Writing Blocks

Last night while I was editing my NaNoWriMo17 novel, Baz asked me what I do when I got blocked. Pushing through was one of my key goals for NaNoWriMo, as part of ignoring me inner censor/critic, so while I’m definitely not a bestselling (or published, ha!) novelist, and this is the longest-form thing I’ve written, I thought about it and I generally used either two tactics depending on where I was in the story (Note: I was pantsing based on a strong sense of characters and goals).  I’d love to hear if other writers do the same thing, or have other techniques to get through their writing. Continue reading

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!

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.

Catharsis – Pity and Fear

I was talking to my friend about horror & thriller films, and the subject of Catharsis came up.

He told me, “I don’t understand why someone who is so afraid of something would watch a film about it to frighten themselves.”

Some fears are universal, such as the fear of rejection. Some are personal, due to traumas of any magnitude, or very real threats such as abusive adults, natural disaster, illness, or snakes or spiders (personal anecdote: around the time I started getting parasthesia, I also had a nightmare about spiders–a real threat where I grew up–attacking and crawling all over me. I’ve lived with a controlled phobia since then).

But because we have the ability to empathise, when we emotionally invest in characters who experience fear, we can allow ourselves to actually feel those feelings that we hope we won’t have to actually feel in response to events in our own, real life. When we choose to watch something, we’re choosing to experience it in a safe (ie, not-real-world, no lasting implications) way. When we watch something that frightens us, we identify with the person it happens to, we feel that what happens to them is happening to us (which is why we will, for example, hold our hand during a scene when someone’s hand is crushed); yet, importantly, we also know that it isn’t us, and we feel relieved. That’s catharsis. We feel emotions for something that’s happening to someone else, and emotions about knowing isn’t happening to us – relief, without a lingering sense of guilt about our relief.

Why do we seek these feelings out? Well, it feels good. It feels good that we are safe, and that we can be happy about it in a way that we know isn’t actually sadistic or voyeuristic- a way of avoiding “it should have been me,” in favour of “it could have been me.

It’s a way of playing with a feeling, a fear, or a dark desire, without needing to actually encounter it in the real world where there may be lasting repercussions. Rather than suppress the forbidden thought or emotion, we can play with it, and teach ourselves how to overcome it.

We don’t become desensitized to the horror, violence, or evil. We become desensitized to our feelings of fear and powerlessness. We’re training ourselves how to deal with fear.

Comedy versus Horror

What’s the difference between Comedy and Horror?

I’m not sure I really ever agreed with Aristotle’s definition of Comedy vs Tragedy, but I was thinking today about the trope of “Body Horror,” and how it was used as a comedic element in Deadpool (2016)

I concluded that: in Comedy, we are told everything is going to be okay; in Horror (or Tragedy, for that matter), we are told that it is not.

 

On Giving Feedback

What’s the best way to give someone quick feedback, especially on some creative work that they have done?

I’ve seen the “Sh!t Sandwich” recommended, but while it can work as part of a longer feedback discussion (for example, an employment review), when its used wen giving a few moments of feedback, the structure is far too transparent. I find that either people recognise the pattern and assume it’s a way to essentially sugar-coat criticism, or they completely miss the critique and only think about the nice bready bits.

Likewise, a simple “hmm… try this,” can come across as know-it-all, especially as sometimes what makes sense in our head makes absolutely no sense in real life.

The best feedback format I know was taught to us by one of our Multimedia Design tutors, and follows this flow:

  1. I like…
  2. I don’t like…
  3. How I’d do it differently.

Most of the directors I’ve loved working with and would be happy to work with again also give redirection following a similar structure.

I think of it as an “Open Sandwich.” Three different layers with three different functions. It maintains the same basic parts of the Sh!t Sandwich, but has something extra on top that really turns it into a special something!

It works well because it forces the person giving feedback to really force themselves to both find something they like (useful if they’re a critical person or “always sees the flaws”), and something they hate (useful if they don’t want to offend or don’t care, or come across as insincere), as well as contribute an idea (ideas are always useful, even if they’re bad: they can trigger awesome ideas!). I find myself thinking and talking this way all the time now. If I sense some resistance, I’ll offer a, “it may not work, but let’s try it.”

Of course, when the trust is built up, the person receiving the feedback knows your intention and is more than happy to try it.

The outcome ends up being that the feedback is taken well, sometimes that idea is tried and works great, sometimes it truly is bad, but in the process of trying something new, the creator finds a new outcome that is greater than both ideas.