Category Archives: Design

The Beat – Interactive Storytelling Series Part I

It starts with a beat.

In screenwriting, a beat is the smallest unit of story. It can be an action that propels the plot, a twist that alters the story’s direction, a shot that establishes tone, mood, theme; or dialog that reveals characters. Beats are the bricks in which the story is build, and it is how the audience experiences the story.

One of the steps of screenwriting involves writing out the beat sheet*, a list of all the story elements that can be assembled into the actual story. When seen this way, we can see how each beat effects one another; and when properly ordered, how the story unfolds. It’s a basic framework in which writers use to grow stories, adding details, shading and depth as needed to create a deeper resonant experience for the audience.

Then John Mehdi disagrees, and rips out the Dean's heart screaming, "NO ONE LIES TO ME"

Then John Mehdi disagrees, and rips out the Dean’s heart screaming, “NO ONE LIES TO ME”

 

I like to think the beat sheet is a good framework to use when designing a game that wants to tell stories through its systems, mechanics and world, a game that provides players the tools, and vocabulary to craft his own experience and create his own story. A game where any meaningful action the player takes becomes a beat in their story.

I scrounged the wreckage for what food and materials I could find. A nearby fireaxe became the key in which I hacked scattered luggage for what treasures they held. When darkness descended, that same fireaxe bore me the gift of firewood. Then dried leaves, and a lick of flame from a liberated lighter birth me a flame to last me through the night, hopefully. Tomorrow, I had to see what else I could do.”

The Forest

First I’ll chop the tree, then I’ll chop that creepy figure standing in the distance there.

 

Of course the game has to respond in kind. Good games are build on strong player feedback, and these feedback range from cheerful celebrations of color and sound, impressive animated sequences, to digital loot that triggers that endorphin drip in your brain. These can be the beats of the story as well. “I got this fantastic sword from surviving an epic battle with the dungeon’s final demon.”

But it can’t just be a list of cool things happening next to one another.

Here, I’ll let Film Crit Hulk explain it.

“Stories are defined by cause and effect. Perpetually. Constantly. Vividly. Stories are built on that simplest of mechanisms. This causes that and that causes this and so on and so forth. It’s about setups and payoffs. It’s about action and reaction. It’s about information followed by dramatic consequence. Cause and effect lend meaning to events. They link scenes together. They give wholeness to seemingly separate ideas. Cause and effect are the linking of your chain. They make a story a story”*

hulk_reading_header__index

HULK READ! because hulk think that stories are the connection has with other human not-hulks.

 

So when the game responds to the player’s action with a beat of its own that moves the story forward, or reveal part of its world, it contributes to the players overall experience of his story. And when the response isn’t entirely predictable, it can become this constant back and forth, between player and system, between character and world, to create a story that’s unique to the player’s decision.

That’s what games can do that the other mediums can’t. Where their story has to be ordered as some point; filmed, written, animated and told, a game’s story can unfold as long as the player has meaningful actions to take, and the game has the responses to return in kind.

Or course, all this works under a certain context, and context is key in the telling of stories.

Hopefully, I’ll get to that idea next week.

Stray Thoughts

* – Another good example of this idea is Trey Stone’s and Matt Parker’s “But” and “Therefore” talk. Where they essential explain the idea of how each beat affect the following beat into order to create the story.

– I was trying to work the phrase “Player actions are the verbs of the game” somewhere up there, but it didn’t work. But I like it as a phrase, because it essentially sums up what I’m trying to do in thinking of game mechanics and features as vocabulary in telling a story.


Craft work.

There’s a craft to storytelling.

The storyteller does not invent story; the storyteller utilized craft to invoke story. Images, music, vocabulary, style are all in the service of imparting ideas, emotions and characters in their audience’s mind.

There are tons on books on the craft of screenwriting, easily as many essays and thoughts on the process of novel writing. Poetry, song, painting have had years of studies devoted to the –ology of their particular type of storytelling.

Yet there is no similar craft for the kind of stories games can tell.

