Sunday, December 29, 2013

Specificity and Privacy

The expression "there is nothing new under the sun" is so old, it's from the Bible. It's something I happen to believe; the expression I mean. Having worked on games for a number of years now I'm surprised-but-not-really how often the Quest for Originality rears its head in everything from design discussions to publisher evaluations to marketing meetings and so on. I think this quest is as pointless as Don Quixote's tilting at windmills.

Here is a formula for originality: To make something original,
1) Choose a concept at random.
2) Repeat step 1 and mix, or stop.

That's it. Try it! as a fun thought experiment almost guaranteeing a "not been done before" result, fast. Puzzle game about a love triangle between triangles? Shooter about extraterrestrial dolphins harpooning humans? Why not? Original ideas are as easy as Mad Libs, and like Mad Libs they can be funny. But like anything that can be reduced to a formula (not even chemicals, as Breaking Bad attests), this type of originality feels cheap. It is original in the negative sense -- gimmicky, novel for its own sake, contrived, and so on.

I think when we speak of originality what we're really searching for, what we really want, is specificity. Specificity is a form of depth, and all games want depth. Specificity is depth of subject matter. A game that explores a particular subject in detail comes across as original in the positive sense. Rich, imaginative, a labor of love, and so on.

* * *
Specificity is inherently challenging because it means you have to explore a topic to a level of detail that is not obvious, and it's difficult to know more about a topic than anybody else.

I just finished reading Journey to the Centre of the Earth to one of my kids and was struck by the specificity of the story. Towns and mountains in Iceland, ancient scientists, types of rocks and minerals, all named and described in detail, lending the book an air of authority as well as its distinct tone. The science may be total nonsense, but you wouldn't know it just from reading, and it doesn't even matter either way because it's a work of fiction. Unless you're Neil deGrass Tyson or whatever you're probably not going to have trouble suspending your disbelief as you read, because the specificity of the work is thorough and convincing.

I think this year's critically acclaimed Gone Home is successful in a similar way, by telling a specific story in a specific time and place. The details are well-grounded, giving the game a sense of richness, and making the environment feel convincing. If you played it I bet you spent a while scanning the VHS tape library as I did. Specific names of things are so valuable! Everything needs a name and a little story. Gone Home is arguably not an original game in the conventional sense, in that the core play experience -- everything from the setting (an old house) to what you do in the game (walk around examining things from a first-person viewpoint) are not out of the ordinary. However, the degree to which the game is invested in its specific ideas is unusual, so even though there are dozens of first-person games with terrific exploration sequences, Gone Home is one of very few where that is the entire focus.

To give a real-world example, an old friend of mine knows in intricate detail the history and all the routes of the MUNI bus system in San Francisco. It's a set of knowledge that seems very bland on the surface but I envy it because it's so specific. If Teddy made games he could probably make an amazing game about managing a municipal bus system (he and I played tons of SimCity and Aerobiz back in the day, besides). A game about managing a municipal bus system sounds pretty awful at face value, but then, so does a game about being a customs officer stamping passports, and yet Papers, Please was one of the best, most interesting games of this past year.

Games made by fewer people I think can have a higher chance of being more specific because there are fewer people on the team to challenge the specificity, to rationalize it out of existence. I'm talking about the little things like Journey to the Centre of the Earth's Icelandic locales. What if the reader doesn't know how to pronounce Snæfellsjökull...? Jules Verne decided to give his reader the benefit of the doubt on dealing with that one. But on larger teams, or teams of any size where this there's creative conflict, there's always going to be the temptation to omit, to compromise, to concede, when it comes to the specific details, to file down all those sharp edges. This may be better for a smooth and pleasant development process but it may be worse for the sake of the game's specificity, and therefore for the sake of the game.

Specificity typically requires research, the more the better (and preferably not limited to Wikipedia because everyone uses Wikipedia). The research can be of a real-world subject or in service of a fictional one. Game of Thrones is a work of fantasy fiction, but its level of detail, from superficial things like clothes and food to subdermal things like character motivations, makes it feel fresh and distinct. It takes place in its own made-up world yet it feels very well researched.

The only other good source of specificity is personal experience. To me the emphasis here is on the personal, or in other words, the private. There are some rare cases like the game Papo and Yo, in which a team can rally around one individual's personal experience and make an interesting game about it. But I also think some of the most interesting aspects of personal experience are unrelatable and truly private, and that this is often why art gets made. If I were to just tell you about the most meaningful experiences of my life, or if I tried to make a game unambiguously and autobiographically about it, it would be the worst, just the most banal cliché bullshit, and you would rightfully think less of me as a person for it. My personal experience is not more significant than yours, and does not warrant sharing.

At the same time, that personal experience is all I have. I remember moments from it constantly despite having almost never documented them and almost never told any of them to anyone including my closest family, friends, and colleagues. I channel those moments in the games I work on, channel them so much and so consciously like you wouldn't believe, and you'd never know it because none of the games I've ever worked on seem to have anything to do with me. The key for me is that I keep it to myself. The only way I can make my work personal is to keep private what's personal about it. We relinquish so much privacy these days that I think there is a sense of strength to be gained from consciously holding onto some, only ever hinting at it. Put another way, the less you know about me, the more interesting I am, the more interesting my stories. This of course is not true of everyone. There is no formula, and this is not advice.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Stitching Process

Wouldn't it be nice if all games formed around some strong, clear, inspired thematic core -- a Vision, with a capital V! -- and the great ideas kept sprouting from that seed. I think there's a misconception among some game players that games are made this way. I think they rarely are, not even the good ones.

