Wednesday 29 December 2010

Southbank Uni Story Design: The Best Bits of Theory

So, my first semester teaching interactive story design on the Game Cultures BA has come to a close. It's been a fun experience, and it's reminded me that writing is an ability unevenly distributed, but that that's no bad thing. With this being a compulsory module on a cross-discipline course, it's inevitable only a handful of the 25 students would have a natural passion for the work. I tried to be up front with everyone, and despite my coming away with a reputation as a harsh marker - best piece of student feedback was "Tom's great, but the difficulty curve may need some balancing" - I seem to have made friends and even, god knows how, developed a bit of a reputation.

There were some fantastic mechanical concepts that arose from the coursework. Watch this space come the new year for a special guest blog from my top student - who is a genuinely intelligent, laugh out loud writer - but in the mean time I've collated a small handful of some of the more far reaching ideas. To be clear, what I'm presenting here are not the best overall game concepts - as we're oft reminded, an idea is only as good as its implementation - rather, these are the individual mechanics that seemed most challenging on a theoretical level: the ideas that might change the way we think about specifically interactive narrative.

The Indictment - The Rorschach Test
by Matthew Davie
Matt's narrative design pitch was based around a psychiatrist's drug induced nightmare world, populated with spectres of his patients. He has to come to terms with how he has helped - or perhaps failed to help - each one of them, therefore getting to the bottom of his own psychosis.

The way he interacts with these patients is through Rorschach tests - the iconically ambiguous images whose interpretation is supposed to indicate a patient's mental state. The idea would be that certain cards could be matched to certain patients, their emotions observed and then manipulated accordingly. A guy hints at his hatred of hospitals? Anger him with a related image and force him to make a mistake.

For me the idea still needs some more pragmatic development, but the theory behind it is one I'm excited by. As long as we rely on dialogue as a method of NPC interaction we tie ourselves into necessarily scripted and linear relationships. The idea of using more real world skills - like empathy and emotional direction - to illicit useful responses is a fascinating one, as some soon to be released projects are already aware.

Falling Through Nightmares - The Voice of the Epsimite
by Joshua Condison
Exploring a psychological battlefield was a bit of a theme this year, and while "...and then he woke up" is something writing courses often try to throw out, personally I was ecstatic there were as many students taking Psychonauts as a direction as there were Far Cry. In all fairness, Josh's take on the subject positioned the nightmare firmly in the real world: every night his central character dreams of falling through a city of his greatest fears, only to wake and discover the Epsimite sleeping pills he's been taking have caused him to carry those fears into reality, the actions he takes in his sleep becoming increasingly violent as the game moves on.

During the day we follow the protagonist through his mundane existence, only instead of controlling him the player now takes on the role of the pills, manifested as a malevolent alter ego. Stacking shelves in the supermarket, a voice in his head encourages him to pop a can into his jacket pocket; things escalate rapidly. These battles of will are represented on screen in a Heavy Rain style, and by having the player embody both the protagonist and antagonist, I think Josh was trying to bring to the screen the character's sense of internal conflict: that on the one hand he needs these pills to function normally; but on the other the reality they buy for him is a thin shade of what they seem to promise.

Floating - The Early Decision Point
by Sarfraz Hussain
Floating is largely your run of the mill dystopia featuring a kick ass girl in the lead - who appears as the header image for this post. It does have an interesting weapon / power up system whereby a mysterious item called the Warpus draws form from ideas and emotions around it: the protagonist's angry outburst is what weaponises it in the first place, and concepts perceived in the game world - eg a set of roller skates - will empower it to take new forms - eg wheeled vehicles. This is, however, ultimately just clever body paint for the pick ups.

What's fascinating about Saf's idea is that early on in the game the protagonist's mentor is taken by a government agent. Actually, no, that's still standard practice. What is interesting is that the player is then given the choice: revenge or forgiveness? His decision will not change the direction of the narrative, but it will subtly alter the nature of the information he's given regarding the government agent he'll spend the rest of the game tracking down. Essentially, choosing revenge will result in texts and characters painting a saintly picture of the man the player has vowed to destroy; choosing to forgive will mean he's rendered the bad guy.

What Saf's trying to get at here, I think, is that many decisions are rashly made, and that any decision can begin to crack when you analyse it with hindsight. When the player reaches the conclusion they're given the opportunity to change their mind, and this seems to suggest that a person is always able to make their own decisions - and that in the context of Saf's dystopian vision it is not so much the government that's to blame for screwing over the people, than it is the people for accepting their government's decisions.

RPGs are often keen to give us many seemingly far reaching decisions to make, but it's rare we're truly forced to live with them - once we've travelled to the next area their impact on us is all but gone. There's something very engaging about the idea of making an entire game reflect on the nature and import of just one, catastrophic mistake.

Sunday 19 December 2010

Stories in Unlikely Places No.2: Tribes: Vengeance

Tribes: Vengeance is one of the most subtly subversive multiplayer games ever made. Not a lot of people know that.

This is the second in a 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.

