Justin Achilli

Tag: Interaction

Ghibli-Style Storytelling

Yesterday, Madeleine and I went to see Nausicaä at the Ghibli Collection retrospective at the Carolina Theatre. It’s an excellent movie, my favorite of the Ghibli films, and one that works whether you’re a kid or an adult. On an immediate level, the conflicts are thrilling and visceral, and the characters are appealing or engaging — you empathize with the good guys and you love to hate the bad guys even as you come to understand them. The backstory, with the world-ruining Seven Days of Fire and the struggle between Pejite and Tolmekia, the Valley of the Wind caught in the middle, gives meaning to those conflicts, defining them instead of subsuming them.

This is the stuff of great gaming and storytelling. The immediate conflicts draw you in as a player or audience, and the setting serves as an engrossing backdrop and framing device that gives you context beyond the moment-to-moment action. The exposition helps the story instead of dominating it. At no point does the player/ audience member have to endure a narrator or gamemaster monologue.

Video game narratives are too often by people who would rather be writing something else — something in which their audience is captive and hangs on their every word. Video games don’t work like that. They’re of a nature interactive, and choice is what makes the game, not the story. The story is just that: a story. Whether done via text or engine movie, canned interaction in video games can be a reward, but it’s very often wielded as a cudgel. The more the player reads text or watches cutscenes, the less she’s actually playing the game, making the choices that define the interaction of the form. Just as a player doesn’t listen to music when she wants to read a book, neither should she have to read a book or watch a movie to play a video game.

Preschool Pathfinder

My kid loves games. None too surprising, of course, and when I say that she loves games — she’s three — I really mean that she loves opening the boxes and hammering around with the stuff inside. Unfolding maps, stacking pieces, punching out chits, all the sorts of things that aren’t really playing the game that nonetheless involve or facilitate playing with the game.

Fighting the goblins.

Conceptually, Madeleine certainly understands a lot of things, even if they’re not exactly the rules of a given game. For instance, we recently played Ticket To Ride and she was upset that when my wife played the pieces to claim a route, the color of the trains on the route didn’t match the color of the route itself. Of course, she didn’t know the rules themselves, but she made her own associations among the game components in her mind.

Anyway, I had ordered the Pathfinder Beginner Box because I wanted to take a look at the boxed loot and see firsthand how successful it was as an introductory piece of material. When it arrived, Madeleine, being no stranger to the appearance of games and other boxed goodies, assumed that this was another something for her. She pushed her stepstool over to the kitchen island where I was unboxing the whole thing and jumped right into playing with the pieces. She put together some of the figures on the stands and was already familiar with dice. I don’t know how, exactly, we started actually playing, but when we did, she took right away to the interaction between the players, even though it was only the two of us.

In fact, she liked it so much, she talked about what she had done afterward, and even asked to play again when she woke today and wanted to play again after we got back from the zoo.

The reward for any good dungeon delve is a pile of loot.

Of course, we weren’t playing Pathfinder as its rules define it, but I described a few situations, she told me she wanted to fight the whatevers, and then she rolled the dice. The cause-and-effect sequence took form. Over the course of our play, I observed the following things:

