Saturday, August 29, 2009

Memorable moments through reading and gameplay sessions... a contrast (Part I)

In Part I of this article, game designer Keyvan Acosta looks to his experiences with narrative in books to share insights on achieving a meta-gaming language.

Most books are very personal, intimate experiences; and in contrast to video games, very few are meant to be re-ead. The most important voice is that of the narrator, books having a more controlled authorial voice due to typically needing only one writer and only one editor to complete production. Still, from the reader's perspective, the message also relies on the his/her own interpretation of the “voice”: grammar, speech patterns, accents, font use, tone, pace, or the apparent rhythm used when reading the text. All these elements affect YOUR personal interpretation of the text, especially when it's read to YOU by SOMEONE else! When this occurs, the act of reading becomes a shared experience due to that other person's “voice”. For example, I like World War Z as a book, but I found it to be even more of a written achievement as an audio book, because the voice actors performed the accents from the countries the characters belonged to! I wouldn't have been able to “hear” them with much (if any) fidelity when imagining them. I did this with my darling Sarah with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, sans character acting; She was way better versed in that universe than I was. When I'd pause confused, she'd notice and fill in the gaps; when our voices grew tired, we'd stop for the day or take any necessary breaks. Aww, we're so cute... It was a fantastic experience! I think it was as “multiplayer”, and collaboratively assisted as books can get, taking us both about 5 days across multiple reading sessions. The length of this shared experience wasn't that much different than normal, since very few books are short enough for a single reading session. Even fewer are re-readable, and aside from where the reading comprehension and ability is developing or nonexistent (kids, foreign speakers, the blind), most reading is also single reader.

To assist with context and pacing, writers and editors know how to insert deliberate breaks in the form of chapter divisions, titles, abnormal punctuation, etc. These act like reading “landmarks”, little literary bread crumbs that help us find our way back to the main path as we journey through the many roads a book offers. I rely on these because – truthfully – I have never read intending to retain every, single, minute detail between sessions per se, but I both read and play through books and games to grok meaningful moments that move me. Now, save for earmarking, the following list has become my Meta-Reading tactics (the 6th wall)... unwritten “rules” I taught myself to better guarantee continuity though my reading sessions.
  • I never go to sleep in the middle of a paragraph or page of any book I'm reading. I try to read from the begining to the end of a chapter, always aware of the number of pages left to read before feeling ok to put the book down
  • I keep my index finger pinched between the last page of the chapter and the back cover, glancing at the page numbers just so the last page's appearance doesn't catch me by surprise.
  • * When there are no chapters to be found, I try to leave the earmark at the beginning of some dialogue/picture/eye catching text shape.
  • If I have to, I prefer to interrupt reading at a good cliffhanger; it makes me want to get back to the book as quickly as possible
  • When I highlight/underline, I mostly do so for new vocabulary or quotable phrases; adding notes along the margins, mostly to remember why I marked it and to seem smart to those I lend the book to...Screen-shots in games being somewhat analogue to this.
  • It has been a long time now since I was quizzed on a book (I kinda miss it); although, I share books and conversations about them with my friends so that I can cross-reference my interpretation.
  • I DREAD the last 20% of any book! I wonder if the writer will pull off what seems impossible: to tie all the loose ends left in the preceding 80% within the remaining few pages.
  • I hate backtracking in books more than in games, and I JUMP TO BOLD LETTERS!
  • I especially avoid any, ANY, spoilers (game or movie spoilers too)... my interpretation of events being more important than even that of the author; ALWAYS!
Some books have a “how to read this book” preface – books from a different era/language, etc., though most just don't need these "tutorials." Meta-reading develops while reading! It happens subconsciously helping me through multiple, separate, reading sessions; thus preventing my experience from ever feeling too disjointed or interrupted. It has also helped me connect things from different sources (when online going from link to link) and correlate them with the current text; seemingly chaotic to many). Through playing, I've developed a similarly strong meta-gaming language: things I do to make MY experience more emergent and flowing. After all, games also have a language to interpret: a voice/chorus, a narrative and rhythm like any other artistic field. Yet, this language doesn't seem to be of much use at the moment by the majority of game designers (writers) and game producers (editors); we haven't yet come to consensus about things as simple and crucial as the strengths of our medium! We can't therefore guarantee its consistency to ALL players through all sessions. Literature has defined and solved many of its problems as well as found many tools to assist its narrators; and thus its meta is easier to appreciate and manage. Just google “literary elements” and you'll notice a consistent discussion! Until we compile our own defining elements, we'll have to continue to borrow and steal them from other accepted mediums and realize that they may or may not match our specific needs. In other words, the "voice" we're utilizing now is hard to hear and mumbly.

Keyvan Acosta lives in Orlando, FL where he is a game designer and musician. He also teaches a 2 month game project at Full Sail University and is also the founder/host of a most excellent game development workshop called, dedicated to "mining play" through the creation of experimental games, the evaluation of game development techniques, and the joy of working in a collaborative environment.


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