Game development feels more to me like an archeological dig where all you've got to go on is a hunch. You start digging and maybe you find something, but you probably won't, not at first. You start to second-guess what it is you're even looking for. Maybe you find something exciting along the way, but it's only exciting to you, and you're part of a team looking for something else. Maybe you're hell bent on finding this one specific thing to the detriment of other valuable discoveries along the way. In time, what you find down there probably isn't as perfect as the image you had in your head, but it's something.

Games, I think, are often put together from a bunch of dusty old pieces, not all of which fit. You probably find too many pieces in your search. Apart from all the skill and craft involved in unearthing the pieces without ruining them, there is art in identifying which pieces are the ones that can form a whole, and in connecting them with care.

Part of the reason an archaeological analogy works for me is I don't believe in new ideas. Everything has been done, done well, better than I (at least) could ever do it. Thankfully, though, memories are short and tastes change with time. Synthesize some good old ideas at the right time and people call you original. The paradox is that in uncovering old things, you discover new things.

When I work on a game I always think I know what I'm looking for. Accepting that what I'm looking for may not be the right thing, may not be what we find, may not even be what we end up looking for, is a nonstop process.

In time, if you're lucky, you get to the point where you've unearthed most of the pieces and what remains is putting them together. Finally, you're getting somewhere. The work is cut out and just needs to get done. But it's here, relatively late in development, when some of the most important creative decisions get made, through synthesis, through omission, and through connection.

To convolute my archeological analogy: You're not just unearthing something, you're not just piecing it together. You're bringing it to life. It's a Frankenstein's Monster type of process. So then, once the pieces are splayed out, there's still a need for some good stitching to tie it all together into something recognizable as a distinct entity, preferably one that isn't an abomination but rather something that seems like it ought to belong in this world.

I find that writing provides one of the lowest-cost, highest-efficiency forms of stitching together disparate game elements.

In a simple mathematical model, you can form a line between any two points in space. In real-world situations, writing I think is the key to linking any two otherwise-unrelated things. I practiced this in college. Taking English lit classes, I faced the same challenge as every other student: What could I possibly say about this book that my professor (rather, the teacher's assistant) hadn't heard before a thousand times? A solution I eventually discovered consists of three steps:

  1. Open assigned reading to one page at random, and note the first passage that catches your eye.
  2. Open assigned reading to another page at random, and note the next such passage.
  3. Write essay arguing there exists a meaningful connection between those two passages.

I tried this several times as an experiment when I was concerned that I had no original ideas about what to write. I felt cynical and like a total hack when I did it, all the more so when the work inevitably yielded better grades than essays I put a lot more thought and effort into. But then I thought about it more.

Meaning does not inherently exist. Meaning is manufactured, produced, contrived, any number of ugly words. There are nicer words. Meaning is felt, experienced, inferred. But deep down at the heart of it that shit is made up. Fiction. Narrative. In the case of media, the meaning of a work may initially be created by the author, but in the end it is shaped by the audience. As audiences, we have a strong capacity to sense when a work is cohesive and when a meaning can be found in it, and we like to experience that discovery through passive participation in the work if not through active exploration. Our brains do their pattern-matching thing and we take pleasure from finding hidden connections, from realizing the greater scheme of the work, the grander more intricate design. Meaningful work is impressive work.

So to tie this back to game development: To me it is often not sufficient for a game mechanic to be fun or interesting in itself. It needs to be meaningful somehow -- I want to be able to find meaning in it, to connect it to some aspect of my own life experience (or someone else's), to see why it exists as an abstraction of some deeper truth, and to really understand why it's part of the game I'm playing. And so, when dealing with a bunch of disparate mechanics or ideas, all of which are no doubt cool yet not all of which are cohesively connected or inherently meaningful, I believe there's still a chance to integrate them meaningfully -- to stitch them together -- using words, if only as a starting point.

To give you an example from Bastion, that game has a system called the Shrine, in which you can modify the game difficulty to suit your preference. This system was not the Shrine until rather late in development (for a long time it was the Bestiary) but the underlying idea was always that we wanted a difficulty system that didn't put a blind choice before the player at the start of the game, and instead let you tune the game's challenge in a granular way, beyond the opaque and judgmental easy/normal/hard choice given by many games. So, after much wracking of minds, from a writing perspective we found that a promising angle on it was to structure it around religion. After all, the difficulty effects were global, somewhat magical, and somewhat strange. To engage with our difficulty system was to test one's faith in one's abilities, so a religious metaphor just made sense. What's more, it served to deepen an aspect of the world's backstory (involving a cultural dispute between neighboring nations), which in turn deepened the plot.

I think everyone on the team was happy with how this system came together, and it's one of the best specific examples we have to show for when our collaborative process goes well. More personally, I like what the Shrine system did for the game, and not just mechanically. I like how we were able to make it fit. And I appreciate that, if not for the Shrine system, Bastion would not have broached the subject of religion at all, which I know was a meaningful part of the game for some people (at least some of whom have written to me or talked to me about it). The desire to include a difficulty system created an opportunity to instill meaning into the system, by stitching it onto the rest of the game.

