognize what you need and what overcomplicates matters.  This helps to make your statements more concise, which should also help to make your ideas easier for everyone else to comprehend.  Creative writing is also useful in the pitching process.  The better you make your game look, the more likely it is to be picked up by a publisher.

A Very Old Problem
In getting back to the subject of narrative design as it relates to game design, there’s something I’ll say first: I’m clearly not the first one to think about this topic.  Right off the top of my head, I can think of at least three lectures at GDC ’11 dealing with the relationship between game narratives and player actions, and it was a point repeatedly brought up in the three Writer’s Roundtable sessions.  There seems to be a burgeoning interest in finding new ways to more seamlessly blend story with gameplay, and I’d like to throw my two cents into the mix.

The worlds of narrative and gameplay have always had a bit of trouble mingling with each other.  For proof, you don’t need to look any farther than the massive array of games licensed from major blockbuster movies.  The recipe for these games is often simple – take a big-budget Hollywood picture, transfer its basic plot and characters to a video game, throw in some generic game mechanics, then cook at 375 degrees for…oh, about two years.  As long as the movie is successful, the game is likely to sell fairly well.  Despite years of weak review scores and a number of infamously bad games, this has been a pretty typical practice for a long time.  It’s a problem that outdates me and my 24 years; the lesson from that massive pile of discarded E.T. cartridges evidently hasn’t quite taken hold.

Now, I’ll be honest…the way in which many of these games are developed doesn’t allow for considerable experimentation.  Movie-based games are typically released alongside their Hollywood originals.  As a result, these games must be developed as the movie is being developed.  Information isn’t as fully available as it needs to be, and the time with which to deal with that information is cut short.  Given the pressures involved, it’s understandable that these games would take on that cookie-cutter feel.

Consequently, though, you don’t get a large number of memorable games coming out of the woodworks through this process.  Those that are remembered are often remembered for absurdly poor gameplay.  Their mechanics have little to do with the plot of the movie, resulting in games that serve as mere advertising tools.  Generic Mission-Based Action-Adventure Game presents its latest expansion: Summer Blockbuster.  A new version of GMBAAG, now featuring your favorite characters from the new hit movie, Summer Blockbuster.  (Now in theaters!  Go see it!)”  When it comes to the movie game, perhaps the process needs to change before any real progress can be made.

Merging Game and Narrative
Regardless, a video game based upon an existing narrative can find ways to capture the same elements that make that narrative enjoyable.  At the same time, the designer can gain some degree of control over the narrative, resulting in some compromise on both sides of the field.  Game designers are, in a way, narrative designers as well.  Whereas game writers are generally charged with dictating the creation of explicit narrative, game designers dictate the creation of implicit narrative.  This is an issue I’ve discussed before, but I’d like to add another point to the topic through this new discussion: game designers have the power to blend narrative and game mechanics by actually transforming explicit narrative into implicit narrative.

So how can this be done?  How can the explicit narrative of a story be transformed into the implicit narrative of a game mechanic?  When working with an existing narrative, it’s about finding a way to identify the elements of that narrative that make it interesting and enjoyable.  By determining what makes a story enjoyable, an effort can then be made to capture those elements in a game mechanic.  This goes for working from an existing license or from a new IP.  What draws people to the story?  Is it plot-based or character-based?  Is it a story of suspense and intrigue?  Does it feature an eccentric and clever main character? 

Perhaps you have a plot-driven narrative featuring a greatly suspenseful story.  The suspense element is what ties the narrative together and keeps driving the audience forward.  How can that suspense be captured in a game mechanic so that the game, too, can work along with the story to drive the player forward?  Initial thoughts might lead you to think, “That’s easy.  We’ll use dark, quiet atmospheres and perhaps a few random encounters.  That way, players will be kept in a tense state, always with the feeling that something could jump out at any time.”  While this setting (properly executed) would be suspenseful indeed, it still isn’t really demonstrating suspense through its mechanics, but more through its aesthetic environment.

