Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tumbarumba; a frolic of intrusions

I have another story that is Out There; it is being published in this on-line art and literature experience created by Ben Rosenbaum. My first paragraphs are on his blog entry.

What is also very cool is that the LA times has a brief article on it. Thanks, Ben!

So if by any chance you use Firefox, download the extension and wait and see as your browsing experience gets irregularly invaded by (brilliantly written) speculative fiction.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A nice--though brief--review

On the sciencefictionfantasy blog:

"Everything That Matters by Jeff Spock (illustrated by
Kenn Brown, who also did the cover): a traditional SF thriller about
hunting for alien treasure in the oceans of another planet, humans
adapted by surgery to breathe underwater, murderous 25 metre long
sharks, and revenge. Great stuff!"

Friday, November 28, 2008

So is it spam, or is it marketing?

"S'il vous pla?t, pardonne-nous de perturber votre précieux time.We sont [name removed] company.This Tai est une électroniques des plus
grands grossistes du commerce international dans China."

There is a fine line...

Zoé grows up; Dad freaks out

Zoé's new haircut! It's kind of a watershed, actually. She's 11 1/2, and this is the first time she has really wanted a more grown-up, teen-looking haircut. I'm not ready for this...
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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Real, actual emotion in games

Not that fake, cookie cutter Freeman how-to stuff.

Games that made Margaret Robertson cry.

I met Margaret at the NLGD in Utrecht and as wowed by how smart and cool she is. In addition she is now blogging for Offworld, the gaming extension of the BoingBoing blog. This blog entry is a thoughtful, intelligent discussion of why and how emotion in games is not the same as emotion in books or movies.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Gnashing those teeth...

From a job wanted posting:

"This is a new company boasting a wealth of talent... The Games Designer is [a]lso contributing to creation of the game story & character descriptions, including in game dialogue & text."

Hopefully the "wealth of talent" part extends to the ability of the game designer to come up with interesting plots and complex characters and snappy dialogue and concise in-game text...

Sunday, November 23, 2008

ET skype home

This is why we have Skype.

When I'm away on a trip, I can call and say hi -- with video -- to the kids. One of the things for which the Internet actually shows a real, tangible value.

To parents, anyway...
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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Game length, gameplay, and story

There is an interesting article in The Escapist on the fact that one rarely finishes a game these days. Regardless of the affection you may feel for it, the Haloes and Witchers and BioShocks don't see many people get all the way to the final scene. Our best guess for Heroes 5 was about 10%, and we have a pretty hardcore following.
Tom Endo points out in his article a few points and problems; one is that once you figure out the gameplay the rest is just endless (more or less repetitive) variations on that gameplay. The designers try to pull you in with new tricks and some plot twists, but stacked against the odds of finishing is the enormous time commitment required to get all the way to the end.
I think that there are a lot of cogent arguments for trimming game story to a more manageable size while adding tons of extra gameplay content for the hardcore gamers. After all, if a player has to leave the game for a few days, will they remember who the characters are? What quest they are doing and why? Is there any point in writing an enormous sprawling plot that is the equivalent of two or three screenlays if so few finish it?
It might make more sense to make games smaller, tighter in both story and gameplay, and then provides tons of downloadable content for those who want to keep going. Mod kits, additional levels, and unlockable bonuses would probably be more than sufficient for the hardcore player who falls in love with the game.
Especially if the development costs drop, and the price tag along with it.
I recently played Portal, and was very impressed by it. It didn't have a story, more like an atmosphere, though I suppose you could argue that there was slender plot thread. It was brilliant playability, fun writing, and all over a great experience. It was widely lauded, won many awards, and took only three or four hours to play.
Is that the wave of the future? Maybe it should be, otherwise studios are paying to create, and players are paying to not play, an awful lot of game content.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The latest Yahoo! headlines

I see these every day -- Yahoo! takes a headline from the French newspaper Le Monde and runs it through some sort of translator. 'A' for effort, 'F' for execution. Recent samples:

"With the approach of the victory of Obama, arms manufacture filled the tank"

The article is actually about the fact that gun merchants are stocking up due to future regulatory worries. Doesn't quite come through somehow...

And this one:
"Garzon judge deprives himself of the investigation into the missings of Francoism"

Is subtitled:
"The judge, who was likely to see himself declared inefficient in this business, deprived himself with the profit of the courts of province."

Computers are just, well, not quite there yet...

Friday, November 14, 2008

Teens and reading genre fiction

Recently within my circle of contacts a couple threads have popped up on the question of getting kids to read more. This is sort of a classic question, posed by authors and academics as if it was some sort of cry in the wilderness (Potter-san notwithstanding). Richard Dansky had a particularly interesting question on developing a list of genre recommendations based on what kind of games kids like to play.
That one really intrigues me, as it is a very pragmatic approach to getting kids into books as opposed to asking the local English teacher who would probably reply: "You like First Person Shooters? You should read Cooper's Leatherstocking series. You like fantasy games? Gosh, there are a lot of fantastic elements in Love in the Time of Cholera."
Richard started with a few, and more have been added, and hopefully we'll end up with a lot of good ideas.
The other interesting thread was started by Cat Rambo here, and a lot of good comments were added by readers.
This is important to culture in general, I think, and will continue to be so until that improbable day in the future when game writers are nominated for Pulitzers, Nobels, and Bookers. As the game media takes over more and more of mass culture, and as generations grow up using that as their first window into art and writing, the question can only gain in pertinence.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Bad Guy in video games -- why is he so much more interesting?

Part of it, I think, is inherent in the media. The player-character tends to be relatively generic; often either a voiceless cypher (Gordon Freeman, Master Chief) or a relatively unimaginative remodeling of the wise/tough guy that we have known and loved from Bogart/Cooper to Willis/Ford. The player needs to identify strongly with the main characters, want what they want, and love them enough to endure tens of hours of their trials and tribulations.

Too much "character" in the main character can turn off players; not everyone wants to walk in the shoes of a metrosexual angst-ridden teenager with a gravitationally impossible hairdo (yes, I am talking about Japanese RPG's).

So I think that both writers and designers play it safe with the main character. Easy to like, based on well-known and well-loved stereotypes, a comfortable pair of shoes to put on.

So where do you get to be crazy and creative? The bad guy. You get to make him as offensive, outrageous, irresponsible, unbalanced, and crazy as you want. He can be over-the-top sexy when the main hero can't, outrageously flamboyant when the hero is tough and restrained, insulting and offensive when the hero has to be cool and/or supportive.

So why do we make evil sexy? Because we don't want to put too much in the player-character and risk alienating the player. But the bad guy... there is no risk, only reward.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Removing the SFnal element from a story

During the VD3 workshop I presented a story that is really actually about marriage and family life, though it had a fantasy trigger element in it. A couple of reviewers commented that they thought it would be stronger without that; just the couple and their two kids (what? autobiographical? of course not...).

