Thursday, December 23, 2010

Death and Games

Video games weren't always dominated by power fantasies. In fact I think the rise of the male wish-fulfillment Hollywood blockbuster of the 1980s, in movies like Rambo II and Commando, is what led video games down a similar path with stuff like Rush 'n Attack and, well, Commando. But even before this shift, games were still concerned with death, a trope that players young and old could always identify with. In Space Invaders you die. In Pac-Man you die. In Donkey Kong you die. In Pole Position you don't just lose the race, your shit fucking explodes and you die.

The noted screenwriting instructor Robert McKee says that stories are a metaphor for life, when he explains why people are innately drawn to stories. I think games are a metaphor for life. This is the reason games don't need stories to be interesting, because in essence it's all the same.

Many games are literal and so they depict death. The player fails by causing his player character to die in some fashion. Yet, for the vast majority of games, death is handled in a lazy, conventional fashion. It's strange when you think about it – something as serious as death, treated with such disregard as game death. What's the last game you played that handled death in an interesting way, that didn't act like the last 20 games you played by giving you a gameplay hint and respawing you at the last checkpoint? Death in games is nothing but a bit of inconvenience. Or when games neglect to put checkpoints close enough, it's a source of frustration, a poor design choice. It's almost never something profound, something complicated, something scary -- you know, like death.

Most games don't even deliver on the promise of immortality. You have unlimited lives in military shooters just because whatever. Just like Afghanistan in real-life. Super Meat Boy, a ridiculous and funny and awesome game, has a more thoughtful approach to player death than virtually all the self-important AAA games this year by having a late-game cutscene where the villain gets frustrated by Meat Boy's propensity to keep respawning whenever he's killed. Meat Boy just kind of shrugs, almost apologetic for his immortality. He can't help being the way he is.

Why should death even exist in games? Death used to exist in games because games needed a mechanism to punish failure. Today more and more games are becoming more and more lenient about failure, because they want more players and want to eliminate frustration and only keep pleasure. It's to the point at which failure becomes almost impossible in certain games, and yet as a player you're still expected to believe that your character is in mortal danger. What's the point?

My main point is this: I think if a game is going to have death in it, then death in the game deserves careful consideration as part of the design. I am not OK with games thoughtlessly borrowing the auto-respawn-at-last-checkpoint design one after another. I want games to treat death with dignity, or disrespect, to make me fear it or laugh at it, to make me think about it or even want it, but I'm sick of games thinking it's something I don't care about as a player. If you don't think I care about it then don't put it in the game, or if you're going to put it in the game then do something interesting with it.

Here is a short list of games that have done interesting things with death.

- In the Fire Emblem series, which I love dearly, death comes swiftly and permanently. These are character-driven strategy games in a fantasy setting, but death isn't just an inconvenience in that setting as it is in most fantasy games. A character who dies in the game is gone forever after speaking his or her often-tragic dying words, and you'll be left to wonder how his or her story might have resolved. Players end up restarting entire missions to prevent character deaths, but at least it's a choice. Few games make me value staying alive quite like Fire Emblem. Other strategy games like X-COM and Jagged Alliance have done similar things, I just think Fire Emblem does it even better by building up its characters so well through its rich storytelling.

- In the Soul Reaver series, you are the immortal vampire-wraith Raziel. Your body can be destroyed but not your spirit. When you "die" in the game, you sink into an alternate version of the world, a spirit realm filled with pathetic lost souls you must consume in order to regain your corporeal self. Some of the game's puzzles involved having to traverse both instances of the world to reach new places. Raziel is a tragic character who would like nothing better than to rest in piece, so the game subverts expectations around video game death on multiple levels.

- In the arcade games Ninja Gaiden and Final Fight, both featured rather graphic "continue" screens showing your character bound and, respectively, about to be eviscerated by a spinning razor or blown to pieces by a bomb. You have 10 seconds to insert another coin to continue playing and prevent this fate. It was a cheap but effective play on the player's emotions. There was something base and manipulative about it, and for that reason I should hate it, but something about it was so playful that it worked well for these games. I'm sure it helped them earn a bunch more quarters, and as cheap emotional plays for player's time and money go, it was way cooler than FarmVille telling me to adopt a homeless orphaned crippled baby seal or whatever.

- Braid is a game about what if you could move forward with the knowledge gained from failing while erasing the failure itself, so its handling of death is very interesting.

- The officially-old massively multiplayer game EverQuest placed severe consequences on player death, often representing hours of lost time or even worse. In a worst-case scenario players could die in such a way that their corpses, which held all their belongings (representing potentially hundreds of hours' worth of questing), were impossible to recover. As a result, I imagine that fear of death in EverQuest probably approximated a real-life fear of death for some of its players more than any other game. MMOs have since repeatedly loosened the reigns on death penalties in order to reduce frustration / heartache and make themselves accessible to wider audiences, but EverQuest achieved something special in its time.

- ZHP: The Unlosing Ranger vs. Darkdeath Evilman... look I'm sorry it's Japanese OK? I haven't played this game yet but it's on my short list in no small part because of its fascinating, funny, upbeat take on player death. It's a game about the inevitability of disgraceful death at the hands of a hopelessly powerful enemy, yet your character has the ability to reincarnate and begin anew with greater potential for advancement than his past self.

- Last year's Demon's Souls reminded me a lot of EverQuest's corpse runs. Death came swiftly and often, and carried a heavy price of essentially all your money and experience, though the game gave you one chance to try and recover the lost goods... and did that ever make you take things slow and steady, take the time to learn the environments and the encounters. The best part was seeing apparitions of other players dying and seeing messages left by other players, warning you of impending dangers. The sense of a solitary-yet-shared experience was amazing in that game, like being trapped in a dungeon with other survivors and naturally joining forces to try and survive.

- In Diablo II and its hardcore mode, death was permanent. Hit a lag spike going into Duriel's lair in Act II and that character you'd been building up for the last two weeks would be gone. Similar feelings to Fire Emblem – you felt a healthy respect for the possibility of death, an appreciation for how it could come at any time, would have to make peace with the shocking reality of it. I loved hardcore more.

- In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the character has a Braid-like ability to reverse time (in fairness the game came out well before Braid), and in addition to that there's a narrative layer in which the character is recounting his own story. When the player character dies, the narrator says things like "That's not how it happened," justifying why a respawn mechanic exists in that game, justifying why the game was pretty easy but nonetheless exciting because you wanted to know how it all worked out in the end. It was excellent.

- In Counter-Strike, death was often shocking and meaningful. Here was a shooter where you couldn't just respawn. When you died you sat out the rest of the round. You were failing your whole team and all you could do was watch as the rest of your boys probably get killed because they were down a man. Death has never felt more meaningful to me in a shooter as it did in that game, so much so that I was never much of a Counter-Strike player. Of course most shooters trend away from this type of consequence, and yet Counter-Strike continues to be extremely popular, because it gives people reasons like this to become invested.

. . . .

In the game I'm working on, we don't want you to die, but I want you to know it's possible to fail if you play in a careless fashion, if you ignore danger. If you do run out of health, you'll have at least one more chance to carry on from where you left off in any given sequence, which we think encourages players to push forward more carefully if they started getting a bit lazy or sloppy in their play. It works as a literal wake-up call. Our reactive narrator will also have different things to say about the player character getting knocked out in each of the game's sequences, and will say different things depending on whether or not you fail, so we at least acknowledge the possibility of death in this fashion – we keep track of it and respond to it.

We struggled for a while with what to do about player death in the game, and were tempted by systems that would eliminate any penalty whatsoever because we didn't want to force people to repeat lots of content if they didn't want to. I think what we decided on is a good solution for our game, and I'm glad we arrived at it through thoughtful exploration and iteration rather than just taking the existing conventional checkpoint solution and calling it a day. I also like that our solution maps to the aesthetic of our game. In Bastion's world, death may be an inconvenience that can be prevented. At the very least, the narrator of the story does not seem to take death very seriously, as you can infer from the trailer. Part of the reason for that is, as you can see, that I don't think game players take death very seriously either.

Let me know what are some of your favorite examples of games that treated death in interesting ways.

. . . .

I also wanted to take a moment to thank you for reading. Since I started this blog in March, I've succeeded in making the types of preoccupations expressed here into a key part of my job. I love what I get to do everyday and look forward to creating a game next year that's going to deliver on some of the ideas I've expressed here over the months. Happy holidays and here's to a good year for games in 2011.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Closed Narratives in Open Worlds

I liked open-world games a lot better back when they were just called role-playing games. Maybe I couldn't mow down pedestrians with a car in Fallout or Ultima VII, but I still could go wherever I damn well pleased and do whatever I wanted, even if it meant breaking the rather strict laws of the respective gameworlds. The thing is, I felt like those games fully supported my actions no matter what I did. Such games fed back on the entire breadth of my gameplay choices. Ultima VII was not a game about being good or evil quite like Knights of the Old Republic, but it always let you do evil just so you knew it was there as an alternative, just so the temptation and the option for it were always there. You didn't have to be good, you chose to be, and that gave weight to your actions in the game.

