How to avoid powerlessness and apathy in game design

We’ve been exploring the seven deadly sins of game writing and design.  Whenever players cease to care about the game or its outcome, they experience the despair or acedia of sloth.  Players will most likely despair when they don’t have any choice, when the player is actually powerless to affect the outcome.  Players may cease to care and give up, giving in to apathy and sloth.  Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way, and here are just a few ways to stop the feeling of powerlessness.

1. PCs have the same abilities whether the player controls them or not
If a character can’t climb walls during play, but he can during the cut scenes, players can feel frustrated and apathetic about the whole game.

It works in the opposite way as well.  Final Fantasy VII is one of the hallmarks of RPG games, and even made our list of essential RPGs from a writing standpoint. One woman told me this story, however. A little girl was enjoying the game when the scene came up where suddenly you could no longer control Cloud’s movements. You know what’s coming. When Aeris dies, the girl turned to her mother and said, “Why doesn’t she just use a Phoenix Down?” Indeed, by that time you could easily resurrect “dead” characters with a Phoenix Down, but you couldn’t save Aeris because the story demanded it.

2. Don’t tie players’ hands
Even in linear stories, options are nice for players. If a player can’t find the workaround you envisioned, s/he just might stop caring. On a larger scale, allowing players to choose an ending that is meaningful rather than forced upon them, like in THE WITCHER, can make them feel quite powerful, and may encourage replayability as well.

3. No deus ex machina
Players actions should actually decide the outcome of the game. The opposite, deus ex machina, means “God’s” actions lead to the outcome.

In games, God’s actions can be both positive or negative. In Final Fantasy V for Super Nintendo, players must stop the destruction of crystals. Every time you arrive to save a crystal, it is conveniently destroyed just as you get there. On the other hand, in Resident Evil 2, you can defeat the big boss when Ada miraculously hands you the keys to the kingdom by tossing you a missile launcher. Convenience in game design is still convenience and can leave the player feeling nerfed.  What’s the point of going after the crystal if it’s going to be destroyed anyway?  Why can’t the guy with the missile launcher defeat the big bad?

Eliminating powerlessness may be an admirable goal, but some players actually enjoy a bit of it in moderation if it deepens the story.  You will have to decide for yourself what experience you want the player to have and work from there.

Have you seen better examples of powerlessness in a game? Have their been times when you actually enjoyed a sense of powerlessness in a game story or design?

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Published in: on January 27, 2009 at 5:40 pm  Comments (6)  
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Inaugurating game writers: A scramble for power or respect?

Happy Inauguration Day!  As the TV news waxes on about the shift in power, my thoughts shifted to power in game development.  Those of you who work in development may have witnessed power struggles between designers and programmers, or between producers and everyone else.  It could be that you, as a developer, aren’t concerned about whether story and writing is relevant in games or not.  Your concern may be with what writers really want — is it respect or power?

Many developers, writers and otherwise, believe that if developers respected writers more and gave them the same amount of time to work as other departments, then the quality would improve.  Therefore, respect for the craft must come before the craft can prove itself as a necessary component of game development.

On the other hand, bringing in writers early won’t make a great deal of difference if you don’t bring in the right writers or work with them effectively.  In this sense, respect must be earned, not given.  Fortunately, you have this blog to master some of these hurdles already.   Do you think respect comes first for writers, or that writers must first earn it?

What is the real price of bringing in writers early and integrating them more fully into the development process?  Some executive producers and creative directors prefer to create the story, and view writers as a potential enemy that could lampoon their stories.  In this sense, writers are seen as a threat to their power and their ability to effect their creative vision.

On the other hand, developers who bring on writers to improve their stories find they have the power of choice.  If you don’t like the writers’ work, you can ignore it.  If you like it, you are in a position to take the credit for bringing on good writers.  Writers are rarely in a position to usurp your position.  In this sense, writers can actually boost your power within the company.  How do you view writers’ power at your company?

“Narrative designers” like us seek to weave story and theme throughout every aspect of the game.  It may sound like we’re trying to take over your game!  But are we really after power?  Certainly, there may be a few writers out there who really want to be in control.  However, I would say the majority of narrative designers and writers want the same thing the artist and programmer want — an opportunity to perform at the height of our ability and use what we do best to improve the game for the player.  Power, respect, what-have-you are just means to this very important end.

Are you ready to inaugurate writers into your development team? What do you think the biggest stumbling block is to making a place for writers and narrative designers in games — lack of power and respect, or something else entirely?

