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Push Back

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about games that push back.

It sort of started with playing a lot more board games. Specifically, Eldritch Horror, Robinson Crusoe and Firefly. These games are largely co-operative, in that players are expected to work together against the board and the scenario to achieve their goals. Every turn, the player can take a few actions to advance their board state and when that’s done, the game will reveal events through its decks. Players will then have to deal with the revealed events that can range from mild setback to pants-shittingly awful for the unfortunate.

It’s fantastic. The game can go swimmingly at one point, the final goal just turns within sight, and then a revealed card can send players scrambling for a solution, cursing their luck and just moaning at the unfairness of the system. More importantly it’s fun. It’s us versus the board, and the board is winning, and its creates the kind of memorable emotional pangs that feed directly into the way we remember the stories of these games.

Eldritch Horro

Modern Video games don’t often do this well. A large part of video games seems to be the ever-increasing player skills and resources. The more you play, the more loot you gain, the more the game becomes less challenging. Balance in games is often tuned so the game is just that difficult, enough of a challenge for your current power level, but never bad enough to send you scrambling. The essential trajectory of the modern video game is ever forward, ever upward, until the power cap is reached and the game often becomes boring.

Expansions then just raise the power cap.

I’d like a modern open world game that pushed back at the player that reacts to the player’s actions and activities and challenges his growth through the world. Change the world such it’s rarely safe, do it with events that react to the players actions within that world.

There are a few that sort of do this already though.

 

Shadow of Mordor hints in this direction with the Nemesis system, even as the system is limited to the Orcish warchiefs. Killing warchiefs moves others higher into the hierarchy, increasing their powers and abilities. It was a great story generator, as we watched the enemy landscape change based on our actions. It’s a pity the rest of the world was so bland even after the Tolkien make-over. Nothing else happened in the world.

 

Don’t Starve is another game that pushed the player the deeper and longer he got into it. Changing seasons and event spawns made surviving a challenge even after the player managed a rudimentary shelter and some food. If anything, I wish the game allowed for a brief save point at deeper intervals, because once you get the hang of the systems, the first couple of days is a slog.

 

Alien: Isolation is another that pushes the player well. It’s a horror game and understands that a key part of a horror game is making the player incredibly vulnerable. Even as it gave players more options and tools to deal with its challenges, it would shift the balance of power back against the player. Ben Sones writes a pretty good post about it. It’s a shame the game couldn’t keep it out throughout and shits the ending.

 

Previously I spoke about how stories can arise from the push and pull of actions, that the player can feel that the story is unique his own depending on how the game responds to his actions.

 

When we were playing Eldritch horror, it did feel like it was our story, and every time we played those games, our stories were different. Sometimes we’d succeed in preventing the rise of the elder god, even if we had to fight crippled midgets in San Francisco to do so, or unearth ancient artifacts from the amazons. Sometimes we failed and Astaroth devoured the world, even if we had accumulated enough loot to buy over Shanghai and enough magic to lightning strike monsters from across the globe.

We hated the system sure, and we also thought it unfair. But it was fun, and it was meaningful. It meant we had to consider our actions, weigh the risks of whatever actions we took. When the game gets hard, it was challenging cos it felt like we were pitting our wits against it, wondering what sort of horror it would visit upon us if we were to choose poorly.

And all in this, I wonder how we can incorporate that feeling into a modern AAA game, or whether the audience is even there for it. I imagine it might be able to work, in something like the Far Cry series, where the basics and fundamentals of the game lends itself to this constant push and pull between the player and it’s main antagonist.

Man, I really hope i get to write it down at some point.

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My games of 2011.

2011 was a massive banner year for games. Triple A titles and Indies alike got released in droves and came in such high quality it boggles the time, and made demands what little free time I had to even manage playing, trying, or sampling all the big and small games. There are a couple I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to try before figuring out this list, but as it stands, this lists represents what I thought were the best games of 2011, and the kind of games I’ll be learning from now that I’m an actual designer of such.

In Order

1. Batman: Arkham City

The Dark Knight Descends!

I’m the Goddamn Batman.

Few other games will truly re-create the immersion of being a superhero, flying high and pummeling faces. Arkham City takes the best of Batman’s lore, scatters its stories around an open world bursting with life, and sends you under the Caped Crusader’s cowl to do everything that he would do, to keep Gotham safe. The stories were a bit much, dueling their narrative threads for attention, but when focused, it told a superb Batman story, (with a few comic bookish handwavium applied) and ties it all up in one fantastic ending. If anything, Arkham City is one of the few Batman stories to really understand Batman and Joker’s relationship, then manages to build a smart game around it.

