Thursday, July 30, 2015

Lost in Game Space

In this article, game designer Sande Chen describes certain game deficiencies that lead to player frustration and how better storytelling may provide the solution for one of the problems.

In the past few years, I have served as a judge for multiple game festivals and competitions. There are several reasons why some games don't make the cut.  Beyond the technical complications of not being able to get a game running, I find a similar failing may be in not having a strong enough tutorial, i.e. a player shouldn't be confused about how to play a game.  Struggling with controls or an interface is just frustrating and not the experience you want for a first-time player.  I recall there's an infamous transcript of a WWII Online player griping that it was easier flying a plane in World War II than trying to do the same in a game!

In other games, I find a beautiful world that I would like to explore, but I am directionless as to what would be my goal.  Free-form exploration and self-direction are fine as long as there's enough interesting content to support it indefinitely.  In most cases, due to production costs, this is simply not true.  Therefore, there needs to be a way to guide the player to the more interesting content rather than leaving the player to trod through the same loop of scenery.
A prehistoric storyteller describes a hunt.

Luckily, stories provide context and player motivation.  If I know I have to find a way off the island, then I'm not going to spend my time admiring sparkly fish.  Moreover, human beings crave stories.  Even in prehistoric times, cave dwellers conveyed tales of great hunts.  Stories tell us about ourselves and the human condition.

In this age of game making, it might seem like emergence or AI is the solution, but it's not enough.  Emergent stories could be interesting, but they could also be not interesting.  As Alex Toplansky said at the panel, Writing for Horror Video Games, even in systemic games, "a writer needs to come in and stack the dice."  Dramatic storytelling, whether linear or non-linear, is a crafted experience.   

As for AI, while there have been advances in computer algorithms generating stories, poetry, and news articles, sometimes a human touch is warranted.  To escape the redundancy of randomly generated "Rescue X at location Y" quests, players of the now-defunct The Matrix Online banded together to create an epic storyline that gave their characters more motivation.  While the quests did give the players specific goals to complete, the randomness did not generate an interesting story for players.

What's the lesson here?  As I have written in my article, Towards More Meaningful Games, don't leave your narrative design choices to chance.  Yes, a game still needs to feel open enough to allow for meaningful player choices but that doesn't mean that players should be left confused as to what they ought be doing.

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 17, 2015

An Exploration of Horror at the Writers Guild

In this article, narrative designer Robert Rappoport reports on the discussion at the Writing for Horror Video Games panel, ranging from player agency, push design, to the role of writers in game development. 

Things got scary at the Writers Guild of America East on June 17, 2015 during the panel, “Writing for Horror Video Games.” Organized by the WGAE Video Game Writers Caucus, the panel discussed writing and creating horror in video games, the difficulties involved, and the successes that members of the panel had found in utilizing the expert tool of fear. The panelists were Alex Toplansky, Senior Writer at Deep Silver Volition, Justin Pappas, former level designer at Irrational Games and founder and creative director at Ape Law Games, and a special Skype appearance was made by Chuck Beaver, best known for his work on the Dead Space trilogy.

The conversation began with a simple question by Matt Weise, the panel’s moderator: “Why make horror games?” Toplansky responded by commenting on player agency within horror, that the tone of a horror story often places the player him or herself in the driver’s seat of the terror. Fear is something that happens to you, and unlike a love story, horror is direct in its delivery.

The panelists ventured onto familiar ground during the discussion as each designer amicably used examples from their own work to show how horror was a useful tool in the writer and designer’s toolbox. Notably, Pappas discussed in detail his involvement as a level designer on the most recent and well-acclaimed Tomb Raider game. He discussed the transitional moments of the game where Lara Croft is forced through passageways that, Pappas explained, were used to intentionally demonstrate Lara’s fears and phobias. “How are we going to make the player claustrophobic in this area?”

Ideas like this are rarely planned, and the panelists were amused to think about the lightning in a bottle moments that have to happen for great gameplay to occur. “One of the funny things about video games is that it’s such a broad medium. The organization of teams is so strange,” Toplansky said. “The most successful cases are when everyone’s doing air traffic control, so they’re all there to peer review one another…We churn through everyone’s stuff and then it’s ‘who’s going to blink first?’ If you’re willing to own and champion your idea, then it makes it into the game.”

The importance of each role in a design team was discussed, with all panelists agreeing that there is no set way to create horror. “It’s all a case by case basis.” Pappas offered.

Level designers are important because everything passes through them, but writers are the people who have to make sense of everything. It is a sad truth of game design that the writer is often brought in right at the end of the development cycle, and the panelists concurred that this was no way to tell a story. They all agreed how wonderful it was that writers were more frequently being brought closer to the very beginning.

Beaver reminisced on his recent experience at Electronic Arts, where one of the first true writer positions was being forged for that company. The gaming industry is becoming a world where writers are not only appreciated, but are being sought after in places that they would not normally think to be involved. “I’m super excited about the professional career of writers. Who knows, soon we might have narrative for sports games!”

