Sunday, January 13, 2019

How to Teach Game Writing and Other Dilemmas

In this article, game writer Sande Chen reacts to the recent publication of "How to Write a Video Game Story."

The recent Polygon feature, "How to Write A Video Game Story," by Colin Campbell, has elicited some fiery responses, especially regarding how much John Yorke charges for teaching a course in game writing, something for which he does not have any credits. However, right now, the page seems to indicate the course is a joint venture between himself and Caroline Marchal of Heavy Rain fame.  I do not know if the copy has been adjusted since the publication of the article, which is prominently displayed on the homepage.

Other commentators responded to Yorke's remarks that in order to gain better stories, game developers should hire screenwriters who know how to create strong protagonists by analyzing wants vs. needs.  Of course, there are game companies that have hired screenwriters and ended up disappointed.  There are certainly pitfalls for able screenwriters while game writing, as I have pointed out before in this blog, starting with an obsession for the 3-Act structure

In my experience, a screenwriting background does help, but so would a background in journalism or theater arts.  I have experience in all 3 fields, so I can see how they all relate to game writing.

If you've been to one of my workshops or classes or seen it mentioned at PlayCrafting NYC, then you know that I tend to teach based on my game writing experience rather than what I would call "theory."  I absolutely hated it in my writing classes when I was told to learn something, but to not pay attention to it while writing because "anything goes if it works."  I can understand the viewpoint that "theory" or story basics is necessary, just like music theory is necessary for music composition.  I too place a great deal of importance on themes.  But is it necessary to teach theory first or can it be done later? 

An actor friend of me once opined to me, "Can anyone teach anyone how to write?  You're either talented or you're not."  You can teach the basics but beyond that, a person floats or sinks based on that person's skill.  To that end, I feel like talent gives a headstart but the work ethic also matters.  Others feel like everyone is innately creative and it's the art of the teacher to cultivate that writer in everyone.  The teacher ends up being more of a cheerleader. 

Sometimes, I feel like the theory part is great for refining and shaping work rather than acting as a template.  Otherwise, a lot of stories are just too predictable (and therefore, boring). Personally, I like to focus on the practical in my teaching:  how to approach writing tests, what exact tasks might you be asked to do, or how do we shape this experience, etc. With the workshop approach, there tends to be support and sharing as well as feedback.

What do you find most useful in your writing classes?

Look to the summer for my course offerings.  I am planning new workshops.

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, January 2, 2019

Happy New Year 2019!

Hello, I had some medical issues to take care of, so the blog went on hiatus... but now it's time to get this blog up and moving again!  I will try to get biweekly blog posts up a month rather than commit fully to once a week, but aim for once a week. 

There's lots of posts left in the queue:  a guest post, a podcast, several book reviews, and a post about unions :) 

Also, one of my dearest wishes for this year is to resurrect my former column on women's issues in the game industry and move it to a more accessible format. 

I usually like to interview subjects who have been overlooked by the industry, who are involved in projects and initiatives that really should be publicized, and who are great storytellers.

If that sounds like you, or someone you know, please let me know by sending me an e-mail with the subject heading of "Dame Dev."

Best of luck in the new year!

Sande Chen

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.


Thursday, September 27, 2018

Narrative Design and Videogame Writing for Screenwriters


On May 1, 2018, NYU Game Center Professor Clara Fernández-Vara was featured in THE BREAKERS series’ second event, "Narrative Design and Videogame Writing for Screenwriters." Presented by the Writers Guild of America, East's (WGAE) New Media Caucus, THE BREAKERS event series highlights revolutionary writers in the entertainment industry. The WGAE New Media Caucus is a community of professional writers who produce content for digital distribution such as webseries, video games, AR and other media.

Clara Fernández-Vara is a game scholar, designer, and writer who has worked on commercial and experimental games. Before joining the NYU Game Center, Clara spent six years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a researcher and game developer. She holds a Ph.D. in Digital Media from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a Masters in Comparative Media Studies from MIT. Her videogame work focuses on narrative design, and bridging games design and storytelling.