  • I started with the standard exchange of RPG interactions, but then I modified the sequence to fit her interests and attention span. That is, we didn’t really both with AC or movement rates or missed attacks or even hit points, we just rolled dice and knocked over figures. It was the interaction with the pieces and me that held her interest.
  • I varied my tone of voice and the pacing of my descriptions, to which she reacted as cues. She knew that she needed to “hurry up!” while she was fighting, because of the tension of the encounter with the monster. At various points, she jumped up and down, raised her hands in victory cheers, and even placed the new monsters from the observed flow of prior turns. Today, we added background music, but I don’t know if that had any effect on the experience for her.
  • She picked up parlance very quickly, knowing that she was rolling for “damage” and identifying individual monsters. She liked fighting the dragon and the goblins; she didn’t like fighting the spider or the “goop” (ooze).
  • She immediately mapped the relationships of the character types to the prompts for their actions. That is, she knew the fighter fought and the wizard cast spells. After a few turns, when I asked her, “What sort of spell do you want to cast?” I didn’t give her any list or context, and she replied, “Pink.” So I described the wizard’s spell in terms of a pink ray. The next time it came to the wizard’s turn, she replied, “Blue,” “red,” “green,” etc., and every spell effect became shaped like a “ball” that the wizard cast. The fighter always closed to a melee piece placement and the wizard always maintained distance.
  • Importantly, the extrinsic motivator of treasure didn’t supersede the intrinsic motivator of playing the game itself, or at least manipulating the pieces. I placed glass beads at various points on the map and described them as giant diamonds. After she defeated the monster guardians, Madeleine would pick up the character token and the glass bead (as if the character were carrying the treasure) and move them over in front of her. Then she’d move to the next glass bead on the map. At the end of the game, I encouraged her to take the glass beads into her room and keep them as her treasure, where she can see them and count them.

Civilization's victory over the fiendishness of monster-kind.

The result was certainly more toy than game, but the interaction had the key elements of a true game. The only thing missing was meaningful choice, in that there were no real consequences to actions and that Madeleine’s choice for both of her characters was either fighting or casting a spell based on which character we were talking about. Still, she chose which treasure next to pursue and which square on the grid she wanted to occupy to fight the monster, so the rudiments of game play as opposed to toy play were there. Toy play is also consistent to the way her age group participates in expressive activity, so it was encouraging to see that expectation and her formative steps into development beyond those boundaries.

Next time, though, I’m not backing off the TPK.

Diagramming Systems Design

When I was younger, I used to like to draw. I’m not very good at it now, being little more than having a minor and unharvested bit of natural talent, and I rarely draw anymore except when doodling for my daughter, but I really used to get a kick out of it. I used to collect drawing books, all of which had advice for the artist like, “Hold your drawing up to a mirror and you’ll see a place where you might have twisted off.” Being the uncultivated minor natural talent that I was, I didn’t ever want to do any of this because it might have led to improvement, but there’s something to the idea of stepping back from something, looking at it from a different perspective, and seeing what’s actually there.

This is a practice that can work very well for game design, as well. In working on the WoD MMO, I’ve observed a big shift in how I do my systems design. When working on tabletop RPGs, I always built the narrative first, then I built the system, then I retooled the narrative to fit the system. In working on MMO design, the narrative becomes “How will the player use this?” Without a live GM to adjudicate special cases, a game system is inflexible, and the narrative derives from the actual function, not from how a pair of players can collaboratively, mutually craft a dramatic outcome. Systems design in a video game creates immediate results, whereas systems design in a tabletop game creates a situation in which two or more players arrive at a conclusion.

When designing systems, I use bullet points. This lets me focus on the concise function of the systems, and it fits well into tasking and time management software. Using nested bullet points, or visually “diagramming” systems design lets me look critically at each piece of a design, and it also lets me see each component of the design. This, in turn, shows me what the system actually does, rather than what I think it does — it shows me where the design has “twisted off” from the intended result.

Here’s an example. This is just thrown together for the topic at hand, this isn’t a design from the WoD MMO, so put those knives away.

Now, what we see here is a variety of things.

We’re dealing with a power that has a narrative theme of shadow. “Shadow” could be anything — lightning, cosmic dust, slime molds. It’s set dressing, not part of the system design.

The power is front-loaded for combat. It has a higher damage rating than defense rating.

However, the power is also built for the long play, defensively. The damage rating is higher, but the armor lasts longer and I can’t fumble it.

That informs my other systems design. If I’m designing another offensive power, I will either need it to inflict more damage or cost less resources to implement. If it’s otherwise the same as this power, why would I ever choose another, when this one does all that the other does and then some?

Being able to choose what I want on the spot is part of the power’s, well, power. The above two uses mean that the power is flexible. In some cases, you might want to use it for offense, while in other cases, you might employ it defensively. This means that other powers probably do more damage or offer more protection, but don’t offer the choice that this power does.