* * *

You're probably familiar with the term "to retcon". It's a pejorative term, frowned on by audiences, referring to the act of retroactively creating continuity where none existed. We see retconning as a sort of public embarrassment, a collapse of the fourth fall, as with the infamous midichlorians example from the Star Wars prequel. However, much like how I came to accept that my college English tactics were effective, I've come to accept retconning as an important part of game development. As much as I'd love for all meaning in a work to flourish from some pure and artful place, from some never-changing point of origin, I'll take it where I can get it. That means always searching for opportunities to create continuity where none exists, or strengthen continuity where a hint of it is detected if only by coincidence.

Ideally all this is done behind a curtain, so that when the finished work is presented, it feels like it has Vision. There is no hint of retconning from the audience's point of view, and indeed, no retconning could have possibly occurred with Vision such as this! So, I'm all about retconning, because I want everything to fit and that's only possible once all the pieces are there, late in development. Retconning is a way of executing on ideas, and early on in a project when all you have are ideas, they can be more frustrating than anything else. All throughout development I like looking for those vestigial little pieces of game, whether it's a conspicuous art asset or a design contrivance or a limitation of the engine or a story trope or anything really, and I'll try to connect them to the game's center of gravity, so that in the end, the finished work gives the impression that it knew what it wanted to be all along.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Discovery and Mastery

It's been more than a year since I posted here. Here are some of the reasons:
- I was busy
- I was lazy
- I was between projects
- I was playing a lot of Dota 2 in my spare time (see above)
- The more time went by the more I felt I needed to say something profound if I posted again

Two things have changed:
- I'm playing less Dota 2 as too many other games need playing
- My guilt at neglecting this space superseded the imperative to say something profound

So here we are.

Exposition is something I feel I've talked about a lot because, if you look past its colloquial definition as "the part of a story where plot details are explained", it's a lens through which you can look at the entire start-to-finish structure of a game.

Exposition is a tool used for reconciling the mechanical, systemic, and narrative components of a game, as it's the method through which these components may be sequenced in some interesting, appropriate fashion for the player.

When used properly, exposition creates motivation in the player. Interesting details expose themselves, raising questions about other interesting details, creating for the player an unspoken promise that the revelations will continue. One way of looking at the game designer's responsibility is, he or she must extend this expository sequence for as long as appropriate and no longer. The result is a game that is engaging from start to finish and leaves the player with a sense of satisfaction at the end.

All games are played to the point at which the player loses interest. An ending is just an invitation for the player to lose interest at what's likely an appropriate time.

Not all games need to be finite and it seems to me the vast majority are not. If a game is to be endless for some reason then I think it's important for the player's sense of mastery over the game to also feel unreachable. If it could be measured over time, mastery ought to look like the geometric concept of an asymptote – it should be possible to approach mastery, but never quite reach it. The reason I played Dota 2 all last year, the reason I played fighting games for years and years, is because they do this.

Mastery is not the goal of all games. Some games are experiential, contemplative. They don't offer challenge in a traditional sense. I admire games that do this well, such as the recently released Proteus or last year's Journey. These games tend to focus on creating a sense of discovery. In the absence of mechanical complexity or challenges, they need to compel the player through some other thing, through discovering the limits of the world or discovering interesting intersections between different game systems. Even The Walking Dead is a form of this – it's about the emotional experience of making difficult moral decisions and moving forward with the consequences of those decisions.

So then: either a game compels its player to fully master it, or fully discover it, or possibly both. My absolute favorite games, and the kinds of games I want to work on, do both.

From a certain point of view the terms are somewhat interchangeable. When I feel as though I've seen everything there is to see in Proteus, it could be said that I've "mastered" the game. When I feel I've reached the limits of my reflexes and mental capacity playing Dota 2, when I think I know all there is to know about it even though I may be wrong, I think I've "discovered" everything there is to discover about Dota 2.

That said, I think "mastery" tends to be applied to mechanical and goal-oriented aspects of play, to competitive games or games with goals and challenges, while "discovery" tends to be applied to experiential, narrative aspects. Going forward I will use these terms to denote these respective meanings.

I think it's fair to think that if a player fully masters a game before it's finished then the player is more likely to get bored and quit if that mastery occurs before the game has ended, if it has an ending.

A player may also quit early if the gap between overcoming the challenges at stake exceeds his or her curiosity at what lies beyond those challenges.

In such cases there is no real exposition left in the mechanics or systems. The player "gets it" and there's nothing left to learn. Maybe the game should have ended before the player reached this point, or more likely, the mechanics and systems themselves were underdeveloped in some way or the game wasn't tuned appropriately and the player was unable to find sufficient challenge there.

I think depth is secretly desired by everyone who plays games no matter their interest level, because depth and engagement are very closely linked.

Say a player has become bored of a game's mechanics and systems, having seen all there is to see, or at least believing this to be the case. One way the player may remain engaged in spite of this failure on the game's part is through the narrative. To me this is the main reason narrative belongs in games, as a sort of safety net for the gameplay, because it's very difficult for gameplay to be perfectly tuned and engaging for all players at all times. When the gameplay falters at its job, the narrative can be there to compel the player onward: "Well I just want to see what happens next."

The narrative of course also can fail, just as easily and just as hard as the gameplay.

This is why thinking of a game's structure as a single expository track I think is useful. Concepts of all kinds can be separated and ordered, ensuring that something interesting continually happens on some recurring yet slightly unpredictable interval. Applied properly, this method can be used to create a strong sense of discovery from start to finish and leave the player satisfied yet wanting more, because the experience was a good one. Dark Souls and its predecessor Demon's Souls are good examples of this. Those games are one big enigma, maddening intricate puzzles begging to be cracked.

