Designing Game Narrative
So how do we tell a good player story and a good explicit story together? By knowing this: the best game storytelling is when the explicit story is indistinguishable from the player story.
Ideally, when you play a game, you should never have to ask yourself, “What am I supposed to be doing?” In a good game, what you are supposed to do should intersect with what you want to do. If the emotions and motivations you feel while playing a game feel natural within the context of the game, then something amazing has happened.
Here’s an example from the first Portal game. In this game, you play as a test subject with a portal gun, trying to advance through different test chambers. Near the end, you are riding a slowly moving platform to what you are told is a reward for your good test performance. Suddenly, it’s revealed that the platform is actually taking you to a fiery death. When I was playing this scene, I genuinely panicked: I was deeply immersed in the game at this point, feeling good about myself for beating the puzzles, ready to be rewarded for it, and now I was being betrayed. Without thinking, my eyes lead me to an ideal surface for firing my portal gun, and I created an exit for myself, escaping certain death. For just a moment, I genuinely thought I broke the system. I had outsmarted the enemy with my wits!
Now of course, it turns out that I was actually supposed to do that. But when I did it, it was purely out of my own motivation for self preservation, not because I wanted to “advance the story”. There’s a night and day difference between just watching a character narrowly escape, versus doing it firsthand via your own wits and finesse, experiencing genuine anxiety and relief. A key plot element has progressed naturally, without dissonance. What I wanted to do and what I was supposed to do was the same.
Everything in the earlier parts of the game worked towards making this scene happen naturally for the player: the training in the portal mechanics; the witty dialogue that foreshadowed doom; the test chamber format that made you want to escape; the little hints that escape could be possible.
"Converting character development into personal development is the key to truly immersive storytelling."
A bit prescriptive here and there, but a really well-written read. [via @xra]
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I kinda like this idea. For $15 on kickstarter, you get “an experimental game and prototype pack with 30 original games from indie game makers, media/net artists, authors, filmmakers, architects, and comic creators.”
best of both worlds: chzsomuchpun.files.word…
Ohmygoodness, that is glorious. Puns make me happier than any person ever could (or that’s how it seems, so far, maybe I just haven’t found someone that can make me happy?)….
Hah, nice. It’s been forever since I’ve played an old-school Resident Evil. But you just got me to thinking about cameras/views and controls in games…
If I recall correctly, the much-maligned control scheme of the old REs is a result of the game being composed of multiple static camera views. The view(s) into any game world and the controls are intimately linked. Usually, a game’s control is relative to the view/camera. But since in the old REs the view is constantly changing angles, the controls disregard where the camera is and are relative to the player character. Pressing up doesn’t move away from the camera; it always moves in the direction the character is currently facing (character’s forward). That way, when the angles change, you’re guaranteed to not suddenly have your direction changed.
A lot of modern, third-person games have controls that are anchored to the camera, and when the angle shifts, the character will maintain the current heading even if you’re technically not pressing the right direction (until you let go of the directional and this behavior resets; see, for instance, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, a game whose camera is very alive and cinematic). Some 3rd person games will not bother too much with dynamic and cinematic changes of the view, instead keeping the camera anchored over-the-shoulders, like, you know, RE4 and Gears of War, and there isn’t much confusion.
TL;DR: yes, the old RE games were clunky and could’ve been more responsive, but I understand their approach. Also, the camera systems of video games really intrigue me and there’s a lot going on from a design perspective regarding functionality and aesthetics.
When I’m working on some creative projects, I usually find myself dealing with tricky, abstract issues. I think these arise due to lack of experience, and my propensity to be conscious of many possible solutions of varying quality simultaneously. So I have to do a lot of reinventing the wheel in my head it seems. I’ve developed some methods to deal with these sorts of issues over time. It can be downright ugly at times. One method is to open some text editor and start having a kind of weird, nested dialogue with myself, trying to reason things out the best I can before I leap into action. This usually happens after I took my time to think through something, after I felt like I knew what I needed to do, only to find out that it wasn’t turning out exactly the way I envisioned it. You can’t foresee and plan out everything—it’s just impossible. So then I resort to this kind of improvised reification process.