What we all can learn: How to do an ending. The start of its final mission to the final climatic, emotionally resonant end, and even the credits sequence is a testament to finishing games with a Bang, and an encore. All games should bow out with such pizzazz, even if the game opens up for you to wander about freely later on.

2. Dark Souls

He's not the Goddamn Batman.

You will die a lot.

Your sense of achievement in Dark Souls is hard won. This is a difficult game and many will give up in frustration long before they begin to discover the nuances of the game’s finely tuned systems. It’s a game that isn’t afraid to show you failure, and serve it up alongside a steady helping of distress, melancholy and tension, because it knows nothing is as sweet as victory in the face of overwhelming odds. And while’s there’s so much to be said about the games difficulty, and what you can learn from it, a few words must be said to celebrate the its massive achievement in world building and level design. Most of which will go unseen as gamers give up in frustration.

What we all can learn: No, not the difficulty, but the Level Design. Dark Souls world is a labyrinth of inter-connecting corridors, dungeons, castles, underground lakes, hollowed trees, swamps and cathedrals. It’s all so wonderfully build as a world to explore, hiding its story bits in its architecture and mood, while providing a constant stream of surprises and awe around every corner. It takes what Zelda tries to do with its world, and actually creates a fantastical realm that’s a wonder to behold, even as it does its best to kill you.

3. Skyrim

Seriously, no one screenshot will do this game justice.

I’m the goddamn Dovahkin.

Pretty much every major games journalist writes about the massive scale of adventuring Skyrim provides. “A narrative loom“; one where stories of all kinds spring forth from the world and systems Bethesda has created. A place unlike any other, of dynamic, personal experiences and the beauty of its vision. Yes, Skyrim is an stellar achievement in games and in world creation. But Bethesda still has someway to go in figuring out the nuts and bolts of game systems. Improvements to the combat system will not go amiss, and deeper quests will perhaps create more emotional resonance. Still, it’s great that Skyrim has done so well. For awhile, RPGs looked like they might die to a hail of gunfire from the pseudo-military shooters, Skyrim has blown that perception apart, dragonborn style.

What we all can learn: Content. No one other game will have as much content, from epic quests, to little side stories in the world, as Skyrim. And not any one player will see them all, but there will be those who try. Sometimes, it’s enough to create little details that only one guy will see. Cos hopefully when he does, he’ll shout how cool it is to all his friends, and it’ll get viral.

4. Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings

I'm the goddamn Witcher

2011 really is the year of RPGs. The Witcher 2 represents the other end of spectrum, a game which puts you in the role of a single character, and tells a fairly focused story. For all that Skyrim does not do, The Witcher 2 trumpets. Fascinating deep characters, nuanced complex stories, and choice and consequence in the story that actually changes the story as you play it, The Witcher 2 best represents the kind of storytelling that doesn’t pander to your average gamer crowd, instead, confidently populating with characters that might be hard to relate to, but fully fleshed out in their idiosyncrasies. Still, like Bethesda, CDProjecky Red can polish up a little of its game systems so they don’t always interfere with the story they’re trying to tell. Also, Kudos to the Witcher for being one of the few games where the confrontation with the final boss can be dealt with by interesting dialog.

What we all can learn: Sex scenes. If games are trying to be adult, then we should bring along a sense of class and actual understanding of intimacy. For all its grit, grim, backstabbing and monsters, Witcher’s sex scene and the enduring relationship between its principal leads, seems to be able to accurately portray what an adult relationship might be like. Well, an adult relationship in a fantasy land at least.

5. Shogun 2

None of them wanna be the last samurai.

So not a shameful display.

Strategy games are less story-prone that action adventure and RPGs, but Shogun 2 does a stellar job in creating the tableau for which your Daimyo’s rise to power takes place. The Total War series may ostensibly be about those land battles, armies of ashigaru charging across the field while Samurais stand poised for battle; but a finely tuned campaign, with its RPG-lite characters and wonderful Japanese Aesthetic manage to create the sense that I really am grabbing power in 17th century Japan.

