After The Climax

bort.rose.150I recently finished reading a book that had a good thirty or more pages after the climactic fight scene.  It shook out the ramifications of the fight over a few encounters on a couple different days and let you know the status of all the people involved who had survived and even gave a hint at the direction future books might take without actually dangling a cliffhanger on the reader.  Movies are often like this too.  The climax hits and then you get anywhere from five to twenty minutes of tying up the story and letting you know what the climax means to the world this story has inhabited.

Games aren’t often like that.  Many games practically end with the climax.  Boss monster dies, “You win!!” flashes on the screen and the credits roll.  Other times, games slide in a movie ending, a pre-rendered cut scene that ties up the story and maybe lets you know what the climax means to the world the game took place in.  But that is sort of a cop-out.  That isn’t really a game ending, its a movie ending tacked on to a game.

This months Round Table tasks us…

How can the denouement be incorporated into gameplay? In literary forms, it is most often the events that take place after the plot’s climax that form your lasting opinion of the story. A well constructed denouement acts almost as a payoff, where protagonists and antagonists alike realize and adjust to the consequences of their actions. Serial media often ignored the denouement in favor of the cliffhanger, in order to entice viewers to return. Television has further diluted the denouement by turning it into a quick resolution that tidily fits into the time after the final commercial break.

But the denouement is most neglected in video games where it is often relegated to a short congratulatory cut scene, or at most–a slide show of consequences. This month’s topic challenges you to explore how the denouement can be expressed as gameplay.

So, how can the denouement be expressed through game play?

The simplest answer is just to continue the game mechanics into an interactive version of the cut scene.  If the game included NPCs throughout that you would talk to or exchange items with, continue that.  After the fight, put the player back in the game and make them take the sword they took off the demon lord back to the town and see it destroyed (try, of course, to avoid cramming in another boss battle or cliffhanger by making a town elder or someone grab the sword and fight you or run off with it).

A slight twist on that is to leave the actual end of the game up to the player.  Maybe during the game several people expressed interest in the sword, either for destroying or using, and let the player take it to whom he thinks deserves it most, let them pick the ending they want to see.  After the final boss battle, let the player go finish up some quests or other elements that give them story pieces concerning their actions and the other characters in the game world.

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance did this in a way.  The game could be completed without actually winning every level and side quest, and one level in particular required you to choose between two characters which one to save.  While the end of the game was nothing more than a series of cut scenes, it was a series that was built on the actions you did or did not take throughout the game.  The denouement of the game changed depending on the player’s performance.  The only failure here is that during the playing of the game, the player has no idea that this denouement will happen, they just play through so the choices they make don’t have the weight they might because the player isn’t really aware those choices are going to matter.

In the future, I’d love to see more games go at least as far as Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, but would really love it to see them go further and let me explore and control the end of the game a bit more.  The worst thing I think that could happen is to have a single player game climax and then roll into an MMO where you’ll meet up with other players who experienced the same single player game, where each of you was the hero and fought alone against the same bad guy boss.  That, in my opinion, would just render the entire single player game story irrelevant.  I suppose that’s why I tend to dislike most MMO tutorials.

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That Which You Must Do

Time is running out. This describes both my entry for the February Blogs of the Round Table, and also the subject of my entry.

Turning Over a New Leaf: (We’re trying something new with the topic this month, so please read carefully.) February’s BoRT invites you take a game design suggested by another blogger in last month’s Round Table and build upon it. You should ignore the literary source of the original design, but attempt to communicate the same themes and/or convey the same mood as the original game. This means you can alter the game genre, change the setting, and add new layers to the game mechanics. This is not an opportunity to critique a previous design, but to honor it by striving to reach the same goals, while adding your own personal touch.

So, despite two people already choosing this one, I’m taking Living Epic’s entry on Oedipus.  Only, I’m just stripping a couple ideas out of it and mixing it with a few thoughts stolen from other games and hopefully producing a design that is unique.

