Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Evolution of Digital Storytelling

In this article, game designer Sande Chen reports on Sam Barlow's presentation at PLAY NYC, in which he describes how the digital world is transforming the art of storytelling.

Speaking at PLAY NYC on August 11, 2020, Sam Barlow, the mastermind behind the award-winning games Her Story and Telling Lies, explained the sweeping changes that have occurred in storytelling in his presentation, "The Death of the Container: What TV and Movies Should Learn from Video Games."


The line between television and movies is blurring, he said, with the increasing variety of new program formats. Content creators can no longer package neatly wrapped story content, i.e. a container, in this digital world. With smart TVs and access to streaming, consumers don't tune in at a certain time to watch programs. Instead of Must See TV, the operative word is now "binging," in which viewers watch through several episodes at once. That's a lot like putting in the hours on a game. Personalization, which used to be limited by genre categories in a video store, is commonplace. NetFlix even personalizes thumbnails for you based on algorithms. 

But television and film are still limited in choices. The viewer choice boils down to: Do I continue watching or do I stop?

Video games are known for player choices as well as self-expression and exploration. "Stories," said Barlow, "are information with emotion. Can we explore them?" Like the digital newspaper that assumes its readers won't read page by page, video game stories are unbounded, allowing players to replay, rearrange, and watch again while looking for new context. Video games purposefully acknowledge player participation. Players are allowed to explore with curiosity, usually in an open world, and feel immersed. Moreover, players are the main driver of the story. Players create a rich, full story in their heads and it's not only due to the order in which they came upon the story.

Barlow cautioned content creators not to get too excited about branching narrative and popular story choice apps, which he said only gives an illusion of a system with cause and effect. He finds that players want to go deeper, not broader, which is to say that the Why is much more important than the What If. To him, emotion comes from specific emotional moments, which requires an understanding of the story, and not from exploring different story branches.

In summary, Barlow offered up this analogy. The audience is saturated with storytelling. They've eaten a lot of pie. We shouldn't offer them mini pies and think that's special. A smart chef would offer a deconstructed pie. Similarly, he said, "To cater to the information overload generation, we must deconstruct stories for them so they can experience them fully again."

Sande Chen is a NYC-based writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

VR and Galaxy's Edge

In this article, game designer Sande Chen discusses the use of virtual reality in creating the theme park Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge.

Years ago, I was interviewed by Disney Imagineering for an internal documentary on design. I pointed out that level designers of video games are often inspired by amusement parks. Amusement parks are designed to lead visitors through a physical space. Imagineers call this "physical storytelling" or "narrative place-making," which sounds very similar to what we would call environmental storytelling.

In creating the theme park Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge, the Imagineers wanted to know the details of objects as small as doorknobs or rusty wires. They wanted visitors, whether they were hardcore fans or casual attendees, to be fully immersed in the land. In other words, they wanted this world to be feel alive.


Galaxy's Edge
CrispyCream27 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)
It was interesting to me to learn that Disney Imagineers used VR to create Galaxy's Edge - not to create VR rides, but to create physical rides and architecture. They built Galaxy's Edge in VR first and that helped not only in designing the architecture and hiding mundane Earth items like heating and cooling units, but also with how actual construction could occur.

Disney also used VR to design the rides at Galaxy's Edge. Designers used VR headsets while in a vehicle. The display shows all the visuals and the controls. The simulation helps the designers experience the ride before it's even built.

Just another example of a "serious" game!

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Dear Daughter: A Quarantine Essay

It is with heartfelt joy that I announce the publication of "Dear Daughter," a personal essay written about my quarantine experiences, on Nearness. As a site inspired by the need to share and seek solace from each other during the COVID-19 pandemic, I could not have found a better home for this piece. I also plan to submit the essay to the Greenburgh Library Covid-19 Memory Project and other such memory projects.

This personal essay grew out of a desire to record the rapid changes happening in the world and in my life. While the pandemic has certainly been stressful, I also found life-affirming moments by seeing, feeling, and experiencing firsthand the ups and downs of parenthood, especially during the time when my daughter entered toddlerhood. As an educational design expert, I feel like this time alone with my daughter has not only been incredibly valuable, but also magical.

I want to thank those who have provided feedback and encouragement: Phi Beta Kappa NY for its Quarantine Stories session, my colleague Juliana Loh, my fellow writers from my USC writing circle, and Alia Wilhelm from Nearness.

I don't often write personal essays, but in 2019, I did a reading of 3 personal essays about growing up in the Hudson Valley area.  "The Writer in Westchester" was part of a performance put on by Tutti Bravi Productions called Where the Heart Is: Reflections of Home in Westchester.

Here's the link!

"Dear Daughter"   Words by Sande Chen
You will not remember this year, your mother knows, but one day you will read this letter and see it as a record of your resilience
https://www.nearnessproject.com/dear-daughter

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer with over 15 years of experience in the game industry. Her writing credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus, MMO Hall of Fame inductee Wizard101, and the 2007 PC RPG of the Year, The Witcher, for which she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. She is the co-author of the book, Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform, and was a contributor to Secrets of the Game Business, Writing For Video Game Genres, and Professional Techniques for Videogame Writing.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Game Idea Lists

In this article, game designer Sande Chen discusses the practice of generating game ideas on a daily or weekly basis.

In writing classes, students sometimes are asked to journal or write daily.  Similarly, game design students may be asked to generate lists of game ideas or mechanics. The idea is to promote accountability and consistency with a daily assignment. In fact, well-known game industry professionals have mentioned this practice before at conference talks.

