Thursday, 29 January 2009

Storytelling Engine

The concept of a Storytelling Engine comes from John Seavey's blog, 'Fraggmented', mainly about comics, but sometimes TV shows or films, he looks at the basic premise or status quo used to generate stories for serial adventures. For example Spider Man's classic engine (as reused and kept to in Ultimate Spider man) is "young nerdy guy without much money who's at school and working for a newspaper is also a superhero by night, keeping new york safe from a variety of, mainly animal and science themed super villains". He has posted storytelling engines for a while now, and they make interesting reading, particularly when he analyses why an engine works or doesn't work.
http://fraggmented.blogspot.com/

A major reason 'Heroes' started to go haywire after the first series is it's lack of a storytelling engine. It's much easier to make new stories if you have a clear, established status quo, and many modern comics which go on about changing the status quo forget this. If you're going to change the status quo in a comic, it should be rare and monumental. It should also STAY like that for a decent length of time, unless it's a sort of endgame climax. Harry Potter uproots it's storytelling engine only in the final book leading up to the big finale. Ultimately, if you have a good storytelling engine, you shouldn't need to change the status quo. It will generate thousands of stories. Doctor Who has a brilliant storytelling engine, as does 'The Simpsons'.
I guess my point is that I need to establish certain base rules about the setting and recurring cast. I often find when making comics that, having defined the characters, I can just dump an event on them and the story writes itself .
The cast need to be appealing enough that the player will want to keep coming back to see what happens to them 'this month' and there should be some consistent elements as a backdrop to the adventures. If, at the end of an episode, things go largely back to normal, we can make it so you can play them in any order, though actually there may be more interest in keeping some kind of continuity, encouraging players to play every episode and enjoy the gradual changes.

Mechanics and Story thoughts

So I'm pretty well set on making an Episodic Adventure Game set in a Geek culture comedy magic realism setting like 'Spaced', 'Scary Go Round', 'Scott Pilgrim', 'Buffy'.

Some thoughts:

ON ITEMS: Okay, let's assume that certain main characters should ALWAYS be carrying certain trademark items. To use an example from real life, I don't leave the house without my bag containing my keys, phone, wallet, iPod and a pencil and paper. This could be made interesting if the item in question is iconic. Where would The Doctor be without his Sonic Screwdriver? In any episode of Doctor Who, we assume the doctor has the screwdriver, and we know that it can be used, loosely, to open doors (unless deadlocked) tamper with machines and detect energy and chemicals.
If a character has to pick up an item to use in a situation, should it vanish next episode? Hmm, how about if they borrow it, next episode it'll be back with the character who owns it, and if they buy/take/find it, it's in their house (if large or with an obtuse function) or inventory (if small and possibly useful on a regular basis) subsequently. Within reason, I mean, I wouldn't expect a character to keep an empty crisp packet they used to solve a puzzle!
I'd prefer to keep it down to as few items as possible. No puzzled in which the character is carrying a pistol and must pick up a rock to break a fragile object, when they could have hit it with the pistol or dropped it and had the same effect!
Perhaps there could be a recurring minigame for using some items, like the lock picking in 'Oblivion' or 'Tribly the Art of Theft'. So we ideally want an iconic, multiuse item for the main recurring protagonist. Other characters may later have to solve the same puzzle without this item and so have to find another way around the problem! That'd be fun!

Characters: It wouldn't be too hard to switch between a cast. I don't want to do this too much and end up confusing like 'Heroes' sometimes becomes, but seeing things from another character's point of view and/or using their abilities to solve a problem may be fun. Let's assume for now that we have a main character (with some distinctive items and abilities), a few other major supporting characters, and then minor characters who play bit parts and stuff, much like a typical sitcom or soap opera. It is possible to have a character with two forms, each with different abilities. This IS a little overdone in games, however, so I'm unsure about using it.
Note on characterisation:
Characterisation between episodes CANNOT be effected by player choices, otherwise episodes will contradict themselves. If you were allowed to make character X act like a complete jerk, kill everybody in town and then next episode he was back to his sunny happy self and everybody was alive again, it'd be a bit weird! While I want to allow the player some flexibility on how they solve a problem and what they say, to make it more interactive and add replay value, all the options should be 'in character'. This actually furthers the appeal of playing as different characters in different segments and episodes, because perhaps as the main character you can't punch that annoying NPC because he wouldn't dream of doing it, but playing as a less scrupulous character, you can because that's in character for them!
This makes it somewhat like a JRPG, and yes, I'm going to reference Final Fantasy VIII again, because I think it's an example of excellent characterisation in a game. You play Squall, a surly teenage boy. When given dialogue choices, they're often just the jist like 'accept' or 'refuse' and Squall will translate this into his way of speaking, so 'accept' becomes, '...fine' and 'refuse' his trademark '...whatever'. Sometimes though, weirdly, and I assume this may be the translator's mistake, not the game's, you may get the options in his wording ie '...fine' or '...whatever'. I think the dialogue should be consistent. Keeping answers in the character's voice is probably a better way, because you know how they'll word it. All the choices given should be in-character.