What I’m stripping out of his design is in two parts.  First is the idea of a fixed timeline.  Now, this isn’t new to games.  Anyone who has played Dead Rising has dealt with this: the helicopter arrives in three days, exactly, and if you aren’t there you get left behind.  But what makes this different in the second idea: that you are not the main character of the main story.  Imagine if Dead Rising wasn’t about Frank getting on the helicopter in three days, but that someone else had to be on the helicopter, and Frank didn’t matter.  In Roger’s Oedipus, you don’t play Oedipus, or even one of the other named characters in the play.  He has a fixed timeline where some version of the story will happen even if you do nothing, but you can affect the outcome by participating.

My game based around these two elements is set in a medieval world.  At the beginning, you choose a character, of which several will be available, ranging from the village drunk to a member of the city watch, from a peasant farmer to a wealthy noble.  Each character has a brief story in which they are introduced to the other people in their immediate lives, shown how little they matter to the world around them, and informed of the upcoming coronation of the new king.  The old king died, and his son, just eighteen, is set to take the throne in three days.  Just as the player finishes the introduction of their character, a haggard old wizard appears before them.  “There isn’t time,” he says, “but time is all we have.”  He reaches for the player and upon his touch a burst of energy flows from the wizard into the player.  The wizard’s voice fills the player’s mind, “There exists a fragile balance, and there are things that must be done.  The boy must become king.”  The wizard dies and the player is given access to The Timeline.

What the player learns is that they have gained the ability to affect time in two ways.  Firstly, they can open the whole timeline and send themselves back to any decision point within the game, even all the way back to where the wizard lays at their feet.  Second, in a Braid-like fashion, they can reverse time backwards at any time, up to a few minutes.  Like it is used in Braid, the purpose of the second ability is to let a player quickly be able to undo immediate actions.  Did you punch a guard when you should have hidden from him?  The purpose of the first is to be able to jump all the way back to any major decision point (quest objective) and proceed from there, wiping out everything you’ve done since then.

There are stories going on around the player, events that if the player doesn’t interfere will happen on a schedule.  If a player chooses, they can ignore the entire rest of the game, follow the boy who is to become king around, protect him from any plots against him, and win the game in the most boring way possible.  Or… the player can explore the whole city, undertaking tasks and quests and unfolding smaller stories.  Periodically, the wizard’s voice will tell the player of an event that must happen.  “The chef should cook the chicken.”  It is left open to the player how they get the chef to make chicken instead of the steak dinner he is planning.  You can steal the steaks.  You can buy the spices from the spice seller before the chef can get them.  Physically threaten the chef?  Each character (the drunk, the noble, the peasant, etc) will have different avenues available to them for each puzzle.  With any event that does not directly stop the boy from becoming king, failure doesn’t lose the game, but simply puts the player down another avenue.  For example, if you don’t stop the chef and he cooks the steaks, later you might get an objective like “The steak might kill the boy.”  In this case, you can either prevent him from eating the steak in some way, or try to discover why the steak shouldn’t be eaten and make sure the steak is safe.  In addition to the main storyline, each player character will have their own stories.  Perhaps the farmer peasant wishes to marry the butcher’s daughter.

The game ends with the coronation ceremony.  No matter who gets made king.  The prologue of the game will be crafted out of the successes, failures and choices you made along the way.  If the boy becomes king but you didn’t reveal the conspirators, he may not be safe.  If you are the noble and you steal the steaks from the chef, the drunk is blamed and is thrown in prison on charges of theft.  Did you leave him there?  Did you admit to the theft to set him free?  If you’ve played Marvel Ultimate Alliance, you’ve seen this sort of thing, as at the end of the game the “future” is told by the Watcher based on the results of your game and all its optional quests.

And there you have my idea… an open, sandbox type world, with personal and external story lines, all of which happen on a fixed timeline, and the end of the game is built out of what you did during the fixed time.

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Illusions the Game

The first Round Table of 2009 is as follows:

Putting the Game Before the Book What would your favorite piece of literature look like if it had been created as a game first? In a time when bits of Dante’s Divine Comedy are being carved out and turned into a hack-n-slash game, I find myself longing for intelligently designed games–games with a strong literary component–not merely literary backdrops. So rather than challenge you to imagine the conversion of your favorite literature into games, I challenge you to supersede the source literature and imagine a game that might have tried to communicate the same themes, the same message, to its audience.