My problem with today's open-world games – and by this I really mean the Rockstar Games genre, because as a collective of studios, Rockstar really has single-handedly defined this genre in recent years – is that their narrative content is increasingly conflicting with their gameplay. Their gameplay says "do whatever you want when you're not playing a story mission" while their narrative says "watch this character's story unfold." From a narrative standpoint, these games have become the Western equivalent of the glory days of the Japanese RPG, the days of games like Final Fantasy VII. Except those games have long since fallen out of vogue.

In those days, your reward for overcoming a gameplay challenge of some sort was a bit of noninteractive story. This was a wonderful structure as just about anyone can attest who played one of the well-regarded Final Fantasy games back in their heyday. You became attached these ensemble casts of crisply defined, empathetic, interesting characters and through your actions as some disembodied turn-based combat specialist you were able to help them reach the end of the line of their respective stories. I'll never forget some of those characters. Their stories benefited from the linearity of the structure and the lack of player control during story scenes. If I had control over the Dragoon Kain's choices in Final Fantasy II, I wouldn't have turned traitor against Cecil in the first place, and I would have inadvertently negated one of the game's more interesting subplots. Or if I had a real choice as to whether to remain a Dark Knight or become a Paladin as Cecil, well... I had no complaints about being something called a Dark Knight at a time when RPGs almost always cast me as a pure and noble hero.

Today's open-world games such as Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto IV are presenting these increasingly lavish tales with huge casts of characters. I like what they're trying to do with their stories. I finished this year's Red Dead Redemption on the promise of a deeply satisfying ending, and in the end it totally delivered. However, the strength of these games' characterizations is adversely affecting the way I play. I don't like the freedom of choice that the gameplay offers me because most of the choice runs counter to what my character would actually do. Red Dead's John Marston is a good-natured man with a dark past. That the game lets me wantonly slaughter people in the streets in exchange for some petty cash and a slap on the wrist just feels all wrong, and I find only the absence of entertainment in it – not because I have a distaste for violent videogames (if I could drink videogame blood I would), but because I don't like when games give me lots of ways to break my own suspension of disbelief, especially when they do an excellent job of getting me to suspend my disbelief in the first place.

Along these lines I just couldn't bring myself to rampage through GTA IV's Liberty City like I could in Grand Theft Auto III back in 2001. It's not that the novelty was gone, because it was absolutely there. GTA IV seemed like such a great playground in which to be some horrible, horrible crook. But Niko Bellic isn't that guy. He's a guy who's trying to help his Mom and find his cousin a nice girl. He doesn't mow people down on the sidewalk.

I played and enjoyed both of these games and the lengths they took both to create vividly detailed clockwork worlds and relatively serious, relatively thoughtful stories. I'm just saying that the two halves of the games – the story part and the open-world structure – didn't mesh for me, so in both cases I found myself actively trying to ignore the peripheral content and beelining through the story missions with a feeling of "I hope I don't break anything" along the way. In effect, I made myself play these games as linearly as possible.

I'm not suggesting these games should have been strictly linear, as the reception to the recent Mafia II is a good indicator of how a not-insigificant number of players do expect open-world gameplay systems from a game with any superficial resemblance to other open-world games. (There are also exceptional cases like Batman: Arkham Asylum, which supports a broad range of actions from the player, pretty much all of which seem internally consistent to the game and its famous starring character.) But I do find it strange how the open-world genre has evolved, when older examples like GTA III didn't have the same problems. GTA III and its silent protagonist let me decide what sort of man I was, whether I was the sort to drive on the sidewalk on a busy intersection or take care to only shoot the bad guys, or somewhere in between. In that game I truly felt like I was in an open world. Today's open worlds may be bigger and more detailed but they feel a lot more restricted to me, because I can't bring myself to ignore their stories.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Writing Bastion

On September 2, I officially joined the small team at Supergiant Games as their creative director, and together we showed our game Bastion for the first time at PAX in Seattle. The response was almost overwhelming, and on a personal level it was one of the most rewarding moments of my professional career. Part of the reason for this is that Bastion is a pure expression of many ideas that are close to my heart – ideas about games, stories, and other things that matter to me – so the enthusiastic response really meant a lot. In the game you'll find a lot of the stuff I've been writing about on this blog put into practice. Granted, my contributions to the project are only just beginning in earnest, but because I was involved in developing the original concept back when my colleagues and I parted ways with Electronic Arts in August of last year, I feel much closer to this game than any other thing I've worked on. Moving forward, I'd like to use this space from time to time to talk more about my thought process while developing Bastion, and to begin with I wanted to explain how we're approaching the game's use of storytelling through narration. But first...

GDC Online Lecture: Delivering Exposition in Games
All this is tangentially related to my GDC Online presentation I gave on Tuesday, October 5. I've posted the slides here and invite you to take a look: I Don't Want to Know: Delivering Exposition in Games. The slides are fully annotated so just by flipping through the slides you'll get a feel for the substance of the talk. If you have a chance to look it over, let me know what you think.

Narration in Bastion
In film, narration is one of the most misused and mood-killing techniques out there, for its unique ability to eliminate the type of ambiguity that adds richness to scenes and characters. While I've often fantasized about being able to read people's minds as a superpower, if movies have taught me anything it's that knowing people's inner monologue would make life far less interesting for someone as neurotic as me.

Nevertheless, Bastion uses real-time narration extensively. Its purpose is to deliver story and exposition, and to build atmosphere, investment, and immersion in close partnership with the gameplay. The narration wasn't part of the original game concept. It was born in a flash of inspiration (through a development process that enables such happy accidents to occur), stemming from a couple of self-imposed constraints. The first constraint was to never interrupt the play experience for the sake of story or for any reason, which meant no cutscenes, no dialogue trees, no pressing the A button to advance through dialogue, and none of the other such trappings that tended to slow the pace of other RPGs. I love many games that do these things, but Bastion just isn't this kind of game. One of the things I miss about games in general is that sense of immediacy that console games used to have (before disc-based media ushered in a new era of loading times and cutscenes), where you'd hit Start and, indeed, start the game. Bastion is meant to be that kind of game. Text-based dialogue wasn't going to work. The team's suspicions about how it would negatively affect the pace of the game turned out to be accurate.

From the outset, before the company was even formed, I wanted to work on a game with some narrative substance and emotional depth, to create an original world with its own characters. We would have these long late-night conversations about how to deliver story in ways only possible through the medium of gaming, because why not? Games should aspire to be games. Cinematics interrupt the play experience no matter how well crafted they are. And as much as I love stepping through dialogue in games like Fire Emblem or Torment, I had to agree that reading lots of text in a game usually isn't a good feeling. All the theorizing needed to be grounded in reality due to the would-be team's small size and limited bandwidth in art and animation. This other constraint meant no elaborate scripted scenes or silent emotive storytelling as in games like Ico or Limbo, where nuanced animation is essential to mood-setting and atmosphere.

Eventually through prototyping and experimentation all this led to the idea of real-time narration, having a narrator who responds to the player's input. From the outset I was interested in having the story begin with a young man rising as if from sleep or from death, to discover a world changed around him in some profound way. The story would start on a mysterious but emotionally low point and expand from there. The intent was to provoke questions for the player immediately, and allow the game to reveal two worlds in parallel: the way things are, and the way things used to be. At any rate, in that waking-up moment, it turns out that just by adding the spoken line "He rose" to coincide with the player's input, it got a lot stronger. (This later changed to the current "He gets up" after further exploration of the narrative style.) This was one of an initial set of lines that our studio co-founder Amir recorded with our audio director Darren and their childhood friend Logan, a theatrical actor who provides the narrator's voice, after Amir suspected that adding narration may bring something positive to the experience. I remember when I first heard it, not knowing what quality it would have, never even having heard Logan's voice before. It felt powerful even inside a low-fidelity prototype. Players don't normally expect this type of output from a game, so it immediately speaks to some of the qualities that are specific to Bastion. The narrator's voice alone says a lot about the game.

The other reason, probably the main reason, Bastion is using narration is because of Logan. In addition to being perfect for the part, Logan offers us one other great advantage: We have access to him. Some people mistook his voice for Ron Perlman's. Let's say we could afford Ron Perlman, lost our minds, and decided he'd be better than Logan for the part. We'd have maybe two or three recording sessions with him for the lifetime of the game. With Logan we can iterate rapidly, and we need to in order to get the narration in the game to feel as closely connected as possible to the moment-to-moment play.

Logan's natural speaking voice is quite different from that of the narrator, though we were always interested in a fantasy-frontier aesthetic, something with some the beautiful-melancholy tone of some of Cormac McCarthy's novels. I also take inspiration from the late William Gaddis, whose novels have characters with such distinctive voices. And so we developed a character who embodies the tone we were interested in. And Logan nailed it.

