315567 is a quasi-random number.

Learning Lessons from Pokemon Shuffle

June 2, 2015 essay,Learning Lessons; Tags: ,

Pokemon Puzzle is one of the first (perhaps the first) free-to-play games I have spent time with. It’s a rather standard match 3 game. The Pokemon twist is that matching a particular Pokemon on the board may activate its special power.

As is a staple of these kinds of games, you can play without spending any money, but its design is heavily weighted such that you are enticed to make small payments to help you out or improve your experience.

But this Learning Lessons sort of article is not really meant to be a historical survey, or even a particularly deep discussion about the game and its mechanics. It’s about looking at some of the game’s design decisions and seeing how they might be applied toward game design more generally.

  • UI considerations
    • The most recent update made a simple change: it now remembers your stage position when switching between modes. Small change that is a simple reminder to make things easy on your players to get around your UI.
    • On a related note, you have several “levels” (groups of stages) and arrows that move you to the beginning of the next or previous level. As more stages are added over time, navigation by arrows is frustrating. I hope they’ll add a level selection menu.
  • I wish there were a practice/sandbox mode where you could test specific scenarios. This is because you have a number of special Pokemon abilities and very vague information on how they, and certain game systems, work. In lieu of accurate details, a sandbox mode would go far for poking the mechanics and rules. Naturally, the Internet has stepped in to fulfill some of these needs. It’s less than perfect, though, unless the creators are decompiling the game to figure out what’s going on internally. Otherwise it’s guesswork, experimentation, and observation.
  • Oh, here’s a lesson: if you’re going to give your players info, make sure it’s accurate and complete. Especially in what is ostensibly a “puzzle” game.
  • Similarly-colored Pokemon on your team is a bummer. It makes it hard to read the board quickly, and makes it easy to miss certain beneficial moves. I don’t know what, if any, solution is best here. Just a circle behind them with easily distinguishable colors?
  • I would suggest there are two kinds of progressions in this game, and most free-to-plays. The first is concrete progression. When you beat a stage, you can move to the next stage. As you attempt stages, your Pokemon increase in level. These are real benefits to playing.
    The second type is a perceived progression. There are over 200 Pokemon in the game, and not half of those will be your go-to characters. This is not a game where every character has a situational use. Nope. Some Pokemon are simply obsoleted by others. Many games, particularly free-to-plays and loot-based games, use a steady trickle of new items and bonuses to provide a sense of accomplishment or good luck. This helps to keep people attached to the game.
    The pessimist in me would learn the lesson that both types of progression are necessary in a game. Concrete progression might be a long-term system while perceived progression works as short-term. Flagpoles vs. coins in Mario 1? I want to believe, though, that an alternative is interwoven, concrete progression systems. (This may or may not apply to Pokemon Shuffle, though.)
    Shuffle may not even need all this fuss about progression, though obviously the allure of a Pokemon game has always been completing a collection. Shuffle is just a type of game, like most puzzle games, where the game itself can be fun. Match-3 games have certainly stayed a viable game type. But I would suggest Shuffle needs a new mode. Like a multi-match mode (a series of battles in a row, instead of the current one-off battles), or some means of a randomized challenge. Once you’ve moved through the game to the point where you’re just waiting for the next content update, you’ve lost any real reason to keep playing.
But you know, is a casual free-to-play game really a problem? Like, there’s no rule that you have to be tied to one game, and only one game. Maybe it’s okay to have a game that you can revisit briefly every day, or a few times a day. It worked for Animal Crossing, and you actually paid to play that. What’s different, then, about free-to-play?

Shadow of the Colossus: 98% Lean Beef

August 3, 2009 essay,review

One of the many reasons to admire Shadow of the Colossus is that it did away with the nonsense that many games are constipated with: side quests and collectibles. Back when games were viciously limited by their host hardware, games were just things you played, or perhaps played through. They were not black holes for time and money

what went wrong

Without a timeline in front of me, I’m going to point the finger of blame at Square — specifically, at Final Fantasy VII — for beginning this spiraling trend of superfluity. The complexity of games bumped up the production cost, and the production cost inflated the retail price, and the retail price was mitigated by filler content. “Look“, it was said. “Look at how many hours you can squeeze out of this game. $70 for 70 hours. That’s a steal!” This, naturally, led to the escalation of arms.

This is apparently the norm of games now. Several that I’ve played most recently — Okami, Super Paper Mario, and current No More Heroes — have both of these sins. Okami is loaded with a pile of side quests, doing exactly what Beyond Good and Evil did by hiding findables all over the map. SPM had vast, vast catalogs of hidden trinkets through the whole game. Now, I enjoyed SPM quite a bit; it’s the most fun Mario game I’ve played in some time. However, the sheer time it would have cost to check everything off the list is staggering. I couldn’t convince myself that it was worth it. The game had treasure maps, recipes, and trading cards, along with an assortment of side quests. What is it about trading cards in games? No More Heroes is guilty of this, as well.

