Playing for Dramatic Effect

I’ve been hanging out in a Dragon Age discord lately (nerd), partially because I got re-obsessed with the storyworld, but also because I’ve been curious how others respond to and think about the games. One of my most interesting observations has been that some players, perhaps many, play this kind of game fundamentally different from the way that I do.

“This kind of game”: The Dragon Age games are role-playing games that allow the player to make hundreds of choices throughout the game that impact the outcome of various events and color the manner in which the central story unfolds. 

When I play these games, I tend to play a neutral-good character, which aligns with my general moral compass. “Well, others play it evil, that’s not that big of deal,” you may say. True, and you’re right. It’s not a big deal. The alignment or morality of our different roles is not a fundamental difference. But the reason why we may play those roles is.

At any given point in the story, I could make a choice that my companions will react to. My companions are all different characters with different moralities, motivations, and interests. Some will agree with me, and some will not. The game displays those changes: “Morrigan disapproves -5. Wynne approves +15.” There is a part of me that just wants everyone to like me, because, of course, getting to 100 is the best goal. Get that A! But this doesn’t typically overcome my moral choices. Even if Morrigan disapproves, I will likely still make the choice. In fact, maybe because she disapproves, I know I made a choice that more aligns with my own moral compass. My goal in that interaction is not to maximize my points with Morrigan – it’s to do the right thing. Sometimes I may play a character who is less of a good person, and I will make choices I think are consistent with that character. In both cases, I want to make the choice according to the moral compass of my character

Another reason I may make a choice is because I have an outcome in mind, and I want to try to make the choices that will lead to that outcome. Perhaps I can predict in a situation that there is a possibility of a neutral outcome, where no one dies and no one’s emotions overcome them. That is the outcome I want, and I will gauge the possible choices I have by whether or not I think they will achieve that outcome. This is more of a narrative reason for making choices. I want the story to go in a certain way, so I choose options I think will lead to that result. This could be that I want an event to conclude favorably for the elves, or it could be that I want to romance Morrigan (in which case, this may trump a “good” moral compass).
But there’s another reason for making choices that I had not considered.

While listening to players discuss the games on Discord, I noticed that frequently, they would mention that a particular choice would have the most dramatic effect. Someone may talk about their choices and say, “I chose to romance Solas, because I thought it would have the biggest effect on the story to come.” [Constrast with: I chose to romance Solas, because he’s a sexy elven scholar.] They don’t know what the effect is, but they value an effect of any kind more than no effect. The value to them is not the morality or the outcome, but the drama itself. “I play evil, because I think those choices usually lead to the most interesting outcomes.” Their reason is also a narrative one, but not directed. Their interest is in storytelling as such, storytelling defined as dramatic. Consider this conversation:

The players here are discussing a choice in Dragon Age: Inquisition. At this point in the game, the player is with two characters and they must abandon one of them in the world of spirits (where they will likely die). The two characters are 1) Hawke, the main character the player played in Dragon Age 2, and 2) a Warden, either a companion from Dragon Age: Origins or another. (This variance is due to the choices players can make in these other games. Thus, 3 of the 4 possible characters they see are likely to be emotionally significant to the player.

Above we see the first player saying that since their Hawke has lost everything, perhaps they will leave him behind also, just for the most dramatic resolution to that story. Lower, a player says that they can’t choose the neutral Warden, because it isn’t fun enough. Both of these rationales are directed toward the most dramatic effect. Next, a player says they made the choice because of what their character would have done, similar to my first reason listed above. And lastly, the final player makes the choice due to their reasoning about the storyworld and what they thought would be the best outcome for everyone, which is a decision made according to a moral compass.

I realized that whereas I play with an outlook toward how I want the story to go according to some moral compass, some players play for surprises. I want to resolve situations in the best way for all parties (usually this means having to persuade everyone to be less emotional, so max that Coercion skill asap), whereas they don’t really care what happens to everyone as long as it is interesting. The player above is willing to abandon themselves essentially, simply for the drama! They expect the game to allow them to experience an interesting, dramatic story, and they judge the game’s possible choices by their potential for dramatic effect.

I don’t mean to say I want a predictable experience. I still want my choices to matter, and I expect there to be some ambiguity in those choices (it may be the “right” choice, but it is difficult and/or has unintended consequences). But I don’t think about my play as a way to generate drama. I expect the drama to exist by virtue of the choices having been designed to be variably interesting. I expect that every choice has an interesting effect, and I do not judge those based on the extent to which they are dramatic. They are all dramatic; how they differ is in the particular quality or shade of that drama (moral/immoral, micro/macro, etc.).

I’m curious whether this observation would have any impact on how I would design these choices. Even before considering their motivations for choice selection, I would have thought that every choice needed to be interesting to some extent (or else it would not matter). Yet, I think a frame of drama rather than morality is a better way to think of choices, because it can avoid the trap of designing everything around a schema of good/neutral/evil (thinking SWTOR right now). It’s also a good reminder that some unpredictability is necessary in order to make choices interesting, even if the unpredictability doesn’t change the expected outcome.

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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.

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

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?

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.

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