Crafting Intangibles: Action and Intent

I was one of the speakers at Crafting Intangibles, an online (and local) event exploring interactive narrative design (in games and other media). The talks went live on June 10th 2017, and you, as a ticket holder, get access to them all now! 

This topic is something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and I first tried out a little bit in a Twine game I made earlier this year. It’s about connecting the idea of Gameplay Verbs and Actioning Verbs.

I love narrative-based games. But time and again, I find myself frustrated when the way I read a dialogue option is not the way the designers/writers intended, or the way the actor interprets or rewrites it. One day, it hit me: I’m playing the character, but my intentions aren’t honoured! I’m functioning as a director, at best, hoping that the actor does what I ask.

As you can probably tell from a lot of my previous posts, I have a background/major in theatre. So it’s from theatre that I draw my idea. As an actor rehearsing a play, there are many ways I can read a line. To give my line meaning, I give myself what Russian Realist actor, director, and theorist Konstantin Stanislavski termed an acting “objective“: a descriptive verb focusing the character’s actions.  So, I started to think: what if I assigned Verbs to the character’s lines?

Okay, so let’s say we let the player (and while we’re making connections between terms, let’s take note that actors are also called players) choose their intention for their next line of dialogue. This doesn’t mean that we, as designers, need to have an endless list of possible verbs for the player to choose from. Characters still have constraints, and it’s unfair on the player to offer them a choice that would be “out of character” and then re-adjust in the dialogue: that goes back to the problem of allowing the player to choose one thing, and then have the character do something else.

It also doesn’t give the player total control of the outcome of the conversation: they choose what they want the character to try to achieve, but as we know, we aren’t always as effective at achieving what we want as we’d like: our audience comes with their own biasses about you, as well as being in the middle of so many other thoughts and experiences that we don’t know about, which affect their ability to read our intentions. Thus, for the narrative, it matters not only what the player tries to do, but also the NPCs reactions based on their own perceptions of you, in combination with other trackable game events. We also don’t need to write endless dialogue based on the player’s choice: in theatre, the choice of objectives that you and other actors have can widely impact the way a scene feels, even if the lines do not change.

Verbs are already a concept in game design theory.  Game players can make choices; but valuable choices need to be made between different actions, different verbs: I can jump over this rock, or walk around it, or maybe even smash it with my weapon. Giving players four dialogue choices and the option to say nothing isn’t five choices, it’s two choices: to say, or not to say.

What if we narrative designers could give players the same level of choice in dialogue-play as systems designers give them in game-play? A few games do this: Life is Strange integrates a “rewind” Verb that is part of both verbal and nonverbal gameplay; Phoenix Wright allows the player to direct the dialogue by choosing to ask the witness to clarify their statement, or prove them wrong; and Layton Brothers: Mystery Room feels like you’re investigating both in the gameplay and the dialogueplay.

How can you apply this to the project you’re working on? I formulated an activity that I do myself to help bridge the gap between Narrativeplay Verbs and Gameplay Verbs. You can see it here!

 

Crafting Intangibles: Action and Intent – Activity

Action and Intent is the name of my topic for Crafting Intangibles, which was a series of 20-minute talks on and about Narrative Design, organised by Christy Dena.

The talks become free to the public on August 10th 2017, and at that time I’ll post again with more information and the link to the video. But until then…

We all end with a challenge/activity, and here’s mine:
Try this with some of the projects you’ve worked on, are working on, or your favourite (or least favourite) games.

  • Describe the theme of your narrative. What is your main character’s hopes and goals? What do they want, and what must they do to achieve it? What shouldn’t they do? What do they need to start or stop doing?
  • Over-write it. Don’t worry about being succinct for this activity. If you run out of things to write, keep writing. Really push until you have nothing left.
  • Underline all the VERBS that you’ve just written.
  • Look for patterns of positive and negative versions of each verb, like Aristotelian vices. From this, you can start looking at neutral versions of the verbs- this makes them more flexible and also narrows down many verbs into a few key ones.
  • These key VERBS are some of the options that you should give your player. Some of them- what the player must start doing – are good choices, and some of them – what the player must stop doing – are temptations and vices.
  • Think about how it can apply to both Narrative Systems and Gameplay Systems. eg, How can the player “Investigate” as part of narrative and as part of the gameplay?
    (example for “Investigation”: Layton Brothers: Mystery Room)

That’s it! I hope this helps focus your project.