Perception, valuation and game design paradigms through time
I always thought it would be interesting to know how someone who grew up on more recent video games or who got into gaming recently would receive games before their time, so to speak, specifically games that were critically acclaimed for their time. For example, I wonder what some kid in the year 2020 would think of the original Silent Hill and its primitive 3d graphics, clunky controls and older game design paradigm.
Games, with their high time investment requirements, seem to be in a unique position among media. Sure, all media or art have their trends that change to suit shifting tastes and attitudes. For the most part, it’s easy enough—if you’re sufficiently receptive—to go back to older media and garner an appreciation of specific periods of output (1960s rock music, Old Hollywood cinema). But I think games suffer in this regard in significant part due to the high engagement time cost—which is spent on familiarizing yourself with unfamiliar game design norms and on actually experiencing the content of the game. Additionally, there’s the issue of forced gameplay difficulty (part of game design norms) that makes some older games hard by their very nature without recourse. There are some games I can’t imagine that the 2020 kid would play for very long due to inherent difficulty, specifically if the difficulty is divorced from the perception of joy (like when the control scheme is counterintuitive).
I even find myself becoming more and more critical of games I used to love as a kid. This is especially the case for early 3d games on the PS1 and N64. Once detached from nostalgia, those games seem more like experiments—useful, necessary experiments, but experiments nonetheless.
Random Observation(s) - 17 Jan. 2012
- I had an idea for a video game project so good right before I fell asleep last night, I got up and typed it up, then had a little trouble falling back asleep as other ideas cascaded down and around the main concept. Too bad it falls under the “pretty large scope” category, meaning that I can’t do it by myself and would need money to hire people
- speaking of projects, I’ve noticed over the years of writing them down and amending them that a lot of ideas that the individual projects consist of start to naturally merge with other projects. It’s kind of cool how the ideas are, in my mind, slowly obtaining a ‘ground state’. They had invisible links that I wasn’t aware of when they came into existence in my head, and over time I’m discovering those links and merging projects (which is a good thing). It’s like the ideas were not meant to be separated to begin with. Unfortunately, like the observation above, I won’t be able to realize some of them unless I obtain necessary funding and time and other stuff. In the meantime, I’ve got smaller projects to keep me busy.
- sometimes I think this tumblr is either me encoding abstract parts of myself for future preservation (because there’s no other way to), or an audition for a soul-mate—if there are such things. No other way to explain some of the stuff I post. :P
- Twin Peaks deserved at the very least an abbreviated 3rd season to tidy things up. A ‘DoppleDale’ storyline would have been a damn fine cup of coffee
- apparently, video games are improving the FBI. you know what I would like to see? FBI recruits studying Special Agent Dale Cooper and how he handles things. If FBI agents were more like him—combining skill with scary good intuition and a peaceful, charming outlook on life—then the US would be a better place!
Full Brain Experience
Back to it — classes. However, I reduced my hours this semester because I’ve committed myself to work on a personally important project. The project is a video game. It really struck me the other day how much of what I’m calling “a full brain experience” designing and developing a game is—even a small-ish one. No doubt by the time you’re done—if it’s any good—you’ve made a million different logical/technical and creative decisions, where each one has a large number of dependencies that must be factored in so as to avoid corrupting the whole structure with dreaded internal inconsistencies.
It’s like the ultimate puzzle—trying to figure out how the untold number of pieces fit, and even if a piece can fit in a certain place, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it should. I feel like Agent Cooper, and being confronted by a puzzle bigger and stranger than he could ever have imagined, not only relying on logical detective work to solve it, but also creative insights that come seemingly out of nowhere.
Creative Energy > 9000
My creative energy and motivation are maxing out right now, but what’s this? School work? The antithesis to creativity (e.g. rote memorization, reacting to patterns, giving answers that professors want to hear or doing it the way they want it done)? I can’t get away from the obligation of studying and school work right now to do ‘real’ work. But I’ve been trying this semester, and my grades, I have to admit, reflect my divergent interests, haha. I’m constantly having to do mental cost-benefit analyses of all my classes to determine if I can get away with doing, say, half of an assignment to work on another, or if I can afford to turn in some assignment late, or if I can afford to study x amount of hours for a test rather than x+y amount—all because of—hold on, let me put this in quotes—“time mismanagement.” However, on the brighter side, I felt better than I thought I would taking a test for a neglected class today.