So, anyone who knows me well knows immediately what book I picked, but as fast as I picked that book I also ruled it out.  My first thoughts were of how impossible it would be to make a game that illustrates the same message.  I then spent several days trying to pick another book, another piece of literature, something else… but it was a fruitless search, and I knew that in the end I would have to accept the challenge and try to design a game with the idea that it existed in the same place as the book had the book not existed.  I racked my brain looking at computer games and card games and board games and schoolyard games and everything I could think of to craft my game out of, and it was then that I realized that it didn’t matter.

First, allow me to introduce you to the book, which I feel is one of the finest if not the finest piece of literature ever written, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach.  The story is about a man who decided to get away from the life he had and trying to figure out what live he wanted by getting in a biplane and taking up barnstorming (flying around, stopping at small towns and offering to take people up while you do turns and loops and whatnot for a small fee).  This man, Richard, has an unlikely meeting with another barnstormer, Donald, who is the Reluctant Messiah of the title.  Richard is a man escaping the world because of all the restrictions in it, and Donald is a man escaping the world because the people refuse to see it has no restrictions.  Donald teaches Richard that the world is nothing but illusions, that anything is possible and that the only limitations anyone has are the ones they insist upon themselves, and the only things that really matter are entertainment, learning and other people.

For our game, let me start by paraphrasing a quote often found on the back cover of the book:

Here is
a test to find
whether your mission in game
is finished:
If you’re playing,
it isn’t.

If Illusions were to be a card game, it would be like Mao, only it isn’t just the dealer who knows the rules and unveils them, everyone participates.  If Illusions were a schoolyard sport, it would be like Calvinball.  In fact, if you look around, other variations of the “make up the rules as you go along” game exist for pretty much any medium.  Even MMOs have their sandboxes (Second Life, etc), and even in more rigid MMOs (World of Warcraft, etc) the game itself has no defined end and it is up to the player to decide under which conditions they consider the game to be “finished”.

Of course, getting people to want to play a game that has no rules (but potentially has all rules) is tough.  Without the rules, most people won’t know what to do, and whether they realize it or not, their dislike of the “game” is probably tied to its similarity to “life”.  The game is what you make of it, as much as life is what you make of it… and that is the point.  In whatever form the game were to be presented, a player could easily make up a rule that allows them to instantly “win”, however the question isn’t whether or not they won but if they enjoyed it, if they got something out it.  Maybe by throwing down the “I win” card in the first round they do get something out of it, they smile, they laugh, and yet if they do it enough they might find that no one wants to play with them anymore, which itself is an opportunity for learning: if you want to play with other people, other people have to have the opportunity of winning.

As you make up and play with new rules, you discover how they affect you and those around you, and you can find which rules lead to the most fun in the game, for everyone, and those are the rules that you will end up keeping around.

Back in High School, a group of friends and I would play cards at lunch.  On days when people were angry at stuff we sometimes played Egyptian Ratscrew (though we used the F-word instead of “screw” because we were teenagers), but that could lead to much pain, so more often than not we played Mao (mentioned above).  And while one guy was the one who brought us the game and the initial set of rules, each dealer was allowed to craft their own set, as long as they named it (so that players could file rules learned under a heading for later play).  We had tons of fun making up rule sets and yelling at others when the rules that were made stunk (the lunch monitors had to drop by and ask us to quiet down at least once a day as we got into heated disputes).  In the end, the rules that stayed and made their way into every dealer’s set were the ones that made people laugh, even when they forgot the rule and got penalty cards.  By the time we crafted the master rule set that we settled on (called “Neo-Einteinian” if I recall correctly), players no longer cared if they won or lost the game, they just loved playing it, and to me that should be the goal of every game.

So, as you can see, I deviated from the stated purpose of this month’s Round Table as I didn’t actually design a game for my book, but I think that’s because the fundamental message of the book is actually the fundamental message of game design in general.  The creation of any game is an exercise in the game of Illusions.

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Early Gaming Memories

Another month, another Round Table.