Episodes in gaming

Is episodic/modular gaming the future?
Short games for lower prices which come out regularly like episodes of a TV show seem to be appearing. Half Life 2 is using this technique, along with the Adventure Games by 'Telltale', such as 'Sam and Max' and 'Strong Bad's Cool Game for Attractive People' (best title ever).

Up until now, we have thought of games as being like films. They are long and even when part of a series, come out generally at a rate of less than once release per year. Series which run past three installments tend to accumulate scorn from reviewers. But hang on, you wouldn't scorn a TV show that runs past four episodes, would you? TV shows may well run for 12 episodes per season for about four seasons. Doctor Who has about 12 episodes per season and has been running (with a 19 year gap just where my childhood was, thanks a LOT! Grr!) since the 60's!
So why not release small games as episodes which are all part of a running storyarc (season) for download and a small price as Telltale do, then when a season is complete, you can buy the whole season of games on a single DVD or 'full download' at a slight discount on the price of buying them individually.
People may well pay the higher price to get the games as they come out. It's like with comics, I pay the £2.50 for an issue of Runaways every month, while with other comics, I may wait for the trade paperback and buy a year's worth for about a tenner.
If you have a distribution system like 'Steam', downloading the latest installment could be really easy. Hey, wait! You could even subscribe, like a podcast, and your computer would automatically download the new episodes when they came out and pay the subscription fee, then notify you it was ready to play.

This not only changes the way we buy and play games, but perhaps the way we make them.
If we assume a game is episodic, we can make it like a comic series, sitcom, soap opera or ongoing drama, with recurring characters and perhaps locations.
Things that wouldn't perhaps work so well with episodes:
-RPGs where you level up. Though the 'Neverwinter Nights' games are sort of released episodically and allow you to import your character from a previous game and some are stories which deliberately follow on to allow this, such as 'Shadow of Undrentide'>'Hordes of the Underdark' and NWN2 Original Campaign> 'Mask of the Betrayer', which assume the same character and continue at a starting level around the character's ending level, this can be a game balance nightmare. The more linear and predictable the item and skill accumulation is, the easier this would become. NWN's Dungeons and Dragons based ruleset comes in handy here because balance is worked out with 'Encounter Levels' and 'Recommended loot per level' tables.
-Sandbox games. Episodic gaming works much better in linear games, because we can predict better what level, ability and storyline points a character has reached at the end of an area if the area is scripted to give x items, experience and exposition.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

AI based games

Having looked at Radiant AI and the game 'Fa├žade' , it comes to mind that it's likely in the future that a game could be made which is completely open ended, like Oblivion, but with no linear aspect at all. Characters would interact with each other, with the environment and with you the player. They'd interact all over the game world, even where your character wasn't, living out lives based not on pre-scripted behaviour, but based on an ability to make complex choices, taking into account:
Bodily functions, basic desires (rest, food, comfort, procreation) Social constructs and restrictions, long term goals and personal morals and feelings.
I was disappointed, the first time I played 'The Sims' by how stupid they were. If left to their AI, they simply didn't seem to be able to cope. Within minutes they were skipping work and getting fired, peeing on the floor, waking each other up with loud noises... It was frustrating, because I wanted to watch them learn and adapt to each other and start running a home as best they could based on their personality traits.
If you could get complex enough AI, you would be able to do fascinating things. Simulation of relationships between family members and friends, interaction of tribes and social groups, realistic battle simulations etc. Perhaps a character, on gaining power, would become an evil overlord, and then people would rise up against them for the greater good. The player would be able to fight with the revolution or maybe try to get hired by the overlord as a bodyguard, or try to earn their trust and assasinate them. I doubt AI will get that complex for many years yet.

As a comic artist, I'm used to thinking of my characters as real people. I can easily know what the character would do or say in a situation, be it social or combat. Should an NPC always follow orders to the letter? I don't really think they should. I think they should behave with consistent internal logic to that character. NPCs with personality and common sense would be a real asset in a lot of games. At the moment, we can see the effect of a sandbox physics pack in 'Garry's Mod' where you can put things together and see what happens. What about a sandbox AI simulator where you could put a bunch of people in a house, say a smarmy lawyer, a gruff marine and a sensitive artist together in a house and watch them interact. Then you could drop in some guns and surround the house with zombies and see how they interact.
Suppose each character has stats sliders, but they're personality stats, like this:

Introversion (contemplative) - Extroversion (active)
Intuition (works on internal guessing) - Sensing (Works on external cues)
Thinking (Objective) - Feeling (subjective)
Judging (Measures things by numbers/facts) - Percieving (Judges things by what looks right)