A more mechanics-based approach could be found by examining a game with no elements of artwork present at all.  It contains no elaborate AI scripting, no enemies to face, and no setting.  It’s a game so primitive, it’s made entirely of wood.  Neatly sanded wood, but wood all the same.  It’s a little game called “Jenga”.

Yes, good old “Jenga”.  It’s a classic, and it also happens to be one of the most suspenseful games around.  It begins so simply – there are a vast many options to choose from, and only an extreme lack of skill would prevent you from achieving success.  Thus, the game moves on.  As pieces are slowly removed from the tower, options begin to dwindle.  Every new move demands increasing strategy and great care.  With each successful advance, the risk of failure multiplies.  Will this be the block that topples the tower?  No.  Will this be the block?  No, but that was VERY close.  The tower is extremely unsteady now.  Sweat begins to form on your brow.  All of your concentration is poured into preventing your hand from making any sudden movements.  The block comes out, and a slight wobble follows.  For a brief moment, it looks as though the wobble will correct itself.  Before you can move to place your block on the top, however, the wobble develops into a full tilt.  There’s no stopping it now.  You’re doomed.

As the tower collapses, your heart sinks.  Yet, strangely enough, you feel as though a huge weight has been lifted.

So, how does this all relate back to the narrative?  Just think…what if you could use the suspense of that “Jenga” mechanic to convey the suspense of your game’s plot?  Instead of the narrative telling the player what is suspenseful and why, you allow the game that honor.  Players become active participants in producing the very suspense they will experience.  The mood is now conveyed through player actions.  Use those actions to help tell the story, coupled with the aforementioned aesthetic effects, and you’ll have the faint of heart in the hospital in no time.

All of this is just one example.  I find it to be quite a fun challenge to attempt to portray character traits through a mechanic, as well.  Is the main character the nervous type, realistically cautious, or carelessly daring?  Each trait can merit a different type of mechanic.  Is the character slow-witted and easily confused, or a genius three steps ahead of the average person?  How might you demonstrate these facts through the way the character interacts with the player and the game world?  Such questions may be useful to keep in mind if you’re looking to mix a clever narrative with a clever game.

Progression, Pacing, and Timing
Finally, it’s worth noting that while your game most certainly doesn’t need to follow a literary or cinematic structure, it’s useful to understand the process of building a story as you move forward in the development of game mechanics.  The fields of narrative design and game design actually have a lot in common when it comes to structures of progression. 

Difficulty curves often follow the layout of a plot’s action structure.  Just as a story features stages of rising action, climax, and falling action, so too does a game typically feature an increasing level of difficulty and complexity leading up to a final climax, generally the most difficult part of any game.  Designers can also look to non-interactive stories to develop effective timing and pacing.  Right from the start, you can develop a clearer sense of how fast in-game actions and reactions might be (character movement speeds, for example), when particular events should occur (when to create sudden danger, or creating a moment of relaxation following a complex sequence), and how long it should take to move through an area.  A better understanding of these principles can help to stave off player boredom and add to a sense of believability, helping to sell the player on becoming more immersed in your game.

Final Thoughts
With that, I’ve come to the end of another thrilling lecture on game design as I see it.  Now, I feel I should mention that while this discussion has been about what game designers should know about narrative design, the opposite is where greater need for knowledge lies.  Game writers have much more responsibility to learn about and understand the various game development disciplines than those disciplines need to understand about game writing.  After all, it should be about creating a great game, not a great story.  However, with narrative increasingly serving as a vital element in video games, it’s important for game designers to work with that narrative to generate the most effective combination of gameplay and story possible.  It shouldn’t be left only to game writers to make the narrative fit the game; as the game builders, designers have a responsibility to work with game writers to find the best solution.

In the end, that’s what all game development comes down to: collaboration.  That’s what this series is all about.

As always, thanks for joining me.  Next up in the More than Design series is the relationship between the designer and a role for which I have the utmost respect.  Knowledge of this field is the most sought-after prize in all of game development.  Some say these people were born in vacuum tubes deep within the bowels of IBM as part of a CIA experiment, and that they can place a semicolon on a computer screen through thought alone.

All we know is, they’re called programmers.

Thank you.  That is all.