What we all can learn: History. Few other games mine the majesty and depth of human history for their games to take place; Shogun 2 revels in Japan’s rich medieval lifestyle, abstracting what it can to its game and writing reams of words otherwise in its wiki. Shogun 2 has been one massively enjoyable history lesson and its a wonder it’s not requirement playing for any student studying 17th century Japan.

6. Bastion

We're all friendly now, but for how long?

Kid’s got a story to tell, he’s gonna tell it.

Who would have thought Cormac McCarthy could have inspired a computer game. A transcendent synthesis of writing, music and art; Bastion best represents that games need not be epic undertakings of multiple hours to be influential and memorable. Perhaps it’s not the best game, it’s hacking and slashing are enjoyable enough, but it’s a game with more on its mind that just creating another dungeon crawl. It’s a game about uncovering lost, a minimalist story in creating history as economically as possible, a game more concerned about the mood and emotion of its audience that the thrills and spills of action and adventure. It’s a rare experience of gaming, music and story and it was exactly the right length for it.

What we all can learn: Among other things, how a soundtrack does the heavy lifting in setting the mood. We remember songs; the best kind latch on to the reptilian part of our brain and creates emotions we weren’t aware we could feel. Bastion takes that, marries it to the poetic style of its narration and creates a game that artfully bittersweet, about love and lost and sacrifice.

7. Dead Space 2

In space, no one can hear you scream

Boo!

I’m honestly surprised to have liked Dead Space 2 as much as I did. Sure, its relentlessly bleak and gregariously gory. It takes its best cues for gore-porn horror movies with shock tactics and superficial religious iconography for some supernatural depth that at best, it’s B-grade horror movie with guns. But damn if it isn’t incredibly well done B-grade. Dead Space 2 is no System Shock, but it’s confident in its horror story, and it tells it well. It also seems to understand that real horror works best when your character is vulnerable. Isaac may be armed to the teeth with futuristic weapons, but its still a hard fight for your sanity, and peace of mind as your wander through the flesh-soaked corridors of Saturn.

What we call learn: UI? I guess not every game has to be an object lesson in design and storytelling; some can just be wonderfully crafted.

8. Atom Zombie Smasher

One last dot

Llama Bomb!

When’s there’s no story, no grand ambition in theme or aesthetic, and no massive undertaking in scope and content, and no experimental existential experiences; there’s just game design, pure design. Pure design is just play, and play is just fun. Atom Zombie Smasher is fun. Sure, it’s dripping with quirky retro style, sun-blast 60s music and pink freaking zombies, and yes, there’s some narrative thread about evacuating survivors from a zombie apocalypse, but all that’s background to carpet bombing zombies, or planning strike teams moving from street to street, or just funneling zombies into mine-laced avenues. Fun!

What we call can learn: Sometimes, a clever quirky art style can do quite a bit of heavy lifting in setting the right mood for some fun. I’m happier when something is stylistically unique; at the very least, it’s something you don’t see anywhere else.

Honorable Mentions

I haven’t had a chance to try “To the Moon” just yet, but I’ve heard many wonderful things. Similarly, Saints Row the Third sits out this list cos I have never played any of the previous Saint’s Row and have long since burnt out on Grand Theft Auto. But I hear great things of pure fun and will someday get to it. Also, Rayman: Origins I’ll probably love, so I’ll get to it soon enough. But for games I’ve played that deserve a mention; Driver; San Francisco is this year’s other surprise hit. Not since Burnout have I enjoyed a driving game. Anno 2070 would have been on the list for the amount of hours it has since sucked from me, but I don’t know what else to write about it. Orcs Must Die is the only tower defense type game I’ll play and enjoy, and Sonic: Generations made me enjoy Sonic again, and Portal 2 probably deserves a space up there for great writing, comedy and interesting mechanics, just that the puzzle part of the game was somewhat disappointing.

2012: I’m looking forward to Bioshock: Infinite, Mass Effect 3, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning and one other game, which I can’t really talk about.


Foxglove Copperfield: My very own game.

So it’s done.

Yeah we did!

Steampunk Heroine for hire.

You can download it here.

It took us 5 months, from concept to actual game, but we did it. Anyone who has a steam account and Half Life 2 can download the mod here, install it and play. Then tell us what you think. It’s unlikely we can change anything at this stage, but it’s still good to hear feedback nonetheless. The game has been submitted to IGF and while some of us are awaiting work, and others still searching, I can at least admit to being nervous about how it’ll do there. It’ll be nice if the game gets some recognition or mention, not to mention awards, as one can always hope.