That's just using basic Jungian archetypes. Imagine if we throw in a choice of a character's social status and morality. You would find characters start to act very differently from each other. An intuitive extrovert may immediately grab a gun and start blasting zombies, while an introverted senser may start to look around for another option, such as 'is there anything I can use to make a barricade?'.
As well as a useful thing for simulations (such as predicting what might happen if a disaster happened in a major city) you could use it to make highly immersive games, where firing a gun in public creates a realistic reaction (some people try to run, others hide, others ask what you're doing, some may even attack and try to get the gun off you). Rather than a universal reaction like, 'All citizens run away, all cops attack'.

An interesting article

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3913/the_designers_notebook_numbers_.php

Just read this article on Gamasutra about simulating complex character development.

It kind of reminds me of when I was looking into Radiant AI, the AI used in 'Oblivion'. In the finished version of the game, characters were programmed with a set list of things they needed to do. This is actually highly simplified from the original version of the game. The designers found that characters came out extremely chaotic and unpredictable with the original, more advanced, AI. An example included town guards. Their job is to patrol towns to make sure people aren't breaking the rules. One of the guards became hungry (because all NPCs, even in the new version of the AI, must eat something every so often) and went to get some food. The other guards, noticing he'd abandoned his post, a crime, went after him to arrest the errant guard. In the absence of any guards, the townspeople ran amok, looting and killing! Presumably they were programmed to follow rules if they were in a situation where not doing so would result in trouble.
This video shows how the old AI was:

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Little Big Planet

Little Big Planet is an interesting game. Some notes:
1. Use of natural materials. The levels are build from fabric, wood and similar. This is interesting. It gives the impression that the levels have been 'built' rather than being a collection of data. This makes the game accessible to technophobes because it's built in the language of reality. People may not understand units and polygons, but they do understand stickers, wooden blocks and string. By turning elements of a video game into metaphors from reality, you make a game that's easy to understand.
2. Stephen Fry. Comforting, familiar voice, associated with culture, comedy and literature. This, again, distances the game from the view of 'pow pow zap! Video game!" and makes it a more open experience for the non-gamer. It also makes the game feel tied to British humour, such as 'The Hitchhiker's Guide', immediately setting a tone of fun and whimsy.
3. Customisation. People love to collect and customise things. I remember in Year 10 of high school, we'd get these big silver folders for Design lessons. It was par for the course that you decorated your DT folder with stickers and drew on it with permanent markers. I used to look at my older sister's thinking "that's so cool!" it had pictures of the members of 'Blur' on it, and messages left by her friends. I couldn't wait to get my own! We were all so excited when we got to year 10 ourselves and were handed our big silver folders to customise. People like to make their mark and express their personality, so making a game all about that is a good idea.
4. Simplicity. When I was a kid, games were simple. My Master System had two buttons. Sonic the Hedgehog only used one! It seems like since then, games have become more and more complex, suffering often from 'feature creep', where games designers think 'hey, let's throw an unskippable racing minigame into this RPG! That's a good idea!' Simplicity isn't a bad thing and shouldn't be feared. Simple games are great, I can play them with my non-Gamer friends and even my Dad! (Mum is just a lost cause). The Wii is good for this, but it's nice to see the PS getting in on the action.

Little Big Planet is a game in which you kind of make your own game. It's like being given a big tub of Lego. First you can build the stuff on the reference sheets that come with the lego, but you're likely to, after a while, want to build your own creations. The game gives the player exactly the tools to do this, then to show what you've made and let other people join in with the play.

Even one player games can be shared experiences. Cosplay (dressing up as game characters, yes, I have done this myself), fanfiction (...okay, yes, I may have written some fanfic in my teens...), fanart (...yes. I'm a total geek, of course I have) and fan games (...I've never actually completed a fangame, but I have dabbled in these waters) are all ways of interacting with the game and with the community. People discuss favourite characters and story points, tell stories about them, boast about achievements and the game becomes something shared. LBP taps into the idea of the gamer as part of a worldwide community and a sort of collective conciousness.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Setting games in the here and now

