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 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.


This is a triumph.

No… not really.

Portal requires a ton of lateral thinking in creating the levels and the puzzle. I gotta say it was incredibly challenging and fun to try and dream up one. Not only that, the established aesthetic style allows for a lot less thinking in terms of trying to give the place a decent look. But man, what started as somewhat cool and difficult puzzles get incredibly streamlined through play-testing.

I like my first room a lot better than my second room. It feels a lot more portal like in the use of the basic puzzles and some lateral thinking that might get some people on initial play throughs. It’s not entirely difficult just a little different. Interestingly, this room I manage to cobble together in about a night, sans all the polishing and decals. A couple more days for some changes to the playtest. For instance, that window in the center wasn’t there previously, but players didn’t know what the 2nd level button (not pictured) did. So I moved it around and showed that the button lowered a block on the ceiling. Added indicator lights to make the point. If anything, the window makes the room look nicer.

The room originally started with the idea of playing around with the physics of the boxes. This particular room is inspired by map that can be found on myaperturelabs, Boxytricky to be exact. It took some work to get the drop right. A note on playing with physics in source; it almost always doesn’t work out like you imagine it to be. Sometimes it does, and you get to fling boxes with a satisfying tinkle through glass.

Like this puzzle. But when the physics doesn’t work the way you want it, you get this.

It took me the better part of a week just to get the numbers of the pulley weight system right. No wait… scratch that. I never got it right. Had to jury-rigged a solution based on an excellent suggestion by Kian Boon. Man, if I know to do that earlier, I possibly could have spent more time working on making a bigger level, or coming up with more puzzles. But after messing around with the physics, I got seriously fatigued. Before this, I was also using spheres, because they had a smaller footprint. But those are incredibly unpredictable in their bounce and control. It was tedious, even after a whole mess of practice.

I’ll probably try to make more portal levels later, especially once Portal 2 comes out.

What’s so social about social games?

Industry answers: “What is a social game?”

To toss my tiny hat into the game, my answer would be any game that encourages meaningful social interaction within the game’s mechanics and dynamics, more so if the main dynamic of the game relies on meaningful social interaction. To that end, a couch session of multiplayer streetfighter IV would fit the bill; (just as the random player selector of arcades) so would dungeoning and raiding in WoW, a co-op game of Borderlands, a round of Munchkin and Bridge. These are games (or sections of games) that ultimately rely on meaningfully interacting with other players to get the best out of the game. Farmville and Cityville don’t count. There’s no meaningful interaction beyond treating your friend’s list like a resource.

I think a better question to ask is what games fulfil our social need?

A lot of time, the definition of the current crop of social games boils down to casual games where we play on social media networks. The term did derive from the type of games typically seen on Facebook, while the buzzword social media was being bandied around. It seems games on these social media just borrowed the terminology without really applying the meaning of the word social. I don’t think the limited interaction afforded by the majority of facebook games count as social. At best, the make use of the social interaction of facebook itself, rather than bake it into the gameplay.

Games fulfil a certain entertainment need, or perhaps an activity need. We play them because they’re a good use of our time, we don’t feel like we’re wasting it by playing games. Whether this is through the experience of something new, the sense of reward that a game confers, (realistically or falsely) or because it allows us to interact with others of like-minded interest. The latter point is the most important for me, seeing as how the majority of my closest friends came from gaming, and gaming is still a conversational touchstone or activity that I can use to get to know a stranger better.

I’m not sure where social games fall into this. I don’t know of anyone who talks about farmville, or cityville outside of playing it besides industry types. I do know of people who talk about awesome moments in Call of Duty or Starcraft whether they self identify as gamers or not. I know guys who discuss in-depth detail about football manager, while shying from being labelled as hardcore gamers. The games are conduit while these people exercise a certain basic human need, the need to socialize; to communicate with out fellow man. To just shoot the breeze and feel like someone is listening and actually cares about what we’re saying.

The industry likes to debate about the social aspect of the games that’s currently in vogue,* (read: getting really popular) because, well, they’re trying to figure out how to capitalize on this. That’s great, but I think we’re approaching this backwards. Maybe we should stop looking at the games first and wondering whether they are social games or not. Maybe we can start looking to people and society and wondering what sort of games we can create that would fulfill certain social needs.

Game Design Philosophy Guidelines.

This isn’t so much a ruleset and several thoughts i’ve accumulated over the years as I consider the prospect of being a game designer.

This is more like the underlying fundamentals that I begin with as I think up game designs and begin to write more game design documents. Apart from the other stuff I’ve learnt such as the Mechanics / Dynamics / Aesthetic triptych, this is more an ongoing philosophy I’m building as I think about games. It’s mutable as I learn more, discuss more and get feedback, but I think it’s a good framework to consider when thinking of games and the stories I can tell with those games.


1> Games are a series of interesting decision. – Soren Johnson.