Exposition is its own worst enemy. The stigma that comes with the term comes from how often exposition is abused. Exposition can be abused in mechanics, systems, and narrative. Often this abuse occurs as the consequence of didactic design or on-the-nose writing.

When a game explicitly tries to teach you everything about how to play it, through forced or heavy-handed tutorials and other interruptions, it is denying you the opportunity to discover what's interesting about the play experience on your own. Ever play a game and think "just let me play" when it's all cutscenes and pop-ups reiterating over and over? The game is being condescending to you and wasting your time. It's a disappointing feeling.

It would be nice if all games were fully discoverable. At least when it comes to today's console and PC games and their dozens of possible inputs, that simply isn't possible sometimes, and some amount of teaching is necessary. Following the rules of appropriate exposition, the best way to teach is to teach as quickly and concisely as possible, and teach only those things fundamental to the player's ability to make progress, at the time when those things must be understood. No sooner, no later. Getting this right is hard.

Knowing that teaching and discovery stand in direct opposition, and that discovery is a much more desirable sensation than "being taught something", can be useful as a means of forcing yourself to reduce teaching to an absolute minimum and leave as much as possible to the player.

The last point I want to make here is that when you think of exposition holistically, as the player's path through the entire experience, then you discover opportunities for using exposition in interesting, unconventional ways.

Maybe when there's a bit of necessary teaching to be done, you figure out a way to give it narrative context, as with World of Goo's excellent Sign Painter signs – tutorials written from the perspective of a mysterious character.

Maybe there's a really interesting but advanced play mechanic you're dying for the player to know about. Rather than just spell it out in a forced tutorial where the mechanic is plainly shown but can't really be appreciated, maybe you can provide more situations in which that mechanic stands a chance of being discovered naturally, thus providing the player the satisfaction of having figured it out.

We live in a time when achieving a sense of discovery or mastery seems virtually impossible. Our personal accomplishments are inconsequential in comparison to those of many other people who have worked much harder for much longer to achieve similar things a long time ago. Our discovery of things is often coupled with a sense of ignorance at having not discovered them sooner. The best some people can hope for in these regards is writing "first" on a comment thread on a news story on the Internet – that's the modern-day equivalent of a frontier. As such, I and many others look to games to provide us with some of these feelings. Games might as well do the job.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Developing Themes in Games

I don't know how people come up with their stories but I can tell you how I come up with mine. I don't start with scenes or characters or settings or genres. I start with a tone and a theme, because those two things provide the guiding light as I try and uncover everything else.

When applied responsibly, a theme can give a work of fiction its center of gravity, and can make the experience feel meaningful and open to interpretation in a pleasing or thought-provoking way. When applied irresponsibly, a theme can make a work of fiction feel condescending or didactic, like you got tricked into taking a call from a telemarketer.

A theme ought to be omnipresent but subtle. If the audience can identify the theme easily then it's too over-the-top. If there's unanimous consensus about the theme then it's also over-the-top. A theme is like the body language of the work. It should give a strong impression to those paying close attention while operating on a subconscious level in most cases.

A theme is not a moral. It's an open question, not a conclusion. It needs to be an open question because an entire work of fiction needs to be created in its service. In thinking about new stories, I like to think of themes in a journalistic way. My responsibility as the writer is to fully explore a given theme, to provide the audience with a wide breadth of relevant information which can be used to draw various conclusions.

The tone of the work may inform the theme, or vice versa. The combination of the two create the identity of the work, a subject I'll explore in more detail in my upcoming GDC 2012 talk about creating atmosphere in games. (EDIT: The slides for this talk are available here.)

The story I wanted to write for Bastion was intended to explore the theme of overcoming regret. The tone I wanted for it was bittersweet but not sentimental, cautiously optimistic and ultimately hopeful but still melancholy at times, something that felt real rather than sappy but still could be suitable for almost all ages. The characters, events, places, and various little details all came about in support of these ideas. The theme ended up serving as my map. The tone served as the directions from the starting point on that map to the end point. I knew the starting point and end point early on. Plotting the course is what took the longest amount of time, mainly because I didn't write any in-game content before we had playable levels that needed to be written.

I don't like spelling out the theme like this but the game's been out long enough, and besides, it's a broad enough theme to where spelling it out doesn't really matter. The theme in and of itself is too broad to be susceptible to judgment. I think that's the mark of a theme worth exploring.

You'll notice that the theme I chose is simply "overcoming regret", just two words, as opposed to something like "in life we all need to learn how to let go." One is a theme, the other is asinine. Because I'm not Aesop, I will never, so long as I'm blessed with the opportunity to continue to create games, ever inflict my morals on you. I have my kids for that. Besides, if the theme I chose could be reduced to a fortune cookie sentiment then it isn't strong enough to bear the weight of a story worth telling.

The theme of a game's story ought to be the theme of the entire work, or vice versa, however it all comes together. If a game's story has a theme that's not supported by the play experience itself, the game threatens to feel disjointed and leave a sour taste with the player. In Bastion's case, the game was always going to be about building the world around you, an aesthetic idea and a design idea that naturally extended to a theme. The idea of building gave rise to the idea of rebuilding, which gave rise to the idea of overcoming regret and this post-disaster story about a few survivors (and other creatures) dealing with what happened in their own way.

