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Narrative Design

Every day that passes, the events in our lives create for us a unique blend of experiences and emotions. Most of the time these aren’t very interesting, but every once in a while it creates something incredible, a moment of transcendence, joy, elation, wonder. Then it passes. That’s just how things happen. Some of us, though, just can’t let it go. We try to capture the moment. Crystallize it. Preserve it. That’s how art is born.

Those emotions and experiences that we try to preserve, though, don’t exist in a void. What creates the moment is the moments that came before it, and it becomes a pressing question: How much of this experience can we carry away from the preceding experiences? How can we separate it from the whole? We can’t completely: That’s why we tell stories instead of moments, why we build to crescendos instead of constantly playing at maximum volume. There’s a desire in inexperienced artists to be at maximum intensity at all times, without really acknowledging that things can only feel intense if there’s a corresponding calmness, lack of intensity, to contrast against.

That’s pretty elementary though. Most artists figure it out pretty fast. Contrast is the foundation of art. However, if you’re trying to create a particular emotional experience, that raises a lot of questions about what that balance ought to look like. How much time should an experience about triumph spend in despair to make the triumph taste sweet? How much time should an experience about love spend in loneliness and disaffection? There’s different ways to answer this, different balances to strike, but over time a set of formulas emerge. The most popular of these is probably the hero’s journey formula, which many set out as the archetypal formula which all stories are cut from – this is an absurd pronouncement that requires many increasingly tenuous analogies to make fit, but it is nevertheless a common argument.

Regardless, the hero’s journey is a useful formula for creating a certain kind of story (the kind where there’s a hero and they journey). Many games, being stories where there’s a hero and a journey, seek to adhere to this formula, but in this medium we have fairly limited control over the exact narrative arc of the experiences we create: Though we might set out to tell a story about a call to action, an ordeal, a boon, and so forth, just as often we create an experience of getting stuck on the first boss for 3 infuriating hours then getting a magic sword and easily murdering the lord of darkness. The dynamic nature of games makes it even harder to create a consistent emotional response, makes it even harder to stick to a formula that strikes the exact balance of sensations we might desire – and, correspondingly, makes it harder for the hero’s journey to be crafted into a game narrative, as gamey as that narrative might at first sound in the abstract.

These are, in short, the two main ways that video game stories suck. Either they try to create a consistent experience of the same emotion – such as, say, empowerment – or they try to recreate a tried and true narrative formula such as the hero’s journey within a dynamic framework that cannot accommodate it. The first is completely untenable, since feelings can only be meaningfully experienced in relation to each other. The second is… difficult, but not actually impossible.

Many game designers would then take that as the challenge: How to systematize the hero’s journey. How to create a narrative-making machine, a myth-making machine, something that takes in player inputs and spits out a grand epic tale. I don’t think that’s a particularly worthwhile goal. The most interesting stories that games spit out right now aren’t imitations of the hero’s journey or some other hackneyed formula, but startling stories of systems gone rampant, results that make sense but are utterly surprising, with the all the perverse interconnectedness and none of the post-hoc narrativization of real history.

Rather than this, we should seek to understand how game systems can lead to emotional outcomes, both in terms of the primary emotion we seek to elicit and the secondary emotions, its opposites, which we seek to define it by. If a game system has an understanding of how it can create frustration and elation, confusion and understanding, joy and sorrow, power and weakness, then it can balance these against each other into a satisfying complete experience. Perhaps this is a more challenging goal than creating a systematization of the hero’s journey, but I believe it is one far more worth striving towards.

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I finished my playthrough of Sekiro a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve had some time to sit and reflect on the experience. If you aren’t familiar with Sekiro, it’s the newest game by From Software, developers of the Dark Souls series, and it’s a continuation of that style of design as well as a spiritual successor of Tenchu, a beloved stealth game which I’ve never played and know very little about. Since I know nothing about Tenchu, I’m going to be talking a lot more about where Sekiro lies as a successor to Dark Souls than as a successor to Tenchu.