This month, Corvus has asked people to recount their earliest family gaming memories… so, let’s crank up the wayback machine and hit the road…

I think the earlier memory I have of gaming was my father bringing home a Pong system.  It played four games, which were all essentially the same game with slight variations.  But the thing I remember about it isn’t playing it, because Pong is a highly forgettable game… no, instead what I remember most is getting it connected and functioning on our small black and white TV in the kitchen.  Well, they sure as heck weren’t going to let us kids use the good TV for games, and I don’t think anyone ever intended that ancient B&W TV to be hooked to a game system.  I remember us sitting there while dad read the manual about how to hook the adapter to the antenna inputs, how to set the switch and tune the TV, and how it didn’t work on channel 3, but it worked on channel 4.  And we sat at the kitchen table, as a family, and traded the paddles around playing video games at home.

Some time after that, we got an Atari 2600.  This led to marathon sessions of Pitfall, Yar’s Revenge, Maze Craze and tons of other titles.  Particularly, my older brother and I trying to “flip” games, which means running through all the levels the designers made and having the game start you back at level 1 while often maintaining certain difficulty settings (like speed of enemies or rate of fire).  And yes, we owned and played E.T. and it was a crappy game, but at the time we didn’t know that, we just thought it was hard, not broken.  But one of my personal favorite games for the 2600 was Basic Programming.  It was my first introduction to the idea that I could make the computer do what I wanted it to do.  Well… within reason.  It was very limited, but you could make little pictures on the screen or make it beep and sound sort of like music.  I think I can honestly say that I owned more games for the Atari 2600 that I did for any other console, and possibly even the PC, although with the PC it is hard to keep track.

I can’t say my parents were ever much involved with my gaming after Pong, but my brothers definitely were.  Playing against each other, or with each other, or just watching each other play, entire days were sometimes spent in front of the Atari.  Especially Star Raiders, which had a second special controller so that one person would fly the ship and shoot while the other played navigator.  This shared gaming continued up through the PC and the NES, and even now with each of us owning our own homes we all have Xbox 360s and occationally play online (or everyone meets up at one house to rock out with some Rock Band).

Did this have an effect on me as a gamer?  I’d have to say it absolutely did.  Over the years I always gravitated toward games that allowed multiple players, even better if it was cooperative play.  And I still lean that way now.  I tend to lose interest in games I play by myself, mostly because I end up being able to notice their design patterns and predict outcomes, but another human player always holds the capability of surprising me, of doing something unexpected.  While I have run every race in Paradise City, its the Freeburns and online racing where I have the most fun.

And it has even fed into my desires to make games.  I don’t dream of making the next Galaga or some other single player adventure.  I dream of making the next online sensation, something that brings people together.  And I dream of playing them with my brothers.

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There and Back Again

No, this has nothing to do with The Hobbit.  If that’s what you were looking for when you found this page, I’m sorry.

Instead, this is my entry for this month’s Round Table discussion:

We’re heading out of the summer movie blockbuster season and into the autumnal video game blockbuster season. What better time to take a look at the transition of intellectual property from the big screen to the little screen? From traditional media to interactive media? Why do so many movie-based video games fail to capture the spirit of their big screen counterparts? Is it because video games can’t tell stories as well? Is it due to budget issues? Scheduling issues? Or something more sinister (Hollywood moles attempting to undermine the rising influence of video games on consumer spending habits, perhaps)? What movie based games have succeeded? Why? How could they be better? This month’s Round Table invites you to explore video games based on Hollywood IP. Focus on a specific game, or a specific franchise, or the idea as a whole. Take a look at the business realities, design constraints, or marketing pressures. As always, your approach is entirely up to you.

The problem that I always have with adaptations of film or books into video games is that a book is written for you to hold in your hand and turn the pages, one after the other, from the beginning to the end; and films are made to be watched from your seat, for the 90 minutes to three hours it takes to tell the tale.  Games are not, or at least in my opinion should not be, designed for you to sit in front of your PC while the story unfolds in front of you.  Games should involve the player, actually involve them, not just emotionally, but physically.  The game can’t progress from start to finish without the player, at least in part, deciding how to get there.

