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.

TheatreOfTheOppressedjpg Continue reading

Horror Games – Indulging the Wickedness

Today, I finished playing a game that was recommended to me by a friend a while ago, called The Cat Lady. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed this game. I realised pretty quickly that revenge is a pretty bad motivator for me, and the horrific images they showed seemed to neither shock nor repulse me. In fact, the only thing that drew me back was how strongly my friend had recommended it. But, I also kept in mind that my friend loves horror games, while generally I do not. Continue reading

What’s your point?

Every time I brainstorm or critique or give feedback to someone on a creative work of theirs, I always find myself asking,
What’s your point?

In other words: what are you trying to say; what do you want to explore; why do you want to tell this story; why do we want to listen?

This has the same significance whether it’s a one-panel comic or an epic novel series. There can be, and usually is, a difference between the plot (“what happens”) and the point/moral (“what it’s about”). There are a number of ways to tell the same story, and a number of reasons that story could be told. Some reasons are noble, some are indulgent, and none of it really matters. As long as you have that reason for telling your story, you have direction. It’s like having a customer/user/persona when you’re developing a product: you have a focus, a goal. All decisions made in the telling of a story, or the creation of a product, are answered by comparing whether it will help achieve the goal, whether it is in line with the focus.

When you feel that a scene or line is weak, when you start playing around with the storyline, come back and ask yourself, “What’s my point? What’s the point of this scene?” If it doesn’t advance the plot or the characters towards the goal, try changing it to something that does.

The Adventure Story

Recently, I started thinking about why Adventure games “died” in the late-90s, only to have a resurgance of popularity now, in the mid-2010s. Is it simple nostalgia? Is everyone who “grew up” on the game just get bored of them, and now are thinking back fondly? Or is there something specific to the ideal “Adventure” story structure that no longer resonated with us by 2000, but we’re again thirsty for, 10-15 years later?

Then, the other day, someone mentioned that they haven’t seen an “epic adventure” movie for a long time. Yet, we’ve been fed a steady stream of LOTR/The Hobbit movies. There is clearly something to an “Adventure” story that isn’t the same as following someone on the Hero’s Journey, or even the alternate journey that I’ve talked about a few posts ago.

Question: What do Ferris Bueler, Westley, and Indiana Jones have in common?

Continue reading

The Means vs The Goal: Analysis of The Lego Movie

Okay, I’d better start by saying that I thought they Lego Movie was pretty awesome. The writing was witty, the jokes were funny, the graphics were obviously incredible, it was poignant, heartwarming, and even had a reference to Lindsay Fleay’s Magic Portal! But that said, it got to the end of the movie and something didn’t feel quite right.

So, I started thinking about it. Emmet wants for something. It’s clearly laid out at the beginning of the film. And, at the end, Emmet delivers a beautiful and inspiring speech. But does the bookending work? Emmet wants more than anything to be part of a team. Everything is Awesome!!! But not for Emmet, who wakes each day and follows “The instructions to fit in, have everybody like you, and always be happy!” And, it all seems great, until we see that all the “special people in [his] life” is his potted plant. That is clearly set up as his goal: Emmet wants to be accepted and be part of a team.

And yet, in the end, he delivers this speech:

“You are the most talented, most interesting and extraordinary person in the universe. And you are capable of amazing things, because you are the Special. And so am I. And so is everyone. The prophecy is made up, but it’s also true. It’s about all of us. Right now, it’s about you. And you still can change everything.”

It’s a beautiful speech. But can you see the contrast here? Emmet wants to fit in, be liked, and be happy. Now he’s giving advice that’s incredibly Individualist. So, the bookends don’t match. Somewhere along the line, the story stopped being about Emmet’s goals, and started being about individual differences. Basically, it feels like the story’s moral had a bit cut off: “The moral of the story is to be special, to be unique, to be yourself, because…” And there is a “because,” because the story has set it up. But the funny part is, it feels like there was just a rewrite somewhere towards the end, because someone wanted to emphasize that Individualism and focus on uniqueness.

I want Emmet to give a different speech to Lord Business:

“You are the most talented, most interesting and extraordinary person in the universe. And you are capable of amazing things, because you are the Special. And so am I. And so is everyone. The prophecy is made up, but it’s also true. It’s about all of us. Right now, its about you and me. And we can still change everything.”

Because that’s what the movie is about: “The moral of the story is to be special, to be unique, to be yourself, because its only in being unique that you can truly find a place among others where it is awesome to be part of a team working together; you will fit in, have everybody like you, and always be happy.”