The original Dark Souls is still a powerful experience – dark and foreboding and inscrutable, Dark Souls offers many approaches to surmounting its various obstacles but obscures much of its narrative and mechanical breadth behind cryptic clues and interfaces. Sekiro is somewhat different in this regard: While it still maintains several of the mechanics and elements of exploration established by the Souls series, it does not shroud itself in mystery in terms of either its systems or its narrative and it provides relatively few ways to approach any given obstacle. Although I’ve been disappointed by the recent Souls games’ tendency towards simplicity, towards always funneling you into the same approach both in terms of movement through the world and tactics in combat, I enjoyed Sekiro’s even more streamlined approach. Sekiro’s commitment to this style takes simplicity and turns it into refinement.

Combat in Sekiro is usually a duel: Getting up in someone’s face and staying there, answering their every motion, call and response, until the heat gets too much and you need to retreat. While the overall sensation of move in, do damage, move out, is frequently the same as in a Souls, you no longer have the stamina system enforcing that behavior and thus you have much more leeway to keep pressing the attack – and are even encouraged to stay up close and personal for as long as possible before retreating by the game’s posture system, a mechanic of trying to push enemies off-balance through constant pressure so you can deliver a single lethal blow.

However, because there’s no longer nearly as much flexibility in how you approach obstacles – no bows, no bombs, no spells, no shields – the game is rather less forgiving than Dark Souls if you have a hard time engaging with the core mechanic of approach, deflect, counter, and various permutations on same. The game does offer numerous ‘shinobi tools’, such as shuriken, firecrackers, and a flamethrower, to give you these sorts of advantages – but, in the end, they’re all quite limited, and while they will help you they’re not so much an alternate path to victory as a way to gain an initial advantage on the same fight you’d be doing anyway.

Like the Souls games before it, Sekiro is a game about immortality: This thematic element makes a lot of sense as a way to integrate gameplay largely about getting the shit kicked out of you over and over again into a larger narrative. Most games, particularly before the Souls series arrived at prominence, simply narratively discarded any part of your gameplay that didn’t result in success. You reloaded, you rewinded, it never happened, forget about it. What having a game about immortality allows the developers to do is integrate every attempt, every failure, into the player’s story, a story of defeating death itself to right wrongs, of being a ghost or revenant set out to achieve one last vital task. It integrated the video game meta-narrative of undoing failures into an explicit narrative of fighting through them.

(Here’s where I get into the specifics of these games’ narrative. This is what would be considered spoilers for the Dark Souls series and Sekiro, so if you haven’t played these games and want to come to them fresh then you may want to stop here.)

While the immortality of Sekiro and of Dark Souls is treated nearly the same way mechanically, they’re treated quite differently by the narratives of each game. The story of Dark Souls is a story about systems of power and authority, and the existence of immortality within that context is evidence of how those systems have begun to fail – the powers of life and death have started to collapse, and the ancient undifferentiated stasis that held sway before gods and humans has started to take hold. Those who hold the reigns of power try to con those who suffer from this curse – you the player, as well as implicitly a huge number of other undead including all others who may have played the game – into sacrificing themselves in a ‘heroic’ quest to prop up this authoritarian system of divinity… Until it collapses again, presumably, at some point in the future, which the sequels imply happens many many times with each successive iteration becoming more corrupt and exhausted. Alternately, you can choose to subvert the system of divine authority and usher in a new age of dark – which sounds quite foreboding, but is presented more as an age of human self-determination in the absence of the divine than as something eldritch or unholy as standard video game symbolism might have such a name imply. In Dark Souls, ‘Dark’ isn’t so much evil as it is empty, the gaping nothingness we are confronted with when we seek for grand meanings and symbols, terrifying and comforting in equal measure, the pupil at the center of the iris.