NMH seems something like a parody of games, gamers, and game designers. It’s an unbelievable mountain of wish fulfillment. It’s bloody, it has treasure chests where they make no sense, and it has those damn mini games. Even if I could accept the game as being an over-the-top satire of game culture, its mini games and filler content are what bug me. They are slowing me down, deflating any momentum the actual, core game gives me. Why should game designers feel pressured to add such nonsense? Why are they compelled — or cajoled — into littering their game with useless verbs?

what Colossus got right

Shadow of the Colossus shunned this nonessential gameplay and gave you two things to do: go to the Colossi and kill the Colossi. Although the game is not without its findables, it gets that right, as well.

SotC could be thought of as an adventure game with nothing but the bosses. There is no real concept of leveling up. There is no array of impressive power-ups. There is no wave after wave of baddie clones getting in your way. There is no sprawling, elaborate backstory. I make those sound like bad things. Maybe nowadays they are to me. Each year I lose more patience for such things. And shirking those things is one reason, among many, that I admire SotC.

As a game with verbs, it gives me nothing but the tools that will let me complete my mission. I can ride a horse, shoot an arrow, climb, grab, and stab. I do not gain super combos; and cannot bash my enemies’ heads in new and fantastic ways. I do my job. That’s all the game asks me to do. This might even encourage exploration, as I am not worried about dying; I am not worried about maxing my stats; I am not worried about crafting an ultra-rare weapon out of the many components scattered about the world, in its many nooks and crannies. I feel like the game values me, as a player, and doesn’t see itself as a carrot dangling on a stick.

The game does offer a few rewards to curious folk who wander about. The joy of its implementation is that these extra elements are so subtle and incidental that you could, perhaps, go the entire game without them; without even knowing about them. But. Not only are some of it put directly in your path, freely given, but these bonuses directly reward you for being found. They do not simply fill out a checklist. They are not pieces that, only together, unlock a mystical (and only marginally useful) artifact. They contribute directly to you, each individually, to assist you in those two primary goals: find and kill. Again, the game rewards those players who explore a bit, but do not handicap the players who go without; it still treats its player with dignity, without teasing.

The bottom line is this, game designers: I am going to die one day. It is the most inevitable event one can predict. If you are going to ask me to casually invest my money and my ever diminishing time into your game, you better offer me a rich, meaningful experience in return.

games as art

March 16, 2009 essay

You bug me, people who think that games are meant to be fun and that artistry is beholden to that cause. You bug me because I don’t understand you, and you don’t seem to be making a hard attempt to understand “us“. By “us”, I mean the crowd of folks who believe that games can, indeed, hold valid artistic statements as a priority over the vague concept of “fun”. You bug me because your agenda — to have fun, ostensibly — seems to be diametrically opposed to the goal of expression.

It’s strange to discuss the history of games. It didn’t start in the 1970s. Nor the 60s. Nor in the 1900s. Games, of course, have existed probably before recorded history. Even if they were not organized or formal, likely humans played with each other the way lion cubs tumble around: as a means of practice for life skills. But discussion rarely dips that deep into the human psyche. Dice games, card games, and board games have a long history, themselves. Do any of these games have artistic merit?

Consider a musician contemplating sculpture. Consider an architect pondering over interpretive dance. Does the theory of one study carry over to another? How would one bridge that gap of understanding? Can we, as humans, intuit the significance of some item without an artist or historian giving us context? It’s a broad question: when does something transcend into art?

I’d argue that you — the folks who keep games below the bar of art — are not being open enough. I don’t know if this is cultural bias, ignorance, or spite, but completely closing the door on the subject cannot cause me anything but grief. Do you feel that it is akin to religious proselytism? Are you guarding against something that, on the face of it, you simply cannot accept? Do you think that the ludologists are simply crazy people, talking the detached babble of ivory towers?

So, we are at an impasse. How can we open the dialogue? Will you simply forfeit discussion, and return to your artless games, happy with the fun that they provide you? I sincerely hope you can appreciate games — or anything — more deeply than that, just as I am willing to enjoy the fun that a game may provide me.

games should be

February 3, 2009 essay

Games shouldn’t be fun, they should be engaging.

Comédie et Tragédie

July 15, 2008 essay

Comedy :)

I think I can classify most kinds of comedy into two broad categories: pattern-matching and pattern-breaking. I don’t consider this groundbreaking stuff by any means.

Pattern-matching comedy, much as its name describes, involves humor found by comparing some pattern A with some pattern B (or more, depending on how tricky you wish to get). There are varying degrees of subtlety. At its most blatant, pattern-matching is basically a night show monologue. “Have you ever noticed…?” or “Today it was so hot…/How hot was it!?” Pattern-matching includes parody and satire, some of which can be notably difficult to distinguish from the real thing. This kind of comedy relies heavily on the fact that the audience will recognize both patterns. Moreover, the more subtle the joke is, the more weight is put on the presumption that the audience can match the patterns by itself.

