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Narrative Design

They say whatever fails to kill you makes you stronger. Everyone knows it’s a lie, but we say it anyway because we so wish it were true. There are probably more accurate proverbs we could introduce: “Whatever makes you stronger is also probably slowly killing you”, or “regardless of how strong you are you will definitely die one day” – somehow these alternative sayings have never caught on. So, when we make games, we tend to make them so that whatever fails to kill you makes you stronger. There is no wound that cannot be healed, no trauma that cannot be resolved. It is a story of becoming bigger and better, stronger and healthier, until we inevitably become too great to be stymied by the pathetic obstacles that remain.

We become the strong, crushing the weak. You know: A hero.

The body is a machine. We can do the best we can to keep it in running order, but many of the parts don’t get replaced. There’s no way to fight each grain of sand that might get in the gears. You can exercise and eat right, and probably those will help but also you might get hit by a car or poisoned by a bad batch of kale. On some level we all understand this. However, that’s not how we make our art: We make art in which those who work hard succeed, and those who don’t fail, because no one wants to see the heroine die because she slipped in the shower, and no one wants to play a game where the threats of monsters and enemy soldiers are eclipsed by the terror of heart disease – or, at least, so goes the popular wisdom of the marketers

Nevertheless it remains a lie.

We want to believe it so badly – so badly that we vote for it, vote for the good to be rewarded and the bad to be punished, where ‘good’ is defined as those who have already been rewarded and ‘bad’ is defined as those who have already been punished. The one thing we could do to really protect ourselves from the stray grains of sand is to create support networks for those whose gears have been jammed – but we don’t, because to do so would be to admit the terrifying fact that whatever fails to kill you will, eventually, one way or another, still see you dead.

But how can we acknowledge this in our work and still make art that is enjoyable? Art that people want to experience?

Perhaps the shift in what people want to experience has already begun. As I discussed last week, in PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS much of your fate is left up to chance and happenstance – and all the more so since right now the game is full of weird bugs which make things turn out even more unexpectedly. No, you probably weren’t supposed to randomly take fall damage walking off that 2-foot high step, but as things stand it makes an adequate stand-in for the accidental misstep and sprained ankle that could easily claim a life in a combat situation.

Or occasionally more exotic scenarios

Maybe we don’t need to be subject to entropy in quite that extreme a fashion, though. Maybe, rather than being constantly menaced by a bevy of invisible health risks, as we are each day in real life, it could be enough just to depict even the most mundane of actions as having consequences – that is, potentially negative consequences, of having costs as well as benefits. There are games like that around, too: In the Princess Maker games, you’re tasked with raising a child, and do so by way of creating a schedule for her to go through each week. It becomes a balancing act: Every action has a cost, where work makes her stronger and earns her money, relaxation becomes necessary to maintain her health and happiness, and study and practice are costly but provide experience that’s impossible to acquire elsewhere. The game ends when she becomes old enough to set out on her own, and depending on the particular balance of skills and attitudes you have imparted on her she finds different paths in life.

It’s just so strange to have a game where the things you gain come at a cost, where you cannot become the best at everything in every way. At least, not in one lifetime.

“We are not dead yet, so we can still become stronger” – perhaps that would be a better saying. The hard part is deciding how to develop that strength – and to know, hopefully before it’s too late, the cost at which it may come.

PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS is a very silly name for a very strange game. The oddness of this game isn’t apparent at first: It looks and sounds like the most generic first person shooter ever made, where a hundred players are dropped into an island arena scattered with weapons and whoever manages to be the last person (or group) standing wins. PUBG is only the latest of what seems to be a burgeoning genre of battle royale games, and improves upon its predecessors by consolidating and simplifying boring mechanics while adding a lot of interesting and (sometimes) useful items to find, along with a few choice subtle nods to realism that mostly add new ways for things to go hilariously wrong.

None of this sounds strange, of course. No, what makes this game strange is that it’s incredibly popular while being blatantly, overtly unfair. This is so interesting to me because the idea of a game like this being successful even a few years ago is unimaginable to me: A game with the trappings of a hard core competitive tactical shooter, where skill can frequently be overcome by dumb luck – who would possibly want such a game? But now people do want it, and I wonder about what has shifted to make this something that we crave.