Creating the environmental object adds even more versatility, and is a little more open ended. Are we in a side-scroller or platforming type game? Then I’ll probably be using this a lot to overcome challenges posed by level design. It may offer me access to power-ups that people without the power can’t access. Is this a tactical game? I’ll probably use this object creation to impede my enemy’s movement, or to grant myself some kind of cover. Is it an action game? I might use this to trap a foe in a “shadow cage.”

This additional dimension of the power is included with the offensive and defensive capabaility. There’s probably another power that lets me create more “shadow platforms,” does it quicker, or costs less. Again, pairing this ability with the offense and defense potential makes this flexible, and thus either more expensive or weaker than the core object-creation power (otherwise, I’d just take this one and always be prepared for multiple eventualities, rather than the less-versatile, same-cost power that only built environmental objects).

So, in diagramming the power, we see not only what it does, but how it relates to the other systems in the game. As well, this makes it easier for us to change individual components of the design instead of having to scrap the whole thing and start over.

When you pick up a game book, it’s full of paragraphs. When you fire up a video game, the systems are logics, inherent to the play. The rules themselves, though, are concise, distinct, and often dependent statements.

Presenting Information: Surprise the Character

I heard Tina Brown on the radio the other day and she said something about the practice of writing that is tremendously applicable to the pacing of games and presenting information therein. She said, and I’m paraphrasing from memory here, that diaries are mysteries to their writers.

Brilliant! Too often, the characters in a game seem to inherit the knowledge that they’re in a game. They behave as if they know they have infinite lives, or are only a save away from a potentially doomed (or willfully stupid) decision.

I don’t want to ruin the surprise for you, but soylent green is people. There, I said it.
Turning that on its ear is an immersive way of hooking the player. Now, obviously, I’m not saying that you should kill your players’ characters. But giving them a swerve — showing them that though players have the luxury of being the most important character around whom the story is told, it’s not all going to be a picnic — makes players jaded by story immunity and standard protagonist badassery sit up and pay attention. Presenting the story in a manner that shows the characters don’t know what’s in store for them makes them a bit vulnerable, and that vulnerability makes them interesting. Surprising your character can translate directly into surprising your player, and surprise builds investment.

The death of Aeris in Final Fantasy VII is a high point of this technique. Granted, developers can’t rely on this technique too frequently or it’ll lose all of its impact or fall into the “screw you, player” category of bad design. That said, the killing of a playable character subverted all the previous wisdom regarding what makes for a character. Until it happened, you didn’t know it could, and that’s powerful. It was something the characters in the game didn’t see happening, and transcended that, becoming something even the player couldn’t anticipate.

Compare that with the way the Fire Emblem games deal with PC deaths: No buildup; if you die in combat, that’s it, you’re dead. The Fire Emblem series’ strength is in its tactical gameplay, so it’s not like it’s shortchanging itself, but the fact that the series doesn’t intend to tell a blockbuster story is what puts the emphasis on the tactics.

File under: Someone approved this.
Execution is a matter of style, too. The swerve as a dramatic device can be done poorly, in which case the swerve is a dick move, or it can be done compellingly, in which case its arrival is a surprise, and a dramatically rewarding one. Compare the swerve in Halo 2 (“A psychic plant that nobody ever heard of before arranged this whole thing, and Master Chief and the Apostate Bug are puppets dancing on his strings”… uh, what?) and the truth about Flemeth in Dragon Age (spoiler preserved). The former just came out of nowhere as a bit of nonsense. The latter is sinister, and exhibits the price of power in that virtual world.

Now, realistically, you have to swerve your audience so that they’re actually surprised for your surprises to be, well, surprises. If your swerve is “He’s your father!” or “He’s your brother!” your surprise probably needs a little more work. But even a few old standards (“She’s not dead after all!”) can still pack a punch when deployed in the appropriate moment or with enough panache.