This is what gives rise to lowest-common-denominator humor. It makes the apparent popularity of bodily-functions- and sex-as-comedy pretty straightforward: they are about the most universal experiences we have. Even the crass rise of pop-reference-as-comedy is taking for granted the ubiquity of culture to provide easy laughter. Humor as pattern-matching is a pretty simple explanation for in-jokes and memes. The further you go outside of 4chan, for example, the less interesting many of its memes become, even if they are voraciously devoured by 4channers. It’s because outsides don’t share those same patterns, and can’t match them. Thus, humor doesn’t follow. Hilarity doesn’t ensue.

4chan also tends to mash up patterns in strange ways, or take memes in absurd directions. This is pattern-breaking comedy. It is humored derived by skirting expectations. Pattern-combination is a subset and, in fact, may lie on a continuum between pattern-matching and pattern-breaking. If one could combine two memes that have no outward relationship to each other, but somehow merge into a weird, synergistic humor, this would fall under pattern-breaking. Pure pattern-breaking — simply eschewing the expected — is absurdist comedy. It is surreal and usually hard to grasp out of context. Williams Street cartoons tend to do this, to greater or lesser effect. They are sometimes glorious non-sequitors, sometimes ineffectual randomness.

But because there are still patterns at work — a pattern still had to exist to be broken — it is very difficult to make pure pattern-breaking be universally funny. If the initial pattern makes no real impression on the viewer, then the subsequent break will simply be nonsensical, not funny. Everyone brings their own patterns to humor; some patterns are more dependable within certain social constructs. People who go to see quirky indie movies are going to appreciate quirky indie humor. People expecting explosions will probably be less amused.

Tragedy :(

So, on the other side of the scale, there is tragedy. There are, I would hazard to propose, also two kinds of tragedy: pattern-fulfilling and pattern-breaking. Tricky — eh? — as both comedy and tragedy involve pattern-breaking.

Pattern-fulfilling tragedy is simply the misfortune of the inevitable. It is the knot that forms in one’s stomach when the obvious, unfortunate truth presents itself early and refuses to go away. It is something of a specialized pattern-matching, and as such it depends on the audience being able to follow a tragic story to its conclusion before the story is done. Because of this, most people are uncomfortable with pattern-fulfilling tragedies. In the case of film, it is hard to predict the tragic ending and then sit helplessly as it plays out. For that reason, pattern-fulfilling tends to play better as shorter narratives. This is why Pixar can get away with it for their shorts, but not their features.

It is interesting, on the other hand, to consider pattern-breaking tragedy. Romeo and Juliet can be considered a prime, if not archtypal, example of pattern-breaking tragedy: where elements of the plot seem to suggest things may not end tragically — that they, in fact, may turn out well — but near the end are twisted in terrible ways. The naturalness of this twist tends to have its effect on the audience; if it feels too forced or absurd, they will react infavorably: the tragic break does not feel right by the pattern that has set it up.

Patterns and humans being what they are, tragedy can have the unintended consequence of comedy, and vice versa. When one person looks at a story and is striken by grief, and another is filled with laughter, then the fickle fracturing of patterns is at work. Not only are different patterns brought to bear upon a narrative, but they and the new pattern are interpreted in personal ways. And this experience forms new patterns, reinforces current ones, or occasionally shatters them.

See what I did there? “Hilarity ensues” is a meme. If you’re familiar with it, you may have reacted pleasantly to it, or found it obvious and uninteresting. If you were not familiar with it, you may have assumed it was a joke you didn’t get, or perhaps ignored it outright. Even though I threw the word “doesn’t” in there, I wouldn’t call this pattern-breaking.

CRPGs: Two Experiences in One (an Ode to FF6)

May 21, 2005 essay

I remember Final Fantasy VI fondly. FF6 is probably the one game I have the deepest nostalgic pining for. After that would, I guess, be A Link to the Past, but I’ve not given this much thought. Furthermore, I’m not saying that I feel FF6 is the best video game of all time. That is a very different discussion.

This discussion, however, is focused squarely on something that has generally been accepted by the role-playing audience: that CRPGs are really just stories with bits of a game between chapters. They are, almost fundamentally, two separate but intertwined experiences.

Ludologists and narrat..o..logists(?) have a field day here. The myth is that ludologists enjoy games for the way they’re played while narratologists prefer the enjoyment they get from the experiential story of a game. The latter case can mean either the writer-crafted story as one might find in a Final Fantasy game, or a more player-centric story as one may devise from Animal Crossing. This is sort of a false dichotomy, probably created just for the sake of making argument easier.