What’s changed, I suspect, is that people no longer expect fairness. PUBG feels right: It combines skill and luck in a way that feels real in a way that most shooters with more realistic graphics don’t – since most of those games are compelled to hold true to certain game design ideals of skill-based meritocracy. In the battlegrounds, finding good loot early on rolls into ‘finding’ better loot later, as you can easily kill less well-equipped opponents and take theirs. However, clever play can easily make up for an equipment disadvantage, and a well-timed ambush will easily leave an opposing team dead and their resources at your disposal. And yet, as the playable space is closed off, even if you have all these advantages, if you just so happen to be in a bad location you’re still at a huge disadvantage. Resources, skill, and luck: You usually need all three to survive.

It sounds awfully familiar.

It makes sense that it’s a game we crave now. It makes sense to model the gaps and myths of meritocracy, to reify this growing suspicion that the world isn’t fair and all we can do is our best and hope that it’s enough. It feels like we’re playing paintball themed around the collapse of capitalistic ideology – made all the more poignant by the game environments themselves being themed around soviet ruins. And, in the end, whether we win or lose, we’re given a few virtual coins – which we can use on a new coat or pair of shoes, to take away the sting of losing, over and over and over.

Which, too, seems familiar.

To play PUBG is to resign oneself to dying over and over and over again. Even very skilled and experienced players seldom can manage better than a 10% victory rate. We try to do the best we can, and give ourselves to fate.

And, if we can spend time with friends while we do so, so much the better.

Most games only give us weapons. Yes, some also give us a button for talking, and a handful allow us to guide a conversation but, more often than not, all we can do is shoot or cut. Our only windows into the worlds of these games, then – worlds of love and loss, myth and legend, tragedy and comedy – are the holes we carve into them for ourselves. Our perspectives of violence shape these worlds, and our experiences within them, but a world far vaster and more meaningful than our small, mean, and violent place within them can still be implied. Even if a vast cathedral becomes just set dressing for a gunfight, even if it has nothing to do with us at all, it still implies a religion, still implies builders, still implies history.

It’s impossible not to feel a little out of place, even if this church is made explicitly to have a gunfight happen in it. We are still intruders against the spirit of what this place might once have been.

Game designers have started acknowledging the strangeness and off-puttingness of this innate violence more explicitly in their designs. Yet, despite knowing that these constructs will always seem weird and artificial, we are still loath to pass beyond the types of games we once loved. We still want to fight nazis and zombies, dragons and aliens – but now, perhaps, we’re more interested in having a good reason to do so. It becomes difficult to ignore the suggestion that every enemy must once have been a person like us – and, if so, what does it mean about them, and about us, if we kill them? Even when it’s all make-believe, it still has to make a certain amount of sense – and what’s implied when you think about it too much, or think about it at all, was all to often very ugly.

So now we play ghosts, terrifying beyond comprehension, imbued only with the power to deal death. Revenants, returned from the grave to right wrongs. The last few games I’ve played, Dark Souls and Axiom Verge and Hollow Knight, feature a protagonist who stands at the boundary of life and death. These characters return from beyond the clutch of the grave to fix the world that wouldn’t allow them rest. We, as players, occupy these border characters, avatars of the boundary separating life from death, and fight to bring peace – even if it’s the peace of a shared grave. We are recontextualized from a murderous opponent into a kind of shaman, helping long-restless spirits find peace at last.

As I develop my game, write out its story and characters, I find myself walking this same path, creating this same archetype. The framing is different but, still, my protagonist stands at the boundary of life and death with the others, poised to guide misplaced souls from one side to another.

This might not seem new. After all, heroes have brushes with death all the time: “No one could have survived that” is a cliché for a reason. What’s changed is there’s an explicit acknowledgment that even if we fight for the right reasons, even if there really was no other way, we are still beyond the pale. We have no place in the world we are fighting for. We are remnants of the trauma that made us. At the end of the ghost story, the ghost is laid to rest, the haunting past uncovered and resolved.

Perhaps, as time moves forward, we will create games more comfortable with non-violence. Perhaps, as well, we’ll find new and interesting ways to contextualize our violence into a world and story in ways that don’t seem crass and tone-deaf. If so this may be a discrete generation of games we can look back to: The twilit years of Dark Souls, where we all stood on the boundary of the afterlife and judged who might live and who must die.