Then someone -- I think it was Chance -- started riffing on that idea. I mean, how many genres out there can you do that with? Could you imagine someone writing a Western, and then in the workshop someone says, "Why don't you take the cowboys out? And it doesn't really need the saloon and the Indians" Or a thriller, and someone says, "I think it would be better without the guns and spies." "You know, this Harlequin might be better without the tall handsome mysterious guy with the shadowy past." "I don't know... I think the thing under the bed should really just be a teddy bear."

It's a funny idea, but it does underline a point about the universality of good SF that is generally missed by most critics of the genre.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

In the market of Avignon we happened across a local chef doing a cooking demonstration. It was for an apple crumble with honey and thyme; we watched him make it from A to Z and taste-tested (wow!) the final product. It was a great idea -- publicity for the restaurant, a bit of life and animation for the market, and a great little cooking lesson for those who happened to pass by.
Who knows? The next time you stop by chez nous it may be on the menu...
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A guy I could like

Kevin Smith, the director who did (among others) "Clerks," "Clerks 2," and most recently "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," comes up with a great quote in an on-line interview. He calls "A Man for All Seasons" (also one of my all-time faves) "...basically porn for people who love dialogue."

That is just so true.

Obamoments 2

An SMS from a French neighbor:

"Yes you can.
Thank you America from the world."

Obamoments 1

I haven't felt like this since I watched Luke blow up the Death Star.

Monday, November 03, 2008

The south of France, eleven artists, excellent meals, plenty of wine... Ah, the rigours of a speculative writing workshop.

We did the third Villa Diodati workshop at the end of October, here in scenic Le Bar sur Loup. I dare to list the luminaries who were there, as their presence imparts a certain sheen of quality to my own pedestrian efforts:
Aliette de Bodard
Deanna Carlyle
Steve Gaskell
Sara Genge
Floris Kleijne
Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
Chance Morrison
Ruth Nestvold
John Olsen
Ben Rosenbaum
Here you can find a few of my photos, and many more can be found on flickr (few other things come up if you search for "VD3" ... ). The house we rented was thanks to good friends who also happen to make a living handling property rentals in the Côte d'Azur.

Onward and upward; the story that was critted at VD3 is already winging its way to F&SF.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Yes! Interzone 219 (11/08) will have one of mine in it.

I recently received an e-mail from Andy Cox that made it official; my tale "Everything That Matters" will be printed in issue 219 of Interzone, out in mid-November.

The story was born during Clarion in 2004, and actually started out as the tale of a tough-guy treasure hunter that was tussling with an amoral business tycoon. The Clarion folk rapidly helped me realize that it sounded a lot like "Here's looking at you, kid" versus "No, I expect you to die, Mr. Bond." So I had to put a dagger through the heart of the stereotypes, and do some thinking about what the real questions were and what was really at stake.

The story went through a number of workshop iterations, and lots of hand-wringing and gnashing of virtual teeth. In the end, it stayed dormant for a while because I liked it so much. The concern was this: If this story, that I think is so cool, doesn't sell, what hope do I have as a writer? Scary, existential writer questions.

But don't worry; I'm not assuming that this means I am a great writer. There is some reassurance, however, in finding out that I am not without hope.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Austin GDC: Andrew Walsh on "The Death of Linearity: Or, Who Shot the Three-Act Structure?"

Walsh did a very interesting presentation on the techniques for storytelling that he used for the latest Prince of Persia game.

If I can manage to summarize it, the idea was basically to have several different layers of narrative, only one of which was obligatory. All the others lurked in the background, waiting to be discovered by players who cared about them. The writers and developers referred to this as storytelling using "ondemand" dialog or ODD. As I recall, the layers basically approximated:

  1. A minimal storyline that the player could not ignore. This was presented in a series of "signposts" -- primarily cutscenes or in-game scenes (like HL2). This story represented the absolute bare minimum necessary to be able to finish the gameplay.

  2. Within each mission or level, certain events opened the possibility of a brief ODD with the player's love interest / accomplice, Elika. For instance, in passing a ruined building or temple, a conversation would have been written that concerned the history of that site. However, if the player was not interested the dialog would not be heard, because that type of conversation could only be triggered by the player pushing a button. Hence the term "ondemand". These ODD chunks had to be independent of time or place or previous dialogs; they had to be discrete and therefore applicable regardless of the player and their play style. Due to the fact that the game environment is 90% lethal, they also had to be a) extremely short, and b) take place on flat ground...

  3. Again within each mission/level, further information that could be drawn out if the player desired it. For example, a line of obligatory NPC dialog could be extended into a conversation by talking to that NPC. Conversations could be launched at any time with Elika; these conversations would be specific to the level and to the story events of that level (unless overridden by the current situation. The game was smart enough not to start explaining the details of how the evil vizir came to power if the hero was in the middle of battling several enemies).
    Once a player passed a certain point, these conversations -- whether or not they had been triggered by the player -- were no longer available as they were no longer germane.

  4. Another storyline existed; this was the tale of the the Prince and his relationship with Elika. This one had a beginning and an end, but could be played at any time throughout the game. Basically, if there was a free moment and the player was not fighting, or passing an object of interest, or already discussing a key plot point, the dialog button would pull up the next piece of dialog between the Prince and Elika.

Because the designers and writers could not control when and how the player would accesses the story -- other than the main and unavoidable storyline--  there were a number of difficult constraints:

  • The dialog had to be worded so that it could be restarted at any time (after the next fight, or six months later when the player picked up the game again).

  • The only control that the writers/designers had was when they opened or closed access to elements of ondemand story. These had to be carefully chosen and carefully written.

  • In the event that a player liked the dialog and story, there had to be enough there to keep them from hearing repeated lines even if they were spamming the dialog button. For this reason there were numerous levels of Narrative ODD (OnDemand dialog), Relationship ODD, Ingredient dialog, Fight Taunts, and Foundation dialog.

  • Many technical (in particular) AI issues had to be overcome to deal with the ODD system. For example the direction that the player's avatar was facing could affect the dialog as could the current relationship and emotional status, and any level scripting; plus the animation had to adapt to these cues as well.

For me this talk was one of the highlights of the AGDC, and I think that there are a lot of interesting techniques and lessons that I can use. Thanks Andy!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Austin GDC 3: Richard Dansky runs the "Game Writer's Workshop"

Yay Richard!

This was essentially a Clarion-style workshop for critiquing game stories and game design ideas. The workshop process, and in particular Richard's management of it, worked very well. There was a problem, however, which was the lack of a standardized document format. All five of the submissions were in different formats, and that made it difficult to do a few things:
- Read over the submissions rapidly
- Compare and contrast between them
- Standardize a series of points or questions in order to review efficiently

So though the workshop is useful both for the attendees and the peanut gallery, it would be improved with a more structured approach. I think that I will propose both document formats and a series of discussion points in order to slim and simplify the process for next year.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Austin GDC 2: Jess Lebow on "More Interactivity: A Storytelling Workshop"

Two minutes into this presentation I was very excited. Lebow comes from a publishing background and has been doing game development for many years; he has a profile of exactly the kind of person who should be a font of knowledge of writing and storytelling in a gaming environment.
In fact, I believe that he is a font of knowledge, but the format of his presentation did not (sadly) allow him to act as one. Instead, he presented a few very interesting questions or comments on game storytelling, and then asked for comments from the audience in order to open things up to a wider discussion.
The problem is that the audience comments were, as a general rule, lukewarm. Too many eager beavers were making comments just to make comments, and older and wiser heads were not engaged enough in the debate.
As a result, I walked away with a few new ideas but a lot less than I could have. This is too bad, because Lebow is a charismatic and experienced game writer/developer and a very smart guy, and the conference would have been better served (I believe) if he had done things differently.
Please, Jess, come back next year. But tell us what you know, present your challenges and ideas, and then turn to the audience for questions.