However, Sekiro is almost aggressively unconcerned with the systems of power and what immortality might mean within these systems. Sekiro’s story is about what immortality might mean to individuals – old men faced with the decline of their bodies, young men who feel compelled to tackle tasks that are beyond the capacity of any single person, and the children whose youth and boundless potential these men covet and seek to exploit. It’s a game about dropping the ultimate gift of undeath into a world like our own and the strife and desire and bloodlust that would inevitably bubble up around it – in short, a game about greed.

In the story of Sekiro, your first priority is to ensure the safety of your master, the young lord Kuro, a child who has the power to give immortality. Others also want this power, most notably Genichiro who wants it to save the kingdom of Ashina where the game takes place. Along the way other objectives emerge, since Kuro himself decides that this power of immortality is going to keep causing trouble as long as it exists he dedicates himself, and therefore you, to the task of ending immortality, of letting humanity be merely human. Yet, though you are set this grand task, the top priority of the story is generally on protecting Kuro, and you are in the end mostly on this quest because he asks it of you.

Put succinctly, Dark Souls is a game about systems and Sekiro is a game about people, and this affects every aspect of both games. Combat in Dark Souls is largely against huge monsters, creatures who if they ever were human have long since lost contact with that humanity. It is a matter of distance and timing, dashing between gigantic legs or away from gigantic claws to deliver a strike or two and eventually putting the poor thing out of its misery. Sekiro is mostly about fighting people, opponents who move and act very much like you do, who one could easily imagine playing as with only minor tweaks to the control scheme. It’s about pushing up against them, engaging with their every move, answering each motion with a motion of your own, almost collaborative, almost a dance. There’s an intimacy to it, very different in tone to the cold calculation of Dark Souls combat.

The priorities of Sekiro’s story, as well, lie with individuals, not systems: It is a journey to save Kuro and to help him in the gargantuan task he has set for himself. You don’t set out to change the world, only to help Kuro, but circumstances demand that in order for that to happen the world must first be changed. Structures mean nothing without the people that inhabit them.

Genichiro fights to save Ashina, and is willing to sacrifice his people, himself, and his humanity to achieve that – so what is he actually fighting to preserve? An empty name? A ghost kingdom? The battle to save Ashina has gone on so long that the land is deeply scarred, its animals have picked up weapons and learned to fight. The best thing for it would be to let it go. To give up, and see what comes next. The biggest difference between Dark Souls and Sekiro is how they portray giving up. In Dark Souls, to give up is to lose yourself, to become hollow, a shell. In Sekiro, giving up is presented as sometimes the only reasonable option: Lord Isshin, who saved Ashina from a bloodthirsty despot, sits alone in his besieged fortress (aside from occasional outings), content to die while his grandson Genichiro goes to extraordinary measures to save Ashina because he knows there’s nothing there left to fight for. As the player dies over and over, refusing to give up, unleashes a sickness called dragonrot on the world, poisoning all of the people you meet along the way, it raises the question: Is what I’m doing for the best? Or am I just doing my duty, even if it does harm?

Perhaps one of the reasons From Software’s games have done so well is because there’s a certain thematic resonance between their stories and the daily tolls of our lives. Being conned into propping up deeply cruel and unjust systems, feeling hollow but persevering, being caught between an old prosperous generation and a young one full of potential but being pushed into a deeply fucked up world, it’s all a very millennial experience. It doesn’t offer any answers, but there’s something reassuring about believing that at least, somewhere on the other side, there’s something else – an escape, a change of state, or merely progression, perhaps no better than the world we have now, but at least it’s one step away from where we stand.

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Playing games is largely a process of exploration. Often this is in a very literal sense, where you’re given a simulated physical space and part of the challenge is learning the ins and outs of it, but just as often the heart of the game lies in exploring the the edges of the game’s design or of its story. What actually is exploration though? What separates exploring a world from merely experiencing it? How can we support exploration, make it fun and interesting? Or, perhaps more saliently, how can we avoid undermining exploration without meaning to?