 

As I both create and consume art it’s often striking just how much successions of considered changes and details, mountains of very specific decisions, leave only the vaguest impressions in the mind of the audience. I’m probably a more detail oriented audience than most, but even for me I think the majority of the lasting impressions I take away from a work have more to do with the general tone it sets, and emotional state it invokes, than with any specific content.

However, even if what we remember is mostly vague fragments of tone and atmosphere, if the artist focuses on tone to the exception of content and structure then that tone isn’t conveyed: What people remember then is just the maudlin piece of mediocrity a work without structure or detail inevitably devolves towards. What people take away from an experience is vague, the seeds of nostalgia, but what plants those seeds is often intensely structured and specific.

It’s strange and kind of disappointing the way all the details in a work become ‘it was detailed’ in the aftermath, all the research boils down to ‘well-researched’, all the jokes to ‘funny’ and all the tragedies to ‘sad’. Every work of art gets chewed up and swallowed and digested, and it’s sometimes painful for the artist to see that happen, to witness the process of destruction and digestion that is experiencing art. It’s hard not to feel like our beautiful work is being unmade, unappreciated, turned to shapeless and incoherent mush, by the very process of its consumption.

When you eat a steak, though, even as you chew it up it still matters that it was once whole. The fibers and greases, composed in this particular way, create a specific experience – and, even if what you remember is merely ‘delicious’, something else is encoded in that experience as well. As you live your life and eat different meals, the details that go into them start to cohere, beyond the specifics of a single meal, into a generalized understanding of what food is and can be, and what that means to you. To create food, to create anything, is to resign yourself to the eventual act of consumption and digestion – and to believe that, as the experience you worked so hard on fades away, everything you put into it still will be worthwhile, even if it is now only a memory.

Each new work of art, each novel or game, may not leave its specific thumbprint on each person who consumes it – they may not remember every detail, or even the general plot or structure – but the details, the craftsmanship, those still matter. When we digest each new work it subtly modifies our ideas of what art is and can be, and through that what the world is – or can be. We can nourish with beauty and provide nutrition with new ideas – and, even if we know no idea is ever truly transmitted completely, can still revel that the seeds we plant may one day bring forth surprising fruit.

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A work of art is both a single object and a collection of individual choices – sentences in a novel, assets in a game, instrumental parts in a piece of music, each of these is added and shaped with intent to achieve the overall goal of the piece. This is pretty self-evident, but often is not explicitly thought about by the creator during the creation. In some ways, it’s better not to think about it – for reasons I’ll get into in a moment.

You have the theme or message or whatever of the work: Sometimes you know exactly what this is, sometimes you have to hone in on it carefully in the process of working on the piece. With each new stroke you add to the composition, you can choose to support this theme, to add to its message by echoing it; you can contrast with this theme, to push against it and by so doing ground and emphasize it; or to layer new elements onto the theme, add details that seem completely disconnected but add complexity.

Say you have a picture of a gigantic statue: To support how gigantic this statue is, you could add comparatively tiny human figure to show how it dwarfs the scale of humanity; to contrast, you could add a field of stars behind it or pull the viewpoint back, to show how even the greatest creations of humanity are minuscule in the greater scale of the universe; or you could add something different, a mural or a small scene between characters or some strange creature, to show that the story of this statue and the world it lives in is more complex than we might at first imagine.

Naive artists will, given the choice, always pick the first of these. I have been this kind of naive, and still often discover this kind of naivete in myself. It makes sense: I’m an artist, I know the impression I want to create, I should use everything I have in my toolbox to create the feeling I’m going for. And yet, most of the time, this kind of approach leads to something which feels flat, manipulative, and obvious. All bombast, all sorrow, all silliness, with no leavening by contrasting or diverging emotion, will inevitably feel flat and numbing.

This is why I said it’s probably better that most artists don’t think explicitly about their high-level intent and how to achieve it most of the time: The mindset of trying to achieve a specific emotional impact is difficult to separate from the mindset of how to most effectively bolster that tone in each particular instance. Much better to take freely from the chaos of the mind, to harness opportunities to create threads that flow alongside, flow against, or flow perpendicular to the main thread of the narrative as they occur to us.

However, for those of us who have a hard time not thinking about intent, have a hard time getting out of our heads and have a hard time not hammering the same points home with each individual component of a work, it might be worth it to keep these three thoughts in mind: Support, Contrast, Layer.