The Means to the End

I’m sure you’ve heard Machiavelli’s quote, “The ends justifies the means.”

And of course there are a number of counter-quotes that disagree with this justification of utilitarianism, but I want to force a semantic shift to talk about it in terms of structure.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Setup, Conflict, and Payoff. Well, there’s another layer to this: the means to the end. Often, the story hasn’t yet started because there is no obvious path of how to achieve the main character’s desire, which is defined in the Setup and resolved in the Payoff. Basically, the protagonist wants something, but doesn’t know how to get it: (s)he is lacking the means to achieve this end goal.

This could be guidance in terms of a hint or suggestion, an opportunity, even a “call to Adventure.”

What is important is that the means and goal are not confused: the means is the way the protagonist can achieve their original goal, not a new goal that replaces the original desire.

A great example is in Wreck It Ralph, where Ralph’s desire is to be valued and included by both Felix & the townsfolk, as well as himself.

The means is provided through his leaving of his own game, and his subsequent support of Vanellope- through her he learns that flaws are really “super-powers” that are useful elsewhere; and meanwhile, Felix realises that he loses value without Ralph’s contribution. Vanellope teaches Ralph that he isn’t “just” a villain, and he helps her succeed– but the story feels complete when he returns to Fix It Felix Jr and is prized for his role in the game. Through their friendship, Vanellope and Ralph transform themselves and each other, and individually get their desires fulfilled. If Ralph only succeeded in helping Vanellope and this was celebrated as the end of the story, his victory would feel hollow or at most, bittersweet: it would be a different story, one about escaping limitations others put on you, rather than one about being valued for what others put down or take for granted.

Setup, Conflict, and Payoff: Your new Beginning, Middle, and End

I’m starting to think that the middle part of a story isn’t as significant, in terms of audience satisfaction, as maybe we make it out to be. It’s all about the Setup and the Payoff. In between, the Conflict must be what delays achieving the Payoff. That isn’t to say that the meat of the story is put together isn’t important, but that in order for the story to feel “worthwhile,” the Setup and Payoff must feel like bookends to the journey in between. Continue reading

A different Journey

For about the last year, I’ve been rolling a narrative concept around in my head; something akin to Joseph Campbell’s monomyth, yet less (for lack of a less loaded word) masculine.

I remember one of my university lecturers referring to The Hero’s Journey as “the masculine coming-of-age tale,” and became fascinated with this concept ever since. The theory was, these days, in western society, we don’t have a real ceremony for when a boy becomes a man, so we look to stories that echo older “leave a boy, return as a man” rituals.

The boy is reluctant to become a man, but the village knows he is mature, and sees what is within him; so he is sent out. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that this monomyth only appeals to boys and men, because within each of us there is both masculine and feminine energy or personality. Additionally, as part of a community whether there are both men and women, we are predisposed to recognise and celebrate each other’s triumph into maturity.

However, as someone who had a childhood fascination with fairy tales and who grew up to star in pantomime versions of Sinbad the Sailor, Cinderella, and Snow White, I started feeling that there was something fundamentally different in these stories: something that was the same as the Disney Princess movies and the 90s RomComs I rewatched to indulge my late-20s nostalgia. In RomComs, it is the most hidden, but in Disney animated films it seems utterly transparent. Think of the songs and you’ll see the difference:

…do you see the connection? These heroes aren’t reluctant to go on their journey- they want to go, but they are blocked.

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!

Post the 4th

HA!

I accepted the challenge to post four times in one day. Well, really, I posted twice and was told that doing so was making other bloggers look bad, so I challenged myself to post a third time… and then I decided that if I did, I would post a FOURTH dedicated purely to a friend of mine,

JOSEPH BENJAMIN HEWITT THE FOURTH

Jo-Jo Valentino

Or as he should have been christened, “Valentino.”

Jo-Jo was born on St Valentine’s Day. Since then, he has been working his magic with the ladies, mostly through learning magic tricks and growing his hair long, as well as doing photography and dropping in on his mother’s modelling classes to meet girls (if this isn’t strictly true, I WANT IT TO BE). I like seeing photos of him with long hair, as every time he shows me one, he says, “I really needed to get my hair cut.”

Joseph is also lucky/talented/awesome enough to have a lifelong career as a game developer, known for his work at Westwood Studios, Auran, Interzone Games (teehee), and Jet Set Games.

You can visit his blog here and his twitter here.

Valentino, I am still waiting to be your Magician’s Assistant.