Interesting points:
- The use of the cell phone in GTA IV to delvier quests.
- The use of the car trips in GTA IV to deliver key story information (I remember how happy we were in Dark Messiah when the player got in an elevator and we knew we had his undivided attention).

Interesting questions:
- How can we better deliver story in MMOs (now called "crowd games" by us insiders who heard Bruce Sterling's talk) without the use of instancing?
- How can we develop storylines for important NPC's in a crowd game?


Today is my birthday, and for some reason I am receiving the most eclectic bunch of greetings that I have ever had. So far I have been cheered by a member of my World of Warcraft guild, my wife and kids, two game writers I work with, an old pal from my MBA program, the producer I work with at Ubisoft, and a few friends from the area. Who knows where this may go?

Growing old rocks.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Austin GDC 1: Chris Crawford on "14 Conceptual Shifts: moving from games to interactive storytelling"

Crawford did a presentation -- more a polemic -- on the future of storytelling for games. Several of his fundamental tenets would be echoed on Wednesday by Andy Stern, as both of them are part of the movement that insists that proper game story must be non-linear and dynamic, and therefore machine generated. Whether you agree with his ideas or not, Crawford certainly was passionate and intelligent in developing his fourteen points:
1. Character comes first.
No disagreement there; in writing for any medium the characters' motivations define what happens and why. Conflict between characters provides stories with tension and drama, and any story full of weak characters will lack intensity and emotional engagement.
2. Primacy of interactivity
As the medium for which we are writing is games, which by definition include gameplay, the player is constantly making decisions and taking action. If the player is not active it mimics a passive experience like film or literature, and a story without interaction would probably better be told in another form.  A person buys a game with the idea that they will be actively involved in what happens, and it follows that the story must take this into account. This seems entirely logical.
3. Screw graphics.
One of the points upon which the presenter and I are in agreement. Graphics are a means to an end, though they are most often treated as an end in themselves.  However, storytelling does not require them. They have become an enormous roadblock for budgets, development cycles, and even for story. If 3D graphics cannot present what is happening in a game story, due to either technical or budgetary limitations, the most probable decision in a game project is to change the story rather than simplify or remove the graphics. Few studios have the bravery to put in Max Payne- or Thief-like 2D cutscenes to compensate for story elements that are difficult to present in the game or cutscene engine.
4. Ditch plot
His words, not mine. Crawford presented Story as something that is a noun and data and static, while storytelling is a verb and a process and is dynamic. It is the difference between a cookie and cooking; one is a thing, the other is an action and therefore interactive and therefore more attuned to what a game player wants. His thesis is that storytelling is the goal, not story. The process is what we as game writers should be focused on, rather than on the results of the process which are the plot and the events that make up the story. This is one of the points where his views and that of most writers diverge; on the one hand is the belief presented which is that the process of creating credible events is more important than the outcome of those processes and the shape that it has. This seems to beggar the most fundamental question that kept coming back to me: Who cares how good the storytelling machine and mechanisms are if the resulting story is uninteresting? And how do we program a computer to discern between an interesting and a boring narrative?
5. What does the user DO?
Because games are interactive the emphasis should be on what the player is doing; on what his or her actions are and what effects they have. This is what is important in a game story, and not what the player sees or hears. The player should be creating the story as he plays, rather than having the story presented to him as something that he is walking through. Again, this makes sense for a story that is told in a game.
6. What are the verbs?
The verbs, that is the range of possible actions that the player can have, are the linchpin of the gameplay and of the richness of the player experience in the game. The verbs of a game -- as of any software application -- define what the application is. More verbs in a game mean more expressive power.
7. Linguistic User Interface.
Here Crawford touched on the ideas of the user interface, starting with the old-fashioned and cryptic yet powerful command line interface of 20 or so verbs with many parameters. The combination of these commands created enormous possibilities for actions, however the interface is arcane and highly specialized. Next came GUI's, whose graphical menus and context boxes presented somewhere around 100 or so verbs for the average user. At this point Crawford made the very cogent point that even in a beginner's reading text -- one of the classic Golden Books -- there are already 122 verbs. If the verb capacity of a GUI is only on the level with a first grade text for storytelling, the average user interface is not going to provide us with a very meaningful experience.
The ideal would be a Linguistic User Interface, where a player uses everyday language to interface with the computer and can take advantage of the thousands of verbs in the English language.
The bad news came next; a computer system can never provide a natural language interface. The problem is that a language mirrors reality, and it has been mathematically proven that for a computer to provide a natural language interface the computer must be able to encompass reality.
Crawford's way out is to say that because stories are artificially created toy realities, all that is needed to "use" these realities is to have a created toy language. A toy language in a toy reality can fit inside a computer; our reality can't.
8. Language = reality
The caveat is that the toy language needs to be designed at the same time as the toy reality in order to be useful. In order to do this, Crawford stated that "we" -- definition never provided -- use a powerful authoring system called Deikto.
It was at this point that my skeptometer started pinging, and it went off fairly steadily for most of the rest of his session. Much of the remainder of his presentation discussed the system that he had developed in order to tell stories in his way on a computer. Deikto was joined by Sappho, a programming language for storytellers, and his talk concluded with a sales pitch for, the site that he and his partner have created in order to promulgate their world view of what game story should be. However, in the interest of being unlike Fox News and presenting a fair and balanced picture, I will continue with his remaining 5 points.
9. Inverse Parser
For a natural language interface to work the computer must be able to read a string of incoming text, break it down into verb - subject - object etc., and then act on it. The human is the supplicant; the computer is the judge. There is in addition the paradox of the "parser puzzle", that the possible combination of words in a sentence approaches what is a good approximation of infinity for any practical desktop application, and that it is therefore almost impossible to parse natural language effectively. The user is therefore constrained to adapt to the needs of the interface, using a limited number of words in a limited number of ways. This is not good storytelling.
Crawford's solution is inverse parsing; limiting the scope of what the computer has to analyze by using dramatic and grammatical context filters. In the sentence "Look out, it's a ___", the blank will not be filled with the adjective "chartreuse," the verb "climb," or the number "twenty-three." In addition, if it is a horror survival game full of zombies, though the blank is a noun it will probably not be the nouns "belt sander" or "foie gras." Relying on grammatical and dramatic context, the computer can more rapidly translate the player's actions and desires.
10. Ditch space.
The presenter stated that spatial relationships are an annoying waste of effort and computing power; stories are about social, not spatial, cognition. I agree that spatial cognition has little to do with storytelling. However in a graphical game world, the distance that two NPCs keep between each other, or from the dog that may or may not be friendly, or from one group of NPC's or another, may speak volumes about the NPC and the situation and the story.
11. Programmers are not storytellers.
True. Crawford goes on to say that, therefore, storytellers must learn to program. I think that any writer who wishes to tell stories in a game setting is probably wise to accept this one.
12. Algorithms animate.
Algorithms are what programs use to control the choices of in-game characters. Context-dependent choices require the mastery of context-dependent algorithms; therefore, for Crawford, it is necessary that writers learn math and the use of algorithms.
One could argue this; one could also argue that all it requires is a half-decent authoring tool. I would dare to guess that Storytron handles the decision-making process of in-game characters through the use of algorithms with a bad or nonexistent front-end tool. This may, however, simply be my natural cynicism shining through.
13. A programming language for storytellers.
Apparently it exists, it is called Storytron, it will change the way we tell stories in games, it is inevitable, it is good, and it will prevail.
14. Kinder, Gentler Math
Storytelling requires special arithmetic, and storytellers must learn it.