Still, I really want to commend the team on the work that we put in to make the game. Especially the artists; Aidan and Wilson. Without the two of which, we would never really have made much of anything. Sure, we’d have code, and ideas, but it’ll look like crap and no one would play the game. I realize it was only the two of them who had to make the entire game look good and perhaps some corners were cut, or some production issues stood in the way of really making great art, but I do wanna say that Aidan and Wilson were two of the best artists I’ve worked with.

What did I say about the artists being awesome?

I’m not sure what else to write about the 5 months. It was entertaining, educational, frustrating, exciting, and a whole ton of other adjectives to be used all at once. I’ll admit that when the idea first came to me, to make a game out of a Rube Goldberg Machine (based on Ok Go’s “This too shall Pass.“), that we weren’t really sure how we were going to implement it. We knew that we didn’t want to do an incredible machine style game, nor a 2D top-down puzzler. Mashing it to a 3rd person action-adventure may have been our boldest decision, but it’s also the one that’s caused us the most critiques. Yes, the camera system could be better. Yes, we can tweak the main character’s animation to better suit the environments. Yes, it results in some tedium in puzzle fail-states. It’s cool, it’s all a learning experience.

We did get the satisfaction of setting up complex rube goldberg traps and watching them interact with the robots.

In anycase, I’m proud of the game. Proud that we pulled off the idea, and proud of the team. Here’s hoping we get something at IGF.

The YouTube video.


No man is a Dead Island

I was supposed to write this a couple of weeks ago.

But then Dark Souls came out, and Batman straight after. To say nothing of the reservists in between and the final touches of Foxglove Copperfield: IGF Hopeful that is finally finished. (More on that later, once DigiPen puts the website out.) Also, there really isn’t a lot to say about Dead Island. It’s a pretty game, and it does some of its zombie dread well, and some of its game systems well, but it’s very rough around the edges, there are some ideas that seem in congruent with the world it wants to build, the story itself is bad b-grade material and the characters, apart from one, are broadly, and vilely written.

I don't really care about any of them.

Dead Island has two things going for it though. The first is one of the best environmental renders and re-creation of a tropical island paradise, and the slums of a city. My main joy in the game comes from wandering the streets of Banoi, the vacated suites of the resort and trudging through the humid, morbid jungle. It’s a fantastic place to be, if it wasn’t populated by zombies of varying difficulties. See, here’s where Dead Island drops the ball. They build a great big playground of sorts in its three main locations, (and one side area), but its quests gives you little reason to traipse around all of it. In fact, the quests mostly sends you cross-map to one particular locale then repeats that locale several times in its side quests. Huge swaths of the country are left relatively unexplored, unless you’re like me and just wander in any direction you feel like it. Even then, Dead Island drops the ball there, because there’s very little reason to wander off. Sure you can hunt for resources, or gather supplies, but you really don’t have to. It’s respawning mechanic means you can game the system for anything you need if you just load between fast-travel areas.

It's an island, but is it alive?

The second thing Dead Island has going for it, is that the zombies are actually dangerous to fight. These aren’t your garden variety, mow and plow them sort of zombies. These zombies are dangerous, and they come in an interesting sort of variety. I suppose if a zombie game failed at doing zombies, then the game would really have been terrible. As it is, it got the zombies and the location right, so it’s merely a mediocre game.

But the real reason I’m not singing the game any praises is the story. It’s vile, vile, badly paced, badly played story. Writing that’s cliched as it is offensive. Characters I have little desire to work with, let alone watch cutscenes of and a meta-plot that makes little sense and seems to lose direction half way through. It starts out conventionally enough. You are the survivor of a zombie attack, and a couple of you guys have to make it through the island, find out what’s wrong, survive and escape. The early game starts out alright enough, with a group of survivors tasking you to gather enough supplies to last them a while. And I guess 2 cans of tinned food will feed 8 people long enough. In Act II, you’re tasked again to head into the city to look for supplies, where you’ll find survivors, and help them hunt for supplies and then ACT III sends you to the jungle, where, again…, gather, survivors, supplies. The point has been made.

No... really.