Early games borrowed a lot from traditional pen and paper RPGs, with tons of texts and the occasional image to prop them up. Later on, it borrowed the language of cinema, and brought it with it the cinematic experience, but also the unskippable cutscene.

 

Also include deep ruminations on the nature of war.

Also includes deep ruminations on the nature of war.

These days, both styles are wielded with immense skill and experience to give us the rollercoaster thrill ride of the Call of Duty series, the expansive, the lore filled text heavy Skyrim, or a deft combination of the two in Mass Effect. Yet these are all examples of games still appropriating other storytelling techniques in service to the story that the designers want to tell. Don’t get me wrong, they’re fantastic, and highly enjoyable but I don’t think they are all great examples of just how different game stories can be told.

It’s in the player experience; that should be key to the story that the game is trying to tell.

I'm a survivor!

I’m a survivor!

Games are interactive, the actions the player takes, the decisions that they have to make, the situation that the game places them in; these are tools in which games can invoke a kind of story to the player, making the experience a part of the greater story.

But we have no craft for that.

We do have terminology; phrases and concepts unique to the problem of telling stories in games. The most popular being “ludonarrative dissonance.” We’re throwing buzzwords like “player-authored”, or story generation around more as well, to achieve the holy grail of “procedural storytelling”. Granted, some of these are useful, but only up to a point of arguing about the merits of particular design.

More often than not though, we’re still in service of the game being fun, and the story of the game being secondary to that fun, that trying to tell a meaningful story with those mechanics is a lot like the story paragraph game: Entertaining,, but ultimately meaningless.

Obviously, I’m stumbling my way to some sort of a point here, in that I’d like to understand more about the kind of craft that games can employ in order to tell the kind of stories in can tell. What vocabulary can games employ in their use of mechanics, systems and other tools it has at its disposal to craft the kind of story for their players that resonate.

I have some ideas.

Let’s see if I actually manage to write them.

frustrated-writer-2

One of them has my bank code!

 


The Noob Tube.

I watch a lot of TV

There’s a lot of good television running. Currently on my slate is Orphan Black, Person of Interest, Elementary, Game of Thrones, New Girl and Arrow. Previously, I’ve watched seasons of Justified, The West Wing, The Wire, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Scrubs, Generation Kill, Fringe. The list is long and generally varied. If the AVclub covers it, I’ll probably watch it at some point.

Games can learn a lot from the storytelling structure of good television.

My current favourite series

See, television also advertises with Men holding guns.

Games have long been trying to ape film’s more cinematic style in their visual presentation and their storytelling style. In an industry that’s constantly in some sort of visual arms race, drawing from cinematic visual aesthetic is certainly a great strategy. But films are generally two hours long, with a storytelling structure designed to make the best use of that time. The classical Hollywood style is the oft repeated 3 act structure, usually with the mythic journey grafted on.

Games can stretch from anywhere between 5- 20 hours long. A Hollywood three act structure is going to seem limiting when your Act II lasts several hours and your audience might have stopped paying attention, either because the plot was lost in their meandering, or they can’t get pass certain gameplay sections. That isn’t it doesn’t work, and there are plenty of examples to cite with a strong storytelling in games emanating from the cinematic structure of storytelling.

Yet games have much more in common with Television.

Click here for comedy

“You’ve never read a book and 3 chapters in, the book goes, “what are the major themes of the book.”

Note: I originally expanded a bit more on the following thoughts on how games can draw from television’s storytelling style, but each point spiralled out into these massive walls of text. I’ll probably want to expand on them in individual posts on subsequent days then.

Hour Long Experiences

Research has shown that players play their games in hourly sessions, be it an hour or two, maybe three. Those sessions are further divided into 15 mins game play loops, where design feedbacks rewards, teases, plot development in an effort to keep players engaged, entertained and feel like their hour was meaningful. Television is similarly build from 15 min ACTs, usually written to its act breaks in order for ads to do their thing. Stories are twisted and turned based on that 15 minute structure, (A 30 min episode has a somewhat different structure, but the concept is the same, it’s writing to the act breaks) so audiences will stay tuned through the commercials.