There’s two parts to exploring: Methodology and results. Methodology is what separates the process from pure random trial and error – even if you feel that you are wandering aimlessly and finding things as you go, you’re still building up an understanding of the environment in your head and applying that towards your movements. At the very least, you avoid exploring areas you’ve already been through in favor of finding new areas. Results are whatever you get using your method of approach. So, when we’re designing for explorability, we must have both a world that is consistent and predictable, so there can be method to measuring it, and a world that contains interesting things worth discovering. There is also a prerequisite to exploration: In order for something to be revealed, in must first be concealed. In order for it to be discovered, it must first be covered, so the world must also have parts of it which are not immediately obvious.

If you lack consistency of world, then surprises come randomly and without justification, and the player tends to meander interminably before finding anything of interest. If you lack anything worth discovering, that’s obviously even worse, and if everything is already obvious then there’s nothing to find. As an example, if you create a world that’s continuously being randomly generated, it might be an interesting experience but there’s no way to effectively explore it: methodology is useless, the discoveries pointless, and you could never expect to have any more knowledge of the world than one had first coming to it, meaning a world completely uniform in its inscrutability, an open book containing nothing but nonsense. This conflict between randomness and exploration is one reason why games attempting fusion of the randomized worlds of roguelikes with the exploration-heavy worlds of metroidvania tend to succeed far more as roguelikes than they do as metroidvanias.

In creating a simulated physical space to explore, using these concepts of methodology, result, and concealment is a pretty straightforward task to grasp. First, make it so your world has some logical spatial relationship – most games are like this by default, since they’re built on modeling a 3d space, though some like text adventures struggle a bit and map transitions can always throw a wrench in the works. Note that this is not to say you can’t or shouldn’t have weird and impossible architecture, just to note that the more confusing and counterintuitive it becomes the harder it becomes to effectively explore the space, which may or may not be something you want. Second, make the world also have things worth discovering: In purely spatial terms, this would just be an interesting location such as a cave or grove, but more practically this is where the ‘physical’ space of the game starts to overlap into the design and narrative spaces, since most actual interesting locations in games are interesting either because they contain gameplay advantages such as powerups or tactical positioning or because they contain narrative content such as historical information or new characters to meet. Third, make it so it isn’t immediately evident where these points of interest are – this is why having things like minimaps, fast travel, and x-ray vision can work against the sensation of exploration, since providing this information directly often works directly against concealment. Too much information is provided for free, so there’s no real room for method to beget discovery.

So, carrying these concepts over from the spatial realm to the game’s design, if we want to have an explorable design space it must be, first, consistent: This, like spatial consistency, tends to come for free in a highly systemic game but become scarcer the more separate systems or special exceptions exist. If every game element exists within a consistent system, people can devise and improvise interactions, can plan out experiments and log their results. They have a territory to map. Second, the game’s design must have things worth discovering – understanding the bounds of the design is usually a core part of what it means to become better at a game, so this is covered as long as the game’s challenge isn’t trivial. This is part of what difficulty offers us, is a system worth exploring. Third, the system must not be obvious, must conceal parts of itself: This is one that a lot of modern games struggle with. There’s a tendency to clip off surprising and unexpected parts of a game’s design, to ensure that the experience always feels ‘fair’, to set the boundaries of the design strictly at those of the developer’s imagination. It seldom works completely, but to the extent which it works it impoverishes the game.

Narratively, the tenets of explorability tend to resemble a great deal of existing storytelling advice. Avoid plot holes and give characters motivations to create a consistent narrative reality, include drama, jokes, and surprises to generate interest, and don’t lean on cliche and trope so much the entire arc is obvious from the first moment.

As mentioned earlier, these spaces all overlap. The surprises you discover in the spatial layer may have implications for the design, the techniques you discover in the design layer may have implications in the narrative, the story you uncover in the narrative may lead you to new places in the spatial. These aspects are all woven together, and the ability to uncover them collectively is one of the greatest things games can offer as a medium.

