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!

Writing Player Motivation

The other day, someone asked me what the biggest difference between writing for Stage, Screen, and Games was.

Explaining the difference between Stage and Screen was easy: for Stage, you show the whole scene continuously, costume and scene changes need to be taken into account, and unless you use a projector or something, you can’t really show detail in props etc; for Screen, the storytelling is a lot more visual, you can have close-ups and cutscenes, montages, fast changes, and not only are these possible, they’re actually expected.

What about writing for Games? For me, it’s somewhere between the two in terms of style, but not only that, it’s a matter of not just telling the story (or “showing,” as pedants may insist), but it’s important that the story is driven by the minor characters.

This may sound contradictory to common logic- that the player should be in the driving seat the whole way. But I don’t believe this is true: I believe that the player should feel that their next move is the most logical one in the context of the game. How does a writer make this happen? By writing in a situation where the minor characters communicate to the player that there is really only one option.

I found a quote that I think sums up how to do this in Alex Epstein’s Crafty TV Writing (in regards to “forcing” a character into a situation against their nature):

By “force,” I mean, of course, “give him a valid motivation he’d find it hard to resist.” (p54)

Branches vs Stakes

Oh, how wonderfully witty and punny of me.

Anyway. I was talking to my friend on Tuesday night, and we were discussing Bioshock. What was interesting was that he said something like, “I don’t know, I didn’t like it because it lacked what I liked the most in System Shock. You basically can never die because there are health stations everywhere. It wasn’t scary.” I asked him whether he meant that, in System Shock, the stakes were higher, and therefore there was a real fear that you’d lose. This was exactly what he meant.

While personally I am a big fan of “safe,” linear use-your-brain-puzzle-solving-adventure games with witty dialogue, I completely understand what he’s getting at. Once, games were hard. Really hard. They were scary (and not being they had horror themes): they filled you with adrenaline, and while the loss was frustrating and disappointing, the win was less “epic” and more “masterly.” There was a struggle, and there was eventual success. I do need to clarify that I’m not talking about games that are so dicky and tricky that it’s almost impossible to play in the first place, though. I’m talking about games where the stakes were high: you had a lot to lose.

Recently, Peter Molyneux has… well, gone back on his advocacy of branching storylines, emergent gameplay, multiple endings etc. He says that people get annoyed when they feel they’ve “missed out” on parts of the story, simply because of a choice they made. Hmm, that sounds like good ol’ anagnorisis and peripetea to me! But I think this really touches on a mistake made by a number of developers.

I don’t think people need more choice or agency within the storyline of the game. Sure, branching narratives sound cool, but they basically boil down to an electronic choose-your-own-adventure book. Wait.. “book”? Shock! Horror! Games aren’t allowed to be like any other type of pre-existing media, are they? Well, apparently they are… hence branching narratives.

But what about situations where it’s so important that you do things right (ie, succeed in achieving the win-conditions), that you actually become so immersed due to the game gradually building to extremely high-stakes? Psychologically, he higher the stakes, the greater the payoff. The more options, the greater the chance of feeling “ripped off” by the “wrong” choice (I put these in scare quotes as these are both emotionally-driven, personal responses that may have nothing to do with the actual storyline, events, or writer/designer’s intentions). Statistically, we are happier when we have less options, less room to move, less potential we can potentially fail to realise. Once a peasant, always a peasant. Game didn’t quite go the direction you’d hoped? Oh well, time to go plant some seeds (aka, write some fanfic).

The player’s experience

I remember when I took a unit on writing for film, how we were told, “Don’t tell me, show me.”

Well, I think this needs to be expanded upon for the sake of differentiating between films (or tv shows) and games.

Books: Tell me.
Film: Show me.
Games: Let me find out for myself.

It may seem obvious, but when this is properly understood, will we really have any need for epic cut-scenes that do anything more than literally set the scene? I’m not talking about getting rid of all cut-scenes: for example, the intro for Left 4 Dead is highly effective at showing a variety of scenarios and special infected, while hinting at ways of dealing with them. In that sense, “show me” has superceded “tell me,” while remaining short and setting the scene. We do need some sort of introduction, some sort of illustration of how to play, but first and foremost, we should encourage players to feel more involved than watching a film.

Replay Value?

I was thinking about the concept of “replay value” when it comes to games. I was thinking about how there’s an idea that a game only retains replay value if each playthrough is slightly different in some way.