But FF6, like most (all?) CRPGs, has segments of story and segments of gameplay which alternate. It opens with a story segment: you are introduced to Terra and the mission which snowballs into the rest of the plot. Upon learning your mission, the next segment has you playing to achieve the goal. There is no “story” during this period, save for what might be called “filler” material — i.e. things that would be edited out of a movie. No one will care about your goofy encounters with the strange, malicious cave rats. But this is important to you, the player, as you are now within the second experience of the game: the experience of general survival and development. One you reach a predetermined location, the game returns to story mode.

FF6, I would argue, gained most of its strength through its story experience. Its experience as a pure game was enjoyable at best, tolerable on average, and frustrating at worst. To be fair, some players of the game really get into the combat. They may, perhaps, derive more pleasure from following and maximizing stats than from the actual plot. I am not that kind of player; I feel the stats detract from the story, and that as long as I can defeat a boss, my characters are Good Enough. This is not to the advantage of the game as a whole, of course.

Would FF6 have made a great movie? An enjoyable novel? That’s hard to tell, but my instinct is to say “not as-is”. There are nuances inherent in player agency that make the story of a game much more personal. Certain moments in the game — where the party is divided into multiple, smaller teams that must work together — gain strength from the player’s immediate control. The sense of working together is enhanced because now the player must, fundamentally, coordinate with him- or herself. The characters’ survival will depend on the player’s ability to puzzle solve and form well-balanced parties. Small touches like this are where the gameplay elements of FF6 shine. They serve to sharpen the experience that the story is relating to the player.

But ah! The story! FF6 becomes literally about an opera along the course of its plot, and I think this serves to emphasize a strong hypothesis I’ve had about games in general, and FF6 in particular: that they are our generation’s operas and plays. Their characters, their stories, their music. This obviously can’t and won’t apply to all games. And typically this applies only to CRPGs. But when all the right elements come together, they can have all the force of a Carmina Burana or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I think that after FF6, some of this magic was lost with the series. FF7 hit hard with its snazzy FMV but it simply doesn’t resonate with me. I remember little of it. The same with its sequels. I have barely made a dent in FFX, which I started and stopped many months ago. I can accept that this may be, partly, the work of nostalgia, but I think it goes deeper. The stories lost some thematic strength, perhaps. The marriage of its scripted elements to its gameplay elements weren’t as strong. It may be that iterate attempts to make the gameplay more immersive and enjoyable on its own began fracturing the two game experiences further apart. In other words, it was a victim of its own success.

This, I think, really is at the heart of my inability to get caught up into FFX. The experience has been so fractured that it is not very accessible to me in the short play-times I’m allotted. Each step of the story so far has only made it more complex and unintelligible. But the gameplay felt like a completely different experience. Something is broken between the two, but I’d have to play more and really think about it to decide what may be the culprit. What is different here than from earlier installations? I don’t think it’s simply the change that the battle interface underwent. Something else; something that reaches more deeply into the core of the two experiences.

I think the story experiences of FF6 are worthy of the same critical treatment as a Shakespearan play. It may be that the game will not withstand this level of study but I feel that there’s a lot to be taken from the story. Just its thematic treatment of family dynamics (maternal or paternal obligations; the relationship of siblings, etc.) is worthy of deeper consideration, and there’s probably plenty of flourishes, both broad and delicate, that I have forgotten.

CRPGs can offer two separate but intertwined experiences; how strong each is on its own is, I could argue, less important than how strongly they play upon (and against) one another. FF6 found a careful but not entirely perfect balance. That sensitivity may have been lost to more recent volumes of the series, but it need not be gone forever.

(I’d like to apologize for being so focused on Final Fantasy as opposed to other CRPGS. The reason — and it’s a good one — is simply that I’ve not played any other CRPGs. Not in the same scope, at least; I’ve played Secret of Mana and Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross. But I’ve not had much experience with Lunar or Arc the Lad or Baldur’s Gate or whatnot. I’m not proud of this fact, per se. I’m just explaining what may be perceived as deliberate bias.)

Stories in Games, Part 2: Story Substance

October 16, 2002 essay

Part 1 of this two-part article went over very generally the way stories are told in video games. I only hinted at the psychological aspects of this, as it’s not very important to this particular discussion. Now, though, we will talk about the substance — the meat — of the stories we find in role-playing video games, and why there really isn’t much to them. We’ll examine a generic sketch of these stories — an outline of its common elements — and then discuss their merits in more details. We’ll wrap it up with an important question: what’s the point?

First, these stories are almost always fantasy, and when they are not, they are sci-fi. This makes RPVGs a very specialized genre. And sci-fi and definitely fantasy are already generally ignored by critics. We’ve already dug ourselves a hole. However, there is certainly nothing inherent about either fantasy or sci-fi that makes them unworthy of artistic merit. Of course the same is true for romance stories which, sigh, these stories generally have as a sub-plot.