All of the different game systems ideally should support the theme. With this in mind, in Bastion we tried to solve for some problems that can induce a sense of regret in other role-playing games, such as when you get the sinking feeling that you chose poorly when developing your character. In many RPGs, you're asked to make half-blind choices about character class or perks and stats. Halfway through the game you find yourself wishing that you chose differently. This can create incentive to replay the game but it can come from a negative place. In Bastion, we offer the player complete freedom to customize their character all the way through. Our difficulty system, via the Shrine, works in a similar way. We don't make you choose the game's difficulty before you've had a chance to play it and get a feel for it.

There are other smaller examples. When you run out of health and get defeated, you have the opportunity to "carry on", get back up at least one time and keep fighting. It's just a system of extra lives, superficially no different from the convention used by countless old games, but in Bastion I think it takes on a different connotation for some players as they see the protagonist character struggling through one situation after another.

Then, when we present players with the game's climactic, expressive choices, those are the only moments where there's no turning back. I think this is self-evident in the choices themselves, and thankfully we got a lot of good feedback from players saying they gave pause in those situations for quite a while, deciding what to do. I'd like to think that almost everybody who reaches those moments in the game ultimately makes a firm decision, not the wishy-washy I-don't-know kind but the kind that feels satisfying and cathartic even if not exactly good.

So, why would I want to write a story about an unpleasant subject like regret anyway, especially for a game that seems to have the trappings of a hack-and-slash action RPG romp? One reason is because I don't want to waste people's time with meaningless game experiences. Another reason is that this theme is important to me for a bunch of reasons I could only articulate through the story itself. I think regret is a universal feeling experienced by almost everyone from a young age. The depths of that regret vary from one individual to the next in a profound way, but on some level there is a shared experience, even among those who've suffered no real losses, who've had it pretty good overall. Me, I'm the sort of person who's spent (or wasted, depending on how you look at it) a lot of time re-playing various scenes from my life in my head, wondering about alternative outcomes. This is typical but I think I have an acute case of it. Setting aside whether it's healthy or not, I accept that it's a part of me, and it's the reason Bastion's story is what it is.

Thanks for reading, and may things turn out all right for all of us in the new year.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Unveiling the Possibility Space

Revealing the scope of a game should be, I think, a seductive act by the game for the player. Not that I know anything about seduction, but I think I've seen it done properly in movies at least, and read a thing or two about it. Seduction means leaving a lot to the imagination while drip-feeding reality in tantalizing doses. There is a sexuality there usually but it doesn't need to be there. A car can be seductive. So can a game. Even an E-rated game, get your mind out of the gutter.

The game I've been working on is now out there, most of the reviews are in, the first-week sales have happened, all that. I can talk about it freely, though if you haven't played it yet, please don't read on unless you're OK with having aspects of it spoiled. Thankfully the game got a generally good response from players, and I'd like to talk here about one of the major reasons why I think it worked for those people. Sure, we worked to craft the discrete elements of the game to a good level of quality, everything from the tuning of the game systems to the art and music and writing and so forth. But I think the essential structure of Bastion is very important to its potential to have an impact on the player.

We said during development that we wanted for the game to present to the player an ever-growing series of gameplay-expanding choices. Part of this involved keeping the player in the dark about the extents of the scope of those choices, culminating in a series of climactic narrative choices designed to feed back on the entirety of the player's experience up to that point. We had to not only continue introducing new elements of play from beginning to end, we also had to do it at slightly irregular intervals such that the structure itself resisted becoming predictable in a negative way. The desired effect is for the player to feel a sense of wonder and intrigue. When you fully understand something, you cannot wonder about it or feel intrigued by it any longer.

Concluding the game with a pair of purely expressive choices, whose gameplay impact was implicit but not overt, was to me the ultimate way of subverting – in a hopefully interesting way – all the gameplay choices that had come before. Up until that point, you'd been deciding what to build, which Spirits to drink, which weapons to use, which upgrades to buy, whether to invoke any of the Shrine idols, and so on. Hopefully, then, the last thing you'd come to expect at the end of the game – especially in a game that appeared to be driving toward one specific outcome – is to have to make an expressive choice about what to do with the world you've been playing in. It's a world you've either grown attached to or haven't grown attached to, and the choices at stake are meant to encompass that entire range of experience.

Bastion is built on this idea of the gameworld slowly unraveling. Every aspect of it. The world unravels almost literally. The story unravels. The game systems come online one by one. There's no telling how many game systems there are in total when you begin play, and in fact, we deliberately mislead you several times about the extent of the game's scope. We make you think you're almost done with the story after several hours, then we introduce another system around upgrading. And when you're almost done with that, we introduce the endgame act. Only when you're about to reach the endgame do we explicitly tell you that, yes, you're about to go into the final area. But even there, the final area is substantially larger than previous areas and has several new kinds of gameplay beats in store. To top it off, once you've finished the game, then we unlock a whole second play-through with more new content. We structured the game this way to keep the experience feeling fresh within the constraints of our scope.

While I think this type of slow-and-steady-burn worked for us, I'm not about to suggest it's beyond reproach. A game needs to prove to its player as quickly as possible why it's worth playing. One way to go about this is to reveal great depth straightaway, such as by rapidly exposing complex game systems. A classic example of this is the character creation screen in a role-playing game. In Icewind Dale, an excellent old computer RPG, I spent probably a good two hours just making my party of characters before ever beginning play. The character creation system was just so rich with possibility. These days I think it's more fashionable to keep stuff hidden and not scare away the player with too much information up front. That's fine, but finding the right pace at which to reveal new elements of play becomes all the more important in those cases. I'm not sure that proper pacing can be taught, because it's resistant by its own nature to being reduced to a formula.