The second part of the talk was given by Laura Mixon, an SF author who is the writer half of the team that is developing Storytron. She apparently believes quite strongly in the system, so I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. However, all of the examples that were given, by Mixon or Crawford, were what I would call "small". Conflict between two characters that leads up to a murder, emerging through the algorithms of Storytron, is a great and unexpected thing. I would not call it a story, however; I would call it an incident or a piece of a story. Nothing that I saw during these three days convinced me that computers will be able to create plot and character arcs -- the things that keep consumers hooked on a game, movie, or TV series -- in any sort of meaningful or interesting way.
What I liked very much about Storytron, and what I would like to try, is to use these kinds of algorithmic characters to add flavor and sub-plots to a given scene or location. The idea that autonomously-generated behavior can be going on around the player while he tries to to what he wants to do seems fascinating. No two players would live a game experience in the same way, and unexpected and unpredictable actions would make a game environment seem much more life-like. I will therefore download and test Storytron, and add further comments at some later date. For the moment, however, I cannot imagine that this is a story generating tool, even if it is a storytelling tool. And if it is "only" a storytelling tool, and generates interesting incidents and events, its place in the scheme of game development may have a limited, albeit useful, future.

Austin GDC Overview

Quite an amazing event. I had been waiting for four years to go there; of all the gaming conferences it is the one that most emphasizes the issues of writing and storytelling in games. After years of eagerly scanning the conference listings and following the articles and blogs that resulted, I came at last to the game writers' Mecca and saw it for myself.

All expectations were surpassed.

1. The People
I had the good fortune to meet a lot of incredible people and get involved in great discussions on how we should do what we do and where it may go in the future. These included the legendary Susan O'Connor (BioShock), my old comrade in arms Richard Dansky (the Splinter Cell series and everything else Clancy plus tons of other Ubi games), Marc Laidlaw (the Half-Life series), Andy Walsh (the latest Prince of Persia, Medieval 2: Total War), Wendy DeSpain (IGDA Game Writers' SIG chair), John Gonzalez (EndWar), Rhianna Pratchett (Overlord, Heavenly Sword), Sande Chen (The Witcher), Lee Sheldon (of many game and Hollywood credits plus the author of an excellent book on game writing), Bob Bates (20 years of success in game design and writing plus a game design book), Dave Grossman (TellTale Games), Jess Lebow (Pirates of the Burning Sea, Guild Wars), Ryan Galletta (Need for Speed, Company of Heroes), Haris Orkin (Call of Juarez 1 and 2), Stephen E. Dinehart, and etc. etc. If I forgot you, I apologize.
In addition there were a great number of passionate up-and-comers like Drew McGee (who also did a great job handling the local logistics), Ron Toland, Cory Barnett, Soraya Hajji, and more.
Outside of the pure game writing sphere I also met some great characters who handle other parts of the game development process, in particular Lev and Tim from Blindlight who are involved in the VO end of things and handle everything from procuring stars to the dialog direction and audio recording.

And, over and above it all, Bruce Sterling gave this talk.

2. The Content
Buzzwords like 'interactive storytelling' and 'non-linear narrative' tended to fall thick and fast. Occasionally they made sense. There is a very interesting dichotomy developing in the game writing sphere between those who wish to push writing towards an automated system that provides something computer-generated and non-linear, and those who believe that the hand of a storyteller is needed or else we will end up with interesting toys that lack any sense of story.
I will blog -- time permitting -- over the next few days on the sessions that I attended.

3. The Place
Austin claims to be the live music capital of the US, and judging from the number of live bands (many) that were heard playing every single night of the week I have no reason to doubt it. The weather was great, everything was easily reachable on foot, and the food was everything that I wanted. The convention center was properly cavernous and CMP's management of it was efficient and professional. The sole mishap was the fact that the IGDA Game Writers' SIG table suddenly disappeared between Monday and Tuesday, leaving a number of confused writers wandering about while Drew and Wendy hounded the organizers.
In speaking of "The Place", however, a special mention must be made of the Ginger Man. This is a bar with (by my count) 60 or so beers on tap. It is a high-ceilinged, relaxed place with friendly staff and a great little back garden that for four nights echoed to the sound of writerly laughter, verbal abuse, arguments, and polemics. The cabal of game writers spent a lot of time there, all of which was superlative. Imagine that -- a conference of intelligent and passionate people carrying on discussing topics of both professional and personal interest. For four days. With excellent beer. In easy walking distance from my hotel.

These are the things that make life worth living.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Lidia and the socratic waiter

So we have tickets for a play and are in a bit of a hurry for dinner. We stop in a restaurant next to the theater, and Lidia sees that risotto is the daily special. The following conversation ensues:

Waiter: Table for two?
Wife: Yes, but we need to eat quickly. Can I order the risotto?
Waiter (clasps hands behind back, assumes a somewhat pedantic air): Ah. You would like the risotto. Do you eat risotto often?
Wife: Yes, we make it at home sometimes.
Waiter: I see. And how long does it take you to make risotto?
Wife: Oh, at least twenty-five minutes or so...
Waiter: And you make it well?
Wife: I think so.
Waiter: So a good risotto takes at least twenty-five minutes?
Wife (starting to smile): That seems about right.
Waiter: So how long would you expect our risotto to take?
Wife (starting to laugh): I would assume that you make good risotto.
Waiter: Of course, madame.
Wife: Then I will have a salad.
Waiter: An excellent idea, madame.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Spam is a joy:

"Paris Hilton Starts Large Hadron Collider Today"

And I thought she was just an attention-seeking bimbo.
Vacation rocketh, and in biblical proportions. Just got back from three weeks in the U.S., getting my yearly ration of Maine lobster and microbrewed beer (the former does not exist in France, and nothing I have found in a French supermarket equals the latter).

More thoughts on travel, life, children, and awesome museums to come.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

When the game industry gets it wrong.

