Thursday, 30 September 2010

Free Game From Majesty of Colors Dev: The Day

The Day is a ten minute game from Gregory Weir (The Majesty of Colors) over at the often excellent Armor Games. I'm fascinated by ways to tell an interactive story that's relevant to the player specifically. Cut scenes don't cut it, and often alternate endings and branching narratives provide purely arbitrary differentiation between a number of otherwise linear paths. I'd be tempted to argue The Day goes someway to resolving that issue. It's ostensibly a JRPG / trading card game, but clearly if it was just that it wouldn't be featuring here - so go take a look before I start deconstructing it.

Spoilers ahead.

Which ending did you get, then? The game can be played in two different ways - you can follow the rules, or you can break them and explore. If you elect to simply play the trading card game you'll wind up with a distinctly indistinct experience. If you drop what you're told to do and explore the forest you'll discover a more sinister (though far from inspired) truth about the nature of your idyllic existence.

I suspect there's something going on here around the gamification of interactive experiences. The game seems to say: "We're so hemmed in by objectives and completion that we may be missing what games could really be about - a more personal and meaningful exploration."

This, of course, would be a message better communicated if the 'true' ending wasn't also intimately tied to traditional video game play styles. Hints are dropped heavily throughout, and it takes only a cursory level of familiar RPG exploration to find the route into the forest.

All the same, I appreciate the fact that the game's making a bolder approach to the sticky topic of alternate endings. It's brave to allow a player to complete the game without ever getting an inkling that there's more going on here, and on the flip side the implementation of the 'true' ending - with its switch from tinny RPG music to something more involved, and the increased visual detail - is strong enough. More than anything else, I like that there is little sign posting here regarding what ending you're shooting for. There's no 'good, neutral, evil', there's no 'Are you sure you want to go down this path, you may not be able to turn back'. It's a branch based both on subconscious player psychology (is he an explorer or not?) and on a conscious decision whether to go down the path if and when it's discovered.

In short: flawed, but more please.

Author Recognition
It's also worth noting that Armor (along with Kongregate and the other portals) allows you to look up the other games produced by any given developer. Weir, for instance, produced the must-play The Majesty of Colors, the interesting How to Raise a Dragon, and some other stuff that's now on my to-play list. Finding rewarding games isn't always easy, and producing them is even tougher. Support talented indies by remembering their names and checking out their back catalogues.

9 comments:

  1. I suspect most players will wind up with the 'true' ending first time around - did you?

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  2. As soon as Dad warned Tia what NOT to do I was out of there like a shot. So yes, I got the forest ending first.

    I'm not feeling as impressed as you have been Tom. There are quite a lot of art games already that subvert players' expectations of how a game should work and this feels a little too much like just another one on the pile. I like Weir's work - but this ongoing subversion of convention is getting a bit... I don't know... tired?

    This one says: I'm a card game, go play, but you have to ignore that to go find out the truth.

    When I played again properly, I was surprised to find the game had signposted DON'T LEAVE and SOMETHING WEIRD HERE so many times. I mean, everyone was going on about a spooky secret, and I felt less like I sneaked out to discover the true secret ending, and more like I was just cleverer at jumping on Signpost One rather than Signpost Forty-Five.

    There isn't a good/bad ending here but there is a sense of real/shallow ending. The real one is "more impressive" than the card based one: cake, fade to white. It's still a binary choice of which one comes off as being the lesser of the two. This is seguing into the larger issue of whether multiple endings are actual useful in a game - because most people want to see them all unless they require incredible hoops to jump through [e.g. Bioshock largely requires a replay to switch between good/evil - although interestingly Bioshock's Andrew Ryan confrontation is probably the best framing of a player's captivity within a game].

    I think I ramble now. End of line.

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  3. I take your point - it was rather blunt.

    By and large I decry multiple endings, at least in the form they're usually implemented. The very fact that many players feel compelled to unlock them all speaks to the fact they're not fulfilling their objective: to provide players with a bespoke experience that best rewards their personality and play style.

    In general, a linear story should have a linear conclusion. A Jane Eyre in which Rochester is never blinded and Jane runs off with her cousin isan entirely different book.

    Interacive entertainment, however, which allows the player to shape the narrative to some degree ought perhaps to allow its ending to reflect that. Certainly its themes and philosophical stance should remain in tact, but ideally the ending ought be tailored in such a way as to be rewarding no matter how the player progresses through the game. This can necessitate multiple endings.