Dead Island could have done a better job simulating a post-zompocalyptic wasteland with its quests. A few are interesting enough, such as the gangs taking over the police station, but little else is done with that particular idea. I get that it’s primarily a zombie mashing game, so there’s little room for other types of game mechanics, but the quests could have taken on more flavor than find supplies, and do favors for people without sketching out what other ideas might occur post-zombie attack. Act III at least has the players doing something beyond hunting for supplies, but the entire laboratory area seemed half-assed. There’s a good idea in there about the tribal origins of the virus, but the game blows right by that to send you to the prison.

Oh god, the prison. A tight, linear dreary corridor that goes on forever where you are tasked to help… the… survivors… find… supplies. Dead Island is just one more game with disappointing final acts. Thank goodness Batman: Arkham City broke that slump, and broke it magnificently.

Long story short, I’m glad Dead Island for its area design and environmental renders right, and I was satisfied with the zombie fights for most of the game. Yet it’s a game that left a sour taste in my mouth because of it’s pacing, end-game design, narrative and rough mechanics. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anyone but the most ardent of zombie fans, or PC gamers who like a little Fallout 3 rpg-lite. I don’t regret the game, but I’m glad that I played Dark Souls and Batman next.

Stray Thoughts

– I really should give Dead Island some more thought in how to improve the quests, or the overall story telling in the game to make use of the environments and the locations. I suppose I would if I didn’t want to think about anything else.

– The respawning mechanics really breaks the illusion of you as a survivor scrounging around for supplies. Here’s where game mechanics and narrative fight and game mechanics won. I’m not so sure it should have. They might have been able to keep re-spawn points for several items at certain locales, or tweak the economy somewhat for it not to matter so much. It comes down to a rough system build in that works when you’re playing, but could definitely use a lot of work.

That trailer was really good wasn’t it? They should had the director consult on the story.


Designing stories for games: A thinkening! Part I

The basic actions of a game is the vocabulary of its story.

There, I wrote that down. It’s been jostling in my head for a quite a bit. I’ve been thinking about the fundamentals of how to design and write stories for games. I’ve come up with a few basic thoughts that I might expand into a series of posts, if Skyrim, Batman, L4D2HK and work don’t get to me first. Otherwise, let’s hope this is a first in a series of ideas on how to approach designing a game with the kind of narrative elements that I love, as well as understand how games communicate their ideas to players.

More so than any other medium, games trumps interactivity as its key differentiation for a story-telling medium. Game stories are stories in which the audience (player) can do stuff. The cutscenes don’t matter, neither does the walls of text detailing the history of the world nor the way the architecture hints at alien technology. The most immediate story to players is the actions they take in progressing through the game. Those actions are the basic building blocks of the story. Whether it’s killing zombies by the droves, or deciding which building to construct, which technology to research; what we do is part of the unfolding story. Everything else is context.

[Picture of Shogun 2: managing a dynasty]

Stories are essentially a series of events. Backstory, characters, details and style are the  world in which these events take place. They help the audience better understand the significance of their actions and how they impact the world. A narrative is how it all comes together as a experience for the audience. For a game, each action that a player makes is an event, however minor. That action is the player’s own, and while it may be similar to another player’s in mechanic, the act of taking that action is simply down to player pressing a button.

What are the kind of actions a player can take; that’s where the game designer comes in. They design the rules and the actions that a player is allowed. Whether its shooting a bad guy, or fiddling with your weapon to get it customized to your liking; the designer is building the kind of vocabulary a player can use to craft his story. The more actions that a player can do, the more expansive his story becomes. RPGs are usually lauded as the greatest storied games, because they give players a ton of options to do stuff. Other games limit those actions to what makes sense in the overall story they want to tell to the players. You can’t really customize weapons in Call of Duty because it would detract from the roller-coaster ride of a military techno-thriller the game wants to put you in.

So it comes down to how players approach these actions and how the designer can define these actions in the greater context. It leads to a ton of questions the designer has if he begins to consider the game story at all.

