Thursday, October 27, 2016

How Games Can Elicit Emotional Stakes

In this article, writer Joshua Castleman addresses how game designers can reduce ludonarrative dissonance in linear action games to produce gameplay tied to emotional investment.

I recently read a post written by Sande Chen that discusses how the nature of videogame playing undermines the emotional stakes in linear storytelling. Referring mainly to AAA linear narratives found in 8-12 hour campaigns, she outlined some of the difficult challenges facing game designers and writers to compel the player to feel more emotionally attached to the character in the game than to their own experience as the player. Of course we as players want to achieve victory but designers and writers strive to deliver the emotional impact often found in Hollywood blockbusters.

Sande raised many excellent points that got me thinking about the problem myself. A large part of the issue is the linear railroading of a story, more specifically a game’s inability to allow failure. When a player fails and restarts at their last checkpoint, suddenly there is a disconnect where the protagonist character in the game is fine, as if nothing ever happened, but the player has taken a hit and suffered a setback. In a difficult part of the game, where the player has to try numerous times to get through a zone but story-wise the hero is essentially unscathed, there’s a dissonance between the player’s experience and the character’s experience, not to mention the player is going to care more about his/her own experience as the frustration builds than the player cares about the experience of the character.

One game that I thought worked somewhat was the first Tomb Raider reboot. Some of the death scene animations were so gnarly and gruesome that I wanted to do well and avoid those because I felt so bad seeing Lara writhe in pain as a river impales her on a metal pole! Even though I as the player then started over at the last checkpoint and Lara is safely in one piece, the memory of her violent death was still fresh in my mind.

At this point, it is easy to simply say, “Make a game that allows for failure.” But this presents the age-old problem of making a branching game that can turn a different direction for failure, which is suddenly no longer a linear story and also two to three times more expensive to make. As a writer myself, I understand the strong allure of a linear story that I can control as the creator. It allows for more specific nuance and depth in the story. Maybe the real challenge is finding a way to tell a linear story that can also accept failure in some way without resetting. I’m sure there are some elegant solutions out there, both mechanically and story-wise, that have yet to be discovered.

Another partial solution, or at least a step in the right direction, is creating strong characters. Especially a dynamic villain. I have noticed that a truly despicable villain helps a player invest emotionally in the story. Games like Far Cry 4, Bioshock Infinite, and Borderlands 2 (to name a few) have great antagonists, which helped me empathize with the heroes more. Even if there were times where I was jostled from the character’s POV emotionally, I still shared their emotional drive to defeat the vile bad guy. Fleshing out the villain’s character can present its own challenges. Villain scenes work best when they’re from the POV of the hero so the player shares the experience with the hero character. Be careful to not give the player insight into the villain or conflict that the protagonist does not have, or suddenly there is another disconnect.

A challenge most action games face is desensitization to violence, which can hamper any story based on violence and death. As Sande questioned, how can a player feel any emotional pull during a cut scene of someone’s death when the player just spent hours ending hundreds of other lives? Certainly something to consider when creating a story amidst a sea of blood, but I would again point to the creation of strong characters. Just like in war movies or books where there is death around every corner, it is critical to create those characters that players care about, and give them clear-cut goals they want and challenging conflicts in their way. There are characters that, even if they are soaked in blood, you don’t want them to die. (You Game of Thrones fans know what I’m talking about.)

What no one has tried yet (that I know of) is a complete paradigm shift. The way games are made is still heavily influenced by the history of video games. The player is faced with a challenge and they must overcome it or fail and try again. As the industry matured, designers put more story into the game, fleshing out fully-imagined world and characters, with an eye to Hollywood cinematic cut scenes and structure. But they still shoehorn the story into the same game mentality of trial and error. It’s like if in the middle of a showdown fight scene in a movie, someone stopped it and skipped back to the beginning of the chapter. We’ve all had that experience when someone accidentally sits on the remote. It jars you and the fight scene loses so much of its power and momentum.

Game designers are often focused on creating the ultimate challenge above creating an amazing story. The way most game designers define a good gaming experience is much different than the way a Hollywood director would define a good experience.

But what if they designed a game without the ability to restart at a checkpoint or die at all? What if fight scenes were built in a way that the player could take a beating, maybe lose some gear or status or something but never actually die? I know many gamers are rolling their eyes at the idea because many of us are so programmed that that is how games work. I have a confession: I’m one of those gamers that plays story-centric games on normal difficulty. I sacrifice the challenge aspect to preserve the flow of the story and the oh-so-fragile emotional empathy. Unfortunately, games are not built to reward that style of play, so yes, I run into times feeling where the game is too easy (though sometimes I get crazy and bump the difficulty up for awhile until I feel a miniboss fight coming). The trade-off is worth it to me to engage the story more than the challenge and triumph element.

Games will only ever reach a certain level of emotional investment with the current model. Maybe it just needs a small shift to, say, a story with a hero that reincarnates from set points in his life so that the ‘restarting after death’ plays into the story. The hero can even have little meta-esque quips about having to experience the same crap all over again. Or maybe it it will take a completely new approach, a full dedication to story over challenge.