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Published in: on January 20, 2009 at 4:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Where to find stories on story in games

With all the excitment of the new year, you may have missed some of these articles on writing in games.  Integrated storytelling, story structure, story and theme as a basis for game concepts, and the awesomeness of good characters have preoccupied the minds of developers in the past two months.  Check out the results:

Hey Game Developers, Learn How To Use Your Game Writers!
I do not think this link is what you think it means. A familiar refrain, this article summarizes a Develop article on incorporating writers into the development process. Of greater interest, however, are the comments at the end, which include players love of story and distaste for poorly delivered story. See, it’s not just us!  Add your two cents to the conversation there or here…

Analysis: Storyteller And Game Narrative
Emily Short explores whether letting your players in on story structure makes it more or less fun for them.

Idea Origins
This article explores different ways games are conceived. Oddly enough, it discusses theme with story, but doesn’t use the more literary definition of theme, which usually is some comment on mankind. Instead, theme is just the story or setting which pervades the game. What’s your take on it?

The GLaDOS Effect — Can Antagonists Rule The World?
Is this article about how much fun it is to play a villain, or is it about how a well-written and engaging character, villain or protagonist, can carry a game? You decide.

What’s your take on these articles?  See you next week for more sin!

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Published in: on January 15, 2009 at 2:25 pm  Comments (1)  
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Are companies the enemy of narrative design?

When our latest exploration of narrative design on Gamasutra, “Towards More Meaningful Games: A Multidisciplinary Approach”, went live, one reader commented, “So in one word, ‘holism.’  [. . .]  I’d have thought this mentality was so obviously sensible as to be accepted wisdom. Though when I consider some recent games I’ve played I can see that it clearly isn’t.”  If the multidisciplinary approach is so sensible, why isn’t it commonplace?  Is narrative design or holism just too hard to do?  Or is it something in this industry’s makeup that makes it extra challenging?  Based on a recent reading of The Seven Cultures of Capitalism, by Charles Hampden-Turner and Alfons Trompenaars, the answer might surprise you.

Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars explore different approaches to capitalism in seven different countries.  They posit that in the US, which pioneered many innovations in capitalism, created the assembly-line mentality.  The production process is broken down into the most minute steps, and farmed out to workers who repeat the same step over and over.  The reason for this, they claim, was because the US was a nation of immigrants, and many could not talk to each other.  Instead of expecting workers to collaborate, managers assumed they would not be able to.  This practice, the authors claim, influences the US economy and countries with similar practices even today, where our jobs are kept separate and planned out by managers who are not in the thick of it.

This “mechanism” thinking breaks down everything into parts.  Countries who don’t follow this mode instead look at the whole of the organization as if it were an organism.  “Organism” thinking “generates higher levels of meaning, purpose, and direction which transcend its parts.”  In short, it’s the holism narrative design seeks to create.

Certainly game development is a long way from the assembly-line mentality, right?  Many developers can move effortlessly between different jobs — producer, programmer, artist — thought usually not all at one time.  One-man bands have created created some pretty great titles.  At Epicenter Studios, boasting 20 whole developers on staff, Chief Creative Officer Bryan Jury says:

“Since we’re small enough, everyone often ends up wearing multiple hats. This means I’ve got art and tech adding significantly to the design, for example. We made sure to hire people who are comfortable in that environment.

And through that semi-organic layout, things do tend to happen more naturally. The lead artist and lead designer might be talking about some upcoming event they need to create, and an animator overhears that conversation and offers up a much better solution. That kind of stuff happens on a near daily basis, and I love it.  I do think if/when we get bigger, this type of layout will have to be revised. But for the size we’re at now, it really seems to be working well.”

As games get bigger, the companies that make them get bigger as well.  PODS, which team together one person from each department, might be a step in the right direction.  However, if they are not involved in the bigger picture, such as the overarching narrative, they may also fall victim to the mechanism mentality, making PODS just one more cog in the machine.

What’s your take on Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars’ view of mechanism vs. organism?  Do you think it applies to the game industry, or just certain companies?

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Published in: on December 11, 2008 at 2:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

Writers Cabal at the Narrative Design Exploratorium!

A few weeks back, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Stephen Dinehart for his blog, the Narrative Design Exploratorium.  In the interview, a part of his Game Writers in the Trenches series, I unveil the mysteries behind the Writers Cabal work process, discuss our recent session on Creating Passionate Games at SXSW Interactive Festival, and describe how Writers Cabal can help game developers all over the world tell compelling stories.

As I said in the interview, “Games can be powerful narrative experiences because the player participates in the fiction.  When the player-story entwines with the game-story, that’s what generates a unique and personal user experience.  How to accomplish that feat is what makes narrative design a challenging field.”