Bastion's narrator is designed to support our game on a fundamental level. He's a man of few words not only for fictional reasons but also, conveniently, to support a design constraint that we simply can't have him talking a lot during gameplay. Bastion has a very fast feel to it, closer to an action game than a typical action role-playing game. Our narrator needs to be very concise to keep up with the pace.

Five Rules for Writing Bastion
Logan can probably make the stupidest combination of words sound awesome. Even still I'm attempting to write good material for him, in the spirit of not wasting the player's time with bloated unnecessary prose. By exploring the character and which types of narration work best for the game, we gain a low-level understanding of the narration in addition to our high-level goals for it. As such, here are the factors I bear in mind when writing for the game:

1. Dialogue is for subtext. The player's actions in the game are the "text", the surface-level things that happen. When the player explores, builds things, attacks things, or acquires items, these are all clear and affordant actions. There was initially a temptation and a novelty in having the narrator declare these actions along the way. But this would mean missing the point of why we have the narrator in the game. This would have resulted in that brand of movie-style narration I dislike so much.

Our narrator deepens the player's interactions by saying something about them that the player could not have known. He provides character intent, subplot, and backstory through his comments. The ultimate goal with every line is for it to tell you something about the player character, the narrator, the way the world is, and the way the world used to be. For example, the first item you find in the game is a large sledgehammer, to which the narrator says, "Kid finds his lifelong friend." You can see that it's a hammer so you don't need the narrator to point that out, but through the narration you can deduce that the protagonist has history with this hammer and that the narrator knows it. Further, through the narrator's particular delivery you sense that this history has had its ups and downs. Using this type of narration, we gradually build the backstory in the context of the player's immediate actions and surroundings – I would never expect you to care about something that wasn't onscreen. Following the points in my GDC presentation, I mean to deliver on the major questions raised in the game, but moment-to-moment this type of narration should give a sense of a detailed world that existed before you started playing the game.

2. Keep it short. Our narrator is a storyteller but a terse man. Unlike me he doesn't waste his breath, and that's fortunate because our environments are packed with detail and leave no room for long speeches. In order to achieve the moment-to-moment reactive feel we want from the narration, the lines have to be short. Our narrator has a flair for the dramatic and speaks in a low flat voice, so tonally the lines tend to fit well together even if there's a lot of silence in between statements. These were factors in the character design.

3. No breaking the fourth wall. One of the most exciting aspects of having a narrator in our game are all the opportunities to break from player expectations, and raise a lot of interesting questions over time. A temptation in all this is to have the narrator address the player directly or step out of the story and break into metafiction, maybe tutorialize the game by telling you when to press and hold the X button and so forth. But it didn't take long to realize this wasn't going to work. As mentioned earlier on, our high-level goals include building immersion and investment. If the narrator were to break the fourth wall, we might get a momentary gag out of it but we'd be undermining the experience we want to achieve by violating the player's expectations around the game's own logic. We have a cleaner way of training players, and as with everything else, the narrator is there to reinforce those moments without stepping on them.

4. Reward experimentation and playing with finesse. Our narrator provides a great reward system, provided players like what he does for the game. I want players to develop a relationship with him as a character and to feel like they can provoke certain types of comments out of him. This happens to be well in line with the type of play experience we want to deliver, one where players feel like they can do whatever they want in the world, experiment with all the different systems and weapons, explore a bit off the beaten path, and so on. Having the narrator specifically acknowledge these moments tends to provide positive reinforcement in a natural way. We realized the closest thing to what we were going for were some of our favorite announcers in games from completely different genres, from the announcer screaming "BOOM-SHAKALAKA" after an awesome dunk in NBA JAM to Shao Khan saying "Excellent" after a ferocious uppercut in Mortal Kombat (both games were done by Midway in their glory days). The key difference is our narrator isn't quipping, he's telling a contiguous story for the most part. Having him sneak in a few incidental remarks based on the player's choices or performance helps make the whole thing feel personal and specific.

5. No repeats. When done properly, our real-time narration starts to take on the quality of a story unfolding, and starts to get at those high-level goals we want to achieve. But nothing sucks the momentum out of the game's narrative like a repeated line. Almost every game uses repetitious dialogue even if it's got tens of thousands of lines of dialogue in it; combat encounters will repurpose enemy battle chatter and so on. With Bastion we realized that the moment any line repeated itself – for example, our narrator has different things to say if the player falls off a ledge – immersion is broken. You realize in that moment that you're playing a game where the narrator might loop through a host of different lines after a specific event, as in a real-time strategy game where your units will cycle through several responses whenever you issue an order. So we drew a line in the sand: No repeats in the game, not unless you replay the game from the start or restart a scenario from scratch (and even then we mix up the narration). This posed certain design challenges, such as what happens if a player revisits certain areas, but we're happily taking those on in the spirit of maintaining the feel we're going for.

If there's one main underlying point in all this, it's that everything we're doing with the narration in Bastion is there only to support the specific type of play experience we're making. Everything from how the narrator character sounds and how he talks came about purposefully as part of the exploration around gameplay concepts and game themes. Bastion is hardly the first game to use narration to deliver story, so we never set out to pursue the idea of having a narrator purely for the sake of being different. Instead, we're pursuing it because we realized it worked well for the game we wanted to make and for the process we're using to make it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

A New Chapter

This is an uncharacteristic post but it's time I updated with some personal news I wanted to share. Normally I'm opposed to using this space for personal information -- I can barely find the words to talk about my life to my closest friends -- but in this case it's directly related to the larger topic of this blog.

Two days after my previous post, my son Isaac was born. Then after I took two weeks for paternity leave, I returned to work and resigned from my job. This coming week after my last day with my employer, I'm going to get in a van with four other guys with whom I'll be working from now on, and make the 14-or-so-hour drive to Seattle for PAX Prime. There I'll be giving a talk titled "Memoirs of a Triple Agent" about my experiences having worked in gaming media, development, and publishing, and lessons for contending with each of these factions. I'll also be announcing my new venture, which will allow me to get much more hands-on with design and writing for games (among many other responsibilities), in addition to having a somewhat more flexible schedule to accomodate the changes in my family life.

I'm giving up a lot, something I try not to think about too much. I was treated very well at my job and was given a lot of responsibility and latitude to do things my own way, and for that I'm deeply grateful. I wish all the best to the development team I've been working with as well as to the publishing team that took me in and supported me. But this new thing, this is something I have to do and this may be the only chance I'll ever get to do it. Life's too short to let any such chances slip away. I only hope my colleagues will forgive me for what must have seemed like a sudden change of heart.

I started my professional career working independently. I co-published a gaming fanzine out of high school. I started doing freelance work for gaming magazines. I cofounded a gaming web site. And then I joined GameSpot, what was then one of the largest independent gaming publications around. There I stayed for 10 years and through two corporate acquisitions; what started as a disruptive force in gaming media had become an entrenched part of the establishment by the end of my stint. Following that, I joined Electronic Arts as a producer because I needed to get on with realizing my dreams of making games, and then last year I joined 2K Games as a producer on the publishing side -- both of these are large but very different companies that can achieve whatever they focus on. And now things are coming full circle, as I'll at last be leaving the corporate world behind for the trials and tribulations of independent game development. I have no delusions about this change. But I welcome the challenge and I relish the work itself. While I'll no longer be working on the sorts of multimillion dollar projects I often write about here, independent games have a purity of vision (and increasingly a high quality of execution) that's incredibly alluring to me. So in this new capacity, I expect to be able to apply what I know and what I think in a pure way that's manifested in original games designed for people who love games as I do.

All I want is to pour everything I've got into making a game people can love. It will be something I want to look back on and say, this truly was a part of me -- it's not just something I sank a bunch of time and effort into out of principle. And if it's a game I could one day play with my son or daughter, so much the better.

I have no plans to make a habit of hijacking this space for self-promotion like this, but as you can see, the last month's held a slew of changes that I wanted to share (especially since they've preoccupied me from coming up with anything more relevant to write about right now). In the spirit of getting it all out of the way in one swoop, I'd also like to mention I'll be giving another talk in October at GDC Online in Austin, titled "I Don't Want to Know: Delivering Exposition in Games". Unlike my PAX talk, this one will be close in spirit to the type of subjects I've been writing about here. I haven't done any speaking functions in some time but am really looking forward to getting back out there and sharing everything I think I know about my favorite subjects.

I'll need a lot of luck where I'm going so if you have any to share I'd be much obliged.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Infernal Logic

Limbo is the arresting puzzle-platformer released in July for Xbox Live Arcade, and I wanted to talk a bit about this fascinating game through the lens of narrative design. So if you haven't played and finished it already, I highly recommend you do so before reading -- or even instead of reading. After all, beautifully crafted and artful games like this don't come around very often, though I'm not writing about Limbo here just because it's great.