A mailing list for game writers recently included links to the following two pages. They are images and artwork for two things; a box cover and a character. This is for a military strategy game, based on some very cool ideas and with a very good pedigree. Sadly, I get the feeling that I am the only person on the list whose mouth dropped open, wondering what emotionally-challenged art team came up with this stuff.

Let's start with the box cover. A Soviet 'soldier' in ... hot pants and bright red lipstick. And, because it's a video game, she has to have big tits. Elegant. Groundbreaking. Really pushing the envelope there, guys.

I shake my head in wonder. It's the logical outgrowth of the kind of "armor" that you see in the ads for World of Warcraft. The creators of those visuals, in turn, seem to have ceased emotional development at the moment in "Return of the Jedi" when Princess Leia showed up in a metal bikini.

Armor, and in fact any military battlefield uniform, in theory, has a protective function. Hot pants do not. But I guess I'm being picky.

And now, let's move to the Japanese female character, Yuriko Omega. This character design raises the following question: Dear God above, is there no act of craven pandering too base for the game industry?

For crissakes, we're talking about a faction based on Japan, a nation with 1300 years of culture and history. You've got fascinating female archetypes from bunraku and kabuki, you've got the ku-no-ichi (female ninja) as well as legendary "female samurai" figures like Hangaku Gozen and Tomoe Gozen.

If you're willing to take a step outside Japan there are modern Asian female characters of glorious heroism and depth in movies like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" or "Hero." You could even slide in references to Hua Mulan, the character that the Disney film Mulan was based on.

But no, for us folks in the game industry even the imitation of a disnified rip-off of Chinese culture is too high-brow. We have to stoop further; search for the lowest common denominator of exploitive sleaze. We go for the pseudo-Japanese schoolgirl, the fervent fantasy of your average pimple-faced one-handed surfer's dreams, outfitted in ridiculously inadequate clothing (bearing no relation of course to what those kids actually wear to school, as opposed to what the porn starlets wear on the set).

Great work, guys. One step forward with female characters in games like Starcraft or Heavenly Sword, five billion light-years back with crap like this. It's precisely the kind of image that embarrasses me when I say I'm a game writer; it's precisely the kind of image that I do not want my daughter to have of what a hero or role model is. Sure, tell me that I don't get it, that it's all in fun, that it's a parody. I disagree. Crap is only crap, it is not a parody of crap.

WTF, kids. We can do better.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

As a follow-up to my presentation at the NLGD games conference, a couple of attendees have asked for further ideas on dramatic structure. For some reason, the Hero's Journey seems to be more prevalent in the consciousness of contemporary creators than more traditional paradigms like the three-act structure. This blog entry is sort of a laundry list of some of the classic dramatic structures, with occasional references to their usability in video games.

A first idea is a basic seven-point story writing structure from Algis Budrys, SF writer and educator. His article is here.

What is interesting for game design is that, for Budrys, the first three elements can be introduced in any order (character, context, problem). While this remains, of course, an entirely linear structure, any whiff of non-linearity is music to my nostrils.

Another interesting link is to this article on the three-act structure by Stephen J. Cannell, written for an on-line screenwriting course. How can you go wrong with the guy who brought us the A-Team?

Of course, there are many articles out there lambasting the three-act structure as simple, unnecessary, derivative, limiting, etc. -- pretty much how I feel about the Hero's Journey. But it does have the advantage of providing an approach to constructing and telling a story.

What is also interesting about the three-act structure, and which underlines its universality, is the classical Chinese and Japanese approach to narrative, the Kishotenketsu. Though this is a four-"act" structure, it is essentially (and unsurprisingly) identical in flow and in the order in which events occur to Western dramatic theories.

For those of you who really like to be spoon fed, here is one person's view of mapping the Hero's Journey into the Three-Act Structure, and another that maps the Hero's Journey specifically into game development.

And, of course, there are infinite resources dealing with the four- or five-act structure, as well as the seven-act structure for hour-long US TV shows and their commercial breaks. The winner, of course, is David Siegel's Nine-Act Structure. His web site no longer seems to have the information, so here is a link to another site that sums it up.

One interesting point that Siegel makes is the idea of a second goal: What the protagonist wants or thinks he wants at the beginning changes at some point during the movie. He presents this as being "non-linear", though for someone working in video games the idea of a non-linear movie is a bit risible... However, what is interesting is that it opens up the idea that one could tell a traditional mass-market story, and tie two entirely credible main throughlines to it, and let the player choose which one "happens." If the idea that the goals of the protagonist can change at midpoint is accepted and credible, why not write a game that allows you to play it out either way? Or even add more?

A final interesting point is the idea of "story arc" in televised drama. This is the idea that there are certain evolutions in the characters and environment that take place over a period of several episodes; each episode is no longer hermetic but may have consequences on future episodes. Daytime soaps, of course, have been doing this forever, so it is hard to call it "new." But to see it crawl its way in a looser form up the food chain to mainstream and prime time is interesting. And, pat on the back to SF and innovation, Babylon 5 and The X-Files were among the first to adopt this style of storytelling.

This idea of plot arc ties immediately and obviously to video game structure, where various missions or levels can have quests or objectives that are unique to the level and provide entire story arcs within each sub-section of the larger game. At the same time, the level can feed bits of the larger, overall story arc which comes to frution at the climax of the story and the gameplay.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

NLGD 2008

Wow. A great conference.

I think I got more out of this one than I did from the Lyon Game Connection last year, even though the Lyon show had more high profile names and sesssions. The difference is probably that as a presenter, I was able to talk much more easily to other presenters while still being open and accessible to the visitors.

The sessions that I saw were excellent and I'm sad that I missed so many others:
Ralph Baer, who invented the first Pong game and the Magnavox Odyssey machine, spoke about his experiences in creating the first video game.
Margaret Robinson did a great keynote on where games have come in the last 40 years and what we may look ahead to. I most heartily agreed with her opinions on comparing games and films (it's meaningless; see previous blog entries) and on what we should be doing in the industry for the 40 years to come.
Tom Armitage, a very smart guy who seems to know a bit about everything, spoke about social networks and on-line social communities and what the game industry should be thinking about. I was impressed by his examples and by the range of ways in which social networks are invading our free time (in both overt / gaming and subtle / everyday activities).
Chaim Gingold, the genius behind the Spore creature generator, gave an excellent presentation of the whole aspect of play in games (he's one of those from the games-as-toys side of the business), as well as the way in which projects evolve to ensure that the sphere of what the player wants to do is made as congruent as possible with what the player should do in the entire space of what the player can do.

I gave a presentation on game writing, which was enormous fun to do and seemed to get some decent feedback. I'll try to post it eventually for those who may be curious.

Many thanks to the organizers, who did a great job, to the city of Utrecht, which was very pleasant, and to Marjoleine Timmer, who handled all the details.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What is a good game story?

It has been the case -- or the assumption -- that since time immemorial a good story is something universal. A good story in a play will be a good story in a book or in a movie. This is, of course, assuming it is not a ham-handed adaptation from one media to another.