While Professor Fernández-Vara did indicate that some games, like the Uncharted and Metal Gear Solid series have filmic aspirations, she cautioned traditional screenwriters that they may need to cultivate new skills and knowledge in order to make the transition to videogame writing. They may need to think about how motivation, conflict, necessity, and structure change when a player can make choices and participate in the story.  In addition, narrative design, a related discipline, is not so much storytelling as it is story-building. Narrative design combines storytelling, systems thinking, and spatial design.

An example of indexical storytelling.
She pointed to environmental storytelling and indexical storytelling as examples of how game stories occupy a wider scope than just character lines and actions. Other differences include the use of silent protagonists and how player choices can alter character personalities.  Moreover, there are no set standards for game scripts. They may be written in Excel, programs like Chat Mapper, or even proprietary scripting tools.

Next, she gave examples of what a typical AAA writing test would be like, resources on game writing tools, and sites to learn more about games.  Although the game industry is interested in recruiting traditional Hollywood screenwriters, they will still need to understand audience interaction and meaningful decisions. Fernández-Vara’s talk provided an excellent overview of what screenwriters would need to do to develop the skills necessary for work in the game industry.

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.
 

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Shared AR Gaming Experience at NYC Media Lab!

Hi!  Apologies for the huge gap in blog posts.  I have been busy but I have news to relate!  Last month, on August 10, 2018, Peter Locharernkul, Asha Veeraswamy, and I were at the AT&T Entertainment Hackathon in NYC and our offering, Shared AR Gaming Experience took 2nd Place in the category of Best Entertainment App Overall.

Shared AR Gaming Experience
While the demo focused on transforming the board game, Chutes and Ladders, into a 3D experience, this augmented reality phone app is envisioned for use with any board game. Through the use of a multiplayer lobby, the 3D augmented reality game can be played with anybody in the world.  Asha's Donkey Kong version of Chutes and Ladders showed how easily embellishments in the form of custom animations and art could be added for seasonal holidays or rebranding for advertising purposes, as is the popular thing nowadays. (For instance, check out the Lord of the Rings Monopoly game.) 

The configuration for Chutes and Ladders can even be modified to be more of a winding staircase instead of a zigzag. With board game sales reaching over $9 billion, this expansion app is sure to extend the appeal of classic games and galvanize the already revitalized interest in board games.

On the strength of the demo, we were pleased to be featured last Thursday as part of the NYC Media Lab 100: The Demo Expo where the app was shown to the public.

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.





Monday, August 6, 2018

Forced Failure as Story Moments

In this article, game writer Sande Chen opines about forced failure as story moments and how players are more likely to forgive forced failure when engaged in story-driven games.

In "The Strengths and Limits of Using Digital Games as 'Empathy Machines,'" a UNESCO working paper released last year, authors Professors Matthew Farber and Karen Schrier discuss the flawed design of the poverty simulator SPENT and offer as a counterpoint, the autobiographical game That Dragon Cancer, as an example of where forced failure may be acceptable to players. As in most cases, the forced failure baked into SPENT and That Dragon Cancer are intended to generate and reinforce feelings of hopelessness and frustration.

These story moments of despair are not uncommon, especially if a storyteller blindly follows the stages of the Hero's Journey in games. At the midpoint, the hero reaches the Ordeal, the deepest, darkest, lowest point of the journey, the trials of which drives the hero to ultimately succeed in glorious fashion. Sometimes, this low point is conducted off-screen or in a cut scene, but other times, the player is given illusory agency in a mission destined to fail.

These forced failure story moments have left players with sheer frustration and anger, especially when the player wants to win and not fail. In one anecdote, a player tried repeatedly for hundreds of times to save his NPC buddy from predestined death, only to end up shooting the NPC immediately in realization that the NPC could not be saved.

Unlike in SPENT, it's clear that the story is paramount in That Dragon Cancer and that the goal is not to win through points.  When the player can't calm the child down no matter what is done, this is a story moment that is very emotional.  In this game, the player tacitly agrees to go along with the emotional journey.

Sometimes, when a story is engaging enough, a player will forgive a lot (e.g. bad controls, bad art, bad gameplay).  The player wants to know what will happen next in the story. I cynically remarked about the game Missing that without forced failure, the player would not know the story of what happens to sex trafficked girls.