I have this game concept that’s been floating around in my head for a while, and, in time siphoned from my studies, I’ve been prototyping the main gameplay mechanic for it. It’s a lot more satisfying and interesting a venture to me right now than anything I’m doing in school. Also, there’s a few other similar projects that have been vying for my attention.
I am seriously burned out on school right now…
This is what I’m calling a collection of interrelated projects that I’m gonna be working on for the foreseeable future. You could say that the campaign has already started, as I have been planning and documenting some aspects of it already. I call it the ‘alpha’ campaign because it’s the first of its kind for me, and maybe there will be others like it in the future.
So what does this campaign consist of? Generally, these:
- Project Objectology: general software to construct classes of objects, then create and manage instances of them and save it as portable data. I’ll probably put this on github eventually.
- Project NoTology: a structured, extendable, object-oriented way to take notes and build knowledge. Plan to make this software easy to use for desktop/laptop and tablet interfaces simultaneously. Might end up putting this on github as well.
- Project Pipe Dreams: a long-brewing, sandbox-like point-and-click adventure type game for serious gamers. Keep in mind serious does not mean hardcore; but it won’t be casual by no means either. I’m gonna try to avoid soaking it with heavy, restrictive genre conventions. It will be heavy on narrative information, though.
- alpha campaign/personal website: this will bring it all together into one place. also will include other stuff I’ve done (and links to them) like this blog. I may begin this with a sorta developer’s blog somewhere for this campaign.
All of these projects will exist on the Web eventually.
On personal projects and inspiration
Honestly, I suck at completing projects. My tendency is to start something with a lot of enthusiasm and dedication, but then get distracted and intrigued by other things (or pulled away by Life) and lose inspiration on the previous stuff. But there’s two personal projects whose conception have survived and evolved over the years, and it’s becoming more and more apparent that these must be completed at all costs if I am to live with myself. The concepts and ideas surrounding them have been stewing for quite a long time. Everytime I put them on the backburner like I do many others, these conceptions have continuously revisited me. When they did, they had undergone some noticeable evolution after I started reconsidering them again. It’s like they have a life of their own, wanting to get out into the world.
The first project of focus is to build a piece of software that represents a structured method of documentation and knowledge representation that makes sense to me (and, I hope, others as well). Now, I’m not 100% sure if something similar exists or how similar it is (it may share similarities with semantic wikis), but regardless, I’m going forward with it. I’ve always ended up feeling frustrated and ultimately confused with most documentation methods while attempting to document and structure complex notes and ideas. I’ve been debating what platform to use to create the software—like Java or Java FX—but now I’ve discovered an impressive HTML5 platform provided by Sencha.com.
Both concepts have been recast to be cross-platform using emerging (and free!) HTML5 standards and technologies. They are also being designed to be equally as friendly and considerate to mouse and touch interfaces. Eventually, they will exist on the Web, the universal platform. Guess I should get to work then. But one thing I will need to work on for sure if I am to be successful where I have failed before is time management. Might have to cut out a few things, also… like Halo: Reach. Oh, and maybe college, since they raised tuition by like 10%. :(
Hah, just yoking—joking.
Random Observation(s) - 1 Jun. 2011
- The summer class situation is not ideal, but the situation and my outlook have improved since a few days ago. I believe I’m playing my best hand now.
- Gonna start working on a project in earnest that’s been simmering for a while. In recent years, I’ve been preoccupied with the mechanics of notes and documentation and information/knowledge representation and organization. So I’m gonna start up work on a piece of software that may or may not have already been developed in some dimension. It’s basically an ideal combination of all the approaches I like, with emphasis on formal structure. I believe the platform I will use will be JavaFX, a Java-flavored, rich web application platform similar to Flash or Silverlight or Adobe Flex. But it’s been a while since I’ve programmed seriously, and I’ve never used JavaFX (though it is based on Java which I’m familiar with), so there will definitely be some prelim work and familiarizing involved.
