Post-mortem: Storydeck

Monday, Storydeck: Ella launched, a game project I’ve been involved in for awhile now. It’s a bit early for a post-mortem, but I need to parse and share some of the lessons I’ve learned through this project.

It began about 18 months ago when I met up with my collaborator Ian Millington and began throwing around my ideas. With his help and input, we went through a few different versions of the game and eventually settled on this simple rendition for iOS.

I started out wanting to make a game that experimented with the ideas in my dissertation in which I talk about storytelling in games and offer a model for narrative in games and some other media. Storydeck was a way for me to play through the dissertation, in a way, and understand the workings of story from a different perspective. It was also my first real design project. I played with game design when I was quite young, back in the days of BBS’s and door games (if you remember those), but I never completed anything until now.

There are a few lessons I’ve learned, so in an attempt to be organized for once, I’ll go through them one topic at a time. I’m writing this up mid-morning quickly to kind of clear my head, so this is hardly an exhaustive list.

1. Making a game to understand my own work

This seems odd to most of my dissertation committee and likely many others around me. The typical response is “what do you mean, you ’made’ it?” I think though it’s been one of the most helpful projects I’ve engaged in. I’m able to look at my model in practice, but not only from my perspective as a scholar, but also from the perspective of a designer, a writer, and a servant to my users. This is also very problematic though. How do I justify to my committee the time I spent on it? How do I write it up? How do I use it to communicate something when I can’t make them play it the way I can make them read the dissertation? (Or at least pretend that they have read it).

2. Users

I often tell my students that writing is a tool for communication and all the lessons we have about argumentation, clarity, and concision have the goal of communication in mind. I’ve learned through this project that games are a means for communication as well. This is I suppose a no-brainer, but I found myself making the mistake of thinking of the game as a construct I was creating. An object of study and little more. As soon as it reached the hands of others though, this is no longer the case. It’s now something that potentially communicates something. Whether that is simply an emotion or a story or some moral axiom depends on the game I suppose, but there’s certainly something there that I missed when I was designing this. And it’s the fact that games are a medium between myself and my users, among other things. What am I trying to say? And how can I use a game to say it? Am I succeeding? It’s not a matter of vocabulary or style – it’s a matter of those things in terms of game language. Mechanics. Art. Pacing. Difficulty. Objectives. Rewards. Etc.

3. It’s a game.

This may be the most obvious of all, but I’m reminded continually post-release that what I made is a game. It’s not a chapter in my dissertation or a piece of art on the wall. It’s a game. Yes, it tells a story and storytelling is much of the action, but underneath all that it’s a game and it needs to be judged as a game. Too often I focus so much on story, ever reminding others to be mindful that story is just part of a game and often inconsequential to the game, but apparently I need to remind myself that more often as well. I can tell stories in any number of media – why am I using a game to do so? What’s special about this? How can my story better highlight the game and vice versa? I tend to think of story as something existing beyond the text it is told in, but in the process of the telling, the medium used comes into being as well. A symbiotic relationship forms that can either be a healthy and beautiful mutualism or else an imbalanced and abusive parasitism. I need to be more mindful of the game as partner in that relationship.

4. Design

As my first finished design project, I learned so much about the iterative process and various questions I need to ask myself throughout creation. Ian always asked me, “Well, is this fun?” and I knew that was important and I did think of it, but I was so caught up in my own scholarly questions that I didn’t pay enough attention to what made it fun. It was fun to make. I was having fun and I let that take over my ability to judge whether the post-design engagement with the game would be fun. (For the record, I do have fun playing it! But, I needed to think more about this earlier in the process.)

But even more important I think, like I said in #2, I’ve realized that I’m somewhat a novice in this kind of communication. I may be a decent writer when I put some effort into it, but that is mostly possible from years of practice. I’m quite a newcomer to the art of design – this is exciting because it means I have so much to discover and improve on, but it’s also frightening in a way. At this point in my life, there are few things I love that I haven’t already put a lot of time into learning and improving on. Pushing myself down a new path like this is daunting, but also – thrilling. It humbles me and that is a bittersweet lesson I continually take pleasure in learning.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Darius Nease
    Aug 16, 2012 @ 13:25:20

    Hi Adarel,
    First off, I think you’ve done something great. Game-learning aside, the most important feat you’ve accomplished here, to me, is, since you use your own dissertation to examine, among other things, yourself (part of your Methodology chapter?), your conclusions must be much more objective (Read: True) than those of the average (Pre-Gamelearning?) dissertation. I will dig into this site deeper and read more. Actually, I am leaving this message here because the contact form at: isn’t working and I wanted to send the following to all of you involved in that project. Now that I’ve seen this (your) site I’m glad I chose you from the list of contributors to PtP listed on: as the one to burden with getting this message through to where it belongs. That said, you can expect more comments on what you’ve done; the page above made my day =)
    Anyhow, I’ve pasted my original inquiry in quotes below–I don’t even know how to report that the contact form is not working without a working contact form… Thank you so much.

    ” Subject: inquiry

    Hello,

    I’ve read through the site’s main pages and still don’t grasp what this is all about. Do participants post “what ifs” re History and replies along the thread provide possible permutations (outcomes)? Is there an actual software application available where I can plug in an altered event in History (change a variable[?]) such as someone staying alive instead of being executed (or vice-versa) and will the software (if there is software) spit out all possible permutations and, possibly a more detailed list of the most likely possibilities?
    If the answer to either question is “yes” then this definitely would be something I’d like to be a part of. (NB: I’m a firm believer in the theory that when the word “aint” entered the dictionary, ending sentences in prepositions was no longer punishable by death–or loss of tenure, as the case may be.)
    If the answers are “no”, please reply with detailed information on what exactly Play the Past, and all connections, are; it is likely, from what I’ve seen so far, limited as my comprehension may be, that I will contribute.
    Thank you kindly.

    Sincerely,

    dgn

    P.S. Is “Play the Past” a corollary to “Reorder the Future”? ”

    Again, my thanks, Adarel, and all apologies for the trouble–all this is just so interesting!

    dgn

    Reply

  2. Lycimnius
    Oct 23, 2012 @ 02:33:01

    I checked out Storydeck: Ella after hearing you at the Meaningful Play conference in Lansing. I love the aesthetic of the game, including the music. The storyline (if there is a linear track) feels a little bit like that old game Myst. I found myself clicking randomly through all the combinations to find the next clue — so far I haven’t finished, but I’ll return. Best of all, I like the way the game makes me think more about narrative itself! Thanks :)

    Reply

    • Adarel
      Oct 23, 2012 @ 16:15:26

      Thanks for the kind words! I’m glad you enjoyed the panel and Ella as well. As my first game, it has its issues, but each time I revisit it in play or discussion, I’m reminded of how fun and profitable it is to think and research through design. Hopefully I can find time in the coming months to work some more on the game’s next iteration.

      Reply

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