I will, as a feat of magic, reduce almost all role-playing games into a single, broad list of key elements:

First, the characters you will meet:

  1. There will be a Hero. He’s either an older boy or a young man. He is generally well rounded statistically, except a tad stronger physically than at casting magic. He is either day-dreamy and adventurous or rough around the edges. (In the latter case, the love interest will smooth him out.) He will unexpectedly come across a great plot to destroy the planet, and the fate of the world will rest upon the reluctant and inexperienced ability of this Hero. He’ll need help.
  2. He will find a warrior friend. Quite strong, but lacking in the ability to use magic. A very serious person.
  3. He will find a magic-user. Gifted in casting spells, but weak both physically and mentally. She’s a woman.
  4. There will be an oddball character, usually some inhuman creature, who joins the team and provides plenty of comic relief.
  5. He will find a love interest. Very likely the magic-user.
  6. Most recent, “mature” RPVGs will also have a close acquaintance of the Hero — either a long-time associate or possibly a sibling — who becomes possessed/corrupted by the Evil Force and acts as the tie between the Hero and the Evil Force.

Now that we have the general cast, let’s talk about the Quest:

  1. Humanity, if not the entire planet, is in danger. The Evil Force generally has no sensical reason for his scheme, beyond revenge or hunger of some sort (physical hunger if it’s a planet- or soul-eating creature, a blood lust, or hunger for power).
  2. The Quest will take the Hero to these locations: towns, plains, forests, a desert, a lake, a hidden village, a volcano, an ice cavern, and possibly a sky palace.
  3. The Hero’s world-wandering is for the sake of collecting relics and/or slaying guardian creatures. Otherwise he will have no access to the Evil Force. Sub-rule: Dragons will be fought.
  4. The Hero will gain access to a large vehicle, probably an airship.
  5. The Hero will, at least once, rescue the love interest. She didn’t like him much before; now she will see him in a new light.
  6. The world of the Hero happens to have very storied mythologies, and every single one of them will be an obstacle in the Hero’s path. Sub-rule: There are no gods, only goddesses.

Obviously this can’t and doesn’t apply to every RPVG ever made, but imagine how many it does belong to. The fact that this so accurately sums up the genre is a very, very bad sign. What it means is that it has become a genre not of artistic vision or the conveyance of a rich story, but a product of player expectations. In other words, it is made so that players will like it. In that way, it’s exactly like any movie starring Hugh Grant.

Because text is reserved for dialogue, we cannot discuss the story’s use of prose. And we cannot talk about composition and editing to tell a story except in the case of cinema scenes. The story has to be discussed at the more basic building blocks: character development, structure, pacing, use of themes, and — unique to games — player interaction. And, inevitably, we must discuss the one important virtue of a story: was it even worth telling?

While we like to imagine that our characters go from point A to point B as people, they only do so in very superficial ways. The Clouds and Squalls are hardened men who fall in love and come out of their shells. WOW! That sure is an amazing look into the wonders of human emotion. Or you have the Zidanes and Hiros, the free spirits who, in the end, become free spirits… in love. Love is apparently the only major guiding force that will ever send the Heros out into the world to slay those hell-bent demons.

There have been more sensible touches of character development, though. Such as, in Final Fantasy 9, Vivi’s search for identity and Zidane’s realization that he and Vivi share a common dilemma. Vivi stands out to me, as his character — no matter how generic his “type” is in the Final Fantasy world — felt very real in his methods of dealing with his emotions. By that I mean, he didn’t always know how to do it. He didn’t suppress his emotions, nor did he feed it into some sort of brave but blind drive to unlock “the truth”. He was actually afraid of the truth, and at times wanted to withdraw. That quality is something not typical in a video game character. His interactions with other characters were also nice touches, even though the others didn’t really do much in the way of developing, themselves.

Whew. So now, let’s talk about plot structure. This is a bit tricky, but it goes like this: Hero comes across small, seemingly harmless plot. Gets involved. Unravels great, world-threatening plot. Must stop it. Walks around for a while. Fights demons, meets people. Meets love interest. Gains vehicles. Wanders around a larger portion of the world. Fights demons, meets people. Love relationship grows, although they are still pretending to not like each other. Better vehicle is found. Now, with the entire world available, the last obstacles to the Evil Force must be tackled. The love is proclaimed between Hero and love interest. Evil Force is destroyed. Everyone goes back to their lives in a different but hopeful tomorrow.

The other details are grafted into the structure. But notice: small world to large one. Adventures are by definition about discovery. However, this is generally a literal discovery of land rather than a personal discovery. Furthermore, this is mostly a discovery for the player, not the characters. They very rarely seem awe-struck about the new, mysterious lands they come across, although we can generally be certain that they’ve never been there before. And monsters are apparently the most second-nature thing you can imagine in their world. Man, those green imps are always a nuisance.

