Archive | August, 2015

Hooray for Hollywood

22 Aug

Back before my last studio, Junction Point, was acquired by Disney, I had a grand plan – a mission, really, that I wanted to explore. (I’m going to talk more about mission in a future blog post, but just go with me here.) My mission had two parts:

First, I wanted to take inspiration from television, rather than movies. That meant, episodic content, digitally delivered, with each episode standing alone but also being part of a larger, overarching “season” narrative. You know what I mean – think about pretty much any police procedural you’ve ever seen on television. A crime gets solved in each episode, but the relationships among the recurring characters carry over from episode to episode until by the end of the season, those character relationships have changed in ways that keep us watching season after season. In other words, there’s both completion and open-endedness built into each episode. (I call that approach “limited serial narrative” but that’s so grad school I’ll just leave it at that.)

This approach seemed – and still seems – like a great model for games. Frankly, I don’t understand why games haven’t adopted it. And I’m pretty sure I’m going to give it a shot some day and see how it works “in the wild” rather than just in my head.

But limited serial narrative isn’t what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the second part of the original Junction Point mission.

That second part was all about partnering with folks in Hollywood – film-makers and television producers – to create what I guess you’d have to call transmedia productions. (Man, do I hate that term, but I can’t think of one that applies better here, sadly.)

The relationship between Hollywood types and game developers is typically one where the Hollywood folks are in control. The game types are reduced to being an “employee of game company #27 making a game based on someone’s last flick.” I had very little interest in a licensor/licensee relationship. (Though there was one IP I would have loved to work with. And, no, I can’t say what that was.)

Bottom line: I wanted to collaborate with folks in LA to create new IP that were designed from the start to work in a variety of media. They’d make the movies and TV shows, my studio would make the games and the property would be co-owned by them and by Junction Point, sharing in the profits both ways.

In working to make that happen, my agents at the time, Seamus Blackley and Ophir Lupu (among others) hooked me up with some Really Big Name guys. Pretty cool, I must say. I had the privilege of meeting and working with them, not in a subservient role, but as a peer and  collaborator. I wish I could talk about this in more detail but the only announced project was a collaboration with John Woo on an IP called “Ninja Gold.” (On that one, we actually had game deals and movie deals, and we built a bunch of prototypes, but In That Way, deals have a tendency to fall apart and so did that project.)

Anyway, what I discovered working with movie/TV creators was that, by and large, they’re Just Like Us — smart, creative, out of do great stuff — and they’re held back by a lot of the same forces that affect many mainstream game developers — rising budgets, shrinking audiences, execs who don’t get it, etc.

I also discovered that some of them totally got that movies and games are different, some didn’t. Some were seduced by the superficial similarities — pictures on a screen, sound, camera, lighting, dialogue, etc. — and thought they “got it,” while some were intrigued by the differences and what they didn’t understand about our medium. (The latter were a lot more fun to work with, needless to say.)

In talking to these people, I discovered something interesting, myself, something I hadn’t thought about before, something that really brought home for me at least one of many important differences between movies/TV and games. (Many of those differences are obvious enough that I don’t need to go into them here, I hope. If I do, let me know and I’ll come back to this in a comment or future blog post.)

Almost ALL movie/TV makers, in my experience, thought in terms of moments. Cool, specific, unique moments. (And they were really, really good at coming up with those moments, let me tell you, even acting them out to show what they meant.)

But what do I mean by “moments”?

Movie guys have to fill just a couple of hours of screen time. We have to fill a lot more, even in a short game. And at least in part, because of that, we have to be about the repeated action, not necessarily, the uniquely memorable one. In a movie, if your hero does the same thing — even twice — you’re probably in territory where the audience is thinking about what a bad movie they’re watching, not about how cool the hero is.

In games, we have a completely different set of constraints. Designers talk about the “core loop” – the sequence of base level actions players repeat over and over during a game, with variations to keep things interesting as the game goes on. But all we do – all we do – is offer variations on the core, not radical changes. I mean, there’s a reason why it’s called a “loop,” right? Players run through the steps, then go back to the beginning over and over again.

Even the most astute Hollywood folks tend not to get this.

I remember sitting in a room, listening to one director say, “the hero should leap off a building, glide down using his coat as a glider thing, land in a superhero pose and in one smooth motion, come up flinging knives.” And, yes, he acted it out.

Sadly, though many games actually do take moments like that and repeat them ad infinitum, I had to tell this guy I didn’t think that was a great game idea. “Yeah, that’d be cool the first time the player does it,” I said. “But by the hundredth time, it’ll be boring, at best, and probably actively annoying.”

Or, to use a John Woo example (not one he and I talked about, to be clear!), in a movie, it’s great to see Chow Yun-Fat, two guns blazing, leap onto a restaurant cart and barrel across a room taking out bad guys… It’s great when guns go off and doves fly… In a movie. In a game, those things would get old, and a little silly, after the tenth iteration.

