Tuesday, April 27, 2010

In Medium Ludum

In this article, programmer Nels Anderson argues that "in medium ludum," or starting in the middle of a game, be it mechanically or narratively, may lead to better beginnings.

Jason Rohrer's Sleep is Death was released recently, providing unique digital gaming experiences that harken more toward improv theatre than anything else. Given the similarity, theatre professor and games critic Michael Abbott wrote a great post recently about how the methodologies of improv can be applied to Sleep is Death (and life in general). Given the inherently extemporaneous nature of that game, improv techniques are quite directly applicable. But, as I alluded to elsewhere, while I was reading Truth in Comedy, I was struck by how relevant their observations were to digital games in general, especially when it comes to how games begin.

Michael writes, "A Player needs 3 things: 1) A character who wants something. 2) A clearly defined situation, ideally with an inherent obstacle or conflict. 3) Strategies for getting what you want."

When digital games go off the rails, typically one of these three things is absent or vague. The player's goal is unclear ("I don't know where to go now"), the obstacles read poorly ("Is this room a dead end or did I miss a door somewhere?") or it's not clear how to start achieving the goals ("I can't see any way to open that door"). When I'm banging on about readability, this is what I'm talking about.

Note, this does not mean everything should be painfully obvious. The problem is when the player is at a dead end and feels like they have no means of discovering what to do or how to do it. Having to explore and puzzle things out is good, having absolutely no idea what to do and being reduced to trying things completely at random is not (e.g what happens when you're stuck in basically every old-school adventure game).

The other interesting lesson from improv I wanted to call out is "Start in the middle." Rather than starting at the beginning of some action or narrative, which tends toward unexciting exposition, the scene starts in the middle of some event. This technique is called "in media res" or literally, "into the middle of affairs." It's more common in film and television (e.g The Usual Suspects or Reservoir Dogs) than in games.

Despite my increasing intolerance for their staid mechanics and overwrought narratives, a number of JRPGs including several Final Fantasy incarnations have used this technique to good effect. So did Uncharted 2, both Max Payne games and the recent Tales of Monkey Island, for example. And of course, Planescape: Torment's "You wake up on a slab in The Mortuary" may be the best in medias res opening of all.

Opening in this fashion is still quite uncommon though. I wonder if part of the reason why more games don't open in medias res is that the character's mechanical progress moves with the game's narrative progression. By opening in the middle of some action, it may seem harder to have the character mechanically progress from there (and if flashbacks occur, one might feel like abilities ought to be removed). Many games also open by introducing mechanics in a tutorial-ish fashion, which may be a bit harder to fit into a scene or story already in progress.

A few games also begin in the middle of the game mechanically, but at the beginning of the action narratively. Most notable would be the Metroid Prime series, where that player begins with powerful equipment only to lose it after a short opening scene (I think Super Metroid opened this way as well, but I can't remember for sure). These abilities are slowly recovered until the player eventually surpasses that initial state.

We might call this structure "in medium ludum" (thanks Roger!) if we wanted to be delightfully pretentious. And to be honest, I'm not sure how successful I feel it is. For me, it often gives the feeling that for at least the first half of the game, you're behind the curve and simply playing catch-up. The Metroid series is so well engineered, and this formula is fundamental to its gameplay, it works. But other games that have attempted this, most recently I remember Prototype doing so, don't work as well.

I generally like in medias res openings, partially because it dovetails well with another improv lesson: "Take the active choice toward forward action." Especially in improv, given the choice between discussing some possibilities and simply doing one of them, always opt for the latter. While Shakespeare can make Hamlet-esque indecision fascinating, neither improv nor games are particularly suited for this. If a game explicitly offers a choice, it ought to be between one type of action or another, not between action and non-action. And by "action," I simply mean something meaningful for the player to do, not "action" like shooting guys in the face.

A great many games have sleepy, unengaging beginnings, rife with text-laden tutorial billboards and mundane tasks. This is something no game can afford, especially for those of us in the digital download space, where demos and conversation rates are of vital importance. But even more fundamentally, opening in media res can help focus a game. Starting at the beginning makes it very easy to justify a bunch of dry exposition about characters and a world the player doesn't care for (yet, hopefully). Starting with action and conflict, something that will be engaging for nearly everyone, we can draw players in. Don't throw a bunch of narrative at the player right out of the gate; wait until questions have been posed before supplying answers.

At the end of the day, our currency is engagement. Structuring a game to start in media res is only one approach. The first five seconds to five minutes of a game are vital, however. All games would be well served by a careful consideration of this portion of the experience.

All that from a short book about improv, eh? Again, I highly recommend it.

Nels Anderson is a programmer at Hothead Games. He's probably the only game developer in Vancouver (and maybe all of Canada) that was born and raised in Wyoming. He writes about games and game design on his blog, Above 49. A version of this article appeared there.


Doug Hill said...

So glad you brought up 'in media res' as it was forefront in my mind when I brought up the topic. Particularly, I believe a massive amount of the appeal of Final Fantasy VII came from the way they handle the beginning from both a narrative and a gameplay perspective.

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