In other words, the assumption has been that a well-executed story in any medium, if it is taken up and placed down in a well-executed way in another medium, will still be a good story. Sufficient adaptations of Shakespeare plays exist, for example, across numerous other media. When they are well done, they are good stories. "Macbeth" becomes "Throne of Blood," "Romeo and Juliet" becomes "West Side Story" or Fellini's "Romeo and Juliet." Good stories have always been (and I shall repeat the critical caveat: 'If well executed') good stories across other media.

Yet with video games I am no longer so sure that this assumption is valid. How would one make the Macbeth game? Start off hunting ingredients for the witches, then accepting or not their interpretation of your fate? Kill Banquo or let him live, and if you live, what happens during the feast scene?

I need to think about this, because players and critics alike clamour for 'good stories' in video games, and I am one of those who is paid in order to deliver it. So the question breaks down into a few sub-topics:
  • What is a good non-video game (traditional) story, and why?
  • What is a good video game story, and why?
  • Is there common ground, and if so, what is it?
  • If there is no (or minimal) common ground, what should I be writing?
The two nouns that are coming to me, as I think about this topic, are "purpose" and "shape." I am beginning to like these two nouns. I will mull them over, and perhaps bring other friends over to meet them as I ponder these topics.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Actual scientists debate The Singularity

For those of you whose tastes run to these things, the IEEE journal has a series of on-line articles defining and discussing the idea of a "Singularity." Vinge himself plus believers and doubters chime in on the subject, and all in intelligent, academic prose.

Monday, June 02, 2008

I cannot stand The Hero's Journey

It has invaded the gaming industry like some intellectual cross of lamprey and plague. Personally, I'd like to grab Joseph Campbell and all his well-meaning Jungian metamyth discussions and flush them somewhere unspeakable. Not because of the content or the insights, of course, but because it has grown to be The Blob That Ate Creativity.

The Hero's Journey (THJ) has somehow evolved into some sort of de riguer uber-plot-structure for games. Yes, okay, you can find traces of it (intentional or not) in romantic comedy, sci fi, thrillers, everywhere. But that doesn't mean that it is necessary, and it is certainly not sufficient. People with no idea of any other story structure and who have never attempted a long work (novel, movie, full-length game) have somehow fallen victim to the idea that it is the only way that a story can be told.

For crying out loud, I reviewed a game story done by writing 'consultants' who tried to use THJ for a casual equestrian game. It's basically a light story layer that supports the catch horses - train horses - race horses gameplay. "Guys," I said, "You ever heard of the 3-act structure? Maybe that's plenty?"

Creators from Shakespeare to Hitchcock seem to have been able to produce reasonably acceptable fare without using it as a crutch. So WTF is this with the game industry that suddenly every plot has to have some sort of "Conforms to standards" official THJ stamp?

"No," I told the consultants, "jumping the gully is not the same thing as obtaining access to The Inner Cave." Sheesh. I'm surprised they didn't insist that the female protagonist be the son of a king and his royal virgin wife...

Fundamentally, I do not believe that every story with a hero must necessarily go through the phases of THJ. Lucas did it well in the original Star Wars trilogy, but he also did the more recent (and resoundingly godawful) Star Wars trilogy. THJ is not a miracle cure.

Where will THJ be when we have multiple protagonists? When we're developing interactive storylines that lead to several possible resolutions? THJ is by definition a highly stylized and rigidly structured plot, with a traditional hero, that unfolds through fixed progression points to a pre-defined ending. It's everything that is not useful to game writers; it's everything that you don't need a computer for.

As game writers we have enough limits on our plots and characters -- time, artwork, technology, budgets, animation, sound design, politics, competitors, bad designers -- that we don't need to be adding new ones ourselves.

Still, Cambell deserves our thanks. He did good work. We should all read it, we should all learn it. And we should all leave it in the toolbox for those occasaions when it is necessary, right next to the 90° screwdriver and the coping saw.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

There Will Be Blood

A fascinating film about a fascinating
character. The movie follows a California oilman from 1898 to 1927 as
he builds his petroleum empire. The protagonist is intense,
passionate, exceedingly misanthropic, vengeful, and full of hate. It
is an amazing character study and a brilliant performance by Daniel
Day Lewis.
What really got me to thinking, however, is that the
movie didn't really have or need an antagonist. There is the ongoing
conflict with the local preacher (another thoroughly dislikeable
character that is also brilliantly written and portrayed).
preacher is not really an antagonist, however, as he never has the
ability to block the protagonist from achieving his objectives. In
classical dramatic theory, that is pretty much the antagonist's role.
Here the preacher is a foil, and a source of conflict, but hardly
something insurmountable.
What it makes me wonder is if the
protagonist and the antagonist are not rolled up into one character.
With so many of his own demons and obsessions, the protagonist
doesn't really need anyone else causing problems or inhibiting his
progress. The protagonist, simply because of who he is, fulfils this
role quite well himself.
Numerous other characters arrive and are
treated the same way -- they are foils for the protagonist's actions
and character development. The brother, the son, the rancher and his
daughter are all minor puppets on the stage.
It is almost a
fictional biopic rather than a classical drama, with a central figure
so compelling and intense that the drama and the interest are
maintained throughout the film.


Like, I think, 90% of the inhabitants of first world countries, Lidia and I were plagued by a room full of books hosted on cheap IKEA shelves. The shelves accreted over the years; somehow I had the feeling that each time we took them down to move they reproduced in the trucks so that we had more when we unpacked.
We're both book lovers, but we were stuck in a home office with these walls of ugly brown fake wood shelves with the structural integrity of a famous Pisan landmark. They were old, unattractive, flimsy, and generally unloved. So... what to do?
Solution 1: Sliding shelves.! Space efficient, cool, elegant... Estimate: $15,000. Oh.
Solution 2: Extend the office space. Estimate: Legally impossible. Ooops.
Solution 3: One day, after a bit of brainstorming, we came up with the idea of ... hiding them. Seriously. A brilliant idea.
We contracted our friend Krzys (one of the apocryphal Polish handymen that the French seem to fear will undermine their way of life) to take care of it.
He set the IKEA shelves plumb, attached them to each other and the wall so that they were nice and sturdy, and hung simple white sliding panels in front. Ta daaaa! Things of beauty. One day we will take over-sized photos and decorate the panels with them; for the moment they're fine like this.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Me at the NLGD

This is cool -- I will be doing a games writing presentation at a developer's conference in Holland in June. The topic is relatively open, but I will be in particular discussing the integration of story into game design, and the problems and techniques of handling narrative (in particular multiple narratives) in a game story.
More information on the conference can be found at their site.
The dates are June 18 to 20, and my presentation will be on the 19th.
Pictures and bios of the presenters can be found here.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

These are further thoughts inspired by Richard Dansky's blog entry (mentioned earlier). I responded to him, saying:

"No further proof of the fundamental artistic gap between movie and game is needed than that of the games that are made as tie-ins with movies."