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  4. Everything comment I make comes out ranty at the moment! I blame it on having just 3 days of paternity leave left and rushing everything. Given another 20 minutes I'd probably rewrite my words to be less negative-sounding =)

    It would have been better to have written: 'I liked it but not sure it was really breaking new ground. The forest ending here really comes across as the "true" ending as opposed to just an alternative.'

    I'd love to see a game where I'd feel my ending was the real one, personalised to my play. It's a big ask, of course, in terms of story construction.

    The popular good/bad dichotomy often comes off as either "you didn't play well enough" or "next time, trying being compassionate". The only games that come to mind that offer true parallel endings are Planescape: Torment and Deus Ex (DX2 also, but all of those endings are pessimistic unlike DX which are optimistic).

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  5. ^^^ Exactly.

    Props Planescape.

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  6. I actually just went the card game playing route the first time round, though I can easily see how I might be unusual in that regard. I actively avoided touching all trees in the environment fearing that that was the trigger to summon guards to kill me and maybe even other NPCs in the environment. I was aware of the cameras and that the environment hinted at there being something bigger going on around me but I kind of enjoyed just playing out this more mundane puzzle in the midst of all of that. I think part of me is just attracted to the motif of life being able to feel quite ordinary despite a more complexreality encompassing that. I think I have a personality that accepts authority easily as well which may explain my initial playing of the game.

    Seeing that there were multiple endings and assuming there must obviously be more to the game based on your link to the game in the first place I then found the path leading out of your camp into the woods and everything else to which my reaction is: "ok then" as in it wasn't a surprise - it was somewhat intriguing but not overly so. It was just a thing. I didn't feel any additional commentary unfolded for me based on the last few seconds or even based on the the second playthrough at all.

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  7. Loved Weir's The Majesty of Colours and How to Raise a Dragon. Just got round to playing this and enjoyed the parallel endings.

    I think my problem is that once I was told not to go into the forest I decided to complete the card game and whatever else was 'required' of me THEN venture into the forest. The problem is that, as a disconnected puppeteer the prospect of dying in the woods wasn't really going to stop me going in there because what's the worst that could happen? I start the game again? I don't like to 'game' games but when something is short it's hard not to check out what other things it's trying to do, especially when it's so blatantly hinting at something outside the immediate 'goal'.

    I've got to say though, it was pretty creepy venturing into the woods after all the warnings. I always like it when games warn of things and you know at some point you're going to encounter them. And speaking of Planescape, I remember meeting Ravel for the first time; my hair bristled because of all the things I'd heard about her. Same goes for arriving in Baator. Same goes for the Woodsie Lord in Thief after all those Keeper annals and Pagan verses. Sort of building up lore and mythology. Uhh, is there a technical term for that Tom?

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  8. I'd say you're talking about foreshadowing or Chekhov's gun - when some seemingly inoccuous element of the fiction is referenced repeatedly because clearly nothing in fiction is coincidence and it's bound to come into play eventually (eg the gun hanging on the mantlepiece that will eventually be taken down and fired).

    You're referencing an interesting problem in video game narrative, which is that as long as the ways we interact with the story are predefined, the audience will have the opportunity to second guess the writer. Unlike trad fiction, though, the audience is able to use that dramatic knowledge to influence the direction of the story, which may often be undesirable.

    The best solution I see - and it's far from one I've not discussed in the past - is a more dynamic, procedural approach to story. Relegate the author to mechanic designer, allow story to develop naturally, and foreshadowing becomes moot.

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  9. The problem of second guessing the writer in games is probably why there are so many art games that subvert traditional mechanics to undermine this feeling of comfort and expectation.

    But because that sense of subversion is becoming so commonplace, it's becoming a conventional mechanic in itself. Much like how Muji prides itself on "no brand goods" when, in fact, it has created a brand, the Muji brand. Which is why they charge the goddamn earth for things in the UK (but not in Japan I'll have you know).

    So I come across something like The Day and instinctively follow the subversive path: ignore the thing about the cards and head straight into the woods within seconds. Game over, where's the surprise?

    It was the same idea in Neptune's Price. There's a subversion mechanic chucked in there: a way to out-game the game, and that's what it wants from you in the end, that's why it beats you up so much. But in the end it's a cheap one-shot puzzle that you'll never go back to. Most of the art games are like that; I have no inclination to see them a second time because they're actually short, heavily scripted affairs.

    I'd argue, Tom, that the flash fiction of interactive media are art games.

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