This is my dissertation

It’s raw and it’s ugly and I feel shame when I read it, but dammit, it’s mine, and I made it.

These ideas may not be presented as beautifully, as clearly, as completely as they could be, but I still think these thinks, and I would love feedback on them.

Story in, around, and of games is still my greatest love. 

I present to you:

The Princess Is in Another Castle: Multi-Linear Stories in Oral Epic and Video Games

On Proteus

I opened my eyes to a sea full of sea. Looking around, I spotted a faint outline of trees and made my way toward them. The island was lush, and I thought, full of life. Trombone-plants and horn-weasels dotted the landscape. Leaves fell, sun rose. Proteus is about many things, but for me, it was about life or the absence of it. It’s about making meaning because we must, because we can, because otherwise, we would close our eyes and stop.

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In Proteus, life is all around you. Rushing down the hills, you find creatures who flit away, owls who fly off when they catch your glance, and dragonflies whirring and buzzing. The sounds of life are all around you. Creatures blow whistles and owls sing out their whoo in the night. The fireflies are bells and the lights a symphony. I saw gravestones and roses. Did I plant them? Had my family died here?

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I found a house seemingly abandoned, but shut tight. Was it mine? I found broken trees that looked like castles, and totems of animals high on the hills. Had I built those?

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I found drum-beetles marking the beat of their march through the muck. I found mushrooms who could jump further than I could. I couldn’t jump at all. In fact, I’m not sure how I moved. I moved through the water, but I didn’t swim. I moved over hills, but I didn’t walk. I came up to the house’s door, but I couldn’t knock. Surely there was something to find in this beautiful land. A path I had ignored or a side of the house I hadn’t tried. Perhaps there was some other island out to sea, and I was just on the wrong one.

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My search for something ended in the realization that for all the goals I constructed, the names I created, and the stories I told, I was nothing. I made no sounds. Was I even alive? Why did I keep moving? Because there was nothing else for me to do. Why did I follow the stars? Because there was nothing else I prescribed enough meaning to. In an open world, waiting to be explored, I followed the signs. I needed the signs. The trombone-plants made their song and needed no signs. The horn-weasels hopped out their melodies and needed no signs. The stars, the stars, those malicious keepers of time, led me on to my eventual path into nowhere. Or so I could say. But really, I made meaning because I needed it. Because I lacked it. I made meaning because I wasn’t alive.

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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.

Raiding Literacies

The big news of one small corner of the internet today was a series of charts that MMO-Champion put out showing the number of characters who had completed the current raiding tier in World of Warcraft. Now, the numbers were based off of only a sample of avatars so one cannot use them to speak for the whole playerbase. In the manner of forum users, however, that is exactly what was done.

Let’s pretend for a moment that there really is only ~5% of the playerbase in World of Warcraft that has completed the current tier. Why is that? There are a lot of theories, but the one Blizzard is acting on is that the tier is too difficult. Raiding is too hard.

Some players argue that raiding isn’t hard – players are just bad. More sensible players respond that actually, players just don’t know what to do because they were never taught. They don’t know how to understand a fight, they don’t know how to recognize mechanics, and they have no way of knowing how to learn that. They can’t solve problems that they can’t see.

There are many kinds of literacies, even many kinds of gaming literacies, but raiding literacy is one somewhat close to my heart. As a long-time raider, I have been in low-skill groups and very high-skill groups. I remember the first raid I did and how difficult it was then. Since I love raiding so much and I see raiding culture somewhat in decline right now (another post another time), I have an interest in teaching people how to raid in the hopes that they will then be able to enjoy it as much as I have.

But first of all, what do they need to know? And then, how do you teach that to them?

Normie, level 10 warlock, said it well in the “1.35% thread“:

Players often come to World of Warcraft new to the genre, perhaps even new to video games. They don’t understand how to parse the UI, let alone busy boss mechanics. The hope is that they “learn their class” through the leveling process and as they complete 5-man dungeons. However, much of the content has been simplified to account for the age of the game and the relative age of its playerbase. Even new players without veteran perks experience easy versions of 5-mans due to their companions who are, for the most part, overly geared and skilled alts.