In some respects, there's not much to say about Limbo's use of narrative. The game doesn't have a single spoken word in it and barely has any written words in it either. I believe "Hotel" is literally the only word that appears as part of the game itself (discounting menu text and credits). Like the rest of the narrative, I think this word ultimately is a red herring, something that probably inspires a lot of speculation about its meaning when players run into it, yet there's really not much there -- it's art for art's sake. Which is fine. This is how Limbo works.

Limbo has no real story as such. But you go through the game consciously or subconsciously looking for one, expecting one, because Limbo does such an excellent job of creating atmosphere and giving exposition, using methods that are as minimal as they are effective. Thus you expect the opening exposition to be expanded on, because of how our brains parse things shaped like stories. The game has one of the most intensely concentrated and compelling openings I've played in some years. It makes you think there's a story, and fills your head with dozens of interesting questions: who am I? where am I? why am I here? what am I looking for? who else is here besides me? am I even alive? The game's presentation is so strong that you in turn play through with the confidence that the authors of the game, and the game itself, must hold the answers. These types of questions are enough to keep you going through some extremely challenging puzzles that you'd sooner give up on if not for the game's narrative drive.

If you've finished the game, then you've unlocked all the stages in the Chapters menu. If Limbo were a typical puzzle game, that Chapters menu would have structured the experience. You would have selected puzzles from that screen, finished them or maybe not, then dropped back to that screen to pick the next one. As a result, the game would have been a pale shadow of itself. One of the things that makes Limbo so special among puzzle games and among platformers is that it offers a completely seamless, contiguous experience -- it's like one long level. You become completely immersed in it due to the flawlessly executed art style, audio ambience, and physics simulation, all delivered without interruption. At the same time, little story vignettes imply a greater meaning to the events that take place, a meaning you continue to search for until the game is over. The game breaks your immersion only when it gets too hard, which happened to me a couple of times early on then a couple of more times towards the end. But not so often that I wasn't fascinated to keep playing, to see where the whole thing was going.

It ends up going who-knows-where. The theme of the game gives it an "out" from a narrative perspective, in that a game about the place between life and death doesn't need to make sense (and probably shouldn't), and it doesn't need to provide clear answers (and probably shouldn't). Even still, Limbo's narrative felt incomplete to me in a way that wasn't entirely satisfying. I loved the starkness of the ending, the smash cut to the credits. I didn't love that things that seemed so intriguing in the game never came back into play. It struck me that the most interesting scenes were front-loaded. The game was at its most interesting when other living beings were afoot. Shadows of savage humanoids lurking in the darkness. Strange tortured souls hanging in the background. Flies swarming rotten chunks of meat. A man-made spider contraption. These sinister images are the game's most memorable. Later when it takes a shift to giant clockwork machinery and sketchy film noir neon signs, I realized that what was pushing me forward was my search for continuity, to see those dark shapes from the forest in the beginning come back and reassert themselves. And of course I wanted to see what happened at the end. It's a puzzle game and I was trying to piece together the biggest puzzle it had put in front of me. But it's the one puzzle that can't be solved. In the end, the game ends close to where it started, in the forest where the game is at its strongest. Limbo is a game about what it feels like to take a wrong turn.

I had this feeling that there's no continuity to the game in part because there was no good way to create continuity among the puzzles the design team chose to include and polish to perfection, probably from among many hundreds or thousands that they cut during the iteration process. I found myself wondering what content was left on the cutting room floor.

In the description paragraph you can read before you download the game, you're told that it's about a boy trying to find his sister. This is a surprisingly specific detail for a game that revels in unanswered questions. In Shadow of the Colossus, the ambiguity around the protagonist's relationship to the girl he seems to be trying to save works in the game's favor, to build intrigue. You're left to wonder about their relationship and what would drive the protagonist to do what he's doing for her sake. Even if it's love it takes a special love and a special woman to motivate a young man to hunt giant monsters for a woman's sake. In Limbo, you see an apparition of what looks like a girl on a couple of occasions before you finally encounter her right at the end. It's easy enough to interpret the plot of the game as something similar to Shadow of the Colossus from these scenes, yet being told precisely what the protagonist's relationship is to the girl he appears to be searching for feels unnecessary to a game that gives nothing else away. I wonder if the creators of the game had much of a part in writing that description.

I don't think most people went into Limbo expecting much of a story, and neither did I. But having a story isn't the only way to build narrative depth into a game, as Limbo demonstrates. The game may have no meaning, but man, does it ever make you search for one. At least that's how it worked on me, and I like it when games leave me with a lingering feeling, especially if they're going to be short. Did you take something different away from it than I did?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Justifying Systems

When I hear people describe something as "gamey", usually they're not paying a compliment. It's an odd way to bag on a game when you think about it, and I can't think of an analogy in any other medium, except maybe comics. Sometimes, such as in the upcoming Bulletstorm or last year's Borderlands, gamey qualities are designed into the experience. These are games where brightly colored messanges, numbers, or loot drops burst forth from enemy corpses, like a violent Peggle, in a manner that has no bearing on realism and is only comparable to what's been seen before in other games including slot machines and such. Hence, "gamey". These effects are there to heighten the sensory pleasures resulting from the basic actions available to the player.

In most cases, though, games described as "gamey" in the negative sense are the ones where insufficient effort went into integrating certain game systems with the aesthetics and fiction of the gameworld. When a game expects the player to blindly accept why something works a certain way, simply because that's how the thing works in other previous games, I think the game threatens to become gamey-in-a-bad-way. Something about the experience of such games feels grating on the senses, as for every instant you begin to feel immersed while playing, something about the design shoves you back from the brink and reminds you that you're just sitting there on your couch playing a game. I think one of the responsibilities of narrative design as a discipline is to find meaningful ways of justifying game systems within the gameworld, in order to avoid that gamey feeling where it's not supposed to belong, and I'd like to talk more about that here.

In Mass Effect 2, still my favorite game so far this year (next to Super Street Fighter IV), the game goes to extremely elaborate lengths to justify why you get to do the things you get to do at the beginning of pretty much every Western role-playing game, such as defining your character's appearance and proficiencies. The game opens with this completely wild and apocalyptic sci-fi explanation of how come a character introduced in the previous game now has to start over from scratch. It's the BioWare equivalent of the scene at the beginning of every Metroid game where Samus inevitably loses all her power-ups, or when Death shows up five minutes into a Castlevania to shake down the foppish hero for his cloak and rapier (I guess to fill us with latent righteous rage from all those times the big kids stole our lunch money and knocked the binders from our hands). But you know what? That opening scene in Mass Effect 2 worked really well overall. It showed you the people behind this game weren't asleep at the wheel, that they'd thought of a way to meet your expectations for story continuity as well as your expectations going into a new sci-fi role-playing game. They didn't just throw the conventional character-creation screen at you without any reason. Compare this with the approach taken by White Knight Chronicles 2, a Japanese role-playing game whose solution to story continuity is to prevent you from playing unless you've finished the previous game. Imagine if they checked for your past Harry Potter ticket stubs when standing in line to see the latest one.

Games sometimes go too far to justify everything about them. A friend and I would often debate whether Assassin's Creed was guilty of this, as an example. The heads-up display, interface, and even the loading screens of that game were heavily explained away in the sci-fi metastory of a guy stuck in an evil MRI device that tapped into latent memories of his dark-ages ancestors. I told him I liked what they were going for, while he felt the game was trying way too hard, to the point where aspects of the user interface became highly distracting to him while he was playing, because they felt so contrived. According to my friend, the game didn't need to justify why button prompt tips appeared onscreen or why you had a map -- these are things we as game players accept without question. And he's probably right. Even still, I felt Assassin's Creed had its heart in the right place trying to marry these types of interface conventions in a game set a thousand years ago. If the sci-fi elements of the story were handled more gracefully, for instance as a big metaworld reveal later in the game foreshadowed only by the interface, I think it could have all come together in an amazing way. We would have experienced the revelation that certain conventions we just accepted as game players were in fact connected to the story in a meaningful way. Instead, the game frontloads exposition about why you have a health bar and a map, which sags the pace of the story and distracts from what was interesting about the game -- namely, the cities you could run around in.

A game is not responsible to justify every little system or gameplay contrivance to the player, because as players we're willing to accept a lot of things at face value without any explanation. At the same time, I think we appreciate it when game systems are gracefully explained and justified. So, the narrative design process involves looking for opportunities to integrate aspects of game systems design into the gameworld in a way that makes sense and is interesting to the player without being disruptive.

A classic example of justifying game interface conventions is the original Command & Conquer, with its wonderful installation sequence on down to its robotic female battlefield announcer. Like any PC game of the time, you had to install this one to your hard drive before you could play. But you didn't merely install that game -- due to its amazing animated install sequence, you felt like you were tapping into a sophisticated battle control interface, like something out of the movie War Games. I always felt that Command & Conquer was a first-person game, where you happen to be looking through your character's eyes at his battle interface, and as a fan I was disappointed in how the series seemed to drift further and further away from this direction rather than embracing it.

