Wednesday, 14 March 2012

From Space

Before I lay me down to sleep, I want to document a dream I had the other night.
I have two recurring dreams. In the first, I am alone and lost in London. In the second, I am standing in my mother's garden, looking out across the field beyond, at the night sky, and a UFO descends. This dream always climaxes in a close encounter of the third kind: an alien (or 'animate being').

This time, I was watching from the centre of the garden, and the UFO was an archetypal, charcoal grey saucer, barely a ghost in the gloom. Often, they glide at high altitudes, lit like fairy carnivals, but not this time. It skimmed silently across the field, little more than ten feet above the crops. I was excited, not fearful.
I hurried into the house through the back door, and into the lounge. The lounge was dark and claustrophobic, flooded with an eerie scarlet light which devoured form, much as a shadow. My brother was sat at one end of the sofa; my mother in an armchair. They watched a dim tv, unmoving. I threw myself onto the sofa and my brother hissed between clenched teeth: Careful! You nearly sat on it!
Nobody moved or breathed. I could feel the warmth of a body beside me upon my bare arm.
Something pushed itself off the sofa and dropped gently to the carpet, its fur brushing my arm, and a shape waddled out of my peripheral vision towards the back door.

I've been reading a lot about gaps - about space. I love this theory: By leaving spaces for the reader/gamer to occupy, she is encouraged to fill in the gaps with her own personal experiences or imagery, thereby drawing her directly into the narrative.
I love how my dream never depicted the alien and how I have formed my own image of it by filling in the gaps. It was short, with a furry torso. For some reason, I found myself adding a snout to it. I think I was cramming the gaps with an image of ALF.
However, looking at the reviews of thatgamecompany's Journey, it seems that emptiness in a game also creates a high risk of boredom.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012


Eughyeugh! That's the noise one makes when one is pricked by the sensation of jelly skin. I'm making it now. And not just because I've discovered Loscil's Coast/Range/Arc on Spotify!

It's the sensation baked by the simultaneous bombardment of diverse emotions - when one's nerves are teased like oysters.
On the one hand, I'm genuinely sorry to learn that our external producer at BF is moving to pastures new. On the other, I'm tingling with her ultra-generous feedback on the pre-survey build, and with her microscopic list of amendments. So there's sadness, relief and some sort of pride already. Forget-ye-not to stir in the inexorable terror of the looming public Beta.
(All these cooking metaphors! Must be Masterchef final week!)

I've also made a breakthrough in a new style of writing and design.
I was beginning to fear that I was genetically manufactured to favour a languid and child-like form of magic realism. I decided that I wanted to discover how much suspense I could inject into the new project. So I had a chat with Linda Adams.
She listed structure, conflict, and word choice as the primary devices of suspense.
Back to Mimsy I scuttled, this time reading his incomprehensibly brilliant Story with my 'conflict' lenses on. Isn't it curious how we spot entirely different things when we look at something from a different point of view!
Not really, no.

I thunk a bit. I thunk about the concept of questions. Questions aren't enough to generate suspense, even if they're resonant and meaningful. Strip those very questions bare and dress them in the lederhosen of conflict and see what happens.
I thunk about conflict and curled up with Mimsy. He rested his head on my bosom and his breath was warm on my heaving clavicles. There are three types of conflict, he whispered, coiling my chest hairs around his wedding band finger. There's inner conflict (with yourself), and personal conflict (with peoples), and extra-personal conflict (with things). Mimsy licked his lips and continued: Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict.
So far so good. Conflict is protag wanting something but being unable to have it.
Protag has two types of desire though solv! Mimsy purred. Protag has conscious desire, which forms the basis for the bulk of the conflict, and protag has an unconscious desire, which is resolved at denouement.
I asked a few professional authors if they consider this when they write. So far, they have ignored me. I bet they don't!
I've temporarily built this into my plot, and it makes for a more informed denouement, but I can't really see it making any difference.
However, by making the decision to design Project X as a (predominantly) linear game, and by upping the pace using only conflict questions, I can honestly see something more compelling than anything else I've written forming in those notebooks. (Um, downside of the linear and pace things is that game duration is greatly shrivelled. Just let me get the quality right first, and then I'll look into the quantity.)
I also considered Mimsy's thoughts on placement of the inciting incident, and chose to place it five mins into the game, after an opening of Mystery.
Reconsidering everything under the strict rule of suspense - or, rather, conflict - has, I sense, made a significant difference to the choices I'm making. They're still, by and large, informed, but informed by a different sentinel.

