Saturday 30 October 2010

A Descriptive Exercise & Plot Treatments

Just a quick, silly one, this. A large part of my job revolves around improving my technical writing ability. Another around finding any excuse not to do whatever work I've set out for myself. Ask any writer - more dishes get done, more Hollyoaks gets watched, more joints get smoked when you've got a deadline looming.

Lucky, then, that writing exercises exist to serve both needs. It's increasingly popular for a developer to commission three or four narrative designers to turn out a couple of days' worth of plot pitches - one page documents developed according to a brief which outline a proposed plot / scenario / gameplay. These are then discussed by all parties and the strongest goes on to be the basis for the project moving forward.

I've been hired via my agency, Sidelines, to do just this for a new racing / action game. So it was that, yesterday afternoon, I conked out for twenty minutes and wound up doing a writing exercise which resulted in the short 'story' below. I love dialogue, I love character, I love jokes. I am rubbish at description. Ayn Rand, however, fucking loves description. She will happily run three pages describing a room and the psychological makeup of its inhabitants:
"Francisco, in shirt sleeves, stood in the middle of his twelve foot square living room, with the look of a host in a palace. Of all the places where she had ever seen him, this was the background that seemed most properly his. Just as the simplicity of his clothes added to his bearing, gave him the air of a superlative aristocrat, so the crudeness of the room gave it the appearance of the most patrician retreat..."
Sitting almost exactly where the photo above was taken (that's my laptop screen bottom left), I set about pastiching Rand in describing the scene before me. What you'll find below is that. Halfway through I showed it to Roxy, the flatmate I describe, and she decided it needed a twist.

The result is, I hope, an entertaining and most importantly a physically expressive read. Personally I find the style a little over the top, but it's delivered something I'd never ordinarily write for myself, and that in itself is something an aspiring writer can always value.


Roxane sat head in hand, deliberating over what the muted blues and greys projected from the screen before her could tell of the status of her existence. The haphazardly evolved mesh of wood surfaces, stainless steel cabinets and laden shelves that made up the kitchen was just one arbitrary dissection of the great warehouse space around her. Dull afternoon light made its way through the broad frosted glass frontage behind, the paper-clad bulb suspended from the high angled ceiling doing little to affect the understated illumination that made the space seem to go on forever. She was not so much dwarfed by the open plan expanse as encompassed by it, a seamless element in the naturalistic lifestyle it represented. A reassuring amplifier scratch filled the soundscape briefly with promise of more organised tones to come as she plugged the auxiliary cable into her laptop and mused staccato over the first track. With the air of someone for whom creativity was production, and production life, she stabbed the play button and set to work.

Then a huge velociraptor crashed through the glass, its three tipped talons scraping lines of cement dust from the tiled floor. Its gait was broken only momentarily, the creature seeming to rebound off the awkwardly positioned counter that split the kitchen in two so that it turned to face her. The predator could not have stopped moving for even a second, and yet there was an imperceptible moment when the two locked stares; this leathery forgotten husk of violent history and its contemporary prey, the latter helpless in her superior understanding of what was necessarily to come. Roxane's ability to move the minds of men had served her and her kind far better than the monster's instinct ever had it and its, but for this moment all else was irrelevant. Art and music and love and understanding could not stop her crying out as the jaws closed around her neck.

In the next instant she had, like, this huge shotgun, you know, like out of Goldeneye. She made that pump action noise not because the chamber wasn't loaded but because it sounded fuck off cool. It was even in time with the music. Then she blew the motherfucker's head off. It was like Rambo, only with a hot French bitch and more dinosaurs. And everyone lived happily ever after.

The End

Tuesday 26 October 2010

Stories in the Most Unlikely Places No.1: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

This is the first in a (potential) series of posts aimed at celebrating and championing games which don't just further the art of interactive narrative design, but do so either from unexpected places against unlikely odds, or despite their continuing obscurity. No serious spoilers.

Sands of time was shockingly good. A reboot of an ancient licence, it was handled by an internal development team who up until the previous year had been best known for the N64's Tonic Trouble, and in the six months between announcement and release screens of hack & slash combat had done little to demonstrate any sense of ambition was at play.

Writing aside for a moment, Sands of Time reinvented platforming in a way (arguably, of course) only Mario 64 and Tomb Raider had done in recent memory. The natural grace and stunning agility of the Prince's movement was both sumptuous and rewardingly challenging. Even the combat - though overused and far from nuanced - was at least satisfying in a way every iteration since has failed to grasp.

But let's talk story. That Jordan Mechner - the original PoP's youthful auteur - had only one post-Prince credit to his name has since become moot. When that game is the much-overlooked Last Express, and when his work since has included the Disney iteration of the franchise and award-winning documentary Chavez Ravine, it's easier to see why the project was such a success.