Story Arcs and World Building

Serialized television have long story arcs spanning multiple episodes. During this time, they’re laying the groundwork for that story, building their worlds with locations, a cast of characters, and a thematic through line that keeps the premise and the story coherent. Games excel at world building, and arguably is the best medium at allowing its audience to best experience a world unlike their own.

Where television builds their worlds slowly, adding pieces to it when necessary to unfold longer stories, games can adopt the same method when parcelling out information about the world to the player.

Seasons == Sequels

Shows want seasons, sometimes 6 seasons and a movie, and there’s nothing more a publisher wants more than a sequel. When television goes into multiple seasons, audiences will remark that it’s a sign of its quality, and there are some seasons that are just better than others. Often, it takes some shows a season or two before it gets to telling that really great story, using the cast, world, and premise it has long since established to get around to it. Justified’s season 2 wouldn’t be possible with season 1.

Game sequels on the other hand, are more often thought of as milking the cash cow, rarely deviating too much from the original. Developers are more likely to design more of the same, but BIGGER in an attempt to placate, or satiate the fans of the series. There is a the possibility where games can develop it sequels as extensions of the original premise, market them as more seasons, more reasons to spend time with characters you like, game play mechanics you think are fun, and still have the leeway to explore, and iterate on what has been build before.

The Player Character and his Cast

We’re going to be spending several hours in the company of the player character. The best of which we can identify with, relate to, and hopefully feel some empathy for. We’d probably also want to like their supporting cast of characters. Snake and Otagon is probably one of the more famous bromances of games, and Nathan Drake wouldn’t be much of a likable character without Sully and Elena. Establishing a likable ensemble of characters enables the game to fill out more of its world with charm and personality, and attaches the player to the story that surrounds these characters. Good television often has strong ensemble cast; the downside of which is less focus is placed upon the central character. I thinks there’s a balance that can be explored, creating an interesting cast of characters around the PC, exploring their stories and their relation to the game alongside the game itself, and develop more than just 1 interesting character per game.

Summary

It’s probably too much to say that games should be emulating television entirely in their storytelling and conceptualisation. Yet while TV has since evolved multiple storytellings styles in the past decade, games have somehow moved at a much slower pace. Arguably, games aren’t always the medium in which story takes priority, but since television provides so many good examples of long form storytelling, world building, relatable characters, and hours upon hours of entertainment, there’s possibly a lot games can learn from how its done.

Stray Thoughts

– I’ve tried avoiding the word “Episodic” since that has troubling connotations when we recall what happened with Half Life 2, or virtually what other games promised back in the early 00s. but if Telltale has proven anything, episode gaming can work, and can span stories into a wider set of situations and plot. The Walking Dead is probably the best example of how episodic gaming, with a story structure that owes a lot of televised seasons can work.

– Grantland recently published an exceptional article on how Game of Thrones will change the future of television storytelling. It’s a bit optimistic to be sure, but the success of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Justified in this new era, while network television struggle beyond its few hits is possibly key to the article’s insight. At best, perhaps it’s prescience for future games as well, that we’ll do well to start chasing and consolidating niche markets, as the big mainstream guys dwindle into the few remaining IP.

– Themes are for 8th grade book reports.

– Of course, Television can, and often does work with a much larger ensemble cast, since they can cut away from the main character for quite a long time, and there are plenty more difference between the mediums that a one on one grafting is impossible. Hopefully, I’ll get down to penning my actual thoughts about how it might work.


Blog Necromancy.

We’re back.

It’s been a year, a year since I joined up with Ubisoft Singapore, to work on Assassin’s Creed. A year in which fantastic games have been released, and ideas have percolated in my head. A year where I actually taught a university master’s class in storytelling.

