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Well, I’m just throwing down the contenious terms in that title. Narrative, character driven. Maybe the use of lament if you think it’s pretentious.

Character driven is the tricky one. See, I thought this was the designation for the types of stories I want to describe – stories where there is little to no plot, and consist almost entirely of characterization. Robert McKee in Story does use this term in one spot, but then proceeds to tell you that it doesn’t matter what type of story you’re writing, you should read his book regardless (mostly true anyway).

Googling also fails miserably. A number of bloggers seem to use the term to describe a story whose plot is driven by character’s action, as opposed to external, uncontrollable events. Using character driven to describe this kind of story seems redundant. A story whose events are driven by character decisions is just a well plotted story. Then what the hell are we gonna call the stories in the above paragraph?

Characterization driven stories may be a little more accurate, but I’ve moved past the need for accuracy at this point. I’m talking about movies like Lost In Translation, Coffee and Cigarettes, etc. (And so yes, Bill Murray seems to be in a lot of these types of films in his lower-profile work, so the story thing could just be a confounding factor.)

It’s pretty rare that these stories work though, especially in indie film, but part of the problem is that when people start writing they may not know how to plot well, and so they go for stories like these. These stories are harder to make, not easier. When they do work, they make the character sketches compelling by pacing how you find out information about the characters, and each piece of information’s contextual relation to everything that’s come before.

My point, that I finally have arrived at, is that these stories are all about character exploration.

What is a type of play that games do very well?

Sort it out.

There are games, especially ones that have been deemed as having successful stories, that do a little of this. Bioshock and it’s audio tapes for example. I can’t seem to come up with another example from a game that does not use audio recordings, messages left on a computer, etc. There’s Facade, which does kind of qualify. I think perhaps there is a way to play the game that results in a well-plotted player story, but the time is more typically spent learning about the characters & playing with them.

Instead of fighting our way up the river of designer created sequential plot vs. player driven plot, instead of making the assumption that everything, mechanics and narrative, must blend together better and better until designers have reach this assumed ultimate peak where everything is perfectly integrated and all our brains will explode in gameplay-narrative ecstasy, how about… not?

Screw plot. At least sometimes (and more Bill Murray wouldn’t hurt either, just in case).

Despite what you might think about the title, this is not a post about Resident Evil 5. I’m not referring to a game using racist imagery or themes to propagate existing social biases, but the creation of new group stereotypes. While I’ve often thought a game where the player-character is subjected to racism could be a powerful transformative experience for someone who is not a subject of such prejudices, I haven’t thought often about the reverse.

Why would that be a good thing? There’s a powerful theme there looking at how intolerance is formed, how it can impact us while we are unaware of it, and how to avoid it’s sources of influence. The point would be to generate these biases in the player, only to expose them as false later on. Their own discovery process would ideally help them consider other prejudices they might have.

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A few weekends ago I took part in the second annual EALA Game Jam. This year some folks from Pandemic were able to join us as well (so I supposed that should be the first annual EALA & Pandemic Game Jam). Nothing like bonding late at night staring at computer screens drinking pizza and beer while making games.

My game was a short abstract take on the financial crisis. To be fair, I spent a little more of my spare time on it afterwards, to add the tutorial and tune the difficulty, so it’s more like a couple weekends of effort than the straight up one weekend gamejam. Turns out tuning simulations for meaning is hard.

It’s built, like most of the other games were, using Angel, which is a (mostly) 2D prototyping engine that’s available open source on Google Code. It’s also spawned an XNA-based brother, AngelXNA. Or should the gender of a game engine be female? Anyway, check them both out for your prototyping needs.

I’d like to link to more of the other games here (since they’re way more fun than mine), but am not able to – hopefully EA will put up it’s own site for the jam soon.

Before you play it, definitely check out the in-game tutorial. And with all that, here’s my game: STCK

STCK Screen Shot


This past week Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer was kind enough to have myself, Justin Keverne (of Groping the Elephant), and Matthew Gallant (of The Quixotic Engineer) on a new edition of the Gamer’s Confab. A lost edition of the confab, sadly, as computer error has denied it from existance in a form that you could enjoy.

However, I certainly enjoyed it, as it was a great conversation about games with meaning, and no technological difficulties can take that from me (so there, computers). There was one particular point that we talked about that I wanted to share, because it was a connection I hadn’t really made myself. A point or, more likely, a theory. Interesting, in any case.

In discussing games that have a deeper impact on us or changed the way we thought about the world, Michael brought up The Path. One experience he had with it, while not going too much into it since it was his play-through, involved something he had done to put his avatar, one of the girls, into a dangerous situation. The exploration of how much a game actually allows, how dark it allows you to be, is a natural, if unsettling, compulsion. And bad things happened to her, of an implied sexual nature, possibly that she was raped – but they were implied through imagery, so Michael had to interpret and decide what actually happened. He was upset with himself for exploring that choice, and with turn of events, but not upset with the game.

I couldn’t but help think of a parallel in Mass Effect where the player is given two conversation options, one not violent and another more so, but not drastically. Only upon chosing the slightly more violent option, the player-character pulls out their gun and kills another character. Everyone I know who played through that sequence has directed their frustration at the game for giving them a choice and not telling them what the consequences would be. They suffer from that pretentious sounding but nonetheless exceptionally accurate term ludonarrative dissonance.

The game gives you a choice whose consequences are unknown and you have to interpret what the consequences of will be, given the context of the game and story at that point. If you’re greatly wrong, you’re thrown out of immersion in the game by being confronted with the fact that you’re not on the same page with its story.

Giving the player more choice allows them to feel like they own the narrative, and that’s a good thing, but given our current technology and methods, you will run into problems like this with large player choices.

The interesting thing that happened to Michael is that he wasn’t frustrated by the game, and did not blame the game for his decision. By using ambiguity & implication over heavy handed exposition in describing the results of a player’s choice, you make the player complicit enough to get past that barrier and accept the choice as their own. By taking part in the interpretation of the effect as well as the decision, the player’s ownership of the decision is increased.

Not something you can apply to every decision in a game, but used judiciously it might help you squeeze through some tight spots. Or so the theory goes. Check out the rest of the podcast, with Mary Flanagan and Suzanne Seggerman, at The Brainy Gamer.