  • What kind of actions will the player be doing?
  • Are those actions fun, in of themselves?
  • Are individual actions complementary, do they build up to a larger story even if some are less fun than others?
  • What sort of context can be applied to support those actions?
  • Are there better mechanics to achieve the same sort of action?
  • How basic are these actions?
  • How challenging are they?
I suppose it’ll be a useful exercise to take some games and break them down into their individual actions. Complex games of course have a ton, so the question there is whether all the actions the player can take at any given point in time useful in constructing the overall story of the world. Does any individual action somehow break the suspension of disbelief in the story that’s being presented. Do they players even understand the actions required to take.
I’m getting rhetorical.
[Starcraft]
Still, it’s pretty cool to think about it this way. Every story needs a proper vocabulary to be told. Once that’s establish, we can start organizing the most common words, or figuring out just what is it we, as designers, want the player to do and excise all the cruft that might get in the way of the player crafting his own awesome story of how he’s moving through the world. It’ll still be our world, but if we do it right, it’ll be the player’s story, and if we do it incredibly well, we can set up emotional arcs that’ll be the player’s own. And that’s the goal of a story, to open up the audience’s mind to the possibilities of other experiences.
Then maybe he’ll tell that story to others.

Stray Thoughts

– An expansive story isn’t necessarily a good thing. Consistency is a quality that a good story should strive for. Just because a player can do a ton of actions, doesn’t mean they fit one another to build a consistent story. Call of Duty is the kind of game that limits the player’s action to just moving and shooting. Yet they surround that with enough context to make that moving and shooting impact the story at large, while still delivering what they want. It’ll be an odd sort of story for Call of Duty if a player could wander off in the favela and get a burrito.

– I keep wondering how much I can take this thought and the rest of my notes are a jumbled mess of jots and scribbles. One in particular is taking the fundamental concept of scene building as change and conflict and applying it to how actions are designed for the player. The actions the player takes are usually to overcome an obstacle after all. Even if it’s as mundane as travelling from place to place.

– Man, finding pictures for an abstract post is hard. I’ll probably retroactively add some later since I rather put this up first.

– The ease of those actions matter. As a pretty heavyweight comment came to me today; there’s a fine line where the actions the designers ask the players to do break their suspension of disbelief because of the restrictions placed upon the player. We all know some of these. Like why it takes several decades for an early scout in Civ IV to climb a hill, or how certain characters can just carry so much loot. Where’s the line to be drawn that the story breaks down? Honestly, I don’t know. I suspect that comes from play-testing, hoping your audience aren’t all anal retentive moaners who like to feel clever at pointing out how games are inconsistent with real life, and designing a mechanic fun enough that they don’t actually notice.

– I’ll break down one game I’m playing now. Dead Island: Hacking and Slashing Zombies, rummaging through luggage, managing inventory, driving, walking around a post-apoc island, eating fruit, stomping on heads, watching cutscenes. How does it all form into a story. Verdict: Next Post!


The Three Cs; Character, Conflict and Change

I’ve been trying to figure out what makes a story interesting to me.

Beyond the structural issues, beyond the skill of the prose, screen-writing, witty banter and scene setting; there are three aspects of a story that when missing, makes me feel as if the story is hollow. Character, conflict and change. These are three story concepts that have to be strong, before the story even gets structured and put to pen.

Character

There’s always a character at the center of the story. It’s their motivation that drives the story. Every character has a life need. The life need is something that the character wants, whether he realizes it or not, something that he requires in his life to change it. It’s not necessarily something that he actually wants, but it’s something missing in his life that will satisfy his story. The most obvious and cliche is the search for love, the life need being the desire to not be alone. Another cliche is revenge, as the main drive of a large number of story. Others include a search of identity, a sense of belonging, or the need to survive.

We have to dig deep into the character’s desire when the story is being told. The usual rules of show, not tell apply of course. A character often isn’t consciously aware of what his inner desire is, and even those that are, aren’t always aware of why exactly those desires motivate him or her. What the story does know, is that this inner desire will drive the character throughout the story, until it is permanently quenched, either by death, or fulfillment.

Every character has this, even the side characters. Stories are all the more richer for multiple character across its cast having their own life need. Everyone is a hero of their own story after all. These motivation may not necessarily be understandable to the general audience. Sometimes, it’s better if it isn’t immediately obvious or relatable. The story then has a chance to build the character, to invite the audience into understanding what drives this character. The more primal the need, the more audience can relate to the need, whether they themselves have felt it at one point or the other.

This need can then be complicated. The desire to be alone is universal, given exceptions, but what the character does in pursuit of this goal can give the character life. Does he built robots, to stave off loneliness by automating conversation. Does he befriend animals, or hit on every girl in the city. Is his loneliness a result of abandonment issues, or a sense of lost identity. Everyone can understand the desire to not be alone, the depth of why that desire drives a character is what sets him apart, and makes him universal to the audience.