So then, if you're a game, keeping some of your best ideas hidden away for your later stages is arguably a risky proposition. In fact, by doing so you are implicitly accepting that some probably rather large percentage of your players will never see that content. In Bastion's case, we invested heavily in the ending, by scheduling a bunch of time for a bunch of unscheduled stuff, because we wanted to do everything possible to make sure players who finished the game felt rewarded for their time and effort. From a clinical production perspective maybe this was a bad decision. One could argue that we should have disproportionately focused on only the early levels in this fashion, because more players would see them. The reason this mindset is wrong, to me, is because it ignores who the game's audience really is.

Say you're an author writing a novel. The idea that you'd short-change the ending because not many readers would get that far is deplorable. You need to have faith that your readers will get there, ought to be focused on providing every reason for them to get there. Then you save the best for last for these people, because you owe them. They're the ones you're writing for. As for the ones who don't make it, sure it's probably your fault they gave up, but you can't just go in assuming they won't stay interested because that would make you a hack.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Power Fantasies and Their Problems

For a short time in college I considered enlisting in the military but you have to understand my mind was in a very dark place then. I got over it, though I still find shooters and military-themed games fascinating. What boggles my mind, though, is how wrong most of them are about why I want to play them. It's as if they think I think being a soldier is this thrilling and glorious experience. At least Modern Warfare got it right when it killed me in a nuclear blast.

This isn't one of those complaints about there being too many shooters, though. Instead I bring up shooters to make an observation about games that are power fantasies, and some of the problems inherent to that style of play.

For the most part, a power fantasy is what it sounds like. It's the idea that if only you were a better more capable person. Games allow us to play as characters with abilities far superior to our own. God of War, Halo, Ninja Gaiden, Gears of War, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Devil May Cry, Assassin's Creed, Mass Effect, and The Witcher are all examples of power fantasies in games. Such games naturally fall into the action adventure, shooter, and role-playing genres, because power fantasies tend to revolve around dominating one's opponents, and these genres revolve around combat.

Identifying a Power-Fantasy Game: Themes vs. Systems
I think power-fantasy games are characterized at least as much by their thematic and fictional content as by their gameplay systems and player interactions. For example, take the old laserdisc arcade game Space Ace, which is by all means a power fantasy about being a sci-fi action hero. The gameplay itself consists of reflexive button presses and memorization. Just dial in the proper button sequence, and you get to watch a cool cartoon unfold. Games like this are where quick-time events came from. The same format could just as soon be used for a game based on Schindler's List. So then you'd have two games with identical gameplay, but only one would be seen as a power fantasy. Not sure what people would make of the other.

Spy Party designer Chris Hecker offers a succinct argument against power fantasies on his blog that got me thinking about this themes-vs.-systems distinction. In Bastion, the game I've been working on, I wanted to avoid creating the tone of a power fantasy. For example, the protagonist character is someone the player is intended to feel for rather than envy. On the other hand, aspects of Bastion's game systems can be likened to those found in power-fantasy games -- it's a combat-oriented game in the action role-playing genre. Does that mean it's a power fantasy in spite of my intentions? Of course not. The narrative and thematic substance of a game sooner defines its character as being a power-fantasy or not, rather than the genre or the gameplay systems.

To illustrate my point, take ICO and Shadow of the Colossus. These games revolve around conventional gameplay challenges, including relatively straightforward platforming and combat systems. You run, jump, and kill things in those games in a manner that's comparable to games like God of War or Assassin's Creed. However, I don't think many would consider ICO or Shadow of the Colossus to be power fantasies. The emotional content of those games gives the experience of overcoming their challenges a nuanced and contemplative feel.

Problems With Power Fantasies
I don't want to make power-fantasy games for a variety of reasons that have little to do with how common they are. Rather, it's because I think power-fantasy games have three inherent, thorny problems I would like to avoid:

Problem 1: Risk of creating emotional disconnect or sense of inadequacy in the player
In the typical power-fantasy game, the player's skills will initially not be aligned with those of his character. You're controlling a character who is far superior to you.

This can make the crucial first experience with the game feel dissonant or off-putting. In Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which I think is a stunning and well crafted game overall, if you don't know how to sneak around as well as Nathan Drake knows how to sneak around, then there's a good chance you'll get flustered in one of the opening sequences. There's no explaining why Nathan Drake is suddenly incompetent in what should be a routine mission -- immersion is broken and you're reminded that you're just a poor schlub playing Uncharted 2 and failing at it. In The Witcher 2, my favorite game so far this year, the outstanding exposition and beautiful world can likewise come grinding to a halt as soon as the actual gameplay starts and you realize just how lethal the world of the game really is, and how lousy of a swordsman you are in spite of how proficient your character is supposed to be. You lose empathy for your character because you never experience having to go through what he went through in order to be good at his job.

Some games get around this type of problem through smart use of exposition or flashbacks. I thought the first hour of Assassin's Creed 2 wasn't as exciting as the rest of the game but at least it let you work your way up to earning the ninja-like skills of the protagonist. Most of the time, though, if a game is inviting you to be the badass then it's going to have an awkward learning curve, either nakedly easy or too hard.