Anyway, I’m not about to look at individual plot structures. Typically, there is none to speak of. It’s just going from place to place, scene to scene. It’s like an Adam Sandler movie. Just a bare plot to tie separate events together.

Pacing. Pacing is a weird one to talk about, and pretty closely related to structure… I won’t spend much time here. It means something a little different from a story aspect than from a gameplay one. Typically, events of an RPVG are timed so that there is one major climax per disc. Just before the final dungeon, there is generally no pacing at all: the player is free to roam, find things, level up, tie loose ends, before making the decision to face the Evil Force. The game becomes more “open” as it progresses and more areas and abilities are available.

Themes don’t exist in games. Not visually, not symbolically. They simply don’t occur. I don’t know why this is. I don’t know why it’s any more difficult here than in a novel or movie, but apparently, it is. FF9 again tends to come closest to using this, as it several times discusses the issues of conformity and individuality. But it treats these themes so bluntly that they tend to lose their thoughtful quality and become very didactic.

Ah, player interaction. What I mean by this is the control the story has over the player, and vice versa. Do the player’s decisions have an important and lasting effect on the story? Typically not. Play decisions generally do nothing more than make the characters stronger or weaker over time. This is a gameplay aspect, not a story-related one. There are often different endings to the game, but this is, again, often a gameplay issue, and not something that stems directly from the player’s interaction with the story.

A very special exception to this rule is Chrono Trigger/Chrono Cross. The second time through the game, the ending is very much determined by the player’s choice of when and how to beat the final boss. The outcome will be different, sometimes subtly. And not always for the better.

The story can impart on us, the players, a sense of action. But this is typically not used with full force. Typically, our path is laid out with us in bold words. We know where we’re supposed to go. It’s just a matter of getting there. Dialogues are sometimes kind enough to ask us some Yes or No questions, but these typically amount to nothing of substantial importance. Maybe we’ll miss out on an item, and that’s always a no-no for the hardcore RPVG player, but it’s such a trivial matter for the story.

But let’s consider the grand question of all stories: do they need to be told?

Hmmm. This is a tremendously complicated issue, because eventually, you have to address the very core of what games are about. What makes them unique from novels, movies, plays, or graphic novels. Considering that games are — relatively speaking — still in their infancy… then maybe, yes, they have to be told. But as stepping stones to more mature stories, with more mature themes. Not “mature” meaning “for adults only”, of course, but in the sense that the game designers begin to take hold of the medium and explore it in a profound sense, sharing with players an experience that couldn’t be had anywhere else.

There are far too many books about epic quests in mystic lands. There are too many movies about scruffy punks who learn to straighten out and fly right. And how much more do we really need to be reminded that love makes the world go ’round?

We need role-playing video games that will either shed these adolescent ideas of dragons and robots, or shed light on them. It is indeed a fact that the game-playing audience of the past has grown up now. We are adults. We will start needing something with more substance. We’ll look back and enjoy these works for what they were. For what they meant at a time. We’ll say “Those were nice, innocent stories. Without their place in history, we wouldn’t have what we have today.” Much like we wouldn’t have post-moderism without the medieval paintings of the dark ages. But then again, in a world where we are still expected to march obediently to the theaters to watch a sequel to Dude, Where’s My Car?, can we really expect a mass-market entertainment industry to start taking its medium seriously? I believe we are very ready to explore these new landscapes of video game storytelling. The question is, when will these stories be told?

Stories in Games, Part 1: Narratives

essay

We begin exploring the, um, wonders of video game storytelling.

I wanted to discuss rather specifically the stories found in role-playing video games. (I’ll call them RPVGs, since it’s important to distinguish them from their Dungeons and Dragons table-top counterparts.) Then I realized there was a lot of material, so it’s now broken down into two parts. This is the more academic of the two sibling pieces. We go through written stories, stories in movies, and finally, stories in games, comparing and contrasting each. This might bore you, so feel free to skip to Part 2 if you want the sweet sugar without the essential vitamins and minerals.

So, let’s jump in immediately with written stories. There are two kinds of narrators: third-person and first-person. There is, technically, a second-person, but it’s pretty obscure and I don’t see much difference between it and first-person. A first-person story is seen through the narrator’s “eyes”. We experience nothing he or she does not experience. A third-person story is told by a voice that tells a story but does not take part in it. We are usually let in on a lot of knowledge the characters don’t know.

The novel isn’t a very immediate medium. Even when stories are told in the present tense, we still feel like we are reading about events that have already happened. This is because we are in control of the story’s telling: the story stops when we stop reading. Obviously, engrossing stories can shake this reality from us and keep us turning pages, but in general we have this inherent sense that what we are reading doesn’t exist on its own.