Remember my loyal, honeyed solv-cake: Nothing moves forward in a story except through conflict. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

I See

Something's been bothering me for years now. A mystery.
Every now and then, I happen upon another clue, but I've never been able to find any peace of mind. It's one of my many heels that didn't quite make it into the river Styx.

Is it better to withhold information from the reader/viewer and then deliver it as a powerful reveal (provided it has been adequately foreshadowed), or to share the information with the reader/viewer but withhold it from the characters? Are we in a bathtub of apples and pears?

Beyond that, you have all manner of perfect and imperfect information permutations.
I just find it hard to choose - to make an informed decision.
So, taking the advice of a wise lecturer I once studied under, I shall spit this stuff out and see if I can finally find some peace of mind.

Hitchcock's argument is rather persuasive. He said something along the lines of If you're going to plant a bomb under a table, let the audience see it.
Makes good sense. As those characters sit at the table, eating or chatting or drinking or milking reindeer, every moment is imbued with tension.
Consider, too, Dallas, captain of the Nostromo, crawling through the ventilation system in search of the full-grown alien. At first, we don't know where the alien is. We share the characters' knowledge. The sensors pick up a moving entity; again, our knowledge is that of the characters'. If Hitchcock was correct, then would it not have been 'better' if we knew where the alien was, but the characters didn't? Or how about if communications went down, and we and the crew could see the alien closing in on Dallas, whilst he was deaf and blind, alone in the dark?
See my confusion? Where's Mimsy and his hairy shoulders..?

Ten minutes later...

Okay, that's the refresher done. (I find myself requiring refreshers on pretty much everything these days. Some of my spellings have become atrocious! And I keep forgetting basic punctuation stuff - either that, or I've gotten into awful habits. Note to self: Sort it out you lazy ass. Note from self: I am you bossy old penis head. Why d'you think I'm sat here blogging after an exhausting day's work? Note to self: You keep meaning to order Eats, Shoots and Leaves off Amazon. Do it now. Note from self: Done it. And how amusing to see so many reviewers fretting over their every hyphen. Note to self: Sorry for being bossy. Note from self: No worries. Sorry about the penis head remark.)

In MYSTERY the audience knows less than the characters.
In SUSPENSE the audience and characters know the same information.
In DRAMATIC IRONY the audience knows more than the characters.

If we look at the effects of these ways of connecting the audience to the story, and if we understand our audience, we can make informed decisions right?
Paraphrase time.
Mystery is about arousing audience's curiosity - keeping her in the dark, sprinkling hints and red herrings, revealing at climax. Outcome is always certain: detective always catches killer. Ends on up state.
Suspense might end on up or down state: nobody knows how it will turn out. In this relationship, we feel empathy with protag; in Mystery we feel sympathy. Suspense accounts for some ninety percent of movies.
In Dramatic Irony, we feel compassion for someone we see heading for disaster.

Based on these observations, it appears as though Hitchcock was in the minority: looks like Suspense has, for whatever reason, become more popular than Dramatic Irony. I'd suggest that this is, at least in part, because Suspense allows for the greatest degree of bonding between audience and protag and, hence, the greatest scope for deep emotional stimulation.
How does that sound?
Captain Brain... You happy now?

Here's a humbling game.
Brink of Consciousness: Dorian Gray Syndrome.
I really can't think I've seen reviews like this before; pro and user comments alike are overwhelmingly positive.