When most movies are made into games, if I enjoyed the movie, then there is a 99.9% chance I will not enjoy the game.  Because the game isn’t the movie.  Its close, the narrative might be there… but when I watched the movie, the hero didn’t have to stop and play Bejewelled to unlock doors.  And if my participation in a game is limited to playing mini-games in order for the cut scenes to play, then I’m not interested.  The game play needs to support the story, the story needs to unfold in the gameplay, not around the outsides of it.

In a similar fashion, games turned into films suffer the same fate.  They take a game where the player is involved in the story, assisting to help it unfold, and then throwing the gamer out of the equation.  Now, you don’t get to help, you just get to watch.  Its even worse when a game does allow the player to mold the story, because then the movie is just one aspect of the story and is going to match only some of the players’ experiences.  Or worse, since the game won’t directly translate to film, they just go make up a bunch of stuff so that its not really the game any more but just some (usually bland) story with a flavor of the game.

And just like how the book is most often better than the movie… when a game takes 20 hours of solid play to complete, compacting that down to under 2 tends to hurt the story.  If the game came first, most often it is going to be better than the movie.

Personally, I think that games and movies should stay away from each other, except as inspiration.  At best, they should tell completely different stories, often with different characters, but inspired by the existance of the other.

But I don’t make games or movies, what do I know?  Well, I know that I almost never buy games based on movies, and rarely enjoy movies based on games.  Yeah, I said I “rarely enjoy” the movies, because I’m a sucker for films and I’ll see just about anything.

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Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned from Video Games

This month’s Round Table is about learning from video games.  The truth is that I actually learned quite a bit from video games.  From things as simple as Math Blaster forcing me to be able to do math fast enough to win, to budget management in games like Sim City, to teamwork and risk versus reward evaluation in EverQuest.  Games can teach quite a bit, in many cases they teach the same way life teaches: through experience.  You do, you learn.

Of course, not everything you do in games is a quality learning experience, and some games are best approached as a game only and not a lesson to be learned.  For example, no matter how many Grand Theft Auto games come out, hopefully no one “learns” that killing hookers is a decent source of cash.

The title of this entry is moderately tongue in cheek… because, obviously, I didn’t learn everything I needed to know from video games.  I learned plenty of things from TV, movies, comic books and an old homeless Navy man named Morty.

I’m kidding about the homeless guy… or am I?

But what exactly could I pretend I learned from video games?

Dungeon Keeper taught me that I can get more work from people if I beat them, but that beating them costs moral and breaks their spirits, so while they may work faster, they won’t respect me or be loyal.  Sim City showed me how to balance a budget, and understand that no matter how great things were, Godzilla might still come and destroy everything.  EverQuest taught me to be nice to people in random encounters because you never know when someone you chose to shit on is going to be the recruiting officer of that guild you want to join, or when its going to be that guy who you helped get his corpse back when no one else would.  Burnout Paradise showed me that you can work hard, pay attention, and be great, but the cross traffic at the intersections are still going to get you now and then.  Playing almost any console game online has made me understand the importance of preparation, because there is nothing more frustrating than playing with someone who jumped online and into your room as his first action, without even knowing how the controls work.  King’s Quest III taught me the importance of semantics by only allowing certain words, conjugations and word combinations to mean anything, everything else was frustration.  Warlords, and many other turn based and real time strategy games, showed me the importance of production schedules and how to think ahead before committing to decisions.  And Dead Rising taught me that when the zombie hordes come, everything is a weapon.

Of course, little of that is strictly true.  I don’t have any fantastic story about how a game helped me overcome dyslexia or cure cancer, but I do feel that games have, throughout my life, helped encourage and reinforce certain aspects of my education.  And I think that almost any game has that potential, given the right context and perhaps a guiding voice (of a teacher or parent).  Sometimes, though, games simply provided a break from learning, a rest for my brain, so that I could attack learning again later with renewed vigor.

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Somewhere Between Impossible and Impossibly Easy

This month over at Man Bytes Blog’s Round Table, the topic is game difficulty.