Problem 2: Design limitations of an inherently powerful protagonist
If you're playing a game in which your character is very powerful and versatile, then not only is the game going to be harder to learn than it probably needs to be, with tons of front-loaded tutorial, it also won't leave much room for growth. Or it'll be some kind of nongame where you give minimal input, like Space Ace. Ironically, all this undermines the basic appeal of a power fantasy, which is to have a growing sense of superiority.

In Grand Theft Auto IV or almost any of the games derived from that series' template, you start with the power to wreak all kinds of havoc inside that sandbox world. You might work your way up to faster cars and deadlier guns than what you have access to right from the start, but in spite of the open-world scope, the sense of character progression is naturally limited. This is especially true of games set in the real world. In games like God of War, you start off extremely powerful but there's still a sense of progression as you move from superhuman to godlike powers. But in a military shooter, where you're a man with a gun, you don't expect to gain new abilities, and in 99 out of 100 such games, you don't. Realism.

Role-playing games have a traditional solution to these problems, by making the player start off as a nobody and gradually letting him grow his powers while his notoriety in the gameworld grows through the fiction. Even still, RPGs are notorious for their complexity, often front-loading far more game systems than the player ought to be concerned with at first. And most RPGs still are power fantasies from a fictional point of view.

If you're not making a power-fantasy game then you have far more latitude when defining your protagonist character. The player doesn't always want to be the badass, does he?

Problem 3: Limited emotional range
When a game is a power fantasy then it occupies a narrow and limiting emotional range. Power-fantasy games can be about justice, revenge... and, that's about it.

Look at the long list of games I've cited above and try and point to ones that aren't about justice or revenge.

Justice and revenge are age-old themes, deeply ingrained in human nature. The emotional range associated with these, I'd say, tends toward the aggressive and the negative. Some of the best works of fiction in the history of fiction have concerned justice or revenge. But these themes aren't everything.

Of course there's a whole slew of other themes and corresponding emotions that games can explore. It's an oversimplification but ICO and Shadow of the Colossus are games about love more so than they are about justice or revenge. By successfully applying an alternate thematic spin on conventional action adventure tropes, these games stood out as unique and provided unique and memorable experiences.

. . .

Power-fantasy games have a lot of things going for them. That's why so many of them are made. Games that attempt to solve the problems I've listed here have plenty of their own problems, including, I suppose, having a potentially more-limited appeal than power-fantasy games do. Even still, when thinking about the kinds of games I want to make, I'd much rather take my chances with exploring relatively untapped thematic territory than trying to attack head-on some hundreds of different games I hold in very high regard. I've tried that before and didn't like it as much.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

One Thing at a Time

Hey, I'm back. My writing work for Bastion is complete and the game is nearly finished. How well it finally turned out will be for the public to decide, though what I can say is that it's very much the game I wanted it to be. Everyone on the team is feeling good about where we ended up. Now that I have a bit of hindsight on the process, I'd like to comment on three principles that helped me construct the narrative. There won't be any story spoilers here, but approach with caution anyway if you're looking to play the game with no preconceptions.

It was important to me that Bastion have a rich and interesting story for the sake of players who (like me) care about story, while at the same time making concessions for players who don't care about story. This was not a matter of trying to make everyone happy. It was a matter of trying to create a good story for a game, by approaching it from the perspective of "no one cares about your stupid story," which I feel should be the baseline assumption if you're not a famous author or working with a famous property. People really cared about what the story was going to be in The Matrix Reloaded, but they had no expectations for the story in the original Matrix film. The original Matrix needed to work hard to get people to care, which is part of the reason why it's so much better than its sequels. In games, people are liable to care even less about story since there's a lot more to a game than its story.

This "assume no one cares" approach was manifest in several principles that I tried to stick to, which I'll explain in more detail below. They are:
  1. Structure the story around a clear, consistent goal.
  2. Avoid attempts to engage the player about things not happening onscreen in that moment.
  3. Suggest the emotional range of the story early on.
Let me explain each of these a bit.

Goal-driven story: An interesting story often is a complex or nuanced story. I wanted to strike a good balance with Bastion's story and layer the complexity so that it's there for people who care to see it, while the surface story remains simple and clear. Players have a lot they need to keep track of – not just story but also the game's systems and mechanics, which are in constant demand of attention. I didn't want the story to feel indulgent or like a comprehension test. I'm sure you've played games where you lose track of what's happening in the story and never get on board again. One such game happens to be my favorite game so far this year, called Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together for the PSP. It's a beautiful and complicated game, with a huge cast of characters and an elaborate plot, but as engaged in it as I am, I have trouble keeping all of the factions and political maneuverings straight. I'm approaching the end of the game now and couldn't summarize the details of the story to save my life. I still enjoy it a lot for its tone and world but I wish key parts of it were presented more clearly.

One of the ways in which Bastion's story is kept simple is that the cast of characters is not enormous, and the player goal is specific and persistent. I used to work on real-time strategy games, where each mission tended to have unique objectives, sometimes multiple objectives. I also used to play a lot of massively multiplayer games, whose quests tended to have their own fictional conceits. I found in both cases that many players of these games tended to tune out the story reasons for these missions or quests and just wanted the game to "bottom-line" what needed to be done. This wasn't because they were lazy, and wasn't even necessarily because the stories of these games were bad. It just got difficult to keep a complicated story straight while also having to parse new gameplay objectives.