I've performed a little dissection of the trial hour; in-so-doing, I find myself wondering if I'm looking in the right places and asking the right questions. I can examine and measure the pace - the frequency of developments and the clever employment of loudspeakers through which the antag repeatedly taunts the protag; and I can understand the variety - the movement between strings of inventory item quests to puzzles or narrative developments, and the quantity of back-tracking (and, indeed, the inexorable revisiting of the slow-moving lift does become wearisome). Polish is self-evident. Dialogue is sloppy: there are more than enough flatulent adverbs in there to upset any literary agent; but that could be a translation issue, and hasn't appeared to upset a single player. However, the suspense it generates carries it through. Suspense. I remember with crystal clarity Peter Cox championing suspense - expectation.
There's a line of dialogue right at the end of the trial. It's genius. Brief context: Sam's a journo; he's investigating a narcissistic killer; killer phones Sam asking him to come on over; Sam bikes over there (for a peculiarly long time in the opening cut-scene); Sam discovers that killer has taken his girlfriend Anna hostage; Sam is forced to play through killer's (IMHO laborious) puzzles and deadly traps in order to save girlfriend; along the way, Sam discovers killer's other victims - embalmed and posed as works of art. After solving a major choke puzzle, killer's voice comes over loudspeakers again:

Wonderful! I think you're proud of yourself! Aren't you? I've got many more interesting things waiting for you. Anna is soon going to appear on stage in her first act. No, no, it's not what you're thinking, but it will be very interesting I promise you.

What a great place to suspend the player! All those images and questions requiring resolution.
And, to follow up on my previous post, this game appears to play for some eight or nine hours!
At the time of typing, 115 out of 122 players recommend this game. (That's 94%!) There's clearly lots for me to learn buried away in there.
I just don't get how it only made position four in the charts.

David Hockney was hanging out with Andrew Marr last night. They drove to David's beloved copse 'on the road to nowhere'. They stepped from the Land Rover and David beamed in divine ecstasy. Andrew was puzzled by David's reaction, for he saw only grey clouds and bare trees. David was puzzled by Andrew's reaction: he saw shapes and colours and all manner of things hidden from us mortals.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Quality Quantity

One of the few dilemmas that isn't particularly shared by game design and novel writing! At least, I can't think many people would judge a novel by its length.

It's undeniably one of the gnarliest challenges I face. How do I create four or five hours of great gameplay from a team of three artists?
Length is certainly a consideration for the BF forumites: Invariably, somebody will play through the demo hour and consult the strategy guide to see how far in they are; then they extrapolate the whole duration.

I've posted many times about how I've tackled this problem. It was the one major issue that came up in the M3 survey tests. I had held the player in the cottage and immediate grounds for too long, and I had done this predominantly with a succession of dream card games (reusable, scalable assets! My saviours!), interspersed with a small selection of other puzzles and inventory item quests, with the odd cinematic/cut-scene or two thrown in by way of narrative development. Once the problem was identified, it was a dead easy fix, dropping one of the dream cards games and opening up the village a little earlier. (Believe me, identifying problems from hundreds of disparate comments is itself one heck of an acquired skill.)

Players would much rather have a game which develops rapidly and offers relentless variety than play a long and repetitive drawn-out game. (My use of the word 'relentless' isn't entirely accurate because we still need an element of familiarity, which encourages us to repeat carefully selected components.) Ideally, that rapidly developing game will also be lengthy, but that's regarded as a bonus. The current top ten stalwart Witches' Legacy: The Charleston Curse demonstrates this well. It's a short game by any standard, with players completing it in around four hours or less. (I'm using control players: those who would typically take five or six hours to complete an iHOG.) And the CE bonus content came in at under an hour. But significantly few people minded. It was a quality game.

Back-tracking is a strange one. Asking a player if she likes, or minds, back-tracking is kind of like asking her how she takes her coffee.
The amount of locations I can use is determined by how much time Ben has to create them. Furthermore, every scene would then need populating, which means that André and Sally would need to be thrown into the mix. There are scant few exceptions, and none have really succeeded: one particular dev team like to drop a maze into the world. These mazes appear to be semi-modular: a set of scenes which have been created from a selection of trees, grasses, and so forth. It's a way to gain perhaps ten minutes of extra gaming from reusable unpopulated background assets. Whilst the time gain from minimal art origination is evident, the problems here are twofold: the scenes all look too similar such that nothing feels as though it is changing; our players aren't renowned for their love of navigation, especially when this is complicated.