Games seem to have a distinct reluctance to use present-day settings.
I find this slightly strange really. Think about how many movies there are which are set very clearly in the time at which they were filmed. Now think about games. Hm, okay, we have 'Grand Theft Auto', er...
Admittedly most games don't involve huge amounts of mundane everyday detail, which is what tends to make the setting clear. So if a game is like 'Mercenaries' and set in a warzone, it's quite hard to tell. Still, most games are set in fantasy lands, in the past, the future or an alternate past or future (or even an alternate present!).
If you consider that the lifespan of a game is often shorter than the lifespan of a film, due to quickly evolving technology, and that people don't mind if a film is clearly set when it was made, it makes you wonder really. It generally takes about ten years for something to begin to feel like it's not up-to-date fashion, dialect and technology wise as far as setting and dialogue go. Do we play ten year old games much? Not that often, really. What ten year old games do I play? The odd 'Final Fantasy' on the PSX when feeling nostalgic, maybe a little 'Master of Orion II', 'Baldur's Gate 2', perhaps. So of all the thousands and thousands of games that have come out and I've played, very few I still play now.
The only games which frequently go out of their way to be up to the minute and are very aware they will date are sports games.
Why not assume people mostly won't be playing my games in 5 years time, and the few who are probably won't care if it's dated? After all, I would still watch a ten or twenty year old film and enjoy the film, understanding that it is set in the time in which it was made. Maybe not every film from that period would be worth watching, but the good ones stand up to this day.

Something I heard said of 'Wallace and Gromit' is that "If you want to make something universal, make it very specific". Wallace and Gromit are clearly situated in Lancashire (Preston, in fact, though they never say they are, look at the backgrounds, the fact that Nick Park is from Preston and that in a short it was shown that Wallace supports Preston NE Football club!) in a nostalgic and rose-tinted 1950s-ish time. Does this mean that people who have never been to the North of England can't relate to them or find them funny? Aparently not.

Games seem reluctant, generally, to use a setting that's simply a realistic representation of the place in which they were made. I can't think of a game that takes place in contemporary britain. Well, maybe one or two may have some representation of central London, now I think about it. London isn't really the same as typical suburban England though.

Many of the comics I've been looking at for inspiration on gamer/alt/geek culture are very clearly set in everyday urban or suburban life.
http://www.scarygoround.com/
Scary Go Round is set in the present day, and, in fact, practically in real time. The characters celebrate christmas and new year at those times of year, and their ages aren't frozen in time. The setting is present day Lancashire (though the specific town is fictional), reflected in the fashion, speech and technology of their surroundings. This makes the surreal happenings, like robots and ghosts, more engaging, because they are juxtaposed against a mundane setting.

http://www.scottpilgrim.com/
Scott Pilgrim, similarly, is set in modern day Canada, and even in a specific, real city, Toronto. Many of the locations used are real places. The fashion, like SGR, reflects contemporary urban indie fashion. Again, surrealism is used. In Scott Pilgrim, video game logic is applied to the real world quite often. Energy drinks give +1 to 'will' and Scott gets showered with small change for defeating enemies, as well as being able to 'counter reverse' punches and level up.

So, setting a game in a clear representation of present day England, then adding surreal elements, may lead to a more distinctive look and feel and an engaging story.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

AGS FTW

The tricky thing about coming from a largely pure design background is that, despite an A level in computing, I cannot program to save my life. Okay, so by average standards, I'm better than most people you will meet walking down the road, ie. I can write HTML and DHTML and a bit of some simple languages like Pascal. Unfortunately, this is roughly where my savvy ends. As soon as I start seeing lots of semicolons and numbers, my brain shuts down. This means that finding a way to make some kind of hard evidence of 'Look! I design games!' a little hard, as the results look like a bunch of diagrams, comics, character designs and notes, not an exciting video game. While this would be pretty standard in the industry, it does make things a little tricky when it comes to showing people outside what you do.
I'd like to, if possible, have some kind of a game to present at my MA exhibition. Something I could set up and people would be able to play!
I started out looking at Source modding. Okay, it's not going to work. I have no idea what I'm doing, I'm just confused. I can't use game making stuff I'm comfortable with like 'RPG maker' or the Neverwinter Nights' toolset because then I either have to stick rigidly to the engines they have in place, or it gets horrendously complicated.
Then, randomly while looking at Adventure Games, I stumbled onto 'AGS'; 'Adventure Game Studio'. This looks like exactly what I need. It's flexible, but user friendly with coding involved, but it's simple coding, around the same level as HTML, I've managed to pick up the basics in a day or so's study. Though it's often used for 8 or 16 bit games, it can not only support full colour and high rez graphics, but it seems people have made plugins for 3d support and particle effects.

