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
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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