Feel the need to clarify my distinction here. Ideally, you need to constantly develop. Whether you're creating prose, or creating a gaming experience, your audience needs pulling along (forward motion), and regular developments are absolutely, definitively essential. (Apologies for the tautology, but I still regard this as my biggest lesson learned.) However, instead of developing, you can simply change. It's not the Bob McKee-approved technique, but it does do the job of sustaining the forward motion. The difference is that, whilst development is inextricably connected to the narrative and moves the audience closer to the denouement, often in the shape of a reveal or reversal (typically knowledge and/or functionality), change isn't so.
For example: In Surface: MFAW, the designer relies on change to move the chapters along. Examine a puddle and a watery face appears. It's a nothing event - one of several repetitious 'surprise' tactics that reinforces the concept of monsters out there - but an event nonetheless. In M4, the player returns life to a generator and statues rise from the ground. The statues allow the player to activate a power node and wake the guardian Seer. (And the Seer, in turn, develops something else, and so on.)
So, to sustain that all-important forward motion, you can develop or you can change. Of the two, development creates the most meaning; but either will keep your audience engaged.

By constantly developing three scenes, I was able to keep the usability testers engaged for thirty minutes from a paucity of art assets. And by developing through a variety of means, I was able to keep the narrative fresh and also spread the art tasks between the three artists.

In M4, I'm reusing every scene. I hold the player in a selection of scenes, developing through puzzles, mini-games, and cinematics; then I open up a new selection of scenes and do likewise. As the world opens up, I begin redefining existing scenes, sending the player back with my white rabbits, and utilizing the player's new knowledge or abilities to create fresh meaning from those scenes.
If you follow the progress on my map, it looks like a Gordian puff adder.

How does the player return to these scenes?
Provided that they are expectant - anticipating something special - the back-tracking is framed by something valuable. But it's still a danger zone. I'm mindful of g@mrgrl's comment:

Margrave: The Curse of the Severed Heart falls just short of achieving true greatness due to some repetitive puzzles and annoying backtracking, but its ambition and effort to break the glass ceiling between hidden object and traditional adventure games is obvious and well-appreciated.

Without hiring more staff, the obvious (and easy) solution to these issues is to reduce the back-tracking and re-usable puzzles, which would remove a sizeable chunk of gameplay. But there are always less-obvious and more difficult solutions!

I built into the M4 world three secret passages. Once the snaking begins, I immediately open up the first passage and the player can 'teleport' instantly (two clicks: first click on passage entrance in scene, which opens map; second click on desired destination, which opens scene) to the other side of the world.
There are many wonderful articles on navigation in games on the interweb. I should've bookmarked some. I'll see if I can find the one with the argument: Why make your character walk when he can run? Why make him run when he can fly?
Maps have historically served a variety of functions in iHOGs. The Thirteenth Skull map featured little detail: it was more of a pretty appetizer and an overview. The Phantom of the Opera map was a more detailed layout of the world, and was designed with navigation in mind. The Surface map is pared down to pure functionality: a sterile network of circles and lines which allow for teleportation to anywhere at any time.
I designed the M4 map as a pretty appetizer, a reasonably functional navigation system (more of an overview), and a teleporter. I am, however, swaying towards full teleportation for the next project. This functionality could oh so easily defile immersion in favour of functionality, but I have plans for marrying the two with meaning..! (Indeed, the network of secret passages in M4 also serves to explain how Uisdean is travelling around the town! My beloved duality.)

Does beauty sustain back-tracking? If the scenes are stunning on the eye, is the player content revisiting them?
Maybe for a bit; but only for a bit. Certainly nothing to be relied on.
I chanced upon Lisa Evans' blog. She's had a couple of stabs at alchemizing her beautiful artwork into a game. With such lack of development or change, or meaningful interaction, and with such slowly paced navigation, note how quickly the beautiful artwork, and the melancholic soundtrack, lose any mastery over the player's experience. And then extrapolate.
With some form of development required at pretty much every moment of the game, the question How? becomes rather daunting.