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.

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

The Day Deathwing Came

If any of you have been living under a rock lately, maybe you haven’t heard that Deathwing came and shook the foundations of Azeroth. The world has changed and the change is predominantly good.

I’m talking about the new World of Warcraft expansion: Cataclysm. Although it doesn’t come out until December 7th, Blizzard pre-patched the world last week so that everyone now lives in the world post-Deathwing. Almost all of the quests in the game from levels 1-60 have been redone. Many are simply brand new, while others have had their narratives touched up and a few of their progression points adjusted to be more seamless.

One of these new quests is found in the Badlands, a somewhat desolate place with an environment similar to Mars or Arizona. In this new quest, the player meets a trio of gentleman hanging out by a fire on a small hill overlooking a vast furrow carved into the earth. What happened here? Each member of the trio tells his version of the story: The Day that Deathwing Came.

The quest has many things going for it, not least of all, good old Blizzard humor. If for nothing else, go take a character through it for the laughs. Aside from the pure happiness I got from playing through it, I also started to think about how Blizzard is telling stories in this new version of Azeroth. What really happened that day when Deathwing came?

Last Tuesday, we all awoke to a new Azeroth. The way Blizzard communicated what had happened while we were sleeping and they were patching was through this cinematic. We see Deathwing getting his armor on and then flying across the world. Various famous landmarks are crumbled and destroyed before our eyes. It would be like waking up, turning on the news and seeing the Statue of Liberty broken by a tsunami, the Eiffel Tower devoured in a chasm of the earth, and the Great Wall splintered as the ground beneath heaved and trembled. More

Characters in History (and also Starcraft)

There was a fascinating article put up on Gamasutra today which deals with the process of storytelling in a real-time strategy game (RTS). Brian Kindregan, the lead write of Starcraft II, gave some fascinating insight into the narrative process at Blizzard. Two great points were made.

1. Storytelling is about the characters, even, or maybe, especially in an RTS.

2. The medium of games is evolving rapidly and with it, our understanding of how to tell stories.

First, the characters. I’ve especially been thinking lately about the way characters are created. There is theory that tries to understand how we create imaginary people out of text (especially Possible-Worlds theory), but what I really want to know is the ins and outs of creating those characters. What are the pieces of them that we need in order to be engaged? As Brian says, engaging the reader is always the goal no matter what medium you’re working in.

…engaging the reader is always the goal.

I think I tend to think of the classroom in the same way. I’m telling a story, either one written by Homer or Vergil, or one lived by people in the past. My goal is to engage my readers, my players, my participants – my students.

Is there something that lets us create these alternate worlds in our mind and populate them with people and physics? I know that when I play a Warcraft game, even World of Warcraft, I feel like I’m in Azeroth. It has a geography, a culture, a history, etc. It’s a real place in my mind. Jaina and Thrall and Arthas are characters I recognize and feel for. In my case, I have a soft spot for Arthas and killing him was one of the most problematic things I’ve done in a game. But back to the topic at hand – why do I care?

Kindregan says that we need characters to differentiate between the parts of the world that don’t matter, the disposables, and the parts that do. Sometimes I think history is the same way. There’s a judgment made about what matters. Caesar. Nero. Constantine. These matter. Joe Roman… ? In our modern culture of equality, such statements probably elicit a bit of horror. “Gasp, how can you say one person matters more than another?” Somehow, these characters in the story of history make it meaningful and relevant. And they are characters. One of the big paper topics of a class I TA’d for last year was – “How do we find out who Caesar really was?”. What we have left from history are character sketches of a person larger than life. What does it even mean to know what someone really was? Everyone is a character, maybe nothing more.

I was talking to my students the last day of class this term about the Nike revolt. The emperor made a decision to slaughter 35,000 people in order to end chaos and affirm his role in power. My students didn’t engage with that story until Justinian became a character. Why did he decide this? What were his motivations? What were the consequences? It was when they were able to enter into a world of Justinian that they started to actually think about that event and what it means. It took a character to teach them history.