This means, potentially, I could make games with 3d models overlaid onto a painted backdrop, in the style of an awful lot of Japanese PSX and PS2 games, particularly RPGs like Final Fantasy VII-IX, Chrono Cross and Shadow Hearts, but Resident Evil games were made in this style too. This means I could feasibly make a demo game in which a player controls a character in an environment, with basic gameplay and area design implemented and dialogue. The game supports voice acting, and I happen to have friends (and was myself for a while) involved in Amateur Voice Acting online, so that's perfectly feasible, I know the ins and outs of auditions and sound manipulation.
Just to show how flexible this program is, it has been used to make not only Adventure, but stealth and platform games, and from the looks of tutorials, can be used to make RPG games without too much fuss. It seems to be possible to implement fighting and special actions and interaction abilities and a range of character animations...Hmmmm. Might be just the thing I need.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Adventure Games

Why don't we see Adventure Games much any more?
Admittedly I've seen and played some damned boring Adventure Games, but I've also played some which were the most atmospheric, funny and well-plotted games I've played.
Right now I'm playing the Adventure games by Ben 'Yatzee' Croshaw of 'Zero Punctuation' fame. Despite the extremely simple graphics, music and sound, they are really involving and scary. Some of the puzzles are a bit...hmm, well, one gripe I have with adventure games is that they seem to expect you to read the mind of the person who made them, another is that nothing works except usng the exact right item on the exact right object at the exact right time and another is that you don't always get a journal like you would in an RPG (also a problem with Japanese RPGs, and in fact, pretty much any narrative game that doesn't give you a journal or similar list of objectives. If you blink and miss part of a coversation, or don't remember from last session, or you failed to pick up every item that wasn't nailed down, you're stuck!

Adventure Games seem to have merged with other genres in recent years. Survival Horror, partcularly Resident Evil (except 4, blegh. Not a fan of 4) are pretty much adventure games with occasional added monster shooting, Action Adventure, oddly, is often not so close to Adventure as Survival Horror or RPGs often are, but does often contain elements of 'item A to slot B gameplay'.
Excepting the ridiculous 'moon logic' some of them ran on, I don't think Adventure games deserve to die. In fact, I really hope the new 'Strong Bad' Adventure will remind people why they're so great. Anybody can play them, they're simple, slow paced, so no problem for people who aren't so great at button mashing or have poor reflexes or just aren't tech-savvy, they can be extremely clever and funny, and since they're the closest thing to 'interactive movies' you can get in gaming, I think they should stick around a while.
They'd work really well on a Nintendo DS for a start, with the stylus, and I'm sure you could utilise the two screens somehow. Another idea would be using the Wii. I saw there was a game out a little while back called 'Zack and Wiki' which was essenially an adventure game in which you used just a few key items with different wiimote gestures to solve puzzles. You could, feasibly, combined Adventure gameplay with a lot of other genres. Combine it with a shooter and you'd get something a bit like Deus Ex or Halflife, but with more puzzles, combined with a platformer you'd get something like Cave Story, many RPGs contain some adventure style gameplay, often not as much as they could...But you get the picture.

Now I think of it, it's funny but all Adventure games I can think of seem to revolve around a single character with lots of items. Maybe a small ensemble cast with different abilities would be a more unusual and interesting approach. So we have a party, like many RPGs have, they all have interesting personalities and interact and banter with each other, and each has abilities which are useful for different situations. In some cases, this will be knowledge of a subject, while in others, an actual physical skill, item or even supernatural ability, depending on the setting.
This sounds like a game I'd really enjoy actually. The depth of plot, character interaction and development of a good RPG, without the pointless, repetitive fighting, which is, instead, replaced by clever puzzles and exploration! If I wanted to add a bit of action, could throw in some platforming or even the stealthy running mentioned in an earlier post.
Hmmm. I think I may be onto something.

Brainflash: Fort Building

I have just had a thought and must write this down:

I was playing around with 'Garry's Mod', and realised what fun it is just messing around with the physics and building things out of stuff. This made me realise something:

Building stuff is fun.

When I was a kid, obviously living out in the countryside, building forts, dams and treehouses was...well, pretty much part of every day life for a kid. I learned how to build a fire when I was about seven or eight years old, and which foods you can find in the wilderness are edible, as well as how to build a bivouac to shelter in. Even on wet days, a popular way to keep entertained for us, like many kids, was building forts out of cardboard boxes, clothesmaids, sheets etc.
Even on a smaller scale, down to wooden blocks or Lego, building things is somehow incredibly satisfying.
I've also been reading an amazing webcomic called 'Freak Angels' which takes place in post-apocalyptic partially flooded London. The details of the society which has emerged and how people live seem very convincing and believable, making it compelling stuff:
http://www.freakangels.com/