After discussing the role of the writer at length, Weise steered his excited peers back to horror by mentioning Konami’s Silent Hill 2, a landmark of the genre in the context of inhabiting an empty shell versus the experience of being in the head of a fully fledged character. Each of the panelists agreed that it was important to establish pillars in the world that the character and the player had to obey. Toplansky cited the familiar “In a world…” phrase to help bring the point home. “Silent Hill is, ‘In a world… where you’re going insane.’ In that world the story isn’t going to finish with ‘You weren’t insane at all!’ It wouldn’t make sense.”

Beaver commented that the changing nature of the medium and the enthusiastic approach studios are taking to virtual reality technology would also greatly change the face of not only horror, but also games as a medium. “In film, it’s always been a passive audience, but now the audience has the camera and is experiencing the story. There’s a huge amount of exploration left to do about what is effective.”

Player agency led to the discussion of how to make the player take actions that are frightening and unnerving. Or, as moderator Weise put it: “How do you make the player go into the basement?” Push design, a concept developed and popularized by Valve, was discussed. It’s the concept of creating soft boundaries around the player to gently guide their actions: “You have a ledge somewhere in the space, you look down and you see something neat, and we as designers have to show that if you walk there’s no going back. You’ve let us push you.”

“People who bought a ticket for a horror movie, a game is the same way,” Beaver mused. “I bought a horror game, I know I’m going to be scared. I don’t want go to the scary place! No, of course you do. You bought the game.” Beaver went on to discuss how Isaac’s needs in Dead Space lead to a detailed exploration of the game and its story.

The conversation wound down to systemic design and the future of horror. “We’re going to get more systemic games,” Pappas said. “It’s about discovery and finding those perfect moments.”

Toplansky spoke about how in a systemic game, a writer cannot plan for every situation, but they can create enough interesting interactions that a sophisticated engine will give the player a unique and terrifying experience. “A writer needs to come in and stack the dice.”

The panel created an overall thrilling and enjoyable experience for its audience, which had been a large turnout. Each of the speakers brought his own unique take to horror and how it affects the writer’s position and the nature of games, along with opinions of its future as a genre. No doubt we will see even more panels like this one as more people participate in Caucus functions.

[This article originally appeared on Robert Rappoport's personal blog.

 A narrative designer with a penchant for all things scary, Robert can be found sipping tea at his favorite hideouts in New York City. When not brewing tea by candlelight, Robert likes writing and creating horror... also by candlelight. If you enjoyed the article, you can find more of his work at

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Learning to love the narrative puzzle

In this article, Professor Clara Fernández-Vara argues that narrative puzzles don't need to be convoluted, but rather, they require a more conscientious and responsible game design strategy.

One of the recurring questions in narrative design is how necessary puzzles are, since they seem to be the staple of adventure games since their inception. There are plenty of examples of how adventure games may not need puzzles. Game makers such as Telltale Games or Choice of Games have explored how to engage players through choice design, while indie darlings such as Dear Esther, Gone Home, The Stanley Parable or Kentucky Route Zero show how exploration can also become satisfying gameplay. Some advocate leaving puzzles behind and focusing on problem solving.

Thing is, solving puzzles is problem solving. Puzzles get a bad rap because of years of players facing puzzles that only make sense to their designers, and the infinite patience of players who kept trying random things until they bumped into the hyper-contrived solution. Examples of bad puzzles are legion while, when a good puzzle is good, it is often seamless because it makes sense, so most players do not notice there ever was one. See for example how game critic John Walker mentions how the puzzles are perfunctory in Act 1 of Broken Age, pointing out that he may have expected something more complex but that the puzzles are there to help the narrative. Half of his review of Act 2, however, is a tirade against the tediousness of the convoluted puzzles.

We don't need to banish puzzles from our games. They can help us learn more about our world, set up character, and get the player to be in a specific place when we need it. What we need is conscientious and responsible puzzle design, understanding the range of what works and what doesn't.