Look for another post about Arthas and his role as a character in the story of Warcraft. Now I can’t stop thinking about him.

Primary Probability Stew

As I continue to contemplate the feature of post-primary narrative, I’ve begun to wonder just what place “primary” has in it at all. Of course, there is always a primary. Something must always come first. In games with a multipathed narrative though, what comes first may be different for everyone. I will continue to use Dragon Age: Origins as an example.

There are 6 entry paths available to the narrative in DA:O. These are the “Origins”. However, although there are these finite beginnings, they are able to be colored differently by the players themselves. The dialogue trees in the game offer different perspectives and responses from various game characters. Although in the Origin, the player-character is destined to eventually end up at the same place, they can do so with varied experiences. Rather than 6 individual primary paths, there are actually 6 probability clouds of primary paths. And this is only the Origin. After that, the diagram would get much more complicated.

How then do we analyze a primary narrative experience? Rather than working with traditional methodologies of narrative, we may need to create a theory that acknowledges a model of narrative that has little to no stable text or primary foundation. It can be argued that any text will result in different initial readings depending on the reader, but in those cases, there is a stable text common to all.

In a multipathed narrative like in DA:O, what is common to all? The narrative is a stew of variables rather than a string of constants. There are certain plot points which do occur for everyone, but they still offer multiple avenues of experience through player choice. Although we may all journey to visit Arl Eamon, what actually takes place there at his castle may be quite different for each of us. There are many possible intratextualities and many possible cross-references, but many of them could only come to light in particular post-primary experiences, in which case, the reader’s particular primary experience of the narrative would be greatly influential.

Does this then mean that a single reader could never fully experience the entire narrative? If some post-primary features are dependent on one’s particular primary experience (of which there can only be one, naturally), then a single reader could only experience those which his particular primary allows.

Are his experiences intertextually related to another’s? These are not separate texts that readers experience, and yet, they are different.

Post-Primary Narrative: The Re-Encounter

My papers are finished for the term and I know I’ve promised summaries, but I just cannot get this topic off my mind.

When working on the Dragon Age narrative paper, I became captivated by the concept of post-primary narrative or a re-encounter with an already experienced game/text. With traditional text, some nuances may appear which were missed the first time, but no new words are actually read and there are no new speeches or revelations from the characters. In games, it is quite different. A second playthrough of many games offers entirely new experiences. Although the basic plot itself does not change, the perspective from which it is told may be completely opposite from the first and choices made by the player may actually alter how the plot is progressed. Even if one plays a second time from the original perspective, in many games, there is some element of chance which will alter the way in which the player experiences the narrative. Further, there are often areas or events which were missed the first time although present and which may be noticed a second or third time.

I have also been working on The Lord of the Rings Online, as many of you know, but hadn’t yet applied the thoughts of post-primary narrative to it and its genre. Players often complain about the fact that they must do the same thing over when leveling a new character or when completing dungeons or battles. They are actually experiencing post-primary narrative, but one in which there are very few possibilities of emergent narrative (that portion of narrative which is uncovered by other actions in the game and often requires multiple playthroughs).

The new skirmish system in LotrO highlights the presence of post-primary narrative in MMOs. In a skirmish, one experiences a particular event (such as the death of Mazog) a second time. Unlike a game such as Dragon Age, MMOs typically offer a single perspective (that of the player, regardless of player-character) and often have a lower element of chance. Under these conditions, it is quite difficult to have a new experience colored by the first:  a post-primary experience. Instead, they simply have a reminder of a former experience. We see Mazog say the exact same things at the exact same time as before. The only thing that may change at the end is how many marks (rewards) we get.

