Friday, April 11, 2014

How To Develop An Interactive Story Idea In Three Steps

This article aims to provide some guidelines and techniques storytellers can use to either find the best story for their needs, or give their existing one a dose of ludonarrative pizazz. The process proposed here is what I call the “Lunar Method”, Lunar being a combination of the words Ludo and Narrative. This method is meant to aid in the forming of interactive stories rather than typical games. The primary approach we'll be looking at is a series of questions that storytellers can ask themselves to help create story ideas, interesting scenarios, player characters, and all that humus.

no relation


Step One: This step rules

If you want your game to truly shine as an interactive story, it must take advantage of the medium it operates in. To get started on the right path, you first have to learn the rules. The laws. The things writers go to jail for not abiding by. Well maybe it's not that serious, but it can help immensely by putting you in the right mindset for developing a Lunar work. There is actually only one loose rule of the Lunar Method: Story Priority.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

13 Cutscene Tropes Holding Back Interactive Storytelling

"When coming up with a set piece, plot twist, character moment, etc, stop for a second. Ask your protagonist if they will remember that moment for the rest of their life. If their answer is yes, then that moment should be playable."
- some loser named Brian

Whenever I see a trope list or analysis of cutscenes, it usually centers around actual story related tropes and mishaps in writing. Now, criticizing the quality and content of game stories is a vital part of the medium's growth, and cutscenes are in fact getting better at what they do thanks to players craving improvement. But whenever the actual practice of utilizing cutscenes in an interactive medium is brought into question, the takeaway is almost always some variation of, we should use them less, or, they are fine in moderation. It gets redundant and, in my opinion, doesn't offer any real insight into how to make story-based games better.

With this article, I would like to offer a deeper, case-based look into not only the negative effects cutscenes have on game stories, but also the ways they can be converted into gameplay.

The first two points on this list are blanket issues that encompass whole games, and act as the bases which the other tropes spawn from. The further down the list we go, the more numerous and specific the examples will become. Tropes 4 and 5 are where we will start getting into the nitty gritty details of how interactivity could have been implemented for each example.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Beyond: Two Souls Is Ahead of It's Time (In the worst way possible)

Time for another boring lecture.

DISCLAIMER: This essay is not here to say Beyond is "actually" good for those who think it's not. This is going to be very specific, and very much about one thing: The Invisible choice system, where it's applied in Beyond, how it works, how it fails, and why it hasn't been noticed. The whole game is not like the examples I will discuss. I am going to single out particular examples from a particular discussion piece for a reason. This is not a blanket statement on how all choices are handled in the game.

When I replayed Beyond: Two Souls, I was astounded to find so many little and big things I missed on my first playthrough. Little things like vision objects, and big things like scenarios that were actually dependent on a choice I made earlier. I found out about so many little decisions I made that caused subtle changes throughout the game. Changes that never seemed like variables, but rather scripted scenarios. I found out that I played through scenes that some players never saw, and missed more exploration-based interactions than I ever would have guessed.

After watching various "let's plays", group discussions, reading the negative reviews, and examining my initial playthrough, I noticed a pattern:  

Players had no clue that they were making choices, or that they missed whole scenes until they talked to another player, or replayed the game.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Compare & Contrast: Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead

Hello, operator? People won't stop making fun our games, please send help 

Telltale's The Walking Dead and Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain are quite the unique specimens for the current generation. They are both Adventure games, but with one macro distinction; TWD is a traditional point-and-clicker, while HR is more of a normal third-person game and uses gestures instead of a cursor. HR removed genre staples like puzzles and inventory, and TWD followed suit. Both are made to appeal to experienced and casual players alike, with a broad audience. Both have a 100% focus on an emotional story-driven experience. Both are made to be played, not beaten. With that in mind, I think this comparison is very, very appropriate, warranted, and hopefully, insightful. This essay doubles as a game design analysis as well, and offers insight into how interactive storytelling can be better applied to any game.

TWD is lauded for it's story while HR is criticized for it's own. The writing in TWD is also praised highly, whereas HR's script has incited many wats and unintentional lols. TWD's cast of characters is one of the most beloved since Mass Effect and Uncharted, while HR's cast, let's just say, hasn't inspired much fan art or cosplays. The voice actors of those characters in TWD have done a memorable and award-winning job, while everyone and their mothers have been pointing fingers at the suspicious accents in HR.

I myself consider TWD to be one of the best and most important games of all time, and it is certainly the most moving and affecting story I've ever played.

So with all that said, how in the love of Jason can Heavy Rain be better? Well it isn't objectively better as a whole experience or anything, but rather it is the better game. It's better at interactive storytelling. It's braver, it's bolder. It was the first triple-A adventure game of it's size. Most importantly though, it is the biggest single-step evolution that a genre has taken since the 3D revolution.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

If We Played as Ellie

If We Played as Ellie

My own game...
How would The Last of Us differ, had we controlled Ellie instead of Joel? I began to fantasize analyze that very question after my third playthrough. The more I thought about it, the more I wished Ellie had been the player character.