Another of my favorite cases of this is from Super Mario 64. As the entire concept of controlling a character from a third-person perspective in 3D, plus having to control the camera, was quite new at this point, the game went out of its way to show you that the "camera" was in fact a little flying cameraman character trailing behind Mario the entire time. I think games that go to such lengths to be internally consistent have a tendency to be great.

The real downfall of this type of thinking is when it leads to the destruction of conventions that exist with good reason. When the fiction of the game trumps the game of the game, the result are some of those games that try to do such things as eliminate all interface at the expense of your ability to play. The most surprising example I can think of is The Getaway, a GTA-inspired PS2 game, which has no onscreen heads-up display whatsoever in the name of cinematic realism in spite of being structured like an open-world game. So, in order to navigate the city during your missions, you have to follow your vehicle's turn signals, since there's no minimap much less any sort of GPS. Problem is, your turn signals can be shattered during the game's numerous chase scenes, leaving you completely blind unless you happen to know your way around London for real. I'm pretty sure even the people who live in London don't know their way around that city. At any rate, when the fiction or presentation of a game starts to get in the way of basic usability, they've probably gone too far. The only HUD-free game I've ever played that handled it pretty well was Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth.

There's no formula to this stuff. It needs to be handled artfully on a case by case basis that suits the particular game. I'll continue to defend the original Halo as another outstanding example -- I've met a bunch of people who seem to resent the game's popularity and write Halo off as having merely been in the right place at the right time, but as far as I'm concerned it's probably the most influential game of the last 10 years. The Call of Duty series and just about every other shooter owes a debt to Halo for such common ideas as regenerating health and limited capacity for carrying weapons. These ideas in Halo were so well-thought-out that they felt like completely natural parts of the fiction. Much like Gordon Freeman's HEV suit in Half-Life, which was the reason you as a player felt capable of surviving through an insane situation that was killing everyone else around you, in Halo those recharging energy shields of yours are the ultimate key to your success. They're explained early on as an integral component of your one-of-a-kind armor through an excellent Robocop-style first-person diagnostics sequence that even fictionalizes the decision of whether to invert the controls for looking up and down. Five minutes into Halo, I felt completely absorbed in that world. When a game's tutorial can do that, it's off to a good start.

People don't naturally expect for game mechanics to be justified by the fiction and often don't notice or mind when this isn't done, unless it sticks out. Military shooters have appropriated Halo's regenerative health system but applied it to flesh-and-blood characters who we'd expect to die from one or two bullets, and yet nobody seems to mind too much. Regenerating health may not fit the aesthetics of modern military combat, but a a game mechanic, it works, so most of us think nothing of it. But I think there's a danger of stacking too many inexplicable conventions into a game, which causes the game to begin to lose its identity and feel like a bunch of patchwork ideas. Conversely, I think there's a great benefit to artfully ingraining the mechanics, systems, and feedback of the game into the fiction of what's going on in it. In Oddworld Stranger's Wrath, there's this fantastic crossbow weapon that supports different ammo types. Each ammo type is in fact a different little creature (live ammunition, get it?) with its own weird personality that affords what the ammo type does.

What are some of your own favorite or least favorite examples of games justifying their game systems through the fiction? Can you think of other cases where a game was either trying too hard to root its gameplay in the fiction, or didn't try hard enough?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

You Don't Have to Say It

I felt very fortunate to have attended the Electronic Entertainment Expo last week, same as I've felt every single other year at the show since it started in 1995. The main difference in my experience this year was that I really only saw just the one game I came there to demonstrate, so I spent mornings and nights catching up online on everything I missed. And looking back on all those many great-looking games that were shown, the one I wish I could have seen if I could pick just one is Journey, from the makers of Flower -- primarily because that game is pursuing a goal I happen to care about very much, which, as creative director Jenova Chen puts it, is to "tell a story without using any language" (source). Wordless storytelling is a minimal and powerful technique that's well explored and understood in other media, ranging from all-ages movies like WALL-E to blood-soaked manga like Lone Wolf and Cub, yet in mainstream games it's gone out of vogue due to our industry's focus on technology and content storage. After all, why would we remove words from our games when our storage media let us cram in more words than ever? Jenova Chen and team at least recognize that this isn't a rhetorical question. Wordless storytelling won't be a first for Journey (Chen's already done it very well with Flower), so I'd like to talk about other cases where this has worked well in the past, and why. I'm not advocating for it as a path most games should take, but then again if more games would just shut up, it wouldn't be the worst thing.

When I think of great wordless stories in games, the first example I think of is the 1987 arcade classic, Double Dragon. On the surface its story seems like the worst kind of gaming cliché: a pretty girl is kidnapped, so her boyfriend takes matters into his own hands by beating to blink-away-death everyone who stands between him and her (video). The difference with Double Dragon, as in all great things, is in the details: One of the thugs in the opening scene is wearing a yellow jump suit and carrying a machine gun; there's a tricked-out Trans Am in the protagonist's garage, and the building he emerges from bears the name "English Tear". These details gave the world a sense of depth for its time, inviting interesting questions. Double Dragon is one of many games where you're supposed to save the girl. But it's the first such game that made me wonder why she got kidnapped in the first place. It's the first action game I ever read anything into. These guys didn't kidnap this girl because she was pretty. They did it to get back at you for something.

There's more to Double Dragon. You can play the game simultaneously with another player, and if the two of you survive to the end, the grand twist is that the two of you must end up fighting each other to win the heart of the girl you were working together to rescue. There are no words used to express any of this (except a poorly translated you-win screen at the very end), yet it conveyed a complex relationship -- a good old fashioned love triangle, in an action game whose story was delivered without any language. The mechanics of Double Dragon were incredibly satisfying to me in their day, but it was the story, with its perfect expository scene and great endgame sequence, that makes the experience of it unforgettable for me. I've appreciated the power of wordless storytelling in games ever since then.

Other games even before Double Dragon's time were doing similar stuff. Several years prior, Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner created an amazing computer game in Karateka, considered the first game with cutscenes in it. Karateka has a similar rescue-the-girl premise as Double Dragon, and likewise went to surprising lengths at building up its characters in what was a relatively simple game. The difference for me was that Double Dragon's story connected the player to the inciting incident of the story -- we see a girl take a hard hit and get hauled off moments before our character emerges, whereas in Karateka, our hero shows up in a separate scene after we see the fair princess get locked up in a cell. We don't empathize with the Karateka protagonist as quickly as we do in Double Dragon because there's less of an implied connection between the player character and the girl, and less of a sense of urgency to get her before something terrible happens. Nevertheless, Karateka and Double Dragon were the '80s equivalent of blockbuster action games, and they pushed the envelope in terms of cinematic storytelling in the medium. The reason they didn't rely on words, I guess, must be at least partly due to the technical constraint that there was no easy way they could have. But by having to give exposition and establish a setting and a mission without being able to use any words, these games delivered story in a far more elegant way than most modern games do. I think those techniques absolutely are extensible to today's games and could be used to tell the sorts of deeper, longer stories that today's players expect.

Elegant storytelling is conservative storytelling. Scenes should be enriched with as much subtextual meaning as possible before words are used to give any of it away. The more space and time needed to establish characters, places, and motives, the more the story runs the risk of becoming bloated and getting in the way of the gameplay. I don't mean to overgeneralize, mind you, since some of my favorite narrative experiences in games -- from Ultima V to Metal Gear Solid to Planescape: Torment to Fire Emblem -- happen to be very, very wordy. But I have a deep respect for games that can immerse me into the experience without having to talk me into why I should care.

For example, that game Journey evidently takes inspiration from Shadow of the Colossus, which is a relatively more recent example of a game that delivered most of its story, including its own very strong expository scene, using very little language at all (video). And somewhere in between these two cases was Super Metroid, one of my favorite 16-bit games, which features an amazing endgame sequence that's rich with action and emotion yet goes over without so much as a word (video).

I happen to think players generally deserve more credit than most games give them, both in their capacity to learn and use complex overlapping systems and in their capacity to infer meaning. Occasionally there's a game like Braid or like Myst that invites players to explore with barely a word of explanation, and such games have a way of capturing fiercely loyal audiences. Because absolutely everyone, young and old, likes to feel smart. Conversely, absolutely no one, young or old, likes feeling condescended to. And so, games that express silent confidence in the player's ability to pull details out of the scene pay their players a great compliment by giving them the benefit of the doubt that they'll understand what's going on even though there isn't on-the-nose dialogue there to explain everything away.