So here's an idea for a game which is part RTS, part Sim and part RPG.
You play a member of a small group of survivors of an apocalyptic event. Unlike the idiots in that recent TV show, 'Survivors', these guys work together (I read an interesting article which said that actually, in an emergency, people's instincts don't turn to savage self-preservation, but actually they band together and make sacrifices for the greater good. Makes sense if you think historically, right?). The cities are filled with monsters and mutant gangs, so you have fled to the countryside. You and your friends amount to just one or two people at first, and you start off small, building a bivouak in which to sleep using nearby materials like branches. Early on, you will live off your supplies you start off with that your character grabbed from their house before leaving, supplimented with natural foods like mushrooms, berries, roots etc. Fortunately along with your main character, the first NPC in your party is somebody with a bit of wilderness knowledge. You start to scavenge food and materials and find survivors from further afield as you progress, and your shelter becomes a fort, and then gradually a settlement. As more people come to stay in your settlement, it has the double-edged effect that more raiders and monsters will attack, so building weapons and defenses and setting up a watchpost are good ideas. As you go further out, you'll be able to explore, scavenge, raid and help villages, towns and cities you find to get food or supplies or, if you help them, set up valuable trading posts. If you want to move into a village you've cleared of monsters, and barricade that up, you can move at any time. Home is wherever you make your bed, though it's advisable to move your supplies too, and the beds of your buddies! If you want to take over the ruins of an old medieval castle and barricade it up and live in there, that can be done.
You customise your character's skills and knowledge at the start of the game like an RPG. Characters with wilderness skills are useful in the countryside, as they know what fungi and plants can be eaten, while characters who have skills in crafts or trades can build and create or recycle things into useful tools, buildings and weapons, Historians know about old technology such as armour and butter churns, and characters with diplomatic savvy are good at dealing with other survivors etc.
The eventual goal, besides setting up some kind of civilised society, is to discover what caused the problem by exploring areas like an RPG, and stopping the big boss that caused it in the first place, stopping any more monsters from coming into the world and ensuring the safe future of the human race. Like an RPG, you can build a cadre of party members. Many NPCs are best left at base, looking after everyday tasks or building projects, while others you can take on excursions to help fend off monsters, negotiate deals and spot useful gear or food.


...This may actualy be a really ambitious game now I think it through. But it would be pretty awesome, right?

Monday, 19 January 2009

Humour in games

Sophisticated humour in video games is lacking, I have decided.

Many games involve slapstick humour or simple, incidental jokes, but games which are clever and witty are in short supply. Some Japanese games feature absurdist humour, though it rarely translates well. There are a choice few games which make an art of being funny. 'Portal', obviously, the 'Monkey Island' games, 'Grim Fandango'. Many funny games were in the old 'Adventure' game genre, which has been pretty much dead for five years now.
It's rather odd that Britain produces huge amounts of comic films and tv shows, yet dismally few comic games.
I'm not talking a silly, clownish game for kids here. Portal proves that you can have sophisticated, dark, character an dialogue based humour in a game, and it can go down very well. So many funny webcomics are based on gaming humour, so gamers clearly are not without a funnybone.
I remember being a little cheesed off with 'Final Fantasy X' for a simple reason, Yuna says, more than once, 'I want my journey to be full of laughter'. But the cast only ever laugh together once in the entire game! For goodness' sake! I know you're on an important mission, but a bunch of teen-twenty-somethings on a rollicking adventure around the world...well, wouldn't they have a bit more fun!? I guess it could be a translation thing, since the Japanese for 'laugh' and 'smile' are interchangable, so she could actually have meant 'I want my journey to be full of smiles'. Still, RPG games, with their ensemble casts really seem wasted on unfunny writers. You can do so much with an ensemble cast!

I want to entertain my players, just as I want to entertain my comic readers. I want to make them laugh and I want them to really empathise with the characters. Humour and empathy, I find, go hand-in-hand. It's the reason Gromit from 'Wallace and Gromit' doesn't need to speak to be funny. His expressions and the viewer's empathy do all the work.

Well, I think I just found my first piece of the puzzle! Something absolutely central to my design philosophy as a Game Designer: Humour and Empathy.

Research thoughts

Looking into books on expanding the Games market to suit female players, I came across the concept of 'indirect competition'. This is a style of gameplay which is popular with female players because rather than pitting the player against an opponent, like a game of tennis or a fight, it pits them against their own limits or a challenging situation. A game of Solitaire or climbing a steep rockface are indirect competition.
This goes some way to explaining the very wide appeal of 'Portal'. Even the enemy turrents and the end boss are treated as puzzles to overcome. You don't so much 'beat' enemies in Portal as 'get past' them.
Perhaps this difference in male and female goals can be traced back to typical roles in stone age society. Males of the species, as with most animals, are wired up to compete against other males for females (and thus as a collateral, prestige, which helps win mates) food, goods and land. Females are more community based, tending to work in a group to keep living conditions comfortable and forage for edible plants (interestingly, this is why women are generally more observant of small details than men, but less focused on a single goal, because we evolved as foragers rather than hunters).