After 10 years in the industry and 12 published game credits, I look forward to making and playing more games.  With Writers Cabal and other like-minded colleagues championing the cause of narrative design, I’m sure we can look forward to great storytelling in games too!

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Published in: on November 25, 2008 at 2:22 pm  Comments (1)  

Is it all academic? Views on story and games from the ivory tower

As a frequent reader of this blog — I’m talkin’ to you! — you know that we firmly land on the side that story has its place in games as a motivator as well as a context for fun.  When story doesn’t work, it hasn’t been seamlessly integrated into the entire design… or possibly the story was just poorly written and conceived.  We’re magnanimous people, of course, so let’s see what others have to say. I would link to Gamasutra articles, but it’s the rest of the interwebs this time! Let’s look at a few more academic approaches on how to bring narrative to games.

Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String
Greg Costikyan offers a link to his contribution to the SECOND PERSON book on writing for games.  An admittedly half-academic article, it begins with the premise that a story is inherently linear.  I have to disagree; story is not plot, a series of events that happen one after the other.  If you were to watch the film MEMENTO in chronological order, it would still be the same story, although your experience of it might be different.  Check out his chapter and see if you disagree.

Space and Narrative in Video Games
A studied look at 3D architecture in games, which suggests level designers should take a few lessons in storytelling as well as in designing fun space.

Found any other missives from academics out there?  Or do you think the academic approach is a bit too, well, academic?

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Published in: on September 4, 2008 at 1:02 pm  Comments (7)  

Can there be morality in games?

Did you miss it?  Sande contributed to Edge Online last week and started quite a conversation in the comments.  If you haven’t checked it out, go to A Question of Morality and add your two cents.  Do you think morality should play a role in games?

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Published in: on August 21, 2008 at 11:48 am  Leave a Comment  

Comic combat — can you make your combat funny?

If dying is easy, and comedy is hard… what is comedy about dying? You can put comedy into your game dialog, or through your design, but enough generalities. In honor of Damion Schubert, who wrote about putting comedy in games, today I’ll explore how to successfully integrate comedy into combat itself without resorting to dialog.

Combat animations
Combat animations if well done can add lots of opportunities for humor. Here are just a few examples.

  • Combat abilities — When specializing your character in an RPG or mastering moves in a fighting game, you often choose the path that will give you the most power. All else being equal, however, you may also choose on which you think is funniest. For example, in Virtua Fighter (I believe), I enjoyed playing Drunken Master because it was funny watching him weave in and out while he tried to fight.
  • Combat effects — You’ve just knocked your opponent into next week. Why not get some laughs out of it as well? I played a game where every time I defeated someone, I got a humorous line about how he died. I can’t think of any humorous effects in animation that I’ve seen of late, besides out-and-out turning people into sheep! Can you think of something?

Combat Systems
Animations alone do not make a good combat. The systems themselves can offer humor by repetition and unpredictability.

  • Unpredictability – In 2nd edition Dungeons & Dragons, I believe, there was a system called Wild Magic. If you used Wild Magic, or cast spells in a Wild Magic zone, you might have had to endure unpredictable consequences. You might accidentally cast a different spell, or you might suddenly summon, a la Hitchhiker’s Guide, a giant whale. Humor definitely ensued, although it could be frustrating for some players. Used judiciously, unpredictability in the game system can add humor to the game.
  • Repetition – Repetition is a comedy technique, and since combat is so oft-repeated, actions that seem regular at first might become humorous the 3rd or 5th time you do it. Unfortunately, this can backfire when you go on the 100th Kill Ten Rats quest. To avoid banality, take advantage of the repetition of an ability at lower levels, then have a more powerful, humorous version appear at higher levels as a “callback.”
  • Rarity – Rarity can combine with the above two techniques to create tension and comic release. For example, in the pen and paper game Rolemaster, if you critically hit someone or critically fumble, you must then refer to the critical hit charts. When we played D&D, we would still use the Rolemaster critical hit charts because they were funny. We were always holding out for the rare one, #69: “You hit the opponent in the groin area. All are stunned for two rounds in sympathy.” Loved that!

Social humor
Especially in multi-player combat, the social group can amp the comedy. If a player’s avatar does something humorous during a critical fumble or when particularly pwned, fellow players will laugh, or at least go “Ouch!” in sympathy. I remember watching two people over LAN playing HEXEN, when one of them turned the other into a chicken. The “chicken” was trying to play it off as no big deal, but all his avatar could do was run away and cluck like a chicken the whole time!

Again, this post only scratches the surface of the opportunities for humor in games, especially combat. Have you come across any great examples of humor in games?

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Published in: on August 19, 2008 at 3:32 pm  Comments (13)  
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