Of my written work that's been published, most has been published online, with too little regard for length. Having hard constraints -- whether it's for an author working in print or a game developer limited by time or technology -- can bring about good practices that come undone when those same constraints disappear. Then it takes years for games like Journey to come around to reintroduce old ideas for a new generation. But you know? Works for me.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Knowing vs. Growing Protagonists

In recent years more and more games have made me feel like an actor who doesn't know his lines in the middle of a performance. The set dressing changes but the experience is the same: For a while, everything is happening according to the script, until we reach the point where I start screwing up my part. Pregnant pauses and awkwardness ensue. Failure in highly scripted games feels almost embarrassing, like failing to solve a simple puzzle, because the star's performance as the hero/soldier in these games isn't even intended to be challenging.

I think all this is a byproduct of what happens when games are chiefly designed to fulfill a particular power fantasy for the largest number of players, even at the expense of giving those players the ability to relate to the situation. There's an inherent dissonance to playing a realistic-looking game as a highly experienced character of some sort -- a spy or a supersoldier or whoever -- when you yourself don't know how to perform actions that should be second nature for the protagonist character. And judging by the trends, mainstream retail gaming's answer is to reduce difficulty, automate, and front-load lots of contrived training in order to ease you in. This feels like formula. So what does it take to provide a genuinely different and affecting experience in a mainstream game at this point? I think the answer is closely linked to the design of the protagonist character, and his or her persona, abilities, and relationship to the world of the game.

It used to be more common for games to ramp the player's abilities. Classic games like Metroid and The Legend of Zelda demonstrated how compelling it is to start off as a character with great potential but limited ability and gradually gain access to a wider variety of powerful moves. This achieves a few things: It gives the player incentives to continue exploring, knowing that the next cool ability may be right around the next corner; it allows for intricate level designs that make the much-maligned concept of backtracking seem palatable if the player is later able to traverse areas in surprising new ways and faster than before; and it provides a natural ramp for a game's challenge and difficulty, by allowing early encounters to be simple and later encounters to be tougher and more complex. I love games that have these qualities, whether they're Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or Metroid Prime or Batman: Arkham Asylum. But it seems to me they're less common now than they used to be. I don't think this is because this type of structure became unpopular. I think it's because the pursuit of realism in games (or rather the idea of "superficial authenticity") became relatively more popular.

If you're a supersoldier or a spy, you're what I'd call a "knowing protagonist", someone who's been training your whole life for this mission of a lifetime you're about to go on. The world of that mission does not support the idea that you'd somehow gain an incredible new ability during the mission, since you're already at the height of your prowess. You might find an experimental weapon or some cool new gadgets, and you might ride on vehicles or have to go through a level without killing anybody or something. But the pressure's squarely on the level design and possibly the story rather than on the ramp-up of player abilities to keep you engrossed. On the other hand, if you're somebody like Link, a kid with humble origins but a lot of potential, you start off with nowhere to go but up and you're what I'd call a "growing protagonist". As well, having a gameworld that's more imaginative than real opens up opportunities for Link or others like him to grow in power in a dramatic way.

A protagonist character with humble beginnings doesn't have the natural, superficial appeal of an already-experienced character such as a tough-as-nails supersoldier or an unstoppable assassin. But by starting out strong, these types of characters naturally and severely constrain the internal logic of the gameworlds they inhabit, forcing designers to front-load play mechanics and put all the pressure on level designs and story to keep things interesting. Max Payne, Master Chief, Markus Fenix, and Soap MacTavish all start with the same exact abilities they end with -- the guns change, the scenery changes, the story changes, but the moment-to-moment gameplay basically stays the same the whole time. I love the games these guys are from, too. But their games have influenced two whole generations of similar stuff that seemed to muscle out many of the Links and the Alucards and the Samuses, in favor of more true-to-life and arguably less interesting characters and worlds.

Reality-based games may be a big draw for mainstream developers or publishers, but reality imposes some really awful constraints on games. For instance, how do you teach a player the basic rules when you're also trying to make him believe that he's that badass supersoldier looking tough on the box art? The two goals are almost contradictory and yet almost every action or adventure game faces the challenge of building immersion while teaching the player how to navigate the environment.

Some games manage very clever solutions. I loved playing as a Russian grunt at the beginning of Call of Duty 2, learning to throw potatoes like grenades because grenades were too costly for the Soviets to train with. What a fantastic bit of exposition. Running the training course as the new guy at the beginning of Modern Warfare, while an obvious solution on some level, also worked well to draw players into the experience while making them empathize with the protagonist character -- even a silent protagonist like Soap MacTavish. After all, Soap was going through exactly the same thing as the player -- learning, training, trying to fit in. By the time Modern Warfare 2 came around, Soap was no longer wet behind the ears, so developer Infinity Ward did something brilliant by making him a nonplayer helper character (at least when we first meet him) and once again cast you as someone still learning the ropes.

Batman: Arkham Asylum also did a fantastic job of justifying the player's learning. Batman is a perfect example of a character who should be at the height of his power at the beginning of a story, unless it's his origin story. But in Arkham Asylum, developer Rocksteady Games justifies making him a "growing protagonist" by telling a story of a routine Batman mission that happens to go pretty badly wrong... leading to Batman being physically unprepared for what's to come and having to scrounge up additional tools from the Batmobile, his secret Bat Cave, and so on. Batman's growth is further expressed by his suit becoming more and more tattered over time -- he physically appears more experienced by the end. The moments where Batman gains new powers in the game feel pretty forced from a story perspective, but they enable the open-ended structure and that immensely satisfying feeling of having escalating powers and abilities.

A protagonist character's status in his world at the beginning of a game is the foundation for the internal logic that structures the player's progress. If you start off as a supersoldier, there's not a lot of room to grow. You might succeed against all odds, but no one's going to promote you if you're already Master Chief. Or if two hours into the experience you already have your own team, your own spaceship, and carte blanche to do pretty much whatever in the galaxy as in Mass Effect, then no wonder you're going to wind up feeling a bit let down by the shallow systems governing character progress -- there's no real room to grow, not within the constraints of a "hard science" world where you start out on top. On the other hand, in BioWare's own Knights of the Old Republic, your character dramatically gained power, becoming a Jedi and gaining all its perks at record speed... something that felt almost suspiciously too good to be true until the game's big reveal that completely justified your character's remarkable ability to grow in power. Of course, the role-playing genre tends to heavily revolve around the concept of character progression, but almost any kind of game can use fiction to justify and support progression of the player's abilities and a smooth ramp of the complexity of the game rules.

So, coming back to the question posed at the beginning: How to satisfy the mainstream power fantasy while avoiding the dissonance of having the player's lack of experience with a game collide with the protagonist character's strength and know-how? There's no formulaic answer, of course. But games that work hard at this problem I think tend have tighter internal logic, more empathetic protagonists, and a stronger structure than games that just assume you want to be a supersoldier and that you're OK with a few minutes of obligatory tutorial at the beginning even if it has nothing to do with the plot. Assassin's Creed II is a good recent example, a game that had a ton of natural appeal through its fantasy of becoming a cool-as-ice assassin stalking through the back alleys of rennaissance Italy -- but you had to earn your way into that role, learning the ropes as you went along. I didn't like the first couple of hours of that game as much as the rest (I'll come back to this when I write more about exposition), but I think playing through the "origin story" of Ezio made the brunt of the experience of that game all the more rewarding.

In short, I think it's a good thing for a gameworld to justify the protagonist character's ability to change during the course of the game. If I could make whatever game I wanted, I'd make one with a protagonist character who has a significant capacity to grow throughout the game, as a reflection of the player's own growing familiarity with the game rules.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Three Dimensions of World Design

One of the greatest, most influential game companies of all time is Origin Systems, which faded into obscurity during the second half of the '90s. But for a while there, Origin was at the forefront of the medium, specifically with the Ultima and Wing Commander series. I think it was in Ultima VI, the latest in a streak of outstanding games, when I noticed Origin using a succinct and fitting slogan: "We create worlds." They weren't kidding. To this day, Ultima and Wing Commander are among the most fully realized and, for me at least, memorable videogame worlds. These settings supported any number of games and other extensions ranging from novels to feature films. Unfortunately, someone failed to defend the integrity and quality of these worlds somewhere along the road to fortune. However, the string of failures leading to these franchises' demise ought not to diminish what they succeeded in doing in the past. Especially since the total number of memorable, unique gameworlds is relatively small.

I want there to be more, whether I make them or you do.

Think of your favorite gameworlds as I thought of Ultima and Wing Commander: What do they have in common? In my case, on the surface it seems as though the medieval fantasy world of Ultima has little in common with the futuristic-yet-modern-feeling world of Wing Commander, and to be sure, the best games in these series didn't come out of a formulaic process. But I do think these and all other successful, original gameworlds share a certain structure in common, and here I'm going to illustrate its triangular shape.