For me, I find Missing to be a better example of how players can blithely ignore forced failure in deference to the story.  In Missing, there are clear dialog choices and actions that lead the player to an escape opportunity.  Maybe it's possible that the protagonist can escape and end the game out of harm's way.  If so, please send me a screenshot!  In my gut, I feel like this is most likely a situation where no matter how many times I evade the thugs, steal keys, or hide, that last guard at the last door will always grab me (if another guard hasn't already).

Sure, I will feel like I have agency and that escaping the bad guys is within my grasp, but do I really?

Was this dramatic moment manufactured? I mean, I was this close to freedom.

The fact that I fail highlights the hopelessness of protagonist Ruby's plight. I can't help her escape. I recognize that this is an important plot point in her story. Perhaps I would play the escape level over and over or perhaps I would accept that this is how the story goes. If I understand that the game is about depicting the tragedy of sex trafficking, then I'll have to see it through to find out what happens next.

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 6, 2018

Impactful VR for Good

In this article, game writer Sande Chen looks at a virtual reality experience made for social impact.

At last week's 2018 XR For Change, Resham Sidhu, Creative Director of design agency AKQA, took the opportunity to discuss efforts that would be considered VR for Good in her session, "Storyworlds in Virtual Reality." Sidhu stressed that effective VR would consider the entire experience. "In VR, you are not storytelling.  You are storyLIVING," as she put it. "You are living the story."

Photography: Milton Martínez / Secretaría de Cultura CDMX
She describes Mexican film director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Academy Award-winning Carne y Arena as a VR experience where she felt her brain was tricked into believing she was actually experiencing virtual reality.  Carne y Arena, which had its debut at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, allows visitors to step into the lives of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.  Coupled with the cold, the weight of a backpack, and actual sand under toes, Carne y Arena is more than VR. It's part-immersive theatre, a mixture of documentary and spectacle.  Iñárritu, best known for his work on Birdman and The Revenant, based his script on the interviews of Mexican and Central American refugees, some of whose actual stories are featured (in their own words) in the D.C. installation. Visitors are profoundly affected by these tales, especially after walked through the desert with these same people in the VR segment.

The video below shows a bit of the making of Carne y Arena.


Because Carne y Arena does require a physical location, it is limited in the amount of people it can reach and affect, but tickets have sold out wherever it is installed.  And of course, since Carne y Arena, while definitely an experience, is meant to be a VR film, not a game, it's impossible to avoid the U.S. Border Patrol and the impending drama.

Could VR games achieve the same high quality and social impact?  I think so, though it would be trickier, and we'd have to think long and hard about what interactivity adds to the equation.

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 26, 2018

Empathy and VR Refugees

In this article, game writer Sande Chen discusses how the VR experience impacts empathetic responses.

There's been a lot in the news lately about empathy and/or lack of empathy.  Can VR storytelling promote empathy for social impact or is it ultimately a misguided experience, even a form of "disaster porn"?

Dan Archer, a 2016 Tow Fellow researching VR journalism, writes in his article, "Dismantling the Metrics of Empathy (in 360 Video)," that storytellers need to walk a fine line in depicting hardship and suffering.  There's a danger in "too much empathy" since the extreme discomfort felt by viewers translates into revulsion and the opposite of the desired effect. Moreover, oversaturation can lead to "psychic numbing" as viewers dismiss and try to block sympathy towards mass suffering. That's why, as noted in "Statistics vs. Stories," people can empathize with an individual's story, but don't really emotionally connect to statistics.

In fact, in Archer's research, the team found that too much familiarity in a subject led to less emotional impact.  Oversaturation of refugee news stories resulted in less immersion in the VR setting.  Those who weren't familiar with the stories and said they were not really that interested in the topic had the most empathetic responses.

However, compared to traditional text or photo spreads, VR was generally better at motivating users to learn more about the subject and take social action. In particular, VR experiences with clear protagonists and narrative especially heightened empathetic connection since the viewers' sense of closeness to the characters helped to increase the level of immersion.  The more the participants trusted the narrator, the more engaged and connected they were.

One disadvantage to VR, though, was the complaints users had about uncomfortable headsets.  This may preclude longer-form pieces until a solution is found. At present, most cinematic VR is around 5 minutes long, which may not allow for in-depth treatment of a topic.

VR storytelling definitely has the potential to affect minds and hearts through its use in journalism, film, and social impact games, but storytellers will have to carefully consider how the presentation of their stories will impact users.

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.