They experience this, if they don’t get bored, for 85 levels. There is then a level-cap crisis (what do I do now?). If they manage to pass this crisis and continue playing, many of them realize that raiding is the goal. However, they haven’t been prepared to raid at all. They haven’t learned what a rotation is, not even what the term means potentially. They have never encountered a fight so dangerous that a mere misstep can kill them and everyone else. They’ve never seen fire on the ground perhaps even before. They may not conceptually relate a red/blue/purple/sometimes-green area on the floor with danger. They don’t have the conceptual map to understand that “fire will kill me” because they don’t see fire and they don’t realize the red/blue/purple has anything to do with them. (I am focusing on standing-in-fire because it is the most obvious part of raiding literacy when it is lacking and so ubiquitous that Blizzard has implemented more than one achievement referencing it.)

It’s easy for experienced players to say ‘you’re an idiot if you stand in fire’ because in real life, you would be somewhat of an idiot to stand in a patch of fire. That judgment however operates on a successful conceptual map of the avatar as a human body and the red/blue/purple circle spot on the screen as a patch of fire or other dangerous substance, a metaphor that new players do not understand. They do not see the game world in the same way that experienced players have learned to see it. They cannot read the images on the screen the way experienced players can.

They only see meaningless pixels. They may not even notice that a part of the floor is green because they don’t know the floor is an important part. Why isn’t the wall? Or the ceiling? Why does the room matter at all – aren’t we fighting a monster?

Perhaps raiding literacy begins with understanding the visual space of the game and relating it to the avatar as one relates real space to one’s body. We learn to watch where we step as children, and are often reminded of it as adults when we trip and make fools of ourselves. Raiders-to-be need to learn where to step as well, but if they haven’t tripped in 85 levels, they don’t even know that tripping is a thing. They need to be taught. And I don’t mean they should be tripped randomly. Perhaps we could find a better way, a more positive way to teach raiders this one lesson of the very many that need to be learned.

RIFT’s new Chronicles are small instances (1-2 players) for level 50 characters. I noticed that the boss fights in these dungeons are somewhat simplified. For example, the final boss of the first chronicle has a few abilities – he has a cleave, a beam-of-death that follows you, and a meteor-type ability. All of these are marked on the screen in a consistent manner. Before he uses his cleave ability, there is a red patch on the ground in an arc in front of him. Before meteor, there is a glowing red circle that he is targetting. The beam-of-death is also highlighted in red as well as being a beam of fire.

These are helpful, and I wonder how useful they are to new players. Do new players see the red? Do they know to stay out of it? Red is somewhat universally a bad color throughout the game – enemies are highlighted in red, damage done to you is red text, and other instances of danger use the color red. They’ve been trained to see red as danger.

However, are we just training them to see red patches on the ground now? Will they be able to understand the virtual space around their avatar as a space full of potentially dangerous threats to their character’s person? I think they will. They either move out of the red cleave before it happens or they take damage from it and gradually learn that red means move. Once they have learned that red means move, they have progressed from pure visual (red signifies something bad) to kinetic (red signifies something I need to avoid). Once they have reached kinetic, they have conceptually moved from purely a visual map to a spatial map. Visual awareness can now be spatial awareness.

Is this the ideal way to do it? No. Very likely no. It doesn’t happen until 50 for one. But it’s a start.

It’s the Small Things: The Facebook Ticker

I’ve been on Facebook for a long time. I’ve seen countless changes to its design, some good and some not-as-good. I’m sure I’ll get used to this one in time as well, but the ticker has to go.

If you haven’t noticed it, the ticker is this mini-Facebook feed in the upper-right corner of your Facebook window. It displays real-time activities of your friends – when they comment on something, when they like something, when they join something, when they are joined to something (even private groups), etc. I’m sure some people really love it, and in fact, I’ve seen some of my own friends say how nice it is. The majority of my friends though have been posting links on how to get rid of it since it first appeared. And if they’re not posting links to extensions that hide it (like this one), they’re posting the following:

Some say it’s the lastest in a history of invasions of privacy. More

Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Badge

This morning, the 4th annual Digital Media & Learning Competition was announced on the theme of “Badges for Lifelong Learning”. Around 10:15am or so, Twitter started erupting in very odd comments tagged with #dmlbadges from HASTAC’s live feed.