A difference I have found is that female players generally play in order to 'experience' the game rather than 'win' it. Also, when talking about the storyline of a game, male players tend to emphasise plot elements such as twists, political intrigue and events, while female players emphasise the character elements such as friendship, betrayal and love between characters.
The female player generally doesn't measure things numerically so much as relatively, and is less interested in the accumulation of levels/wealth/points unless this will lead to some sort of tangible result (such as an item or sub plot or progress in the game).
So the least popular genres for female players, which can be backed up by surveys, are Sports Games and FPS games. Both of these tend to be directly competitive, goal orientated, not focused on character development or story and reliant more on fast reflexes than creative thought.
Research into pilot trainees has also shown that while motion sickness is equal in both genders in trained pilots, female pilots generally take longer to adapt. This goes some distance to explaining why casual female players find fast-paced 3d games disorientating and even sickness-inducing, while seasoned female gamers don't. This does tend to put female players off FPS games though, because early experiences are so unpleasant.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Halflife 2

I've gone and got myself Halflife 2...For educational purposes. No, actually this is the case. It's one of those great, innovative games which I feel I ought to have played, but haven't for the simple reason that I am very easily scared.
So in the name of research. I'm playing Halflife 2, nudging the mouse twitchily and making small squeaky noises whenever anything scary happens.
...Could be worse, at least 'Call of Cthulu' wasn't rated as one of the best games ever. I suspect when I get to the dreaded 'Ravenholme' area, I will sub in my brother and watch him play from the safety of behind some furniture. Zombies are the thing I'm most afraid of in the world. Gordon Freeman is, unfortunately, not a cleric/paladin class character and has no 'Zombies go away!' (aka 'turn undead' ) button I can hit. Nooooooo!

Okay, so, what's good about Halflife 2, having played the first half hour or so:
1. Integrated cutscenes. While Metal Gear kind of had the right idea, putting cutscenes in ingame graphics rather than using FMVs (which while they were an absolute boon back in the PSX games when graphics weren't so great, there's not a huge difference now, you may as well spend the extra money and time on your in-game graphics as far as I'm concerned) it still stopped everything for them. Halflife doesn't stop. Everything is in real time, in the game's graphics and in the game's engine. The result is a superb level of immersion. You are always Gordon Freeman and stuff is always going on. Rather than a viewer, even though you're saying anything, you feel like a participant, even when people are talking.
2. Attention to detail in area design. It irks me in games when nowhere is cluttered. In real life, places are often cluttered, there's litter, paper, appliances, piles of discarded boxes and the like. The world of Halflife 2 looks lived in. It's dirty and messy. The best area so far was the lab. There was so much stuff in there and I was just thinking 'ooh! I wonder what those tanks of liquid are for?' and there were some really well thought out bits of clutter on desks and details like notes on pinboards.
3. Intuitive design. First the simplicity of the interface. It's not crowded with info, there's no big bar at the bottom or anything. Secondly the levels, which are designed so the player feels like, in the early areas where you're running away from the soldiers, like you're just running away and arriving randomly in these places. Even though there IS no other way you can go, it doesn't feel like that. The illusion of free choice and luck made me feel like I was the star of an action movie, it was wonderful!
4. Expressive characters. The naturalistic dialogue style is clever, as well as the way they slip the exposition into the dialogue without needing a 'Basil Exposition' character or anything. Also, the way the characters move and the incredibly detailed expression system really makes them come alive.
5. Heroine is attractive within realistic terms and sensibly dressed and is also funny. +100 points!
6. DIFFICULTY SLIDER. All games in which the character can die should have one of these. I may not know at the start how hard I want the game to be. Also, this one works. Easy mode is nice and gentle on an RPG player who squeaks and fires in random directions at the first sign of danger, but still challenging enough that the game doesn't feel 'nerfed', so I still feel cool on overcoming challenges and baddies. It also doesn't punish me for playing on easy. I hate how in some RPGs, if you play on easy, you get less exp as punishment. Surely you should get more!?

Chatting with non gamers today. They really like the Wii console. I theorise that to make a game which anybody, even your granny or mum can play, involves making a game that doesn't follow 'gamer logic' or assume that the player already knows concepts like 'one up', 'elemental resistance', 'rocket jumping' etc. Perhaps by looking at gaming tropes, I can learn to avoid them and make a game that appeals to a wider market...

Friday, 16 January 2009

Running in games (some musings)

In the words of Akito from 'Martian Successor Nadeshiko" (an anime about 10 years old now) "What's wrong with running away?"
In games, I think this is actually a valid question.

RPGs are particularly bad for making the player obligated to kill or surmount any obstacle in their way. In fact, going out of your way to kill stuff is almost always beneficial, as it means more xp points, so higher levels and better abilities, as well as more items and money. One of the only things I dislike about Chrono Trigger, which in all other respects is so good that it's firmly placed in my top 5 games of all time, is that though you CAN avoid monsters, if you take advantage of this ability, you won't reach good levels and will just get hammered by bosses and unavoidable encounters. Therefore, having avoidable encounters becomes even weirder than unavoidable random encounters from Final Fantasy games, because you deliberately run at and attack any monster you see! Come to me, precious bags of exp! hahaha! So rather than 'hapless adventurer attacked by the minions of darkness while trying to achieve my goal!' it's more like I'm 'brutal hunter and slayer of anything that gets close enough that I can see it!'
But wait, wait. Realitically, you avoid fights, right? Even a soldier in a war zone isn't encouraged to go out of his or her way looking for trouble. If I were to see a rowdy looking gang on the other side of the street, I wouldn't run into their midst to beat them up. Generally, you only fight someting if you feel the reward outweighs the risk, or the risk of not dealing with it outweighs the risk of fighting, or if there's simply no other option.