For those who may be unfamiliar with The Return of the Obra Dinn, it’s a first-person adventure game by Lucas Pope (the developer of Papers, Please – a game which I keep intending to play but putting off, probably at least in part because it seems incredibly bleak). Obra Dinn itself is hardly un-bleak: In it, you play as an insurance assessor sent out to the titular Obra Dinn, a recently recovered wreck of a ghost ship. You are sent to deduce the fate of all those aboard, and deduce appropriate deductions for the insurance company to make. In order to achieve this task, you are given the “Memento Mortem”, a pocket watch which, when presented with the remains of a once-living creature, can take you back to the moment that creature died. Once in these memories, you can find other remains and follow them back further, and move from the moment this person or animal died to the moments leading up to it, following the chain of disaster back to its inception.

The style of the game is eye-catching, and along with the reputation of Papers, Please drove a lot of the initial interest in the title. Everything is rendered in a pixelated black and white style – or a dark color and a light color, the specifics of which can vary, but in each case is styled after a classic computer system. This is an interesting choice, since the style is unusual and the classic computer systems it harkens back to don’t really have anything to do with the plot of the game, but it creates an overall sensation of being unstuck in time. Here you sit, playing the game in the modern day on your modern machine, rendering in a style reminiscent of several decades ago, exploring a ship from hundreds of years ago, exploring memories of sailors who died several decades before. It expresses a chain of time very well, and reminds us that these weird chains of causality, of death to life to death to life, are all around us, and dictate the flow of our lives to this day.

Something that struck me about Obra Dinn was how unusual it was to have a game where death is commonplace, but is still treated with respect. There’s two molds that games usually, broadly, fall into: Either death is avoided strenuously, or it’s so commonplace as to be meaningless. Either you’re a gentle spirit wandering the world and trying to achieve your goals without confrontation, or you’re a murderous monster leaving a trail of hewn body parts behind you. While you do, in Obra Dinn, fit into the gentle spirit mold, the world you are trying to navigate is one of blood, desperation, and violence. It neither avoids death nor glories in it, merely tests its boundaries and affirms, for those of us who might ever forget, that each death is unique, that each death comes from a seed of causality and can be tracked to its roots. No one is unimportant. No one is indispensible.

A naive reading of the design of Obra Dinn might believe that there’s little actual “gameplay” in the game – that is, the majority of the actions the player takes are walking to the next cutscene trigger, activating it, and occasionally marking down one of a few options in the big book of names that you begin the game with. We’re not accustomed to thinking of things like the shape of a character’s face, their accent, who their friends are, what their job description is, as components of gameplay – but each of these becomes important in Obra Dinn. Understanding the relationships underpinning the tragedy of the ship, understanding why characters choose to do the things they do, is necessary to unravel the mystery that brought the Obra Dinn to its current fate. So often the concept of ‘gameplay’ is pitted against concepts of ‘narrative’ and ‘graphics’, as though these are all completely discrete components that have nothing to do with one another, as though pouring more resources into one might steal resources away from another. One might consider this to be most literally true in a game like The Return of the Obra Dinn, made by a lone developer, where time he spends on one aspect is time he cannot possibly spend on another. Perhaps it’s because it was made by a solo developer, though, that these aspects work so closely together – the graphics are exactly what they need to be to support the narrative, the narrative is exactly what it needs to be to support the gameplay. No, even ‘support’ seems incorrect: These facets of the game aren’t separable. What seems most remarkable to me about Obra Dinn is how all of these components we regard as discrete combine together and become one complete work – the graphics are the narrative is the gameplay.

I’ve played games that have had more emotional impact, games that have interested me more intellectually, games that have amazed me more, games that spoke to me more, games I felt were more meaningful – but Obra Dinn is still something special in a different way. It’s finely crafted, like a pocketwatch, and I think though the details of the tragic voyage will fade, the Obra Dinn will stick with me for a long time.