I think anything that qualifies as a successful, original gameworld can be expressed in exactly three dimensions. Two dimensions is too few, and four is generally too many for a gameworld intended to be enjoyed by a large number of people. When I say dimensions, I mean specific overarching traits -- these are not genre statements like "science fiction", but are broad-stroke characteristic statements, such as "on a space station at the beginning of the 21st century." In other words, each of these dimensions must be a valid, reasonable answer to the question, "what are the essential properties of this gameworld?" Moreover, the gameworld must make good on each of these dimensions, by developing it in an artful way and to a sufficient degree, to the point where the author could, if he so chose, answer any player's questions about how the world works. The version of the gameworld that we experience as players ought to be the tip of the iceberg.

Let's walk through some examples of what I'm talking about, starting with the game series I already mentioned.

Ultima -- Ultima's world of Britannia has the following dimensions:
  1. Set in a medieval low-fantasy world based on the European dark ages
  2. Teleportation-style travel is possible between this world and ours, as well as within this world
  3. The world is governed by a strict and ancient moral code
I think when people who remember Britannia think of Britannia, they mostly think of the first dimension I listed here, because that's the world's main characteristic. However, I think the second and third dimensions are the ones that gave the world its depth, accessibility, and originality -- they're the traits that take Britannia far beyond the boundaries of cliché. If you've never played one of the good Ultimas before, the world may sound generic to you, because its secondary and tertiary dimensions aren't as prominent or may not sound that cool when you just read about them. But those dimensions do reveal themselves very quickly in the context of any of the classic games in the series. For such long games, they all have very strong openings that grab you and pull you in. And there you stay, for two decades and counting in my case.

Now let's have a look at Wing Commander before moving on to more modern examples so I stop sounding so dated.

Wing Commander -- The world of Wing Commander is:
  1. Set in the Milky Way galaxy in the relative near future when spaceflight is common
  2. About a war between humankind and a race of cat creatures (not as embarrassing as it sounds)
  3. The war is waged by pilots whose personal lives intertwine with their battles
On the surface, the world of Wing Commander maybe sounds less interesting than the world of Ultima, given these dimensions. And indeed, it isn't as interesting -- not the world itself. Because, the most essential dimension that lends Wing Commander its aesthetic quality is the third one, the one about the characters. Interesting characters, like interesting worlds, require multiple dimensions in and of themselves, which is a topic I'll cover next time. For now, the fact that Wing Commander pays special attention to its characters and their personal lives is -- while not the primary characteristic of the gameworld -- essential to the integrity of the world.

Gameworlds can change form over time, though the evolution process is dangerous. Later Wing Commander games attempted to replace the second trait about humans fighting cats, by introducing a new antagonist faction. These attempts were not very successful, so deeply ingrained were the Kilrathi in the world design. The same thing happened to Star Wars when they expected you to care about the Trade Federation in Episode I. It's not Star Wars, because Star Wars is essentially about a rebellion versus an empire, and the world loses something important when that dimension is replaced by some other dimension.

Once in a while you get a truly inspired gameworld out of a shooter. The go-to example is:

BioShock -- Its world of Rapture is:
  1. A fallen underwater city
  2. A place where genetic mutation is done purposely and has druglike properties
  3. Set around 1960 in the not-too-distant past
I think some would argue that the philosophy of BioShock, the Ayn Rand-inspired objectivist themes expressed in the setting and some of the main characters, are essential to BioShock as a gameworld. To me they're the game's fourth dimension, something that added a great deal more depth for certain players but was not fundamentally important to what made the world of the game so interesting and popular. The use of philosophy in BioShock reminded me of the use of philosophy in The Matrix; it shaped certain key characters, made people in the audience who "got" it feel smart, and it worked best as an easily ignored undercurrent. When the Matrix sequels dialed up the philosophizing, people tuned it out. They wanted more more quasi-modern dystopian mayhem, more kung fu, and more visions of humanity struggling against its robot oppressors. No one wanted naked raves, at least not before those other essential requirements were met.

Now let's speedrun through a few others:

Halo --
  1. Distant future setting beyond the reaches of the known galaxy
  2. War between humankind and a fanatical high-tech alien collective
  3. Mysterious ring-worlds that are ancient weapons
If the Halo games were about space combat instead of surface combat, then the world of Halo would be very similar to that of Wing Commander. But Halo and Wing Commander couldn't be further apart as games. It bears mentioning that the core systems of a game heavily influence the sensation given by its world.

Fallout --
  1. Post-apocalyptic America in the near future
  2. The culture of the world was "locked" in the not-too-distant past in an ironic way
  3. Morality is subjective in a society without law
If BioShock reminded you of Fallout, it's because the worlds have similar characteristics.

Starcraft --
  1. Distant future beyond the reaches of the known galaxy
  2. War between humankind, a fanatical high-tech alien collective, and a voracious alien hive
  3. The war is waged by soldiers whose personal lives intertwine with their battles
Starcraft has similar properties to Halo and Wing Commander, far beyond just being in the sci-fi genre. Yet to fans of these games, they all feel very different. You need only change one dimension of a given world design to alter the essence of that world.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. --
  1. Post-nuclear-meltdown Chernobyl set in the near future
  2. Radiation has created horrific mutants and strange anomalies
  3. Opportunists and others with little to lose explore the region for its riches
Let it be known that we Russians love Fallout. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. takes some influences from Fallout beyond just the post-nuclear setting -- it too is a gameworld concerned with the American dream, in a way.

Super Mario Bros. --
  1. Surreal and whimsical world where human characters don't fit in
  2. Comedy-violent interactions in which no one ever really gets hurt
  3. Lots of anthropomorphic inanimate objects, such as clouds with eyes
When Super Mario got away from dimension #3 in Super Mario Sunshine, the result was an uncomfortable departure from the expected-and-wanted Super Mario experience. Could there be a great Mario game without Mario as the star...?

Demon's Souls --
  1. Dark gothic medieval setting following a societal collapse
  2. Ancient gods and legendary warriors are reborn with newfound powers
  3. A prevailing sense of purgatory in which there is no release for the dead
As seems to be the case with a number of these, the third dimension of Demon's Souls is what makes the gameworld very interesting. Demon's Souls also does a good job of fully developing its world along all three of these axes, not just from a fiction perspective but from a systems design perspective as well.

*    *    *
This type of deconstruction is tougher for certain gameworlds, sometimes because they have so much going on in them. The world of EverQuest was a hodgepodge of every fantasy trope. It worked great for a while, but EverQuest started losing people when it started expecting people to care about the fiction -- none of the EverQuest spin-off games were particularly successful because the world lacked cohesion. Kingdom Hearts scored a lot of points by featuring recognizable Disney and Final Fantasy characters, but again, the world itself was difficult to describe. The world depended on its audience's preestablished familiarity with its supporting cast of characters, like a videogame version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Most gameworlds are bland. Typically they have only one or two dimensions. Ninja Gaiden is one of my favorite Xbox games but the world of the game makes no sense -- it's a modern or near-future world filled with ninjas and demons and ancient lore, and that's pretty much it. Being a relatively open-ended game that encouraged some degree of exploration, it could have benefited from a more well-defined world, such as the Legacy of Kain series' ancient and troubled land of Nosgoth. (But then, Ninja Gaiden is so good as an action game that this barely even matters.)

There are also those games that seem to have memorable gameworlds, when they only have memorable characters. God of War. Tomb Raider. The Legend of Zelda. These gameworlds defy the kind of deconstruction I've explained here by lacking a sufficient number of specific, defining traits. It's because their real defining trait is their protagonist character -- which, as with Wing Commander's ensemble cast of pilots, can count as one of the gameworld's three dimensions. But if you remove the character from these games, the world loses any distinction. You can't have a Tomb Raider without Lara Croft. You can't have a Zelda game without Link. And you can't have a Half-Life game with a wise-cracking protagonist rather than a silent one -- then you'd have Duke Nukem. As for my earlier examples, with the possible exceptions of Halo and Super Mario, those are worlds that are arguably defined by their own characteristics, rather than by the characteristics of their protagonists. The upcoming Halo: Reach has practically proven already that Halo is bigger than Master Chief. And the world of Super Mario Bros. is so iconic at this point that it can even withstand not having Mario in the spotlight, as we saw in last year's Bowser's Inside Story.

The point being: Unique gameworlds must be created intentionally, as a cornerstone of game projects that merit such an effort, in the service of game experiences in which the world itself is intended to be a major attraction.

I'm not advocating for all new games to try and create bold new worlds. If exploring and interacting with environments and their inhabitants are not integral parts of the game experience, then the game experience likely does not need to take place in some sort of unique world. A unique world may even be somewhat of a distraction, as in Zeno Clash, an awesome and inspired game whose world design is so out there that I feel as though it might have pushed away some players who really would have liked bashing in bird brains, which is really what the game boils down to. A more-traditional fighting game such as Super Street Fighter IV invests heavily in its characters and backstory, but not in the world itself -- the characters may be memorable but the backdrop matters less. A modern military shooter like Battlefield: Bad Company 2 likewise invests in its characters because the world itself is the modern world, and the game benefits from bringing players the familiarities of that world, from the weapons to the destructible environments. But certain game genres do benefit from or arguably require original gameworlds, and their creators bear the responsibility of crafting these worlds with the same care and attention as they put into their graphics and game systems.