Games are a unique interactive medium. Making decisions is the method in which the game engages the player into its system. These decisions can range from anywhere between risk vs reward scenario, what to do next, where to go. The player is essentially trading time for a sense of reward in the game, and that sense of reward derives from making the right decisions at moments in the game. I don’t think this means that all decisions have to be big, hugely consequential decisions, just that those decisions are well defined within the context of the game and clear about the general outcome, if not the entire outcome.

We have to make decisions in games, that how we interact with them. If it’s just instinctual rote activity, the game becomes boring. WoW, for instance, has a fairly rote pattern of skill use after some time. Playing as such renders the game boring to all but the most masochist of players. But ask any wow fan, and they don’t cite the combat system as why they play. The decisions to be made in Wow is the efficient use of time to get the best gear, through whichever points are in vogue. The combat is just a method in which to get there. The skills are not the interesting decisions, it where to do with those skills that’s the interesting bit. Games without any interesting decisions are less interactive, because there’s little for the player to be engaged with.

These decisions also lead me to the second point; in the process of considering these decisions, players should be frustrated a little, because …

2> Games are the art of enjoyable frustration. – Andrew P. Mayer

Gamers want to be challenged. That’s not that controversial a statement when we realize the appetite for challenge differs among people. Some are content to be challenged with the concept of time, simply figuring the most efficient amounts of click to get to get  a sense of rewards, (i.e. Facebook games, Diablo). The frustration lies in the sense of time they’re fighting against. Others prefer a more mental challenge, or an uncompromising system that punishes minute mistakes, (i.e. Starcraft, Demon’s Soul) Games as enjoyable frustration demonstrate a safe environment in which we can conquer challenges and thus feel in control of our situations. It’s that rewarding feeling of beating a challenge that often more enjoyable than just a series of activities. The frustration comes in trying to beat the challenge.

Frustration isn’t about battling horrible UI, or poorly implemented design decisions, it’s about finding a careful balancing act between not giving players that easy a time such that they feel they’re wasting it, and enough of a leeway, and an idea on how to beat the challenge. This frustration is important, because it’s a key part of how players experience the game, and a key part of how they tell themselves they’ve conquered a particular game. That’s their personal narrative, which leads to…

3> The player’s narrative is more important than the game’s narrative

The stories we best remember are the ones that we can best relate to. In games, this often means the stories of what happened to us.

This doesn’t mean games can’t tell a story, it simply means that games are much better at making players feel as if it’s their story, not that they are watching someone else’s. Games can often provide the narrative tools in which players form their own stories. In civilization, it’s how your civilization rose up from the ancient age to conquer the world, in starcraft, it’s how you fended off the zerg rush and pounded your opponent with mass reapers. When we can insert our own imagination into the story, when the game supports our telling of tale, we can identify with the game better.

What’s difficult is getting the players to relate to that story. Supposing I want to tell a story that more epic, that touches of much greater ideals than good versus bad, or corporations are corrupt, and aliens are evil. It’s tougher to get an audience to relate to material they may not always be familiar with. Hegelian dialetics is more often than not going to fly over the heads of the average gamer, but yet seems to be one of the core tenets of Fallout: New Vegas. Similarly, Planescape explored the existential anguish of a man who has lived a thousand lives. Which of us gets a chance to do so.

What game can do is present it in the form of the player’s story, yet still introducing the player to these ideals, through whichever narrative tool a game has at its disposal.* Games are suited to this, we have an enraptured audience when the game is good. We can take the time to explore some concepts, because …

4> Games don’t need to say something, but they should be about something

This one is more a refutation of Richard’s Bartel’s original assertion that games must say something. I don’t games can say anything in particular. By the nature of their interactivity, they can say multiple things about a single subject. Games, unique to any other medium can react to the player’s input, and thus create branching paths, multiple outcomes, and various story threads. It isn’t limited to a linear narrative.

This is a semantic argument, as I’m not saying games can’t say anything, but that they can say multiple things on a single subject. Essentially, be about something, but be about the multiple perspective on a subject. Take for instance Brenda Brathwaite’s Train. The game itself doesn’t say anything. As a collection of mechanics, sans the knowledge of its reason, it’s a fairly simple game about transporting resources. The game doesn’t really say anything until it’s designer mentions what its about.

In other words, “art reflects the spectator, not the artist.”

Stray Thoughts

*- I should probably try and categorize some ways in which games can tell stories. Cutscenes are a perennial favourite, as is the level mise-en-scene. But I’m fairly certain that it’s worthwhile to sit down and think about some other ways in which games present a story from the designers point of view, and contrast it when it’s a more player owned story. Maybe that’s a series of posts I can begin.

– There’s always the case of a lot of this stuff sounded more awesome in my head than when I actually wrote them out. Maybe I really should be writing this late at night, when I’m not neurotic about my word choices.

– Interesting decisions tend to be a huge umbrella. Solving puzzles are composed of interesting decisions. What if I were to do this there, etc. The decisions are always what do I do, what can I do, and what tools do I have to do it.