Puzzles are problems that require a solution (hence invoking "problem solving" as an alternative may not be that useful), and most of the time there's only one valid solution. The issue with narrative puzzles is that they often have only one way to get to that solution, even if the player can think of multiple ways to tackle the challenge. In game design terms, we designers can follow three strategies:
  • Offering players more than one way to solve the puzzle: since puzzles in general have more than one way to achieve the solution - there are different strategies to solve mathematical and logic puzzles, jigsaws or crosswords. So why don't we try to provide more than one way to get to the solution? Games like Deus Ex or more recently Dishonored are famous for taking this design approach. Thing is, the challenges that the player faces tend to be physical problems; challenges that involve human behavior and psychology, for example, are out of the question. Puzzles that are more grounded in the narrative that have multiple paths are still a challenge. A glorious example of how multiple paths can backfire is Zack McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders, the one LucasArts game nobody remembers because it does offer several ways to complete it, but it does not tell the player that if you solve a puzzle a certain way, other paths will be locked out.
  • Setting up the puzzle so that solving it seems an adequate challenge: the key to satisfying puzzles is that the player achieves insight at the moment of solving them. Some puzzles feel invisible because their solution feels natural to the player; there is a problem but the solution seems logical. This was the case with most of the puzzles of Act 1 of Broken Age, for example. There is set of questions that will help us set up each puzzle: 
    •  How can the player tell there is a puzzle that they need to tackle? 
    •  What information does the player need to solve the puzzle? 
    •  If it's not information that relates to everyday life (such as opening a door, or doing an economic transaction), where in the world is that information? 
    •  Is the information available in one place or several? How close is it to the puzzle itself? Can the player revisit the information? The more pieces of information the player needs, and the further they may be from the puzzle (whether it is in terms of space or time), the more difficult the puzzle is. 
    • How can the player tell that they have found the wrong solution to the problem? Does the player get more information to solve it?  
    • How can the player tell they have solved the puzzle?  
    • What does solving the puzzle mean in the game? Does the player learn about the world / story? Does the player obtain something out of solving the puzzle? (I've talked about this topic before at length; you can watch one of my presentations here.
  • Design an esoteric puzzle for hardcore puzzle solvers: there are games that are geared towards hardcore players who want their puzzles to be extremely challenging. If you use the checklist above, it turns out that hardcore puzzles are missing one of these elements, from letting the player know that there is a puzzle, to requiring esoteric knowledge to solve it, for example. The line between a badly designed puzzle and a hardcore one is very thin; the definition depends on the audience. The rule of thumb is that the logic of the puzzle must still be there. You still get insight if you check the solution. That's why omitting elements can be okay, because it's up to the player to fill the gaps. When the puzzle feels random, unjustified, or the challenge consists of reading the designer's mind, then the puzzle falls apart. Examples of games with difficult narrative puzzles are The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Maniac Mansion or, more recently, Device 6. The puzzles in Broken Age Act 2 aim at being hardcore (perhaps because some players thought the puzzles in Act 1 were too easy), but often the logic seems absent: at one point, I had to go to a location in order to trigger a cut scene that allowed me to obtain an object, which is the kind of random access to information that infuriates players.
There may be other design options that technology may facilitate in the future. For example in the games Symon and Stranded in Singapore, we used procedural generation, so that whenever you started a game the puzzles would be different. Our method of generating the puzzles was not particularly complicated, so there was still one single way to solve each puzzle; perhaps in the future we can have AI that can create and check multiple paths. What worked in the design of Symon (a bit less so in Stranded) was that the game design focused on creating a system of relations between objects, rather than just specific puzzles. Players could not look up a walkthrough that gave details on each puzzle. Instead, they had to figure out the relationships between objects according to specific qualities, thus showing the potential to understand the world as a whole, rather than puzzle to puzzle. What I want to highlight here is not that future technology will solve our design problems - although it will probably help - but we that we need to change our paradigms and the way that we design narrative games. We need to shake off our nostalgia a bit and start pushing for new design patters - a sentiment that I'm not alone in sharing.

Puzzles in narrative games are just a part of the design lexicon, and we need to expand the vocabulary of narrative in games. The possibilities of choice and exploration are now gaining popularity - although they have been around for a while - and the future of narrative in games looks bright. But let us not completely dismiss narrative puzzles yet. We should banish badly set up puzzles with unsatisfying convolutedness that do not help the narrative. The solution is realizing puzzles also require game design.

Clara Fernández-Vara is a game scholar, designer and writer, and she is an Associate Arts Professor at the NYU Game Center. Her area of expertise is narrative in games and how it can integrate with game design, which she has explored both in games for research and in the commercial sphere. Her first book, Introduction to Game Analysis has been published by Routledge.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Upcoming Workshop: Writing for Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Game Worlds

Hi! I'm pleased to announce a writing workshop I'm leading in conjunction with Playcrafting NYC. If you're interested in science fiction, fantasy, and/or horror and want to populate your game world with monsters, creatures, aliens, fantastical beasts, and otherworldly cultures, you can benefit from this participatory workshop.  It's next week, July 6th, details here.

I've written about the workshops I've attended to learn more about my own writing. I want this workshop to be about improving your work. I'll provide the framework but you will be the ones writing or developing your game world during the class.  Above all, let's have fun!

My background is a mixture of theatre, film, journalism, economics, and writing.  I received a S.B. in Writing and Humanistic Studies (now the major of Comparative Media Studies) at MIT, where I took classes on everything to do with science and writing, including science fiction.  My first game design doc was within science fiction; my first game writing gig, the space combat RPG Terminus, was science fiction.  Afterwards, I worked on the episodic fantasy series Siege of Avalon, MMO Wizard101, and the dark fantasy RPG, The Witcher.  As you might surmise, if you love genre fiction, then there may be opportunities waiting for you in the video 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.