A tapestry is not woven out of only threads in parallel.

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I’ve been watching old videos of the original The Binding of Isaac, and it’s strange looking back. As many huge improvements as Rebirth, the remake that came out a couple of years after, made to the base game, still it feels like something was lost in translation. Several things, actually…

Maybe it would be best to start with talking about all the reasons people generally regard Rebirth as categorically superior to the original. The first game had notorious framerate issues, many items didn’t work properly with each other, and it was built using technology that made it impossible to expand – many people say it reached the limits of Flash, Adobe’s multimedia tool, but Isaac was actually not just built in Flash, but built using Actionscript 2, the version of Flash’s scripting language that was deprecated in 2007. Since I’m building my own game in Flash (technically AIR, the standalone equivalent), this is a narrative that I feel compelled to correct whenever it comes up. Rebirth could have easily been built in Flash. But I digress: The point being, Rebirth fixes all these issues, so when viewed entirely within the scope of the shortcomings of the original it definitely seems like a superior game.

Looking back though, something seems off with what we have now – and it’s interesting to examine why that is. There are aspects of the design, art, and music that just fail to click in quite the same way.

The least contentious of these is the music. Nearly everyone preferred the music from the original game, composed by Danny Baranowsky, to that in Rebirth, composed by Ridiculon (Matthias Bossi and Jon Evans). The new soundtrack actually does some cool stuff, with music layers that fade in and out based on what’s currently happening in the gameplay – but this actually undermines part of what made Danny B’s score so amazing. With parts fading in and out, it becomes necessary to create a consistent base track for these to play on top of, which makes it impossible to construct an overall narrative flow to the music. Consequentially, Ridiculon’s music is background music in the truest sense, just providing accompaniment to the experience of the game, whereas Danny B’s score actually defines the tone of the game and creates its own narrative high and low points which interplay with the gameplay highs and lows to create a more complex experience. Combined with a generally more melancholy and creepy tone, it makes the overall musical experience of playing Rebirth rather lacking comparatively.

Aesthetically, I have a bone to pick with the game similar to that regarding the defamation of Flash. When they announced that Rebirth was going to have a “16-bit” art style, I thought that was a peculiar choice, but was willing to see what they came up with. What they came up with was, unfortunately, kind of a pathetic excuse – which seems harsh, but I promise I have a reason for saying that.

First, let’s talk about the art in the original. Isaac used vector art, a specialty of Flash: Vector art is a style of rendering that stores images and a set of drawing instructions, a list of lines and colors. This is a powerful tool because these instructions can be easily rotated, scaled, color-shifted, and so forth with no loss of quality, but it pays for this in making detailed art very processor intensive. Rebirth, conversely, uses raster images for its assets: Raster images are what we’re generally used to working with in photoshop and other editors, just a grid of colors which can look realistic at its native resolution but looks notably blocky at lower resolutions. 16-bit games used raster images at a set low resolution to create a crunchy but vibrant look that is still beloved today. However, the entire design of Isaac was based around arbitrarily scaling and coloring assets which, as mentioned, works a lot better with vector images than raster images. However, for whatever reason the Rebirth team didn’t want to work with vector images, so to conceal the shortcomings of scaled, rotated, or otherwise processed raster images they used super low-resolution raster images and called the resulting look “16-bit”.

This is kind of insulting. There’s no coherence to the resolution – even when the pixels align along the grid the objects that own the pixels move with subpixel accuracy, creating a smoothness that’s impossible in a true 16-bit environment, and as game objects scale up or down in accordance with the mechanics they turn into grotesque pixellated bullshit. Also, because they use such low-res assets, there’s no room for detail in any of the enemies: The original enemy designs, though crude, have an expressiveness to their lines that makes them creepier and more compelling. While pixel art has a great deal of expressiveness in its own right, within the context of Rebirth that expressiveness is curtailed by being constantly squashed and stretched, one of the ugliest things you can do to pixel art.

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The design issues with the game snuck up on me. In general, the gameplay choices made in Rebirth are very smart, limiting boring and overpowered tactics in favor of more interesting and aggressive ones, expanding the possibility space for encounters by adding lots of new items and enemies and rooms, and generally spicing thing up by adding new interactions. However, something weird started to happen as more and more items were added. I first noticed it with the item “Gimpy”, which is… exactly what it sounds like.

