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.


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

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

Games | Art (@ebertchicago)

Twitter exploded this morning with a variety of responses to Roger Ebert’s post this morning in the Chicago Sun-Times entitled “Video games can never be art“. Various folk have posted responses and twitter comments, but I saw a criticism that while Ebert’s post was detailed, nuanced, and provided good arguments, the responses failed to do the same. I hereby run the risk of adding to this pile-up of drivel.

I feel strongly about this subject because I truly believe that modern videogames are a medium which is able to produce art. Yes, I realize this is not the first time people have debated the subject. Apparently, it’s not settled yet.

I do not wish to quibble over definitions with either Ebert or Plato on what exactly art is nor do I wish to address Ebert’s befuddled depiction of gamers’ strong desire to have their choice of entertainment validated as art. However, I feel one thing does need to be cleared up before we address his main point and that is his tenacious hold to the belief that games must have a win-option.

He is right that games have rules, objectives, goals, even that they often have an outcome. But I do not think that any of these necessarily equals or necessitates a win-option. Civilization has win-options but you can continue to play the game after you’ve “won”. Dragon Age has win-options in a way but I would disagree with anyone who said play ended at that point. In fact, it seems new every time you play it. Other games certainly have winnings and endings. Super Mario for example. You beat Bowser and you have won. Of course, you can keep on playing. I know I did as a child with wonder as I looked at rows and rows of items having been giving to me for “beating the game”. Others have an infinite-like point system. Some of the early arcade games like Donkey Kong for example are still being “won” if you can call it that.

I realize that this does not at all contradict his point that games are not art, but I’m not finished. He goes on to claim that if you don’t win a game, you are merely experiencing a representation of some other kind of art – a story, a dance, a film, etc. This is entirely false. Certainly, you are experiencing a game in that you are viewing, interacting, hearing, understanding, questioning, wondering, etc. as you play it. It is not a representation of something else though. It is its own. It transcends those categories and is what we call a game. Perhaps as Justin McElroy noted, our terminology is faulty, but it is what we have and it is what Ebert was referencing. Yes, you experience games. No, they are not simply images of art. They are art.

Ebert goes on to speak of how he disagrees with Santiago’s point that “Art is a way of communicating ideas.” Judging from his response, his adjustment to that statement would be something like art is an avenue for viewers/readers/listeners/etc. to have their own ideas and create their own art. I think he has a valid point. Many artists certainly try to communicate with viewers but I don’t know that they are trying to communicate specific ideas nor that they end up communicating anything they had originally intended. Think Derrida and the infinite interpretations of a text. It is as if art comes out and becomes its own inspirational force.We see a painting or hear a piece of music and are driven to either paint or write in response or perhaps something entirely different. Can games do this? Yes. I of course have a rather personal claim to such if you’ve read anything else of mine over the last year, but I’m not unique in this practice of feeling the need to create after having been inspired by a game. Players create videos, stories, galleries, even cake because they’ve played something and want to respond or because they’ve experienced something and need to express it. Further, games are able to address ideas and problems and allow players to work out resolutions on their own. Dragon Age addresses concepts of racism, morality, justice, love, and more. It doesn’t spell them out and ask for a right or wrong answer. It gives us an experience (actually many experiences) and we are free to be inspired as we will.

Ebert: Art grows better the more it improves or alters nature through a passage through that which we call the artist’s soul or vision.

Going by his definition and assuming that developers have a soul (or some of them), can games do this? Can games improve or alter nature? I would use his own example against him – Braid. He judges it based on an assumption of its rules, namely that they are analagous to chess, but he is in fact quite wrong. A simple trip to another Wikipedia page would have told him this much. Braid does not simply let a player redo their actions if they mess up (that’s what Farmville cash is for .. to unwither your abandoned crops). Rather, it allows the player to examine the way we as humans view the process of time and interact with it. Not only do we redo actions, we have choices about the flow of time. We can see time not be all-powerful – that is, some objects will not be changed by time. One could write a great deal on this game if they gave it some thought after even a brief play-session. My point is this simple, independently-designed game alone alters and changes nature through the vision/soul of its creator. Does it improve it? That is for the player to decide.

Art is not a list that sometimes gets added to or perhaps I just do not have such an exclusive view of art as Ebert’s “greats”. Perhaps Braid or Flower or Dragon Age or anything else doesn’t get compared to Homer or Van Gogh. But it shouldn’t. It isn’t even the same medium of art. Nor is it a copy or an attempt to mimic masterpieces. Art isn’t the business of replicating art. It’s the business of creativity. It’s the business of viewing and experiencing and responding to reality in a way that makes us feel something “real”. If I can play Braid and see the world in a new way, if I can play this game and be inspired to ask questions about what terms like “yesterday” mean and “fate” and “finished”, if I can have this experience/reaction/inspiration out of playing a game, I am experiencing art. We may not have our Michelangelo yet, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t creating art. Even chicken scratchings on a wall can be art as Ebert himself so eloquently showed. A matter of taste – perhaps. If so, Ebert has successfully shown that his palate with respect to this medium is as yet uneducated.