For those of you who don't know, they have a history of being awful, or at best, acceptable.

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that there are more fundamental differences between these art forms than there are similarities. We seem to be hooked on the idea that because they are both viewed on screens, or because they both depend heavily on dialogue, they must be similar.

It is true that there is a great deal of cross-pollination between them. Games strive to have the setting and atmosphere of great movies. Movies, it seems, with the surge in the use of hand-held cameras, seem to be going for the POV visuals and visceral feel of games. Blockbusters in both of these media share a preference for epic plots, large explosions, and larger-than-life heroes and villains.

But on the subject of storytelling, the two arts have little in common. Movies from a storytelling point of view are merely books with moving pictures, animated graphic novels, or theater plays with big budgets. Telling a story via a movie, play, or book is fundamentally similar:
  1. The observer is passive; there is no influence over the advancement of the plot.
  2. There is by necessity a single story line, all characters are immutable, and all actions pre-ordained.
  3. The consumer is absorbing, watching, listening; in the case of books they are using their imagination.

Games, however, are fundamentally different:
  1. The consumer is active, choosing (within the limits of the game design) what will happen next.
  2. As there are multiple possibilities, there should be multiple outcomes. Characters in the game are expected to react differently to the player depending on the player's previous actions. Choice is limited (or else the game project becomes infinitely large), but within this the player is free to act as they wish.
  3. The consumer is reacting, thinking, and involved as a participant.

And these are just the macro issues. From the purpose of the dialogues to the character that says them to the intended effect on the audience, the building blocks of games and movies serve different purposes.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Lidia and I decided to spend a romantic weekend there and yes, it is worth doing. There is no point in going on about the wonderful and fascinating combination of history and politics that form the backdrop of the city; others have written of it elsewhere and better. I will simply say that it is a great city for walking around, and an excellent city for modern architecture.

Pictures of our adventures are here.

And what do you know, from mid-March to mid-April it is also a phenomenal city for eating. There is a yearly festival / contest between 30 or so of the best restaurants in the city. They each provide a cheap menu of what is usually very expensive food, with the idea of enticing the average bier-and-wurst-eater to try something better. Kudos to them; it was brilliant and we did it two of our three nights. For planning your 2009 excursion here is the web site:

Our choices were the Zille-Stube and the Atelier im Maritim.

We stayed at a hotel called the Upstalsboom in an up-and-coming area called Friedrichshain.

Berlin is fun. We saw a movie at the awesome Sony Plaza, ogled the architecture, and ate well.

Spotted in Berlin

Extreme weirdness. Who would ever name anything "Titanic", particularly when it's a travel agency?

Friday, April 04, 2008

Why storytelling in games has problems

Here are two lines from a job offer for a "Content Designer":

- Good programming or game scripting skills (basic C++ or Java or game scripting).
- Good creative writing skills and imaginative storyline ideas.

There you go -- just hire a coder who can write. Who needs a writer?

Monday, March 31, 2008

"Where No Fed Has Gone Before"

I quote this; it is the title of a BusinessWeek article on the injection/loan/fibrillator treatment that the Fed gave Bear Stearns.

Spec fiction is everywhere, and Star Trek has become part and parcel even of business culture.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The joy of foreign languages

In the US, it's a well-known baby food: Gerber.

In French, it means "to puke".

It's little discoveries like this that make all the hours worth it.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Why kids _really_ need to watch movies with a responsible adult next to them

Because if they don't, they'll learn bad science and be incompetent as members of an advanced society (okay, maybe...).

Interbreeding with aliens? Moving slowly in low gravity? Explosions in space? Movie directors are idiots? You be the judge.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Survival of the arts in an on-line world

According to the news media (and their owners/backers who have a stake in the perception of the truth), free downloading, peer-to-peer, and loaning copies to friends will mean the demise of all forms of creative artistry. The argument goes that as created works are distributed for free, the artists will not receive money. The artists will therefore not produce, and mass culture as we know it will implode.

There are a number of enormous holes in the argument, the hard ones being a) people are still willing to pay to have the quality of the DVD plus its special features, or the features of the game discs plus included artwork, or the fidelity of the CD plus its liner notes in flippable form, etc., b) people who download and share tend to be people who buy, but we are in an age where p2p and social networks are the trusted ways to find new music, c) entertainment budgets that used to only go to books, movies, and records now get split up among books (and on-line books and self-published books and sites like, and movies (and their corresponding DVDs and downloads and Netflix etc.), CDs [with monopolistic price gouging (but that's a separate discussion) and iTunes and indie labels etc.], the enormous business of video games (which didn't exist in this scale ten years ago and certainly takes a nice chunk of disposable income), plus everything else that you can spend your spare change on that didn't exist ten or fifteen years ago. And this is without even discussing the "soft" questions of convenience, time invested, and attention span.

But whether you drink the MPAA/RIAA Kool-Aid or not, the question remains: In an age where creative content can be easily copied and distributed and thus becomes essentially free, how does the artist/creator make money?

There are some simple solutions that most companies are exploiting, such as:
1. Include goodies in the object you buy in the store that make it more interesting than the object you download for free. Yes, it costs more, but historical operating margins were ludicrously overblown. Think of it as justice for the consumer.
2. Make additional content available (e.g. on-line) only to customers who have a key from the original item. This is easy to track, and is especially popular for games.
3. Make the quality of the original item higher than anything other than an enormously large download.

But those are not really solutions, because they are simply attempts to perfect a business model that seems doomed in the medium term. They are band-aids.

The best discussion of that I have seen to date on how to really actually survive as an artist, using the business structures and environments that have been provided by the on-line world, is on Kevin Kelly's blog here:

The idea is that if you have (say) 1,000 true fans, who wll always buy your stuff in whatever form it comes out, you have enough to support yourself pretty well. If each true fan coughs up $100 of pocket money per year on your creations, you can certainly continue to make a fine living from them. He goes on to discuss microfinancing and other ways for beginning artists to get started, and it is certainly worth a read if you have skin in this game.

Kelly's ideas continue on the now ancient premise (from way back in the nineties) of disintermediation; as long as the middle-man does not add perceptible value he will be bypassed. Perceptible value is provided by talking and sharing with friends or listening to radio stations that have your tastes. Perceptible value -- particularly in music and cinema -- is essentially zero for the labels and production companies. I have never heard in my life, nor will I, statements like, "Hey, have you heard the latest band from Universal?" or "Look at this! New Line has a movie coming out!" The perceived value to the consumer of these brands approximates zero. The music that the band makes has value, the distribution stream used to get the music to the consumer has value. Napster had value. A CD can be made in the studio for $500 and distributed on-line, and there is no going back.

The simple facts remain that consumers are not essentially evil, and that people are willing to pay for what they perceive to be valuable, but that neither legislation nor marketing can roll back perceptions of value that have been so fundamentally altered.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Game writing and movies -- nice essay by Richard Dansky

On his shared blog Richard has written a nice bit about movies and games -- and why the two forms of entertainment have nothing whatsoever to do with each other.