Very big claims. I reacted quite strongly, as did many of my colleagues, and we were branded “haters”. But we weren’t hating – we were critiquing. I worried throughout the day though that I had “critiqued” too strongly. Maybe I had assumptions that weren’t correct. Maybe I was too invested, had too much at stake. Maybe I was just a grad student who should have kept quiet and let the big guns sort it out. More

Some thoughts on story in MMOs

This came up in the comments of a thread that Brent Breaux started earlier. We started discussing the manner in which story is going to be told in SWTOR.

Storytelling is usually a way to communicate what happened in one place to someone who was in a different place. The storyteller is the mediator of this narrative. In a game, this changes a little bit. Instead, the listener pretends to be a participator in the story and they craft that story themselves through the choices they make in the game.

This works particularly well in RPGs. A single player is able to see a character (sometimes many) and a world shift before his eyes as he makes changes that are meaningful. Some of the most powerful stories told in games earn much of that power through the agency they give to their players.

Story in an MMO has up to this point been quite different. As an MMO player, one enters a world that is much like our own. There are many stories happening, many characters and players, and many places to explore. Each place may have its own story and sometimes we happen upon stories we didn’t expect. In most cases, these are told through quest text, a somewhat tedious element of the game which many players skip. More

Medea Project: Take 1

I’ve long been thinking of how to make a “digital translation” of Medea. For awhile, I planned to do so by using the Dragon Age toolset and create a visual encounter that played through the story of Euripides’ Medea. This proved doable but cumbersome, and I’ve decided instead to make a purely text-based translation in Inform 7. (The design of the translation is greatly influenced by Emily Short’s work and relies heavily on Eric Eve’s Conversation Framework extension.) I’m going to use this space to talk about the questions that are raised about the text, about narrative, about characters, etc., while I work on and eventually complete this project.

I’m still in the early stages of planning out exactly what the conversations trees look like, but already I’ve encountered a few interesting questions about the text itself. First, though, some ground rules. More

Truth Statements in Post-Primary Narrative: Alabaster

Truth and fiction have had quite the volatile relationship. Most people can agree that fiction is neither true nor false, but rather somewhere in between those two. Fiction is true in the world it creates (unless, of course, the narrator or characters lie to you, but such a statement is only meaningful if the literary world has its own truth values).

In a traditional linear narrative, it is typically not too difficult to decide what the truth statements of the world would be. For example, in the Disney rendition of Cinderella:

  1. The Stepmother is mean.
  2. The stepsisters are mean.
  3. Cinderella is good.
  4. Cinderella is beautiful.
  5. The prince is not bad.
  6. The coach is an altered pumpkin.

The list could go on and on. But what about a story that has multiple endings or multiple possible narrative experiences? I’ve been looking at Alabaster, a multi-authored piece by Emily Short and others. [Spoilers will follow, so go play it quick!]. More

Postmodern Play

NYC Snowmageddon SadfaceI’m 10,000 feet above the ground right now, on my way to NYC, and Google has been kind enough to offer free Wi-Fi on flights over the holidays. It’s the perfect time to treat you all to the thoughts that have been mulling in my brain the last couple of days on the relationships between play and literature. (and four hours later, I’m stuck in the middle of the country waiting for a standby seat to miraculously open.)

I’ve been reading Dolezel’s Possible Worlds of Fiction and History (2010) and he makes some delightful comparisons between postmodernism and play. At one point, he states “Postmodernism creates a wonderland where each thing can morph into another, a ludic world free of conventions, rules, and traditions.” At first glance, it’s a utopian fantasy, but does this mean that postmodernism does away with a serious exploration of literature and history, replacing it with a nonchalant denial of authority and boundary?

On the contrary, the playfulness postmodernism has brought to our perspectives on literature is a creative one. Games are one place I find to be a particularly productive petri dish for these kinds of  narrative explorations. It is here that stories can be told through not just text and/or visuality, but also through interaction, through choice. Here, stories are told that encompass multiple narrative paths, contradictory events, multiple worlds of possibility all telling the same tale, but different facets of it. What text changes (literally) each time you read it? Of course, every reading of a text is a new, never-been-done reading, but text itself is mostly static. Even those texts with healthy manuscript traditions are unchanging compared to the vast possible “readings” of many role-playing games. More

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