- The desire for a structured and formal approach to note taking arose from my attempts at writing game design documents for potential future projects I dreamed up. Haphazardly writing things down by hand on paper or in massive, linear word documents just doesn’t work for me. It gets tricky when you’re dealing with slippery, highly abstract concepts, meta information, fragmented and inconsistent language, etc. in unstructured information.
- I’m much better at planning than executing/implementing. This has always been a curse for me, haha.
- One of my ultimate goals with this project is to hopefully make something useful for others and slap a donate button somewhere in an effort to help pay for college in the near future.
In-game encyclopedias and narrative
Some narrative-heavy video games utilize in-game encyclopedias. One of the first games I recall having one was the PS2 JRPG Xenosaga, but I’m sure there were others before it that I’m forgetting. Now that I’ve started playing a rather recent game—Final Fantasy XIII (FFXIII), another JRPG with an in-game encyclopedia—I thought I’d write down some of my thoughts. As alluded to in a previous post, I find this to be a rather lazy or unimaginative approach to narrative design for the most part. Most games with this approach that I have encountered rely on it too heavily and in artificial ways.
An encyclopedia allows those in charge of the story to freely and brazenly reference complex ideas or events or situations without much if any previous context outside of the encyclopedia, thus prompting the player to peruse it afterwards to gain some perspective and context. But in my opinion, this privilege is too often abused. They end up relegating a ton of information to the encyclopedia, and a lot of times the information that they bury under a metric ton of submenus is vital to your clear understanding of what’s going on at any given time. A result of doing this is that you’re constantly in the dark about the multiple references the game makes via the characters or other narrative sources. Oftentimes, some of the information present in the encyclopedias are not referenced anywhere else outside of it for the entire game; or the information that is referenced comes long before it’s ever referenced in the game world.
Another problem I have with them is the artificiality by which the encyclopedic info is received. In the case of FFXIII, there is no narrative mechanic—explicit or implicit—that allows this to happen. It’s as if the game designers are omniscient gods in the game universe and pass along this info whenever they deem it necessary. So you see, there ‘s a disconnect there. Actually, now that I think about it, I think Final Fantasy Tactics, an old PS1 game and now PSP port, tried to address this with its Zodiac Brave Story framing device. Anyway, this second point isn’t as much a problem as the one above.
Ideally, I think all narrative should be conveyed and originate in the game world and not filtered through the interface by which the player engages that world (unless your intent is to go meta). So I believe it is incumbent upon those in charge of the story to do the heavy lifting and embed the narrative throughout the game’s world appropriately. But if one insists that there should be an in-game encyclopedia, here’s four simple guidelines:
- establish a narrative mechanic that justifies what information is inserted into the encyclopedia and how
- avoid having information that is never referenced somewhere in the game world
- information in the encyclopedia must be referenced first before being placed in it
- clearly establish information and narrative in the game world and don’t rely on encyclopedia to do this for you
"The most evil video game job description I have seen." - tweet from Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, referring to the link above, a job description for “Player Investment Designer.”
Context: If I’m not mistaken, Blow believes it is unethical to design games with artificial incentives to attempt to get the player addicted through menial tasks in hopes of extending the lifetime of the product (Farmville is composed entirely of this). I tend to agree. And it’s artless.
Bungie’s Halo Reach utilizes these ideas to an extent with a credit, commendation and challenge system. It’s stupid and flawed, really, yet sadly effective.
At the moment, there’s a mechanics view of game design and that’s the lens most people look at things through. They’re like: “Ooh, I wanna do a platformer where you can double-jump and on the second jump you’re invincible,” or something. But that’s just the start. The beginning of Braid’s development process was all about getting the game mechanic part figured out, and once that was done, most of the work was about communication – I had in my head what an amazing experience this could be, but the actual mechanic would not connect all the way to the players. Some players got that experience, but most of them needed me to do more to bring the experience to them. So in order to be an effective communicator, I needed to spend a couple more years on the game to make it a more effective conduit of this experience that’s in my head. When something goes wrong in a game design, that’s often a bit of noise that disrupts what you’re trying to say. I don’t mean ‘say’ in a narrative sense, I mean the flow of gameplay ideas. Polishing is a communication skill and a lot of indies don’t think about that. The Witness is mostly about communication.
- Jonathan Blow on why there’s more to game design than mechanical systems