Mechner was brought on as Creative Consultant, and then Writer / Designer, and it's clear from the very first screen that the man meant to rinse the opportunity for all its worth. Unlike a mind-bogglingly large number of even contemporary releases (I'm looking at you, Bioshock) Mechner understands enough about interactive story telling to give the player control immediately, even in the framing device.

And what about that framing device? The Prince steals into Farah's bedroom and proceeds to tell hear a tale unlike any she has heard before. Every level in the game proceeds as a thread of this story, even the Game Over screen is flicked away with a casual, "Wait, that's not how it happened." By the time he finishes his story (and the player the game) we understand just what he's been through and lost, and why it's so vital she believe him.

Despite its innovative rewind mechanic (ultimately a quick-save gimmick, but one so useful and so integrated into the fantasy that the term hardly seems fair) it remains the dialogue and the characters that really mark the experience out as something special. In an industry where gruff talking space marines and broody ninja bitches continue to rule the roost the down-to-earth backtalk...
[after Farah has accidentally shot the Prince during a previous fight
You go ahead. I'll cover you!
Please don't. You're liable to hit me. 

...and resentful bitching...

I'll just ask the first Sand Creature I run into, "Could you direct me to the baths, please?" Well, thank you. "Don't mention it, I used to be a bath attendant back when I was alive... "
...remain a breath of fresh air. The relationship is plausible and fun enough (albeit in a very Hollywood fashion) to invest in, and I genuinely was made to care about the conclusion (of the story, not the inevitably rubbish boss fight) in a way few platformers have managed before or since.

It speaks volumes to the timeless quality of Mechner's writing that no sequel has achieved the same heights. Ubisoft demonstrated startling ignorance of what made the original great when they went all emo with Warrior Within - dislodging Mechner in the process - and even managed to lose much of what made the platforming so sublime in the 2008 reboot-reboot. I appreciated the return to a more likeable hero with first Andy Walsh's 2008 script and then The Forgotten Sands interquel, but it's proved too little too late.

The Sands of Time remains a very personal favourite for me, not to mention a surprise outsider. It plays as well today as it did seven years ago - but it reads even better.

Thursday 14 October 2010

GAMESbrief Guest Post: The Ship Dev, Outerlight, Dead in the Water

The guys who made Agatha Christie simulators The Ship and upcoming Bloody Good Time (a game I was actually excited about) have all but gone under.

Bad ship-related puns aside it's real sad news. Chris Peck, co-founder of Outerlight, is the last man standing, and he's spoken very candidly about how big publishing is antithesis to innovation, and how the true home in the future for people-who-like-more-than-just-blowing-shit-up (ie us) is in digital distribution - if you can magic the financing.

Full thing over at GAMESbrief.

Friday 8 October 2010

Flash Fiction for Interactive Types: An Open Challenge

I love flash fiction, both as a writer and a reader. Trending at around 100 - 1000 words, it exists in a sweet spot between the short story and the poem; a compressed form requiring the utmost discipline in a writer, without quite descending into the quagmire of interpretation that tighter pieces have to deal with. It's a non-commercial form that fits a short attention span society and rewards sharp ideas implemented efficiently.

It agrees with me.

What's the interactive equivalent? Clearly we have a lot of short form, non-commercial games out there, but I wonder if they quite hit the mark. Even a ten minute game like ir/rational requires as a minimum a good week or two of solid work to produce, and it contained significantly more than 1,000 words.

The interactive fiction community turns out some fascinating experimental shorts, though they still ask a lot of both designer and reader. One of the joys of flash fiction is that the barrier for entry is very low, but the technical ability required for success remains very high. Variety is everything.

I rather like the idea of the short form dialogue tree. Anybody can knock up a 1,000 word dialogue in MS Word or HTML, and polish it to buggery and back. It would ask only about a minute of its player's time. It would give us, as designers, the opportunity to explore a multitude of high concepts and ideas unpalatable to larger projects. As consumers we could be far more experimental in our interests.

Above all else, the reason I love flash fiction is that its brevity encourages risk taking. Where it's nigh impossible to pull off a commercial novel without, say, a plot, and challenging in the extreme to implement a crazy idea throughout without it becoming gimmicky, flash fiction provides an outlet.

Could it do the same for interactive writing?

You'll find a very bad example of the format here. It'll be familiar to players of Black Plague - it's a vaguely Kafkaesque computer program, inspired at the time by a frustrating phone conversation with BT.

I know we can all do better. As soon as I get some time I'll be dying to have a go at producing something more ambitious. In the meantime I'd love for you guys to have a crack. It might take you as little as an hour, and if you do produce anything you'd like to show off please post it to the comments, or email me. If it goes well maybe I'll throw the same exercise at my BA kids and see how they get on.