Her story and character arc matches up perfectly with her hypothetical player’s, even without interactive dialogue or story malleability. The way she would play, considering that she is not just another video game killing machine, would be refreshing and more cerebral. She would provide her player with an interactive story that is completely pre-determined, yet wholly based around ludonarrative empathy, much like Journey is.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

If We Played as Ellie - THE QUARANTINE ZONE

This section explains and analyzes one possible way an Ellie version of Chapter 1 could play out. If you got here by accident, the main part of the essay is over yonder.


Note: I've incorporated elements of the American Dreams comic in here, but this Ellie version of the QZ chapter will be based more on the actual game, which I will explain later.

As Joel

In the actual game, the quarantine zone chapter doesn't do much on the narrative/ interactivity side.

We see that someone duped Joel and Tess on their weapons, and they're going to go deal with this person and find out where their stash is. As they go on their way, you learn how to kill and choke people until they reach the plot. Then, Joel and Tess accept a job from Marlene that will get them their weapons back.

As the player, your only job is to walk and fight as Joel. You learn how to carry ladders, sneak, stab, choke, punch, shoot, etc. When you perform most of those actions, they don’t have narrative weight or purpose for the player other than the need to complete the objective so the game can move forward.

For the characters, that weight is definitely there, but we can’t feel that weight if the goal doesn't have meaning to us:

  • You the player don’t care about the weapons that were stolen. They don’t mean anything to you, yet you kill people just to find the guy who sold them.
  • You don’t have a history of animosity with Robert’s gang like Joel and Tess do, but you have to kill most of them anyway.
  • Robert betrayed Joel and Tess, but the player doesn't know Robert and was never betrayed by him. So why should we feel inclined to take Joel around the city to go torture and execute some guy we don’t even know?

The only logic, emotions, and goals that the player shares with Joel as a character in this entire chapter are “don’t die” and “kill if necessary”. That’s a disappointing change from the Prologue, which made the player experience mystery, anxiety, foreboding, fear, emotional stakes, good pacing, compelling non-violent interactions, and clear goals that the Narrative, Characters, and the Player all worked towards.

Note: It may sound like I'm specifically targeting the violence and killing. That's not my intention. I'm not here to complain about that stuff in particular. But, if it has to do with the subject I'm currently mentioning, I will include it and describe it like I see it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

If We Played as Ellie - ENCOUNTERS

This section explains and analyzes Ellie's core combat gameplay, and how it fits in with the narrative. If you got here by accident, the main part of the essay would be that-away.


When not viewed as our avatar, Joel's image and actions paint him in a very different light

As Joel

When it comes to encounters, playing as Joel is a matter of sneaking and fighting. The feelings, actions, and mind-set that the player shares with Joel are that of self preservation. Try not to die, defeat enemies, sleuth around, etc. Now, that’s obvious video game stuff of course, and it’s not a bad thing. The problem is that there’s a huge character/story element of the encounters that was not applied to the gameplay: Ellie.

Now I’m not saying that she doesn't affect the gameplay at all, she certainly does. That’s great, but it’s also the problem. The way she affects the player’s experience directly results in another case of ludonarrative dissonance. This is, like before, the lack of connecting to Ellie as a player in the same way that Joel does as a character. This happens because her gameplay role in encounters completely lacks one key narrative element:

Joel is supposed to protect and guide Ellie, and he doesn't enjoy it.

You as a player don’t have to worry about or protect Ellie. This isn't because she’s super skilled or super strategic during encounters or anything like that. She is literally invisible and inaudible to the enemy AI. You also can’t willfully work with her, since she only stuns enemies and gives ammo when she feels like it. The encounters aren't made to be meaningful story or character-wise, just visceral and cool. That doesn't make them bad, but it creates the same player/character disconnect that’s been happening since meeting Ellie.

  • To Joel, Ellie is a person he must protect and guide, but to the player, she’s an auto-pilot npc that doesn't get hurt. The player never gets to experience Joel’s responsibility.*
  • To Joel, Ellie is a liability that he has to deal with, but to the player, she is a randomized tool that actually makes killing easier.
  • To Joel, Ellie’s plea for more tactical involvement is annoying, and he doesn't trust her with a firearm. To the player, her involvement is appreciated, thrilling, and often life saving. Her getting involved was one of the big hooks of the game since the E3 demo.

* Sometimes she gets grabbed and you have to save her, but:

  • They’re scripted moments (museum, fridge trap, truck ambush, sniper part, etc)
  • Clickers can insta-kill Joel, but take 10 seconds to overpower Ellie
  • Infected attack her even though she’s already infected
  • The only consequence for not saving her is restarting the encounter