In an RPG, the reward almost always outweighs the risk, except in clever examples like the 'T-Rexaur' monster early in FF VIII, which is so powerful when you're at low levels that, when you see one, party member Quistis says, 'Remember, Squall, sometimes it's better to run!' and later on, a boss fight revolves around running from the monster. You do get a bonus for beating it, but you would have had to do a lot of level grinding and item hunting, and it's not the standard way to beat the boss. The standard way is to run from it, staving it off only when needed, until you reach the shore where your friend shoots it to pieces with a ship-mounted machine gun. In most RPGs, however, you will likely aquire new weapons, armour and items as well as experience points from defeating monsters.
In fact, the whole act of killing things and looting their bodies is taken so much for granted in RPGs and FPS games generally, that you stop thinking about how it's really not that nice. I mean, if we think realistically here, it's highly unlikely that an enemy will have a better weapon than you have, unless they're carrying something very special, or it's ammunition. Their armour shouldn't always fit you, their weapons and items shouldn't nessesarily interest you, in fact think about this scenario...
Somebody comes at you with a broken bottle to attack. You deck them because you can't do much else, they had you cornered. Do you go through their pockets and steal their money, car keys, penknife and tesco coupons? Most people wouldn't. In an RPG, even pious knights seem to have no problems with stripping armour off defeated foes to wear! This is partially because RPGs have this idea of getting 'better' armour, and for ease of play, all armour fits all characters and weapons and armour compare in simple, mathamatical terms as 'better' or 'worse'.

Why can't we just run away from things? Why are we always forced to fight them?

What would happen if you made a game in which:
The character doesn't need any new armour s/he is perfectly happy unarmoured because they can move faster and more easily. Besides, maybe it wouldn't fit them anyway?
The character doesn't need to nick everybody's swords, s/he has a weapon, just in case, and they don't need any more weighing them down.
The character doesn't like hurting or killing people and would prefer to just stay out of the way.
It was realistically hard to fence or pawn goods. Imagine you just killed a guy who's trying to kill you, and he was carrying a shotgun. Would you sell his shotgun for loot? Where, how? Why do all these merchants in games happily buy whatever bloodstained armour and second hand swords you bring them!?

This is not nessesarily a 'stealth game' as in a stealth game it's often a bit silly like 'if you are seen by anybody at all, everybody comes to attack and you must fight!' Metal Gear being a slight exception because you can run away and hide again, but it's very hard.
I would call this a 'passive action game' or a 'running game'.
If you've ever been somewhere you're not meant to be, and been spotted, most people don't actually attack on sight, and even if they did, there's generally a moment where they're a bit startled by the appearence of somebody who isn't meant to be there. Most people will actually either assume the person probably should be there, or will ask 'hey, what are you doing here?' first. For a while, in Japan, I played 'airsoft' a game where teams hide on woodland or similar environments and try to shoot each other with replica guns that fire plastic pellets. You would be amazed how hard it is to hit somebody running as fast as they can! Even with a machine gun, and especially when there's cover around. Running is a great tactic.

How do we introduce challenge into this game? Well, being caught in the open is very dangerous for a start, and there's still a stealth element, but the challenge if you're seen is not to fight your way out, but it becomes a chase, where you must use your superior mobility to get away to a safe location or hide. Also challenges could spring just from trying to reach areas with acrobatic feats, which would bring in a 'Prince of Persia' element.
Suppose you played an elf like the ones from 'Lord of the Rings', with a cloak that allowed you to blend in with stone or with natural environments (because you'd look like a rock). You have more acrobatic ability than any normal human. Perhaps you must infiltrate a castle to free a princess? Or get around a city, hunting thieves, while the city guard are after you for being an illegal immigrant? This would make a game which would play a bit like Prince of Persia and a bit like Thief/Metal Gear Solid, but with the added element that when something attacks you, your primary tactic is to run away really fast. There could also be an element of the classic 'Sonic' games here, because you'd get the exhilleration from moving fast rather than fighting (attacking anything in Sonic is only useful for points and/or removing the hazard generally). Since you can only hide in certain areas or near certain surfaces (ie. unpainted rock or natural areas) there is a challenge of finding where to hide.

This was rather a long musing session, but I think 'running away' was a concept worth exploring.