Now we jump to movies… what narrated games are starting to resemble much more than written stories. Films don’t have to have stories, let me point out, but we’re focusing on the ones that do. They also have points of view much like novels. Third-person is the vantage point of practically 95% of all movies. It happens when we place the camera whenever it looks best and just let the scene happen. We see only what cameras see and know only what editing lets us know. First-person… well, first-person doesn’t happen much. First person would technically be where the camera is the eyes of the narrating character. We see only what he sees and know his thoughts. We aren’t granted special knowledge of what is happening around him. This has happened more with digital cameras, though. But often the “eyes” of the character are just the camera he is holding… a la The Blair Witch Project. So we are a degree detached.

There is a third point of view available with movies. This is when we have voiceovers and, occassionally, when the narrating character talks directly to the camera/audience. We aren’t restricted to what that character sees, but the story obviously revolves around his presense… we don’t go too far away from him. This is typically what happens when a first-person novel is translated to film. An example is High Fidelity. This, I guess, is second-person.

John Cusack talks directly to you as part of the narrative in High Fidelity

Movies are much more immediate than films are. If you turn your head, the story will still be going when you look back. It continues of its own accord. Stopping it requires actively participating in it. Novels, as we said, happen only when you participate with it. Of course, movies are generally less intimate than novels for this same reason.

And so, the malleable art form that comprises games. It has adapted over the years. Before graphics were feasible, they took many cues from literature. And now, as polygonal characters look more life-like, cinema-like techniques of storytelling reign. But text is still used for dialogue, even though voiceovers are now possible. Time will tell whether text in games becomes practically extinct.

RPVGs are taking to a lot of cinema moments to advance the story. These points remove the player from all control.

As it is, games are generally third-person. Games that use first-person are not really story games. And also, I haven’t played enough to get the feel for how their stories are told… but I’m sure it’s not a tremendous boost to our literary heritage. The story of Halo, for example, was enough to get the character from scene to scene, giving a reason for the increasing difficulty. RPVGs are almost always third-person. In fact, please tell me if there are any non-third-person RPVGs. I’d like to know.

Games also have a strange way of combining the immediacy of movies with the intimacy of novels. Like in most stories, we begin to connect and identify with the main character. Which is no difficult task since, as players, we control him. (Or her… I just don’t like typing “him or her” all the time, and 90% of RPVGs are lead by males.)

While we have the power to turn off the game as we want — usually after saving — the game, when on, still breaths with life… even more life than a movie, as its events are not entirely scripted. They will wait for you to come to them, and then play out as you watch and read. Reading, as mentioned, is more or less reserved for dialogue, since we are easily able to see the events going on about us.

So what we typically have are characters who walk about and talk, plot events that are triggered, a limited third-person view of the world, limited generally to the hero and his allies, and every once in a while, a movie-inspired cut-scene where we learn of things happening elsewhere. What is specifically unique about the way games tell stories is that, for one, the story can mutate. RPVGs generally do not allow much of this, however, since they are about the telling of a very particular story, and branching storylines are very difficult and resource-consuming to create accurately. Also, scripted events generally become divided into short, controllable sequences: the next line of dialogue won’t be spoken until the player presses a button. As a compromise, though, these sequences will often “time out” and continue when the player doesn’t respond for a certain period of time. This is the closest example of the novel/movie hybrid storytelling.

Games sometimes play out like the mix of a novel and a movie. Read and watch!

So now we understand how role-playing video games tell stories in a more abstract manner. They are intimate, like novels, but immediate, like movies. They are always third-person, so as players we have a greater understanding of the environment than the characters do. But Part 2 of this article starts to look at the substance of these stories, and why RPVGs just haven’t been pulling their weight as a storytelling medium.

Games VS. Conflict, Part 3: Player VS. Anything But Player

September 11, 2002 essay

Part 1
Part 2

Instead of looking at one specific category of game conflict, we’ll first set boundaries and thus apply definitions to three kinds of conflict: Player vs. Game System, Player vs. Game Design, and Player vs. Self.

Player vs. Game System is what we experience when we try beating a tough boss or try winning a game of Solitaire. We aren’t going against something completely physical. Instead, as players we are in a conflict with a set of rules set in motion by the designer. An enemy robot or ninja is nothing more than an algorithm. But defining your “enemy” in something like Tetris is a little more difficult to do. We’ll examine game systems more in-depth in the next article.

But right now, let’s concentrate on distinguishing it from the Game Designer. When the Game Designer is your enemy, you’re typically being set up against some knowledge that the Designer has but you don’t. This is typically the case with puzzles and mazes.

For example, even though Tetris was basically designed by one guy, Alexey Pajitnov has no knowledge that would let him win more easily than anyone else. He doesn’t know the answer to the riddle, or the secret code, or which door is the right one. The game is just as tough for him as it would be for anyone else. Conversely, the NES game Adventures of Lolo presents a series of puzzles. The designer would know exactly how to maneuver through them. For the designer, there is no challenge. But a new player doesn’t have that knowledge. Instead, the player must learn by studying the screen, or from trial and error. Once the player knows the secret, playing the game a second time is far less enjoyable.