I’ve been playing a lot of XCOM 2 recently, and after a discussion on the differences between it and its precursor the other day I started thinking about the nature of decisions in games. In XCOM (the first one), you’re expected to make a few very clear-cut decisions in the strategy layer – what to research, what abilities to train, what missions to take, and so forth. Each of these has extremely clear trade-offs. The tactical layer, similarly, has fairly clear-cut decisions, though the effects of decisions can be a bit confusing – it’s not clear, for example, whether you’ll be able to see an enemy unit if you reposition, or see why your odds of hitting are particularly high or low. In XCOM 2, the strategy layer has more decisions with murkier effects: Rather than having a choice of three missions pop up periodically, events you can investigate are constantly popping up all over the map, and since it takes time to investigate these or to do anything else on the map you can realistically only get to so many of them. The tactical combat, however, is much more clear-cut: You can see everything that affects your shot percentages, and the UI will tell you whether you can see an enemy or not when you move, and helpful icons will show if you’re moving a soldier into harm’s way.

It’s interesting to me, given all this, that players generally seem to prefer XCOM to XCOM 2. I think there are a few reasons for this, but the confusing unquantifiability of XCOM 2’s event system is probably the main turn-off, especially nestled, as it is, within the highly regimented and quantifiable decision-making that defined XCOM and, to a lesser extent, its sequel.

It all just goes to make me think about the old Sid Meier quote (or misquote?) about a game being a series of interesting decisions. Though I love XCOM, a game with a relatively few important decisions, a lot of the games I like most have you making little decisions constantly, all of which add up to a big effect in aggregate. In a game like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the decision to crouch or not to crouch, lean or not to lean, go full-auto or single-shot, equip an angled or a vertical foregrip, run into the circle at a 5 degree angle or a 6 degree angle, any one of these can be the difference between life or death – and that’s what makes it, despite its many flaws, still so fun to play for me.

In thinking about this, I started classifying the differences in decisions. In general, I think a decision in a game can be considered in two parts: One, how the decision is made (choice properties), and two, the effects of that decision (effect properties). Each of these have three parts – that I’ve thought of so far, anyway.

Choice properties:

  1. Frequency: How often decisions are made
  2. Quantity: The number of options available with each decision
  3. Temporality: How much time pressure there is to make the decision

Effect properties:

  1. Impact: How much they can change the game state
  2. Clarity: How evident these changes are beforehand
  3. Expression: How much the player can express themselves using the decisions

Different games prioritize aspects of decision-making differently. XCOM has medium-low frequency decisions with little temporal pressure and high impact and clarity, with little focus on player expression. The Street Fighter games have fairly high frequency of decisions, making choices at each moment of where to position yourself and which attack to use, with a fairly high quantity of different attack maneuvers, high temporal pressure and impact and moderate clarity (since move effects depend on what your opponent is doing) and a small-moderate amount of player expression… except, that is, in the menu where you select which character you want to use, which is a single (minimal frequency) choice with large quantity, no temporality, and huge impact, clarity, and expression. Super Hexagon is a game with extremely frequent decisions with almost no quantity (left, right, or neither), unbelievably high temporal pressure, high impact and clarity, no expression. The Walking Dead, Season 1 has low-frequency, low-quantity decisions, with some temporal pressure, moderate impact, relatively little clarity, but a huge amount of player expression.

Genres start mapping pretty closely to different decision models, when viewed in this respect. Strategy games prioritize low frequency and temporal pressure with high impact and clarity, tactical shooters like PUBG value high frequency, quantity, temporality, and impact with moderate clarity, RPGs like Fallout medium frequency, impact, and clarity, high quantity, low temporality, and extremely high expression.

From this viewpoint, it becomes clear why many of the decisions made in XCOM 2 rub people the wrong way. The decisions presented to the player in the strategic layer of the game don’t hew as closely to the ideal of what strategic gameplay decisions look like, and though they’re valid as a design in their own right, and I still find them enjoyable, and while they don’t necessarily make it a worse game, they may, in fact, make it a worse strategy game.

It’s important to know what sorts of decisions you want to present to the player, and what sorts of decisions they came to you to get. Trade-offs which may seem like good design when viewed through the lens of balance or of excitement may simply not fit the type of decision system the game is most suited to.