In 2008, Patrick Curry, now CEO of FarBridge, spoke about generating 52 game ideas in 52 weeks as a lead designer at Midway Games. The talk is available free at GDC Vault and the transcript is here. As he explains, he became an "idea sponge" because not only did he have to come up with game ideas, he had to sift through them and decide which were viable. He described the benefit of doing this even on bad days or with ideas you don't necessarily like because as a professional game designer, you have to stay productive.

You can still look through Patrick Curry's 52 game ideas and comment on them. As you can see, they are brief but still explain how to play the proposed game.

While Patrick Curry had his own rules for which game ideas would be acceptable, you can come up with your own rules. This game enthusiast's site, Three Hundred Mechanics, is about coming up with novel game mechanics.

Is this something you've considered doing or have done?  Let me know in the comments!

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Friday, July 3, 2020

A Vision of CYOA Future

In this article, game writer Sande Chen reports on Gary Whitta's vision of what would be a compelling choose your own adventure experience.

At the GamesBeat Summit in April 2020, Gary Whitta, screenwriter of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, laid down his vision of the future of interaction fiction in an interview session called "Choose Your Own Adventure: The Evolution of Storytelling through the Next Generation." Unfazed by the uncanny valley, he wished games weren't limited by technology and were more lifelike.

Whitta has written for The Walking Dead game and said that game designers try to include a player decision every 26 seconds, but if it were really true-to-life, he mused, decision-making would be every second.

Speaking of role-playing games, he hoped that in the future, NPCs would include more adaptive AI so that their responses would sound more improvised and less scripted.

He marveled how it would be if a player could talk to any NPC and not just the ones with ! on top of their heads. A player could end up getting involved in numerous stories within one game world.

But he did concede one difference between reality and interaction fiction that would have to remain: A game story has to be logical out of fairness to the player.  In the real world, life is unfair and illogical, but in a game, players don't want to invest time to find out it made no difference at all.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.


Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Upcoming: Freelance Writing Success Summit

Excited to be speaking at the Freelance Writing Success Summit next week! Learn everything a freelance writer needs for success. There are sessions about all aspects of running a freelance business - from bookkeeping to personal branding to finding clients.

Register for free at: Freelance Writing Success Summit sponsored by ProWritingAid.

During the summit, ProWritingAid will be offering every participant 50% off their software.


I'll be doing a Live Q&A at 9 AM on July 2 in the FFWS - Premium Access Facebook group and my session, "Blogging for Self-Promotion and Business," is on at 2 PM EDT that day.



Sande Chen is the co-author of Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform. As a serious games consultant, she helps companies harness the power of video games for non-entertainment purposes. Her career as a writer, producer, and game designer has spanned over 15 years. Her game credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus and the 2007 PC RPG of the Year, The Witcher, for which she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. She has spoken at conferences around the globe, including the Game Developers Conference, Serious Play Conference, and Games For Change. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Creating Emotional Touchstones in Emergent Narrative

In this panel, Matthew Farber, Sande Chen, Kimberly Unger, and Juliana Loh discuss the importance of emotional touchstones in emergent narrative and how it's done in different types of games.

Many thanks to Fellow Traveller Games for organizing a great program of panels on narrative games! The panels are on YouTube, including ours on emergent narrative.

LudoNarraCon 2020
Panel: Creating Emotional Touchstones in Emergent Narrative

Games have a unique ability to establish empathy between a player and a world and characters, but game players don’t always follow the path the narrative lays out for them. This panel discusses how designers and storytellers can build in empathic elements that can be found and engaged with even when the larger narrative gets delivered out of order.

This panel originally aired during LudoNarraCon 2020, digital festival celebrating narrative games, hosted on Steam and organized by Fellow Traveller Games.


Matthew Farber, Ed.D. is an Assistant Professor of Technology, Innovation and Pedagogy at the University of Northern Colorado. His research is at the intersection of game-based learning and social and emotional learning (SEL). Dr. Farber has been invited to the White House, to keynote for UNESCO, and he has been interviewed about games and learning by NPR, Fox News Radio, EdSurge, The Denver Post, USA TODAY and The Wall Street Journal. Farber's book, Gamify Your Classroom: A Field Guide to Game-Based Learning -- Revised Edition (2017) features a foreword from Greg Toppo. His latest book, Game-Based Learning in Action: How an Expert Affinity Group Teaches with Games (2018), has a foreword from James Paul Gee. To learn more, visit: MatthewFarber.com 

Sande Chen is the co-author of Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform. As a serious games consultant, she helps companies harness the power of video games for non-entertainment purposes. Her career as a writer, producer, and game designer has spanned over 15 years. Her game credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus and the 2007 PC RPG of the Year, The Witcher, for which she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. She has spoken at conferences around the globe, including the Game Developers Conference, Serious Play Conference, and Games For Change. 

Kimberly Unger made her first videogame back when the 80-column card was the new hot thing and after 20+ years as a pro in that industry, the magic still hasn’t faded. Now she sources leading-edge content for Oculus, lectures on the intersection of art and code for UCSC’s Baskin School of Engineering, wrangles a monthly column on science-fiction in videogames over at Amazing Stories and writes science fiction about how all these app-driven superpowers are going to change the human race. Her debut novel, NUCLEATION will be out in November of 2020. You can find her on Twitter at @Ing3nu or on her blog at www.ungerink.com. 

Juliana Loh is an independent Producer/Artist whose background includes branded entertainment, UX and art direction. In addition to developing educational/gaming experiences, she has honed her artistic skills as a concept and gallery-showing artist while pioneering, empowering and supporting grassroots tech meetups and communities. Currently working as an instructor and immersive artist, she is keenly aware of how emerging technology is changing the way we relate to each other. She is currently working on a Pro-Kindess Immersive project that is based on user-centered thinking.