So I’m back here to focus some of the thoughts I’ve had so far, and as a more sustained attempt to journal my thoughts, stray or otherwise, about games and storytelling into something cogent, structured, meaningful. This year, I’m supposed to be embarking on a project where I can delineate the vocabulary of game storytelling, and various approaches to initial conceptualization.*

There’s a lot of misunderstanding regarding story and storytelling in the games industry. I can’t even begin to speculate why that is, without probably taking flak from my initial statement. Suffice to say, various designers, artists, animators and all sorts of developers disagree on what story actually is in the process of making of game.

Games, after all, historically aren’t an entirely narrative driven medium.

There have been great game stories, great games with barely a story and good stories in games that are just above interactive. As a medium, games develop and iterate so fast that it has yet to settle into any recognizable form and structure that you easily hang storytelling upon. The storytelling in Uncharted and Dark Souls are two very different beasts, and yet they both work.

Games need to develop it’s own storytelling vocabulary; perhaps stop borrowing from the language and aesthetic of just film, and branch out to other medium, such as comics, television, short film, and even novels. It’s getting there, as I suspect that we can point to various games that have unique styles of storytelling to them, that draw from all sorts of strange influences.

As games continue to grow, we’re going to have to find new ways to communicate bigger and better ideas to our audiences. We cannot keep circling the drain of good vs evil, human vs aliens, action movie plots that recycle the same basic idea over and over again, while neglecting the themes and story that inform the game world as a whole, and developing systems that steal attention away from our thought processes. Games are a system of mechanics and dynamics, but that’s not all they can be.

But I’m probably worrying too much.

We’ve seen some fantastic narrative games lately. Telltale’s Walking Dead, the beautiful elegiac Journey, Irrational’s ambitiously flawed Bioshock: Infinite. Even the rebooted Tomb Raider was a solid story told fantastically, rooting its narrative in empathizing and understanding its title character.

The indie scene also continues to churn out some interesting gaming experiences such as Kentucky Route Zero, and Proteus, and Kickstarter continues to give hope for the revival of those epic RPG journeys full of ideas, themes and strange imaginative concepts.

I’d just like some common way for us to be able to discuss the future of game storytelling.

Stray Thoughts

– I seem to have been beaten to the punch about creating a storytelling vocabulary. Ernest Adams tries to solve the interactive storytelling problem by laying down the smack on misguided preconceptions about what interactive storytelling can be. I’ve read through the article, while nodding my head in agreement, but have yet to really delve deep into his massive PDF thesis statement.

– Back on Gamasutra, the Death of LucasArts, once a premier interactive storytelling studio, sparks a few nostalgic reminiscence. It’s been a while since I played any of those, and I have fond memories of Full Throttle, and Monkey Island, but I wasn’t playing games when these were at the height of their popularity. I feel like I may have missed out.

– I really hope that I’ll be writing more in the blog, if I’m not too distracted by building netrunner decks and constantly losing on OCTGN. 😦 I need netrunner tips.

 


Readings – Oct 18th.

Shamelessly stealing an idea from Rockpapershotgun, and compiling a list of useful readings that are tangentially related to the idea of games and narratives. Also, as a way for me to maintain a level of interest in upkeeping this blog.

Let us sally forth.

– Always nice to see any article that expounds on the craft of writing, whether it be games or any other medium capable of a narrative.
– My not quite heterosexual love for Tim Schafer extends into posting any resplendent interview with him regarding game design and business. This one, not quite so resplendent but still the prospect of 4 Tim Schafer-esque games and the hope that this sort of biz practice will keep Double Fine doubly fine is nice.
– I guess this would fall under pretentious soul searching in justifying our chosen obsessions, or any other discussion that can be routinely accused of being art with a capital A, but it’s interesting nontheless for perspective sake. Like art, it’s only really useful if you’re at all interested in it.
– It also warrants a lengthier reply, elsewhere. I’m not entirely certain of Ms Alexander’s assertions and I’ve been kicking around my own ideas of what game design, narratives and the relationship to players means for quite a bit. I don’t have anything concrete just yet, but to append on Bartle’s assertion that games should say something, I disagree. On the other hand, I do think that games could be about something, which is a whole different kettle of fish.

The last is especially important, as I work towards some level of thesis and understanding about narrative design within a gaming system.