The Queen and the Lycans

A great movie, with Helen Mirren justifiably a multi-prize winner for her role as Queen Elizabeth.

I had to smile when I saw it, though, because of the actor who played Tony Blair. First off he was great; he projected that mix of excitement and naïvete and hard-headed media savvy that Blair seemed to have. But the reason I smiled is because I recognized him from another role -- Lucian, the leader of the Lycans in the "Underworld" movie series.

Hah! This staid British actor, portraying the highest elected official in Her Majesty's Government, also has had to spout lines like:

"We were slaves once. The daylight guardians of the vampires. I was born into servitude. Yet I harbored them no ill will. Even took a vampire for my bride. It
was forbidden, our union. Viktor feared a blending of the species.
Feared it so much he killed her. His own daughter. Burnt alive for
loving me."

Hey, everyone has to pay the heating bills.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Integrating the story into a game (process)

Here are some musings on how one could approach the question. This is hardly a recommendation, and even less an explanation of the "right" way to do things. It's simply a process that seems to be effective.

The key advantages are that it is iterative, that it starts at a high level at the same time that the designers are mulling over what the game will look like, and it tries to ensure that design and story develop together rather than separately or serially.

First Document: Pitch
This is really a marketing/business oriented text with the setting, a few main characters, the basic story arc, and how it fits in the series/IP/brand. It's a 2-3 page overview that has 0 gameplay elements.

Second Document: Synopsis
Here the story gets broken down into macro chunks: Campaigns/settings/levels, major characters/NPCs, and maybe major missions/arcs within the overall plot. Gameplay may be included, but it's more along the lines of ideas, suggestions, possible new features, etc. Up until this point the designers have been working on their pre-production issues, so the process shouldn't be slowing them down.

Third document: Scenario
Now we start getting to the point where we have to think about gameplay. Here the story is translated into the game chunks that the player sees -- campaigns, levels, objectives, maps. Because at this point we are creating the quests and NPCs that will drive the player's actions, integrating the story and the gameplay is a necessity.
However, since the developers have contributed to the documents created so far, and since in practical terms we are already exchanging ideas of how to make certain plotlines/quests work, we don't run into the "not invented here" syndrome.

From here on in the classic writing elements finally come into play: Writing dialogue, doing the in-game texts, refining the characters and the story details. Without the upstream part, however, the story will feel pasted on to the gameplay, and the player risks seeing scenes and hearing dialogue that have nothing to do with the actions he is taking.

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

More thoughts about gameplay and story structure

It seems to me that the discussion of storytelling and games is hampered by the basic fact that a lot of games don't really need or want to tell stories. Think of Tetris, or chess, or gin rummy -- games that are intrinsically story-less. One could say that there is even a bit of story in Monopoly; the kind of story where you regale listeners with who landed on what and who had to mortgage his hotels to pay for it. That's not writer-directed story, but it's certainly a series of events and obstacles with protagonists and antagonists leading to a climax. By most literary definitions, that is the backbone of story.

But I think that this definition of "story" is misleading, because unlike in Monopoly, story has a purpose in most video games. In a huge, open RPG game the story guides the player and tells him where to go next -- or, in a more dramatic way, tells him where his unique services / skills are needed next to forestall the collapse of civilization as we know it. The story is not merely dramatic, it is practical. It serves both a narrative purpose, and a pragmatic one.

So it seems to me that, depending upon the type of game, what we call story has widely different functions. I am batting around a list of these ideas, trying to see what may and may not make sense.

1. For anything in the FPS-Survival horror-Action-Suspense genre, the story really drives the gameplay. The player has a total immersion in the game world; even the tips and hints are often given in the guise of NPC's or in-game documents, furthering the sense of immersion in the immediate environment.
The point of view (cinematically speaking, not literarily speaking) is first person or tight third person. The game advances in a series of quick, action-filled, life-or-death moments where the player must constantly move and take decisions.
In the literary world, this is classic hard-boiled private eye stuff. Tight first person, action and violence, life-or-death stakes.
The purpose of the story is to drive the gameplay, to lead the player almost by the nose into (and perhaps even through) the next series of obstacles and challenges. The gameplay is largely linear, though it may pretend not to be with a series of linear-but-parallel sub-quests available.

Okay. Now I have to go off and think about other literary and ludological genres, and how they compare.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Game writing: Back to the basics

I am working on a (potential) article about beginning game writing, but in trimming the article an awful lot of thoughts are ending up on the cutting room floor. I'll drop some of those into my blog from time to time, because writing these things out helps me to better understand the proces of game writing and what I have learned.

The problem for a fiction writer is that writing games is like writing a story, but without the story part.

I jest. It's actually like writing a story, but without exposition, setting, internal dialogue, description -- it's writing a story when you can't say a thing about what's going on in the protagonist's brain, because the protagonist is the player. They have to know what's going on anyway, and you yank their chair-shaped butts right through the fourth wall if you dare to actually stop and tell them.

Everything happens through what the player sees, what the player chooses to do, and what dialogue the player hears and/or selects. Those are the only colors left out of the fiction writer's entire palette for creating the story--visual setting, action, and dialogue. Three damn fine ones, admittedly, but they make it a real exercise to develop an entire picture without using all the others tools that a fiction writer usually relies on.

It's even worse, actually, because all you can do is hint at what the action should be; leave a trail of breadcrumbs that the player will hopefully want to follow. The more you make him follow a given path, the less he feels like he's playing the game and the more he feels like the game is playing him.

And that's really the big difference. You can't say what your protagonist is going to do, only the player can say that. You can lead him by the nose, but the heavier the hand is that guides the player's actions, the less immersive and interesting the story becomes. If things go that way you get what I think of as "dramatic rupture" -- it's not the player's story any more because the player doesn't feel like they made it happen. Instead, the player feels like it's someone else's story and they're just along for the ride.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

The Pradaic Devil

A fun movie. Snappy dialogue, rich characters, the incomparable Meryl Streep, glamour and glitz.

Except for one thing that really annoyed me; the writers wimped out. They wimped out when the protagonist, Andy, was chosen over her supervisor, Emily, to make the trip-of-a-lifetime to Paris. And Andy had to break the news. It should be a difficult moment; Andy, as the up-and-coming acolyte, has to tell her mentor that she has been replaced. It was stressed at several points during the movie that the entire focus of Emily's life is this trip to Paris.

So it should be an intense moment. Andy, who has clawed her way up in the face of her own doubts, the loss of her friends (and boyfriend), and the toughness of her boss, must tell the person who trained her that it is now Andy who is top dog. Emily loses; Emily is out. Emily is being replaced. There should be anger! Angst! Recriminations! Shattered dreams! Catfights!

But none of this happened.

Conveniently, Emily gets hit by a taxi and breaks her leg. She can't go to Paris anyway; she is still angry that she couldn't have gone but it's a whole different story. Andy is exonerated, she didn't have to be cruel, she didn't have to take and then impose a morally difficult decision. She didn't have to carry the responsibility of the act, she wasn't forced to confront the results of her actions.

Boring. A letdown.

The writers wimped out.

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