All I do know is that Sande is correct. There is a strong disconnect between players wanting to beat the final boss for the sake of the protagonist and the story, or for their own mastery of the controls over the cleverness of the programmed obstacle. The points I mentioned in the beginning are ways to help align those two goals better, but they will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fully overlap as long as game makers continue to think of story as merely a way to get players to move from Challenge A to Challenge B. No, not everyone needs to change. But I wouldn’t mind seeing someone try it out.

Original Article: 

Joshua Castleman is a sci-fi/fantasy writer, voracious reader, and gamer. He is currently working on a D&D-inspired deck-building adventure game with Vigilant Addiction Studios.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Upcoming Panel on Game Writing at GameACon AC

Halloween Greetings from Sleepy Hollow Country!  As you can imagine, there's lots of Halloween activities going on, including the Great Jack O'Lantern Blaze where I got to view literary icons carved out of pumpkins and illuminated by pumpkin light against the night sky.  Too bad it wasn't one of the supermoon nights or a blood red moon, but still, there was plenty of spooky ambience around.

If you're in the vicinity of Atlantic City Halloween weekend, I'll be at GameACon Atlantic City, held at the Tropicana Casino Resort. I've organized a reprise of our game writing panel from last year.  Same time, same topic. Come find out about breaking into the game industry as a game writer.

There's also cosplay, tournaments, industry panels, LARPing, anime, bands, and an expo.  Lots of things to see, to play, and to have fun.

Weekend and day passes are available.

Breaking Into Game Writing
Sunday, October 30, 2016
11:00 AM - noon
Pageant Room

There are as many ways to break into game writing as there are writers, so taking your first steps can be daunting. Join our panel of award-winning writers and designers as they share their successes and struggles with getting a foot in the door of the industry. Whether you dream of writing the next big AAA game or an indie interactive novel, we’ve got the info to set you on the right path.

Friday, October 14, 2016

How Games Undermine Emotional Stakes

In this article, game writer Sande Chen discusses how the nature of video game playing undermines the emotional stakes in linear storytelling.

For the last week, I've been pondering a provocative question posed by another game writer about the mediocrity of linear storytelling in games, specifically the 8 to 12 hours of story mode in a console game.  For a long time, I've been of the opinion that these types of stories are usually mimicking the Hollywood blockbuster and the Hollywood model of screenwriting, a system that doesn't always work with the needs of a game.  I also realize that this other game writer is only talking about experiences within these types of specific games and not about 60-100 hour games, episodic games, or MMOs.  We're not doomed to mediocrity for all eternity especially when we think about the ways games do build emotional connections. However, I agree that there are certain challenges in creating linear experiences within interactive games and trying to hold on to the emotional beats that would normally be generated by watching a great movie. 

There can be incredible gameplay with a mediocre story.  There can be gorgeous art in video games with a mediocre story.  Is story the weak excuse to transport the player from point A to point B, to get from one level to the next, or to string together a bunch of activities?  Is this kind of story character-driven or plot-oriented?  Sure, in screenplays, character development is the basis of all the decision points in the story, but in game development, character development can be one of the last items on the checklist.  The player can enjoy a great game but be completely detached from the story.

That's simply because in the do-or-die situations of gameplay, the immediacy of that kind of urgency affects the player more than the urgency of the created story.  Does the player want to avoid a reset or does the player feel the urgency to save the universe?  Moreover, if you think about all the things that a player has to do or keep track of in a twitchy action game, how important ranks the game story?  Much as we would like to multi-task to success, our brains have to prioritize.  Players may simply be too emotionally distracted to think about the game's authorial story especially when their own emergent stories are much more exciting.

Another concern is the desensitization to violence that comes from killing millions and millions of virtual foes.  In a screenplay, acts of violence generally have great significance and may punctuate an inciting incident, a midpoint, or climax.  Can a cut scene in a linear video game deliver the same kind of emotional punch in an act of violence when the last 4 hours have been pretty much the same fare? 

We know that games can elicit emotions, but these are not necessarily the same emotions that are elicited by watching movies.  I'm sure there are people who have tried over and over to beat a boss after repeatedly failing.  Nobody wants to see a required cut scene or hear the villainous taunts of the boss as we anxiously wait to try again, no matter how wonderfully cinematic that cut scene is.  The focus and resolve in this boss fight will not be about the game story or the player-character, but about manipulating the controller better or another gameplay aspect.  The emotion generated by the ultimate triumph in beating the boss is about the player, not the character. 

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, October 4, 2016

Upcoming Workshop: Game Writing Portfolio Workout

Happy Birthday, Game Writing Portfolio Workout!  It's been over a year since I started this series of workshops, the first of its kind, at Playcrafting NYC on the craft of game writing.  Intended for both new and veteran game writers, the workshops featured practical exercises on different game writing topics and frank talk about the industry each session.  The last two, held in July and September 2016, were intense workouts and the culmination of all the sessions before, so the upcoming one on Tuesday, October 11, 2016 will be the start of a new cycle.  And next month, I am going to be offering a totally new class (details soon!)

As always, Playcrafting NYC, which offers classes and events related to game development, has Early Bird tickets, but if they sell out (and they have in the past), you'll have to pay full price.

Here's what a former student has said about Game Writing Portfolio Workout:
"This is so far best one of the Playcrafting workshops. The teacher was funny, incredibly knowledgeable and shared the best insider's secrets!"
Come and write!
Date:  Tuesday, Oct 11, 2016
Time: 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM 

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.