Remember, too, that you want your swerve to pop. It needs to be exciting. Most importantly, it can’t disempower the player. Informing the player that he’s been manipulated all along is perilous, for example, because it means that the player’s actions haven’t been his own. Vampire thrives on this device, but that’s because it gives players an opportunity to turn that manipulation back on its perpetrator — and for vampires, revenge is a dish best served cold, so part of the setting is the opportunity to brood on that manipulation and really work up a vengeful head of steam. You’re doing well if your players’ response to your swerve is, “Holy shit. Oh, yeah? Well now I’m going to….”

Hell Harbor Update

Hell Harbor’s third chapter is up and ready for your feedback. The poll closes next Tuesday, so make sure you cast your vote before then.

Hell Harbor Update

Hey, fiction readers, there’s a new chapter of Hell Harbor over in that section of the site. Read and vote! The poll closes next Tuesday night, so be sure to give your feedback by then.

Hell Harbor Is Active

Hell Harbor, a new piece of ongoing interactive fiction, is active here on my site! Go on over and take a look if you dig pirates or revenge tales.

The People Part

Obviously, I come from a storytelling tradition. The mechanics in games that use the Storyteller/ Storytelling system take a back seat to moving the story along. (In fact, I used to kid that the rules were intentionally so bad that they forced you to rely on sensible story outcomes rather than stare into the yawning abyss of the mechanics.)

Story doesn’t really matter much to games.

Heresy! Let’s put that in context, however.

The experience of what makes games doesn’t end with what the players accomplish in the game. What’s important is that the players are together, interacting, communicating, and sharing an experience. The fact that they got together to tell a story about vampires in the cutthroat world of modern art or a raid on Orcus’ temple is secondary. The important part is that they’re doing something together.

That’s where I think tabletop RPGs have a distinct edge over their legacy, online MMOs. In an MMO, the player ostensibly has access to thousands more players at any time — but their interactions are limited by the medium. Most MMOs feature a familiar format of kill-the-monster, gain-the-level. You don’t need other people for that, and if you do, the objective is fairly obvious, so the necessity for communication is minimal.

By contrast, around the table, the player isn’t forced to communicate, she’s already inclined to communicate because being there, with other people, she’s just doing what people do when placed together — she’s forming community. She either already knows the people with whom she’s gaming, or, if this is a first-time session like a convention game, she’s there specifically because meeting people and gaming with them is what people do at a convention.

In this regard, though MMOs overcome the massive barrier of geography, they don’t always do a good job of making the players acquaintances before they throw them into the game itself. Other people aren’t first and foremost friends or acquaintances in networked games, they’re tools to help overcome the environment. They’re game pieces, rather than players.

EVE does a good job of putting players in touch with each other socially: It assumes everyone wants to join a corp, and the experience is designed to put players in corps as early as possible. And that’s why you see EVE, as a comparatively small game (300K subscribers), with a strong, tight community that has closer interaction than many of the larger titles. The social network starts early. It doesn’t always start before the experience of the game, like I did when I was nine and played D&D in my cousin’s basement, but it overcomes that limitation as early as it can.

(Tangentially, you also can’t kill your communication channel. You can minimize, but you can never actually leave the basic channel. You will communicate in the world of EVE, whether you want to or not.)

Look at a Vampire LARP, as another example. Until you start talking to people, you are almost guaranteed to have nothing to do. Character objectives in Vampire LARPs are rarely mechanical — you’re not likely to be tasked with “kill 50 Brujah.” You might want to kill a given Brujah, or maybe even cripple “the Brujah” as an entity, but that all arises from some assumed interaction in the player/ character’s past rather than as a solely systemic objective.

Putting people together is something I’m working on every day. Dana Massey’s blog also covers this topic (with some editorial bias, as Will points out). Be sure to read the comments when you check out that article.

Consider that the next time you’re around the table or logged in. What you’re doing isn’t important as that you’re doing it, specifically with the people who are also there. The experience you can form with those people is greater than the story or world in which you’re doing it. Think beyond the experience at the table or outside the monitor. What do you have in common with those people — outside your characters?



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