Is Design a Performance?

GDC was a few weeks ago now, but it’s taken me this long to finally edit and finish this post. Forgiveness begged.

At GDC this year, a couple of the talks I found particularly inspiring, the first by Ian Bogost. In his view, authorship doesn’t mean you necessarily tell a story – you simply provide the backdrop and allow the player to discover themes and meaning within it. His example is a poem by Ezra Pound, but it also hearkens back to what I posted last time. The author provides the location for adventure but what happens there is up to the hero-bard.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough. Ezra Pound

Yoshio Sakamoto of Nintendo has a different philosophy about the relationship between authors and players. He sees emotion and experience as something to be constructed ever so meticulously. With his four elements of creation (mood, timing, foreshadowing, and contrast), he attempts to “control audience reaction“.

This terminology of an “audience” sparks questions. Rather than creating something for people to play from more of a gift or service approach, Sakamoto is performing for an audience. A design built for an audience versus one built for players is going to be very different, and one may not sound like a design for games at all. However, how much control do designers ever truly have and how much freedom do their players? Are players that different from an audience, albeit an interactive one?

These design philosophies are perhaps not as effective as they may appear. A carefully designed narrative flow that attempts to anticipate audience reaction can be thwarted by restarts, foreknowledge (from wikis or the like), mental state, environment of play, etc. An entirely abstracted one can simply result in confusion and frustration rather than providing the discovery and wonder the designer intended.

Bogost isn’t advocating a completely freeform approach, but he does speak of the author-designer’s job as one of creating “wonder instead of clarity”. The player’s job is more to excavate the author’s ideas and themes rather than to be told them. But are players qualified to be narrative archaeologists? Or rather, are there a few who do the dirty work of excavation while most wander through the museum reading wall plaques?

I’d like to think of myself as a narrative archaeologist, but I don’t actually think I am. Something like Oblivion which is very open and allows for freedom of experience leaves me feeling lost. I need some kind of guidance to allow me to fully enter the world and then have a meaningful experience. To go back to our archaeology metaphor, I need a ready-made site and the tools (coupled with A/C and cold beer) if I’m going to discover anything. An X to mark the spot wouldn’t hurt either.

Does this mean that players like me need an entirely scripted experience? No. There is still room for interactive cooperation between author-designer and player but it exists on a continuum between free-form and script. Creating something that is successful for such a broad audience is challenging, if not impossible.

Know your audience.

Modern Epic, Modern Odysseus

Sid Meier gave his keynote at GDC yesterday (a nice wrapup is here). At the end, he talks about how the very many genres and styles of games today can all be “encapsulated” in the idea of an Epic Journey. It’s the designer’s job to make this journey an epic (and fun) one.

To a classicist, the words “epic journey” cannot help but bring to mind dear Odysseus. There have been other epic journeys of course, Dante’s or that of Aeneas, but they have their little seed in Odysseus. He is the epic hero of journeys par excellence.

Odysseus is now enclosed in print. His journey, regardless of its many manifestations in sculpture, film, and later literature, is based in an unchanging text. We can read of him as often as we like, but the story isn’t going to change.

He didn’t start this way. Odysseus was a figure of oral narrative. He was a hero of the Trojan War who had his own skills (trickery, oratory, etc.) and his own particular characteristics and motivations as a character, but he was not a finished work, enclosed in a tomb of text. He lived. He was still being created all of the time. Bards could extend his adventures, add details to his character, create new relationships, etc. Depending on whom you heard a story of Odysseus from and which story it was, you could be meeting very different sides of this Odysseus character. In fact, you might only hear of him in passing during a telling of Achilles.

This ongoing oral process of literary creation is seemingly lost to our culture today. We read stories from books. The only oral ones we expect to be surprised by are ones involving monster fish. However, there still are individual representations of adventures that take place in the same narrative framework.

I speak of course of certain kinds of games, particularly RPGs and MMOs. In these, the telling of stories of heroes is not enclosed in text or any other form of media. It has its limitations of course – there is a lore of the world, there are set dialogue options, etc., but the player-author is free to create and tell their version of what happened when Arthas fell, for example, or when the gates of Dol Guldur were breached. It’s not really oral anymore – we use things like Youtube to tell our stories, but the method is very similar. The basic tale of the Trojan Horse isn’t going to change. The Trojans accept it, the Greeks jump out, Trojans die. Yet, you can tell this story from a multitude of perspectives, you can tell it with a myriad of different details, and you can tell the in-betweens of those plot points any way you like. In a game, we have that same freedom. Of course, the Citadel is breached, Sindragosa falls and then Arthas is defeated. But how that happens can vary. The stars of the story can be whomever you like. You get to create the hero. You get to tell his adventures. You are the one who narrates your version of the Epic Journey.