As to his final point, I must agree. Santiago’s circles are circles of fail. Art is not the business of making a profit.

Thoughts on Lore and Myth

For my work this term, I’m reading quite a bit about ancient myth as it relates to heroes and heroines. I was thinking today about how odd it is myth exists in a changeable kind of limbo. There is no Bible of Greek Myth (Amazon may differ on that point) that people can go to in order to check authenticity. I can tell a story of Odysseus; you can tell a story of Odysseus; Jimbob C. can tell a story of Odysseus. They do not need to be the same. Some things will not change – he will have a wife named Penelope. He will either be in the process of a journey, homeward or not, or he will be at some point expecting or reflecting on the journey. He will be wily and skilled in rhetoric. Aside from these core traits, your Odysseus and my Odysseus could have radically different lives.

For example, Homer’s Odysseus encounters a whole troop of troubles on his way home, but eventually he gets there. Dante’s Odysseus had no desire to go home and never does. His journey ends in Hell. They are unmistakably the same character though. Odysseus and the Cyclops

Perhaps we can look back now and see the big names of H and D and think they just had special powers for using mythical characters in whatever way they please. This isn’t the case though. Achilles had conflicting stories. Dionysus had conflicting stories. Antigone had conflicting stories. Medea was told in different ways.

Is it like Nancy Drew who has 3,000 adventures all while she is 18 years old? No, because her adventures don’t contradict each other. Is it like the many different Batmans depicted on screen? The many James Bonds? If a character in the Warcraft Universe suddenly did not complete his version of the return home, fans would be in an uproar. “WHAT?!?! Arthas NEVER had brown hair. HE IS A BLONDE!!!!” I can see it now.

What is it about mythical characters that makes them different from those in fictional universes? It feels like a kind of translation. We have freedom to interpret much of it though there is a certain underlying “true-ness” to each character. I may interpret Odysseus in a way that suits my treatise of Hell but his underlying Odysseus-ness is still present. He is more than just a character. He is a multi-faceted variety of ways his character could react with his world (our world?) and still remain him.

Where art thou?

For the last couple of weeks, aside from legal issues IRL (broken families are fail) and the academic term starting, I’ve also been busy searching for someone at my University who has interests even remotely related to gaming studies. It’s been an epic journey.

First, I contacted the head of the Simulation and Gaming Studies Certificate Program. Sounds promising, right? No. He told me that the program is getting changed to something more to do with applications and is only still on the books because of people who’ve gotten it in the past. Also, he’s not the head anymore. There isn’t one.

Next, the Communications department. They are supposedly the haven of new media studies. Rumor it remains, at least so far as gaming is concerned. The professor I contacted who reportedly works on games told me he could do nothing to help with humanities and qualitative research because he is a social scientist. Helpful! Interdisciplinary! Modern. You go, sir.

Next, American Culture program. No response. They are all mostly interested in gender and performance still according to their faculty pages. Important things, to be sure, just not what I want. Still waiting though. Email is hard for some people. Not a good sign when you’re looking for someone who works on games. (Or maybe I’m the only one who always has my email open and checks it incessantly…)

I then thought, hm, perhaps the Institute for the Humanities may know of some humanities-minded person who is interested in games. How naive of me. The Institute appears to just be the lovely donor of rather mysterious special grants. I doubt they have a clue about the things they give money toward, but whatever. They might come in handy later.

Most luckily, I got a big email package of announcements from my fellowship director. Buried at the bottom was the invitation to a new student group – Digital Media Studies Group. Finally, people who sound like they may know what I’m talking about at the very least! All grad students as far as I know, but inspiration to be had if not mentorship.

Last, but not least, Sheila Murphy. Thankfully, a different CompLit seminar yesterday was incredibly helpful. We talked about visual culture, visual narrative, intertextuality of visual experience, etc. From that talk, I decided to do some searching for other people who work in visual narrative and I found Professor Murphy. She holds a degree in Visual Culture Studies and works on games. I just started reading one of her articles which starts with personal narrative of a Tony Hawk experience. (Article is “Live in Your World, Play in Ours” Journal of Visual Culture 2004). Film department it is.

So the moral of this delightful story? Even though I may be at one of the top research institutions in America, it’s very likely I am the only one here doing what I do. Exciting and a little scary.