Released in 2004, Tribes: Vengeance was a prequel, the third game in a series that was itself a spin off of Dynamix' mech-game, Earthsiege. Incidentally, that series simultaneously demonstrates that our industry is ridiculous, and constantly, brilliantly evolving. It goes...

Metaltech: Earthsiege
Earthsiege 2
Starsiege: Tribes
Tribes 2
Tribes: Vengenace.

I'd buy Vengeance: Metaltech any day.

But back to the point. 1998's Tribes was startlingly advanced in every sense other than the narrative one. It was a pre-1942 Battefield; the game that did huge outdoor arenas, massive player counts, and on-foot vs vehicle teamplay before anyone else had graduated beyond Quake deathmatch. It was a technical and design marvel.

But it still centered around blowing shit up.

In the hands of a pre-Bioshock Irrational - known at the time for System Shock 2 and Freedom Force - Vengeance still centered around blowing shit up, but the studio's masterstroke was to bother explaining why. With Tribes, Irrational proved beyond all doubt their ability to deliver in whatever genre they set their sights on - their vision of online carnage more than lives up to the series precedent and yet they've never returned to it - but it was the blindside of the singleplayer campaign that quietly redefined the playing field.

Vengeance pits you as five different characters on opposing sides of a space cold war, separated by generations. There are two timelines, set 20 years apart, and you play them in parallel, so the events occurring in the past give you new insight on what's going on in the present. You are simultaneously the Imperial Princess captured by the tribals, and the daughter she's yet to give birth to. The story sees the characters fall in and out of love, make and avenge any number of murders, and instigate and quell all out war.

Frankly, the writing isn't as sharp as we've rightly come to expect half a decade later:

Just get on with it, you tribal dog.


That's probably the best line in the first half hour. No, In case you can't tell, Vengeance stands out for me for its epic, multi-protagonist narrative structure.

We spend a lot of times in games writing bemoaning the aping of cinema; we should be our own medium with our own strengths and weaknesses. What I think a lot of games writing could learn from is dramatic structure. How often do you play an action game whose story isn't realtime? It's rare to see so much as 'Two months later...' let alone a game as bold as Vengeance. It's not that realtime is always bad, it's just indicative of a general lack of faith that we rarely try anything better suited to telling a story. Another question: how often do you play a game confident enough in its storytelling that it will keep you in the dark about huge portions of its narrative until it deems fit to bring you into the loop? Cinema has these tricks down pat, but we're still learning how to do them. Irrational pulled it off ages ago.

In Vengeance you play as both mother and daughter, and the hindsight provided by the one character renders seemingly righteous actions by the other as tragedy. And right there, there's the reason Vengeance is special: it's a tragedy. That shouldn't be a rarity, but it is. This is a game about love, and politics, and perspectivism, and hatred. It's a game which is entirely linear not because it lacks narrative ambition, but because this enables it to tell an intricately crafted story of a fashion I'd argue Bioshock never even approached. It's a game assured enough to let your motivations in the present only be explained later by your own actions in the past. Even Rockstar - in Red Dead Redemption - look amateur in their attempts at the same.

But there's something else. Let's look at the story premise again, because it's so obvious, and so smart, as to be almost invisible.

The Tribes series - and online shooters in general - have always been about people fighting one another for no real reason. How do you make a story out of that? Simple. Irrational's story is about how people fight one another for no reason. And they prove that to you. In gradual, tragic detail.

Perhaps that Vengeance was a multiplayer game whose strongest asset was its elaborate, story driven tutorial was what damned it to the insulting sales and mass exodus of players and publisher immediately following release. Perhaps Vengeance's singleplayer didn't redefine storytelling in the same way the original game did multiplayer. But it should have done.

This is a game which, if any ever did, deserves another look while its gameplay remains palatable. Because unlike its visuals, its story is timeliness.

Buy Tribes Vengeance at
Buy Tribes Vengeance at

Thursday 9 December 2010

The Theory Behind In-Game Failure

As a topic for theory, failure states aren't new. If you're providing the player a challenge, the traditional way to handle his failure to live up to that challenge is a


followed by a discretionary amount of replaying from the last checkpoint. To a certain degree I'm sold on this concept. Particularly in these days of casual, persistent and console gaming, developers are always seeking ways to avoid those ugly words,


and allow the player to proceed without breaking the fiction (see my discussion on Bioshock's Vita-Chambers). Sometimes this cuts short your options: if you're escorting an NPC how do you handle that NPC's potential death? Invulnerability? Branching story lines? Massive text redundancy?! Sometimes a good old fashioned


is all you need.

On the flip side, I love games that incorporate player failure not just into their fiction, but into their gameplay. In fact I think they're far more rewarding experiences. I believe this on the basis that its not just challenge that is central to good drama, but failure. With that in mind, in order for failure states to be meaningful they need to be incorporated into the both the game's fiction and, more importantly, the world of the game's mechanics.

I see three ways in which failure is modelled:

1. Game over
2. Forced fails
3. Gameplay incorporated

Game over (yeah, line breaking for 'game over' is getting annoying now) definitely qualifies as a failure, but in most cases it's mechanically unrelated to everything else in the game. You step back in time and turn that failure into a success in order for the narrative and interaction to continue.