But, getting back to Tetris… it presents an interesting situation. While you are fighting against the game system’s random piece-choosing and increasing speed, the only force lying down the pieces is you.

Watching different people play, it can quickly be noticed how some people stack up pieces better than others. Some seem to just set their pieces down randomly.

This becomes even more apparent in a game like Puyo Puyo, where the positioning of pieces can lead to chain reactions. A skilled player will build a very destructive series of reactions. So… is this shades of the elusive Player vs. Self? A player’s actions at one point will either help or hinder himself in the future. Well… I’m hesitant to call this Player vs. Self. It still is too close to Player vs. Game System: these mechanics of chain reactions were built into the rules. They were made specifically for the player to take advantage of them. Besides, this doesn’t really present the player with a personal conflict, unless the player were sadistically trying to hinder himself.

A little closer might be simulations. This is because simulations barely contain conflict at all. When you’re playing The Sims, what are you trying to accomplish? Defeating a boss? High score? The goal is generally set by the player, and even then it tends to be variable, when strange circumstances arise. Will Wright doesn’t call his Sims games “games” at all, but “electronic toys”. This is pretty accurate, since they are basically tools for the imagination. And although, as a player, you are constantly struggling against all the forces set upon you by the game system, there’s still no defined goal you’re trying to attain. Indeed, sometimes a player’s goal in a sim will be complete self-destruction.

But I don’t know of any game that offers a mechanic that is purely Player vs. Self. In theory, this would cause a player to constantly question his or her own motives. Is this the right thing to do? The ethical thing? I just did something I realize was wrong… how do I rectify it? And, really, why am I even playing?

I would love to see a game this involved. Feel free to discuss the subject on [the ill-advised and long-defunct forum – edit]. And perhaps, as the medium evolves and matures, and more people gain access to the tools, we’ll see games like this.

But let’s never discount the fun of blowing up robots and ninja. Next article: Player vs. Game System.

Games VS. Conflict: Part 1

July 21, 2002 essay

A general rule in storytelling is that a story must involve some conflict. The conflict can be placed in one of three categories: man vs. man (a conflict between two characters), man vs. nature (a character’s battle against some inhuman force), or man vs. himself (generally a conflict of personal ethics). Conflict creates drama, and the story of Metal Gear Solid 2 had plenty of drama. Rare these days, MGS2 tries to use its story as a backdrop for an Important Issue. One about man and machine or… something. I don’t remember now.

Stories could, theoretically, be written without conflict. Here’s an example I’m coming up with as I write:

This morning, I stepped outside and smelled a pretty daisy. A beautiful unicorn stepped out the forest and offered me a ride.
“Would you like to go to the Mushroom Kingdom, Nick?”
I said “Yes!” and hopped on. We flew through clouds and rainbows until we arrived at Mario’s Super Happy Party. We drank tea and ate pizza. The end!

So with an example to work with, let me define a few important points:

Storytelling is an artform in itself, and can be presented through different media: words, film, comics, and games, as examples. The medium chosen shapes how the story is told. A comic would probably not tell a story through poetics the way words would, or with motion the way film would. So games have to find a way to tell stories that other media can’t do. I would suggest that this relates to their use of rules and interaction itself.

Media don’t have to use stories. Film, comics, and music can exist as an artform without telling a story. But this is rarely seen since the general concensus is that media – story = boring.

Enlightened.

Anyway, my final point is that, unlike those other media, games can’t really exist without conflict. Conflict is practically part of the definition of games. This is because games are driven by player control, and the ending thus has to be defined by some end game scenario instead of a running time or a page limit. And just like a story would be boring without conflict, a game would similarly be boring without conflict for the player.

Note I said for the player. Imagine controlling a character who has an entire story to progress through. As a player, you move the character from plot point to plot point. The story unfolds because of your interaction, but you feel empty. Why aren’t you just watching a movie?

I think this has a lot to do with Metal Gear Solid 2’s flaws. The game could be congratulated for rewarding nonviolence… except its violence is pretty hardcore and most players would be a lot more happy seeing a soldier limp around than having a large dogtag collection. But back to my point, MGS2 feels a great deal like a movie with little mini-games scattered where Action Scenes would be placed in a summer blockbuster. I don’t have much against game-like movies or movie-like games, but a piece that alternates between the two will generally come off feeling unfocused. Remind me in the future to do a piece on participant versus spectator.

Right, so conflict.

The categories of game conflict are similar but, you know, different than those of stories. They are player vs. player and player vs. game system. I assume player vs. himself is possible, but I have yet to play a game that effectively uses that mechanic. This series of articles will take a trip down conflict lane to see the sights, maybe take in a movie/game. Part 2 will start with the simpler of the two: player vs. player.

earlier