What I've described here is not a formula, it's the form of the result. It's creatively bankrupt to attempt to create a gameworld by deriving or mixing and matching three different properties. But do think that one way to gauge a potentially promising world design is to identify its three primary dimensions, and then to make sure that each of these dimensions is fully explored in the context of the world and its stories. This thought process and the associated writing work has been useful to me at least, in my own attempts at outlining various gameworlds I'd want to build or be in.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Narrative Recognition

The narrative of a game should exist only to make the act of playing feel more meaningful, by giving context to the game's systems and scenarios. Even a simple narrative implementation can make a game feel more significant. The simplest and best example I can think of is Space Invaders, the iconic 1978 arcade game whose entire narrative is so conservative, it's limited to the two words of its title. The high concept of defending Earth from evil aliens combined with those expressive-yet-abstract shapes encroaching toward the bottom of the screen to create what's probably the world's first "epic" videogame. But if you took Space Invaders and changed only the name, maybe to something more literal like "Shoot the Sprites", the high stakes wouldn't have been there and players' imaginations wouldn't have run wild from it. The mechanics would have still been great for their time, but I think the narrative is what brought them to life. Space Invaders isn't a typical example of a game narrative, though there's at least some fictional context there, whereas a lot of games have none. It's OK for a game to have little to no narrative, it just better have some truly outstanding mechanics. Tetris might not have needed narrative, but Myst and Puzzle Quest did.

For these and other games that choose to provide the player with a fictional context, one of the best techniques they can use to draw the player into the experience in a profound and memorable way is to anticipate the player's emotions and expectations about the play experience itself, and recognize them at appropriate times through narrative feedback. 'Narrative recognition' is the shortest term I could come up with to describe this simple and practical technique. It does require some daring on a writer's and designer's part, though like everything else we do to avoid mediocrity, it's worth chancing. Today, as many games have grown more literal in their presentations, the minimum requirement for the player's imagination has diminished. However, for anyone responsible for crafting game content, the ability to imagine what's going on inside the player's head at any given time, and use this to spark the player's own imagination, continues to be key. Autoaim systems and other adaptive-difficulty tricks can make up for players' skill differentials, but I'm referring to the skill of interpreting a player's feelings beyond those of pleasure or frustration, which cannot be gauged as easily as how many health packs he's used or how many headshots he's scored. This is a skill that can only be cultivated from playing a lot of games, observing a lot of players playing games, or preferably both. And I think it's essential to crafting well paced experiences in a certain tone, especially if wit or humor is integral to that tone.

Think of a game that felt deeply personal to you. I bet you're either thinking of an incredibly time-consuming or competitive game with social elements like World of Warcraft or Counter-Strike, or the sort of game I'm writing about here -- the kind that recognized your expectations as a player and fed them back to you in a surprising, insightful way. The feeling you get from this is the videogame equivalent of meeting someone with the same favorite band as you.

Sometimes you're lucky to get this feeling early on in a game, such as in Half-Life 2, when in the opening scene, a professor is hammering you with exposition, leaving you free to explore his office... where you'll more than likely knock over one of his computer monitors, causing him to interrupt his speech and chew you out for not paying attention. It's a great little moment. The designers knew you were gonna screw around in there, and placed that little trap for you. In almost every shooter before Half-Life 2, you can bunnyhop like a moron in the middle of even the gravest of monologues. But in Half-Life 2, this opening scene informs you that you have a real presence in this world beyond just the presence of your guns. The rest of the game didn't have such moments in it but the placement of this very first one was important to quickly immersing the player in a world rich with detail, and setting an expectation for bits of comic relief amid all the sci-fi seriousness.

There are dozens of other examples, though on some level it's surprising there aren't more. In Uncharted 2, relatively early on there's a sequence in which you're introduced to the grenade-throwing mechanics. Nate Drake is well-positioned behind cover as a bunch of thugs bear down on him. Fortunately, a box of grenades happens to be in arm's reach. So of course Drake, speaking for the player, quips something like "well isn't this convenient", referring to the unlimited grenade box while acknowledging the cliché, subverting it, and turning it into one of the game's great self-referential moments. Without that little bit of nudging-and-winking dialogue, the scene would have been just another grenade-throwing tutorial.

Minor cases like that can be surprisingly poignant. In the classic SNES role-playing game Chrono Trigger, someone at some point makes the joke about how the protagonist doesn't talk much, a profound moment that for the first time points the spotlight at the silent-protagonist trope common to so many games. This same joke then appeared seemingly in almost every other game with a silent protagonist (including Half-Life 2), so it lost its impact after the umpteenth time, but the first few times it was great.

On the other hand, Saints Row does a brilliant job of subverting the silent protagonist cliché by having the protagonist blurt out some sort of ultra-offensive Silent Bob-style one-liner when you least expect it, just when the story has convinced you to start taking it seriously. It's legitimately funny stuff.

Then there's Max Payne, in which the hero once dreams he's a killer inside a videogame, in one of the game's most surreal and memorable moments. This too became a tired idea as more and more games fed you the line about how "this isn't a game", hoping you'd never heard it before. No More Heroes gets it right, by breaking the fourth wall on several occasions towards the end, conceding its own ridiculousness in moments that drive the game's self-effacing charm through the roof. 'This is a game' is No More Heroes' message, delivered playfully and perversely, at the height of the player's investment in the story.

Narrative recognition doesn't require breaking the fourth wall. Another one of my favorite examples is in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, in the excellent Dark Brotherhood quest line, where you've decided to become a contract killer and work among a surly bunch of assassins who don't take kindly to newcomers. Just as you finally grow to like them and earn their respect, you receive a secret mission to kill them all. It's timed perfectly. You kill scores of things in this game but none are tougher to put down than those guys in the assassin's guild, because the designers made you work for their affection, made you feel attached to them, and only then asked that you turn on them -- a move that's made less despicable knowing that you're all following the same strict code of conduct.

There are simpler and cleaner examples than this. In the original Halo, the option to invert the controls for looking up and down is couched as part of a diagnostics test at the beginning of the game, when you're learning about your special armor. A lesser game would have thrown this option into a menu and not integrated it into the narrative. But the makers of Halo figured correctly that the last thing a guy like me would expect was a fictional justification for inverting the Y-axis on my controller. All I expected was to be bored by a tutorial.

What do all these games have in common? They have in common these crafted moments designed to anticipate exactly what the audience is feeling about the game at a particular time, and feed back on those feelings, sometimes merely by acknowledging them. I know you're frustrated. I know you've done this before. I know you don't think you care about these characters. These types of concessions can have a real impact. Narrative reversals are integral to storytelling -- I'm referring specifically to when the game narrative is used to reference the act of playing, not the story itself. Such acts of recognition are at the center of effective game narrative. They're among the most meaningful ways for a game to communicate with a player. One of the best feelings in life is getting what you want without having to ask -- at a restaurant, at work, in a relationship, you name it. Games have the ability to provide this exhilarating feeling using narrative techniques.

Characters and gameworlds that tend to correctly guess at the player's feelings and feed back on them are the best kinds. They're typically bound to games that don't break when you push at their boundaries, as when you knock over that monitor in Half-Life 2, realizing you can knock over all sorts of shit throughout the entire game. Games like that let you explore the upper limits of the constraints of their rules. In last year's Demon's Souls, one of the first characters you meet in that oppressive and bleak gameworld is a cynical ghost of a man who's given up trying to escape. He more or less calls you a fool for attempting to do better. It's straight-up reverse psychology, and it's fantastic. Here's a game that knows it's challenging. Why shouldn't the world have characters in it who've become frustrated by those challenges? Not only does it fit the fiction, it affirms the player's own first impressions about the game. That ghost is a pretty sympathetic character. But then, if you want to kill him for being such a noob, you can go right ahead and do that too, says Demon's Souls. That game covers its bases, which is partly why its audience likes it so much. Those who gave it a chance tend to make a deep connection with it, because its designers knew you were going to have to fight for every inch in that game, and anticipated and fed back on the range of emotions you'd feel along the way.

Most games with a narrative component can and should have moments like the ones I've mentioned here, because their designers ought to be concerned with what gives their game its distinct tone, as well as the likeliest emotional dispositions with which their players will approach any given scenario. This happens when designers think of players as individuals rather than as groups. When games speak to you on a personal level, when you experience one of those rare but great moments of recognition and reflection while playing, that's not coming from some guy following up on data from a focus test or gunning for the sci-fi shooter market. Instead, it's coming from someone trying to reach you, with the confidence -- the presumptuous authorial arrogance -- that he knows what you must be thinking at a certain time. How dare he? And yet he really is speaking to you in that moment, through his game.