 

Another month has gone by, and though a short vacation, a nasty little cold, and a number of other minor distractions got in my way, I still managed to make a little bit of progress.

First, and most importantly, I put quite a few hours into writing the music for the first boss of the game. I may have gone a little bit overboard on this one: The concept I wanted to pursue was a track with multiple phases that mapped to different parts of the boss encounter, bouncing back and forth between them until finally reaching a conclusion. I’m not sure if I can possibly create a boss encounter that stays interesting long enough to accompany this track, coming in at almost 9 minutes long, but it will be fun to try once the rest of the chapter is complete.

The phases of the track are:

0:00-1:47 Intro
1:47-4:13 The Chest
4:13-6:16 The Mask
6:16-7:49 The Heart
7:49-8:40 Conclusion

This one honestly ended up getting quite a bit out of hand, and I spent quite a bit more time than I’d originally expected to on it, but I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. I also just enjoyed doing music work again! I’m going to carry on with composing the soundtrack even though I’ve effectively completed all the tracks for the first chapter of the game now, which is the part of the game I’m focused on finishing. The reasons why I’m going to continue doing music work, despite otherwise attempting to contain my efforts to this first chapter, are several-fold: first because, as mentioned, I like making music and I want to do more of it, second because if I can’t make this game in a timely fashion I can damn sure make its soundtrack, which is a discrete sub-creation that I can be proud of in its own right, and third because I find music so compelling that I think just having the soundtrack to the game will motivate me more to finish the rest of it. There’s also a fourth, more pragmatic reason: Inspired by UNDERTALE’s soundtrack, I’m really trying to integrate motifs from different characters and locations into tracks with a narrative connection to those characters and locations. It’s going to be really hard to do that until I know what those motifs, for later parts of the game, actually are! I’m not really going to be able to consider chapter 1’s soundtrack complete until I’ve written the rest of the soundtrack and know better what my overall thematic tools and goals are.

Anyway! Aside from music, I’ve been working on a few things. I’ve been feeling my way around programming the main narrative component of the game, the storyteller. This is going to be something pretty similar to what Supergiant does in their games with an ongoing narration element, except I would like to integrate these narrator lines a little bit more closely with the music, syncing the lines up with particular parts of the track and so forth. Additionally, I want to have text appear in the world synced with the audio, so it’s a bit like playing a storybook. Figuring out how I’m going to pragmatically handle the synchronization of these elements and making them play nice with a player who may or may not be interested in the narrative taking place is going to be a challenge, but I’m getting close to having a simple version ready to test so that I can iterate on it.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about what the interface of the game is going to look like. There are really only two elements that need to be displayed under normal circumstances: The player’s current health, and how many sparks you’ve collected, which also maps to your max health. I could just have a red bar along one side of the screen, but that felt inelegant. A sphere that fills and empties like the health meter in Diablo might have been a bit more thematic, since there’s some sun/moon symbolism I’m playing with in the game, but it felt like a circle would take up a lot of screen real estate for how much info it would impart and probably wouldn’t look very good. What I’ve come up with instead is an idea that’s… actually a little bit difficult to express here. It’s basically a life bar along the left side of the screen, except it looks like an engraved stone tablet. Only a small part of the tablet is visible early on, but as you gain more power the tablet expands and you can see more of it, and the engravings on it. I can actually directly tie the health meter into the narrative of the game in what I think is a pretty interesting way. However, because you don’t gain power at a constant rate, but instead end up collecting more and more as you defeat more powerful opponents, I’m going to have to figure out a curve that reveals the tablet at a rate that’s satisfying over the course of the game. I have a logarithmic function in mind that may work well, but it will have to be tested. I’ll also need to figure out how to have the tablet build up in such a way that it feels satisfying, and ensure that no matter what its interim shape is it still gives satisfactory feedback as a health meter. This will all take a bit of experimentation, but it’s an idea I’m excited about.