When I try to think of examples of games that I played that are either “too hard” or “too easy”, I usually wind up going way back to the King’s Quest and Hero’s Quest series of games by Sierra.  Of all the games I have ever played, I think that King’s Quest III: To Heir Is Human is probably the most difficult game I ever played.  Not because it was really all that hard to figure out or challenging, but because the game used a typed interface and required keywords, which were not provided to you.  If you wanted to pick up a duck and put it in a pot it might take a good thirty minutes or more to discover that you needed to “get pot”, then “hold pot” and finally walk to the duck and “put duck in pot”.  It was, in a way, very similar to the maddening “open eyes” command you needed to execute at the beginning of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text game, only it happened a lot more frequently.  On the other end of the spectrum, Hero’s Quest employed an almost entirely mouse driven system.  In fact, to win the game all you really needed to do was walk into a room and drag the mouse across the screen over every object and see if the cursor changed.  If it did, you clicked on it.

It is those two ends of the spectrum that determines how much effort I am willing to put into any game.  If a game’s control system is so obtuse that even when I am sure I know the answer I can’t seem to actually solve the puzzle, or if I walk into a room and it is covered in highlighted objects and glowing question marks and exclamation points, I lose all interest in playing.

This even applies to MMOs… when I first tried out EVE Online, it was clearly an example of the first.  There were no tutorials on the UI, nor was there much in the way of any sort of quests or missions.  I ended up doing the things in game that were the easiest to figure out (mining) and was bored out of my skull.  I quit.  Later, I would return after they added in a number of tutorials and more missions, and it has gotten much better.  On the other end you have World of Warcraft where if it isn’t marked by a giant floating exclamation point there is almost no reason to investigate at all, and once you have investigated the exclamation point you are rewarded with a bullet list of things to do before you return to the giant question mark.

To me, from the point of view of having to figure things out without struggling and not being given “the” path, I understand why I played EverQuest for so long.  In that game you entered the world with a note saying to visit your guild master.  You did, and in most cases were rewarded with your first quest, where they asked you to do something, but you weren’t given a bullet list.  Learning that talking to people got you quests, you would then talk to other folks, some of which had quests, and some of which just added flavor to the game.  As you traveled, you talked to more folks… visiting an inn?  Talk to all seven NPCs while you are there.  Of course, some people played the game in such a manner that they felt required to talk to every single NPC in a town, running themselves ragged and making detailed maps and notes to be sure they had talked to absolutely everyone.  I never did that, I just talked to the NPCs as I found them.

Of course, EverQuest is not like that any more.  Now they have co-opted WoW’s features so that new quests do give you a quest log bullet list of highlights.  You don’t even need to bother reading the quest, and if the NPC doesn’t have the appropriate level range in the tag over his head, you can just avoid them altogether.

I can see the argument that some people use against EQ, in that its quests didn’t properly lead you from one area to the next.  Breadcrumbs.  But in newer games, I feel like they’ve got so far as to bypass breadcrumbs and just install a rail system.  They don’t suggest I should try the next town so much as they point all my quests to the next town and if I don’t go there I won’t have anything to do.  The problem is that often I would like to go some place that is personally more interesting, but I get there in WoW and find there is nothing to do because I went the “wrong” way.

Outside of MMOs, whenever I play a single player game, I always feel that I need a good strong narrative to keep me going.  I enjoy Half-Life 2 and Bioshock because as I progress of location to locations, even though I know I am on a rail and there is no other way to go, the story and the action keep me wanting to go that way.  Then I pick a game like Lost: Via Domus and I barely played into the game at all… I just didn’t want to go the direction the story wanted me to go.  I want to explore the beach while the game wants me to run into the jungle, and just as they finally manage to make me interested in the jungle they are now forcing me to go back to the beach.  Someone is shooting at me and I want to fight them, but I’m not allowed to, whereas in HL2, someone is shooting at me, I’m not supposed to fight them and the I don’t want to fight them, I want to run.

Anyway, this post has been enough of a rambling mess, so I am just going to stop now…  I’m not even sure I managed to cover the Round Table subject…

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