If MMO developers tried to further the possibilities available in their post-primary narratives, the player experience could be made much more engaging. There would actually be incentive to play through the game again, to re-encounter it. The current pervasive desire to skip to the endgame as soon as possible could be lessened, if not eliminated. Bioware’s upcoming Star Wars: The Old Republic will certainly have more obvious features of emergent narrative than other MMOs, since each class will have its own story to play through. These will surely give incentive to experience post-primary narrative, though I am not sure how much possibility for change there will be after the main plot is experienced. I’m looking forward to it though!

Dragon Age: When Narrative and Gameplay make Fun

I think I fell in love with Alistair the moment I came out of Flemeth’s hut and he was so happy to see me alive. I knew it was just because he was relieved to not be alone in the world, but I was still head over heels.

Narrative in a game has the power to be so much more than just a framework of a universe or a generic plot to satisfy the genre. Game narratives can help create emotional experiences.

In Dragon Age:Origins, superb voice acting, fabulously animated facial features, developed histories, and consistent moralities somehow combine into a magical, sparkling, non-vampire known as Character. Alistair is sarcastic, playful, good, strong, sometimes conflicted, always gorgeous, loyal, and … interesting. I gave him some kind of runic symbol and he looooved it.

Why? Why does he like runes? Maybe I just hadn’t spoken to him enough to find out, but I knew there must be a reason and I was going to dig it out of him – I was going to get to know him.

Alistair is just one example of great character design in DA:O. But, is that enough to make a great game? Couldn’t I just go read Tolkien or Jordan or Martin if I wanted a good fantasy character? (Shhh, let’s only think of the first few Jordan books - let him rest in peace.)

I could. I don’t need to play a game for good narrative and if that’s all I wanted, I’d probably read a book. But we play games because we also want to have fun. We want to act. We want to play and I firmly believe that no amount of even superb narrative will, on its own, make a good game. A good game also needs good gameplay.

What is about DA:O’s gameplay that’s good? How does it interact with the narrative to create a seamless “game-goodness”?

One of the ways is I think the game’s focus on moral choices. Not only do they influence how the story plays out, they also influence whether your party members stay and fight beside you. Some class specializations are only unlocked by certain moral choices. NPC interactions vary dependent on choices you’ve made that have influenced them. Some preferable choices simply can’t be made because you haven’t worked on your character’s cunning and Coercion skills. The entire game can simply not be completed 100% on one playthrough, not just because there are different class/race beginnings, but because you will experience different parts of the game dependent on the choices you make.

It's not what it looks like...

All right, moral choices, but how does that influence the buttons I push and my heartrate in combat? Well, it may not influence the buttons you push for your main character, but it does influence what buttons you can push for your other party members. As I mentioned, some may leave you if they don’t agree with you, but also, their own abilities directly match their character as developed through the narrative. Of course, Alistair is a tank. Of course, Oghren fights with a two-hander. Of course, Wynne is a healer. Etc., etc.

Sometimes, narrative may even help make up for less-than-superb gameplay. The dwarven main questline is too long by most players’ estimation, but we know Branka must be out there so we keep searching, and the longer we search, the greater the suspense builds. Had I been a real adventurer, I would have assumed the darkspawn ate her and went back much earlier than I actually did. It dragged on and was the only area I left partially unexplored. At the end, though, I was rewarded with great narrative and a good battle. It wasn’t just a dungeon crawl – it was an epic search for lost Paragons and legendary technology.

The game is fun for more than just Alistair (and his very dreamy…mm). It’s fun to fight in this game. It’s fun to find class specializations and new recipes. It’s fun to get new spells and discover spell combos. It’s fun to give gifts. It’s fun to hear my characters talk to each other. It’s fun to open chests and find love letters. It’s sad to see characters leave or die. It’s exciting to recruit someone new. It’s scary to fight the Broodmother.

I could go on and on. The important thing to see is that it is almost impossible to separate the threads of narrative and gameplay in this game. Either they are so fine, I just cannot discern the boundary, or else they are so finely done, they merge.

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