Instead of the designer’s job being to make the journey epic, rather, her job is to provide the framework for an epic journey. Just like Odysseus telling his adventures to his hosts in Phaeacia, the player today is the bard and the hero of their adventures. Homer just sits back and lets his character take the stage. He gave him the ship and the ports of adventure but what happened there was up to the hero himself. In fact, we never here the narrator’s version of these events. Homer tells everything through the mouth of Odysseus. How would someone else have told this story? Would it have been as good if Homer had made Odysseus just the hero rather than the bard as well?

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.

Game-Soul for $400

One of the Massively writers gave a refreshingly honest review of Aion today. His main argument against the game was that it “has no soul”.

So Alex, Game-Soul for $400. “The substance, essence, and/or feature of a game that provides soul.” After 3 pages of comments, a few answers to that question have surfaced. (Questions to that answer?) The two biggest winners were lore and immersion.

What is … lore and immersion?

Players were pretty unanimous in the fact that there was simply no context for the game. Without a franchise history (like Warcraft, Warhammer and Lord of the Rings have), there is simply no inherent knowledge of the world in the minds of gamers before they step into the game. Quests could potentially be a great opportunity to spread lore in a game, but about 95% of Aion’s quests are kill x number of y quests. Here are a couple player comments:

“How then, can we feel we are in a living, breathing world, when we barely understand it?”

“I consider the “Soul” to be the immersion ability in to a world’s lore. Playing through Aion’s tutorial (1-10) does not really give you enough time to attune to the Lore.”

Lore certainly can be effectual in creating immersion, but it’s not the only thing. Despite the one player who stated they’d never felt more immersed in a world before, most complained about how the world did not feel alive. It didn’t have depth according to one player: “…beautiful at the surface, but extremely shallow. It’s linear. Leveling seems to be this long journey through a narrow path that introduces the world. But once you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it all.” There were also numerous complaints about the nonsensical ecology. The fields are full of mindless creatures who are simply there, with no point or even logic to their existence.

Alternatively, a couple players surprisingly (to me) stated that the characters were too customizable and they weren’t able to relate to them. In one’s words, “The characters look a little too defined I think, I cant project my own self onto my avatar so I feel like im controlling someone else with strings like a puppet. I never realized it but its the same thing that I didnt like about tabula, the characters look too real so I cant toss my own imagined ID on top of them. Weird huh?.”

So far, we’ve learned that games need a) either a history of lore or lore that is well-developed from the beginning, b) not just a pretty surface, but a deep world with multiple possibilities of experience, and c) a perfect balance in customization that gives enough options to individualize, but not too many. A nice start but it’s just the beginning.

Many people play these MMOs for the people who inhabit the worlds along with them. The community. Usually, this extends beyond the game into forums, fansites, fan fiction, blogspace, etc. For Aion, there may be community, but somehow the players aren’t feeling it yet. One said, “more PVP oriented games tend to suffer from this [lack of soul]. Once you joined a corp [in EVE] and there was a sense of structure and organization, it started to gain its unique soul.” So, cooperative play. I find it interesting he didn’t feel much community from the numerous grinding groups that get together as early as level 15. Maybe one needs interesting content to play with those people…

Then, there’s the big one we all secretly hope will one day actually be there.

What is… originality?

Oh, the secret ingredient. Everyone tries. Everyone fails. (at least these days) So does Aion according to these folks:

“It’s a generic and derivative MMO in every way.”

“I so desperately want an MMO that exceeds the experience and fun that WoW delivers.”

“The basic game (play) is quite traditional and doesn’t push into any new directions (except the pretty direction).”

Are we really that banal and uncreative? Have we run out of designer berry juice? Where’s the inspiration, the zing, the lightning-bolt idea at 2am that moves this genre somewhere that’s more than just glistening and beautiful? Perhaps we don’t have to find it, since another states:

“And personally, I don’t want a new-new-super-unique game. I want something that’s familiar and fun. And a lot of other people seem to want that as well.”

Or hey, who needs immersion? “I don’t want to simply live in a world, I play games to get away from living.”

Well, that might make us all feel better for a little while, but we’re still left wondering whether our game has soul and if not, why not? Do we not have enough of our own love into it? Aion didn’t seem to communicate that love to some people like this one, for example:

“When I play Guild Wars, Lord of the Rings, and even WoW (at least the vanilla WoW) you can almost FEEL the affection the developers have for the game. It is hard to describe, but it is almost as if they themselves wanted to live in the world and make you want to as well.”

For me, one of the players summed it all up. “It sounds odd, I guess, but in MMOs as in a good novel, I have to care about my character, my actions, the world, the overarching story, and the quests to some degree or else it just seems mechanical and pointless, however, polished it may be.”

You can have pretty, you can have story quests, you can have a vibrant world where wolves eat squirrels, but without the guiding presence of a visual narrative that your character (who doesn’t look too real) can experience, the game will have no soul. What is….Narrative?