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 “Writing Blocks”
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!
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.
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:
- “Some Day My Prince Will Come“/”I’m Wishing” – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
- “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” – Cinderella
- “Part of Your World” – The Little Mermaid
- “Belle (Little Town)” – Beauty and the Beast
- “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” – The Lion King
- “Out There” – The Hunchback of Notre Dame
- “True Love’s Kiss” – Enchanted
- “When Will My Life Begin?” – Rapunzel
- “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” – Frozen
…do you see the connection? These heroes aren’t reluctant to go on their journey- they want to go, but they are blocked.
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)
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).
Much of the writing in the ludologist tradition is unduly polemical: they are so busy trying to pull game designers out of their “cinema envy” or define a field where no hypertext theorist dare to venture that they are prematurely dismissing the use value of narrative for understanding their desired object of study.
– Henry Jenkins, “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.“
But if these designers have “cinema envy” (and trust me, there are so many who don’t), then I think the designers and academics who praise Emergence above all else actually have a severe case of Tabletop/LARP envy. Or maybe even envy of those kids who, free of the constraints of adult behaviour and sports with rules, construct and morph their own experience for a variety of purposes. And I just don’t understand why that’s any better or more legitimate than envying the other screen arts.
I don’t believe that highly-realistic, well researched/thought-out/fleshed out game worlds immediately lead to a more immersive, captivating, enjoyable experience for a gamer. To me, something like this isn’t a game, it’s an electronic exhibit. Why would I want to go to one? I walk around, I look, I get bored, I leave. Maybe, if I’m lucky, something about that world makes me feel safe. It becomes like listening to music. But again, this is not a game.
Irrespective of that, there exists some narrative, some plan, some fantastical argument which is made to communicate meaning. Some things are grouped together, others are not: this forms connections in my mind as I make the effort to read into and understand this constructed reality. And constructed it is. No one delusional or over the age of seven believes it to be a real place. At best, we imagine and hope it is real, and through this, we can convince ourselves of it. We will indulge in this fantasy. But it is not real, we know it isn’t, and we leave when our need for that experience is met.
There is nothing wrong with constructing that mood (in fact, I believe “mood” is paramount to the enjoyment of a game), and it can be addictive to those who enjoy it. But denying the game in favor of the spectacle becomes like a bad play with really good set, costumes and props. It might be interesting , but is it really engaging?
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.