Then I was thinking about how we buy books and dvds, and how the narrative of each of these never changes, and yet we still reexperience them, or at least often hold onto them for the potential to do so. And when we do reexperience them, it’s often with a sense of dramatic irony- and suddenly the writer/director’s skill at foreshadowing comes to light.

I don’t believe that a game has to offer a new version of itself in order to be replayable. I replay adventure games in the same way as I would reread  book. I may get a lot of booing and hissing from some people for this, but what’s the shame in aiming to make games that offer deeper meaning the second playthrough, instead of trying to recreate the initial play experience?

The Myth of the Unnarratable Game

Tonight, I was talking to a friend online, and he said he was having a debate with his housemate over whether or not all games had narratives.

My personal opinion? Yes, all games have narratives. It is important that we do no limit our perception of what constitutes a narrative. Generally speaking, a narrative/plot/story is a sequence of events tied together and recounted in such a way as to create meaning. According to Aristotle, a plot requires action, but not necessarily character. There are good plots, and there are bad or weak plots. There are plots that are simple and some that are complex, and they can be categorised according to their strutural and formal attributes.

There is also the whole aspect of self-narration and identity formation that I’m not even going to touch in this post. That’s huge and I love it, but that isn’t what this is about.

There were arguments put forward about MMOs (grind erases narrative), as well as sandbox and “sim” toys (note: I use the term “toy” because Will Wright does). I was surprised that “puzzle games” didn’t come up.

If you play any of these types of games, here’s an activity to do: think about the best game you played of it. What is going through your mind? Key events and moments, strung together in a sequence. There ma or may not have been character, but there was action. By Aristotle’s definition, your “unnarratable” game just achieved the status, “Plot!” Congratulations. You just narrated the unnarratable.

Shifting Protagonist and Narratology

I was reading a post on GameVixen, and started thinking about some of my past favourite games. The most activley adored game, for me, was Chrono Trigger.

And I started thinking about the scene where Crono sacrifices himself to Lavos, and then you suddenly become Marle and get a Crono Doll and swap it in using some magic time-freeze thing (I can’t remember the details, this was a while ago). So here you are, playing the silent protagonist (almost silent, anyway), when suddenly you martyr yourself… and then shift to another character to play? Sounds to me like the Bernard-John shift in Huxley’s Brave New World.

This actually strikes me as an odd narrative device for games. Game narratives have become so Structuralist in their nature, relying on Jospeph Campbell and Aristotle. And poor “Ludologists” throw around the name of their enemy without understanding what Narratology actutally is, and without noticing that so many “Game Design” books talk about story in a way a Narratologist would point at and say, “Oh, how very Structuralist of you guys, let’s be friends!” Whoops.

Well, by the end of this year, they might actually have someone happy to say to their faces, “Yeah, I’ll be your Narratologist. Guess what? You don’t want to throw away stories any more than I want to throw away your storytelling devices, aka gameplay elements.”

Braid

The other weekend, I downloaded and played through Braid. It was pretty interesting, with the fractured narrative being delivered to you like the puzzle pieces you collected through each stage. The time-rewinding mechanic was really awesome, too: it allowed the game to be challenging, but not in that “restart at checkpoint,” way; and the variations created some very interesting puzzle-solving techniques. The penultimate stage (World 1-1), was clearly the most basic and clever use of this forgiving device.

However, I, among many others, have a gripe with the designers.

In a game that focuses on a desire to undo mistakes realised too late (sounds like hamartia to me!), the player’s incapacity to do this WHEN THEY PUT A PUZZLE TOGETHER CORRECTLY is extremely frustrating. What am I talking about? Well, there are these “hidden extras” found in the levels in the form of invisible stars. Collecting the stars changes the ending of the game. Most of the stars can be collected at any time during the game. But one of them is created by incorrectly solving one of the jigsaw puzzles. Please note that once you put the puzzles together, you can’t take the pieces apart. Whoops. I just denied myself a different ending because I did something right.

Now, I don’t care what wanky excuse the designers come up with, such as, “Oh well if things were done right in the first place, then nothing would have gone wrong.” Ah, but see, they created for the player a moment of hamartia: I put together the puzzle in a way which I believed was right, and yet I’ve done it wrong, and now I have to do it all again? Well, screw collecting the stars. Someone else will do it and I’ll watch that on YouTube.

So, does the player/audience enjoy being the one who has hamartia? Of course not. This is why they could, should, never be the Tragic Hero.

Tick Tick Smileyface for me. Thanks for proving me right 😉