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…And this comes to a fairly fine point about what Isaac is and is not. The Binding of Isaac has a lot of kind of gross and shocking content, but all of it is contextualized by the understanding that this is a child’s conception of the world, and all the weird gross things in it are exactly the sorts of weird gross things that kids tend to develop obsessions with – bodily functions, deformities, and so forth. Up until Rebirth, Isaac items tended to fit one of three themes: Everyday objects granted extraordinary significance, religious symbols, or video game references. These make total sense from the perspective of a weird shut-in kid who only knows his toys, the random things he finds, and the creepy religious stories his family tells him. But once you add S&M gear to the mix, it no longer becomes about expressing Isaac’s character, about life in the mind of an isolated and possibly abused child, but just about being weird and gross for the sake of weird and gross. By itself Gimpy is just one item, but it indicates an overall trend away from being expressive and meaningful and towards adding stuff to the game just for the sake of having it there.

In the end, Rebirth’s flaws are covered up by the simple expedient of repetition. Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t care that the music lacks narrative flare, you don’t even hear it any more. Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t notice that everything is in a different resolution – the game just looks the way the game looks, why would it look any different? Once you play the game for a thousand hours, you don’t see a gimp mask, you see a way to restore health in difficult situations. You see the frame rate stable at 60 frames per second, you see the hundreds of weird and interesting item interactions. It may have made total sense to prioritize the things they did in developing the game: In so doing they’ve made a game that people who love Isaac can play for thousands of hours and still enjoy.

However, they’ve also made it so the chill I felt when I first played the game, the genuine sense of visceral discomfort and confusion and striving understanding, are now obscured behind a layer of generic video game.

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The mechanics of a game shape our perception of its characters. Samus, of the Metroid series, was perceived as stoic and resourceful, largely because the design of Metroid demanded resourcefulness of its players and had no real way to express personality or character. When Other M came out, an entry in the series that focused more on plot and less on scavenging in a hostile world, many people felt that Samus was out of character – particularly outside of Japan, where supplemental materials like comics had built additional characterization that made the adjustment less jarring.

It’s an inversion of role-playing, where the role gets built around play rather than the play built around the role. The way the character moves, accelerates, jumps – or the way the character interacts with NPCs, rescues or threatens or kills – or the way the character solves puzzles, pushes blocks or finds secret passages – these come to define the character, much the same as the ways the character chooses to dress or speak. Because these mechanics themselves emerge from the personality of the designers, the level designers and gameplay programmers and artists and musicians, the thumbprint is unique and difficult to replicate. Each game has a unique personality, and to a substantial degree the personality of the protagonist is just the personality of the game, anthropomorphized, in a way that no amount of supplemental storytelling materials or promotional tie-ins can mitigate.

It raises an interesting question: How do we express character within games, and is it possible to change the way a game plays while leaving the personality of its protagonist intact? The difficulty this hints at, the intimate tie between the a way a game can be experienced and the protagonist who is expressed, may hint at why so many adapted properties, games-of-movies and games-of-tv-shows and games-of-comics, feel so unsatisfying. And perhaps, as well, this is why it feels so strange when the sequel to a game doesn’t adhere closely to the design of its predecessor: A feeling, when playing, that not only is this game not quite the game you played before, but neither is this character the character that you thought you knew.

It’s not necessarily a problem. With the current trend of rebooting old series, the characterization brought in by new mechanics can be exciting and invigorating in its own right. In the original Prince of Persia games, there’s very little explicit characterization – however, because of the realistic action and animation and the extremely lethal gameplay, the protagonist ends up mostly coming off as a hapless victim to be guided to safety by the player. Conversely, in the ‘Sands of Time’ reboot, the newfound focus on beautiful acrobatic maneuvers and on negating the lethality of mistakes through more forgiving game design dovetailed into the character of a relaxed, affable, and confident prince. However, when the sequel to that game decided to focus more on combat, the prince became less affable and more angry – in each case, the characterization was clearly led by game design decisions, but came to manifest as a character the player could relate to, as the obstacles and achievements of the player were manifested through those the protagonist faced within the story.

Your character is a character long before she begins to look like one – before design, before graphics, before sound or writing, when she’s just a cube or capsule sliding around in a testing environment, even then she begins to take form as a personality, just by the little numeric changes you make to define her motion.