When characters life need intersect, they become allies. When they go against one another, it becomes conflict.

Conflict

Conflict is the theme of the story.

We come for the conflict, that’s usually what makes the story interesting. Is it aliens invading, a giant monsters rampaging, a girl we cannot get, or a murderer we must stop. That’s what story usually is to most people. Who are we fighting, what must we overcome and how do we overcome it.

Conflict is context. It is what builds the plot, since conflict drives most of the action. The characters may have their own desires, wants and needs, but the conflict of the story is what’s stopping them from getting it.

When conflict is build from theme, it can symbolize greater ideas, making abstract concept relatable to an audience. The fight against alien invasion signifies man’s tenacity for survival. The desire to run away might signify the problems of a broker home. Since theme is what the story is about, conflict is a way to highlight that. Interesting themes can produce interesting conflicts. Good vs evil is a common theme, and is the basis for a lot of stories.

Conflict can be between characters signifying different ideals, (Xavier and Magneto), between man and his environment (Twister), man and the unknown (Horror movies). In the best cases, these opposing forces are agents to greater theme and the conflict is brought forth as a way to externalize those themes.

But a good conflict is essential to a story. A hero is only as interesting as the villain he fights, and a story is only as good as the conflict we must overcome.

Change

Change is irrevocable.

It’s is the resolution of conflict brought about by the actions of the characters in the story. Good change doesn’t come from nowhere, (dues Ex Machina), it comes from the action of the players in the story.

It’s the moment where the character and conflict come to a head, and where the events or character will change from here on out. It’s the emotional gut-punch, or the joyous epiphany, or the tragic consequence of all the actions prior. Whatever it is, it is irreversible and it will forever inform the characters and conflict from this moment on.

The change has to be important and it has to be tied into the theme of the story. It may not resolve the central conflict, but it moves it towards a greater understanding of how to resolve the conflict.

Change is cartharsis.

It’s when we feel the buildup of tension release itself; the moment when the guy gets the girl, the monster’s weakness is discovered, or when the hero reaches his epiphany. It can even be when the hero dies, or the girl is lost forever, or the villain finally achieves his plan. Whatever it is, it will radically change the underlying suspense. Good change affects how we fell about the story. It’s whether the story was worth the time or not. Audience may come for the conflict, and they because of the characters, but they love the story because of the promise of change.

When it does change, they will feel their time with the story well invested.

I’ve rambled on enough, I think, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. There’s a 4th C in this write-up, though one that is less often talked about and more in-tuned with the idea of the craft than the concept. Consistency, stories have to consistent with regards to all the above. The conflict cannot be too varied, the character’s too unstructured, or the change too absurd and from nowhere. Consistency in applying these 3 C’s will bring out how they interact, and how the story can be developed to be not only interesting, but relevant and personal as well.


Be Witching.

A masterpiece.

Gorgeous, captivating, beautiful, sublime. I could sing praises of The Witcher 2 all article long, but that isn’t nearly as useful a thought as wanting to say that the Witcher 2 is a rarity in games, or any entertainment art form. A product of craft, passion, understanding, technical feats that doesn’t pander to the mainstream and isn’t afraid to treat its audience like adults.* It’s all because of the narrative. Here, it’s the story of Geralt of Rivia, the titular witcher of Andrzej Sapkowski fanstasy world.

You can plough one of them, maybe both. Geralt's nothing if not promiscuous.

The sheer power of the Withcher 2’s ability to transport you into its world lies in its details. The artistry and attention given to even the most minute of incidental bits that make up the world. Watch in rapture as the trebuchets in the opening scene wind down, then launch their payloads with a satisfying crunch. Wander amidst the morbid humidity of flotsam’s forests and admire the plant life that stirs beyond the walls. Witcher 2 is one of the few games that seems powered by the imagination of when fantasy audience read their first fantasy novel. When words were all we had to paint a world in which we might adventure, where rich characters populate, pursuing their agendas and charming their way through their misbegotten lives. Geralt’s adventures takes him cross country through the Northern Kingdoms, from the swampy hellhole of Flotsam to the battlefield camp of the Kaedwen army and into the catacombs of dead Dwarves. Each of these areas is crafted with precisions, from the colorfully fitting army uniforms to the weathered carvings of ancient tombs. As dreary and dangerous as it’s meant to be, the forest around Flotsam is one of the most colorful and beautiful places I’ve ever been to in a game. It used to be the stuff that can only be described in books, or imagined from ancient pixel art on computers, now brought into full HD glory.