John Woo’s a genius, and never even hinted that we should borrow those signature moments. I think he realized that such moments just don’t work in games (or, at least, I don’t think they work). Games are about finding sequences of actions that are as fun and exciting for players the hundredth, even thousandth, time they do something. The variety comes from changing circumstances, not a cascade of unique moments.

That’s our magic and our art. The ability to create compelling loops and changing circumstances that keep those loops fresh and interesting for 20 hours is what separates the great designers from the rest of us mere mortals. Recognize and act on this (and have a massive marketing budget) and you can rule the game world.

I’ll leave it at that, but I’d love to hear from you about examples of unique moments that did work when repeated over and over again. In other words, prove me wrong. (No cutscene moments, please.) And even more interesting to me, I’d love to hear about repeated actions that maintain players’ interest despite the repetition, and why they work. In other words, prove me right. Comment away.

Another Narrative Fallacy: It’s All About Choice

8 Aug

If there’s one thing that comes up in all discussions of game narrative, it’s the desirability of player choice.

Sometimes, if a game is built on a branching story structure, choices may be offered independent of game systems or mechanics. (See Telltale, Quantic Dream and others.)

Sometimes, in a game with a more open structure, choices may be expressed through a player’s interaction with simulation elements, systems and mechanics. (See Bethesda, Bioware and — finally… thankfully… – many more).

Happily, finally, everyone involved in games – especially narrative games – gets all that.

However, even with nearly everyone agreeing on the importance of choice as a defining characteristic of gameplay, there’s a trap waiting to ensnare the unwitting:

Simply put, games aren’t, and shouldn’t be, about choice.

To expand on that a bit, it’s important, I think, to get past two widely held beliefs:

First is the idea that choices are of paramount importance, in and of themselves, and by virtue of the nature of the medium.

Second is the idea that choice implies, even requires us to think in terms of, reward and punishment… better and worse… right and wrong… light and dark… good and evil.

I simply don’t get this kind of thinking. I don’t get the exclusive focus on choice. I don’t get the seeming obsession, in choice-driven games, with binary opposition.

Choice. Doesn’t. Matter.

Binary oppositions are boring.

Choices without consequences are meaningless. If they don’t lead to different outcomes – preferably radically different outcomes – what’s the point?

And games that encourage players to think in terms of right and wrong ultimately encourage players to, as I put it, “play the meter” – “Ooh, I’m evil and now I have horns and a bunch of demon tattoos!” or “Ooh, I’m good – see? I have angel wings and a halo.” It’s just ridiculous.

“But wait a minute,” you may be thinking. “Aren’t you one of the guys who’s been screaming about player choice for a couple of decades?”

No. I’m not. If you look closely at what I’ve been saying, choice isn’t the be all, end all. Not at all. And it isn’t the key to what some of us have been calling “shared authorship” all these years.

So what the hell have I been screaming about?

Here it is: The interesting aspect of player choice isn’t the choice itself. The interesting thing – the only interesting thing, really – is the revelation of consequences. Choice without consequence is a waste of time, effort and money.

But wait, you say. Doesn’t the word “consequence” imply punishment, which sends us right back to better/worse, good/evil, right/wrong? Doesn’t consequence require designers to impose a value judgment and maybe even provide a good/evil meter so players know where they stand?

Not at all.

One of the hard and fast rules I lay out for my teams is “Never judge the player.” Never. Players should never know what you think about a question or its answer. (See, this is where last week’s blog post about about questions comes in.) You’re not there to answer the questions your game asks players to consider. You’re most assuredly not there, I tell my designers, to say to players “this is right and that is wrong.” Designers exist to provide opportunities for players to test behaviors and then see the consequences of those behaviors. Given the chance, players will judge for themselves whether the benefits gained by making a particular choice were worth the cost of making it.

It may just be me, but in my experience, there are few, if any, questions or situations that lend themselves to clearly defined, universally agreed upon right or wrong answers or solutions. In most real world cases, there are only shades of gray. Even if you disagree (as extremists and believers of all stripes might) I’m comfortable saying that the most interesting situations are the ones where right and wrong are not readily apparent. I don’t understand why more game developers don’t acknowledge that and revel in our medium’s unique ability to reflect the wondrous, complex lack of clarity of the world in which we live.


Okay, so let me try to bring the two parts of this trip down narrative lane full circle. Let me close by saying this about questions, choices and the nature of game narrative:

A successful game narrative isn’t one that tells a great story (though that’s obviously desirable!).

A successful game narrative is one that asks questions.

A successful game narrative gives players the tools to answer those questions both locally (in the moment) and globally (in how the entire story plays out).

A successful game narrative is one that shows shows players the consequences of their local and global decisions, without judging players for making those decisions.

There are only shades of gray and, that being the case, all decisions have costs as well as benefits. There is no absolute right or absolute wrong. (And, yes, I’m a moral relativist at heart…) Even if you disagree, games that reflect that will get players thinking in ways no other medium can match.

A successful game narrative is one that engenders conversations not only about how each player solved a game problem, but also why. Most of the dialogue we hear around games is about optimal strategies or about how moving a cutscene was. How limited and dull that is.