Finally, I’ve been working on the game’s first animation. I mean, I’ve already built several animations, but this is the first one that will play in the game: The player character awakening, standing up, and taking her weapon at the very beginning of the game. I started creating this animation, and then had to start over after working on it for a few hours because my first take on it sucked. I think my second take on it has potential, though it’s still very rough the motion feels good to me.

The actual removing-sword part of the animation still needs to happen, and of course all of the detail and the tween frames need to be added, but I think I’m on the right track this time.

So, the plan for August is to finish working on these things, write the music for the first area of chapter 2 (I’ve already started), create more main-character animations, and maybe get some basic sound design in. Of course something else may capture my fancy and I’ll end up working on that, but as long as I stick to my big task list I think I can maintain forward progress.

We operate by symbols. Everything we think we see is, by the time we perceive it, converted from the light that enters our eyes into a collection of ideas, into symbols for objects and creatures we know – or, for those things we cannot readily categorize, into a vague description of form and color and behavior. Everything we think we hear is, as well, converted into discrete sounds and music, as best as we can wrap them with understanding. All this happened in our minds long before we ever came up with actual words to describe things: Only much later did we create verbal language to be another set of symbols, verbal symbols we could readily convert to and from these symbolic perceptions of objects and creatures in the world around us.

We navigate by analogy. That is, we have no contact with the world that isn’t mediated by our brain’s model of it, which is constructed out from symbols – we are in a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, manipulating our reality at one layer of removal, always.

These verbal languages are fairly effective at describing the things we can perceive with our senses, but struggle to describe more abstract and ambiguous concepts and systems – so we have other languages and methods to approach these. We created mathematics, a whole new language, to describe the abstract idea of multiple discrete identical objects and how these operate in relationship to each other – when, really, no such ideal differentiated objects actually exist. And, in the same vein, we created fiction to be a meta-language, a language made out of our verbal language, to describe the social, cultural, and technological systems that quietly control our lives.

I’m using fiction in a very broad sense, here. One thing I would include under this heading, for example, is history: The main difference between history and fiction is that the former purports to portray the reality of a thing that has happened. However, this claim to reality is one that anyone can make, and which many spuriously try to. Even when the historical facts are well known and established, the interpretation of those facts – that is, the portrayal of the underlying systems that generated that particular chain of events – is very much a product of the author. Even an author attempting in all good faith to avoid influencing their interpretation with preexisting biases cannot possibly manage to do so: Our assumptions run too deep. Nevertheless, no matter how much empty space the author fills in, no matter how questionable the systems implied by their interpretation, the history takes on the authority of indisputable fact, suitable only to be challenged by other equally authoritative historians.

At one step removed from history, we have fiction that is intended to be ‘realistic’. The underlying systems of reality that govern the fiction are presumed to be the same as the ones that govern our lives, with the only difference being that the characters and situations are invented. In other words, the system, the machine, is intended to be a replica of the original, while the data set it operates upon is wholly fabricated. At another layer of remove there are science-fiction and other alternate reality stories, where the system of the world departs from reality in major ways – though also, usually, remains the same in several vital ways. Humans, or something very much like them, generally still exist in these stories, and they have cultures and laws and societies like ours. They still need to eat and to breathe, they still like to play and to fuck.

How much people tend to enjoy these stories tends to rest a great deal on how plausible they find these systems – that is, once we discount the obviously and acknowledged fantastical elements (suspension of disbelief), how closely does the remainder mirror what we understand reality to be? By replacing elements of the systems of reality with obviously fantastical ones, we can examine the remaining systems more closely, a way of holding a magnifying glass up to some aspect of our world, a way of color-coding the gears of reality. If the rest of the system that drives the fiction is shoddy, though, or if it otherwise fails to be plausible, the reader will reject it. Of course, this is the same situation as the external tensions I mentioned last week: What’s plausible and what isn’t plausible depends as much on the reader as the content. For some people, all robots being sapient is plausible. For some others, all humans being sapient is not.

Every fiction, though, carries an implicit argument: The systems portrayed in this story would create the results portrayed in this story. Because of this implicit argument, all art presents an idea of what the world is, could be, or should be.