Forced fails are when the story demands the character strike out, and the game forces the player to embody this. There's a time and a place for this, but clearly as soon as you're scripting player action to reflect the story, rather than the other way around, you've given up a core tenet of interactive narrative. In both game over and forced fail, failure acts as a barrier to interaction rather than a part of it.

The better approach, as I see it, is the smaller scale stuff that's handled by the game mechanics. That's things like getting shot, taking too long, or making poor decisions. These are things which, combined, might lead to a Game over, but which can usually be taken on the chin. I played a lot of RTS and management games when I was a kid, and I think one of the appeals of those genres is that game over is far rarer than in action games, and that failure is Incorporated into the flow. Messing up in Theme Hospital doesn't make the level unplayable; you don't have to redo the half hour since the last check point. What it means is having to hire new specialists. What it means is having to stare at the monstrosity of a Bloaty Head treatment machine you just built when all your patients are dying of Broken Hearts. What it means is being punished proportionately, in a way that's cohesive with the fiction and the game structure, and in a way that forces you to work harder to overcome your self-wrought challenges.

What it arguably means is a far truer interpretation of interactive drama.

Of course, there remain sticking points. How do we tell a story which revolves entirely around a protagonist's failure, but keep the player motivated? How do we tie this approach not just into the gameplay, but more thoroughly into a complex narrative?

I'm going to go play Theme Hospital (well, its open source clone) and think about it some more.

Wednesday 1 December 2010

Environmental Narrative Panel: Vid, Write Up & a Note on Subliminal Signposting

Last week's panel discussion on environmental narrative went well. We had a full house (though didn't stretch to standing room only like last year), no one shouted or cried, and I even got a word in edgewise.

I also met Joel (aka Harbour Master), who was sportsman-like enough to train it into London, say hello in the pub, and then beetle home and write the whole event up practically before I'd sobered up. I was aiming to draw my own conclusions from the evening, but frankly he's done it for me.

For my tuppence worth there are a couple of topics I'd like to pick up on.

A Writer Writes Across the Board
The talk, and Joel's write up, begin with a quote from Jim:
Which of you are writers or want to be writers?” Many hands went up, including mine.
How many of you want to be writers for games only?” Only a few hands survived.
Don't limit yourselves.”
It's a small thing, but since it was so centre stage I wanted to chime in: I don't think you need to write in different disciplines to be a good writer. 

I'm sure it can help. I'd be surprised if there were many writers who didn't want to write in different disciplines. But if you love just one medium I don't see any good reason to pursue any other. Unlike the other writers on the panel, I didn't come into games from another industry: games are what I write. Certainly I'm interested in pursuing prose fiction, but if it came down to it, interactive narrative is what really floats my boat. That's no bad thing.

The Validity of Thematics & Subliminal Story Telling
I kind of abused the topic to my own ends so that I could discuss tying narrative / artistic meaning into gameplay, but Jim and Rhianna very much went down the more solid "the environment art can tell a story" route. Question time at the end raised an important query:
"One member of the audience suggested that all of this “environmental narrative” simply washes over the player, that as it is not part of the actual gameplay, it ceases to be important. The clever subtext is all but lost."
Now this riffs on something I discussed in class a few weeks ago: the questioning of the validity behind thematics. McKee says:
"An IMAGE SYSTEM is a strategy of motifs, a category of imagery embedded in the film that repeats in sight and sound from beginning to end with persistence and great variation, but with equally great subtlety, as a subliminal communication to increase the depth and complexity of aesthetic emotion."
In English this means: "Use symbolism and repetition to engage the audience on another level." This is precisely what environmental narrative often is, and it's a technique that's common to all artistic expression I can think of. But does it just pass us by?

Two examples spring to mind. The first is games' frequent use of signposting. In most titles, a load zone is indicated by a particular piece of art. It might be a door with a release valve; it might be a yellow arrow on a corridor wall. The point is, when you see that sign I don't think there's a logical process in your head which goes: "This sign means there's a load zone, therefore I won't go this way until I've done everything here." I think you just learn by habit (the same way you train an animal) and avoid that door.

The second example is one Jim gave at the talk.

In the image above - with the visible pier supports and the beached ships - the environmental narrative is telling us that the Combine - Half Life 2's big bad guys - are so powerful that they've dried up entire seas. Great. Problem is I never would have picked up on that in a million years when I was playing through. I'm sure some people would, but I'm sure plenty are like me.

If that's the case, how much of our (writers across all mediums) thematic work is actually adding to the fiction, and how much of it is just creative types wanting to feel clever? The scary word is 'subliminal'. While the load zone example above would seem to support the idea that some simple things can be understood subconsciously, 'subliminal' itself - despite the popular controversy around its use in advertising - quite literally means below the senses, ie undetectable by the human mind on any level.

Clearly Half Life, Bioshock et al are better for not being set in grey corridors. But I suppose my question is just how much of that time and effort to weave complex stories into shooters is wasted below the senses; and don't games like Hitman make greater use of these techniques by having the nature of the environment actually feedback into gameplay in more ways than just waist high cover?