What I want – and hope you want – is to hear players debating the rightness or wrongness of their decisions. I want to hear one player say, “How could you have stolen that?” and another player describing her thought process… I want to hear one player ask, “Why did you leave that guy alive after what he did?” and another make a case for Ghandi-like pacifism… I want to hear players who reach an endgame driven by their choices ask one another, “How could you think that solution was appropriate or right or ethical?”

“Appropriate,” “right” and “ethical” are magic words. Other media can make the claim that they deal with those concepts, too – and they do – but in those media, the words belong to authors while in games, those words can and should belong to players.

Wrap your mind around all this, and we’re on our way to realizing the potential of games as a unique narrative form. Clearly, we owe something to earlier narrative models, but we can and must build on their teachings, maybe even leave those teachings behind to create something more collaborative, more moving and more compelling than any other medium can be.

Embracing choice means we’re halfway there. What do you say we go the rest of the way?

A Narrative Fallacy: It’s All About Aristotle

1 Aug

Lots of people – even game developers who specialize in narrative games – fall into a couple of common traps when they think about games and stories, and about the roles of players and developers in the telling of those stories.

First is that any series of events, with setup, complication, resolution and denouement constitutes a narrative, in any medium, linear or interactive. By the letter of the law, I suppose that’s correct. But before you plot out your magnum opus, I’d contend that the characteristics I just listed, must be in support of something – something deeper, a meta-narrative. There has to be a subtext (or, to be just a tad judgmental, you’re just making crap and you can stop wasting my time and yours).

Put another way, before you start crafting your story, make sure you have something to say. You’d think this would be self-evident, but I’m not sure it is, given the quality of most game stories. Frankly, for me, the statement I want to make is of paramount importance. Actually, that isn’t quite true. If I wanted to make a statement, I’d write a novel or make a movie. What’s of true importance to me is the issue I want players to grapple with.

Here’s the key for me when I think about game narrative as opposed to traditional narrative forms:

Linear media answer questions; games ask them and allow players to answer them.

Note that the word “interactivity” is nowhere to be found in this formulation of the defining characteristic of game narrative. That word is overused, ill-defined and really kind of useless. Think back to the narrative games you’ve played and see if you can identify the questions they ask you to answer… see if the game empowered you to answer them yourself, as opposed to just divining the answer the developer predetermined for you. It’s an interesting exercise.

Let me give you some examples from two games I worked on.

For me, Deus Ex is “about” four interrelated questions:

  1. What happens when you take a guy who believes the world is black and white and throw him into a world that – like our own – is all shades of gray?
  2. What would the world – our world, the real world – be like if every conspiracy theory people believed to be true were, in fact, true?
  3. What’s the nature of humanity – at what point in the world of human augmentation do we stop being human and start being… something else?
  4. What’s the most desirable “end state” for the world? Are we better off in a technological dark age in which people have genuine free will? Are we better off in a world where an all-seeing AI can gift us with total connectivity and, one hopes, the empathy that arises from universal connection, at the cost of giving up our freedom? Or are we simply better off as we are today (IF conspiracies are real), ruled by a shadowy elite, not knowing it, and going about our daily lives none the wiser?

Two things to note:

First, answering these questions doesn’t involve defeating anything or solving anything puzzly or being told anything by an author. Yes, you play a character named J.C. Denton and, yes, there’s an overarching plot that allows these questions to bubble up so players can interact with them. Yes, that’s true, but those questions can only be answered by YOU, the player, not by a PC puppet. At the end of the day, the character you play is of secondary and, basically, irrelevant in narrative terms.

Second, I don’t really care whether anyone knows the game is “about” your personal answer to those four questions. No author wants his/her/their themes expressed obviously and unsubtly. Frankly, I doubt most of the Deus Ex team even know what the game was about for me. All that mattered – to me – was that the game allowed players to answer those questions through their choices during play.

Another example. Disney Epic Mickey asked a few questions, too. Frankly, it pains me that a lot of players didn’t see how similar in intent and philosophy Epic Mickey was to the other games I’ve worked on, but that’s another story… Anyway, Epic Mickey asked a completely different set of questions than Deus Ex:

  1. How important are family and friends to you?
  2. Is it better to be less powerful, but have friends who will help you do what you need to do; or is it better to be more individually powerful, but alone in the world?
  3. Is it better to do the easy thing to solve a local problem, when the fate of the entire world is in your hands; or is it better to do the hard thing in solving local problems, because the small things we do add up to far bigger things?
  4. Allen Varney, one of my longtime collaborators, who was critical to the early conceptualization of Epic Mickey reminded me about a fourth question: What happens when you remain rooted in the past, versus being willing to forgive past grievances and move on?

Again, players may not realize it, but they’re answering these questions with every step they take and through every interaction with the gameworld, the characters and the developer-generated situations they find themselves in.

Yes, even a cartoon mouse can be the vehicle for asking big questions…

Next time (pretty soon, I suspect, ’cause I’m on a roll and feeling frisky), I’ll talk about another narrative trap game developers fall into – that games are all about choice.