Maintaining a constant "object of desire" for the player to pursue doesn't have to over-simplify the story of a game. Instead I think it can create a strong framework on which to layer a rich narrative. One of my favorite examples is the original Metal Gear Solid, which has the best story of all the games in that series. The plot, on the surface, is simple: Solid Snake, a secret agent, must infiltrate a military complex in order to rescue the head of a weapons research firm and discover whether the terrorists occupying the complex have nuclear capability.

That's it. It sounds like a totally straightforward premise for a spy thriller. But if you've played Metal Gear Solid, then you know the story takes an almost ridiculous number of unexpected turns. What helps drive you forward as you face off against cyborg ninjas, one-handed pistol-wielding sadists, and minigun-wielding tank-driving shamans? The goal remains the same. No matter what insane situation you're in, you're still after the same thing, and the game's briefer characters do a good job of reminding you of this.

God of War is another one of my favorite examples. You're trying to kill the God of War. The story has much more to it than that, but you don't have the moment in God of War where you wonder, "Wait, what am I even supposed to be doing?" Unless you're stuck on a puzzle, but that's a subject for another day.

Immediacy in storytelling: One of the reasons exposition has such a bad reputation is that it's often used to describe things that are disconnected from the matter at hand. You end up feeling like you're waiting for the story to get out of the way. Yes, Star Wars has license to open with a text crawl explaining what's happening in the world. This type of technique is best avoided in most cases, yet games do the equivalent of it all the time. Characters have long conversations about characters who aren't there. Cutscenes tell you why you should care instead of letting the gameplay make you care. You're given mission briefings about how important certain things are and how you must not let this or that happen. It's all just talk. None of this has an impact on you, and you see right through it, especially when you're playing a massively multiplayer game and you know it's just window dressing for another bit of quest loot.

To avoid this problem, story in games should concern things that matter to the player, rather than matter to the story. In Halo, you crash-land on the Halo and need to find a way out before you're hunted down and killed. Though there's a backstory around trying to defeat the Covenant and save the Earth, none of that matters to you in the original Halo, and besides, these are things that no human being can relate to. In Halo, you're just trying to get out of a bad situation. BioShock is set up in much the same way. Out of this World and LIMBO are set up in much the same way. Being stranded in strange worlds not only makes you feel empathy for the protagonists of these games, it compels you to press forward and find a way out.

In the case of Bastion, the story deliberately raises some key questions about the state of the world right from the beginning: Why is it shattered, why is the land reconstituting as you walk around, why are you being attacked by things called Squirts and Gasfellas, why is a narrator telling the story as you move through the game, and so on. Thanks to the game's narration technique, these questions come up right in the moment the issues begin to affect the player, rather than before they're of any concern or too long after. I don't tell you that there are strange creatures who want to hurt you before you face them. I don't tell you about the state of the land before you see how it looks for yourself. By not explaining away these things before the fact, I stand the best chance of piquing your curiosity and using exposition as it's meant to be used, rather than bombarding you with detail that's important to me as a writer but maybe not so important to you as a player.

Revealing the emotional range of the story: This is an idea derived from Robert McKee's story seminar, in which he points out that it's a good practice for the author to show the emotional palette of his story early on. This may sound like terrible advice on the surface. What if you have some amazing plot twist all planned out, why would you want to give that away?? But this advice has no bearing on something like that. All it's saying is to avoid jarring emotional manipulation of the audience, not even for the audience's sake but for your own story's sake. To paraphrase McKee, if, for example, you have some sort of serious drama and then try to deliver some comic relief in the final act, what's likely to happen? The audience won't laugh – the story hasn't trained them to expect to laugh, and any attempts at humor will likely feel awkward and out of place. On the other hand, if there were humor in the story early on, later attempts at comic relief would be more likely to succeed.

In other words, if the story gives evidence to the breadth of its emotional content early on, the audience will have an easier job of following along as the story unfolds. This does not need to come at a cost to the story's richness or complexity. One of my favorite movies, Fight Club, I think can't be accused of simplicity yet does a masterful job of defining its emotional palette quickly. The self-depracting humor and raw darkness of that story are all present from the start. The story moves into shocking and unexpected territory, but when you look back on it you realize that the groundwork was there. Maybe Fight Club isn't the best example of this since that third act really is crazy. Perfectly good examples are movies like Iron Man and the original Pirates of the Caribbean, each of which I think did a great job of creating a specific tone and sticking to it. Maintaining tone does not mean being monotonous if you have a rich tone.

In Bastion, it was very important to me to establish the emotional palette of the story quickly, especially considering the story is delivered in large part through the use of voiceover narration. I needed to define the narrator's character in addition to defining the gameworld itself, and I do this using a range of emotional content that should ultimately feel consistent to the narrator and therefore to the game. If I did my job properly then you should get the impression that the narrator's telling of this story is important at least to him. You should quickly gain a sense for the depth of the character and, hopefully, find him intriguing enough to want to keep listening as well as keep playing. Each thing the narrator says near the beginning of the game is in service of informing you both about the state of the world and, indirectly, about what kind of man he is. And by virtue of that, you get a feel for the game as a whole, from its tone to its story themes. The narrator's character grows from there, and my responsibility from that point becomes fully delivering on this first impression.

. . .

In conclusion, I kept in mind these three foundational techniques so that I stood the best chance of making Bastion's story something hopefully-worthwhile, without confusing players who just want to know what's going on and why they should care. I wanted to waste none of the player's time in coming to grips with what was interesting about the story. If I could do this well, I figured maybe the story would convert some of the players in the don't-care category into players who do.