Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Upcoming Workshop in Game Writing May 2!

Woo!  Who would have thought there would be a fifth installment for Game Writing Portfolio Workout?  I know, I thought last time would be the last one, but now I have an upcoming workshop on May 2nd at Microsoft NYC in Times Square.  If this keeps up, I may develop this into a longer series.

If you'd thought about writing for video games or even if you are a practicing game writer, come join me in this fun community event. No experience is required, though it is helpful. Participation in the earlier workouts are not needed to understand what's going on, but you do get a broader sense of what is the craft of game writing if you have attended the earlier sessions.

As always, the event is held through Playcrafting NYC, which offers classes and events related to game development. Early Bird tickets start selling now.  Please bring a laptop or notepad, some way to do some writing!

About Me 

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 and then I specialized in Screenwriting at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. My first published game as a writer was on the epic space combat RPG, Terminus, which won 2 awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival. Afterwards, I worked on the episodic fantasy series Siege of Avalon, MMO Wizard101, and the dark fantasy RPG, The Witcher, for which I was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. I currently head the WGAE Videogame Writers Caucus and am SIG leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Building Emotional Connections with Game Design

In this article, game designer Sande Chen follows up on the ways games can provide a truly emotional experience.

At NYU's Lecture Series on April 7, 2016, Katherine Isbister, Professor of Computational Media at UC Santa Cruz, explained how game designers are already building emotional connections in their games.  This issue of emotive game design has been of concern to narrative designers, especially in regards to the Heroine's Journey, but Isbister is more concerned with how game design affects emotions rather than how story affects emotions.  She feels it's an oversimplification to simply state that it's stories that provide the only emotional impact in games. 

Pulling examples from her recent book, How Games Move Us: Emotion By Design, Professor Isbister cited 3 ways in which game design impacts players emotionally.

1.  Emotional Connections with Non-Player Characters

The "moment to moment intimacy," as Isbister says, that is created through NPC design is extremely powerful.  This is not necessarily about storylines, as I pointed out in "For the Love of a Dog," my blog post about the connection between players and NPC dogs, but about player interactions with NPCs.  While certainly plot and dialogue can play a great role, as in Isbister's example regarding Japanese dating simulations, it is not necessary.  Players remember the pain and loss of destroying a Companion Cube in Portal.  This notion of losing a beloved NPC, as in Aeris' death in Final Fantasy VII, is practically a trope.  Beyond attachment, players can feel responsibility for a NPC's welfare, as with Yorda in the game Ico.

2.  Emotional Connections with Avatars (Self)

How many players have been faced with the agonizing situation of losing one's own avatar?  After months or years of customizing and leveling up, the emotional connection to this projected self-identity can be overpowering.  If you've been following my work, then you know I've discussed how real-life changes in patients have stemmed from engaging in healthy activities in virtual worlds. It's this kind of research that inspired the creation of Lumeria, an ARG to promote physical and mental well-being.  This self-identification with avatars is so great that immersion in a nurturing virtual environment has helped those players with phobias, eating disorders, weight loss issues, and social anxiety.

3. Emotional Connections with Other Players

How about the emotional connections with other players?  Sure, there's clans and guilds where there's ample communication, but how about situations where there's cooperation needed but little communication?  According to Isbister, games provide the opportunity to create "socially meaningful situations."  Unlike the silent and superficial social interaction of visiting each other's farms in FarmVille, the game Journey produces a strong emotional bond between strangers who happen upon each other while progressing through the game. Obviously, as I stated in "Leading by Emotion," this type of situation was likely socially engineered by the designer as part of the early design.

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.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

When Story Isn't Everything

In this article, game writer Sande Chen discusses how storytellers can mitigate ludonarrative dissonance by respecting the player experience.

"Story is Everything" was the tantalizing title shown on the Creative Arts & Technology Conference program at Bloomfield College last week, but when Omar Shakir, Narrative Director at Avalanche Studios, opened up his presentation, there was the bombshell of a footnote: "(unless you're making a video game)." He acknowledged that story IS everything in the Hollywood approach, but for video games, story wouldn't be the genesis and focal point of a project.

According to Shakir, the aims of the storyteller and the aims of the gamemaker can be at odds.  He described a situation whereby a Hollywood writer created ludonarrative dissonance by showcasing spectacular moves in a written cut scene that players couldn't actually do in the game. Even if that functionality had been added, it would have been programmatically excessive. Another example he cited was how the player character in Far Cry 3 is depicted as timid and fearful. Yet, players spend their time killing everything in sight.

I explored this matter in my ION Game Conference session, "Story vs. Story: Redefining Narrative and Player Engagement in MMOs." What's Story vs. Story?  Well, there's the authorial story, which the author wants to tell and reflects the author's desires, and then there's the player story, which emerges from gameplay and is about the player's experiences in the game.  What's important to remember is that the authorial story is just one element of the user experience.

Shakir further stated that sometimes it felt like these authorial stories were ill-fitting or crammed into games.  As I have stated in a previous blog post, Writers, Stop Obsessing Over Three-Act Structure in Games, the traditional story structure may not be the standard fare for video games.  Just because it works for linear media doesn't mean it's perfect for interactive media.  The Hero's Journey may not be appropriate.  Why?  Because spectating is different from participation.

Much as I appreciate story and story-based games, I can understand that story isn't everything.  As writers, we need to honor the player story just as much as the authorial story.  In that way, we can lessen the Story vs. Story conflict. 

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose experience spans over 10 years in the game industry.  Her credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus and the 2007 RPG of the Year, The Witcher.  She is the chapter leader of the IGDA Game Design SIG.