Check out the talks at the Crafting Intangibles website for more activities, advice, and inspiration!

VR and Theme Park Attractions

I remember years ago, I came across an article on Gamasutra that likened Game Design to theme park Ride Design (maybe it was this one?). I generally think of VR as theatre, but with particular reference to immersive theatre. And of course, theme park ride/experience design also has links to theatre, whether immersive or site-specific.

Finally, the links have been connected in this amazing experience:

The future is looking very exciting for immserive experiences!

A Problem of Theme

For the past year, one of the personal projects I’ve been working on has been a “timewaster” mobile phone game. It was never really intended to be mindblowing, but rather for us to just play around with some new concepts as well as what we’ve learned before.

We started with a mechanic, and a gimmicky one at that, and then chose additional aspects based on our expectations for a general target market. When people asked about the game, it was strangely difficult to describe. When we discussed systems or features, it felt awkward trying to make them work in a way that we thought would make sense to the player. Even when giving the game to people to try, the core mechanic didn’t seem to make enough sense to them. That last one was possibly to do with a lack of tutorial and a game type that doesn’t give a relaxed entry point into the game, but that didn’t explain the rest of our difficulties.

Finally, it dawned on us: the problem wasn’t the game or the mechanics. The problem was the theme.

We brainstormed some alternatives that wouldn’t change the core of the game. We discussed pros and cons to each idea, how well each answered the questions of what and why for each of the existing systems. We finally settled on one that also promised a punny (thus hopefully memorable) title.

Suddenly all the questions we had about design were easily answerable. Everything had to make sense in the context of the game’s theme, and suddenly we had solutions we otherwise never would have thought of. We, and the game, now have a lot more direction.

Narrative Structure: Military Service Trauma and First-Person Shooters

One of my responsibilities as Narrative Designer at Blowfish Studios has been to write and design an example/official campaign for Gunscape, which is an FPS level-builder and multiplayer game that heavily references a lot of iconic FPS of the past, and is now only two weeks away from full release!

When I started working on deciding what sort of campaign we might have (keeping in mind that this was late in the development cycle, and there was limited scope for new features), I decided that a good place to start would be to review the games that we were referencing art-wise, to see what patterns I could find in them.

I found that each fell generally into one of two narrative structures. Interestingly, it struck me that these two narrative structures correlated to two concepts described within Trauma research.

Disclaimer: I haven’t played all of the games I researched. I often had to rely on transcripts, level breakdowns, or synopses. Also, the quality or methods of storytelling is incidental to this observation of narrative structure.

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What makes games unique?

At PAX Australia 2015 in Melbourne, I attended Warren Spector’s keynote speech, which included the quote,

“We are all part of a medium nothing else can do: collaborative storytelling. And I think it’s important that we embrace that capability.”

It was an awesome speech, but I found myself mentally griping about that line. I really want to give the benefit of the doubt and assume Mr Spector intended to insert the word “digital” or “screen,” because otherwise we are really missing out on another entertainment medium that can do some incredible collaborative storytelling: live theatre.

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Immersive Theatre and Games

For years, I’ve been thinking about a form of theatre we explored while at uni, but I couldn’t remember the name of it. Every time I tried to find it, I’d fail.  Finally, I have found some amazing videos of the company that we must have been told about, PunchDrunk, working with MIT Media Lab to create a digital/real crossover version of their “Macbeth” inspired immersive theatre production, “Sleep No More.”

Some of the tech they’ve come up with is amazing! So, SO clever. Make sure you watch BOTH videos, as they contain very different content, and explain both about immersive theatre as well as their transmedia integration techniques.

Immersive theatre, as a concept, fascinated me from the moment I heard about it. I started thinking of it in terms of games, where most often you get a set of scripted events that are triggered when you get to a certain point in the game. It can be as heavy-handed as a separate cutscene, or better integrated into the game itself. I thought about games where it feels like the world exists without you, because the scripted events happen so seamlessly that they appear unrelated, and its up to you to actually make meaning. It made me really want to somehow design a game that works like one of these immersive theatre pieces, and use as much of the technique and theories developed through plays to build a new type of gameplay experience. So far, it looks like our world design project might end up snowballing into my opportunity to explore these ideas!