War! What is it good for but breathtaking visuals in not one, but two acts. Witcher 2 goes through so many wars, past and present, and each is rendered beautifully.

More can be said about the writing of characters in the Witcher 2 as well. These are fully realized people, their agendas define the story and their actions force your choices. Witcher 2’s choice and consequences aren’t as nuanced as its prequel (more on that later)* but they’re much more defined by the people you interact with during the game. Kings, corporals, sorceress, secret agents, prostitutes. These are people inhabiting a world so dark that they often can only choose the hard choice just for a glimmer of light. Then they force you to do the same. Those choices, define the story, and they are so much more about the particular philosophies you hold about Geralt’s world, if not Geralt’s belief himself.

As the fantasy version of Batman, Geralt reserves the right to brood.

It’s a testament to the story that it can overcome the games many niggling details in the actual game design. Finicky Inventory management system, poorly balanced loot drop, and an often erratic combat system that seems inspired by the best parts of Demon’s Soul and Batman, but retaining many of the worst parts of both; Witcher 2 probably need some more time through playtest, preferably by testers not enamored with a masochistic sense of danger. Boss fights that are tuned to be either nigh impossible, or prone to cheesing as the only viable tactic, and a small mistake can cause Geralt to get stuck in geometry, or stun-locked to hell and a load game. I suppose it’s all part of the Witcher’s philosophy of treating its audience like adults. You made your mistake, now deal with it.

There’s so much to laud in the Witcher 2’s storytelling, and the story that it tells. How it plays upon themes of revenge and racism, of politics and conspiracies. By contrast, Bioware’s Dragon Age series is an amateur effort at best, in even reaching the depths that Witcher ploughs in search of hard truth about medieval life and monsters. So much effort in setting the right environment for the story to take place that Bioware almost never seems to pay attention to. Even the directing of cut-scenes and dialog comes with the sure hand of people who know what story they are telling, and just how well they are going to tell it.

I doubt there’s going to another game like the Witcher from a different studio. Like the game’s alchemy, this game seems to have only come from the right mixture of ingredients at CDprojeckt RED. I can’t hope that other studios take note and try to mature the games the way Witcher has done, partly because I still occasionally wonder about the general maturity of gaming audience at large, but mostly because I think that this sort of masterpiece can only come from a passion to make the game that they wanted to make, damn everything else. I can only hope they get Witcher 3 out as soon as possible. I want to follow Geralt’s story. For as satisfying a conclusion as they left the Witcher 2 at, they were wise enough to open new threads, dangling more bait for fish they’ve already caught.

Stray Thoughts

– I’m somewhat torn about the Choice and Consequence of Witcher 2 as opposed to the original. The first had you making choices you weren’t aware of until the consequence came to bite you far down the line. Far too late to reload a game. In contrast, 2’s choices seems obviously placed to change the course of the story and few consequences were results of small choices you made earlier on. On the other hand, these choices felt more epic in context, and tougher to make as the story progressed.

– Obviously the Act 1 choice changed the course of the story, but we’re never given much reason to choose Iorveth over Roche. Roche helped you escaped, is fighting for a proper cause, isn’t a complete dick or a rampant murderer. Why would anyone pick Iorveth other than to pursue more game content. On the other hand, I hear that Act II is much better in the Iorveth path. Sigh, I want to commend CDP for designing games with content you might not see the first time round, but I wished they had did a bit more work in making that choice more difficult.

– I also miss the original’s alchemy system, which might seem more finicky to some players, since it tasks you to managed each ingredient and their secondary properties. I can’t even managed the current version and can only hope that I don’t accidentally use up some rare ingredient in my mind-numbing button mash to get as many Zerrikanian Suns out as possible.

– Plough it all, that’s the new frak.

– On the other hand, as finicky as it was sometimes, I love the new combat system. I only wish there was more chances to go up against more monsters. Witcher 2 seemed to tune in only several really unique monster fights, and some of them were on the puzzle scale of game design as opposed to combat.

– The whole game makes me wish Dark Souls and Skyrim could be combined into one massive open-world combat simulator. Just build me the engine guys, I’ll wring the story I want out of it. Assuming I have the time of course.